School days in South Shields - telling the story of this class picture

There can’t be many people who don’t have a copy of their old school photo tucked away in a cupboard or indeed, the loft.

Terry Grewcock's school picture.
Terry Grewcock's school picture.

And reader Terry Grewcock is no exception. In fact, he’s had his for decades.

Today, he shares the story behind it.

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“I’ve had this photo of my first school for over 70 years now,” says Terry.

“It is interesting because the photo was actually taken by the teacher’s father, James Henry Cleet, who was the well-known South Shields photographer.”

Terry explains that James H Cleet was born in South Shields in 1876, and trained as a photographer after leaving school at 13.

Although he did some portrait work, he specialised mainly as a freelance, working for newspapers, local councils, and shipping companies who usually hired him to photograph the launching of their newly-built ships.

“A familiar figure at these launches, he could be seen at work wearing his bowler hat, and seemed to delight in these theatrical occasions of ‘blessing’ the ship with a bottle of champagne smashed against the vessel’s bows!

“Once he had captured the event with his camera, he would raise his hat in a flourish and take a deep bow to indicate the assignment had been completed.”

An collection of his work, consisting of hundreds of photos, is held locally by South Tyneside Council History Archive.

“Back to the photo, Miss Thelma Cleet, the 22-year-old daughter of James Cleet, had started her school in the family home, and part photographic studio, in Wardle Avenue, across the road to Mowbray Road Juniors (now demolished).

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“Their gable-ended house still survives, but one wonders how she was able to organise this wide-ranging group in such a small house!

“The photo was taken in 1942 and half-way through the war, probably in January or February, as the class are all well wrapped up.

“James Cleet was now too old for active service (he had served in the RAF during the First World War, was wounded twice, and even survived an air crash).

“I can just imagine Thelma saying to her dad one day – ‘wouldn’t it be great if you could take a nice picture of my pupils.’

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“Her dad might have replied, ‘Well, I can’t make it this week,Thelma, as I have an important ship launch at Readhead’s, but next week is fine. Perhaps we could line them up in the entrance to Mowbray Juniors during their lesson-time when it is quiet’.

‘Yes, dad, but remember this is not a ship launching, and no spare bottles of champagne for you to take away!’ joked Thelma.

“At the time, I was approaching my fifth birthday, just before leaving to join Westoe Infants. I’m in the front row, second boy from the right. I lived in Mowbray Road, at my grandma’s with my mam, following the death of my dad a couple of years earlier, in 1938, when he was lost at sea in the trawler Jeanie Stewart.

“Unfortunately, I can only remember a couple of my classmates. Front row, far left was Margaret Whale who lived in St Vincent Street. Her father was a River Pilot. Front row, first boy on the left was Jimmy Smith, a doctor’s son, who lived on the corner of Westoe Road and Mowbray Road. The house also had Dr Smith’s surgery entrance, on Mowbray Road.

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“I can remember once attending Jimmy’s birthday party, and going through the surgery entrance.

“Miss Thelma Cleet got married in 1945, three years after this photo was taken. Her husband, Matthew Frame, had just completed his war service as a decorated seaman. In 1946, they had a baby girl, Thelma junior.

“Sometime after this event, they left South Shields, and settled in Essex. James H Cleet died in South Shields in 1959.

“One final thought! I don’t think Miss Cleet’s dad ever ‘raised his hat’ to us on that cold day in 1942 ... not like he did at his ship launches!”