Grim times in First World War-era South Shields

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IT’S a place associated with rugged coastal beauty today.

But Frenchman’s Point at South Shields has a dark history beyond its better known one as a military base and place of shipwreck.

During the First World War, it was a detention camp for men who’d transgressed the conflict’s rules.

One of these was John Oaklands who had already been in the Army for some years before the war started, was wounded in 1915 and was afterwards returned to his regiment in Sunderland.

Except he refused to go, Found guilty of twice being absent without leave, he was sentenced to detention at Frenchman’s where, soon after, he shot dead the NCO he was brought before. He was found not guilty of murder and thereafter disappears from the records.

It’s a chilling reminder of how many ghosts of that terrible time walk our landscape.

It’s a chilling reminder of how many ghosts of that terrible time walk our landscape.

Oaklands’ story is just one of the many told in Tyneside: Remembering 1914-18 which, in words and pictures, is an impressive illustration of how the war seeped into every corner of life here in the North East.

Working with images from Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, and from other collections across the region, author Jo Bath weaves them into the compelling story of how virtually everything was changed by the war, from industry and commerce, to health institutions such as Hebburn Hall, once the home of the Ellison family, later an infirmary, which became a war hospital.; also schools – East Boldon School had 500 soldiers billeted in it as early as August 10, 1914.

It also illustrates how the war changed social structures, liberating women from the home, to man public transport, or manufacture munitions.

In Jarrow, volunteer women formed the Jarrow Ladies’ Fire Brigade, which fought fires alongside the men

What commends this book is that you are very often hearing the voices of the people themselves.

Women, for instance, worked at Hawthorn Leslie’s shipyard at Hebburn, where one section was apparently so cold it was nicknamed ‘Siberia.’ Only two toilet breaks were allowed a day, in lavatories which boasted neither toilet paper nor doors!

There were many personal tragedies. One record is of a three-or-four-week-old baby being left on a doorstep in Newcastle. A note attached read: “I am a munition worker, 17 years. My mother put me out. Father of baby killed. Take care of her.”

The aftermath of the war brought its own challenges. Not all men were able to return to their old jobs, and where they did, many women felt displaced and resentful, though it’s interesting to read that, at Hebburn, a shrapnel works was converted into a toy factory, Bairntoys, which kept some of the munitionettes in work.

South Shields’ hitherto small community of Yemeni seamen also swelled to around 3,000 during the war, leading to anxieties over peacetime work that were still causing tensions a decade and more later. What the book conveys finely, for me, is that war is about battles fought on all kinds of fronts, and how it can spur ordinary people to do amazing things.

n Tyneside: Remembering 1914-18, by Jo Bath, is published in paperback, price £12.99, by The History Press.

n I have three copies of the book to give away if you can answer the following: whose family home had Hebburn Hall been?

Send your answers, with your name and address, to Remembering Tyneside Competition, c/o Janis Blower, Shields Gazette, 7 Beach Road, South Shields, NE33 2QA, to arrive no later than next Wednesday, March 18. Please enclose a telephone number.