Tributes to TY McGurk sports shop founder Tom McGurk

Tributes have been paid to the founder of a North East sports shop business who could sell 'ice to the Eskimos'.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 2nd May 2017, 8:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:08 pm
Tom McGurk.
Tom McGurk.

Tom McGurk, who ran TY McGurk, has died at the age of 91 after a short battle with septicemia and pneumonia.

He founded his business in his native South Shields in the late 1960s before later opening branches in Washington and Sunderland.

Tom McGurk during his time with the Merchant Navy

Although the chain catered for a variety of sports, it will be remembered by thousands of people across the region as the place where they bought their first pair of football boots.

While he was mainly housebound at his Cleadon home in recent months, his family say he was “laughing and joking until the end”.

Step-daughter Adrienne Wallhead, 59, who is a nurse and also from Cleadon, said: “Even when the ambulance came to take him to hospital, he was asking if they could drop him off at The Cottage pub along the way.”

Her sister, Jennifer Robinson, 67, a training company director who now lives in Gateshead, added: “He was a man’s man but nice with it.

Tom McGurk and his wife Doris

“He spoke his mind clearly and if he disagreed with something he told you so. But he was also loving and loyal and will be sadly missed.”

Mr McGurk was born in the Laygate area of South Shields on June 2, 1925, and attended the town’s Baring Street and Dean Road schools.

His first job was at a local fish and chip shop while he was still a pupil before he started his full-time career delivering messages for the Shields Gazette.

Mr McGurk joined the Merchant Navy after the start of the Second World War with his duties including diving underwater to remove limpet bombs from the side of wrecked vessels.

Tom McGurk during his time with the Merchant Navy

He later worked at Westoe Colliery and in insurance before runnning a general clothing shop in Park Avenue, South Shields, around half-a-century ago.

After acting on advice to specialise, he soon opened his first TY McGurk at The Nook, South Shields, with branches following at The Galleries, Washington, and Crowtree Road, Sunderland, as trade flourished.

He eventually sold up to his staff after turning 65 with the new owners keeping the successful McGurk name as they first expanded the business north of the River Tyne before selling up themselves to Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct empire. Mrs Wallhead said: “While he could sell sand to the Arabs and ice to the eskimoes, he was extremely loyal to his staff and wanted them to take it over rather than accept more money from other people.

“He also kept money in the business in their early years in charge to help them along the way.”

Tom McGurk and his wife Doris

He is survived by wife, Doris, 89, who was a director of the business, his two step-daughters and step-son James Lowrie, 62, of Cleadon, an engineer in the oil industry.

Mr McGurk also has two daughters from his first marriage, Marilyn Latimer, 67, a retired saleswoman, and Sylvia Dent, 59, who works in retail, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

He died in hospital on April 20 with his funeral service held on Friday at South Shields Crematorium.

What’s in the TY McGurk name?

Opinion is divided locally on the first part of TY McGurk name.

Some people will spell it out as initials while others say it as a name.

So who is right? Over to Mrs McGurk herself.

“Thomas Younger McGurk was his full name so TY was used to shorten the business name down,” recalls Doris.

“But the first signwriter forgot to put a full stop inbetween the T and the Y and suddenly people who didn’t know him previously would be coming in the shop calling him Ty.

“It stuck from the point of view of the business although he was always Tom to his family and friends.”

His family included his sisters, the late Lilian McGurk, who was a noted local netball coach and worked for the English Netball Association, and Sylvia Spoor.

The business’s name is also remembered as the sponsor of a variety of sports trophies, teams and individuals.

Sunderland boxer Billy Hardy, a former British, European and Commonwealth featherweight champion, used to work at the firm’s city centre store and wore gloves and shorts emblazoned with the McGurk name.

The day TY McGurk “sacked” his wife

Ever heard the one about the husband who “sacked” his wife from their business?

Mrs McGurk, who was married to Tom for 42 years, served as a director of the business and would occasionally help out in the shops.

She remembers: “One time a young lad walked into the shop with his mam and looked up at a pair of boots on a shelf costing £80.

“His mam told him they could only afford to buy a cheaper pair for £25 and he wasn’t happy about it. I then told him not to be cheeky to his mam as I was a mam and I knew where she was coming from.

“After they went out without buying either, Tom said to me ‘don’t you realise that they’ll just go to another shop and buy the most expensive pair of boots elsewhere?’.

“‘I’d rather have them buy the £80 boots here rather than around the corner and at least I could get them to pay per week’. He told me I was sacked so I got my coat and told him I was going home.”

The couple survived the “crisis” and enjoyed lengthy holidays in Florida during their retirement with Tom becoming an avid golfer.

While his family are happy that he lived a full life almost to the end - even planning a cruise while fighting his recent illness - he very nearly did not survive the Second World War.

Step-son James recalls: “He used to talk about how a merchant ship had caught fire and they had to get it out of a harbour.

“So they sailed out in this tug when there was a sudden blast from the ship. Tom suffered spinal injuries and the man next to him was killed.”