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Working in Howard Street

Everybody knew the customer and the customer knew you


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.  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.

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.  So, that personal touch, it has gone completely from that area.  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.  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.  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.  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 were a single car family and the car was a works car so it was my husband’s.  I certainly didn’t drive to work at that particular time.  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.  It wasn’t just an insurance broker it had a building society franchises as well, so 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.

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.

[Interviewer: 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.


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

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