« The House In Brewery Street | Main | The Perfect Nappy »

Two Rooms And A View: 11 - Neighbours

...No alarm clocks - even if we had had one - were necessary whilst living at Reed Street. Most of the dockyard workers started work at 7.30 a.m. This meant that from about ten past seven every morning, there was a slow continuous build up of noise caused by the dockers' hobnailed boots on the pavement outside our window. This built up to a crescendo before suddenly stopping at about 7.25 a.m. After this it went quiet, apart from the running of a few dockers who had overslept and did not want to lose fifteen minutes pay for being a few minutes late...

Robert Owen, continuing his life story, gives a vivid account of growing up in a working class area of South Shields in the 1930s.

At a very early age I learnt that the quality of the inside of a family's house was often measured by its outside appearance. Clean windows, net curtains and the front step being the main indicators. Walls might be falling down, paint peeling from the doors, but these were not the tenant's responsibility - clean windows, net curtains and the front step were.

These were acutely observed by neighbours and my mother would often be seen kneeling on cushions, using a donkey stone to scrub the front step as if it was a competition to see who had the cleanest one on the street!

Cleaning the outside of the sash windows in our upstairs flat was another major problem. The only way this could be done was by sitting outside on the window sill, pulling the window down, holding on with one hand and cleaning the window with the other. My mother's build made it impossible for her so Addie got the job.

The fanlight - the window above the front door - was another problem. We didn't have any steps and Addie used to have to stand on one of our chairs. Due to the dirt and dust in the air from the shipyards and the numerous coal fires, keeping the windows clean was a continuous task. I was told to watch how it was done, because I would be expected to help when I was a little older.

Unconnected with this, I remember accidentally breaking one of the glass panes in the window. My mother was furious! Glass was scarce and expensive and we had to get the local handyman in to re-fit it. She borrowed some money from somewhere and for a long time I was very unpopular. I don't know if it was the non-availability of plain glass, or the cost, but the replacement glass was semi-frosted and didn't help the view!

No alarm clocks - even if we had had one - were necessary whilst living at Reed Street. Most of the dockyard workers started work at 7.30 a.m. This meant that from about ten past seven every morning, there was a slow continuous build up of noise caused by the dockers' hobnailed boots on the pavement outside our window. This built up to a crescendo before suddenly stopping at about 7.25 a.m. After this it went quiet, apart from the running of a few dockers who had overslept and did not want to lose fifteen minutes pay for being a few minutes late.

A dockyard hooter sounded at 7.30 a.m. prompt and this was quickly followed by the build up of a symphony of hammering, beating and welding - a percussion of shipyard noise heard all over the town. Apart from lunchtime, this would continue until 5.15 p.m. when there would be a mass exodus on foot, bike and bus from the dockyard. The exodus was so intense that a policeman was often on duty directing the traffic at the junction of Bertram Street and Frederick Street.

Up and about before the dockers was the local gaslight man. Armed with a long pole, he would appear every morning and evening, according to the time of year to light or extinguish the streets' many gaslights. We often watched him from our window.

With moving house so many times and having no brothers or sisters near my age, I had a relatively isolated childhood. Nurseries and playgroups were unknown and children were often expected to amuse themselves. The result was most youngsters sought refuge in the back lane, often playing with neighbours' children. At Reed Street, for the first time in my life I was able to do this.

Living downstairs to us and sharing a back yard, were the Richardson family. They had two boys, Freddie and Billy, both about my age. We often played together and had pretend fights in the back lane using sticks for swords and bin lids for shields. With another lad called Jimmy Porter, we formed a 'Gang of Four', forty years before the Social Democrats did in 1980.

Shortly after we arrived at Reed Street, the Richardson family moved but only about 200 yards to nearby John Williamson Street. The Gang of Four still played together and about this time, Billy became very ill with, I think, either diphtheria or scarlet fever. As both were highly infectious, my mother waited anxiously to see if I became ill. Fortunately nothing more than a very sore throat developed and Billy also soon recovered. Ever since then, until I had my tonsils out many years later, at the first sign of a cold, I used to develop what my mother called a "Richardson sore throat".

The medical cabinet in our Reed Street flat was a large bottle of aspirins that stood upright on the corner of the sideboard. I remember taking them for everything from colds to growing pains. If diarrhoea or constipation should appear, the threat of going to the chemist for a bottle of castor oil usually cured the symptoms in double quick time!

The third member of our shared back yard was the Willey family. Mr and Mrs Willey had lived there a long time and had a grown up family of two daughters and a son.

Mr Willey worked at a local shipyard as a plater and was partly deaf - something I was later told was characteristic of many who worked at certain trades on the Tyne. Although sharing a yard with us, their front door was in Frederick Street. From there, Mrs Willey ran a small newspaper business. My mother became very friendly with Mrs Willey and one of her daughters. Many years later, that friendship influenced where we were to live.

Unknown to them, the Willey family was also indirectly responsible for helping me to read, and giving me a lifelong interest in newspapers, particularly the Shields Gazette. My mother used to go into their house occasionally in the evenings and would sometimes bring back a redundant copy of the evening paper. As there were few books in our house, this was valuable reading material, before it was used to light the fire the following day. She brought the paper to read herself, but I had so many questions, she finished up teaching me how to read from the Gazette. With her help and over a period of time, I could read to a limited extent before starting school.

Our other neighbours across the back lane, were the Dickinson and Donnelly families. We were to share air-raid shelters with them during the coming years. Living diagonally opposite was an aged Mrs Breckon and her adult daughter. In order to save coal during the long winter evenings, we used to occasionally go over to their house. It was here that I first learnt to play cards and dominoes.

Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.