Sunday, 19 April 2015


(I wrote the following jeu d’esprit in the year 1852 and had it printed anonymously. It was meant to represent, with that spice of exaggeration permissible in such good natured squibs, the condition and aspect of the Shieldses – South Shields more particularly – as they struck a dispassionate resident in that remote era, before the local sanitary reformers had set about their Herculean task, towards the accomplishment of which they have since gone a great length).

Farewell to Shields, the filthiest place
On old Northumbria’s dirty face,
The coal-hole of this British nation,
The fag-end of the whole creation,
The jakes of Newcastle-upon-Tyne,
The banquet-house of dogs and swine,
The paradise of bugs and fleas,
And human vermin worse than these;
A mass of houses – not a town -,
On heaps of cinders squatted down,
Close to the river’s oozy edge,
Like moulting hens behind a hedge;
Huge ballast heaps, from London brought,
And here, like churchyard rubbish, shot,
Half-clad with scurvy blighted green,
Alone diversify the scene,
And furnish, when the weather’s dry,
An inexhaustible supply
Of dust, with every breath that flies,
To torture and to blind the eyes,
And, when it rains or thaws, a flood
Of sticky, stinking, coal-black mud,
Oft ankle-deep, in Claypath Lane,
Making the use of blacking vain;
Brick-yards, the nastiest smoke exhaling;
Green scummy ponds, a source unfailing
Of fell disease, foul middensteads,
Where everything infectious breeds;
Steam-tugs, whose smoke beclouds the river;
Chimneys, forth vomiting forever
All sorts of gas, to taint the air,
And drive the farmers to despair,
Blighting their corn, their quicksets blasting,
And all their prospects overcasting;
For scarcely even a weed will blow,
For miles around no trees will grow
In stunted copse or rugged fence,
Within their baneful influence,
And where stray birds have planted them,
In former better times, each stem
Looms on us, bare, black, mummied quite,
A ghastly and unnatural sight.
Streets, - if the name can be applied
To dingy lanes not ten feet wide,
Bordered by wretched tenements,
Let to poor devils at high rents;
Houses, on Dean and Chapter Land
Which, if not close packed, would not stand,
Whose perfect matches can be found
Nowhere within the empire’s bound;
Sewers, that only serve to stay
Stenches the wind will blow away,
And guide them to our outraged noses,
Concentrated in double doses.
When his sweet pipe Amphion blew
The enchanted stones together flew,
And formed a city. Widely famed,
Thebes by the Syrian Cadmus named.
Not such a dulcet origin
Had Shields, but to the cursed din
Of wheels and axles, saws and hammers,
And competitions thousand clamours,
It rose around St. Hilda’s pit,
For sooty fiends a dwelling fit.
Since Sodom and Gomorrah fell,
By bolts from heaven and blasts from hell,
Satan, with all the skill he wields,
Has formed no counterpart to Shields,
And, in futurity’s dark womb,
Laid up for Shields is Sodom’s doom,
For all that store of bitumen
Was not placed under it in vain.
He who perambulates the place,
Needs no uncommon skill to trace
The features of the inhabitants,
Whose instincts, appetites and wants,
It suits to such a nicety,
That nothing lacking they can see,
But shout “Hourrah for canny Shields”
And deem the Bents the Elysian fields.
Take from the mass a score or twain,
Honest in heart and sound in brain,
Free-spirited, intelligent,
Friendly-disposed, benevolent,
And all the rest are chaff and sand,
Fit only to manure the land,
Mill-horses, pacing round and round
The same eternal spot of ground,
To pick a paltry pittance up,
And smoke and snooze and eat and sup;
Gross gluttons, worshipping their belly;
Boobies, with brains of calf’s-foot jelly;
Creatures, whose souls are in their dress;
Base crawling serfs, idealless;
Crouching, dust-licking parasites;
Prim sanctimonious hypocrites;
Fellows whose lives are one long lie,
To meanly cloak their poverty,
Who, with the bailiffs at the door,
Turn up their noses at the poor,
And living upon shift, despise
The drudge from whom they draw supplies;
Magistrates, void of all pretence
To morals as of moral sense,
Leaving the beershop for the bench,
To send to Durham their own wench;
Lawyers, who know no more of law
But from their clients fees to draw;
Clergymen, dull and dry as dust,
In whom old women put their trust;
Doctors, a shallow, quackish crew,
But that, alas, is nothing new;
As for the so-called “vulgar rabble”,
One learns their status from their gabble;
They can’t be said to speak at all,
But jabber, croak, grunt, burr and drawl;
'Tis neither English, Scotch, nor Norse,
Though it partakes of all, and worse.
If brutes have souls, as some pretend,
And after death to Hades wend,
And learn to speak, I do expect,
'Twill be in the Shields dialect.
Farewell to Shields! I shout again;
A long and glad farewell! Amen!
I never liked the place, nor did
The place like me; but God forbid
I should bear witness false against it;
I have writ truth, and here attest it.


On board ship “Lizzie Webber”.

Written by William Brockie (1811 - 1890)
Born at the East Mains of Lauder where his father was the tenant farmer, William was educated at the Parish Schools of Lauder, Smailholm, Mertoun and Melrose as his father changed farms.
Starting work as a teacher - he was at Kailzie prior to 1843 - he decided to pursue his real love, writing, and in 1842 he set up the "Galashiels Weekly Review". He also wrote articles for other publications including the "Border Treasury". Before long he was the editor of the "Border Watch" which was to become the "Border Advertiser".
In 1849 he crossed the border into England to become editor of the "North and South Shields Gazette", later becoming editor of the "Sunderland Times" from 1862 to 1872.
During all of this time, he was also busy researching and writing, particularly in the field of local history and folk legends.
Amongst his best known works are:
"The Gypsies of Yetholm" (1884) for which he is best known in the Borders, "Coldingham Priory" (1886), "A Day in the Land of Scott", "Leaderside Legends", "Legends and Superstitions of the County of Durham"(1886) and "Sunderland Notables"(1894).

The Lizzie Webber was built in Sunderland in 1851-1852 and sailed from Sunderland to Melbourne 31-7-1852 arrived 4-12-1852.

Passengers on the Emigrant Ship "Lizzie Webber":

NOTE: Not all passengers were from the North-East, but most were.

Allison     Henry             Blacksmith
Bennet      John              Blacksmith
Black       George            Joiner
Booth       A
    + Wife and 2 children
Booth       Benjamin          Mason
Booth       John              Labourer
Bowman      Thomas            Draper
Bradley     William H         Woolstapler
Bulman      George            Agent
    + Wife and 3 children
Burns       William           Engineer
Campbell    Donald            Plasterer
Charlton    Thomas            Miner
    + Wife and child
Chesterton  Thomas
Chipchase   Jonathan          Shipwright
Clark       Edward            Miner
Clemenston  Thomas            Schoolmaster
    + Wife and 3 children
Cogden      Charles           Plumber
Cook        John              Miner
Cree        Thomas            Labourer
    + Wife and child
Eliott      Thomas            Farmer
Elliott     Henry             Shipwright
Elliott     John William      Farmer
Finlay      Andrew            Sailmaker
Finlay      William James     Grocer
Grant       Thomas            Joiner
Gray        Lawrence          Blacksmith
    + Wife
Hall        Michael           Miner
    + Son Thomas
Hamilton    Alex              Miner
Harper      Thomas            Joiner
    + Wife and 2 children
Henry       Robert            Farmer
Howie       Robert            Tailor
Humble      John              Butcher
Lewis       William
M'Cabe      James             Farmer
McKay       David             Farmer
Mawson      Richard
    + Sister
Nisbett     Thomas            Builder
Oliver      John              Joiner
Ord         George C
Ord         Robert            Agent
    + Wife and 3 children
Ord         Robert Cook
Patey       John
Potts       Matthew           Grocer
Powton      Elizabeth
Robson      John              Draper
Smith       Robert
Swinbourn   William           Grocer
    + Wife
Thompson    Caleb             Joiner
Walker      John              Labourer
White       John              Miller
    + Wife and 3 children
Young       Joseph            Miner
Young       William           Labourer


On the face of it, Hookey Walker's complaints seem to be an exaggerated satirical rant against the folks of Shields, both high and low born and the respective towns in which they lived. However a little research shows that, if anything, he was only mildly critical.

Each town was originally a single narrow street stretching for more than a mile along the rivers edge, but as trade and population increased the bank tops and fields beyond were gradually invaded and built upon. They were connected by the Tyne which was almost a High Street in itself with hundreds of skiffs, lighters and keelboats constantly moving between them.

Both the Shieldses had a long history of noxious industry primarily along the rivers edge. The first were salt pans dating from the 1250s, where shallow pans some 20ft wide were filled with brine from seawater at high tide. Fires were lit beneath them and the water boiled off to leave a residue of salt. This trade resulted in dense clouds of steam and smoke filling the lower levels when temperature inverted. At one time 200 pans were operating in South Shields alone and Shields salt was the most celebrated in the kingdom. At the point where the duty on it was £86 per ton great quantities were smuggled into Scotland resulting in small fortunes for the smugglers.

Aside from the salt pans were the ballast hills. Lawfully, ballast was meant to be dropped at Newcastle – between Sandgate and Ouseburn - but a long and vicious fight between the Freemen of Newcastle and the monks at Tynemouth who owned North Shields meant that much was offloaded along the river before ever reaching Newcastle. For the Shieldses trade with foreign ships was outlawed, as was ship repair work, brewing, baking and many other trades.

In 1773 twenty ballast hills stretched from Mill Dam to Jarrow Slake, but the older hills were made of salt pan rubbish, cinders, coal dust and small coals. So much refuse was gathered that South Shields barely resembled the original countryside it had once been. In the early1800's the Mill Dam, once a real mill with a mill-race and dam, was filled in with ballast from adjacent hills to provide work for shipwrights and workmen thrown idle by the economic crisis – it had originally been a 'sylvan glade' with water running back as far as Waterloo Vale and a popular place to walk, with salt grass and picturesque gardens. Near Mill Dam was a high ballast hill called the Vitriol Hill made from waste from the nearby vitriol works.

Unsurprisingly this poisonous landscape left deluges of mud on rainy days and blinding, irritating dust in high summer. The presence of coals and chemicals resulted in a sinister, creeping fire which smouldered underground and began erupting to the surface. The smoke by day from various works and the fires by night from adjacent heaps of burning rubbish must have made an unforgettable sight – a 'hell on earth'.

North Shields fared little better; The Low Town Street was from nine to eleven feet wide with short stretches increasing to twenty feet or so. The houses at the rivers edge were built out on piles and had their own jetties or moorings. In between were numerous public quays. To the landward side the steep banksides were packed with brick or stone built dwellings with steep pantiled roofs (pantiles were often used as ballast in ships from the Netherlands and provided free material). Steep flights of stairs gave access to the bank top, seventy feet above, often the steps were named after pubs or other businesses at the bottom, such as Post Office Stairs, Library Stairs, Tiger Stairs, or Pipe Maker’s Stairs. Some were named after individuals like Stewart’s Bank and Fenwick’s Bank. It was noted that: “Families lived packed together, with often 10 or more sharing one tap and no toilets. Most rooms had no windows and no ventilation.
“Human waste was often thrown into an open sewer where it could lie stinking and rotting for weeks. It often overflowed onto the steps to be trodden into houses.
“The smell permeated into the living accommodation, and maggots and rats thrived on this.
“The men at least could get a break from these terrible conditions when they were at work but the women had no reprieve. They struggled with washing and cooking with no decent lighting or heating.”
By the 1700's Plague had visited the town a number of times and refuse accumulated on the Low Street was always foul – pigs roamed free and were a constant nuisance, so much so that laws were introduced to remove them.

Amazingly, many of these dwellings were still inhabited into the 20th century, being finally demolished in the 1931 Liddle Street slum clearance programme.

By the time of Hookey Walker's lament many of the traditional industries had cut back but were replaced by intensive mining at St. Hilda's Colliery including a mineral railway cut through the ballast hills at Holborn and Laygate, glassworks at Mill Dam ( in 1845 South Shields was making more plate glass than anywhere else in England) and dozens of companies operating the Leblanc process to produce soda ash, acids, alkali and bleach. The process was noxious, producing foul smells and large quantities of industrial waste, which polluted the environment. Conditions of employment were harsh, typically with alternating 56 hour weeks of day shifts and 112 hour weeks of night shifts, damaging to the health of workers. In Georgian and early Victorian times brickworks were often set up next to the new streets being built rather than having the expense of transporting bricks from a distance - consequently several brickworks could be burning in each town simultaneously.

In North Shields the nascent kippering trade was developing (the 'modern' kipper involving pickling in brine followed by smoking over wood chips thought to have been perfected by John Woodger of Seahouses in the 1840s), involving thousands of tons of herring landed at the quay and twenty or more kippering sheds (some still remaining today) throwing wood smoke into the atmosphere. North Shields was once the biggest producer of kippers in England due to the size of its fishing fleet and the abundance of herring in the North Sea.

Also take a view of the river; filled with trawlers, keels, steam tugs and ferries, all discharging raw sewage and waste directly into the waters of the Tyne.

Over 300 years many of the ballast hills had been built upon and, 18 years after Hookey Walker's text, a section of South Shields from Hill Street to Nile Street set fire underground. Houses began to be destroyed by fire – often erupting through sewers, drains or privies. The council could only dig trenches in order to cut off the advance, but they were rarely deep enough to be effective. Eventually 30 households narrowly escaped death in sudden escape of gas and smoke which destroyed their dwellings and continued to burn for several years.

We can appreciate why 'Hookey Walker' wrote his thoughts on board the Lizzie Webber – the first ship to take emigrants to Australia from the north-east at Sunderland and forge a new life in a rough, strange but clean environment, free from 600 years of industrial squalor, stench, disease and exploitation.

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