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.

HISTORY LIVES – Amy C. Flagg: South Shields Historian & Photographer 1893 – 1965.

Currently in South Shields Museum there is a small exhibition featuring houses and residents of Westoe Village. One of the residents was local historian and photographer, Amy C. Flagg.

Amy was born in Chapel House, on the site of a former medieval chapel, the house dates back to 1808.

In previous blogs (July 19th 2018 & July 11th 2019) I’ve looked at her life and included a link to a 16min film I made about her local history and photographic work, an important historical archive for the town.

Amy documented the air raid damage on Shields during the Second World War and printed the photographs in her darkroom in the attic of Chapel House. These photographs and detailed records were just one part of the important historical archive that she left.

Another part of her legacy was a book printed in 1979 by South Tyneside Council Library Service which featured her detailed notes on The History of Shipbuilding in South Shields 1746-1946.

The book includes a comprehensive list of ships, shipyard owners and important people of the town like Fairles, Temple, Wallis and the Readheads.

Amy put together a section about the shipbuilder John Readhead and Sons…

In 1894 at his home, Southgarth in Westoe Village, he had been in failing health for some time but had visited the West Docks almost daily until the last few weeks’.

During the Second World War she noted… ‘The West Docks may not have suffered as many attacks from the air as some parts of the town but there is no doubt that in terms of material damage, they were hard hit in April 1941 when major fires were started by incendiaries, and several bombs fell in Readheads yard’.

Further research by Amy revealed that …’A ‘Satan’, one of the largest bombs dropped in England to date, fell on Newton & Nicholsons premises near the West Docks but failed to explode: many other bombs of sizeable calibre also fell in the river nearby’.

Her notes revealed what she called a ‘family’ feeling in the Readheads shipbuilding firm…

’Not only between directors and employees, but department with department, staff with staff. Generation after generation has been proud and anxious to ‘get in’ sons or nephews to the various trades’.

Amy realised the importance that Readheads played to South Shields especially during both world wars and recessions.

The book includes sections on place names like Pilot Street, Mill Dam, West Holborn and Coble Landing. At the bottom of The Lawe next to the River Tyne was Shadwell Street and Pilot Street which feature in the opening section of the book…

’It is very fitting that these two streets should be the first section in these notes: the eastern extremity of the old township of South Shields was the birthplace and for long the nursery of shipbuilding in our town’.

Copies occasionally appear on EBay, and the book is available for reference only in the Local History section at The Word, South Shields. Check for details.

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.


HOLBORN – stories from a changing town

Like many towns in the UK, South Shields is changing, and in 2010 I made a documentary to capture those changes, in particular the area of Holborn, once called the industrial heartland of South Shields. 

These short extracts are taken from interviews with workers and ex-residents of Holborn. 


Readheads Shipbuilders docks photo by John Bage.

The shipbuilding industry was a big part of Holborn…

Alex Patterson: My very first memory was going to a ship launch. There was a massive cloud of dust and rust, and smells of oil that left an impression on me that stayed all my life. I was a Naval Architect by profession and retired about 10 years ago.

John Keightly: I started in the Middle Dock in 1959 straight from school, the boys High school in South Shields. I was a carpenter. We used to hang all the staging of the big centre tanks an’ like I say no health and safety, no harnesses, no ropes, just walking along 9 inch planks 70 foot up.

Malcolm Johnson: Well I started in Readheads Dock when I left school. The noise was tremendous, you couldn’t hear yersel speak at one time. There was no ear protection like there is now. There was about 4 or 5 guys in every riveting squad, the riveter, the holder up, the catcher, the heater, I mean you can imagine the number of people that was in the yard at the time.

As I say the noise was tremendous you just had to live with it, it was part and parcel of yer day’s work.

John Bage: I started work in Readheads August 1964 three weeks after leaving South Shields Grammar and Technical school. I always wanted to be a draughtsman so applied to Readheads and was accepted for a 5 year apprenticeship as an outfit draughtsman.

Richard Jago: Me dad went into the Middle Docks, I think in the 1940’s when Sir Laurie Edwards owned it. He was there right up until he was made redundant in the ‘80s.

Liz Brownsword: Me Grandfather he worked in Readheads from the age of 14 until he was 77. Worked there all his life. He had to go into the docks because his parents couldn’t afford for his education no more you know. Me mother had lots of cleaning job’s when we were little.

Dignitaries that used to come into Readheads Docks used to admire the dark mahogany staircase and panels. Me mother used to say ‘Well they admire them but we’ve got to keep the bloomin’ things clean, keep them dusted you know’.

John Bage: There was almost a thousand people working there at the time because we got a lot of orders for building ships and the dry docks also had a lot of work. They were almost queuing up to go into the docks for work on them.

John Keightly: Well there was British tankers, Shell tankers, Coltex, every tanker you could name was in and out of the Middle Docks. As well as cargo boats, molasses carriers, grain carriers they covered all sorts of ships.

John Bage: Readheads built quite a few ships when I was there and a few of them returned to dry docks for survey. But one in particular was the Photenia, which belonged to a local shipping company, The Stag Line of North Shields. They used to bring the ship back to dry dock for conversion to a cable layer.

The ship would then go off to New Zealand and lay power cables from North Island to South Island, and then return to the docks about a year later to have all the equipment removed which would then be stored until a year later the ship got another contract for cabling. It would come back to the dock again, and the equipment would be put back on the ship again. A lot of equipment and work for the dry docks.

John Keightly: People in the market used to know when the ferry was in with all the smoke. Well they knew when the whalers were in with the smell, it was horrendous. When you got home yer ma wouldn’t allow you in the house. Used to have to strip off in the wash house, have a rub down before you were allowed anywhere near the door. I just loved the place, (the docks) it was hard work, and they were strict, but the camaraderie was just fantastic.

Immigrants arrived from many different countries and settled in Holborn….

Hildred Whale: My Great Grandfather was Karl Johan Suderland who was born in Sweden in 1855. He came to this country I believe, in the 1870’s. He did try his hand at a number of job’s, such as ship’s chandler, mason, he was a butcher at one time but eventually all these skills came together when he decided to run a boarding house at 67 West Holborn.

Yusef Abdullah: The boarding house was run by a boarding house master who was an agent for the seaman and the shipping companies where he got them employment. Also, the Arab seaman didn’t drink so there was no kind of social life only the boarding house where they used to have a meal, play dominos, card’s, meet friend’s etc…

Photographer James Cleet captured the housing clearences in Holborn during the 1930’s..….

Ann Sharp: I work with an invaluable collection of photographs here at South Tyneside Central Library and one of the area’s we have been focusing on along the riverside area of South Shields is Holborn. Where conditions have changed considerably, industry and housing have changed over time. We are particularly looking at the photographs by Amy Flagg and James Henry Cleet.

We secured some funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to work with the community and volunteers and they’ve been helping us to retrieve the photographs from the collection to scan the photograph’s and looking at the images to find out historical information.

From that information they are compiling, others are actually inputting that information into a database. Then liberating the photographs onto the internet so that other people can find out what life was like for people along the riverside.

Bob Overton: (Owner, Rose and Crown pub) In the mid ‘90s someone turned up in the bar with some black bag’s and asked if I was interested in some old photos of the docks. I said yes and give him some money and in the bag were photographs of warship’s that were repaired during the Second World War. All the photograph’s had been taken by James Cleet and they are all marked on the back, Top Secret not to be published.

Norma Wilson: Just after the war there was a lot of housing done and they built the Orlit houses in Laygate Street there was 24 of them and that was a new development, and my family were rehoused there. We were the first people to move in there.

Alex Patterson: I live in Canada now and moved there in 1962. Most familiar memory is moving into West Holborn. These were brand new houses, and we moved from single room houses with 4 toilets in the street with a tap at each end. So it was relative luxury moving into a house that had a bathroom, water inside and a garden.

Liz Brownsword: Me Grandfather lived in West Holborn at the top of the street it was a 2 bedroomed house with a garden, living room and a scullery at the back. He loved his garden when he retired, growing cabbages, leeks, lettuce, you name it he loved growing vegetables.

Alex Patterson: We had an avid gardener at the end of the street, Bill McLean. Who provided vegetables and flowers for a little bit of pocket money. But he had a fabulous garden and everybody who lived in the street went there.

Norma Wilson: Me mam used to send us down on a Sunday morning to buy a cabbage or a cauliflower for Sunday dinner.

At one time there was 33 pubs in Holborn, but one pub that survived was The Rose and Crown…

Bob Overton: (Owner) We had our opening night on November 30th 1983 and the guests to open it was Terry McDermott and John Miles, it was meant to be with Kevin Keegan as well, but he had some contractual difficulties with the breweries, so we ended up with just Terry and John.

Richard Jago: Probably during the ‘90s it was at its peak with music happening. There was a big roots scene and all sorts of people played here.

Bob Overton: A lot of local bands and artists would turn up and play for reasonable fees. We had Tim Rose play one month and the following month we had Chip Taylor. I suppose a claim to fame was that Tim Rose wrote Hey Joe and Chip Taylor actually wrote Purple Haze which were the first hits for Jimi Hendrix in the UK.

Richard Jago: Think I’ve drunk here since the late ‘80s so I’m an apprentice really. Great bar, friendly people from all walks of life drink here.

‘Hills of Holborn’ (30mins, 2010) are available on DVD to buy from South Shields Museum and The Word, South Shields.  There is a short version to view on the ALIKIVI You Tube channel.  

Gary Alikivi   August 2019