TRADING PLACES – 250 years of South Shields Market

In September 2018 I made a short documentary about South Shields market with former Shields Gazette award winning journalist Janis Blower. Janis has a wide knowledge of local history through producing the Cookson Country feature in The Shields Gazette and working on the books ‘Aall T’githor Like Folk O’ Shields’. An interview with Janis talking about her work featured in the blog ‘Have You Heard the News’  (27th January 2020).

We had previously worked together in 2016 on a film about South Shields Photographer and Historian Amy Flagg. Janis added the voice of Amy in the short film ‘Westoe Rose’. Included here is the full script that Janis wrote about the 250 year old South Shields market, a link to the film is at the end.

Trading Places

Author Joseph Conrad is said to have refreshed himself in its ample public houses on his voyage from life before the mast to The Heart of Darkness. It has rung to the strident tones of politics and religion. Marked the coronations and deaths of monarchs; been a centre of commerce and conviviality. A public forum one day, a fairground the next. War almost did for it. Peace would prove no less transformative.

Over the 250 years of its existence, the fortunes of South Shields’s historic Market Place have fluctuated with those of the wider town. Both have had to adjust to social and economic change. Within the lifetime of many townsfolk, that has included the decline of the market itself.

The rise of the discount retailer has seen a corresponding fall in the numbers of bargain hunters. Gone too is the tradition for Shields folk to put on their glad rags on a Saturday afternoon and go ‘down-street,’ to stroll up one side of King Street to the Market, and down the other.

For a post-war generation, this was the era of stalls piled high with crockery, pans and nylons – to be sifted through to find a matching pair, of reconditioned boiler suits and other stalls selling goldfish and rabbits. In winter the lamps would flare in the chilly dusk. By then, the market was no longer open until 10 o’ clock at night, as it had been before the war when, the later the hour, the more the cost of Sunday’s joint fell.

In those days visitors would also have found Harry Randall’s toffee stand where homemade toffee, with a free bag of horehound candy, could be bought for sixpence. Also the stall piled high with assorted tripe into which the stall holder would shove his hands, shouting: “Come on, get amongst it!”

And there was the painless dentist, who guaranteed to pull a tooth with his finger and thumb for a shilling: This was the market as part-public service, part-spectacle, like the stocks that a century earlier had once stood opposite St Hilda’s Church. Or the fairs that would visit, in spring and autumn, with their prancing horses and shuggy boat rides or, likewise, the travelling  menageries that would also descend at regular intervals.

The Friday flea market has in recent years returned the square to aspects of what it was then, at least commercially, though the old clothes stalls are no longer confined to the side nearest the church. South Shields-born poet James Kirkup immortalised these in a poem, writing:  “The old jackets rub shoulders on the rack of life and death, the crumpled trousers all undone swing in a driving wind, a boneless abandon, soft-shoe shuffle in the sands of time. Laid away, the painter’s dungarees are dingy white, stained with forgotten schemes for houses decorated out of sight…”

Gone, though, is the fresh fish market: also the groups of men who, hands cupped round their Woodbines or Capstan Full Strength, would gather around the Old Town Hall in the hope of being tapped for work on the river.

An old Shieldsman, writing of his Victorian childhood, remembered each trade having it’s own beat. “While the Church side was common to most parties”. Men milled in this way, albeit in ever-decreasing numbers, until as late as the 1960s, before the skyline increasingly ceased to be criss-crossed by cranes.

The Market Place pulsed with life, not only in the numerous pubs – of which there were at least six before the First World War and as many again in the surrounding streets – but also in the shops. Marks and Spencer started out in the town with a Penny Bazaar here. Barbour’s with a shop on the west side of the square, specialised in weatherproof clothes that would evolve into the garb of aristrocats. Crofton’s, the legendary department store on the corner of King Street, would survive one disastrous fire early in it’s existence but not a second.

That catastrophe was visited one autumn night in 1941 when the town suffered the biggest air raid of the war. In a matter of hours two sides of the square had been reduced to smoking ruins. The then-170-year-old Town Hall – miraculously stood firm, albeit not undamaged. The ‘Old Cross,’ as it was affectionately known was left looking out over a sea of devastation.

Over the next 20 years, new buildings would grow-up around it. There would be no attempt to reconstruct a square which had once been likened to the market place at Bruges. Post-war modernity won the day, in keeping with a town which, under Borough Engineer John Reid, was sweeping away much of its Victorian housing and redrawing its commercial heart.

Concrete took the place of brick, with new pubs going up on the site of the old and the building of a new tax office, Wouldhave House, with shops adjacent. Small thoroughfares which had run in and out of the square for much of its existence, like Thrift Street and little West Street, disappeared. East Street and Union Alley, became backwaters.

Today the square continues to evolve. Words remain its currency, – not those of the fairground barker, or the radical anymore, but as the home of the town’s main library, housed within an award winning building dedicated to writing and creativity.

The Market Place own story, meanwhile, continues to unfold….

Gary Alikivi  January 2020

 

 

HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEWS ? in conversation with award winning journalist Janis Blower

A journalist for 44 years Janis’ first and only job was at The Shields Gazette… I don’t remember having any clear idea of what I wanted to do but the only subject I was any good at in school was English and History, so it was always going to have to be something to do with writing of some sort. My brother in law John had been a reporter at the Gazette and my sister Pam worked on the front counter reception, that’s how they met. When I left school I wrote to the editor at the Shields Gazette, Jim Sinton, asking for a job, nowadays you would need a Media degree from University but I just sent the letter in.

I fell very lucky and got taken on as trainee reporter and signed my indentures for three years. I literally learnt on the job then periodically being sent to college learning the law and shorthand, then at the end of the three years got my National Council for the Training of Journalists proficiency certificate.

What was the job of a journalist then ? I spent a lot of time covering court cases, council meetings, area health meetings that sort of thing. Then if you were covering a story where somebody had done something or something awful had happened to them you would go out with a photographer, interview them, take some photographs, get back to the office and write your story up. Sometimes you would get the story over a telephone interview but I liked going out and seeing people because it was the only way of getting the feel of the story plus you picked up other things as well.

In interviews I’ve found most people are open to talking not only about good times but also bad, did you find that ? The dreaded part of the job is what is called these days, the death knock, and a lot of times you ended up getting the bums rush. It was having to go and see somebody where someone had died possibly in tragic circumstances. You would start by saying I understand if you don’t want to talk to me but…..  You always had to brace yourself for being told to f off which did happen sometimes and I totally respect that. A lot of time people would speak to you because they wanted the story to be right, to make sure you understand what the person who had died was like. So yeah it can be a surprise to find how willing people are to talk.

Were there any deadlines that you had to work to ? There was nothing written in stone you just knew to get your story in as soon as possible, it was more instinctive than anything else. You’d been to the event, got your notes down then find a telephone box and hope you’ve got the right money. If you didn’t you’d reverse the charges (laughs).

You are writing it in your head as you are dictating it down the phone line. Hoping to hell you are getting it right. Terrifying at times but brilliant training. We used to go to court in the morning and write the stories up, taking down a note from one case and writing the previous one by hand (laughs).

The messenger would come across from the office pick your story up, take it back and that would get in that nights paper. That’s how current it was. Even covering trials in Newcastle Crown Court you would phone your copy over after an hour or two of the trial for that night’s paper. There was 4 or 5 copy girls who would take dictation. The early edition used to come out around 1pm and that was basically yesterday’s final edition with a bit of updating in it. But the final would come out at 4pm.

Years ago The Shields Gazette on a Monday would have a celebratory page of wedding pictures …Yes there was always certain jobs that you did before the end of the week, one was the Agoes which was snippets of what happened 25 or 50 years ago that went in to the paper and the other was the wedding reports. People would come into the office and pick up a form that had to be filled in with the details of the bride and groom, their parents, what they did for a living, what the bride and bridesmaids would be wearing, anything special about it and name of the church. You wrote the report from that, then the photographer would go take the picture on the Saturday. You would see them married up together on the Monday. There was a kudos of having it in the Gazette. Do people realize now just how valued the Gazette was, you had achieved something if you were in the paper.

Janis wrote a daily column called Cookson Country featuring people and places around the town it’s popularity led to the books ‘Aall Tgithor Like the Folk O’Shields’. How did that come about ? Cookson Country in the paper started in the late 1980’s and it had been such a success with the use of the old photographs. I can’t remember who brought up the idea, it was maybe the editor or management but they said ‘Why don’t we do a book, a spin off from Cookson’. That’s when the paper was still owned by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers who had their own publishing arm, they were doing books and magazines commercially. So it was ‘Yeah I’ll give it a go by all means’.

The first one was very popular, we done that about 1993 or 4 because my son Alexander was only a baby. I look back now and wonder how I accomplished it really, working, having a small child and doing them. There’s five of them in all with the last one in 1999.

Did you find it hard work to put them together or did they fall into place ? No it wasn’t hard work I think for the first one, the blue one, I settled on the things around the town that were most well-known, like the Market, Old Town Hall, Comical Corner, Marsden Grotto and Marine Parks so it was easy to come up with a selection of things to do, and the Gazette did have this wonderful collection of old pictures. For the text the Gazette had this detailed cuttings archive dating back to just before the Second World War. So no it wasn’t a chore to put it together.

Can you remember any stories or photographs that caught your attention, that stood out ?  I think what I was struck by most and this had come out of Cookson in a way was how hard people’s lives had been. I did a bit about guys gathering sea coal, you had all this coal that was washed from out of the ground seams and spilled off ships, and men would go and gather it. I can still remember the tidal edge along the beach down there was black with all the coal washed up on the beach. I wasn’t aware how poor parts of Shields had been, the riverside area especially, that was a learning curve. Also to see how much the place had changed, then how in some instances it had stayed the same. There are still huge parts of Shields that are still recognizable from 100 years ago.

This photograph (above left) is at the top of Mile End Road of the old corporation staithes where all the midnight mechanics would go round and empty the ash closets, then it was all taken to the staithes put in hoppers, taken out to sea and dumped. You could never imagine that there was something on the riverside that looked like that. God knows how old some of these buildings were. That was the biggest revelation, coming to realise that there had been this whole riverside town parts of which probably dated back a very long time, and it’s just gone. It used to be one street with pubs and shop’s along it, people now go to York for the Shambles with it’s little streets, we had that. But because it was so dilapidated and insanitary it was all cleared.

How important do you think local history is ? It’s important, you’ve got to know and understand where we have come from and how the town has been shaped. But I have a profound dislike of the word nostalgia. I hated it when Cookson page was referred to as nostalgia. There is a saying that nostalgia is a seductive liar. Nostalgia now for people can be the 1980s, when I started doing Cookson a lot of the readers memories were going back to war time.

I never tried to look at the past through rose tinted spectacles, you look at those old photographs in the books we’ve talked about, families in those houses on the riverside were living in appalling conditions, the sewage, the water supply was poor, walls of the houses full of bugs, people were hungry, they were dirty – there’s no nostalgia for that. It is important that we know about these things so you can see what improvements we have made, how much we’ve come on in that time.

Now that you are retired do you still keep your hand in ? Since I’ve retired I have done some work with school children and they are absolutely fascinated by things you tell them. I’ve taken some on walks along the riverside, to The Customs House and where Brighams dock was and tell them they would have been covered in coal dust sitting near The Customs House, where the old coal staithes where. Then behind you is the top of St Hilda Colliery pit head, can you imagine 150 year ago little children your age working down that pit ?

They are fascinated about it, I tell them to go home and talk to their parents, talk to Granda and Grandma what life was like when they where children. Don’t get seduced by nostalgia for the olden days, cos they were hard…really hard.

Gary Alikivi  Interview January 2020

SMOULT THE BOLT

In 2006 the idea was to make a number of short documentaries in South Shields featuring residents of the town and their hobbies, interests or passion. The first was Colin Smoult, this was his story and a link to the 4 minute film is at the end. 

South Shields has always been a rock town and even when music has faded and past like the indie culture of the late ‘80s, the big dance boom of the ‘90s then you’ve still got the rock scene. We might be gettin’ older, greyer, fatter but I think a lot of people in this town will always have a place in their heart for rock music. We’ve always had people from this town that’s been so fanatical for the bands that they have followed. I’ve grown up with many of them from my late teens onwards and some of them remain just as passionate about their music now as they did over 25 years ago.

My name’s Colin Smoult I’m 42 years old and I live in a town where I was born, South Shields. A small seaside town 10 miles east of Newcastle. My occupation is a shopkeeper, it’s essentially what people used to refer to as a head shop. I sell things like pipes and bongs which 20 years ago might have been seen as very risqué. But this day and age it’s all fairly acceptable. It’s only a tiny shop with a minimum amount of trade but I’m me own boss and if it pays the bills I’m quite happy. That allows me plenty of time to pursue my other hobbies and interests – my main one is local live music.

I’ve been the singer and guitarist in a band called Shovelmouth for the past 11 years now and we play various gigs in pubs scattered right across the region. The songs are all rock cover versions but the pub rock scene is huge in the North East of England. On a Friday and Saturday night there are probably 100 pubs and more putting on live entertainment featuring full on rock bands.

South Shields alone has half a dozen pubs that put on live music and the largest of these is called The Office. Not only does my band get to play there but I am responsible for booking the acts every weekend. The acts are normally small local bands playing a variety of covers but now and then we put on special events that feature tribute bands, some of these are from out the area.

I’m a rocker at heart but I find there is a lot of people who love this kind of music so I book the bands that people want to see the most. I’m pretty passionate about live music and only book the very best from the talent that we have.

Some people may see it as a bit sad and may view it as a bunch of middle aged folkies trying to re-live their youth but nostalgia is a big booming industry and if people want to see songs from their youth played live in their local pub – then who am I to deny them. Whether I’m the bloke singing the songs or the man who books the bands I’m content to know I’m doing my bit to allow people to have a good time after a long week at work.

I’m also involved with a website called Riffs which pushes and promotes local bands, and apart from news pages and gig guides I also post up my own reviews of the many bands that I get to see here. So I suppose my hobby is full time because as well as being directly involved every weekend, during the week I am always writing things up and arranging things for the venue and my own band.

I like to keep in touch with lots of groups out there and there’s quite a lot of time spent gob shyting with people on the internet as well. Don’t get us wrong I get a big buzz out of being on stage and entertaining people, but if you’ve got any band up there on stage with a superb crowd watching them, for me the atmosphere in the room is just as enjoyable.

The standard of musicianship on the local circuit is extremely high and is way beyond what people would term as pub bands in other parts of the country. The old club scene has become a lot more pop orientated in the last 20 years and a lot of the rock players that used to play that circuit have now moved into the pubs instead. So the end result is that we have some amazing musicians kicking around and most of the bands that you get to see are free admission too.

So for a lot of people aged in their ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s watching a live band on a Saturday night is a very cheap way to have a fantastic night out. If I’m not playing with my own band then I’m here at The Office watching them instead. Either way for me every weekend is dominated by my love for live music. I got tons of pride in what I do. But for me there’s only one true satisfaction and that’s putting a smile on people’s faces.

If I can be involved in any way with live music that others gain a lot of pleasure from I get immense satisfaction from doing that. I suppose as I get older I won’t be able to bounce around on stage in the same way, then eventually there will come a time when I’ll have to retire from live performances, but I’ll always stay involved with the local band scene even if I have to be brought in on a wheelchair.

I’ve jokingly said that when I die I want my ashes scattered under the stage of The Office. But honestly it’s as good a place as any and that way I’ll always be close to what I love.

 

Gary Alikivi  January 2020.

FAMILY PORTRAIT – Downey photography studios in South Shields & London

As I was sorting out some books this picture card fell out of one of them. It’s something I picked up at Shields Market a few year ago. I’m not sure who the sitter is but the photo was taken by the Downey brothers, William and Daniel, who along with older brother James, had studios in the North East then moved to London. Commercial photography was in it’s infancy when the brothers were taking pictures of royalty and personalities like Oscar Wilde.

Looking back to photographers in South Shields if it was a competition I couldn’t call it, they have different qualities. There was James Cleet with his housing clearance pictures during the 1930’s, and reported to be a bit of a showman in his mac and bowler hat, especially at Tyneside ship launches he would signify when he was finished by making a large sweep of his bowler hat and take a deep bow in front of the crowds. Amy Flagg’s unforgettable Second World War images of a scarred town after the German bombs hit, then in her own darkroom printing photographs of devastating images of a town she loved, important pictures that still have a huge impact today.

Records show the Downey brothers worked out of a studio in London, but before that were based in South Shields. William Downey was born in King Street, South Shields in 1829, with help from his older brother James and together with brother Daniel, they set up a photographic business in the Market Square in 1860. The studio became successful resulting in branches opening across the North East in Blyth, Morpeth and old Eldon Square in Newcastle.

In 1862 Queen Victoria commissioned William Downey to take a series of photographs illustrating the Hartley Colliery disaster, near Blyth. Soon after William and his brother Daniel moved to London where they accepted commissions from dignitaries and aristocracy including the UK royal family, the Emperor of Russia and King of Norway. The brothers also took pictures of show business personalities from their studio at 57 & 61 Ebury Street in Belgravia, while older brother James, as well as his grocery business, kept a studio open in South Shields.

Big brother James was a huge help to William and Daniel. He was a grocer and importer of German yeast, with premises in West Holborn in 1865. 10 year later he had two shops trading as a grocer and confectioner out of 17 & 19 Eldon Street. By 1881 he had one shop for his grocery business and opened the other as a photography studio. There is a record of a Frederick Downey at 19 Eldon Street, I suspect that he was James’ son who carried on the family photography business.

Meanwhile in London, Daniel and William continued their work of royal sittings and portraits. Sadly, Daniel passed away in Bethnal Green in 1881 while William died in Kensington in 1915. His son, William Edward, kept on the family business, as did his son, Arthur.

A lasting record of their work is an impressive set of 5 books called ‘The Cabinet Gallery’ printed by Cassell & Company of London, Paris and Melbourne in 1890. The volumes include 36 photographs each, plus a summary of the subject. Kings, Queens, Professors and actors all sat for a Downey portrait, the attention to detail made them stand out among other photographers and ensured customers would return. Their stamp is on the back of some pages.

Throughout the early 1900’s there is records for a Downey photography studio at 17 & 19 Eldon Street, but unfortunately by 1912 the trail goes cold. What happened to the Downeys in London and South Shields? Is there more to their story? If you have any information to add get in touch.

Source: Census records, Burgess Rolls, Wards Directories, Wikipedia, The Word South Shields.

Gary Alikivi  December 2019

 

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.

HARD UP in HOLBORN – South Shields photographer James Henry Cleet 1876-1959.

During the 1930’s James Cleet was commissioned by South Shields Public Health Department to make a photographic record of ‘slum housing’ in the town. Side Photographic Gallery in Newcastle produced a booklet in 1979 of some of the photo’s. Not sure if the term ‘slum’ was first used by Side Gallery or Public Health Department ?

But first time I came across James Cleet when I was doing some family and history research in the Local History section of South Tyneside Library. It gave me the idea to make a documentary in 2010 called ‘The Hills of Holborn’, featuring the area once known as the industrial heartland of Shields, Cleet’s work and the digitization project. The Local History section had been awarded funding to digitize thousands of photographs they had in their archive and load them onto a new website. Volunteers were needed for this process and as I was self employed I could give a couple of hours a week to a worthwhile cause.

Spending time looking through photographs, some from the early 1900’s, of people, places and events around South Tyneside was a great way to spend a couple of hours. It wasn’t long till I dropped in more frequently. Photographs by Emmett, Flagg and Cleet were an excellent record of the times. Some images had familiar street names of area’s where my ancestors lived, mainly Tyne Dock, Holborn and Jarrow. Finding a family of photographers called Downey who had a studio in Eldon Street next to where my great grandmother lived was an added bonus.

There was a small team of volunteers who recorded details of the images, scanned the photo’s, and uploaded them onto the website, this process features in the documentary. Street names, buildings, shops and people were researched, as much information as possible was added. On the back of the pictures was nearly always a date or name of the photographer. But unfortunately, some photographs were left blank and didn’t have any recognizable signs, but were still uploaded.

After a few sessions I could recognize the styles of certain photographers and two of them stood out. Amy Flagg added extensive details to a lot of her work, and covered some powerful subjects like the Second World War – climbing over bombed houses to get the shot won’t have been easy. Some of her images became instantly recognisable, in her darkroom she stamped a date in Roman numerals on the bottom of the photo.

There were a load of photographs that were taken in Holborn by James Cleet, his style and composition was of a very high quality with clean, sharp images. Most of the images are taken on overcast, grey rainy days – is that a coincidence ? I doubt it. The lighting give the pictures a uniform look and add to the bleak, grim atmosphere of the housing clearance. In research I found he had regular work at ship launches, plus The Shields Gazette and Daily Mirror. While Flagg’s technique was more hand held, Cleet used a tripod in most if not all of his shot’s. Both were passionate about their work.

Around that time an old guy used to come to the local history section and tell me a few stories about Tyne Dock and Holborn as his family lived in those area’s. Next time he brought in a booklet which he gave to me, it featured a collection of the housing clearance photographs I’d been looking at.

The booklet also included reports by the South Shields Medical Officer for Health talking about ‘rat repression’ and ‘eradication of bed bugs’. They reported….’The women had a very hard life. They polished their steps and the pavement was scrubbed. The backyard was washed regular. There was a question of pride. They had to keep them clean or they’d be overrun with vermin. No getting away with it. It had to be kept down’. The report also included complaints from residents…’A’ve seen some hard up times. Families of nine in one room. I knew a family, the father and mother had to gan ootside to do their business. Yes they used to do their courtin’ ootside. The mother used to stand at the telegraph pole on Johnsons Hill and have her love with the husband and then gan yem to bed. You couldn’t do nowt with all the family livin’ in one room’.

In a previous post I wrote about the important historical archive that Amy Flagg had left to the town: her Second World War photo’s plus the book ‘The History of Shipbuilding in South Shields’, the James Cleet housing clearance booklet is just as important a document of South Shields.

To check out the South Tyneside photographs featuring Amy Flagg and James Cleet go to :   https://www.southtynesidehistory.co.uk/

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

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.

She 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.

 

BILLY’S STORY – The artist formerly known as Meths.

A few weeks ago a story was sent in from a South Shields resident who signed out as Tinwhistler. After initial contact they didn’t offer anymore clues about their identity. Was this Shields version of the NSA’s Edward Snowden, or the X-Files Deep Throat ? Was there going to be a big exclusive or was this just a wind-up. But after reading the story I remember the old guy they wrote about. Billy Meths. I often saw Billy, real name Billy Roberts, in the Town Centre during the late ‘70s early ‘80s, most times sitting on a bench comfortin’ a bottle of cider.

The story also brought back a reminder of another couple of characters that hung around Shields. During the ‘80s I often saw a guy known locally as ‘Cowboy’ cos of his boots. I wasn’t sure if he was homeless or staying in a hostel. Then during the noughties hanging around the Mill Dam and river area of the town was ‘Wavey Davey’, he got that label from waving at passing ships. Where are they now ? There will be many Shields folk that can offer stories about characters from the town like Billy Meths – this is Tinwhistlers…..

    Billy Meths cracking pic. Billy’s home was South Shields. Most of us exist in a finite amount of square feet on 1 or 2 floors that come with restraints known as mortgage, freehold or tenancy and all the rules and regulations that go with them. That is what we call our home. Billy viewed the town as his home, picking random points that could serve as a base when it suited.

Back in the early ‘70s society enjoyed virtual full employment and homelessness was not a national issue. But there was always going to be those in society that seemed displaced and show a preference for living outside the parameters of a normal existence, preferring a much harsher alternative. Constantly battling the elements, hunger, alcohol (or lack of it) and the occasional assistance of passers-by. Billy Roberts was one of them. But I want to go back in time to the era where I first heard of and met Billy Roberts, the artist formerly known as Meths.

He was one of several who sought cover in the Town Centre particularly in the Market Place. Someone your parents might tell you to avoid, someone that was barred from every public house in the town yet with his singing, dancing and playing of music either with harmonica or his ‘bones’, would entertain the pub’s punters on the streets.

He had a nickname ‘Billy Meths’ a name that was maybe  bestowed in the previous decade by cruel kids that saw a loner drinking from a bottle in the street. His demeanor and mood would fluctuate depending on alcohol intake.

Some of the older workers in the licensing business referred to him as ‘Gypsy Roberts’, perhaps because of his nomadic lifestyle and no set official residence. Nor would he likely have had his lobes pierced though I came across him once wearing a clipped on hoop that was so big a dolphin could’ve jumped through it.

Perhaps Billy considered the whole of South Shields his home, setting down at various locations depending upon the season. As I grew a bit older I’d venture into town and would often see him around as I’d be visiting record shops. Sheltering from the elements he’d sometimes be in a bus stop with a bottle of cider, causing anxiety to those waiting for a bus. He might not be seen for a while but then when least expected, he’d appear pushing a barrow of scrap and rags that he’s moving on to turn into cash for cider in order to attain his preferred state of consciousness.

Leaving school and entering a life of work afforded me the dubious pleasure of sampling the weekend night life and I’d see Billy more often. At the junction of Mile End Road, Ocean Road and King Street there would be stationed a police vehicle and officers with dogs to attend any possible outbreaks of Saturday night violence. Billy would be drawn to the Ship & Royal pub, peering in through large windows, the pub had floor to ceiling glass windows that gave the customer a great view of the outside world. He would be weighing up the paying customers, also wondering what mischief might be achieved.

He might begin with a knock on the glass then maybe lewd hand gestures, face pulling, a sparring routine. Of course if you knew him you’d maybe laugh, smile and wave him on. But there was always one who was not aware of this growing legend in our midst who would remonstrate, return the hand jiving and on Billy pushing his face right up to the glass his target would then bolt for the door in order to deal with Billy in a pugilistic fashion. Billy’s timing was impeccable and his walk away followed by his collaring by a drunken assailant takes place in full view of the police. Those watching through the big windows see a police response to an older gentleman being harassed by a young drunken bully. They’d spring into action and Billy had another ‘kill’.

Summer ‘76 I was working in the family’s retail business and my father was a beer drinker. I suppose out of family loyalty I would accompany him for a sup. Again in the Ship & Royal, as usual the bar was busy with workers and shoppers relaxing before returning home. On this occasion Billy entered the pub resplendent in a 3 piece navy suit that looked a remarkable fit, he had an open necked white shirt and a cigar in one hand, the other hand behind his back. A barmaid was fulfilling a large order and loaded drinks onto a tray ready to carry them over. ‘Large brandy please’ was Billy’s request. ‘Out Billy, you know you’re not served in here’. She then began to walk toward her customers carrying a full tray.

His response was something like ‘Ok love no problem’ and went toward the door to exit. He was now behind the barmaid and his other hand came from behind his back revealing a fully inflated balloon. He held it out and brought the lit cigar to touch it. I saw this so didn’t jump, but the barmaid shrieked, dropped the tray and drinks went all over both table and punters.

Another occasion I was on Ocean Road and Billy was in the bus shelter. He had his companion of Gaymers or Bulmers cider with him and seemed fairly lucid when I sat talking with him. He volunteered the fact that he originally hailed from Blaydon and that at one time he had been a keen amateur boxer. ‘No trophies son, no trophies, just memories’.

I did partake of a drink from his bottle on the assurance that there was no added substance and stayed for a little while. But unfortunately I can’t remember other pearls of wisdom he volunteered that night.

There was a time when a friend of a friend was sufficiently displaced to need to share accommodation with Mr Roberts. Luckily it was summer but he stated how cold it had been that night. He slept underneath the Waltzer at the  Fairground which was Billy’s summer residence. There was a previous summer residence, the Tyne lifeboat, a landmark at the pier end of Ocean Road. I believe he put in for an exchange when he alleged that he was being harassed by police and on one occasion 2 cadet officers did urinate on him.

My father told me he bumped into him whilst on his way for a pint or three. ‘Good evening Mr Roberts and where are we off to this fine evening ? ‘Good evening sir. I’m now moving to my winter residence as it’s starting to get a little bit cold during the evening. Mulligans Mansions, top floor, is where I’ll be for the coming winter’. Where he meant was the multi-story car park situated just off Mile End Road.

Some weeks later my dad bumped into Billy and asked how he was settling in. Now below the car park at ground level there was a night club originally known as Banwells… ‘I’ve got noisy bloody neighbours’ he stated. ‘I’ve been down several times to complain and ask them to keep it quiet as I cannot get a night’s sleep’. Trying to visualize the scenario where 2 burly doormen respond to rapping on the door and seeing a bedraggled gentleman of the road type, possibly holding a blanket and complaining, had me in fits.

When his spirits were high he’d often break into song, do a jig and bring out a harmonica or his ‘bones’ to entertain. When low he could be found somewhere with a bottle going through some sparring routines, beating the pulp out of his invisible opponent. Billy’s musical talents had not gone unnoticed as another of the town’s characters, Brian Batey, would invite him to gigs to sing on stage with the band Brian sang with, The Letters. He was recorded at Bolingbroke Hall in 1981 and is on You Tube.

Billy’s lifestyle eventually took its toll and his health  deteriorated. He was cared for at the Ingham Infirmary and afforded a private room by the then casualty consultant, Miss Seymour. Seymour was an eccentric born again Christian who had spent the earlier years of her medical career attending to the sick and dying in the Congo. She now attended to the needs of Billy Roberts and may well have assisted financially with his funeral. He died I think circa November 1984 ? I’m sure there will be many Shields folk that can offer stories about characters from the town. Thanks Billy.

Is there another Tinwhistler out there ?

Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

STOCKIN’ FILLERS 2

2019 has seen nearly 100 interviews posted mostly musicians, but also featured artists, poets and authors. If yer lookin’ for a Christmas present to buy why not take a butchers at these books that featured on the blog this year.

It’s not often that anyone has a visual record of their life – but Sheila Graber from Shields has done it in a book that is packed with illustrations created of our area since 1951. ‘The book is packed with anecdotes of my life as a Sandancer, it’s ideal for sending to folks abroad as a memento of Canny Shields’. ‘My Tyneside’ is available from The Word in South Shields and on Amazon. Check Sheila’s website

http://www.graber-miller.com/BookPage01.html

When doing some local history research I came across a new book about Westoe written by Dorothy Fleet…This book tells the story of each of the houses and the families who lived there from the mid-1700s. More recently the Village has undergone a revival and many houses have been restored as cherished family homes. Although now totally surrounded by our busy town, Westoe Village remains a place apart’. For further information about ‘Westoe, a History of the Village and it’s Residents’ contact dorothyfleet60@gmail.com

Burglary, prostitution and gambling all appear in ‘Five Stone Steps’ a fictional account of life in South Shields Police Force during the 1920’s. The book is written by former Shields lad John Orton‘I needed some info about the police in Shields and my very good friend Tommy Gordon helped. His father served in Shields police and he told me some of his stories’. The book is available to order at The Word, South Shields and on kindle plus paperback via Amazon.

Gary Alikivi  December 2019.