In the North East of England, the Lawe Top is an area that runs parallel to the River Tyne and looks out to South Shields harbour and North Sea. It was once an island, and in some ways it still is.
Some residents I interviewed in summer 2011 were proud to talk about the Lawe being ‘a little village up on the hill’ away from the town of South Shields.
The documentary included narration by local historian and former museum worker Angus McDonald with music by North East musician Martin Francis Trollope.
This a short extract from some of the interview’s…
Janis Blower: It still has to a certain extent the same old identity that it had with the river and the sea, although the pilots have moved away from the area. It’s like a little village with its own unique identity.
Dave Slater: It’s an area which I’ve always liked and a lot of people living in Shields have this affinity with it. They think it’s like a special place. And the houses are nice they have their little quirks.
On Fort Street and the corner of Roman Road is Crawfords Newsagents….
Bob Crawford: (owner) I’ve been here 28 years it’s always been a newsagent’s, on the deed’s it say’s from 1920. Enjoy living on the Lawe Top. Made a lot of friends. Lot of nice people live on the Lawe Top. Hopefully be here a bit longer.
Jane Price: I’ve been working here about 10 years now and its quite handy cos I live on the street. Literally fall out the door into work. And it’s lovely living up here it’s like a village separate from Shields. Like a really close community. I also work in the pub at the end of the street. The Look Out pub. It’s really nice I enjoy it, my kid’s had a good upbringing here.
Living on The Lawe people are known as Skuetenders. But what is a Skuetender ?
Janis Blower: Well there is various theories to what a Skuetender is. One of them is that if you look down on the area from above the Lawe is in the shape of a skate. But probably the most reliable one is that this is the end of the river where the original fishing hut’s where, the fishing Shiels from which South Shields took its name. And it’s where they would salt the fish, and skuet is an old word for ‘to salt’. So if you were born at this end of the river, you were a Skuetender or it’s become Skitender over the years.
Ethne Brown: Well I’ve always lived on the Lawe Top, I was born on the Lawe Top in Trajan Avenue so I’m a Skitender born and bred.
Mel Douglas: Skitender is someone who has lived in this locality within a certain distance of the river. Yes I’ve always been one of them but not as much as Duncan Stephenson as he’s a proper Skitender.
Duncan Stephenson: A Skitender ? You’ve got to have a ring around your bottom end where you sat on a bucket when you were a kid. That’s where a proper Skitender came from, if ya’ haven’t got a ring round yer bottom end yer not a Lawe Topper.
Janis Blower: Well I was born and brought up in Woodlands Terrace so as a child you would just have to walk down Woodlands Terrace and you were straight on to the hilltop. If the weather was good, you literally spent all yer time out on the hilltop or down onto the beach. What our mothers didn’t see what we got up to was a good thing.
Mel Douglas: When I was young I lived in George Scott Street. That was my impressionable time, but we eventually moved up to this house (Lawe Road) which I’ve enjoyed. On the hilltop area when I was a boy there was the gun encampments and Trinity Towers – a sort of radar station which was all fenced off.
Janis Blower: Trinity Towers was a magical place to play because it was so much like a castle or a fort. It had been originally built in the 1830’s by Trinity House, as a pilot look out. It stayed that until the early part of last century when the new pilot house was built at the top end of the park. By the time we were playing in it, it was the radar station for the college. You couldn’t actually get in it but it had bushes around it and little nooks and crannies.
Mel Douglas: The encampment where the gun’s where for example a lot of people aren’t sure where they were. But looking out of my window if you catch the time of year when spring is starting to come through, realising that the guns and the fence had some sort of foundations, well there wasn’t much soil on top of that and the rest of the area in deep soil. So when the grass started to grow it would grow quickly where there was plenty of soil. But where the foundations of the encampment was, there was no soil to speak about.
Janis Blower: By the time I was a child playing on the hilltop the actual gun’s themselves had gone but you could still see where the gun emplacements had been the big round pits had been there. They had been fenced off originally but I’m sure that I can remember sitting on one of them dangling my leg’s inside. You were always being warned off them.
On the Lawe Top is Arbeia Roman Fort…
Dave Slater: I noticed when we moved here when we walked up Lawe Road is on the wall, name plaques of Roman emperors like Julian Street etc.. and the one round the corner is the name of his wife. So you can always learn something new as old as you are and as many times you been up here.
Janis Blower: The fort was very open in those days, and we used to play in it as children you wouldn’t think about doing that now. I don’t suppose as a child you really appreciated what a heritage monument it was.
There used to be a caretaker’s house attached to it which has been demolished long since, and when you used to play on the green between the hilltop and the pilot house, if ya dug around you could find bits of stoneware. I remember the red samian ware that you see in the fort, and we would find these bits of things and we would take them to the caretaker’s house and knock on the door ‘Is this a bit of roman pottery’ and he would say ‘Yes look’s like it is’. But I think after we had done it after the fifth or sixth time it was ‘No it’s a bit o’ brick’.
The Lawe Top used to be home to St Aidens and St Stephens Churches….
Joan Stephenson: When a lot of the houses were pulled down around this area and people moved to other parts of Shields and they want their children baptised or anything they still say St Stephen’s is their church and they come back.
Ethne Brown: I was born up here and I was christened at St Stephen’s Church and all my family and father’s brothers were in the church choir. My Grandma Whale on more than one occasion opened the fete at St Stephen’s church. It’s always been the pilot’s church and nice that they were in the choir. I was also married at St Stephen’s Church.
Mel Douglas: With respect to that I was very fortunate when sadly they pulled the church (St Aidens) down that I was in a position where I could buy the pew that I sat on as a boy and have in a room upstairs. The pew used by people getting married, my father, Grandfather, myself, all male members of the family had sat on that pew when getting married. Very proud of it.
Joan Stephenson: When St Aiden’s closed, they amalgamated with St Stephen’s, it was sad because St Aiden’s was a lovely church. In the 1970’s we decided to make this building into a multi-purpose building to make it more economic to run and it stayed up while unfortunately St Aiden’s closed. Once the chairs are put to the side we hold dances, mother and toddlers, young kids come into dance, social evenings, it’s a really good venue for anything like that.
The street that overlook’s the Tyne is Greens Place where I spoke to Karen Arthur and her father George…
Karen: When you were little what did you used to see around here ?
George: We used to go to the shop along there beside the Turks Head pub. Shrybos you called here. We nicknamed her Fanny Mossy. Everyone knew her around here. She was an eccentric, she was an old maid and owned that shop.
Karen: Did she only let one person in at a time Dad ?
George: Yes if two of you went in she would say ‘Get out one of ya’. Cos she knew if she was serving one the other one would be helpin’ themselves with the sweets an’ that.
Lenonard Smith: We moved to 23 Greens Place in 1947 and that was great because at one time 17 lived in four flats. There was one tap outside and one toilet. Me happy days of the Lawe Top was I used to go to the Corporation Quay and I spent all my school holiday’s going away with the inshore fishermen. With the net’s it was driving, then crab pots and longlines.
We used to bait up in the cabins on the Corporation Quay and the light was done by carbine. The only thing with carbine was that when you went home you had black tash’s where the smoke would get up your nostrils.
On Baring Street is the art shop Crafty Corner….
Trevor Dixon: We purchased this property eight years ago now and it used to be Crabtree’s the Bakers. Where I’m sitting now there used to be a massive oven that came right from the back of the shop. Took six months to cut it out and skip after skip. Our shop is a craft shop and ceramic studio.
It’s a very old building that we are in and it’s reckoned that we have ghosts. They’re all friendly. We’ve had a few local ghost groups bringing all their instruments in here and in the basement. They reckon we do have a lot of ghosts and we have things moved around now and then, disappear for a few days then turn up again.
I don’t think we could have picked a better place to be cos as you know The Lawe Top goes back in history as a creative place and I feel we’ve meant to be here.
Final words about The Lawe Top….
Mel Douglas: If it was up to me I would live in this house for the rest of my life. It’s a beautiful house and I love the community that I live in. Fantastic neighbours, nice people, I’d live nowhere else.
Ethne Brown: I just love living here on this Lawe Top. The house is a bit big nowadays, but I don’t know where else I would go in the town. This is the only place to live.
Janis Blower: Everybody knows everybody else, yeah, it’s a fabulous area to live. I can’t imagine to be living anywhere else to be honest.
Joan Stephenson: Just a lovely place to live.
Duncan Stephenson: Got everything here, beaches, parks. Home is where…
Joan: Your heart is.
To read more about the film go to the blog Skuetenders Aug.25th 2018.
Gary Alikivi August 2019.