ANIMALS were an early if relatively short-lived feature of the North and South Marine Parks in Shields.
Think of the bird aviary, whose building could still be seen in the north park until not that many years ago.
And what of squirrels? Well in their case you have a different story altogether. Take a seat, as it were, and I’ll tell you.
I’m grateful for the details to Ron Wardle, in Boldon, formerly the borough’s parks and cemeteries superintendent.
Because it’s a tale, literally, of ‘the squirrel seat’ and the extraordinary link it represents between our beloved South Marine Park, in particular, and the prestigious Smithsonian Museum in Washington in the US.
For the beginning you have to rewind more than 30 years to the late 1970s, to when the then-senior member of the parks staff was visiting the depot – now demolished – in the North Marine Park and noticed a large heap of scrap metal.
This turned out to be the remains of the very last of the ‘squirrel seats’ – so called because of their depiction of the animals in their iron work – that had originally been made for the South Marine Park.
Two seat ends had survived, which he thought could be made into another seat of sorts.
In due course, in the 1980s, during a spate of metal thefts, he decided to give the seat to his brother in Leicestershire.
Then, in 1990, a newspaper article asked that if anyone had any old pieces of gardening equipment, they should get in touch with Dominic Liptrot of Lancashire-based Lost Art, which specialises in historic landscape furnishings and traditional street furniture.
Ron wrote to him about the squirrel seat in Leicestershire.
“He was most excited,” says Ron.
But it’s what Dominic was subsequently able to turn up that is enthralling.
It transpires that the original seat had been cast in the 1880s at the Sun foundry of George Smith & Co, Glasgow.
In 1902, the company was bought out by Mott & Co, of New York, who also acquired all the patterns and patents of the company.
He also discovered that there was a squirrel seat in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington (where it’s known as a garden settee), cast in New York to the Smith & Co patterns, and that there is another seat in Glasgow Museum.
Liptrot took the squirrel seat to his workshop where he took a mould of it, which he used to manufacture replica seats.
When he was subsequently awarded a contract for the refurbishment of the South Marine Park, he was able to bring the replica squirrel seats back home to South Shields, together with the replica bandstand.
Since then similar contracts have followed.
“I am more than pleased with the result that has ensued since the two seat ends were rescued from the scrap heap in 1978.
“I never thought that a seat would be in the archive of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, or that a large amount of renovation work would be the outcome of two seats from a scrap heap,” says Ron, who’s grateful to Dominic Liptrot for his help in putting together the squirrel seat’s story; also his niece, Heather Wardle, who researched the American connection while working in the US, and his brother, Geoff Wardle, for saving and conserving the seat itself.