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Two Rooms And A View: 51 - Prized Possessions

...The following Monday morning I proudly joined the hundreds of other cycle riders that used to ride from Shields to Hebburn every day. It was approximately five miles and took about twenty-five minutes. I soon found out that there was a community spirit among the riders; it was like a cycling club. Although everybody started on their own, by the time they got to Jarrow, they were usually riding in a group. Also, if required, help was usually available for the unfortunate rider whose cycle chain came off, or for those who might get a puncture...

Robert Owen recalls his days of cycling to work. To read earlier chapters of Robert's engrossing life story please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

There were about a dozen draughtsmen and one female tracer in the Cable Section and about half that number in the Relay Section. My job was to take and collect messages, drawings, prints, standard lists and customer order files etc., throughout the company. The hardest task during those first few days was finding my way around, especially as my mentor, Jimmy, was absent on the following two days, seeking a new job.

The far end of New Town Works was about a mile away and none of the departments in the factory or section in the offices were labelled. A sketch map would have helped newcomers like myself to find their way around this vast industrial site.

An older member of the Boys' Brigade Company, which I had joined three years before starting work, was Ken Foster. He worked in the Costing Department at Reyrolles, and as soon as he found out that I was to work there, he offered his help. We arranged to meet during my first lunch time in the canteen. After that, Ken introduced me to his colleagues, showed me around Hebburn, and generally looked after me during those first few weeks.

A few months later, I thanked him in a very dubious way. We had a disagreement that somehow, on my initiative, developed into a fight and ended with Ken's nose bleeding. As he hurried to the cloakroom, I thought of the possible implications. I was petrified. We were fighting on the firm's premises and if anyone reported me, my future with Reyrolles might be very brief. Fortunately Ken quickly recovered, I apologised even quicker and much to my relief the incident was soon forgotten.

At the end of my first day at Reyrolles, the rush to get away from work at 5.15 p.m. and then to the railway station, surpassed what I had experienced in the morning. This was because it now included all the factory workers who also finished at 5.15 but had started work at 7.30 a.m. It also included the many people who were seeking a train to Newcastle. The crowds had to be seen to be believed as people ran, pushed and dodged their way up the bank towards the station.

There was a normal service train to South Shields at 5.18 p.m. and I soon learned that if a fit person ran all the way without stopping, it could just be caught. Many people accomplished this but there was often near violence, as the porter on duty at the top of the station steps, attempted to stop the growing crowds who overflowed onto the road, as buses, cars and bikes tried to pass. How no one was ever killed or injured shall never be known.

Another empty train came in directly after the service train had left and this Reyrolles Special usually departed at 5.25 p.m. - crowded as usual.

My weekly wage as an Office Messenger was 1.3s.Od (1.15p). After National Insurance contributions were deducted, I took home just over 1.

I travelled to work on the train for the first week but soon had other plans. I calculated that what I paid on train fares, I could pay weekly towards a new bike and still have the same for convenience of travel during the remainder of the week. It would in fact save money. My mother remained unconvinced and replied that she had never had anything on hire purchase in her life and she was not going to start now! She took a great deal of convincing before she eventually agreed to this strange way of buying something and paying later.

Therefore, the following Saturday morning, an important visit was made to the popular Holdsworth's Cycle Shop in Dean Road. After a long examination of the bikes in the shop, I finally chose a traditional black Raleigh model with a hub three-speed and dynamo. It also possessed old-fashioned necessities such as mud-guards, a saddle bag, a chain guard and a bell. I found the hub-dynamo rather bewildering. It only produced lighting if the rider was pedalling. If the rider was stopped at the traffic lights, unless he or she had other battery-operated lights, the bike was a dangerous, unlit target for other traffic.

The bike cost just over 20. We obviously could not afford this sort of money, so a two-year 5s3d (about 26p per week) hire purchase agreement was taken out. The problem was that my signature was not acceptable because of my age. Also in the days before equality, nor was my mother's because she was a woman! We had to seek the help of my brother-in-law, Leslie, to stand as a guarantor.

During the next two years, every Saturday morning I used to call in at Holdsworth's and make a payment 'off' my bike. Through these visits, I got to know the joint owners of the shop, Mr Hall and Mr Murray, fairly well. They always asked, "How's the bike going?" My reply was usually, "Very well, thanks." It served me very well during the next five years.

My mother and I had agreed that we would pay half each towards the weekly hire purchase cost of the bike. This left me with 2s6d (12p) out of my agreed pocket money of 5/- (25p) per week. It also left her with only 12s. 6d, (62) to help towards the cost of my board, clothes and food etc. She reckoned she was subsidising Reyrolles at the wages they paid me!

The prized purchase was kept on the landing of our flat and had to be carried up and down seventeen steps every time I wanted to use it. This was sometimes three times a day at weekends as I refused to leave it at the front door after my sister's experience.

The first time I tried to manoeuvre the bike on the stairhead, I unfortunately knocked the slop bucket over and baptised the back stairs. It was not a good start.

The following Monday morning I proudly joined the hundreds of other cycle riders that used to ride from Shields to Hebburn every day. It was approximately five miles and took about twenty-five minutes. I soon found out that there was a community spirit among the riders; it was like a cycling club. Although everybody started on their own, by the time they got to Jarrow, they were usually riding in a group. Also, if required, help was usually available for the unfortunate rider whose cycle chain came off, or for those who might get a puncture.

We didn't realise it at the time but looking back, the journey was very historical. We used to pass the large, imposing St Mary's Church where my grandparents were married and the rather infamous Tyne Dock with all its pubs. Then it was through the slime ridden arches which continually rained liquid coal from the passing trucks above.

With Catherine Cookson's birthplace in Learn Lane on the left, we turned sharp right into Jarrow Road, passing the old Alkali Pub, the often fog-shrouded Jarrow Slake on the right and the Bede Trading Estate on the left. It was then over the River Don and a short sharp tough climb up Church Bank, while passing the historical St Paul's Church on the right.

Going through the cobbled streets of Jarrow, under the Newcastle and Shields railway bridge and into Albert Road, brought us to a small newsagent on the left. Here, many Reyrolle-bound cyclists like myself used to stop to purchase a morning paper.

Refreshed by the small break, it was then straight ahead and up Victoria Road, usually into the wind, to Hebburn. We then went over the railway level crossing, passing the well-known Clock Hotel, Hall Brothers Bus Garage and the immaculate Hawthorne Leslie playing fields. With a right turn at the traffic lights into Station Road, then over the always-crowded Hebburn station bridge, we were there!

In 1950 there were hundreds of cyclists and few cars using Tyne Dock Arches and yet we had no cycle lanes. Fifty years later there are few cyclists and hundreds of cars, yet we have a cycle lane!

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