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Working in Howard Street and Northumberland Square

Three different but very happy memories.


photo of Kath Smith in Northumberland Square

Kath Smith

I actually had two different relationships with Howard Street.  The first one was when we decided to move back from living in Chester le Street to come back and live in North Shields and we spent many weekends coming and looking at the estate agents in North Shields, because in Howard Street there were quite a few and the general area of Northumberland Square.  So, my husband and I would spend quite a bit of time walking round with our little one who was 18 months I think at that time, looking to see if we could find a house in this general area because his family all lived around here, so it made sense for us to come back when we had a little one.  Fortunately, we found a lovely house from Elliot and Hedley, who were advertising in their window and we managed to actually get to buy that house and have some stupendous happy memories of living there for a long, long time with lovely neighbours.  So that was a first introduction to Howard Street.

The second one was a few years later when Allison was a little bit older and I got a part time job.  It was the office of Hampton Insurance Brokers.  So, my original career had been in insurance.  I was employed there on a part time basis to look after the commercial insurance.  There was a department for your basic household and car insurance and things like that, but I would look after some of the different types of insurance that went on. There was another person who was in charge of that but overall, the organisation was owned by a lady called Audrey Goff who was a very high-profile character in North Shields commercial world.  She was also, I didn’t realise until quite a while later, a Freeman of the City of London.  She was very, very high powered, dynamic lady and it was her business.  So, it was fascinating to work at that level with a business owner and there were quite a few solicitors’ offices, accountants in Howard Street at that time and they were all, I would say, similar in they would have partners and owners directly. They weren’t part of big conglomerates of Price Waterhouse Cooper that sort of thing, but you got the individual touch and that was one of the things I really remember about working there. Everybody knew the customer and the customer knew you and they could come in and talk about things and that was a relationship she had built up and her staff had built up over years.  It was totally different to the experience I had in a big office in Grey Street, Newcastle where you were part of a massive team and had underwriting targets and things like that.  So, that was so different.

But then later on, when the children were older, I was able to look around for a job that had a few more hours.  They were in high school then and on their way to university, so my final encounter with the area, which wasn’t Howard Street but Northumberland Square, was in the library.  That was when there was a notice up on the library door one day that said, part time development worker required for memory project, flexible working hours which for a woman is what you need and I went for an interview for that job and I got it.  The rest, as they say, is history after that.  So yes, three different but very happy memories of Howard Street and Northumberland Square.  It’s lovely to see it all being revamped and being acknowledged as a beautiful street which it is with all the John Dobson buildings.

Newspaper advert for Tynemouth Building Society

The estate agents largely disappeared from Howard Street I would say, I’m not quite sure why.  There are still estate agents on Northumberland Square, but I think the reason for that, and that impacted on other businesses in the square and Howard Street, was that there was a lot of amalgamation.  For example, whereas a solicitor might have had one house or part of Howard Street, there are solicitors there who have taken over two or three buildings.  I think the one that you would notice the most is on the corner of Howard Street in the square which used to be, I think, a Tynemouth Building Society.  So, that personal touch, it has gone completely from that area and if you look back in the business records, you’ll find that most of the businesses have merged into other partnerships.  It’s the same with banks, the Midland, in Howard Street would have catered for all the commercial work that was going on on the fish quay, but gradually the number of banks reduced and they also amalgamated.  So, you got that very personal touch, that you would know who your bank manager was and that’s not there anymore.

We lived on the Marden, so it was a bus trip in and sometimes, depending on how many hours I was working, there would be childcare involved.  My mother-in-law was really fantastic, she did childcare.  When Deborah was not at school yet she would do a couple of hours while I was in.  That would involve going into North Shields, dropping her off and going back and picking her up again.  So, it was quite a complicated arrangement considering the actual work time would have been 1 till 5 so you had to manage that pick up and drop off for school as well when they got a bit older.  So, that took a bit of managing, but in hindsight it worked very well in our case because the relationship that the children had with their grandparents was absolutely superb and I had to let go a bit I think.  So, that was interesting, I went to work and I came home, I didn’t really get involved in the social side of working that I’d known when I was working full time.  When I was five days a week in an office in Newcastle, you would go out for lunch and then have social events in the evening.  It didn’t really matter what time you got home because we were foot loose and fancy free, whereas I always associate North Shields work as having to be juggling timetables to get the children safely looked after and of course the holidays were a nightmare as well.  Yes, it was quite a challenge but at the same time I really enjoyed it because it exercised a different part of your brain.  You could go home and talk about things you’d done, and the children were pleased to see you, so it worked out like that.

We moved back in ’82 and then the job in the library came up in 2002.  I had teenagers then and that’s a totally different type of working relationship.  Actually, they were probably heading out of teenage years by then.

We were a single car family and the car was a works car so it was my husband’s possession.  I certainly didn’t drive to work at that particular time.  When I worked in the library, I did a lot of driving because when you go out to interview people you needed to know you could get somewhere, you couldn’t really use public transport.  That changed completely, getting my own car was quite an achievement.  The other thing, thinking about working conditions or benefits, when I was first in full time work and these were really good working conditions I would say, there was no maternity leave, it was before legislation came in where you could have maternity leave.  So, when I was expecting Allison, it was understood that I would leave employment completely.  There weren’t any wrap around benefits to a job, you left and that was it and there’s a generation of women my age, I think they’re called Waspies, who fell fowl really of the way the systems worked in terms of pensions.  So occasionally you still hear people talking about how their pensions were impacted by not having the benefits this generation would take for granted.

You took the job on, and the part time job meant that I took that job on knowing it would be a certain number of afternoons every week, probably three and then the Saturdays.  So, when I got offered the job and I accepted it on that basis, I knew there wasn’t particularly any room for manoeuvre in a legal sense.  But of course, if there was a time when your child was poorly, because it was a small office you could talk it out with your boss.  So, perhaps there was more flexibility there, but it wasn’t guaranteed.  I mean, people used to come into the insurance broker’s and it would be interesting to hear about what their jobs were and some of their working conditions were totally different.  A lot of people would have worked on the industrial estates that were up near Tesco, that was all factories, lots of women were employed there.  So, people would come into the office, it wasn’t just an insurance broker it had building society franchises as well.  People would come in to put money in and take money out.  It was the time when you could buy shares in British Gas.  Loads of people came in to organise that and take the money out of their building societies and go and buy their shares.  So that was fascinating because we couldn’t afford to buy any shares, it was funny.  Yes, so socially it was fascinating to watch all of the people come through and find out a little bit about their background.  It was a very vibrant place.  I was amazed how vibrant it was.

The fish quay was still on the go, the businesses in the town were on the go and then the surrounding areas, the factories.  Whitley Bay was the next big commercial town as it were.  But North Shields was commercial but with a very strong industry sense to it.  You could go down and see the fish being landed and you could go along and see different factories in action, big, big garage franchises.  Very, very dynamic and active and it reflected in the social life as well because people who had been successful in their business were keen to invest in North Shields as a place for the people that lived there.  Pearey House is an example of that because a lot of the big business families were very, very generous with Pearey House and that’s a side of North Shields you don’t often see, I think.  It’s only by talking to people that we’ve actually found that out.

Photo of Borough Treasurer's Office

Borough Treasurer’s Office

When I first started to do the interviewing job, I met a very interesting person who had worked in the Borough Treasurer’s office, which is where the Exchange is now.  He’d had his whole working life in Howard Street and his routine was to go to the YMCA canteen every lunch time for a hot meal and that was his regular lunch hour, he would go there, and a lot of people did that.   Another story that I heard quite early on when I was doing the interviewing, I’m sure it was the Co-op had an office in Howard Street where you could go and pay bills and there was a lady who worked in there on a regular basis and a gentleman used to go in on a regular basis to pay bills and this sort of thing, and they got married.  It was a romance, a Howard Street romance.  Then the big sort of cornerstone buildings, the Salvation Army building, the Baptist Church – the Square Press.

They were local to North Shields, but it was interesting there was a significant number of people who had quite high-powered jobs in Newcastle, women, which was interesting.  We met them through the library club which was the vehicle that existed to get the memories collected.  The other thing about the library was it was the modern building.  It wasn’t the library that they all remembered which was, you’d call it the old library now, the Business Centre as is.  So, in the modern library they would spend quite a lot of time talking about how beautiful the old library was, which it actually was, but that was the place where you would go and read Lloyds Register of Shipping and to see where your husband’s ship was and when it was coming back.  There were all sorts of things that we would never consider now.

My optician’s there, my doctor’s used to be there.  I go into the YMCA café quite regularly which is completely changed since that gentleman used to go for his lunch.  They have revamped that and it’s a lovely building.  The HSBC Bank which is now a nursery so that’s an example of a building that’s changed.  So yes, it is different but still not as dynamic as it was.  But I think the interest that there’s been in the Heritage Action Zone project has brought things on.

I think the businesses changed and possibly not so many of them and were running parallel with the idea of digitisation and things like that. The first time I saw a computer was in 1982 and that was in Newcastle in the main insurance office and there was one computer for the department and only one person knew how to use it.  So, I’ve gone completely into a digital world now where we can do a digital recording.

Photo of North Shields Library

North Shields Library

So far as the library is concerned it’s fascinating.  The library in the square used to have a theatre space and a cafeteria space and you could put on a full performance in that space and the café was pretty well used as well.  It’s always been a meeting point for older people I think, people who aren’t in full time work.  Then, and I honestly couldn’t tell you when it happened, the council reconfigured the whole library and that was when the new upstairs rooms were configured and also the top floor, a lot of the top floor was given over to benefit advice and the partnership type thing.  It was part of a strategy for all libraries I think, Wallsend did the same, Whitley Bay did the same.  But it meant that the cafeteria social space and the theatre space disappeared, and it was reconfigured as a much bigger ground floor.

The library club was very vibrant when I started and had 40-odd members every month and they really regretted that the café had disappeared.  It just shows how much social interaction people need and it was the reason why the library club started because there was a community librarian in that building and she was inspirational.  She watched people coming through and seeing how they interacted with each other and whether they were isolated or didn’t speak to each other and she just gradually got them, put the kettle on, it was lovey and I benefitted from that because she had done all the groundwork with that.  It was amazing how she pulled that group together and what marvellous things they went on to do.

The other digitisation part of my working experience in the library was that there were huge banks of computers and there were regular, regular classes for introduction to IT and you started off learning what a mouse was and what a keyboard was, and people flocked to do those.  Now those sorts of things don’t happen to the same extent because it was pre mobile phones and actually buying a computer was outside of a lot of people’s budgets, so they would come in and use the library’s computers.  If you think back, now households might have two or three computers or at least almost a mobile phone each and the mobile phone does everything. Getting an email address, people’s faces, “I’ve got an email address”.

[Interviewer: Yes, I imagine when you were at the insurance office it would be a lot of paper and filing.]

Awful lot of paper and awful lot of filing, yes and only one person in the office knew how to use that computer and she would get all the error messages and so all the error messages would come on large rolls of paper and she would have to go through each one to find out what the errors were, good luck with that.  The insurance office that I used to work in in Newcastle is now a trendy bistro bar, so I can still go in every now and then and sit where my desk used to be.

[Interviewer: When you were at the insurance office was that one of the historic houses along Howard Street?]


I never got the sense of it being a historic building, in fact I never got the sense particularly of it being an historic street really, at that point.  It had been converted into a very functional internal space and even the exterior had been changed radically, so in terms of Heritage Action Zone it would have been a prime candidate to have its frontage taken off and made more in line with some of the others.

[Interviewer: Did you ever make use of Northumberland Square when you worked in the area?]
Photo of Northumberland Square 2006

Northumberland Square 2006

Probably on a limited basis, with the children and having a picnic or a sit there.  Personally, I wouldn’t think I had a huge use although it was beautiful to walk out of the library at lunch time, to get out in the fresh air, it was a great space for that.  But we have been told stories about different things that happened in the square such as the New Year’s Eve parties would gather in the square.  There was some sort of boom or gun went off in the square on New Year’s Eve to bring in the new year, several people have told us that story.  Other people have also told us a story about a beautiful fountain that used to be in the square and I’ve never actually been able to find a photograph of that.  It was a gathering place definitely and especially on VE day.  Going back over the years, people have told us stories about how they would gather for the Coronation and things like that.  So there was very much a sense of gathering there and of course, the prime one would have been the Good Friday Procession of Witness.  That was very, very large and well attended and supported.  You get quite a lot of people coming to that from all the local churches and the Square Press is where you’d get all the stories about that.  So yes, it held a very strong bond for a lot of people in that area.


Kath was interviewed as part of the North Shields Heritage Action Zone Phase 3 project.

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