Paper Sticks: A childhood in Byker in the 1960s

 

In 1983 Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen published her first book, ‘BYKER’, to much acclaim. Sirkka studied photography in London, co-founded the Amber Collective and moved to Byker in 1969. The photographs and text in the book record the lives of the residents living in this suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne at a time of great change. Housing in Byker was considered slums. And in 1963, under the regeneration scheme for the city by City Planning Officer Wilfred Burns, Head of the Labour council T.Dan Smith and architect John Poulson, earmarked Byker for demolition and, eventually, to make way for visionary architect Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall and village.

 

Much has already been written and documented about the clearances and corruption in the council, which lead to custodial sentences. This piece is not intended to be a history of that time, but rather a brief history of my time living in Byker from 1960 to 1965. I am indebted to my elder brother Lance, we bounce memories off each other, and these shared memories alongside stories passed on by mam and dad may be clouded by the passage of time. I also have photographs, mostly taken by our dad with the family Kodak Box Brownie in Shipley Street back lane, of Lance, myself, mam and dad, relatives and friends, of our happy childhood living in Byker.

 

In Sirkka’s book ‘BYKER’, there is, probably, her most famous image ‘Girl on a Spacehopper’ taken in Janet Street back lane. But the image that resonated most with me is titled ‘Ragman’s horse and cart’. Taken in 1970, it shows a horse and cart standing in the wasteland of the first clearances, with Conyers Road leading up to Headlam Street and the old Police Station. Most prominent is the only building still standing: the old Shipley Street Swimming Baths (now Climb Newcastle) which was incorporated into the Byker Wall. The boilers of the baths were intended to heat the Byker Wall, which today is heated by a Biomass Generator. On the right of the photograph are the terraced houses that will be demolished and replaced by Byker village. Another building still standing is the Church of St Michael on Byker hill.

 

In 2012 I contacted Sirkka via The Side Gallery, home of the Amber Collective in Newcastle and after showing her my family photographs, I asked if I could purchase a print of ‘Ragman’s horse and cart’. I now have that signed print in pride of place, and am eternally grateful to Sirkka.

 

The map below (early 20th Century) shows the location of our flat (red) and the location from which Sirkka took her photograph (blue).  The modern view from above is very different: Shipley Street lives on as Shipley Walk.

Early 20th Century map of Byker and an aerial view of exactly the same area early 21st Century.

 

Me, age 5, School Photo

I was born in Byker in November 1960, and my brother Lance was born July 1957, to Eden and Margaret Thompson, we were both christened at St Michael’s Church. We lived, until 1965, in a Victorian ‘Tyneside flat’ on Shipley Street which was built around 1870. In 1965 we moved to Molineux Court on Heaton Park Road, as Byker Redevelopment got underway.

 

My memories of my first 5 years of life are fragmentary to say the least, and I think neither Lance nor I could say exactly what year some of them occurred. We lived in a first floor flat of Shipley Street, just down from Shipley Baths: Lance remembers the internal layout of the flat better than me, and he has drawn a plan.   Our landlord was Tony Jegier (pronounced Yager), a Polish immigrant. And his family, which also consisted of two sons Anthony and David, lived on the ground floor. We had, as many will have, an outside toilet in the back yard alongside the coal bunker at the bottom of the stone back steps.

Bro, age 5, School Photo

 

Lance’s recollection of our Tyneside Flat

St Michael’s Church

My Christening Record

 

Lance, me and Sandra

The earliest photograph I have, with me in it, would have been taken in summer 1961. I would be around 8 months old, Lance, in his cowboy hat, around 4 years old. I am being held by our cousin Sandra, who would be around 12 years old, and we are sitting on the bonnet of a neighbour’s car. The chimney of Byker swimming baths is clearly visible behind us.

Tony Jegier owned a motorbike and sidecar, and Lance remembers being taken out in it with Anthony – the sidecar appears in one photo taken of dad.

 

As I wrote in the book ‘It’s My Life! 1960s Newcastle’, Tyne Bridge Publishing 2009. ‘’Byker was a very friendly community, everyone was helpful, and although no one had much people shared’’. And to go back to Sirkka’s photograph, I remember the rag and bone man coming down the back lane with his horse and cart, and if you had anything to give him the children would receive a balloon. I also remember rushing out when the ice-cream van arrived in the back lane. I also remember loving the arrival of the coal men; they would heave sacks of coal off the back of their lorry and empty them into the bunker. I was a very small child and on one occasion I clearly remember, when asked by a neighbour or relative ‘’what are you going to be when you grow up, a jockey?’’ I replied ‘’a coal man’’ - high aspirations!

 

Everyone at the time had a coal fire, and dad would empty a bucket of coal into the fire, and then make sticks out of sheets of newspaper, probably the Daily Mirror - dad was a life long socialist and Labour supporter. I used to watch fascinated as he made these paper sticks, carefully folding them over and over like pieces of origami that in a few moments would be gone, putting them between the coals, lighting them, and then holding a double sheet of newspaper in front to bleeze the fire. We didn’t have a bathroom, so everyone would have to bathe in a tub in front of the fire or as children in the sink, where we had a twin-tub washing machine, prior to that mam used to wash by hand and run the washing through the mangle.

 

Byker Happy Juvenile Jazz Band: dad and his sister Nellie indicated.

An old family friend, Polly Moll - more like an old aunty, who lived a few doors down - would sometimes look after Lance and I. Dad had known Polly and her husband Alec since he was a child in the 1920s. A photograph from around 1930 shows dad and his sister Nellie (who would die from Consumption (Tuberculosis) just a couple of years after this photograph was taken) in the Byker Happy Juvenile Jazz Band, taken on the steps up to the pavilion in Heaton Park. Alec Moll is on the left in his uniform and bearskin.

 

We had five pets in our time in Shipley Street. A goldfish, we won at the Hoppings on the Town-Moor, which lived in its bowl on the side of the kitchen sink; two white mice we called Pixie and Dixie, named after the television cartoon, which we were allowed to let run around the living room; and a tortoise. We didn’t know tortoise’s hibernated, and after it went missing for a few days, we found it hibernating under a wardrobe. We also had an Alsatian puppy we called Sparky, named after our favourite comic. Unfortunately we only had Sparky for a few months, as we moved into Molineux Court; dogs were not allowed, so dad had to find a new home for him. I’m not sure if our choice of pet was influenced by one of our favourite television programmes Blue Peter. I also remember watching and being terrified by Doctor Who and I clearly remember seeing if not actually watching the state funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, I, obviously, did not know who he was at the time.

 

Shipley Street Gang

Everything seemed to happen in the back lane of Shipley Street, as the photographs show. One of my favourites is a group photo of Lance, myself and friends - their names now forgotten. All kids have accidents and scrapes, none more so than Anthony Jegier. On one occasion he cycled down the back lane and straight onto Brinkburn Street and got hit by a car. On another we were playing darts in the back lane and as Lance threw a dart, Anthony ran across and the dart stuck in his head, Lance was chased down the back lane by Anthony’s dad. Another occasion we were exploring a derelict off-licence at the bottom of Shipley Street and Anthony fell through the floor into the cellar, fracturing his skull. As for myself, there was one Guy Fawkes Night - we always had the bonfire in the back lane - and dad would spread out our fireworks on the dining table and we were allowed one at time. I saw a metal pipe sticking out of the bonfire, and stupidly picked it up, I can vividly remember the pain as I dropped the pipe and went running into mam and dad, blisters already coming up on my hand. On another occasion, Lance and a friend were playing with a firework and an ember shot out and landed on his neck, he still has the scar. And one time Lance and other kids were looking down into the coal cellar of the swimming pool, which opened in the pavement of the back lane, when someone pushed Lance in. He was rescued by the caretaker, a big black guy who knew everyone in the street, and carried him home.  You cannot wrap kids in cotton wool, you had accidents and scrapes, then carried on, it ‘was’ all part of growing up. Lance had a three wheeler bike, which was passed onto me, and I, apparently, used to go haring down the back lane pavement, turning at Brinkburn Street.

Lance on his tricycle

Me, Anthony and David Jegier

 

One ‘Character’ we used to see walking through the streets of Byker, was rather cruelly nicknamed ‘Jimmy the Dummy’, as he couldn’t speak, I’m sure mam and dad knew him as well. Kids being kids, I am afraid we all used to taunt him. A few years after we had moved, I saw him on one of our family trips to the Sunday quayside market; he was a street entertainer, doing the strongman act.

 

Me and Mandy 1964

Me, mam, and long forgotten names

Lance and Sandra

Mam, Lance and me

 

The winter of 1962/63 was particularly harsh and dad had to dig a channel through the snow from our front door and Lance dug a snow cave. I remember mam telling me I slipped on the back steps and tumbled from the top to bottom.

 

Two corner shops both Lance and myself remember well were, Alfie Patterson, a grocer, who’s shop was on Raby Street, and Tommy Grey, who had a corgi dog, his shop was on Brinkburn Street. We were in Alfie Paterson’s a lot running messages for mam or buying ha’penny lucky dips and comics. I remember in 1964 when Crackerjack came over from America, it was an odd flavoured, hard popcorn, and I think it was mainly bought for the little toy that came in every box.

 

 

 

Recalled by Lance: Young Brian always looked serious in photos.

I think this fabulous image was posed for just such emphasis!

 

At Christmas we would decorate the living room with tinsel and crepe paper, and put up a small artificial tree and glass baubles we had for years. One year I received a tin rocking horse on springs, which I loved, I can see it now, but the screeching sound of the springs drove mam and dad up the wall. In 1964 the must have toy for boys was the Johnny Seven O.M.A. (One Man Army) a large multi-function toy gun, and Lance received one. Two or three years later dad heard or read of a Catholic Convent, where it was I cannot remember, who were asking for donations of old toys and games to distribute to those less fortunate at Christmas. We bagged up what we didn’t want, including the Johnny Seven, and took them along one early evening. We both remember walking along the tree and bush lined drive to the convent door and being startled by a large white statue of the Virgin Mary on a pedestal seeming to glow in the winter darkness. Dad rang on the doorbell, and a nun answered, we said we had brought some things to donate, and handed over the bagged games and toys including the Johnny Seven in its own bag, ‘’Oh! What do we have here’’ said the nun in a lilting Irish accent ‘’a guitar’’, ‘’No! A gun’’ Lance replied.         

 

Both Lance and I went to Raby Street School, myself from 1965 until 1972. The infant block was separate from the juniors and 6th form, which was in the main building. It was, if memory serves, just a hall, it was here I got my polio vaccine on a sugar lump and what was called the 6 pricks, which was a T.B. test or the HEAF test. The junior school consisted of a main hall with a stage at one end and the classrooms down the side, and a gymnasium with wooden climbing bars on the walls between the windows and climbing ropes. We used to line up and go to a small hall a short distance away for school dinner, which, as everyone will remember, included mashed potato and cabbage, boiled to within an inch of it’s life. And we used to go once a week to Byker Library on Brinkburn Street.  One teacher I will never forget was Mr McMahon, a jolly, rotund, teacher who used to play the accordion at school assembly. In the middle distance of Sirkka’s photograph you can see people walking along Brinkburn Street, after we moved to Molineux Court I remember walking through the gradually disappearing houses to get to school and playing in the rubble, throwing bricks with my mates, trying to hit the last piece of glass in a window, keeping a look out for a Headlam Street bobby.

 

Heaton Park Court 1973

The houses on the other side of Shipley Street back lane began to empty and fall into dereliction as residents moved out to be re-housed, who knows where, as we were in 1965 and moved into Molineux Court, one of the new (cheaply constructed) tower blocks built as part of the regeneration plan for Newcastle.

 

But that is another story.

 

I hope you have enjoyed reading my trip back in time. I hope it brings back memories for you, if you lived in Byker, or any of the suburbs that were demolished in the 60s. You may be in the photographs, now that would be amazing. Please email me: brian@balmerino.net

For Mam and Dad with love: Always Remembered.

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Sources:

Personal memories and stories of Brian and Lance Thompson

BYKER (Bloodaxe Books 1983)  by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen