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Two Rooms And A View: 1 - Caer Urfa

Today Open Writing begins the serialisation of Robert Owen's autobiography, Two Rooms And A view.

The book was born out of an attempt to trace his family history. His efforts were greatly hindered by the lack of written records left by his progenitors. He vowed not to let this happen to his descendents.

The title refers to a small, upstairs flat in Reed Street, South Shields, where the Robert lived in very sparse conditions from 1939 to 1954.

Robert says: "My advance apologies go to the many relatives, friends and former colleagues who are mentioned in the text and may not be aware of this publication. They have nothing to fear. Unfortunately, many are no longer with us. I hope this book acts as a contribution to their memory.

"If the truth were known, many books are written for the enjoyment of the writer just as much as any prospective readers. This is one of them. It was a labour of love.

"I hope the result makes some contribution to the social history of the period. Personally however, if the contents bring back memories or provide enjoyment for any reader, I shall be very pleased. In addition if it motivates anyone to research their family history, write about their lifetime experiences, or to renew contact with former friends and colleagues, that is a bonus.''


A neighbour of ours in Yorkshire recently bought a secondhand car. Its registration number began with the letters MCU. Passing the time of day with him, I casually asked, "Do you know what CU stands for in your car registration number?"

He looked at me as if I was mad. Undeterred, I continued, "It stands for 'Caer Urfa', the old name for South Shields."
Looking surprised he asked, "Where's that?"

For him and all other non-Tynesiders, South Shields is situated at the mouth of the River Tyne, ten miles east of Newcastle and seven miles north of Sunderland. In Roman times it was known as Caer Urfa, or 'the community on the hill'. Centuries later when an index was required for the registration of motor vehicles in the town, the first letters of Caer Urfa -CU - were chosen. With a third letter, it is still used in modern-day motoring.

The town's long history goes back to at least 80 A.D. when a Roman fort was built overlooking the entrance to the river. In the twenty-first century, it still provides a base for investigation by enthusiastic archaeologists. Fishing for a long time was the main industry of the community and in 1245, the Prior and Convent of Durham founded the town under the name of South Shields. The name is said to come from the fishermen's huts which were known as 'Sheels'.

During the 17th century, the salt trade attracted workers and established the town as a busy port. The first reliable population census was in 1801, when there were 11,171 living in the community. As the so-called Industrial Revolution stimulated the national economy, local coal mining and ship-related trades became particularly prominent. The town with a motto of 'Always Ready', expanded its population from 37,000 in 1851 to 97,000 in 1901.

South Shields was granted a Charter of Incorporation by Queen Victoria in 1850 and gained County Borough status in 1889. Until major local government re-organisation in 1974, it was the County Borough of South Shields and part of County Durham. It then merged with the adjacent areas of Jarrow, Hebburn and Boldon to form the administrative area of South Tyneside.

Although renowned for its jovial people, outstanding coastline, chequered industrial history and William Woodhave, the designer of the first self-righting lifeboat, most people will associate the town with Catherine Cookson. This world famous author of historical novels based on the north-east coast, was born and lived in the west end of South Shields for most of her early life. The town's suburbs of Tyne Dock and West Harton, became known as Catherine Cookson country, the same area in which the writer's grandparents lived.

As many of her books indicate, living conditions were extremely harsh during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of the population existed in poverty-stricken back to back terraced houses, which hugged the noisy, smoke-filled river side and nearby collieries. Illness was rife, epidemics common, medical help poor and life-span short. Concern by authorities for living conditions and public health grew only slowly and eventually, workhouses were provided for the poor and infirm. In South Shields, Harton Workhouse was opened in 1880 to accommodate 730 inmates.

For employment, the town has always been over-dependent on the industries of coal-mining and ship-related trades. Nationally the production of coal grew from 65 million tons in 1854, to 287 million tons in 1913, an increase of over 440%. Coal was the life-blood of the country. In 1913, 166,000 miners worked at 150 collieries in County Durham. Locally, the 8,000 miners at Harton, Boldon, Whitburn and St Hilda collieries produced nearly 2.5 million tons of coal. Perhaps more important, most of the coal produced locally was a special type of gas and coking coal. With demand high and limited supply, the local collieries grew in importance.

Although Templetown and St Hilda collieries existed earlier in South Shields, it was Harton Colliery- sunk between 1841 and 1844 - that gave birth to the west end of the town. It was one of the deepest collieries in the area and with wet and difficult conditions, it paid slightly better wages. Also in 1854, it had some national publicity when it was the scene of some international scientific research.

This was when the Astronomer Royal, Sir George B Airey, used the colliery as a base for his experiments to determine the weight of the earth. The colliery's expansion and publicity attracted workers from all over the north-east and created a new mining community around Tyne Dock, West Harton and the hamlet of White-Leas.

Stimulated by the opening of the Stanhope-Tyne railway during the 1830's, a new outlet for coal and related products from more distant collieries, was born. Also with a growing demand for the export of coal, a railway system with dock facilities was required. This was provided by the North Eastern Railway Company who, in 1859 constructed the necessary track and four giant straiths extending out into the sixty acre Tyne Dock. Here the town's twin products of coal and ships merged as colliers shipped coal out of the smoke-filled River Tyne.

The expansion of Harton Colliery's workforce even gave birth to a new Church. This was All Saints in Boldon Lane, which was opened in thel 890s. It is said to have cost 3,000 to build with Harton Coal Company contributing 10%. The houses in the Parish and its number of inhabitants nearly doubled between 1891 and 1901.

The working conditions of miners in local collieries were always extremely dangerous and relations with the mine owners, strained and bitter. These even deteriorated further during the early nineteen-twenties, with the return of soldiers from the First World War and the mines to private ownership.

In 1926, the whole country was gripped by a General Strike in support of the miners after an arbitrary decision by the owners to reduce pay and increase working hours. In South Shields, everything stopped and the Riot Act was read. Armed military escorted vital services and police baton-charged striking pitmen. Although Durham miners stayed out on strike the longest, they eventually had to return to work with their 'tails between their legs'.

In a forward to Joe Robinson's (1996) very descriptive biography of Tommy Turnbull, 'A Miner's Life' (at Harton Colliery), Tony Benn points out that nationally, "between 1927 and 1934, the years immediately following the General Strike, no fewer than 7,839 miners were killed and over 1,200,000 were injured at work.

Following the Wall Street crash of 1929, a major economic recession hit the ship building and mining industries on which the town was so dependent. The number out of work onTyneside soared. Unemployment pay, known as the dole, was also slashed. Hardship, hunger and poverty were widespread on a scale unimaginable today. Even the dole was not sacred because the unemployed were means-tested. This broadly meant that anything of value that a family owned, had to be sold or pawned, or their dole would be reduced by the powerful and feared Public Assistance Committee, commonly known as the P.A.C.

A few years later and only a few miles away, the unemployed of Jarrow, with nearly 80% of its workforce without a job, organised the famous march to the Houses of Parliament to protest against the level of unemployment and the much- hated means test.

South Shields, unfortunately, also had an unwelcome first in race riots long before other towns throughout the country had such problems. Being a long-time seafaring town, it always had many visiting seamen from throughout the world. Many came from the countries of the Middle East. Some must have liked it here because they stayed and took up residence in an area that in the nineteen-twenties became known as the 'Arab Quarter'. The riots hit South Shields on August 2nd 1930, raging around the Mill Dam where seamen registered for any jobs that might be available. The unrest was sparked by the growing friction between unemployed Arab seamen and their white counterparts. Scores of people were injured and the police used truncheons to quell the fighting.

The chequered industrial history of the town is also reflected in the experiences of South Shields Football Club with six different and unrelated clubs bearing its name during the past 130 years. For example, which former Football League club gave up its name and ground and moved to the same nearby town TWICE within a period of forty-five years? The answer is South Shields A.F.C. when it moved from Horsley Hill to Gateshead in 1930, and Simonside Hall to Gateshead in 1974. Perhaps the highlight of the club's history was between 1919 and 1930 when it was a member of the Football League Division 2. In the 1921/2 season, the club finished 6th top with now fashionable clubs like Leeds United and Derby
County below them.
South Shields Cricket Club with a longer and less turbulent history goes back to 1850 when it was born in Westoe Village. Crickmer (1985) outlines the club's many achievements. Perhaps none more so than between 1924 and 1942, when the club won the Saunders Cup three times and the Durham Senior League Championship five times.

These were the harsh industrial and social conditions in the town during the nineteen thirties to which the Owen family and many thousands of others were exposed. But what circumstances and economic forces brought the Owen family and its ancestors to South Shields in the first place?

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