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The Fountain Head

Huge men ready for a fight were quelled at a glance by 4'9" Minnie. "All right Minnie, sorry Minnie".

Photograph of Billy and Minnie Stephenson, proprietors of the Fountain Head, North Shields

Billy and Minnie Stephenson, proprietors of the Fountain Head, North Shields

My husband’s Mother and Father were tenants of the Fountain Head Public House Bedford Street, North Shields (now demolished, unfortunately), from 1932 to 1941, when Billy had to go back to the shipyards because of a desperate shortage of skilled men to keep building and repairing the ships that were being sunk and damaged at a terrible rate during the war.

They were joyful people, all singing, all dancing, and the “joint” as they say was always “jumping”, a concert most evenings at the drop of a hat.  There was a lot of talent among the family members, as before she was married Minnie was an Armstrong who ran the “Hollies” concert party which was well known at that time.  Minnie had a lovely contralto voice and Billy was a comedian – the front half of the horse at times.

She was also a very good cook and provider, and was kept busy making endless hot beef sandwiches, which their sons George and Billy Jnr ran upstairs and down delivering to customers.

Their clientele was very mixed. Wealthy trawler owners and hordes of dockers, fish quay workers and of course ladies in the snug or “bottle and jug”.  Huge men ready for a fight were quelled at a glance by 4’9″ Minnie, “All right Minnie, sorry Minnie”.

Billy never made much money as he was a soft touch and people put drinks on the slate.  Once when a trawler was sunk at the mouth of the Tyne with all hands, they lost a large amount of money.

He was offered the agency for Domestos, a new product at the time but turned it down!  Good chance of a fortune lost.  In 1938 instead of buying a Ford 8 car costing £99, he decided he would make money by investing in a cigarette machine costing just over £100.  The men in the yards simply made metal pieces the correct size and got their cigarettes for nothing while the seamen put in foreign coins, (we still have some of the foreign coins) as the machine followed them to Kirton Park Terrace when they left the pub.  Minnie used the money drawer as her safe.  The family haven’t the heart to get rid of it so now it stands in my downstairs lavatory!  Needless to say, Billy never made a penny out of the venture.

Minnie had lots of tales to tell of her time as a publican some of which I couldn’t repeat.  She felt very sorry for young girls pressed into prostitution sometimes by their relatives, none of whom were allowed on the premises of course, but Minnie knew them well and hated the fathers who pushed the girls on to the boats in the Tyne, taking the money they had earned as soon as they came off.

There were funnier tales to tell and Minnie would tell this one if she could finish it without dissolving into fits of giggles.  One of their customers was a very well to do gentleman who had a large detached house in Monkseaton, beautifully built and appointed.  He would have parties and Minnie and Billy were always invited after the pub closed.  They were generous hosts, his wife and he; they laid on lavish suppers.

One night they went along and took a lady who had never been before.  She was quite poor and had children at home.  She enjoyed herself eating and drinking more than she should.  She caught sight of a large bowl of fruit and decided “me bairns’d enjoy some of these”, quietly slipping them down the front of her blouse.  The inevitable happened and she became very unwell, Minnie helping her to a large bathroom where she could be sick away from the partygoers.   As she knelt in front of the lavatory gradually the fruit started falling out of her bosom; apples, pears and oranges were rolling all over the floor of the bathroom.  Minnie kept picking them up and putting them to one side.  Later she went to the bathroom to find the fruit gone.  She never knew if they’d found their way down the ladies blouse again or one of the family had taken them away!

They left the pub as stated before and moved to Kirton Park Terrace, North Shields where they lived until they both eventually died.  Billy first in 1970 then Minnie much later in 1989.

Minnie missed the pub, all the activity and fun, she never minded the hard work and found life as a housewife very quiet and dull though they had great family parties often.

They had George, Billy [Jnr] and daughter Cathie, and eight grandchildren.  To their sorrow, Cath emigrated to Australia and though Minnie managed to visit her twice by herself; Billy never saw Cathie again.

He was a great character, very popular as a publican and as a highly-skilled plater – boilermaker, and both Minnie and Billy were much-loved parents.

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