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, adam.bell@twmuseums.org.uk or (0191) 211 5599 during museum opening hours. 

Interview by Gary Alikivi  November 2021.

TYNE STORIES – from the south bank of the river.

41631471_1998507880207953_6344860911848652800_n

Back in 2010 I made a film along the south bank of the river Tyne, collecting stories from former boatbuilders, tugboatmen – people connected to the river. Narration was provided by local historian and ex-Museum worker Angus McDonald with music from Martin Francis Trollope. These are some extracts from the documentary….

Tom Fenelly: The volunteer life brigade’s were formed to support the full time work of the coastguard, using the breeches buoy equipment to rescue life from shipwreck. That continued from the very early day’s right up till 1989 when that equipment was withdrawn.

Not only do we help to save lives and help to find people who are missing, we also get involved in rescuing animals. We were involved in recovering a dog which had gone over the cliffs and the owner was obviously very distressed because the dog sadly died. We were pleased to be able to recover the dog and allow the owner to have closure.

A couple of week’s later we got a letter from the owner of the dog saying thank you very much in your effort’s in trying to save the dog and in particular for recovering the dog’s body which allowed her to take it home and the dog’s companion was able to sniff the dog and then bury it in the back garden.

There was a footnote added to the letter saying p.s. My parents had the foresight to insure the dog Paddy the Labrador. Could you please supply us with a death certificate. The first time we had been asked to supply a death certificate for a dog but we duly obliged and were very grateful for a £25 donation which followed.

Ethne Brown: My family are the Whale family who are Tyne Pilot’s. My father was one of six brothers, 5 of them were pilot’s. You couldn’t be a pilot on the river Tyne unless your father or Grandfather had been a Pilot.

This is my Dad (showing photo) he worked until he was 70. He was self-employed and if you were fit enough, like he was, you could work until you were 70. My Father used to come home from the watch house which is just across the harbour there, he would come at lunchtimes sitting in the window having his meal and wait for the ship’s.

They used to go out in the coble’s, then climb aboard and bring the ship in. It was always their ship until it left the river.

Duncan Stephenson: Me Father had seen one of the skipper’s of the tugs ‘Me son’s left school he want’s a job’. So a Mr Headley come to the door ‘Can you join a tug called The Waysider. She’s lying at the Stanhope buoys and can ya’ skull?’ Aye I said and that was the start of me career as a riverman.

A tugboat tugged ship’s in and out of the Tyne. When they were going into dock, we would bring them in from sea, then take them back to sea. When I started in 1956 there was about 40 tug’s working night and day. All hours of the night, everyday, towing ship’s in, towing ship’s out. Big ship’s used to go up Newcastle Quay. You had all sorts of boats.

Fred Thompson: Me Grandfather was a tugboat man. Me father, uncle’s, the whole family and cousins, we were a whole tugboat family. Mainly I was deckhand and fireman. Eventually I was relief engineer in a big tug called the Tynesider and that’s the one that Duncan was in.

Duncan Stephenson: About 4 o’clock in the morning we had been doing a job and we were coming back to the buoys to tie up next to another tug. It was the lad’s job to jump from your tug to another tug and put on the ropes.

Fred: Course we’re in the Stanhope buoys and Duncan had to jump aboard the other tug.

Duncan: We’re coming alongside this tug and I’m gonna jump from this tug to that tug.

Fred: Course when the ropes were off the tug’s started going off a bit away from each other.

Duncan: I jumped and me self-conscience said ‘You’ve jumped too soon’.

Fred: As he jumped he missed and went in.

Duncan: In the water, in the drink and I’m swimming about in the water.

Fred: He took a bit of pulling out, he was more than me.

Duncan: Eventually after a long struggle they pulled us aboard the tug.

Fred: He was 18 stone then !

Duncan: I was a big lad. I’m still a big lad.

Susan is sitting with her father, Tom Fenwick…

Susan Fenwick: When did you start in the Foyboats Dad ?

Tom Fenwick: 1948 wasn’t it.

Susan: Who else in the family was in ?

Tom: Sam, William, Tony and me. I had some narrow escapades. I was blown up on a ship called The Firebeam loading coal at Harton Staithes.

Susan: Then you were nearly drowned at North Shields weren’t ya ?

Tom: I was at Smiths Docks on the foyboats to tie a Swedish ship up. And I got jammed between a ship and the quay in me boat. The result was me boat was lifted up in the air with a rope underneath it then it fell back in the water and broke in two. Throwing me and my work mate in the water with it. Anyhow he couldn’t swim and neither could I but by God’s grace we got out.

Susan: And ya’ came up with yer glasses on and yer cap….

Tom: Aye I still had me glasses on, it was laughable but serious. But never mind we got over it.

Fred Thompson: (Fred sitting at his table painting a ship using watercolours). I’m 80 next month and I finished when I was 65. Mainly the thing now is I paint them. This one is going into Salford harbour.

Interviewer: Anything else you would like to say about working on the river ?

Fred: Nah I could go on forever but I think that is enough for now. Once I start I can’t stop. (laughs).

 

Inside The Missions to Seafarers with Committee member Fay Cunningham….

Fay: During the Second World War the Mission really did play an important part because there was more people from our Merchant Navy personnel from South Shields signed on from anywhere else in the country, and that is the reason why we have our Merchant Navy memorial down at Mill Dam.

Today we had our Armistice Day service of remembrance for those who had fallen in the First and Second World Wars and all war’s since. It was held at the Merchant Navy Memorial. You find that most of the people that attend are mostly ex-seafarers or present seafarers. It’s always a poignant ceremony, it’s always cold because we are right by the river and not far from the sea.

Today we had 60 children from Laygate school who helped lay the wreaths and I’m sure it’s a day that they’ll remember and they will remember the work that our seafarers do.

Boatyard’s on Wapping Street, South Shields….

Fred Crowell: I started my life as an apprentice boat builder at Robson’s Boatbuilder’s in South Shields. We used to build a lot of wooden lifeboats at that time, rowing boats for Saltwell Park and Hexham. Now it’s mostly restoration of traditional boats and we’ve done several over the last few years. It’s quite rewarding to see them back on the river and it’s preserving a bit of history.

Alan Smith: We heard on Radio Newcastle that a trust was being set up and it would be called North East Maritime Trust and they wanted any volunteers. So myself and a pal of mine, Brian came down. We believed in what the trust was trying to do which is to preserve the examples of the wooden boats that were used on the coast here. We do have an example what is possible, it’s called the Royal Diadem. Which is a Northumberland fishing coble.

(Boat being lifted by crane into the water). The boat was built in 1950 for two brothers, William and Albert Silk. Registered in Berwick but it fished out of Seahouses. Then comes the day that the boat is actually finished and all boats are designed to be in the water. We couldn’t use the slipway so we decided to use the crane. There’s a point when the boat is in the air but over the water, then it’s in the water and you always feel that’s where it’s meant to be, it goes from being static to alive. It’s just as though the boat has been born. Fabulous day, fabulous turn out. A lot of people here to see the launch.

Extracts from Tyne Stories (50mins, 2010).  Short version of the film available to watch on the ALIKIVI You Tube channel.

 Gary Alikivi August 2019.