New Years of old in South Shields

The Market Place in South Shields where many years ago people would congregate to celebrate new year.
The Market Place in South Shields where many years ago people would congregate to celebrate new year.

As we get set to first foot and say farewell to 2018, regular contributor Dorothy Ramser looks back at how people in South Shields celebrated – or in some cases commiserated – new years of the past.

“In 1884 there was much festivity on the streets of South Shields on New Year’s Eve,” says Dorothy.

“There were Night-Watch meeting (religious vigils) at St Hilda’s and other churches in the town.

“The firing of the Time-Gun usually announced the closing of the old and the start of the new year in Shields, however that year, a false alarm happened three minutes before-hand.

“After a rapid investigation it was discovered that a gun had been fired on the Lawe Top by some pranksters who were the worse for wear.

“So all the kissing and hugs at the stroke of midnight were conducted twice that year.

“Then the bells of St Hilda’s rang out and cheer after cheer resonated around the Market Place before the crowds dispersed to commence first footing throughout the town.

Throughout the night, fireworks lit the sky all over South Shields, whilst in the Market there was a “fabulous display of Lime Lights”.

“The following day there were morning performances of pantomimes which were largely attended by excited children.

“Aladdin was on at the Theatre Royal in King Street and Jack and the Beanstalk at the Mill Dam Theatre.

“In the evening, both the theatres and Mr Harmston’s circus were packed to capacity.”

Three years later, the Gazette reported that a number of first footers were to be seen occasionally steering an erratic course along the pavement or in the middle of the road, “the need for sleep and other causes having their usual effect”.

“Those that could make their way to King Street, could attend a performance of Babes in the Wood at the Theatre Royal or push their way into a packed Thornton’s Theatre of Varieties.

“Concertinas and other musical instruments could be heard above the din of the seething crowds singing and carousing.

“On New Year’s Day 1893, five men were in custody charged with breaking into The Grapes Hotel, in Ocean Road, where several bottles of spirits were stolen.

The culprits were found in a house on Smithy Street gulping down the stolen liquor.

“Years before in 1865, another alcohol-related crime took place, when Frances Statters, a respectable, elderly married woman, living in West Boldon, was charged with stealing (on New Year’s Day), between 50 and 60lbs of meat from Mr Rennison the butcher.

Mr Wawn, who represented the prisoner, described her as respectable and of good character, but through drink had been led to take meat from Mr Rennison’s shop.

“He went on to tell the court that a medical man had recommended that she should drink spirits for rheumatism. Unfortunately this was what led to her misdemeanour, having been largely inspired by a ‘fog of intoxication’.

“The bench stated that although the quantity of meat was large, they would be lenient on Mrs Statters and sent her to prison for 14 days with hard labour. No doubt that sobered her up!

“Meanwhile, William Irvine, a labourer of no fixed abode, was charged in 1904 by South Shields magistrates of having been found on the premises of Mary Ann Homer, 38 Hardwick Street at about 2am on New Year’s Day. Mrs Homer had heard a noise in her front parlour and found Irvine lying curled up asleep under her best couch.

“The prisoner could give no explanation as to why he was found there and, nonplussed, the court fined him 15 shillings with costs.

“Then a young lad of 15, called John Venus, was found on New Year’s Eve at the back of Winchester Street so drunk he couldn’t move. The policeman who found him whilst on the beat had to get a wheelbarrow to take him to the police station.

“He was dismissed with a caution about the evils of the demon drink.

“Finally, in 1857, a party-pooper broke up a gathering in South Shields and the victim wrote a letter to the Gazette, stating: “Sir, Upon New Year’s Eve a party of seamen, with their wives, daughters and a friend or two met in my house, a private one – for the purpose of a dance and seeing in the New Year. “While we were happy and enjoying ourselves a policeman suddenly burst in and told us to disperse, which we obeyed.

“Sir, I ask if all private families in the town who were sitting up on New Year’s Eve innocently enjoying themselves were rudely visited like this? Were the rich houses of the town treated like my poor one? I have been told this act was illegal.

“There was nothing in the conduct of our party that has entitled us to this injury and insult.” He signed the letter, Robert Todd Lower Shadwell Street, South Shields.”