THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS – James Cleet, South Shields Photographer 1876 -1959

In a previous post I talked about coming across photographs by James Cleet around 10 years ago, particularly the housing clearances in South Shields during the 1930’s. After looking at the images in South Shields Library for a number of weeks I was curious who he was and what he looked like. I had only seen his shadow in some pictures that he had taken – the outline of his cloak hunched over a tripod and camera. Then one day while researching through old newspapers I came across a story about him and there he was, looking straight at me, a camera in hand covering half his face – he had a look of the artist Salvadore Dali.

 

On his death at the age of 82, local newspaper The Shields Gazette reported… ‘Mr Jimmy Cleet, a photographer for 68 years has died at his home in Wardle Avenue, South Shields. From the day he moved into the world of cameras as a 13 year old plate boy photography was his bread and butter, his hobby and his greatest interest in life.  He never cared much for flashlights, which he thought ruined details in portraits, and until he retired last year he still used a camera which he had bought 30 years previously in preference to a modern one. But if his equipment was a little old his finished photographs were never below the standard of excellent’.

They were, and had an instantly recognizable look among all other photographers I researched. The Gazette added… ‘James Henry Cleet, the first South Shields man to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (1933), served a seven year apprenticeship in commercial photography and studied art at the old South Shields High School. As a young man he went to Fleet Street and worked as press photographer for The Daily Mirror and soon established a lasting reputation that he would get pictures whatever the difficulties. On one of his first assignments he was given 20 minutes to produce a picture of Lady Londonderry as she left Charing Cross Station. No one could get near her, but he solved this problem by carrying some of her luggage to the train’.

When researching his family history I found that in the late 1800’s James’ Grandfather was a Master Mariner, the family owned several ships and they lived in Heugh Street on the banks of the Tyne. But unfortunately a downturn in business led to his father becoming a shipwright and the family moved to Bath Street. On the 26th December 1908 James married Eva Aspery, they had a son James, but sadly he died at 4 year old. An event that would have had a deep effect on the couple.

The newspaper report carried on his story…Later he concentrated on his love of old marine photography and went to sea in all weathers to get his pictures. He had a deep affection for the Tyne, tug boatmen were always ready to help him. A small man wearing a bowler hat, he was a familiar figure in every Tyneside shipyard. When he took pictures at a launch he would photograph the ship then the launching party, then with a magnificent sweep of his bowler hat and a deep bow he would signify he had finished’.

For one month a year from 1930-38 James recorded what was called the ‘slums’ of South Shields, mainly around the Holborn and riverside area of the town. The photographs were commissioned by South Shields Public Health Department and displayed in a book published by SIDE Photographic Gallery in 1979. This features in a previous blog (24th December 2019).

Sadly, James Cleet died on 2nd June 1959, the Gazette article ended by saying His photographs of South Shields form a remarkable record of the town, and like many photographers he objected to having pictures taken of himself’.

Source: The Shields Gazette, Census records, Wards Directories.

Gary Alikivi  January 2020.

AMY FLAGG: HOLBORN & THE MILL DAM VALLEY

Following on from a previous post featuring Historian & Photographer Amy C. Flagg and her book ‘The History of Shipbuilding’, further information has come from South Tyneside Libraries….‘The book was printed in 1979 about the same time when Hodgson and the Boswell Whitaker trilogy of books were printed. A figure of 200 copies each of these books were printed’. (G.B. Hodgson – The Borough of South Shields and Boswell Whitaker –The Preservation of Life from Shipwreck Volumes 1-3).

A tributary of the Tyne called the River Branin cut into South Shields over 200 years ago and created the Mill Dam Valley. An Ordnance Survey map of 1895 has the valley clearly marked. Before that time, it possibly would have extended in an easterly direction towards the North Sea making the Lawe an island. In his book ‘The Borough of South Shields’ Hodgson states that ‘in 1748 the churchyard to the south of St Hilda’s was described as sloping down to the edge of the Mill Dam Creek or the river Branin, a fine sheet of water, up which the tide flowed as far as the modern St Catherine Street. The creek when filled with water at high tide formed a picturesque lake.

Miss Flagg describes the Mill Dam Valley in her Shipbuilding book….’When the Chemical Works occupied most of the space near the Mill Dam Valley, then a large sheet of water at high tide, the shipbuilders were all clustered together nearer the sea because the ‘Narrows’ – the throat of the river, which led to the Harbour was shoaly and difficult to navigate’. She talks about walking along the riverside…‘Leaving Low Street, crossing the Market Place and over the Mill Dam bridge to the ‘High End’. Holborn, the main street, was of a much later date than the old, almost medieval Sheeles’. (I’ve come across a few different spellings of the town – Shiels, Schiels and todays Shields).

Further reading reveals…‘Filling in of the millpond or valley by Newcastle Corporation in 1816’. I think Miss Flagg was referring to the River Branin as she added ‘After the valley was filled in, the remains of the creek were used for a mooring place – it is given as Mill Dam Dock on one map. After an unsavoury history it was filled in and only a very small ‘gut’ of the river remained’. What was the ‘unsavoury history’ ? The book reveals more about the industrial map of ‘Sheeles’.

Miss Flagg includes a section about The Holborn Landing and two shipbuilders, William Wright and John Clay. Her research found William Wright had five sons, all of whom were Master Mariners. She adds that one son, William, left the sea and was manager for many years at both High Docks and West Docks. Another son, Leonard, married a baker’s daughter and founded the well-known Wright’s Biscuit Factory, the bakery being somewhere near Holborn Landing. A document stated that ‘During the Franco-Prussian war the biscuit firm worked day and night for over twelve months making 48 tons of biscuits from 400 sacks of flour every week for the French government’.

Her research on John Clay revealed in 1847 he constructed the first iron ships built in South Shields on premises where Wrights Bakery originally stood. Clay was labelled ‘King of Shields’ as he was listed as having his finger in many pies: the son of a grocer in Nile Street, a brewer, farmer, publican and banker who ‘went down with the bank’ in 1857. Although doubt was cast on his career as a shipbuilder, Amy concludes ‘the whole question is a mystery and must be left at that’.

There are copies of ‘The History of Shipbuilding by Amy C. Flagg’ available to read in the Local and Family History section at The Word, South Shields.

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

WRITE FATHER, WRITE SON with author Peter Mitchell

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Did you watch ‘When the Boat Comes In’ or catch the world premier of the play at The Customs House last year ? There are two events during September in South Shields that will interest you.

David Whale is host of Heritage Talks at The Word and he’s invited writer Peter Mitchell to be guest speaker on Wednesday 4th September…. ‘I’m really looking forward to this event. It’s an opportunity to talk about my Dad’s work and his life as an extremely successful writer as well as my own career in broadcasting. David has asked me to look at this from a very personal perspective and I’m keen to share the story. My Dad left Shields when I was six-years-old to concentrate on a new life and career in London. I spent much of my childhood travelling between Shields and the capital on ‘access’ visits. They were very different worlds and, obviously, had a profound effect on me growing up’.

Peter will also be talking about his career in the media… After leaving Tyne Tees I joined Zenith North – first as Director of Production and, later, as Managing Director. That company produced Byker Grove and The Dales Diary. A little while later, I formed my own production company and were able to take ‘The Diary’ with us. We continued to produce that until the final series was aired in 2008. They were fantastic days allowing us to explore and film some of the finest locations the Northern Hill Country has to offer’.

At The Customs House is ‘When the Boat Comes In: The Hungry Years’ written by Peter as a sequel to last year’s successful play…. ‘The first play focussed mainly on the aftermath of the Great War and a love story between two strong characters: Jack Ford, a man determined to be successful in the new Land Fit For Heroes and Jessie Seaton, a feisty, intelligent, young woman who wanted to change the world through politics. The Hungry Years finds the two of them trying to come to terms with life without each other. The focus shifts to the politics of change but the legacy of world conflict is never far away’.

Tickets for the Wednesday Heritage Club, 4th September 2pm are £1.50 from The Word, Market Place, South Shields.

Tickets for The Customs House, South Shields  https://www.customshouse.co.uk/theatre/when-the-boat-comes-in-part-2%3A-the-hungr/

 Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.

SKUETENDERS – stories from South Shields.

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In the North East of England, the Lawe Top is an area that run’s parallel to the river Tyne and looks out to South Shields harbour and North Sea. It was once an island, and in some way’s 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 pilot’s have moved away from the area. It’s like a little village with it’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 hill top. If the weather was good you literally spent all yer time out on the hill top 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 hill top 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 nook’s 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 gun’s 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 hill top the actual gun’s themselves had gone but you could still see where the gun emplacements had been the big round pit’s 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 caretakers house attached to it which has been demolished long since, and when you used to play on the green between the hill top and the pilot house, if ya dug around you could find bit’s of stoneware. I remember the red samian ware that you see in the fort, and we would find these bit’s of things and we would take them to the caretakers 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 part’s 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 brother’s 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 kid’s 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 pot’s 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 8 year’s 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 6 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 day’s 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.

SKUETENDERS – documentary about The Lawe, South Shields.

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Over 7 years from 2009-16 I produced over 20 documentaries around South Tyneside. I never received any funding to produce the films, each DVD was sold to help fund the next one. ‘Little Ireland’ sold well and was sent to ex-pat’s around Europe, Canada and Australia but ‘Skuetenders’ was the most successful. I’ve lost count the number of copies sold, but it’ll be around 800. 

The length of any programme can differ from very short adverts to full length films of 100 minutes plus. It just depends on the story that you are telling. An interesting documentary on tv can be turned into just a number of soundbites. They can tell the story but rush over some really good bits with the interviewee talking for less than 10 seconds. I’ve watched a few. When I had the idea to make a documentary around the Lawe Top in South Shields I didn’t want it to be full of soundbites. I wanted the interviewee’s to have enough time to tell their story. Not only was it important what they had to say but it was all in the Geordie accent. The idea was to wander around The Lawe Top collecting stories from residents. Plus a narrator explaining the history of this oldest part of South Shields, it even has a Roman fort.  

As with all documentaries made over the 7 years, arrangements were made with Hildred Whale at the South Shields Heritage Club to screen the film in the Library. Downstairs had a great theatre with over 100 raked seats, a stage, large screen, video projector hanging from the ceiling and projection room with various VHS and DVD players. It also had an audio mixing desk and mic’s for invited speakers. A great set up. A date for the first screening on 2pm 19th October 2011 was arranged and that quickly sold out. A later show at 7pm was added. That sold out. Another date was added. Same again, a quick sell out. This was repeated until the film was shown six times. Further evidence of a thirst that people have to see and hear stories from their home town. The documentary had a running time of 70minutes and was repeated in the next documentary ‘Tyne Dock Borders’. Another area of the town with a long history. 

For the purposes of uploading the documentaries on You Tube and sharing them on social media I have recently edited the films down to short stories.

To view the film go to GARY ALIKIVI You Tube channel and subscribe to watch more.

Gary Alikivi August 2018.