Loving to be beside the seaside in South Shields

Written in sand at Shields.
Written in sand at Shields.

It didn’t take much – a clutch of pennies in my hot little hand – and I was a kid again.

But they had to be spent carefully. Would ‘The Gypsy’ really tell me my fortune? She did: I would have five kids. So much for that.

The Laughing Sailor that Doreen Wells remembered from the Pier Head.

The Laughing Sailor that Doreen Wells remembered from the Pier Head.

And if I put one of my precious pennies in THAT machine, what were the chances I’d win another? Not a lot, as it turned out. As they say, the house always wins.

The ‘house’ in this case is South Shields Museum, whose recently opened Seaside Shields exhibition invites visitors to enjoy the then-and-now of a town that has been attracting visitors to its bracing beaches since Victorian times.

Today they come by car or Metro. Then, it was in charabancs or the growing railway network that made the town accessible to the rural and mining communities of County Durham and beyond.

In 1871, the Bank Holiday Act allowed thousands of working people to travel to the seaside on the first Monday in August, perhaps for the first time.

18-month-old Arthur Djemil tries out the puppet band.

18-month-old Arthur Djemil tries out the puppet band.

And what did they find when they arrived? Sea, sand – even sauce: oh yes, how the Vaudoscope showing bare ladies coyly covering their modesty with parasols must have made them blush and giggle.

And it’s these and similar old arcade machines, dating over many decades, which are among the joys of this lovely journey through seaside time.

“They come from a number of private collectors and date from the early to mid-20th century,” says the assistant keeper of social history, Adam Bell.

“One of the nice things is that people can actually play on them. Normally, in a museum, it’s ‘look, don’t touch,’ but here it’s all about having fun and experiencing the same kind of physical sensations that our parents and grandparents would have had.”

Normally museums are 'look, don't touch' but not here, says Adam Bell.

Normally museums are 'look, don't touch' but not here, says Adam Bell.

Five pennies cost you a £1 ( yes, well, toffee apples don’t cost a tanner any more either, do they?).

It’s then up to you to decide what might offer the biggest thrill. The Cycle Racer? The Modern Venus? The Peerless Pictures lady stripping to her undies, or the moving tableaux and little morality tales, with their skeletons and the Grim Reaper?

“It’s amazing to see. In those days they only cost a penny or tuppence,” said 82-year-old visitor Tom Bell, who had memories of similar, later machines at South Shields Fairground in the 1940s and 1950s.

Did he ever win anything? “Never, they were all losers!”

Seaside fun with museum assistant Angus McDonald and curator Adam Bell

Seaside fun with museum assistant Angus McDonald and curator Adam Bell

And Doreen Wells and her grandsons Joshua, four, and 20-month-old Jacob weren’t too impressed by another veteran of Shields seafront, the Laughing Sailor, which she recalled from the old amusement arcade at the Pier Head.

The figure rocks, eyes rolling, as it chortles.

“I remember as a child that I used to break my heart when I saw it. I didn’t like it at all,” though she and the family loved the rest of the exhibition.

Arthur Djemil, 18 months, visiting from Sunderland with his mum, Joanne, was impressed by an automated animal puppet band.

Said his mum: “I was born in 1975 so, for me, going to the fair was about the helter skelter and hooking the duck.

“It’s really interesting to see such old things.”

The growth of the railway system promotes visits to  - and from - Shields.

The growth of the railway system promotes visits to - and from - Shields.

Beyond the arcade machines, the exhibition also explores other aspects of seaside holidays, such as the rise in demand for accommodation, out of which grew the guest house and the caravan park; and also how it was the Victorians that created some of the most treasured attractions we associate with the seaside: donkeys and deckchairs, Punch and Judy, buckets and spades.

There is also lovely footage, courtesy of the North East Film Archive, of summer events in Shields in past decades – circus and carnival parades, for instance – and also film of the opening of the great Cyclone Ride – an immense structure on the South Shields Foreshore – by Lord Strabolgi in 1938. Woven through the exhibits are personal memories of the seafront at Shields.

Poet James Kirkup, born and brought up on The Lawe, wrote: “Even at the centre of the town the air had a tang of mint rock and vinegar and seaweed.”

l Seaside Shields runs at South Shields Museum until October 31.

Generations of folk have enjoyed the seafront at Shields.

Generations of folk have enjoyed the seafront at Shields.

One of the exhibition's joys are the old penny-in-the-slot machines.

One of the exhibition's joys are the old penny-in-the-slot machines.

The arcade machines come from a number of provate collectors.

The arcade machines come from a number of provate collectors.

Choosing carefully where to spend your old penny.

Choosing carefully where to spend your old penny.

The arcade machines date from the early to mid-20th century

The arcade machines date from the early to mid-20th century