Once you collected your wood it was a simple task of fitting it together and once launched you just used a couple of pieces of timber for paddles.
With the likes of the wood yards and river on our door step it was only natural that we would build rafts. Now we had a little inlet at the west end of Smith’s Dock Shipyard at North Shields, what we called ‘The Pond’. It was perfect in the fact you had any amount of timber you needed, along with pit props as well. Once you collected your wood it was a simple task of fitting it together. If no nails were handy you simply used string as there was always tons of pieces lying around. Once launched you just used a couple of pieces of timber for paddles. The Pond itself was about sixty yards long and came inshore about fifty yards. This was made to measure as long as you did not go too far out, for now and again the current would grab you. Once into the river’s tide, nine times out of ten that was it, bon voyage out into the river you went.
Now in these times the Tyne was jumping with ships running to and fro. You had all kinds of river vessels along with umpteen coal ships and the larger ships like tankers, cargo liners, bulk carriers etc. all being towed around by the tugs, so it was quite scary at times. Now and again the lads working at Smith’s Dock could throw us a line and drag us back, but lots of times we were out in the river in no time. Each time, as if by magic, the river police would appear in their boat from nowhere. Easing alongside they would drag us on board, tie the raft to the stern and head for shore. Every time we got read the riot act of falling in and drowning or getting run over by a ship and drowning. I hate to say it, but it was water off a duck’s back. The rafts were towed away and broken up. Time and again we promised never again, hand on heart we would be angels, but it only lasted a couple of days and once again we would be back raft making.
Another great place for raft building was at the old Northumberland Dock which used to be used by the coal colliers but now was empty. The docks were perfect, they were just up the road at Percy Main and you had no fear of being caught out in the river’s current as it was a massive place. Once again you never gave a thought to drowning as no one knew how deep it was so it never bothered you. A couple of times people fell in but were always dragged out, a little wet, a little shaken, but none the worse when it came to deterring you.
It turns out the docks were thirty plus feet deep, but as the water was always hacky black, being safe along with the fact you could not swim and might drown never entered your head. These were good old times but all above mentioned are now long gone, and today in 2007, part of the basin has been filled in and is in use by Northumbrian Water as a water treatment plant.