Working Conditions @ The Walker Bone Yard & The Fish Works

A Quay full of Colour and Life  by Tony Henderson, The Journal Jan 31 2005. Environment Editor Tony Henderson. On how people fall hook, line and sinker for a special stretch of riverside.

Low Lights Fih QuayIf there is concern today at the prospect of increasing the opportunities for the taking of strong drink, then consider the time when the half-mile stretch from North Shields Fish Quay to Smith's Dock had a legendary 100 pubs.

Only a handful now remain, including the 18th Century Low Lights Tavern aptly sited on Brewery Bank.

Another is the Prince of Wales Tavern, dating from 1927 and the traditional site for the North Shields wooden dollies.

It is believed ship owner and, of course, brewer Alexander Bartleman put up the first wooden dollie, which was an old ship's figurehead.

That was whittled away through the habit of sailors carving off tiny pieces for good luck, and a series of wooden dollies followed. To add to the colourful complexity, the pub-restaurant overlooking the Fish Quay is called Wooden Doll.

The vast majority of the pubs along what was called the Low Row have passed into history but North Shields Fish Quay is one of those enclaves in the North-East which retains an ambience all its own. The descent on to the riverside from the higher roads above creates a sense of arrival.

There is the never-ending attraction of fishing boats at their moorings and passage of vessels up and down the Tyne. The ever-present cries of the gulls the seafood-processing businesses, fresh fish shops, fish and chip eating houses, Italian restaurant, tea shop and what must be the most character-packed grocery shop in the region all add up to a highly entertaining mix. And where else would you find four lighthouses?

Trinity House in Newcastle was granted permission by Henry VIII to build lights at North Shields. The perilous entry into the Tyne meant that low and high lights had to be erected to guide ships into the river.

In 1727 the Old Low Lighthouse was built on the riverfront near the Fish Quay and its twin was placed on the higher land on what is now Tyne Street. The lower light was converted into almshouses in 1830 and the higher is now known as Beacon House. By 1807 changes in the river bed meant new lighthouses were needed and up went new low and high lights and their pale towers are now familiar landmarks. The four lighthouses are among the 12 listed buildings in the Fish Quay conservation area, which was designated just over a year ago.

There are 700 years of fishing and associated industries behind this riverfront area. But that's not all. There is, as the lighthouses attest, a tradition of navigation, harbouring and, because of the area's strategic importance, fortification.

This is the place where the first shiels - or rough hut shelters - appeared at the mouth of the Pow Burn. Shiels became Shields.

The huts were used by fishermen supplying Tynemouth Priory and a small port grew up.

The Fish Quay is where North Shields began.

Around the 17th Century increased mining of coal led to development of the salt industry with the boiling of sea water, and this fuelled growth.

The Dockwray family built prestigious houses in the square named after them above the quay, and when the Earl of Carlisle sold his land in the area for development, the town started to evolve.

low_lights_herrings.jpgThe North Shields guano and fish oil works, famous for its pungency, was opened in 1888 near the quay and followed in 1901 by the Tyne Brand factory which began by canning herring and later became a household name for tinned foods.

The other giant of the Fish Quay was Richard Irvin, a pioneer of steam trawlers who ran over 300 boats and employed so many people that its 1913 headquarters building included a banking system for staff.

The listed building is now empty but a new use is being sought. However, it sums up a situation where the fishing industry has shrunk and it has been recognised that the Fish Quay is at a critical juncture in its history.

This is being addressed with the conservation area declaration and the commissioning of a regeneration strategy by North Tyneside Council. The future of the Fish Quay is dependent on its ability to adapt to change and find new roles, says the strategy. The process has started.

Vacant upper storeys above Fish Quay shops are being brought back into use as offices and workshops and work is due to start on creation of a food park to at least partly accommodate fish seafood processing units. Other buildings, such as old smokehouses, are lined up for fresh roles.

Council conservation planner Graham Sword says: "It's the beginning of activities and people will see things happening this year. The Fish Quay has a unique sense of place and is already visited by lots of people. We want to improve the experience and offer added attractions. There is a lot of local pride in the area.

Fans of the Fish Quay have combined to set up a body called - what else - FISH.

Folk Interested in Shields Harbour was formed to give people a say in how the Fish Quay develops and to try to ensure it keeps its special character.

The group's first success was in helping to push for the Richard Irvin building to be listed.

It is a key building on the Fish Quay but it was due to be demolished," says FISH secretary Don Gruer, who lives in Tyne Street, above the object of his affections.

It is such a magical place. There is so much going on and it is a wonderful place to take a walk.

The Fish Quay is a place I enjoy and a place a lot of other people could enjoy. It has to develop, but it is important that it is not spoilt and that they get it right.

Renewed focus on ancient fort.

One of the historic sites on the Fish Quay is Clifford's Fort, now a scheduled ancient monument.

It was built in 1672 as part of a network of coastal defences in the war against the Dutch.

Additional gun and musket ports were added during the Napoleonic wars in a fort designed to deliver a broadside at warships attacking the river.

It was maintained as a shore battery until 1888 and then became a base for mines ready for laying at sea.

It saw "action" in 1804 when, after a drunken challenge, companies of the Northumberland and Lanark militia crossed the Tyne and tried to capture the fort from its volunteer garrison. The only time the fort was subject to enemy action was in 1941, when a German bomb hit the nearby lifeboat station.

A recent dig uncovered the location of a three-storey brick-built keep which housed the commander, gunpowder magazines and armoury.

The fort closed in 1928 and its buildings were used by the fishing industry.

The listed Ballard's smokehouse was formerly the barracks and, over the years, the fort has been lost behind and among a range of buildings.

The aim is to clear inappropriate buildings and open out the fort in a way fitting for a nationally-important historic site

Where Stan Laurel found inspiration?

A flight of steps leading down to North Shields Fish Quay may have been the inspiration for a celebrated Laurel and Hardy performance.

That's the belief of former comedian and Laurel and Hardy expert A J Marriot.

The performance in question was in the film The Music Box in which the duo played hapless deliverymen and won an Oscar in 1932. In it they were vainly trying to deliver a piano to a house at the top of a long flight of steps.

A young Stan, who lived in North Shields, would have used the Fish Quay steps regularly.

At the top of the 103 steps there is a statue of Stan in the modern housing development at Dockwray Square.

North-East film-maker John Mapplebeck made the TV film Laurel Until Hardy to show how Stan's grounding in the English music hall tradition was vital to the success of the double act.

He says: "Stan, having had this apprenticeship in the music halls, worked on these routines. On film it looks as if Olly was the active person and Stan is just tagging along for the ride.

If anything, it was the other way round."

From watering hole to a 'fun-filled' shop

The Highlander was one of the 100 or so pubs which lined the North Shields riverfront.

Today, it is a grand old-fashioned grocery shop where fun is as much on offer as foodstuffs and which has become something of a Fish Quay institution. The shop is piled high with everything from fresh fruit and veg and jars of hard-to-find sweets to what owner Martin Ponton describes as "proper" dry cured bacon.

A notice next to the bacon machine suggests Martin's other passion, apart from running a traditional store which is as big a contrast to supermarket shopping as it can be.

That is the purveying of humour.

The notice reads: "Please do not sit the bairn near the bacon slicer as we are getting behind with our orders."

It is one of 50 or so quips which decorate the interior of the shop.

When customers come out with one-liners which pass muster, Martin has them carved on to wooden plaques for everyone to enjoy.

This is in addition to the singing lobster models, croaking frogs and wolf-whistling gnomes among the goods stacked outside the premises.

"A lot of people enjoy the personal side of shopping and here we have a good chat with the customers," says Martin. "Humour is one of the best things for healing. People read the signs and have a good laugh."

Some samples:

* The only time a woman likes a man's company is when he owns it.

* Sometimes I wake up grumpy. Other times I let him sleep.

* All the water in this shop is passed by the manager.

The shop began as William Wight, shipping grocers, and was set up by a consortium of trawler owners to provision their boats. Before that it was the Highlander pub which Martin traced back to 1847. An earlier pub of the same name stood on the spot in 1802. The pub closed in 1926. The shop was taken over by Martin's father Hector, who had worked for the Tyne Brand company.

Just after the Second World War 95pc of business was supplying boats which seasonally pursued sprats, cod and haddock, herring and prawns.

Now it is a turnaround, with 95pc supplying the public and 5pc boats.

"We know many of our customers personally and try to offer as many traditional goods as we can, and use local suppliers as much as we can."

Having worked on the Fish Quay for 32 years, Martin says: "It has magnificent potential. You drop down from the road above and it's into another world."

The Robert Westall Walk - North Tyneside.

There are splendid views of the Fish Quay which is featured in Fathom Five, The Promise and The Watch House. Continue as far as the small car park attached to the Wooden Doll public house, behind which lies the area known as Pow Dene, first developed as a tannery in 1766. Nearby stood the North Shields Fish Oil & Guano Works, whose choking smell plagued the town well into the 1960`s,and which was used by Robbie and Emma, in Falling Into Glory, as their trysting place until they were surprised by William Wilson.

The Fish Quay is now a conservation area.

The very names of Tanners Bank and Brewhouse Bank conjure their productive past, though they now have large green areas which are part of the wildlife corridor. Although the return of tanning and guano works would not be welcome, these roads with their fragmented street frontages offer opportunities for sensitive infill developments. They would be suitable for light industrial and commercial use, such as the fish processing units under construction on the site of the old tannery.

Where possible older buildings should be preserved and adapted, with any new buildings in sympathy with their sizes and materials. This is especially important for such gems as the Maltings on Tanners Bank (which incorporates an even earlier gable of hand made bricks with tumbling-in) and the Low Lights Tavern on Brewhouse Bank.

Bone Yard Chat, working conditions in 1900 -

Ron Wright, Mary English and others describe the sanitary conditions of North Shields -
North Shields like most places around here, especially Newcastle all started at the river and it was all on the river. Eventually it pushed itself up the banks; basically the rich people went and lived up the banks because the smell and the dirt and the effluent was that bad in the Low Town as it was called, that you could hardly imagine it. If you think that from the Ferry Landing by Collingwood Mansions to Kaley’s (sic) at the other end of the Fish Quay, the big white building, the ship’s chandlers, there was five toilets for that whole area. So everything was thrown out on the street. The streets just ran in effluent and cholera was rife. Life expectancy in the late early 1900s was 45 years. Whereas at Cullercoats, life expectancy in the 1850s there was seven people who reached the age of 100: that purely because of their life style. They washed in the sea; they lived in the sea; they ate herring. There was one wag said one day we have, “herring and spuds for dinner. The next day we have spuds and herring.” That was basically their life style was fish and oily fish but they didn’t have the effluent and they didn’t have the cholera; North Shields to Cullercoats is less than two miles.
Everything was on the Low Town and eventually the ship owners and the people who were becoming rich, because of the Industrial Revolution, they moved up to the top basically so they could look down on what they were seeing, which was theirs; keep an eye on it, but also to get away from the smell. Places like Dockwray Square were built. If you go to Dockwray Square now it is supposedly a facsimile of what Dockwray Square was. It is not exactly, but it is as close as and it remains with the square in the middle. They were huge, big Victorian houses, three and four stories. They would have had servants. The ship owners lived there. That was the place to live.
By the 1930s, 1940s, Dockwray Square was pretty run down, pretty seedy and it was eventually demolished in the 1950s and lay derelict for quite some time until the built the current Dockwray Square.
The other thing, obviously with the Fish Quay is, because it was fish, it was smelly down there. There was more than that. There was a tanner’s and there was, (I forget the exact terminology) but it made fish meal by boiling fish. Apparently, there was this green pallor just used to hang over the top. The smell was almost as bad as the Walker Bone Yard, which now is no more. The whole area was geared to the maritime industry, but because we had such a large amount of people, there were other industries down there. There was pottery; there was a tanner’s, as I said previously and in order to cure the leather and to dye the leather they used to use dog excrement. There was women who used to go around and jealously guard their patch for picking dog excrement. But, it all sort of shows how smelly it must have been.
Those who have never smelt the bone yard they are the lucky ones, apprentices at palmers Hebburn, had to go once a week to the Walker Naval Yard on the ferry, going up the Tyne in a pea soup fog, you knew you were there when the stench made you gag, how anyone could work at the bone yard is beyond me!
I remember 'The Bone Yard' at Walker'. The buildings are there but its no longer a smelly bone yard.
Yes I remember the ship yards, Church Street, "Walker Mansions" aka Rochester Dwellings (yes and the weeping Maddona) and of course who could forget the Bone Yard.
Everyone and anyone who used the ferries would remember. When we had to go to the Walker Yard the ferry jetty was next to the bone yard, it was a charnel house, there was piles of bones with bits of flesh hanging off them alongside were we got off, the smell in summer was unbelievable and the new lads would often be sick when we got off the boat.
There used to be a bone yard on the banks of the Tyne, the stench of rotting carrion from the mountain of bones has to be sniffed to be believed, coming up the Tyne the dredged channel cut nearer the bank so twere unavoidable, on a hot summer day if overhung wi the ale standing on deck were not recommended ...lordy lordy! I oft wondered how the chaps who worked in the bone yard got home, they couldn't possibly have boarded a Bus, the stench used to stick to the riveted steel plate of the ship for three hours, lord knows what their clothing smelled like.
The bone yard, that was in Walker, if you took the trolley bus from Wallsend to the Town via the Low Road you went past it. Next to the Walker Naval Yard, it would have been.
When the Walker bone yard was emitting its foul smell, it was time to quickly close all the windows. Huge Bluebottles and rats like cats besides the lovely aroma. I still remember old Marty swimming regularly around Walker Ferry landing in amongst all the crap and white contaminated water that came out of the sewer that was there. He used to walk down naked from the bone yard shower rooms. He was blind as a bat so he wasn't bothered who saw him because he couldn't see them. It's marvellous how some of these posts jog your memory. I've never thought of Marty for years, just remember him in his little sculler boat, always busy. Ye they don't make smells now a days like they made in the Bone Yard in them days; really fresh I don't think

Oh the smells were brilliant; but what you don't have is the guano works. You know where Tyne Tyres was? You go just past Tyne Tyres and you've got Digibox or something before you get to the grinding works - and you used to go down there and there was this place called the guano works. Now, what is that thing to you? It was fertiliser, wasn't it? It was fish fertiliser.
Some of the boats, they would settle in debt - they would have all this fish and it wouldn't get sold properly on the market and it would go to the guano works, dirt cheap. And so instead of getting a lot of money and having money at the end, they could end up in debt. A lot of people worked for a fortnight and ended up owing the company money, they would go off it. This happened a lot of the time with the fishermen. So the fish would go to the guano works and it used to ming. And you always used to know it was the guano works because you would think, eh, there's snow all over, but it wasn't snow - it was maggots.
There used to be a Bone Yard up at Walker, and if you got out of the van there and you would think; 'I didn't know it had snowed', but it wasn't. it was maggots. I always remember the white covering on the ground ... 'crunch'.
The smell, you can't describe that smell. But you'd gag and when it used to blow up over - if it hit Shields, the guano works is working well.

Ron French - The Bone Yard position was directly at the foot of Welbeck Road junction with White Street. 80 yards away to the right (upriver) were the steps down to the Low Walker Ferry Landing, the path passing the side gate to the Bone Yard, on your way to the Ferry paybox.
Smell indescribable, as you will have been told !!
Like Bow Bells to a Cockney, real Geordies were born in the "shadow of a Shipyard crane" and with just a Whiff of Walker Boneyard in the air !!!! So that includes all inhabitants of our old garden suburb of Hebburn.

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