The glass in the windows melted in factory inferno

Elsie Stewart (nee Brennan), Janet Wylie and Jenny Mosely when they worked for Go Gay Shoes in South Shields.
Elsie Stewart (nee Brennan), Janet Wylie and Jenny Mosely when they worked for Go Gay Shoes in South Shields.

It’s all “Go” for local historian Janet Wylie in her search for more information about a South Shields shoe factory.

Janet, who masterminded production of the wonderfully enlightening and equally entertaining The Streets of South Shields series of books (compiled by Workers’ Educational Association learners), is busy gathering details of the Go Gay Shoes Ltd factory in the hope of creating a memory board of the workplace, along with exploring the possibility of organising a reunion of ex-workers.

The Go Gay Shoes factory in  January 1965.

The Go Gay Shoes factory in January 1965.

To date, Janet has tracked down a number of former colleagues and made contact with others who have helped shed light on the history of the firm, which started life in John Clay Street before moving to new premises in Maxwell Street.

She’s even been shown around the Maxwell Street factory as it is today – a trip which sparked vivid memories for the former Go Gay Shoes worker, whose appeal for help first appeared in Time Of Our Lives on July 23.

“After the Gazette article,” said Janet, “a number of people got in touch, some who said they knew of others who were going to make contact.

“I think there are still a good number of people out there who worked at Go Gay. Sadly, we did hear of some people who have passed away.”

Two of those who got in touch with Janet were Dorothy and Michael Payne who met at the factory in 1961, and now live in the Durham area – and are keen to attend a reunion.

Janet explained that: “Dorothy said their friends at the factory included Chico, Harry Hassan, George Fuller, David McCarthy, John Brown, Jean Sneller, Eileen Bryant, Gloria Reay, Brenda O’Connell and Ann Rice.

“Actually, I bumped into Harry Hassan’s widow but neglected to get her telephone number; if she reads this it would be great if she could get in touch. Harry died approximately eight years ago.

“Dorothy told me that Michael worked in the John Clay Street factory before it relocated to Maxwell Street and that they actually lived in John Clay Street for a time.”

Today SMH Products now operates from the Maxwell Street premises and Janet was show around by David Stephenson.

“The layout was the same,” reveals Janet, “there didn’t appear to be any extensions.

“Some of the things were the same; some swing doors, windows, outside chemical store and ladies toilets in the same place (but now the gents).

“The posh reception area, with stairs, remains the same, not that us workers ever really got to go in there.

“Our canteen was no longer a canteen but the swing doors were the same which might not seem a lot to people, but they brought back a lot of memories for me.

“I was able to stand in the exact spot where I had worked – I liked that, it took me back all those years.”

More memories came from local playwright, David Cooke, who wrote a play featuring the Go Gay factory.

David told Janet that the Go Gay factory he knew was on end of a block of flats in which he lived; his home being on the other end.

“Prior to being established as a shoe factory the site was occupied by a sweet shop and a canteen. The canteen supplied dinners and puddings to the local community.

“We believe it was established during the war and probably sold food at a very cheap rate.

“My cousin remembers the jam roly poly, especially, and ice creams which cost one old penny.

“I think the shoe factory must have been developed in the 1950s.

“I can remember it occupied the whole of the gable end.

“The girls took their cigarette breaks in the back yard where I believe the glue was kept.

“My next memory is of the fire that devastated the factory. The whole building was consumed and we stood transfixed watching the flames.

“It was truly a conflagration, and what amazed me the most was the glass in the windows which literally melted with the intense heat.

“After that it was rebuilt as a family home and I remember playing with the two children who lived there.”

David incorporated some recollections of the factory in a play he wrote in 2001.

Called Dance To Your Daddy, he rewrote it as a musical in 2013 when it debuted at the Westovians.

“The following year,” says David, “it was performed at the Customs House to an overall audience of 1,500 people; it was a great success.

“The factory was mentioned in the course of the play as the lead characters worked there, all made up, of course. One of the fictional characters dies in the fire, so you can see being able to tell the story or the Go Gay Shoes factory was an essential element of the story.”

If anyone can help Janet with her research, they can contact her on 07954 413542 or 0191 455 4830 or email her on 54janetw@gmail.com