When South Shields was condemned as ‘the toilet of Newcastle’

Hookey Walker's Farewell was a diatribe against the old town of Shields.
Hookey Walker's Farewell was a diatribe against the old town of Shields.

South Shields has its critics, not least among them some of the folk who live in the place.

But it amuses me that even they cannot be as creative as the man who once described the town as “...the jakes (toilet) of Newcastle,” and “a banquet house of dogs and fleas, and human vermin worse than these ...”

William Brockie, the first editor of the Shields Gazette

William Brockie, the first editor of the Shields Gazette

Eloquent, eh? Understandable, as the author was a journalist – William Brockie, the first editor of the Shields Gazette.

The lines are from his poem, Hookey Walker’s Farewell, which he wrote when he (perhaps fortunately) left the town in 1852, after his three-year editorship of the paper ended.

It’s looking a little ahead, but I was delighted to hear that the full poem is to be given a rare airing during the Heritage Open Days events later this summer.

The venue will be South Shields Museum on September 10, when the verses will be performed by Tyneside poet Dr Keith Armstrong, together with a short selection of other poetry by Brockie. There will also be sea shanties from The Ancient Mariners.

To be fair, Scots-born Brockie himself described the poem as “a good-natured squib.” It was an exaggerated comment on the state of the town at that time: how it lowered under the filthy outpourings of industry, its old, broken-down buildings – like these which stood on the riverside below the top of Mile End Road – assailed by filth and dust from the ballast hills.

In some ways it was probably fair comment, before the incorporation of the town gave way to the health and social improvements that would take place over the next half-century,

However, Brockie’s comments didn’t stop at bricks and mortar. This was him on the townsfolk, after you’d extracted the few that could be classed as decent, intelligent etc:

“All the rest are chaff and sand, fit only to manure the land.

“Mill-horses, pacing round and round, the same eternal spot of ground, to pick a paltry pittance up, and smoke and snooze, and eat and sup. Gross gluttons, worshipping their belly. Boobies with brains of calf-foot’s jelly ...”

Nice, what?

As for the name Hookey Walker, it wasn’t original to Brockie, but dated from earlier in the 19th century, as a phrase for describing something as humbug.

In Dickens, you sometimes find it shortened to “Walker!”