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Living on the fringes of Tyneside in the late 1930s

At night their six exhausts spouted blue flames, rather like a steam organ but more spectacular.


There was a siding on the Blyth Railway near the golf course for delivering lime for farmers to spread on their land. Lime is white and I wonder if this is why the hill north west of Uplands was called the White Hill? Mushrooms grew well in these fields; was this due to the slurry percolating down the hill from Newsteads Farm?

The bungalow on the road to Wellfield from Earsdon, on the east side, belonged to Mr and Mrs Richardson. Mr Richardson was related to the owner of Richardson’s Leather Works at Forth Banks in Newcastle and he had about four acres of land divided up by six foot high wire netting fences, adjoining the bungalow to form a very extensive free range chicken farm. They had an old sheepdog to chase the rats and mice that came after the chicken meal. One day the poor dog got its leg broken when the little drain cover outside their back door tipped up. Its leg was bandaged up and fortunately it had the sense to lay still in its basket for a couple of weeks until the bone healed up.

The Richardson’s had a large black wooden shed adjoining Dr Christie’s garden. The shed had a large electric incubator inside for hatching pullets from their eggs. The pullets were little round warm balls of amber fluff. I used to really like to stand in the shed’s corridor watching them run around bumping into each other, maybe fifty of them on the sawdust floor. The shed was kept very warm for the pullets, so it was a good place to be on a cold winter’s day, but leaving the door open was a capital offence! I used to go there in the late thirties and forties with my mother to buy eggs and chickens. The eggs were fabulous but a few chickens were old and tough.

Two carpenters worked at Chapel Pit, now Holywell Engineering, Mr Bartram and Mr Tom Lennard. When the pit closed Mr Bartram bought a house with a big garage on Hesleyside Road and made coffins in his garage. He also did a few house woodwork repairs for locals. His niece, Miss Stewart, was very studious and became headmistress of Shiremoor Secondary School, which was unusual in those days. All the local fellow Methodists were proud of her.

Mr Lennard lived in Wembley Avenue and was a Preacher at Earsdon Methodist Church. The Methodists got the land for their church cheaply as it stands on an old quarry. This can still be partly seen behind the church and this is why the back of the church is built down lower than the front.

Next door to Richardson’s chicken farm was and is Dr Christie’s big house. He was the only doctor in the Shiremoor – Earsdon – Seaton Delaval area during the 1940s. In those days miners got paid very little and often couldn’t afford the doctor when they were ill or injured. So Dr Christie started his own health service! Every family that paid sixpence a week got free treatments when they were ill or injured. You remember Tom Lennard? Well, his wife Pattie used to walk around all the miners’ houses in Holywell collecting the sixpences and sometimes I used to help her (six years old). She was small and wiry and very fit and helped run Monkseaton Methodist Chapel. This chapel was very appropriate for Christians as it used to be a cow byre with mangers. Dr Christie never grew rich but his patients worshiped his health care system.

Streams flow under Redheugh Road and Walwick Road towards the stream from Newsteads Farm. Where these cross Hesleyside Road they often flooded the main roads in winter. People used to dump garden rubbish over the Hesleyside Road fence into these open streams, which didn’t help.

Occasionally the number 17 and 18 buses to Newcastle stalled in the water. Then it was ‘get out and push!’ Some of the very old single deckers had poor engines. I’ve even helped to push one up a hill – then they had the cheek to charge me eleven pence return to Newcastle. We had a favourite conductress who lived at West Allotment and was always friendly to everyone. When you wanted to get off there was a long bit of rope in loops along the bus roof. You pulled it and this clanged a small round bell near the driver. Any children tugging the rope for fun got a slap from the conductress if they didn’t run off first. Sometimes the roof leaked, so if wise, you kept your hat on, on the bus. Hunters buses were more modern than United, they had heaters. You tried to get the front seats so that you could put your hands on the heater.

The Hunting Lodge used to be called the Grange Hotel, the Grange Farm was where Harewood Court now is. Most farmers before the Second World War subsidies were very poor, the Grange Farm folk among the poorest. Their farm was near collapse, even the chickens were too thin. Then, half way to Earsdon was the Isolation Hospital. It was red painted corrugated iron. Its said that the army used prefabricated corrugated iron hospitals in France in the First World War; Gosforth Park Racecourse still has one, we got another. Diphtheria, scarlet fever and even cholera were all known, all were killers. The authorities were scared of these contagious diseases, get one and you were immediately carted off. Some of my schoolmates didn’t mind – no school and nice young nurses to chat with. All I got was measles.

If you see a 12ft diameter swampy patch in a field it’s the remains of a bomb crater, there are some between Thorntree Drive and Shiremoor. However, if there’s a shale heap about 5ft high nearby them it’s an old ‘Bell Pit’ mini coal mine shaft. There are quite a number of them in the same area. Also, there are many bell pits on either side of Ilfracombe Garden and Claremont Road in Whitley Bay. Virtually all the local fields were opencast mined in the late 1940s. Remnants of old mine galleries were found, wooden sledges, baskets and wooden shovels from maybe the 1500s were found underground near Rake Lane Farm. I last saw these in Killingworth Library, in a glass case.

There were thousands of tons of coal laying above and outside these opencast sites. On the public roads many people gathered free coal for years, nobody bothered you, provided you only took one sack full or, like me, two shopping baskets full, at one time. Ask the opencast mechanics and they’d give you a little oil or grease for your bicycle. If you didn’t get in anyone’s way us youths went on the sites and watched the walking dragline excavators. At night their six exhausts spouted blue flames, rather like a steam organ but more spectacular. One Saturday when no-one was about I was walking on top of the coal seam down a canyon when I saw white electric cable linking holes in the wall for some 200yds. ‘Hell’ I thought, ‘they’re going to blast this lot out’! I scuttled backwards over the heaps of shale very fast indeed.

There were hundreds of fossilised gladioli leaves all over the shale heaps, occasionally we found fossils like parsley. Near Blyth they found a fossilised lizard or crocodile about four feet long. White fossils in black shale can be found below the Rex Hotel at Whitley Bay but they are badly contorted and it’s impossible to see what they are.

Anyway, back to Mr Lennard again, the Church Pit carpenter. He did house repairs, built greenhouses and fitted out shops in West Monkseaton. He had relatives in Houghton le Spring and every year went to Houghton Feast, a giant picnic for miners’ families. I knew the family well and from three years of age used to play in his garage. I used to build model houses and bridges and ships, out of scraps of wood. I often wondered how men could walk into public toilets but not be seen from outside (there’s a sort of chicane of white tiles) so I built one out of wooden blocks. Mrs Lennard said, ‘what’s that?’ I told her and she was horrified. You’d think I’d committed a mortal sin. How times change – she was a strict Methodist.

Mrs Lennard played a trick on me. She had a dozen or so collecting boxes, for Methodist missionaries. She gave one to each of her friends who put spare change in them. She asked me if I would like one and I said yes. Whenever I went to her house I put a few pennies from my pocket money in my box, then she let me take my money out again to spend on booklets and sweets. But, after a few weeks she sealed my box’s bottom so I couldn’t get my money back and it really went to missionaries. Some years later Jimmy Liddle, a school chum then a missionary, disappeared in Africa, probably eaten by lions. It gave me grim satisfaction!

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