Percy Main’s Characters

The village had its share of wonderful characters, here are some recollections about a few of them

Mrs Edmonds

Mrs Edmonds lived with her husband Ernie and her two sons, Ernie and Albert, at the end of our back lane. She could not have been more than six stone and 4’11″ and she lived her life her own way. She dressed anyway she liked. She often hung her washing out across the back lane wearing high heels, men’s socks, a fur coat and a turban. She was kind and gentle and loved her family. Her son Ernie inherited his mother’s way. He was mad about all creatures, he kept frog spawn in his mother’s washtub, he had a snake, a cat, a dog and birds. We once went to Jesmond Dene. We walked and I noted on the way back that he had a sack which was moving. We opened it and he had two young crows or rooks which had fallen out of the nests. Her mother gave up, but they were a very happy family.

Vi Laidler

She was a tall, very distinguished-looking lady who lived in St John’s Terrace. She was a Justice of the Peace and was looked upon with great respect by everyone, but she was also kind and approachable. Joe Skipsey, my oldest friend (we were practically raised in the same pram, looked after by Nancy Couchman) used to go nearly every Saturday morning to Mrs Laidler’s to ask if she needed any messages. She always found one for us to do, when we got back to her house, she would ask us in and – on either side of her sideboard there was a glass jar, each had marshmallows, one pink, one green. She would tell us to take one of each – our reward. We were delighted. People were so nice to all the kids of the Village.

Frankie Tarando

No one I have spoken to is sure of his name, this is just what it sounded like. However, he had a horse and cart and an allotment beside the Spraggon family’s bungalow, and he collected anything and everything. He spoke with a very pronounced Italian accent and was a very happy carefree man. I don’t know how or if he made a living, he never seemed to go out with anything on his cart – only back with stuff. When he died, what he had in his allotment would have filled a ten-ton truck, there was every conceivable household item, fitters tools, carpenters tools, blacksmiths tools, farm tools. I cannot remember everything but what I do remember is what he had collected over many years was gone in a few days. People including me took anything we thought might be useful. It seemed so sad that his life’s work was gone in a few days.

Winter – The Barber

After many years as Keels, the village barbershop was taken over by a man called Mr Winter. He had a very droll manner and a very wry sense of humour as he showed to all the village one day when a young lad called Kent, who had a very thick head of hair, went to have it cut. Mr Winter proceeded to cut one side only, well – before he knew it, the lad leapt out of the chair in tears and ran out of the shop. Next thing, his mother burst into the shop and gave Mr Winter a piece of her mind. I believe he completed the job properly, but it was the talk of the village, some seeing the funny side others not.

Maggie Foster Music Teacher

Maggie, who was a spinster, lived in St James’ Terrace and taught the piano to many children and taught the old fashioned way. If you hit a wrong note, she rapped your knuckles with a ruler. Despite this, she always seemed to have plenty of pupils. My brother Howard went for lessons but soon gave it up.

She used to have Labrador dogs for pets. Unfortunately, she literally killed them with kindness, she would get them as young active pups and within a very few years, they would be so fat they could hardly walk. The result of giving them bars of chocolate every day which she bought from Vic Burroughs. They would eventually die from a heart attack or something but right away she would get another.

William (Bill) Forrest

Bill lived with his mother in Duke of Northumberland cottages and he was the village daredevil. He was a few years older than our gang and we thought he was fantastic. He would try anything. He climbed down the inside of the Winding House chimney next to Sticky Jims and climbed out unaided.

He would run across and walk backwards along the cast-iron balustrade on Red Bridge which was curved and only 3-4 inches wide or so across. He would swing off a rope tied to the coal staithes and let go into the river and get ashore somehow – because he could not swim. He once rode his bike into the river, there was nothing he would not try. He later became the village window cleaner and you would always see his ladders and barrow outside the Percy Arms on a summer’s day once he had made a bob or two. He married a Jehovah’s Witness and finally settled down.

Mrs Mason Coal Merchant’s Wife

Mr Stan Mason was a coal merchant from North Shields. He came to Percy Main Coal Unloading Site to fill up and weigh the coal into sacks and put them on their horse-drawn cart (later a lorry). Mrs Mason was the talk of the village because she worked as hard as any man shouldering the sacks onto their vehicles. We used to watch her as kids and marvelled at her strength.

Totty Fleetwood

Totty (I think his real name was Thomas), owned two paper and confectionery shops. The Top Shop was right against the Railway Station and the Bottom Shop down at the other end of Burdon Street. Everyone said that his Top Shop was a gold mine. Every morning all the shipyard workers rushed in for cigarettes and papers. He had packets of 5s and 10s, usually Woodbines, on top of their papers all ready for when they came then they dashed out for their trains. This took place between 6.30 and 7 am every weekday plus Saturday (people worked Saturdays then). His Bottom Shop did more business through the day.

Despite his affluence, he had a reputation for extreme meanness. Our neighbour, Mrs Adams, once came to our house and showed my mam a note from Totty reminding her that she still owed her a penny for an Evening Chronicle. She was furious and later gave him a piece of her mind.

Mr Burgo the Swill Collector

Mr Burgo was a huge Portuguese man who had a piggery down in the corner of Kirkwalls bottom field. During the war, people were asked to put their scraps into dustbins provided in every back lane and Mr Burgo came with his horse and cart to collect it. He was immensely strong. He could lift the bins onto his cart by himself. As you can imagine, after a few days, especially in the warm weather, the smell could be pretty nasty. Mr Burgo used to say to us “it steenks” but he was liked by everyone and I suppose our parents and everyone felt they were helping the war effort.

I later went to school with two of his sons, Tony and Manny. Manny became a useful heavyweight boxer, getting his strength and size from his father.

P C Milburn the Dock Policeman (we knew him as ‘Darkie’)

P C Milburn was a big swarthy dock policeman who ruled the dockside with an iron fist. When we saw him, we ran as hard as we could, then he got a dog, a large German Shepherd Alsatian. Well, one day, we saw him a long way off with his dog. We set our cheek up to him then ran up the Seaton Burn Wagonway (Farthing Line) little realising that he had sent the dog after us.

The next thing, it caught up to us under the Railway bridges by Cookson’s Pond. It had us terrified up against the wall when PC Milburn arrived and took over. Each one of us got a good clip around the ear with his leather gloves and sent on our way. We were terrified whenever we saw him and his dog, but we still loved going to the docks for some fun.

Joe Stenhouse – Butcher

During the bad winter of 1941, my brother Howard, who was 10, started work for Mr Stenhouse. He thought it was great. He helped to make sausage and learned about some of the cuts of meat. He delivered on his butcher’s boy’s bike, that was until the snow came and then did it snow. He then used our sledge and I helped him.

The longest trek we had to do was to Minnie Beck’s who was landlady of the Dock Inn on the side of the river. We even went down to Hayhole Road and back to the shop. It was all of two miles in the snow. The outcome of our Howard trudging day after day through snow was that he got chilblains. He used to rub pork fat on them but oh how he suffered, crying with the pain.

The Rev John Clucas (Daddy), Vicar of St John’s Church

The vicarage was situated at the junction of Wallsend Road and Waterville Road. It is now the Redburn Pub. To us kids, it was a very forbidding building with high gates and walls, overhanging trees and the vicar had a fearsome reputation which we found out when our ball went over the wall.

I volunteered to ask for it back, but he chased me and us all away and kept the ball. He had three daughters, so I was told, Faith, Hope and Charity. One of them, who was a large girl, rode through the village to the church on her bike which she rode in a most unladylike manner and boys being boys, we used to look up her legs and cheer etc, but she was quite oblivious to us.

Minnie Beck of the Dock Hotel

Minnie Beck (maiden name Mary Ann Gillender), was, I found out later in life, a lady of severe authority but my brother Howard and I found her a lovely lady when we took her meat down to her from Joe Stenhouse’s shop in Percy Main. She ran her pub with a rod of iron. Anyone she considered had had enough would not get served. It was said no black person ever got served. She believed they could not handle strong drink. Only couples she thought were married or engaged got a drink.

Her pub was right on the dockside, being so isolated, she probably had some of the most unsavoury characters through her doors. She told me later, she never felt threatened or afraid. I met her a few times when I later (in the early 70s) worked for Northern Gas at Whitehill Point making gas from Naphtha. We were allowed a drink at New Year and Christmas and she would not serve some of the men, but she served me. I am not sure why she was like that, she either liked you or she didn’t.

She was savagely attacked by thieves in July 1973 and tragically died December 1976 aged 86. To this day, no-one has ever been caught for her murder. It was said that if some of the tough sailors who loved her found out who it was, they would dish out their own justice.

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