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Working in Northumberland Square

There was a Community Librarian and she was inspirational.


photo of Kath Smith in Northumberland Square

                             Kath Smith

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, 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.

The job in the library came up in 2002.  I had teenagers then and that’s a totally different type of working relationship.  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.

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.

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.

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: 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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