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Work and Play on Tynemouth Beach

I guess I was a bit of a special case because our family had pleasure boats on Tynemouth beach. They’d been there for 100 years passed down through the generations.


I guess I was a bit of a special case because our family had pleasure boats on Tynemouth beach. They’d been there for 100 years passed down through the generations. But it finished with me father. When I was about twelve he got rid of the boats because he wasn’t in good health. Until then me mother and I and me brother had to go down to look after the boats when he was at work. So throughout the summer we spent more or less all day and every day down on the beach in the sun. We did the usual things, built sand castles and pot pies. In addition to that we did a few things that the average beach visitor didn’t do. There were 3 or 4 ice cream stalls on the beach. The kiddies used to go along with their sixpences and their threepences to buy an ice cream. They had to reach up quite high to pay the man and quite often the money would slip out of their grasp into the sand. We used to go in the evening and we had a riddle from our hut. You would go to the ice cream stall and shovel the sand into there give it a shake and there were all these sixpences and pennies which helped our pocket money no end.

We had quite a large extended family because me father had 7 sisters and their sons and daughters used to help with the business. My cousins were quite a lot older than me and me brother and they were huge men. They used to haul the boats up from the sea. They had about 12 rowing boats bigger than the ones you used to get on the lake. If it was low tide at 5 o’clock when people went home you had to get the boats up the beach because the tide would be coming in and you wanted to get them above the water mark. There were these huge wheel things with handles on and you would push that over the boat and it was all hands to the wheels and you would have to push them up the beach. These boats were quite heavy and you needed as many people as possible.

We would spend a lot of time in the sea which seemed a lot warmer then. I think the secret was on a warm day to wait until after the tide had come in over the warm sand and the sea wouldn’t be too cold then. I remember thunderstorms. It would suddenly go dark, lightning flashing and everybody would run for cover. There was the Plaza. They used to have a roller skating rink on the beach, a paved over area where people could hire roller skates. I vividly remember the funfair they used to have inside there. I spent quite a lot of time there. The House of Fun was a cakewalk with all sorts of novelty things inside that pushed you around and frightened you and lots of slot machines. A friend of my father’s called Sid Knight had the shuggy boats and a roundabout. And the novelty shop of course. I used to save my pennies up and buy some plaything that I had been saving up for weeks for. You had to be very careful of broken glass on the beach. Tynemouth Council had a big hut at the south end of the beach with tents first aid and lost children. There was so many people came to the beach in the summer that children could quite easily get separated from their parents. They had tannoys on poles and you would occasionally hear an announcement “We’ve got a little boy with red hair 5 years old and he’s lost his mummy. Can you come and collect him.” In the 1950s and 1940s particularly on Bank Holidays it was phenomenal. You had to literally pick your way amongst the people lying on the beach it was so crowded. And when the tide came in it was twice as crowded.

Before the war my family owned a café on the beach and I think the bathing machines were probably owned by my family as well, the Frys. That was well before my time. Everything had to come off the beach during the war because there were fears of German invasion. I only knew the beach after the war after they had removed all the barbed wire and the pleasure boats went back again. But I don’t think it was ever the same again in terms of popularity.

We lived in Tynemouth. It was probably about a mile from the beach and we just walked down and we walked back up again at the end of the day. We didn’t have a car in those days. Our job was to keep the vandals off the boat. My mother got to be quite ferocious and she used to scare the kids off. They were only young kids and they just wanted to play on the boats. One of my abiding memories at the end of a busy day was that there was a bus to Newcastle from Front Street and the queues for those buses stretched all the way along Front Street. We’d also get fish and chips from the Fish and Chip shop in Front Street. It’s still there, it’s called Marshall’s. It’s quite a long thin building and you can queue up inside and on a typical summer’s day it used to fill up and the queue used to be out onto the street as well. But for the locals there was a little hatch at the back and you could go and knock on this hatch and get served.

The busiest times would be July and August and August Bank Holiday, whereas now you can go down on a sunny day and there are only handfuls of people there. What was the game changer was the advent of cheap package holidays and cheap flights to Spain because in Spain you’re almost guaranteed hot weather. In those days the food was cheaper in Spain and exotic. It’s been a dramatic decline and I’m glad me father got rid of the boats because there’s no way he could of run a business of that sort there today. In the 1950s at its peak it was just as popular as before the war, but there weren’t so many businesses on the beach. I guess it would be good if the beach was popular again because there would be more employment around for people.

It wasn’t sunny all of the time, but I remember warm days in a swimming costume all the time swimming in the sea. The open air swimming pool was very popular as well. I spent all my summer holidays in my teenage years in that pool swimming endlessly backwards and forwards, but the water was never very warm. You could stay in for quite a long time and come out and get a cup of hot Bovril to warm yourself up and there were proper changing rooms. But people wanted to be able to swim all the year round and they built the indoor pools. Relatively warm water of course and nobody would bother with the open air swimming pool after that.

I remember at Whitley Bay they used to have lights hung up along the sea front. There were windmills and all sorts of things, like Blackpool but on a smaller scale. That’s long since disappeared. There was a week called Scots week and hordes and hordes of people used to come down from Scotland and stayed for a week in Whitley Bay. They used to put special events on for them, the Empress Ballroom used to have special dances. In the 1960s and 70s they had a thing called the Folk Moot which was an international event and folk dancers used to come from all over the world. They put on an event in the Panama Gardens, they were in traditional costumes and that was well worth seeing.

The Panama Café was built by a gentleman called Fry. He was the brother of my great-great-grandfather. They said he worked on the building of the Panama Canal. He was a diver and he set up this café which was made partly of the superstructure of a boat. He was quite a character. He was a very tall man and he used to dress in a sailor’s uniform and he used to go to Monkseaton Station where all the trippers would go and he had a big flag and he would say “Follow me for the time of your lives” and he would take them down to the Panama Café and sell them all drinks and food. He used to have a monkey as well that would stay on the roof of the café and pinch people’s hats as they walked past.

I remember you had to be careful when you were paddling, especially at low tide, because there used to be a fish called a weaver fish that used to immerse itself in the sand with just the spines of its dorsal fins sticking up and these spines had a nasty venom. Quite often children used to stand on that and get quite a nasty sting and you had to go for treatment straight away at the first-aid place. They also treated children for cuts on their feet from broken glass. You would occasionally get swarms of jellyfish washed up on the beach. I also remember at times in the summer you would get shoals and shoals of sand eels which are tiny fish, very slim and you’d be in the water up to your waist and suddenly you’d be surrounded by these shoals of sand eels swimming around. The mackerel fish would come along and you would see them leaping out of the water eating these sand eels.

My older cousins used to take the boats and they used to fish for flat fish. They’d have a cone open at one end where you would put your face and the other end had a sheet of glass in. You would press this thing into the water and you could see right down to the bottom. They had this great long pole about 10 feet long with a barbed spear on the end to spear the flatfish. They also had a fishing line with a shiny piece of metal on the end and when it was pulled through the water it would spin round. Somebody, usually me, would sit in the back of the boat with this line over the side and one of me strong cousin would row like billy-o and at the right time of the year the mackerels would just go for this lure and they’d be hooked. I remember at times sitting in the boat surrounded by these flapping mackerel.

There was a fountain called the lion’s head fountain on the beach fed by a spring. It was built by the Victorians. It’s covered by sand now but it was sculpted in the shape of a lion’s head with its mouth open and this continuous stream of fresh water came out. So when we wanted to make a cup of tea we used to fill the kettle from this fountain.

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