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Two Rooms And A View: 16 - A Self-Contained Community

...Living in the Frederick Street area during the war years was like living in a self-contained community. It was a closely-knit neighbourhood with often the poor, extended families living in adjacent streets. Few journeys outside the immediate area were required for work, school, shopping, church or entertainment....

Robert Owen, who was born and brought up in South Shields, continues his heart-warming life story. For earlier chapters please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

While I had been evacuated, there had been some excitement in the town, which involved our neighbours who lived in Frederick Street but shared the same backyard as ourselves. Mr and Mrs Willey had a son who was a third engineer in the Merchant Navy and his ship had been in the news. He was on board the tanker, San Demetrio (Eagle Oil), when it was one of 38 ships in a homeward-bound convoy which early in November 1940, was attacked by a German pocket battleship. The ship was badly damaged and abandoned by its crew. However, it refused to sink!

Frank Pearce (1996) describes how a small crew, including George Willey, re-boarded the San Demetrio and miraculously brought her one thousand miles home to a safe harbour in Scotland. A film entitled 'San Demetrio -London' starring Robert Beatty was made after the war and is occasionally shown on TV. Mr and Mrs Willey were extremely modest about their son's achievements and always said that all they wanted was the safe return of their only son.

Thankfully they got their wish and sixty years later I believe, the third engineer from the San Demetrio is still alive and well and is living in Cheshire.

Many years after the war had ended, Mrs Willey and my mother went together on a day trip to Blackpool. Somehow they failed to make it back to the bus station in time and the coach left without them. I suspect they spent too long having their fortunes told on the sea front. Fortunately, George Willey then lived at nearby Fleetwood. They sought emergency 'bed and breakfast' there and had to return the following day at their own expense.

Living in the Frederick Street area during the war years was like living in a self-contained community. It was a closely-knit neighbourhood with often the poor, extended families living in adjacent streets. Few journeys outside the immediate area were required for work, school, shopping, church or entertainment.

For example, Moores supplied our rationed weekly groceries, the Main sisters our bread and milk, Phinns and Lawrensons of Laygate were the butchers, and Darkes the chemist kept us fit and well. Quigley and Morrisons competed for fruit and vegetables, Proctors supplied stationery, Laws sold any paint or wallpaper that might be available, Harrisons were very busy keeping the many bikes running and charging accumulators, and Glentons supplied the wool for the many wartime knitters. Ffyers were well known for wet fish and rabbits, Axlebands was the best Haberdashery in the town and Coun. Walton ran the local post office. There was also a disabled three-fingered cobbler in Berwick Street and the nearest we got to a department store was the ever-popular Aliens at Laygate.

Work was provided at the many nearby shipyards and factories in Commercial Road; entertainment at the Palace cinema, and many public houses existed in the area to satisfy drinkers' demands. Spiritual needs were provided by the huge Frederick Street Methodist Church, St Judes' Church of England and Laygate Presbyterian Church. The latter closed at the start of the war and was partly taken over as a police station and eventually a shoe factory.

For those who had to travel out of the area, trolley buses ran every few minutes both ways along Frederick Street, and High Shields Railway Station was only a few minutes walk away.

Trolley buses were indeed the life blood of the town. While the noisy tramcar still plied its trade between Mile End Road and Ridgeway, and the newer petrol driven motor buses operated to Cleadon and Simonside, it was the quiet and clean trolley held the lines in place.

Coal was expensive and in short supply and these oily blocks provided an ideal, if illegal, supplement for the household fire. The problem was how we, the local gang, were to get some home without being caught. This was not easy because the foreman was alert to our interest and there was a night watchman to prevent any pilfering.

However, some of the workmen were from the nearby streets and took pity on us. When the foreman was not looking, they turned a 'blind eye' and said, "Take that one," then, quick as lightning one of us would pick up the large oily mess, push it up our jumper and run home as fast as possible. On the one hand my mother was extremely pleased with the additional fuel supply, but then I got reprimanded for having a dirty jumper. I thought: I can't win!

On another occasion, I was nearly knocked down by a trolley bus. The pavements of Frederick Street used to get very crowded and apparently what I did was to run into the road without looking for any oncoming traffic. The first thing I knew about the incident was when I heard a deafening squeal of brakes. Turning, I saw a trolley bus stopping only inches away from me. I made off like a greyhound, leaving the shocked driver, bus passengers and a gathering crowd staring into space.

I ran straight home thinking I had got away with it because, although shocked, I kept quiet about the incident when I got into the house. A few minutes later a loud knock at the door indicated otherwise. A passing nurse had seen what had happened and had followed me home to make sure I was alright. I got a good telling off and was warned about my future road behaviour.

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