WORKING THE HARD YARDS: in conversation with Adam Bell

Following on from an interview with Artist, Bob Olley (8 November 2021) where he talked about his latest work – Tyneside Shipyards, I met up with Adam Bell, Assistant Keeper of Social History in South Shields Museum & Art Gallery who revealed the theme for next year’s main exhibition.

A lot of people have said that when you left school there was two opportunities for work – the pits or the yards.

A few years ago we done an exhibition about the coal mines that was very popular, and I think we need to complete the picture, it’s high time we done an exhibition about ship building and ship repair on South Tyneside.

Launch of the Turkistan at Readheads, South Shields, 1962.

When are you opening the exhibition to the public ?

It begins in May next year and runs until November so it’s going to be our big, main exhibition right through summer 2022. We have started now because it takes a long time to do all the research, make contacts, meet former shipyard workers and listen to stories about their time in the yards.

It’s a fascinating process I really enjoy this aspect of the job. I really enjoy the history that is within living memory. You get to meet people who have actually lived through that history and they can tell you in their own words just what it was like.

So far there has been around thirty oral histories and I’m still looking for people to come forward to share memories and tell their stories about what it was really like to work in the docks.

What topics have the dockers talked about ?

The Health and Safety, or lack of, has appeared – they were eventually given hard hat’s and ear defenders. A lot of people talk about how quiet it is on the Tyne now compared to back then when it was constant noise.

One thing that always comes over is pride – they all talk about how proud they were to take part in building a ship from scratch. Or how it was repaired in double quick time with everyone pulling together to get the ship refitted and out on the seas again.

People were working night shift to dock ships as they were at the mercy of the tides, and there was sometimes three ships lashed to each other stretching across the river. They paint such an evocative picture of their time in the yards.

Tracers at Hawthorn Leslies, Hebburn, approx. 1950. Image courtesy of Irene Hills

You think of shipyards being a men only occupation but a woman called Irene Hills told her story of serving her apprenticeship in Hawthorn Leslie’s as a Tracer. This was before you could just run off copies – they had to make full size traces of the plans for all departments.

We’ve had someone from Australia get in touch about his Grandfather who was managing director of T.D.E and inventor of the quick release lifeboat.

Apparently, he donated the patent to the British Government, and they rewarded him with a C.B.E. – who knows we might get that on loan!

The cross over from the mining exhibition and this one is the humour, practical jokes and one particular welcome to the yards.

Many dockers tell of just leaving school, starting in the yards and being sent to the stores for a ‘long stand’. The young docker though it was a tool – after half an hour the storeman would tell him to clear off as ‘you’ve had your long stand!’

A retirement presentation in the blacksmiths shop at Middle Docks, South Shields, 1970s. Image courtesy of John Embleton.

This exhibition is special for me because my Grandfather worked as a plumber in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast and I loved hearing his stories of life in the yards.

My Granda passed away a few years ago but the stories are very much fresh in my mind. I wish he was around, and I could share with him what I’ve been told by the Tyneside shipbuilders.

It was his stories of the past that got me interested in history and ended up working where I am today in the museum. It’s very important to do this exhibition now when people are still around and memories are still there, we want them to share their stories.

Anyone who worked in the South Tyneside’s yards, or individuals with something they could lend for display, should contact Adam Bell or (0191) 211 5599 during museum opening hours. 

Interview by Alikivi  November 2021.

WHEN THE SHIP COMES IN: in conversation with artist Bob Olley

After leaving school Bob worked in Whitburn Colliery from 1957 until he left in 1968, his love of everything Geordie inspired him to capture on canvas the heart and humour of the North East.

His first gallery showing was in Bede Gallery, Jarrow in 1971, he sold his first oil painting in Gosforth’s Novo Gallery and in South Shields Library in 1972 the painting Westoe Netty featured, it almost closed the exhibition down due to ‘indecency’ – amongst all of his work this has been the most popular.

Westoe Netty.

Somebody told me a few years ago they had been in America and were filling up at a petrol station. He was talking to his partner when the petrol attendant recognised the accent ‘Hey whereabouts in England are you from ?’  ‘We’re from the North East, South Shields’. ‘Do you know Westoe Netty?’ he replied. ‘I have a print from there’.

By the ‘70s Bob was a full time artist and sculptor and received commissions from a number of organisations including Tyne Tees programme What Fettle.

He also held a number of exhibitions around the North East displaying his oil paintings of the coalmining industry.

In the seventies all my work was about North East culture and I knew there were Geordies scattered all over the world but trying to contact this potential market by letter or telephone was impossible, that is until the internet came about.

But when I first kicked off I discovered the open air art market on the Armstrong Bridge at Newcastle where I sold my work every Sunday for almost 25 years. I was one of the first with prints which gave you the freedom to get on with new work as the prints sold.

The bridge was where I learnt how to handle people, you got good comments and some not so good. There was one guy who was looking at a painting, they’re all framed with glass in, he was staring closely at it and I was thinking I’m getting a sale here. ‘Can I help you?’ ‘No’ he replied. ‘I’m just combing my hair’ (laughs).

Along with a number of statues around Tyneside – war hero John Kirkpatrick in South Shields and film actor Stan Laurel in North Shields – Olley drew caricatures of celebrity guest speakers including Tony Blair, Jo Brand, David Walliams and Alan Bennett at the David Miliband lectures in South Shields – David was former MP of the town.

What are you doing now ?

I’ve lived in the town most of my life but never took much interest in the shipyards although I knew a few people who worked there when I was a pitman at Whitburn Colliery.

So lately I’ve been working on paintings about the shipbuilding industry because I’ve moved away from the coalmining subject which I’ve done for many years plus I’ve been through a dry period where I was struggling to do something new which is rare for me.

I done a lot of research about the industry, photographs, old black and white film footage, and found it extremely interesting. What really caught my interest was how many trades there was in shipbuilding and finding the safety aspect was virtually non-existent. It was fascinating watching how they work.

Men were walking on a seven inch wide plank 80 feet in the air without a safety harness, or a rivet catcher armed with only a ladle to catch white hot rivets hurled at him from 15 or 20 meters. They’d have a flat cap on – not a hard hat, and clothes that look like they wear in the pub.

In the coal industry we were lucky because we had showers, they just walked straight out of the shipyard and went home. Loss of limbs and the mortality rate might have been higher than the coal industry, it’ll be interesting to find out.

It’s a fascinating subject for me, a totally new direction and I’m enjoying the challenge.

When I was in Whitburn Colliery we stayed with the same set of blokes working an area, you never went off and worked anywhere else in the pit, but in the shipyards once the ship had been built the workers split off into different areas of the yard.

As a coal miner you usually work with the same work mate or “Marrer” within a group of say twenty men on the same coal face in the same district for years at the same colliery.

But as one ship was launched many moved to another yard, the industry didn’t appear to have the same bonding that coal mining had.

In research the word oakum came to light. I found that the prison service in Victorian times used to buy miles of old rope from the shipyards and part of the prisoners punishment was to unravel it and then put it together with oakum.

They would then roll it up and sell it back to the shipyards – that’s where the saying ‘money for old rope’ came from. The yards would then use it to seal the joints on the deck planks.

You could have five trades working to get the deck laid – could you imagine the noise they made.

These paintings I’m working on now have a greater depth than the coalmining just because you are working in a smaller space down in the pit.

You have a much bigger background for shipbuilding, and I enjoy putting in the cranes and seagulls. The paintings become much busier.

In South Shields the yards around Commercial Road, Holborn and Laygate areas had a few pubs and small cafes for the workers. It’s amazing how an area of the town can change its use once the area gets taken over by new technology or housing.

In a matter of thirty years the industry and all the people who worked there were gone.

I’ve been working on these paintings around four months and for one of them it’s the longest I’ve worked on any one piece of work. There was a point you can get to where it isn’t working and to get over that I just push through, then it’s a downhill cruise to the finish of the painting.

The Museum and Art Gallery in South Shields got in touch about contributing to their new exhibition about Tyneside shipyards next year.

I’ll put in about half a dozen paintings and the museum staff are also on the hunt for items to display such as photographs, certificates, tools, workwear and any associated memorabilia. 

Anyone who worked in South Tyneside’s yards, or individuals with something they could lend for display, should contact Adam Bell, or (0191) 211 5599 during museum opening hours. 

For more information on the work of Bob Olley check the official website:

Welcome to the home of North East Artist Robert Olley

Interview by Alikivi  October 2021.


Angel of the North (Alikivi pic May 2015).

Between 2009 and 2016 I made over 20 Tyneside films which are available on the Alikivi You Tube channel.

In 2012 Vanished was a documentary about the lost heavy industry on Tyneside now commemorated by pieces of public art along the riverside.

They reflected the past of coal, steel and shipyards which dominated our landscape. In 2004 when I was making a video about art on the riverside I filmed some of them from a helicopter capturing the location of the piece.

On the seafront in South Shields is the Conversation Piece with Tyne Anew on the north side of the river, and on the banks of the Tyne at Hebburn I talked to artist, Charles Quick, who designed Flash.

In 2002 I was invited to put a proposal in for a piece of artwork for Hebburn Riverside park. After talking to people in the area and doing some research about the history of the area I discovered there were lots of industries in Hebburn, but not so evident anymore – shipbuilding, coalmining, cokeworks and electrical engineering.

One thing that would link all those together was industrial flashes of light from the arc welding or the cokeworks.

I worked with many different communities to design flashes of light and these were orchestrated through a number of LED’s on the top, it was all solar powered so it really was looking to the future.

There was no cabling linking any of the columns, it was all radio controlled. There was a radio receiver that tells all the columns when to come on and off.

They can come on at night and there’s a timetable so they always come on in the dark, and also 30 second flashes of light every 15 minutes during the day. So it was a piece that would work in the day and at night.

Also featured in the film was former Whitburn colliery miner, now artist, Bob Olley.

Well I worked at Whitburn Colliery from 1957 till the colliery closed in ’68. Whitburn was a wet pit mostly and I was working in the east yard seam three miles out under the North Sea.

It took us three quarters of an hour to get in and three quarters of an hour to get out. I think it’s because it’s such an adverse industry, danger, and whatever else, a sense of humour developed.

When the colliery closed it was the push I needed to get out. When I first went into the artistic side of my life the stuff I did was very dour, mostly pen and ink work.

Then I moved away from coal mining for about 15 years then suddenly I got this urge to go back to the subject.

Up to about 15 years ago I would say most people in the North East their lives were influenced by the coal industry. The amount of people that were involved with the transportation of coal, the winning of the coal, the processing of the coal, everybody’s life was touched by coal.

Metro bridge at Crossgate, South Shields over former railway line leading to Westoe Colliery. (Alikivi pic February 2013).

There was a lot of railway lines which used to criss-cross around South Tyneside, now they are used for walking and cycle paths. One man who remembers what it was like was John Cuddihy.

Well I was 40 years on the railway I worked at Sunderland, up to Consett, Darlington and over to Durham. Mostly worked South Shields station, High Shields station and Harton Junction.

You had a Harton railway system, and you could see the trains coming from Hilda Yard and through the tunnel under where the La Strada nightclub was, then up to Harton low staithes and then we’d run the wagons back.

Then under the British rail system you had the huge system at Green Lane, a massive system at Tyne Dock bottom where you used to get these big nine ’F’ engines hauling these ore trains all the way to Consett.

They would haul through Green Lane at high speed. The fireman used to be really fit to haul all the way up a bank to Consett.

If you were on the Marsden Rattler you could travel from Westoe Lane, a huge station with a signal box there an’ al – it was very impressive. You could travel through from Westoe to Whitburn and travel back it was only a short distance done on an aged rolling stock.

After that they pulled it all down, done away with it all together, there’s photographs of how it was and I took one in 1995 of the station. After that they built flats on it you wouldn’t think there’d been anything there – it’s a shame.

Holborn docks, South Shields (Alikivi pic. September 2016).

By the mid 1980’s there was virtually no shipbuilding on the Tyne, but one man who spent the early years of his working life there, was Vince High.

I started working in the shipyards when I left school in 1975. My Grandad had been a welder, also my uncle. So it was a natural thing for me to aspire to be the same as them, the fact that they were welders was a no brainer for me – I wanted to be like them.

A lot of the guys prided on the fact that they never lost anytime at all. I have visions coming back of the time there was a roller shutter that used to come down dead on 7.30am.

So if you were at the top of the bank and the shutter was coming down, myself and my mate would saunter down happy to lose a quarter hours pay, but you’d see some guys running down, throwing their haversacks under the shutter just before it hit the ground and doing a commando roll into the yard just to save a quarter hours pay.

Looking at the river now compared to say 20 years ago it’s actually incredible. Clearly the shipyards to all intents and purposes are gone, that high employment is gone, but what I think is happening is we’re trying to make an alternative use for the river now.

Whereas at one time it was about industry, work and employment, now it seems to be about improving the housing and getting people actually living near the river again.

Watch the film here:

Tyneside Lost Industry – VANISHED (Alikivi 9mins 2012) – YouTube

Alikivi  May 2021.


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.