MAUREEN Thompson’s aunt used to go to Laygate Reading Rooms to look up where in the world her seagoing husband’s ship was.
The reading rooms, connecting two blocks of flats at the junction of Laygate and Western Approach and which replaced even older reading rooms, once part of the neighbouring police station, were a memorial to James Mather, who pioneered the safety of mine ventilation in the 19th century.
One location, then, but with so many associations.
But then, that’s Laygate: a history rooted in agriculture, that blossomed into industry, from which grew a rich and diverse social and economic community.
“I hadn’t imagined there would be this many shops outside the town centre,” Pat Went remembers, of her discovery of Frederick Street when, as a young policeman’s wife in the 1960s, she was still new to Shields.
Since then, this old, historic area of the town has changed almost beyond recognition.
But if proof were needed that places live on in the people whose lives they help shape, then it’s the latest edition of The Streets of South Shields.
This is the fourth volume of memoirs and research compiled by Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) learners, under tutor Janet Wylie.
Says Janet: “The group have succeeded in achieving another excellent result. They’ve persistently and tirelessly searched out information and facts. It’s a pleasure to work alongside them.”
Laygate, as learner Teresa Hepplewhite discovered, grew out of that area where the farms of the ‘Westoe Ley’ met the salt panning that was one of the town’s chief industries in the 17th century.
Development over subsequent decades eradicated traces of these agricultural origins until, by the middle of the 20th century, Laygate had settled into being almost an alternative to the town centre, with its own department store, Allen’s; banks (Maureen Thompson traces at least one of these, Martin’s, back to the 19th century); railway station, churches, and, of course, pubs. Yvonne Richardson, who worked at Plessey’s in the area and lived for a time in Alice Street, explores some of the latter, finding in them a barometer of how Laygate was changing in the post-war years.
“There were over 30 public houses still trading in the Laygate area during our period of interest, in the 1950s, but by the 1960s they were nearly all gone,” she notes.
Photographs lovingly capture some of the vanished: The Volunteer Arms, in Cambridge Street; the Duke of York, in Cuthbert Street, and the Turf Hotel in Green Street, to name only a few.
Many of the pictures in the volume, by the way, are again from the collection of Bill Clavery in Shields, to whom so much is owed for preserving, pictorially, this period of the town’s history.
Aspects of Laygate’s past tip over and broaden into personal memory.
Olive Pinkney looks into the development of the trolley bus network, and the appeal of the vehicles themselves.
Olive, herself, lived at Tyne Dock. said: “When I was young I often fancied myself as a clippie. Why? So I could punch holes in the sixpenny weekly tickets that we got on our way to school.”
Liz Coffey contributes a photograph of her dad, Jimmy Bulley, a seaman who took work on the buses when there were no ships available.
Liz, a fomer pupil of Barnes Road, for which she was later a lollipop lady, also explores the history of Laygate’s schools. The area, remarkably, also had at least 10 places of worship, which are looked at by Anne Davison, and which ranged from Church of England and non-conformist churches, to a Salvation Army citadel and the mosque in Cuthbert Street.
Ron Monaghan’s piece on High Shields station is evocative of an era of coal fires in the waiting room, station flower beds, and gas lamps.
Paul Thompson, who worked at Allen’s in the late 1960s, writes warmly of a Laygate institution, its staff and customers; rich in anecdote, his piece also raises the mystery of the errant apostrophe (Allens v Allen’s).
Margaret Shotton is good on the area’s working men’s clubs, including ‘The Bin Lid,’ – the Corporation and Welfare Club – while Michael McCormack concludes with a lovely piece on The Handy Shop, a Mecca for music enthusiasts in its day.
The Streets of South Shields Volume Four isn’t for sale, but it is another valuable addition to the town’s social archive.