Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (Photographer)
Note: The photographic project was undertaken jointly by Sirkka and Graham Smith, also a member of the collective at the time. The photographs seen here are Sirkka's contribution. As well as the booklet, a film was produced. Both are available from the Amber website. An ‘action committee’ (Murray Martin and the owner of Newcastle Bookshop) secured the listing of almost all the buildings on the Quayside.
Text of booklet, Quayside, produced by Amber, 1979:
QUAYSIDE MARKET JOKEMAN:
Photoviews of artists’ models - you just put it down like that and sooner or later you’ll see them all walkin’ about with a big black eye – they’ve been lookin’ - their nose has been troublin’ them - when they look, they get a black eye - 20p. Black eye jokes. Stink bombs – ’orrible boy buyin’ stink bombs - come on up sonny boy. Anybody want blood capsules? - you put them in your mouth, you bite them and all the blood runs out your mouth, your mother’ll have a fit - 10p each - blood capsules - looks as if yer mouth’s bleedin’. By it’s hard this mornin’, terrible. Eeh, y’cannot all be skint - 10p blood capsules. Hurry up, I need the money. Anybody else want blood capsules? Anybody else? Frothy mouth blood capsules - it looks as if yer havin’ a fit - anybody want them? You froth at the mouth, send for the doctor - frothy mouth blood capsules. Snappits - 20p a bag - they go off with a bang when anybody stands on them. Laughing bags £2.30p - anybody want a laughing bag? Chatterin’ teeth! £1.30p for chatterin’ teeth. Snow storm tablets for cigarettes, fills the room full of snow - 20p. Cigarette bangers - 20p a packet anybody else? I’ll be forced to sing shortly - anybody else? That’ll send them all away!
Itchin’ pooder - anybody want itchin’ pooder? Put it down somebody’s neck, put it in the bed, put it on the lavatory seat, and they divvn’t half scratch, 20p - or sneezin’ pooder, 20p. Matches that don’t strike - 10p. Horror packets - anybody want to be a horror? Whoopee cushions, 50 or 80p. Anybody want dirty-nose drops? They’re not snots, they’re dirty nose drops, 20p – y’stand at the bar counter - just give’s yer purse, aa’ll help meself. Stinky scent - anybody want a gyroscope top? You just wind them up. Sea hunters, £1.00, that swim in the bath. Electric shock lighter, they’re £4 - it nearly takes yer hand off. Smoking monkey - smokes a cigarette on its own - 25p. Jumping frog for the little uns - jumping frogs, 50p. 20p. Hot nuts, 20p, specially made for cadgers. Theatrical blood 30p. Anybody want snappy chewing gum - mousetrap spearmint? When they take it out it snaps their fingers - 20p.
Here! Come on, y’can’t all be skint, get yer money oot! Anybody want stink bombs? 25p a box. Here, I’ve got giant stink bombs, 20p - shift anything or anybody – it’s the biggest stink bomb in the world – that’s apart from the one you done - anybody want one? Sexy Anna 50p. Loaf of bread money-box 50p. Taps, £1.20p. Wine glasses, 50 or 60p. Squirtin’ boy, £1.20p. Anybody want this? You press that, it puts his specs on. He does more than that though - you fill it with water to start with - no clues! Anybody want a hand vibrator? You shake hands and jump up a height. He’s a good salesmen, Harry there, he sells knickers at Shields and they divvn’t wear any! Aa’ve got garlic spearmint, 30p a pack, specially made for cadgers. Aa’ve got mustard spearmint, it nearly burns their mooth off. Anybody want red mouth spearmint 30p. Aa’ve got nae blue or green, I’m waitin’ of that comin’. £1 parcels of tricks - anybody want £1 parcels of tricks? Squirtin’ camera 50p. Batman or Hulk man masks for the little uns?
When we first set up in business in 1945, at the end of the war, furniture was very difficult to come by and we had to go around auctions and sale rooms buying tables and desks to furnish the office. This table here came from a sale room in Morpeth... At first, of course, we used to bring the material (the raw materials used to make our floor coverings) in by ship on to the Tyne-Tees wharf. There was a boat left Kirkcaldy, on the east coast of Scotland, every week, and came down here with about six to seven hundred tons of material, and it was shipped onto the quayside and despatched from there. It comes mostly by road now. There’s nothing by ship at all. At one time we could import direct from Gothenberg, and the customs were so quick that we could get the material through customs in about two to three hours, compared with London where it took about six weeks. Then they started bringing it through Hull, but even there it took a fortnight to three weeks. It was a very fine service; direct from Gothenberg into the Tyne, unloaded in under 24 hours, and we had our material.
Yes, we have to leave this building (Akenside Hill). We’ve been looking around at various industrial sites, but nothing has materialised yet... it will be a pity to leave the centre. It’s very handy for the tradesmen if they have a centre point in the city to come to... I suppose what will happen to this building is just what happened to the Maritime Building; it will just be pulled down and made into a car park.
NEWCASTLE QUAYSIDE: A Short History by Margaret Slade
Newcastle was named after its castle. The first castle was a simple motte and bailey built by Robert Curthose, William the Conqueror’s eldest son, about 1080. Bourne, who wrote a history of the town in 1736, suggests that before this castle was built the area was largely unpopulated, due to the ravages of the Vikings 200 years earlier.
The evidence suggests that people soon began to settle around the castle, and with the growth of the population the building of the town began. The fact that the church, founded only a decade later in 1091, was dedicated to St Nicholas the patron saint of Merchants, Sailors and Children, suggests that Newcastle was already a busy and prosperous port.
The Bridges: The heugh upon which the castle was built gave it a position which commanded the approach from the south, over the bridge. This was the traditional site for a river crossing. The Romans had built a bridge here. The Norman bridge, built on the foundations of the Roman one, was burnt down in 1248. This was replaced by the Medieval bridge which was pulled down after it had been badly damaged by the flood of 1771 and the eighteenth century bridge built. This in its turn gave way to Sir William Armstrong’s swing bridge which at last enabled ships to go further up the river. It was opened to traffic in 1876 and was the largest swing bridge that had ever been built and one of the finest.
There was only one bridge connecting Newcastle and Gateshead until 1849 when, to complete the railway link between London and Newcastle Robert Stephenson built the High Level Bridge, which in addition to carrying the trains had a lower deck for pedestrians and road vehicles.
Next to be built was the Redheugh Bridge, designed by Thomas Bouch and opened in 1871. It was heavily subscribed to by the Newcastle and Gateshead Gas and Water Companies, as it carried their pipes over the river. It was reconstructed in 1901. The fourth bridge to span the river, The Edward the Seventh Bridge, was purely a railway bridge, built in 1906 for the North Eastern Railway Company.
The New Tyne Bridge was built in 1928 by Messrs Dorman Long and Co of Middlesbrough. It has become a much-loved landmark on the riverside. Now a sixth bridge has been completed, the new Metro bridge, crossing high over the end of Close Gate, by the Skinnerburn.
The Close and Sandhill: By the early 14th Century Newcastle was the third largest town in England outside London. Its main exports, upon which its wealth at that time was founded were wool, woolfells and hides. In 1353 it became one of the ten staple towns and all the wool produced in the North of England was shipped from Newcastle. The early port facilities were at the foot of the Castle hill, beside the Close, at the Sandhill and along the Lort Burn, a river which ran through the centre of town and down what is today Dean Street and the Side, and across the Sandhill. The Close began as a right of way through properties which extended from the top of the bank to the water’s edge. It was first named in a document of about 1294, before the town wall was built. In 1333 when the Town Wall was built the Close Gate was made in it to allow for its continued use.
The Long Stairs and the Castle Stairs were also very early pathways, dating no doubt from the foundation of the Castle if not earlier, as they would have been the only approach to it from the river. Javil Grippe, which was immediately opposite the Long Stairs and went from the Close to the river bank, was mentioned in 1311 (spelt Gaolesgrippe) as ‘for the passage of men and the mooring of boats’. The Long Stairs gave access to the town as well as to the main gate of the Castle. The Castle Stairs led only to the Castle through the postern gate and was probably the main entrance for provisions.
The Sandhill was the west bank of the Lort Burn and was either formed by sand deposited by the currents at the mouth of the Burn or by ships dumping sand ballast. It was a market place. Troops mustered there in 1388. A Guildhall was said to have been here since 1250.
The King issued a proclamation in 1393 saying that merchandise stored there should be removed within one month as the ground was ‘so nearly taken up with divers merchandise in bulk and other property’ that the assembly and recreation of the burgesses was hindered.
Some of the houses of the wealthy merchants of the 16th and 17th centuries can still be seen in the Sandhill and the Close. Those in the Sandhill have been preserved in something like their original condition and are still in every day use, the best known of this group is Bessie Surtees House.
The Guildhall on the Sandhill is still in part a mid-17th century building. Its south face was altered in 1809 and the semicircular extension at the east end, which when it was built had an open colonnade where the fish market was held, was designed by John Dobson and added in 1826. The colonnade has since been filled in, this took place when the fish market moved to a new building at the east end of the Close in 1880.
The Fish Market built in 1880 by the end of the Swing Bridge is no longer used as a market. A single story building, it has a large decorated iron gate in the centre of each of its four sides and a town coat of arms modelled into the semi circular metal fanlight over each. Over its riverside entrance is a group of statues, being Neptune and two fishwives, one sitting on each side of him.
The north side of the Close ends at Castle Stairs. The Anchor Inn was the first building in it until about ten years ago, but its site is now a waste.
On the opposite side of these stairs is Mansion House Chambers built between 1876 and 1885 and next to that the Board of Trade offices built just after the turn of the century. Further along at the foot of the Long Stairs is an old house that once belonged to the Anderson family, wealthy merchants of the town. Several members of this family served as Mayors and Sheriffs of Newcastle. Since 1833 it has been used as business premises, first by a Seed Crushers and Oil Merchants, then by a Corn Merchant. In 1899-1900 it was Orwin’s Sack Warehouse, after which it again became an oil refiners.
The Cooperage to the west of Long Stairs, has been used by coopers at least since 1827 until quite recently, it has now been renovated for use as a restaurant. Deeds for this old building exist dating from 1624, it is referred to as lofts and cellars at the foot of Long Stairs.
Nearly opposite to this is another old building with some half timbering visible, this was until latterly a builders’ warehouse for J T Dove and Co; they had occupied it from 1855 onward but the building is much older than this.
A memorial presented to the town council in 1864 said of the Close: ‘That the Close from its proximity to the river and from other favouring circumstances, is and must continue to be one of the chief avenues for conveying to and from the Quayside the enormous traffic of the Cattle and Corn Markets, the Carlisle and North British Goods Station, the manufactories of Messrs Hawthorn Stephenson and Armstrong, besides large and numerous mills, granaries, glass works and other establishments.’
At the west end of the Close outside the Close Gate, are a row of massive bonded warehouses; Hanover Street at the back of these buildings was constructed in 1840, so that they were probably built soon after. They occur in the street directory of 1844 as Her Majesty’s General Bond Warehouses, and are mentioned in the memorial previously mentioned, ‘The ratable value of property in the Close has been materially enhanced by the erection of extensive bonded warehouses, flour mills and the like.’
These warehouses all have seven storeys but appear to have been built in a number of sections, some with semi-circular window heads and some with flat-topped windows with a shallow brick supporting arch. The block of warehouses actually on the corner of the Close Gate and Hanover Street is of twentieth century construction.
East of the warehouses the position of the old Town Wall is marked by an inscribed stone set in the street wall. Beside it were the old stairs called Breakneck Stairs, and on the south side of the street is the site, now a car park, where the Phoenix Mill formerly stood.
Buildings formerly in the Close: Glass making in Newcastle started about 1623 at the mouth of the Ouse Burn, by Glasshouse Bridge. In 1684 the Dagnia brothers opened another works outside the Closegate. By 1790 Isaac Cookson had crown glass and bottle warehouses, one at the west end of the Close and one outside the Closegate. Airey and Co also had a flint glass warehouse outside the Closegate, and The Northumberland Glass Co had a flint glass warehouse near the Mansion House; these last mentioned premises were burnt down in 1821. Cookson’s seem to have given up their interest in glass sometime after 1844 and Todd and Co appear at the Bottle Works, Closegate. By 1867 the glass industry had finally disappeared from the area of the Close.
Cookson’s also had a brass and iron foundry outside the Closegate listed in 1790, the final street directory entry for this works is 1851. A further branch of Cookson’s interests is variously listed as Lead Manufacturers or Colour Manufacturers. The last time Cookson’s name appears in the street directories for this area is in 1900 for the Bond and Free Warehouses in the Close Gate.
According to Guthrie, in his book ‘The River Tyne’, the first soapworks were built in the Close about 1770; the street directory of 1790 lists Doubleday and Easterby, soap boilers, as established there and they remained until they ceased trading in 1841. Their works were situated just inside the Town Wall to the south of the Close, and the site was subsequently to become that on which the Phoenix Steam Mill was built.
A steam corn mill owned by Thomas Glaholm existed at the Bridge End in 1827. It contained ‘16 pairs of stones to which motion was given by two large engines of from 120 - 130 horse power.’ In a week this mill ground and supplied to customers no less than 3,100 sacks of flour. The mill was gutted by a fire in 1866, which fire also damaged the nearby High Level Bridge. The Phoenix Steam Mill was built in 1855. A contemporary account described it as one of the marvels of modern times. It belonged to John Davidson and Son, and was constructed to replace one in Gateshead that had been destroyed in the fire of 1854.
‘At this mill twenty pairs of stones are in ceaseless motion from one o’clock on Monday morning to eleven o’clock on Saturday night, and during that time from 4 to 5 thousand sacks are prepared. Two steam engines, one of 400 and the other of 200 horse power are employed. The corn is chiefly brought to the mill by water.’
The Phoenix Mill was taken over by Spiller’s in 1896; in 1938 Spiller’s moved their premises to Tyne Mill at St Peters, and the Phoenix building was burnt down in an air raid in 1940.
In 1790 there were seven public houses in the Close and three outside the Close Gate. At the foot of Tuthill Stairs part of the buildings now used by Barimar Ltd, a firm of welding engineers, at 64 the Close, was the 19th century public house named the George IV. This existed as a pub from 1827 until the early part of the twentieth century, but was probably rebuilt at some time during this period.
Opposite Tuthill Stairs had stood the Mansion House (1691 to 1895). From 1837 onwards until it was burnt down it had been used as a timber warehouse.
The Side: In the 18th century the Side was a ‘street of great trade and commerce,’ in which several goldsmiths worked, among them Isaac Cookson who had his shop and workshop in the middle of the Side. At his death in 1754 it was taken over by four of his apprentices, John Langland, Stephen Buckle, George Chalmers and John Goodrich. The business was continued through Langland’s son until 1814. Matthew Prior, Assay Master, mathematical and musical instrument maker, had his workshop here.
The Newcastle Journal was started in 1739 in a printing office at the head of the Side, in 1744 it moved lower down. Milliners and Hatters abounded. An unusual mixture of goods seems to have been sold by some of the shops, so that in 1744 Thomas Brown was a Tobacconist and Hatter. In 1763 medicines were sold at the New Printing Offices, and, in 1766, C Kidd was a Linen Draper, Haberdasher, and Tea Dealer, while Elizabeth Todd, as well as selling hats for men and women, advertises Oil Cloth, Scale board and Crucibles for Goldsmiths. Doubleday and Easterby the soap makers in the Close were Grocers and Tea Dealers in the Side.
The Quayside: Coal and stone had been dug from the Castle Field and from the Forth since 1235. It was used at this time in kilns or furnaces and not sold for heating in the home. It was shipped around the country but mainly to London, and during the 14th century it started to be exported to the continent. However, by the end of the 16th century, coal had become accepted as a domestic fuel because of the shortage of wood for burning. A document of 1593-4 gives evidence of two coal staithes ‘without the Close Gate, Newcastle’. Coal was at this time loaded into keels, which could navigate under the arches of the bridge, and the coal transferred to larger ships downriver.
Sir William Brereton wrote of the Quayside in 1635, ‘Here att Newcastle is the fairest key in England: I have mett withall: from Tine-bridge all along the towne wall and all most to the glass-works where is made window glass.’
The Quayside from the Tyne Bridge (Swing Bridge) to Sandgate was 500 yards in length and the town wall which was removed in 1763 had 17 gateways for access to the ships. By 1649 there were two cranes for loading and unloading the ships. The buildings and the wall on the river’s edge made the Quayside a very narrow street. It had a number of equally narrow passages or chares running north from it. Gray in 1649 lists 15 chares, but Oliver writing in 1831 gives 19.
Out beyond the Quayside through the Sandgate was the street of the same name, of which Gray says: ‘Without this gate is many houses, and populous, all along the water side; where ship-wrights, sea-men, and keel-men most live, that are imployed about ships and keels.’ The keel men had a reputation for being rough and tough. Many of them originally came from Tynedale and Redesdale, sons following their fathers in this very close community. They were an essential part of the 17th and 18th century Newcastle coal trade, but by the mid-19th century the need for them had disappeared.
In 1827 no less than 862 ships were registered at the Newcastle Custom House, one-sixteenth of the entire shipping of the country. The Custom House, built in 1766, still stands near the middle of the Quayside and is a good-looking stone house in the classical tradition. Its exterior was remodelled in the 1830s and it has a fine lion and unicorn supporting the royal arms above the doorway. The archway to the left of the building is the entrance to Custom House Chare.
With the advent of bigger ships, needing a deeper river channel which required dredging, the foundations of the old Quay became unsafe, and it was almost entirely rebuilt between 1866 and 1884. This new Quay was much extended, and with a further extension added in 1910 is now over a mile long.
The west end of the Quayside including six of the narrow chares was devastated in 1854 by the great fire of Gateshead and Newcastle. Starting in Gateshead, a tremendous explosion blew burning timber and sulphur across the river, as well as the extensive damage from fire, shop windows were broken by the blast over a wide area. The site of the destroyed chares was used to layout King Street, Queens Street and Lombard Street, and, by 1866, Exchange Buildings, a splendid stone structure, had been built, occupying the block formed by these streets.
On the other side of King Street is the building of the TyneTees Steam Shipping Company, its frontage on to the Quayside is very thin, the main front being on King Street where it has an elaborate doorway with the Newcastle coat of arms. East of this building is Plumber Chare, on the other side of this is Mercantile Chambers, a solid, flamboyant, Edwardian stone frontage, and east of this again is another chare, Fenwick’s Entry.
By Broad Chare is a curious, angular building, partly faced in green-painted wood. The corner of the building is a typical Victorian workman’s eating house, which is still the Quayside Cafe.
Number 20 Broad Chare is in good condition, occupied by James Walker and Company Ltd it is an early 19th century brick building with stone facings, a well proportioned bay window above double doors.
On the other side of this chare is Trinity House, the great hall of which was built in 1721. The facade was rebuilt in 1841 but the rainwater head still carries the date 1748.
On either side of the last of the chares, called Love Lane, at the end of the Quayside, are warehouses owned by the Newcastle Warehousing Co Ltd. The more distinguished block to the east has a ground floor in stone with five storeys above in brick, a functional building of the first half of the 19th century. It has simple two-light windows with a brick arch above the wooden lintel, and formerly had loading doors on each floor. Behind this is another block, Baxters Ayton Warehouse, which is similar in period and style, but has the original loading doors preserved on its east frontage.
Sixty-four years ago I was the new office boy - I was 15 and I became so engrossed in the business, I decided the Quayside was my life, and to some extent still it is, though I’m 78 years of age. The place was alive with business and it was really a sight when I started here on the Quay. It was always full of ships - general cargoes of all descriptions, sailing sloops, horses and carts to take the cargoes away. It was an amazing sight on, say a November afternoon, to come up the Quayside and see all the offices lighted up and everybody running about and working and the ships at the quayside. Everybody working all the hours God sends - you didn’t work from 9 to 5 - and everybody enjoyed it. You don’t think about 9 to 5 jobs when you want to make money, you’re willing to do anything. It was a competitive age, you had to be on the ball all the time to be one step ahead.
My boyhood was spent running backwards and forwards from Mathwin’s office to the Quayside Post Office. We ran to get the telegrams over. There were queues of young people with telegrams going all over the world, and you pushed your way in to get your telegram away first. The Guildhall was the Commercial Exchange. At least 400 men went there every morning at 11 o’clock and stayed there until 1. You can imagine a congregation of men like that, all dealing in coal and ships on the Commercial Exchange. It was like a beehive. You went from one to another and found freight, had offers, made offers, had them declined - all in good spirit. We were all friendly, all competitors but all great friends. Friendships meant a great deal.
I started in partnership in Baltic Chambers hatching chickens, believe it or not. Our battery used to produce something in the order of 4,000 to 6,000 chicks a week, through the spring and early summer. That was in this very building, along the passage here. But of course you could only produce the day-old chicks and get rid of them on the same day - you couldn’t rear them up in here. So I moved out to Hartford Bridge in 1948 and I came out of the chick business to come in here in 1951. So I’m not really an old Quaysider. You can say I’ve been on the Quay 28 years. The changes from our point of view? We no longer deal in ships’ ropes, the agency with British Ropes was concluded about 10 years ago. Although we deal a little bit in ropes it’s very small compared with what we used to do. Same for the second-hand bags, most commodities are either packed in paper or polythene or in bulk in tankers. We’ve lost out quite substantially in that direction. We do a little in polythene and polypropylene bags, but they can’t be reconditioned - you cannot mend a polythene bag, you just throw it away, and the same with polypropylene, so we’re down to a handful now. We’ve only got 2 staff in the warehouse compared with about 8 ten years ago.
It is really a bitterly depressed area, and things haven’t been all that good these past 3 or 4 years - on the other hand I would hate to move away from here because, if you’ve been in a place for over 70 years people tend to remember where you are and come back, and we might not see a customer for 2 or 3 years but he knows if he wants any bags or any of our commodities: Go to Watsons on the Quayside. It would be very difficult to find a suitable place with the same sort of cheap rental, and we’re very central for all our customers. We’re hoping that they will reverse the process of everybody moving out onto the industrial estates to a certain extent and try and rejuvenate the city centres, but whether it will come about or not, whether the Quayside is going to be fortunate enough to be allowed to develop a little bit on the industrial side, we don’t really know.
The first job I had actually was as a clerk for a shipping company in this same building (Akenside Hill). The most fascinating part was the Guildhall itself which was, of course, the Commercial Exchange. All the men in their hard hats. As a junior clerk you were very honoured if you got through the door. If you had to see your boss you had to get past the commissionaire and you had to be on proper business to get in there. A lot of business was done in Gregson’s Cafe. Actually there were two Gregson’s. One was where Mac’s Cafe is now and the other one was, you know, down next to the Guildhall Garage, in the basement where Harrison’s the canvas makers is now. All the waitresses were in black dresses, and if anyone spoke up a bit too loud there would be a cough-cough, you know? Well, it was a bit like White’s Club in the Mall. Saturday morning everybody wore sports jackets, dark suits during the week, but on a Saturday they’d really relax and wear a sports jacket, and one man might even bring his dog in!
My mother lives in Shieldfield now. But she doesn’t half miss the Quay. She’s over 80 now but when she lived down here she’d be up and down to the town every day to do the shopping, but she fell and had an accident and because of having to climb all the stairs up to the flat she had to move to Shieldfield. She’s been away over a year now but every night when I go up to visit her she always says how she wishes she was back down on the Quayside. You know, I try and tell her that it’s not like it was, that it’s changed, trying to put her off in all sorts of ways, but no. It wouldn’t matter if you put her in one of those snazzy houses in Jesmond or Darras Hall, there’s no way I could make her really happy other than bringing her back down here.
SHIPPING COMPANY DIRECTOR:
In 1903 we took over the management of the Hill Steam Shipping Co. The Hills were originally tailors in High St Sunderland. Everybody in those days used to put their surplus earnings into ships. We used to be able to buy ships quite cheaply, and Hills built up quite a fleet. They used to hang strips of calico, white calico, from their black funnels, and that was their funnel marking. It was a black funnel with white vertical stripes which we as Witherington and Everett adopted and they were unique in the fact that most funnel markings were made up of horizontal stripes. We had vertical stripes. They were always known as ‘the tombstones’. And the other thing that Hill did, he had the idea that the ships’ names should be connected with rapid transport and started calling ships ‘Quickstep’, ‘Sprightly’, ‘Swiftsure’, and we went on to have ‘Speedfast’, ‘Lightfoot’, ‘Fleetwing’, ‘Alacrity’ and ‘Crackshot’, and we were quite famous for those. There’s a story, during the war, of an East Coast convoy, going down to London, and one of the destroyers was having a problem with one of the ships at the very tail end, and the commodore signalled to him, and asked him what the trouble was, and got the message back: some bloody jester has called this ship ‘The Speedfast’. It was going very slowly.
Of course 90% of the cargo we carried was coal. The way business was done, the way all business was done, on the commercial exchange, on the quayside and the daily routine of the office, was that you used to go along to Gregson’s cafe, which was called ‘The Dungeon’, which has since been closed, it was by the swing bridge, and we used to have coffee, then you used to go on to the exchange and you had all the local ship owners there, all the chartering brokers and all the coal merchants, and you used to charter your ships with coal from the North East to London, the south coast and to the continent, and sometimes you had to go back after lunch. Then back to the office, which was about 50 yards away, and write out all your orders for the ships and send them off and tell them to go to such and such a place to load, and that was how the thing was run.
The great art in the Commercial Exchange was in knowing everybody there and you could charter a ship for London with anyone of about 60 or 70 different firms. It was in those days, you know, the exports from the Tyne used to be millions and millions of tons. The Tyne Dock alone was about 3 million tons a year and that was just one of the loading points. But it all disappeared after the war when the mines were nationalised, the electricity and gas boards were nationalised, and gradually the demand for coal went down, the exports disappeared, and with the coal went the traditional business and all the Newcastle shipping companies. Up till then Newcastle Commercial Exchange was the centre of the North East coal industry, which was of course tremendous. And that’s how all these people built up their fortunes, such as they were, and at the same time suffered their disasters, and some of them did. And now of course there’s nobody left who were of the old coasting business at all. It’s a shadow of its former self. The ships used to be up and down the river like cars on a motorway.
The Tyne was built on coal, coal and shipbuilding, the trade was built on coal, and just looking out of the window here you used to have ships going up and down to Dunston and Derwenthaugh regularly, two, three, four ships a tide, and there was one time I remember I was in the office and two ships went up and one ship came down on one swing of the bridge, and they were all ours, the three of them. The swing bridge used to open for twenty minutes to half an hour letting ships go up and down. Derwenthaugh has closed and I should think Dunston has about 3 ships a week now.
Things have changed now in many ways. For instance, the relationships with the staff. We had a chartering clerk called Parkinson, he was known as ‘Parky’, who started here at the age of fifteen, and he continued until he died of cancer in his 50s. He was a very good clerk. One day he was putting coal on the fire, we had all coal fires then, and Mr Everett came storming out of his office and he said, ‘Boy! What do you think you’re doing, putting all that coal on the fire. Do you think we get it for nothing?’ And Parky, shaking in his shoes, said, ‘Yes, sir.’ Because we did get it for nothing.
You were in every Saturday morning, the whole staff without any question and the partners used to invariably go out for lunch, they’d have a good lunch, and you were probably kept waiting until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon when they came back and signed the letters and said, very graciously, you could go. They (the staff) were the most faithful people imaginable.
When I started in 1947 there were about thirty-six shipowners in Newcastle and now there are about two or three and most of them were family businesses. When we started, we started with £500 in 1899. The old partners bought an old ship, no doubt borrowing money from the bank as well, and after two years had made enough to buy another. When they were building ships at a great rate in the late 1920s and 30s, you paid a maximum of £10 per ton dead weight, so for the big colliers, the 4,500 tonners you were paying £45,000, and today if you want to build a ship, you start with 4 or 5 million pounds straight off.
To our way of thinking, they were paid abysmally. There was a time during the slump when we had seventeen out of the eighteen laid up. There is the story of a man who came down to one of our ships in the Northumberland Dock at Howden and asked the master if he could give him any job possible - a cook’s boy, a boy to sweep out the rooms and make the beds and things like that, and it turned out that he had an Extra Master’s Ticket in sailing, which is the highest qualification that you can get, and it was very tragic, all the shipyards were closed of course for the best part of two years in the 1930s, and our boats-fleet went from eighteen to nine in 1938. We just had to sell them off to keep things going.
Once we had a man, called Geordie Pease, from South Shields, and he had started off as a fireman, then he was promoted to donkeyman, and he was actually finally promoted to a third engineer, although he didn’t have a ticket and wouldn’t ever get one, and he was a great big hairy ape of a man and he served on the steamers. And when we sold the last of the steamers, ‘The Grantham’, the last ‘Grantham’, Geordie Pease came to me with tears in his eyes, and he said to me, ‘Mr. Witherington, what am I going to do, now they have sold the last steam ship?’ as he couldn’t go on the motor ships as he hadn’t the qualifications, I said, ‘Oh that’s all right, George. We’ll find you something, somewhere. I know plenty of shipowners. We’ll get you another job on a steamer.’ And he said to me, ‘But Mr. Witherington, I’ve never been with any other firm all my life except yours.’
They made you very, very humble some of these people. They were the salt of the earth, they really were. Well, George did go to another firm, and swallowed his anchor, as they say, and went ashore, and I think he bought a pub in South Shields but he died very soon afterwards. It was the sort of thing that happened. We knew all the ships that used to load mostly in the north east, at Blyth, or here, or Sunderland, and Seaham and Hartlepool, mostly you knew them all. Their wives used to come in for allotment notes, you knew all about their families, right from the very start of their lives. The seafarer, when he joined the ship, he made out an allotment note, which was deducted from his wages and was given to his wife, and his wife used to come in every week and get the cash with the allotment note. That was the way they balanced out the housekeeping. They used to come in here and they used to bring their kids in. Oh! we knew all about them. That’s one of the things we’ve lost. The wonderful, personal connection you had. Of course there were times when they got into great trouble. A captain or chief engineer lived in fear and dread of any collision or any accident that might be his fault which would get him the sack. It was completely ruthless.
It was a very hard life, but it was a very hard life for the shipowners as well. In those days, in the 1930s, I think the rate to London, the freight rate, was 2s 3d a ton, and it was very difficult to make a living. You were losing money all the time, year after year, and the only way you kept going was by selling ships to get the cash, and you couldn’t afford an accident, you couldn’t afford negligence and things like that, you know, it was literally the difference between life and death, and everybody knew that. Everybody knew that you were on a knife edge, they knew that we depended on them as much as they depended on us. Yes, there was no messing around, none at all. You knew exactly where you stood, and there was no holiday at sea, none at all. We had a ship before the war, that went five years without a single change of crew, and everyone had a holiday, because they arranged between themselves that one man would go off for a trip and they would work by, short-handed, but there was never any holiday.
We were very fortunate in the late 1950s, when we saw our traditional business with the coal disappearing, we got into a general cargo business, to the Mediterranean, we had never ever had anything to do with general cargo, which you carry everything from grand pianos to bags of cement and bottles of whisky and things like that, motor cars and tanks, and everything you can think of. We have always carried coal or timber or iron-ore, and we got a chance to start this business, to carry it on, in conjunction with the Anthony Bainbridge upstairs, and it started off what we called the Gracechurch Shipping Line Ltd., of which Witherington’s had about a fifty per cent holding, and that has kept us going when the old trade went, and really, although I say it myself, we have been very persistent and were really determined to make it work. It’s a very tough trade and sometimes you make money and sometimes you lose money, and probably you lose more often than you make, but there is the successes which have kept us going and I think will continue to keep abreast of the tide, but it won’t be Witherington and Edwards anymore.
A long time ago someone told me if I wanted to stay in the coasting trade, I would have to up-stakes and go to London, and I said in that case I do not want to stay in the coasting trade. There are great disadvantages in working in Newcastle, in that you are not in the centre of business any more, all our ships load out at the Manchester Ship Canal now, and if we want to see anybody, we go over there. The only time they ever come over here is for the occasional dry docking. But on the other hand we have immense advantages in that life is still sane here, whereas it isn’t in London. We live a fairly rational life, we work hard, but don’t spend hours getting home at night and we still have this wonderful loyalty in the office, whereas a lot of the big firms I know have this perpetual problem of staff coming and going, right, left and centre, and we still have this wonderful loyalty and if it wasn’t like that, I don’t think I would carry on.
Primarily I blame Newcastle Corporation for the slow death. They decided years ago they were going to redevelop the Quayside. They own most of the property - they just didn’t do anything about it. They’ve had this building since 1928, then they just let it go. We got this place painted up - down came the rain and off came the paint.
I wish you luck. I did all the fighting years ago and got precisely nowhere.
I’ve seen the quay going down for a very long period and the people responsible are the City Fathers. The Newcastle City Fathers have always been a ruddy menace. They killed the Port of Tyne. Newcastle’s a very progressive place you know, they’ll kill anything. If you look through this you’ll see the firms that have gone – it’s appalling. Now it was pretty obvious that ships were getting bigger - if a ship comes up here of more than 612 thousand tons you’ve got to take it down sternways in order to turn it. Now, it was pretty obvious that this was dead from a shipping point of view so a development was to take place at the Albert Edward and also there was a plan to make Jarrow Slake into a big place. Now if you look at this - the composition of the Tyne Improvement Commissioners - Newcastle had a stranglehold on it and they fought that tooth and nail. They spent millions on Corporation Quay and didn’t have a damn thing done down there. Now nobody comes here and there ain’t nothing there, which is an act of pure genius by any stretch of imagination. They’ve killed it.
Dan Smith was such a wise man. He wanted to build houses for his grandchildren while he was knocking down the houses built by his grandparents. He thought he was much better than them - he knew what his grandchildren wanted. That’s arrogance of no mean order. He made a right bloody mess. But Newcastle is a mess and the whole of Tyneside’s a mess and I can’t see there’s much you can do about it. It all stems from a thing called democracy. If I ever felt democracy was any good, by God I’ve learned differently. I believe in a certain degree of democracy, but I’ve definite reservations about who I would allow to vote.
The market, that changed. It’s just the same stuff now that you buy up in town, only cheaper. But in those days they were proper spielers - they used to talk you into it. Everyone you went to they were talking to you, not just standing around like they do now. They used to have an escape artist who used to get himself tied up in a strait-jacket with chains – you’d stand and watch him for a bit. Then there was a little jockey standing in his jockey’s uniform giving you what was going to win the races - especially in Race Week. All the tipsters were down there. There was always somebody to listen to - it was free entertainment. But you’d also get gemmy bargains as well. Chocolate, you’d get a great bag full of bars of chocolate, Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s, Fry’s, for next to nothing; and they’d be talking all the time. Y’know, the fruit men would say, ‘Taste that,’ they’d cut an orange in half, ‘Taste that sir, gemmy jaffas, ripe calabash,’ and they were cutting everything in half and offering you a taste, you know.
Now they don’t seem to care whether you buy or whether you don’t. There was this man, Barnado, who used to sell these linaments - he had a chemist’s shop on New Bridge Street. There’d be two big fellas standing, no shirts on, muscles like that and he used to massage them with all this linament. He’d have somebody planted in the crowd and he’d say, ‘Now, you were suffering, what were you suffering from a fortnight ago sir? Come forward, tell these people.’ ‘Well, I had this terrible ache, here.’ ‘What is it like now?’ ‘Oh great!’ That’s how he did it. They used to have little shooting galleries and stalls like that, hit the playing card with darts, things like that. As far as I know it was the only Sunday market apart from Petticoat Lane in London. People come a long way to visit the Newcastle Quayside market.
My husband opened this place about sixty years ago, and we’ve been suppliers to the Merchant Navy ever since. This shop is known all over the world. My husband would be recognised wherever he went. He’d always bump into a Geordie. It was quite a thing to be a Quaysider down here, you know. It was really like a club. It was a smart thing to do, to be. Cale Cross House is just a mausoleum. It’s a white elephant. The offices are beautiful, aren’t they? But they haven’t done anything with it. They were going to have shops and one of those floors would make a fabulous restaurant. There were all sorts of ideas but none of them materialized and now it’s just a blinking white elephant standing there.
It makes you wonder. I don’t know what the secret of this big business is, you know, this property. We suffered years of noise and inconvenience and what do we get, just that. It’s killed this part of the world. It should never have been allowed.
Things have changed, it’s very different to what it was. In my husband’s day we used to have what they called a ‘donkey’s breakfast’ hanging outside. You’ll not know what that is. It was a straw mattress which the sailor’s paid five bob for and they took it to sea and used it to sleep on the deck. My husband used to go on board ships with a suitcase sometimes. When we were first married I used to be locked in the car on the wharf while he went on to the ship. The shop used to be packed out with young cadets being fitted out to go to sea. Half of the business is civilian now but till about two or three years ago it was mainly the navy. Half a dozen cadets at a time. You couldn’t get in the shop. Yes, we’re well established here.
We’d never seriously consider moving to the centre. People know we’re here. Grandfathers, fathers, sons.
I can only tell you what happened since I’ve been here; there’s been a hell of a change over the years. When I started in 1954 this river was chock-a-block with ships - the coal trade y'know. The Tyne Improvement Commission relied virtually totally on the coal trade, they didn’t look ahead, like the Port of Middlesbrough, and expand and take other trade. Consequently, in the sixties when the coal trade started to die off, the staithes were gradually beginning to come down and there was no replacement trade - a lot of the shipping then went to places like Middlesbrough and since then there’s been a general decline over the years. Up this end of the river particularly - because mainly up here there is the Newcastle quay, which was always full of ships – y’know trade with Sweden and Norway, Denmark - the butter boats, things like that. Well, virtually now it’s just a lying up berth for vessels that are waiting to be sold, and minesweepers coming to visit, courtesy visits, things like that and the ships are few and far between. The Quayside itself from Spillers, all them sheds - which is roughly a mile in length - all them berths were taken up regular till, I would say, the sixties. Since the middle sixties it’s gradually declined.
SWING BRIDGE ENGINEER:
When I was at sea, I would come off watch in the morning and lean on the rails of the ship and you’d be going through the water at about 16 or 17 knots and see the beautiful sparkling water and you’re looking at it and keep looking at it and it’s surprising... you could imagine why people worship fire and water, etc, and you’ve got a fascination... I’ve felt it many a time... and you often see where a sailor’s gone missing and... but it is, it’s the attraction of the water, it’s actually drawn them to do a thing like that and you could imagine people staring up there and as they look in the River Tyne they get carried away and their mind goes an absolute blank and for some apparent reason they just go over the bridge and in they go.
Roy remembers, years and years ago, a lass come off the Tyne Bridge and she came down like a parachute in her dress she had one of those long dresses on and it just billowed out and she came floating gracefully down onto the Tyne - Roy was on duty - and there was the ‘Bessie Surtees’ going by, they just picked her out the water.
The idea to do a project on the Newcastle Quayside emerged last year during group discussions as to where we would direct our energies in 1979. Having worked (and some of us lived) on the Quayside for the past ten years the idea of ‘looking’ at the Quayside, its immediate past and future, was readily accepted. It was agreed that we would approach the project collectively.
As with all work, we went through a process of constant re-assessment but in essence, the motivation was that the Quayside was a special area which had attracted us because of its unique atmosphere. Even in the time we have worked there, there have been real changes. The business life has seen a steady decline, while the night life (clubs and restaurants) has flourished.
Slowly we rejected the idea of a broad survey and felt that we must pursue those elements we were personally attracted by. Like any group of individuals who find the past attractive, we live under the shadows of the planners’ ambitions. Consequently we were both depressed and motivated by the discovery that the Council wanted to demolish Prince’s Buildings (in order to make a car park). They had already demolished a fine Victorian building to provide suitable access for vehicles, and thus we were fired to define what we might hopefully achieve by the Quayside work.
Our conclusions were that if we managed to generate interest in the area, and stimulate much needed debates about its future then this would represent some success. The very least we might achieve would be to document the Quayside at a specific point in time so that future generations might have some concept of the Quayside in the late 1970s.
Inevitably, many of the people we have spoken to say that we are ‘too late’; that the old Quayside has gone and that we should have done it 20 years ago. We realise that the changes have been radical over the past decade; traditional industries have declined and with them the whole commercial focus of the Quayside.
What is worrying is that such a distinctive part of the city has so little protection. While outwardly the City Council claims to be committed to preserving the Quayside, a close look at specific elements of council policy suggests otherwise, in addition to Prince’s House being designated as a car park, other Council owned property is being allowed to lapse into a state of decay which will almost inevitably mean it will come under the demolition hammer. It is still hoped to extend the All Saints office complex, and that is what makes the demolition of Prince’s House a real possibility.
We would contend that to demolish such a building with its dramatic relationship to the Tyne Bridge, would not only spoil the ‘visual feel’ of the area, but weaken the argument against further demolition.
Undoubtedly, the post war decision to run down the coal industry had disastrous consequences for the Quayside business community, and the gradual decline in world shipping has put the final nail in the coffin. There has been a general feeling of criticism of the City Council’s parking meter system which has driven out some businesses while discouraging would be clients from moving into the area.
In spite of the fact that the life has been slowly drained from the Quayside we have been surprised by the feelings of loyalty the area generates. People who work there often do so because they like it, and the fact that ‘a Quaysider’ is seen as a description for someone who works or lives in the area, tells that it is a special environment.
Our greatest surprise was to find out just how much life there was left in the complex of buildings beneath the Tyne Bridge. If the City Council had enough vision to adapt some of its Quayside premises into more flexible uses and with secure leases, then it is conceivable that a new generation of ‘Quaysider’ might emerge.