Tyne View by Port of Tyne Writer in Residence
There are few things more interesting than family
The recent upsurge of interest in genealogy has demonstrated this time and again - and also perhaps our growing desire to know, understand and connect with our roots.
This is true of Tynesiders as much as anyone- and the following stories show what hard, fascinating and sometimes tragic lives our forebears had.
Every family has at least one story. Please send me yours at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here's a lovely story from Marion Scaife, in faraway Bermuda. Have a pina colada on us, Marion - and cheers for the tale!
Although my husband and I have lived in Bermuda for over forty years I keep up todate with the North-east in particular the Shields Gazette.
My husband served his apprenticeship at Palmers Shipyard in Hebburn.
Unfortunately the screw in the heel of my brand new patent leather stiletoe shoe broke off. My husband took the shoe to work to drill out the screw.
That particular day he was working on the Caltex Wellington which was in Palmers for repairs. As the ship was getting ready to sail there was a rush to get the job finished and leave the ship. In the haste my husband left behind his haversack with my shoe. The ship's engineer was contacted and when the ship docked the engineer was kind enough to mail my shoe back to Hebburn.
We often wonder where the Caltex Wellington is now and often joke about "the Wellington which went to sea with the shoe".
My mother is 85 years old, is as fit as a fiddle and as bright as a shining pin. Quite a remarkable woman.
Her life has been akin to a Cookson story but she just gets on with it. She has great memories of the NE, from being born out of wedlock and being sent from Gateshead to South shields where she spent her early years with someone else's family before being brought back to Gateshead to the family home. In 1938, aged 14, she was forced to leave school to go to work, which was in a greengrocers on Coatsworth Road. By the time war broke out she was working for the war effort making parachutes, but got finished because she couldn't sew, and was ruining the parachutes. She worked on the Team Valley, but remembers it when it was just a little river with a Lido and café. She was born in Bewick Street, Gateshead, and after a life time which has seen her live in the NW and the Antipodes, she now lives in the next street to Bewick, i.e. Denmark St. I feel there is an irony in the fact that after a lifetime, she has moved just one street.
"I remember the ships coming down the Tyne blasting their fog horns, to warn the Swing Bridge to open for them to pass through to get to the staithes in Dunston. We used to go to the Gateshead side of the Tyne
(called in them days the Rabbit Banks) to watch them come and go. In the 1930's you had a toll to go over both the Redheugh and High Level Bridge which I think were 1d (one penny) for adults and 1/ 2d (a halfpenny) for children.
From Geoff and Mrs Veronica Young
Elaine Page writes, I am 57 years old now but I recollect my father telling me how as a child he and his brothers and friends used to swim in the river. The children were warned by their families of the dangers of the great river, but, boys being boys they swam anyway. It was in the 1930's and a time of great poverty, so no spare money for swimming pool s, no swimsuits etc. The boys swam in their underwear or shorts. During the hot summer after school they would swim, the dangers of the river adding a hint of excitement to their adventurous playtime. There were concrete barges tied up at the riverside, which the boys used as a diving platform.
One day William; my father's older brother (though only 11 years old) dived off the barge into the water - like the other boys he was a confident swimmer - but the strong current of the Tyne carried him under the barge. It is thought that William must have been knocked unconscious after hitting his head on the underside of the barge; as he tried to surface, and he drowned. His father walked the riverside for days until William's body was found. The joys of the swim had turned to a family tragedy.
I was born in North Shields, in Shakespeare Street, which was at the top of the hill opposite the North Shields ferry landing. When we were kids we spent many hours of adventure along the banks of the river.
Those days the Tyne was very busy with shipping. I am going back to round about 1948-1954. Whenever a ship was due in the river either for dry docking or repair the tugboats had to be on standby to help them into position for when the tide was right. The tugs had to anchor a good way from the shore and usually the crew would come ashore until it was time to re-embark. They used to get ashore using their sculler boats and have a couple of drinks either in the Crane hotel or the Phoenix which those days was just inside where the Smiths dock gates are now. We used this opportunity to get into their boats which were usually tied up to the ferry landing and go sculling round the landing along to the old Haddock Shop dry dock and back. It was always easier coming back when the tide was coming in to assist us. Thinking back, it's a wonder that none of us had a mishap such as falling overboard or trapping ourselves between the landing and the boat. I think that was because there were a few of us and we had no fear.
Annie Watson from Hexham writes about a somewhat unpleasant encounter with a whaling factory ship. The ship was probably the Southern Harvester, which with her sister ship Southern Venturer, often called into the Tyne.
'It would be about 1950-51 when we had a holiday at Tynemouth and we visited North Shields quay to see the whale boat. I remember all the fat and blubber in big white squares lying on the quay. It may have been the smell or just the look of it but that night I was ill with sickness. A friend recently brought it to mind when she told me her father worked a season on a whale boat. She thought it would be in 1947 he signed on with Christian Salvesen at Leith where they lived. He was a fisherman but had lost his boat. He travelled to North Shields where he boarded the vessel bound for South Georgia in the South Atlantic. How hard this must have been for a young man to leave his family to make a living in such dangerous conditions.
Thank you, Annie. Dangerous is right, as this hair-raising account from John Leask of Shetland of an incident a few years before makes very clear.
I remember walking to the Tyne from my grandparents house in Whickham. I was pre school age so it seemed a long walk to a very large bustling river. I think my great grandfather may have been a keelman - there is no one now in the family to confirm this.
I remember hanging around outside St. Mary's church in Whickham after the morning service whilst my father and mother chatted with the vicar and reading Harry Clasper's memorial - very quickly because I was afraid of ghosts!!
Another memory is of a lovely 50th birthday party of someone I am proud to call a friend on the banks of the Tyne in 2001. My partner vented anger at the emergence of a seal with a salmon held firmly in it's jaws. He believes they should all be at the end of his rod....
I am ninety years old but I still have vivid memories of Sunday mornings on the quayside with my father.
An ice ceam from Tony's A sarsasparillo half way along "And dont tell your mother cos you wont eat your dinner". Father was an inspector in the city lighting deparment which had an amazing welfare scheme. If a lamplighter was ill the other members of his group did his work so he did not lose his wages. At Christmas a party was held for the chidren. Father Christmas gave out presents and an outing was held for the lamplighters on the longest day ensuring they were back in time to attend to the lights. One day in summer races for emplyees, wives and children were run on the links at Whitley Bay followed by tea at the White City. Happy days.
The Tyne keelmen were first recorded in 1516 and had a proud and militant history and their own community in the Sandgate district just outside the old city walls of Newcastle; their jobs were handed down from father to son.
In modern times the Tyne has been navigable for about 10 miles up to Newcastle but in the last century and before that, big ships couldn't get up the river as it was too shallow, so the Keelman's job was to ferry coal from mines up the river to the harbour mouth at North Shields, from where collier sailing ships would take their cargo down the East coast to London.
The Tyne keel was a type of barge typically holding about twenty tons of coal and was rowed in all weathers, day and night. The keelmen men would row down the river on the ebb tide, assisted by a sail if the wind was favourable, and after off-loading the coal would row back to Newcastle on the flood tide.
Coal was the lifeblood of Tyneside for centuries and Keelmen were first recorded as a fraternity in 1539. In 1697 they organised a charitable fund and established the Keelmen's Hospital in 1701 and the building survives to this day:
When the Swing Bridge replaced the old, low arched, Tyne bridge in 1876 it meant that larger vessels could then sail up stream to load coal from mines up the river and this was one of the final blows to the keelmen's trade. As steam power took over, keelmen began to carry less coal and more general merchandise. Keelmen helped found the Tyne Watermen's Association in 1870 and there were still 480 union members working on the river by 1892 but by 1910 the union was reduced to 310 members but remained independent until amalgamation with the then Northern District of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers in 1936.
All that remains of the vibrant keelmen community of Sandgate is a collection of folk songs of which the `The Keel Row' is the most famous:
The 1881 census lists Great Grandfather George Gordon as a Keelman at a time when technological and other changes had pretty much destroyed the traditional role of the keelmen. The Matriarch of the family says George was to become an Inspector in the City Lighting department in the days of gas lighting. Town gas in those days was produced from coal so in a way he had transferred from one end of the supply chain to the other, and it was the Newcastle upon Tyne City Lighting Department that brought the Gordon and Bell branches of the family together, so William Armstrong, who designed the Swing Bridge, has a lot to answer for.
This is my Grandfathers story. His name was Albert Edward Edwards and he was born in South Shields in 1900. He joined the Merchant Navy in 1918 and, in total, he made 57 voyages all around the world ranging from a few days to months - we have his log book.
Quite a number of the voyages started and ended in South Shields. He had a short period as a miner in the early 20's in Bedlington, but soon returned to sea. He served in both worlds wars and was torpedoed in both.
His first voyage started on the 27 June 1918 on the Florentia, boarding at South Shields, headed for Marseilles with coal and 2 ship's boilers. It only lasted for two days - until the 29 June 1918 - as the ship was sunk by a U-boat torpedo two miles east of Robin Hood Bay. Three sailors were drowned when a lifeboat capsized. The Florentia was a cargo vessel built in North & South Shields in 1912. After the war the U-boat (U88) ended up in America - I have tracked its history down.
His last voyage started in South Shields on 10 February 1942. He boarded the Empire Howard which was on its way to Russia via Iceland as part of Arctic Convoy PQ14. The ship was torpedoed on 16.4.1942. The following is an extract from a naval history book.
"Empire Howard, heavily laden with tanks and trucks bound for the Soviet Army, broke up and sank within 60 seconds.
There was no time to launch lifeboats. Some thirty-eight crew survived in the water being somewhat protected by oil which had been released from the ruptured fuel tanks. Suddenly from out of the mist came the anti-submarine trawler Northern Wave firing depth charges in an effort to trap the attackers. Only those at some distance lived to tell their story.
The remainder died instantly of broken necks or from internal injuries. The hunt for the enemy, it seemed, was more important than those officers and men engaged in helping the Soviet people. It was probably the saddest moment of all the sagas of Russian convoys." Of her complement of 54 men, 18 were rescued but only 9 survived.
It was the only ship lost in the convoy. Ironically the U-boat involved (U403) was later sunk, on 18 August 1943, in mid-Atlantic by depth charges from a French Wellington aircraft. All 49 crew were lost.
My grandfather left a widow and 2 daughters, aged 18 & 5. Like many sailors, he never learnt to swim.
Many years ago I decided to trace my family tree - on my father's side. The Fry's were a complete mystery to me and I had no idea, beyond my grandfather, where we had come from.
My grandfather was dead and my father had no knowledge of our ancestors. From information received from my dad's sister and cousin I found out that there was a family grave in Whitley Bay cemetery with a lifeboat engraved on it. The grave turned out to be for the family of my grandfathers mother who were heavily involved in running the coastguard stations at Cullercoats and Tynemouth. My grandfathers full name was Thomas Andrew Taylor Fry and I further established that Andrew Taylor (who he appears to have been named after) was a famous coastguard in the 1800's and was my grandfather's grandfather.
I therefore decided to follow up the coastguard aspect and took a trip to the Tynemouth Voluntary Coastguard Museum close to the mouth of the Tyne. Inside I was amazed to discover, on the walls, many portraits of famous lifeguards, quite a few of whom were Frys. I was fascinated - who were these Frys? I knew nothing about them. There were many stories of famous rescues by the coastguard contained within the records at the museum and I spent many a happy hour reading all about them. Some of these rescues were right at the mouth of the Tyne and were caused by the infamous rocks known as the Black Middens. Ships entering the Tyne would misjudge the rocks, some of which were hidden just below the surface of the water. Other ships would be blown onto the rocks by bad weather. It was this dangerous aspect of the River Tyne that led to the building of the two piers at the mouth of the Tyne.
The research into my family tree continued. In North Shields library I found a section devoted to local history and here I found that a "Fry" family tree had been compiled by a local researcher descended from the Frys. All the Fry's that I had found in the museum featured on this family tree but there was no trace of my family. After a great deal of research I established that my family had in fact originated from Bristol. My great grandfather, who had a long career in the Navy, left to become a coastguard and had, for some reason, arrived in Tynemouth. He stayed for a couple of years and worked for the Tynemouth Voluntary Life Brigade, married my great grandmother and left to take up a post as a coastguard in Stornaway on the west coast of Scotland. Why had he chosen to travel to Tynemouth? Was he distantly related to the Tynemouth Frys? Why had he suddenly left?
The answers to these questions are, as they say, another story.
My cousin and I have great memories from approx the early sixties, 40 + years ago when we were about 7 years old and used to roam and play regularly on the waste ground down to the river from Felling, Coach Road Green area. (much against our grannies wishes I may add!)
We can remember being chased home (in a kindly but firm way) whenever spotted by the gypsies who lived in the most beautiful painted vans pulled by horses. We were enchanted and often tried to get a peek at them. ( It would be the area where the Gateshead Stadium is now sited.)
I hasten to add, we never ever went back again, after the day we thought we saw a huge silver space ship landing!
Like many people of my age from this area my Dad, William (Bill) Wilkie served his time in the shipyards and then spent all of his working life in them from Hawthorn Leslie's to Swan's and finishing his time at the Slipway.
He was a boilermaker by trade and was ‘made-up' to machine shop foreman (which made my Mam proud!).
All of my young life I remember him leaving home and coming home at very set times (we lived close enough to hear the ‘hooter') and he was always tired after working a long day. He worked hard all of his life but it gave us a good standard of living and my Mam was always up to see him off to work and had his dinner ready when he returned.
My most vivid memory is picking him up from work a couple of times when I could drive and the men running up the hill next to where Segedunum is now - very scary!
Dad always had a tale to tell when he had an audience - from getting tins of food from the ships during the war to the ghost who existed in one of the machine shops. He also worked on one of the last ships to be built on the Tyne - the Northumbria and through my teaching position I was taking a group of students on a trip on this ship so I took him with me - and did he love it! He was in the engine room, on the bridge and I have a wonderful photo of him on deck.
My dad died in 2007 at the age of 88 - and he is literally in the river he loved - after his cremation my brother and his wife, myself and husband and my son and daughter-in-law set off one very cold night at the end of October to scatter his ashes in the river - it took us a while to find a suitable spot but we managed and after a few tries, off he floated.
In the ' 70's I had a summer job cleaning on the Norwegian ferry boats as they came into the River.
I loved that job and worked on the Leda, the Venus, the Jupiter and my favourite the Braemar. She was beautiful.
I used to walk ( or hitch a lift ) from Howden Road to Tyne Commission Quay to start work. No service bus back then!
I would have loved to have visited Bergen but never managed it. Then in 2008 I read that run was being taken off so in July of that year I booked a Mini Cruise which was brilliant.
Since retiring 7 years ago I have travelled around the world but cruising back from Norway and seeing our spectacular coastline is a sight to remember and as you are about to enter the piers the Tyne mouths " Welcome Home !"
The Tyne moves me enormously.
I love its ebbs and flows and its power which I can feel especially in the dark when the waters seem to slide by with the reflections of the city lights. You sense the history of the staithes when the tall ships were loaded and unloaded. My Dad was an industrial chemist and worked at Jarrow in the 60's/70's for Lennig Chemicals and we moved to Hexham from the Lake District and he would drive to work - sometimes he would take me on the journey - either the North or South side of the Tyne. These were in the days when the trolley buses still went. I was trying to study O'Level chemistry and he would describe to me the complexities of carbon. We would pass the Stella North and Stella South Power Stations at Blaydon. I liked seeing all the industries around the Tyne and he would take us along some of the tiny back roads - sometimes to avoid traffic, sometimes just to see the Tyne especially when there was a big ship travelling up the Tyne. So much there - with engine works, and big factories with people pouring in and out.
This is a tale of the Tyne worth the telling.
Once upon a time three ferries operated from South Shields to North Shields; namely the Whitehill Point Ferry (foot passengers only), the big ferry (known as the horse and cart ferry) and the halfpenny ferry (known as the halfpenny dodger, foot passengers only). Matthew Calendar had the distinction of skippering these three ferries in the course of his working life.
The Whitehill Point ferry ran from a landing stage near the Middle Dock, to the Albert Edward Dock. The landing stage was near 'The penny pie stairs' and Holy Trinity Church at Laygate.
The Horse and Cart ferry ran diagonally from a landing stage below the Market Place, to North Shields. Prominent in its day was the 'Northumberland Arms', a pub with a reputation for consoling seamen.
The Halfpenny Ferry, or Halfpenny Dodger ran from a landing stage at Comical Corner and made a reputation by the South Shields writer Francis Daniel who wrote a play 'The Angel of Comical Corner', adapted as a novelette.
The substance of the tale is that the Cullercoats fish wives with their baskets of calla-herring and the french onion men used the halfpenny ferry for obvious reasons. It's cheapness. The skipper Mat Calendar was a popular figure with this group of people and it was a great surprise that on his death a substantial number turned up at the Cemetery to pay their respects. A gesture greatly appreciated by his family.
The Whitehill Point was regarded as the demarcation line imposed by Trinity House. Harbour pilots could not proceed beyond this point and handed over to the Newcastle River Pilots.
The Horse and Cart Ferry - the licencing hours differed from North to South Shields. Drinkers would evacuate the Northumberland Arms, descend to the 10pm ferry, arriving at the South side where the Ferry Inn was at the top of the gangway. There they could have another 20 minutes drinking time. How times have changed and this is the only ferry of the three now operating. Alas, for the drinking fraternity the Northumberland Arms and the Ferry Inn no longer exist.
"I remember the ships coming down the Tyne blasting their fog horns, to warn the Swing Bridge to open for them to pass through to get to the Staithes in Dunston.
We used to go to the Gateshead side of the Tyne (called in them days the Rabbit Banks) to watch them come and go. In the 1930's you had a toll to go over both the Redheugh and High Level Bridge which I think were 1d (one penny) for adults and 1/2d ( a half penny) for children".
Mrs Veronica Young
Her son Geoff writes about her:
"In 1938, aged 14, my mother was forced to leave school to go to work, which was in a greengrocers on Coatsworth Road. By the time war broke out she was working for the war effort making parachutes, but got finished because she couldn't sew, and was ruining the parachutes. She worked on the Team Valley, but remembers it when it was just a little river with a Lido and café. You know she was born in Bewick Street, Gateshead, and after a life time, which has seen her live in the North-West and the Antipodes, she now lives in the next street to Bewick, i.e. Denmark St. I feel there is an irony in the fact that after a life time, she has moved just one street. My mother is 85 years old, is as fit as a fiddle and as bright as a shining pin. Quite a remarkable woman. Her life has been akin to a Cookson story but she just gets on with it."
My Father - Tom Fenwick
After my father had his first stroke when he felt well enough my granddaughter Victoria and I took him to visit his sister, my Auntie May. We had a wonderful day visiting all the old haunts we used to visit when we were children, staying at Tynemouth with my grand parents, Auntie May and our cousin Pat.
One of my favorite places was Collingwood's Monument, one of our greatest North East Admirals of our times. The monument chronicles his exploits in great detail on a plaque beneath his statue. Either side of the steps up to the monument are cannons from his ship. Admiral Collingwood is looking out to sea where the ships come in and out between the two piers on the River Tyne. Below the monument are the famous Black Midden rocks where many ships came to grief in years gone by. After spending about an hour here we made our way to St. Mary's Island after a bite of lunch in the market restaurant. At this time of year St. Mary's Island has many visitors coming from all over the world. To see this tiny island one has to cross the causeway when the tide is out. After spending some time looking around the island we began to realize the tide had started to turn and we left the island taking off our shoes and socks walking quickly along the long causeway back to the car. We all had a good laugh when our feet were wet through when the sea became so much deeper as we reached the shore. Getting back to the car we took our socks that had fallen out of our shoes into the sea and laid them onto the flat surface above the car boot to dry out in the hot sun shining through the back window. Sitting for a while we watched the sea cover the whole of the causeway, the sun glinting on each ripple looking like silver locked in each and every ripple when it crossed over the causeway, slowly swishing away until the causeway was no longer visible.
I was born in North Shields, in Shakespeare St. which was at the top of the hill opposite the North Shields ferry landing.
When we where kids we spent many hours of adventure along the banks of the river. Those days the river Tyne was very busy with shipping. I'm going back to round about 1948-1954. Whenever a ship was due in the river either for dry docking or repair the tugboats had to be on standby to help them into position for when the tide was right. The tugs had to anchor a good way from the the shore and usually the crew would come ashore until it was time to re-embark. They used to get ashore using their sculler boats and have a couple of drinks either in the Crane hotel or the Phoenix which those days was just inside where the Smiths dock gates are now. We used to use this opportunity to get into their boats which were usually tied up to the ferry landing and go sculling round the landing along to the old Haddock shop dry dock and back. It was always easier coming back because the tide was coming in to assist us.Thinking back, it's a wonder that none of us had a mishap such as falling overboard or trapping ourselves between the landing and the boat. I think we had no fear.