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History of Newbiggin by the Sea

Life in Newbiggin in the 1950's

A reflection by Tony Lawson

I was brought up in Marine Street, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, a child of the 1950s and a teenager in the 1960s and how the look of the place has changed since those days. My father was Jack Lawson, who worked in the Store Yard as a joiner and who became the Newbiggin undertaker and my mother was Nellie Chalder from Newbiggin Colliery. We (my brothers Barry, Terry and myself) lived in Marine Street all our young lives and from there we was free to roam wider and further around Newbiggin and note the changes in the way the place presented itself over those years. These are my earliest memories of the village and like all early memories have become a little clouded with time and so are not certain. But they are still vivid, as I bring to mind the pictures associated with a very happy childhood.

The Moor to the Church Point

In the early 1950s, the bath was in the back kitchen, covered with a wooden top and a plant except on bath nights and the pantry was the only place to keep food cool. Cooking was done over the main fire which had an oven attached to it. The back yard of the house where I grew up originally had three outhouses, the lavvy (cold in the Winter, especially with a new-fangled plastic seat!), the coal house and the accurately named middle place. Coming out into the back lane of Marine Street in the East End in the 1950s was a different experience than it is now. I cannot actually remember cobbled streets, though I do remember seeing cobbles when they were re-laying the back lane once, but the drain in the road was very deep set, so that you could use it as ramp with your bike or your skates. Set into each house's back wall was a wooden hatch through which loads of coal had to be shovelled. The coal was delivered by a wagon which had a number of partitions in its open back, each containing the correct weight of coal and individually delivered along the street by raising the back end of the wagon with consecutive panels loosened so that only one load was deposited at any house. The coal wagon never delivered on a Monday as that was washing day and the women of the street would hang their sheets out to dry along the back of East Sea View, where the wind came in from the Moor. This was supervised by Mrs Paterson, from Moor View, who knew the secret of organising the sheets to get the maximum drying power.

The corner of East Sea View and Moor View was our main route onto the Moor, and as you emerged, straight in front of you was a water trough for horses, built up with brick and consisting of a large stone oblong filled with water. Look up from the trough and straight down the Moor, the first thing that caught your eye was the Monkey Pole. This was an upright trunk of wood with steps nailed into the side. When you were old enough to get onto the first high step, you could climb to the top, which was where there were two parallel treads you could stand on while clinging to the top of the trunk and look out to the sea. Further up the Moor still, you came to a small stream that ran to the sea from a large area of standing water that contained many grassy islands, that as you got older you could jump from one to the other in search of frog spawn, newts or water boatman. Parents tried to keep children away from this water by claiming that it was bottomless and if you fell in you would never re-appear.

Following the stream across a little wooden bridge built for the golfers, the low sandy cliffs of Pylon Bay would be reached. Before these were shored up with other materials, the cliffs had a number of ever-changing paths down to the beach, as high seas ate them away in the spring. The main entry to the beach from Marine Street was to the north of the pylon, right next to a Second World War concrete block house built on the edge of the Moor that could be entered through a small land-facing tunnel. There were slits in the seaward side for the watchers to look for the Nazi invaders. The beach itself had good sand but was only used by the occasional holidaymaker from the caravans on the Church Point. Its cool wind put all but the hardy off. Towards the north end of the beach at the Beacon Point, there were sandstone cliffs and high dunes that were the place for a picnic in the high summer. There was also a blow hole where the sea could spume through at the high tide. It was great fun to dodge the high plumes of seawater and this always ended up in a soaking. Near the blow hole was the main source of dross, the small pieces of sea-coal that we collected with sandbags and bikes for happing up the fire overnight.

St Bartholomew's Church in the 1920s.As the beach went southwards, the cliffs got higher, became clay rather than sand before giving way to sandstone. At the Church end, access to the top required a scramble up some rocks near a smaller inaccessible blockhouse, also long gone. This brought you out near a small Coastguard building that never seemed to be inhabited. Around Church Point, new sea walls were built to protect the headland, and this also happened to Little Bay, in those days, still sandy and a good place to go for a swim. Getting down to Little Bay was by way of a set of stairs on the westward side. We always came up from Little Bay either by climbing the cliff at the eastern end (it seemed very high at that time, but it was an easy enough climb) or by going through a small cave (now concreted in) and over some rocks to another little inlet where the cliffs were scaleable. The rocks around Newbiggin Point were a good source of amusement, as they provided opportunities to explore rock pools and their wildlife. There was also the wreckage of a concrete ship that could be got to at very low tides. I seem to remember that there looked to be a window in the side of it.

Coming back towards the East End, the churchyard was only half the size that it is today and the Caravan Park much smaller also. This was because, at the end of Front Street, past the Cresswell Arms, where the entrance to the park is today, stood a permanent funfair. This opened at Easter and lasted all the way through the summer. There were dodgems and a number of sideshows such as roll the penny, but the highlight for me was the Flying Chairs. The bigger lads used to make them weave in and out by using their bodies to swing them further than what they would do naturally, though I never dared do this before the funfair was dismantled. Coming home past Prospect, the wooden Golf Club stood on the edge of the Moor, until it was burned down. I remember this as a green building for some reason, but could not swear that it was. To get back to Marine Street through the back of East Sea View, you passed the bottom of a row of very old and derelict houses called Downies Buildings that were pulled down in the 1950s.

The Moor to the Colliery

White House Corner.At the end of Marine Street to the west, the houses gave way to the Maud's Pool. Standing at the end of Moor View looking towards the Moor, there was a blacksmiths directly ahead, though this was demolished early on in the fifties and behind the smithy a row of bushes stretched up towards the top end of the Moor. Further up the Moor would be found the Duntin stone, used by the freeholders as a boundary marker of their land and in a yearly ceremony, kids were thrown monkey nuts by a horse-mounted freeholder riding the bounds. A dirt track wove round the smithy towards allotments. My da's was the third one in on the left and he tended it mainly on a Sunday morning bringing home the vegetables and the mint for Sunday dinner when called. Later in the 1950s, I remember that there were some brick buildings (garages perhaps) on the northern end of Maud's Pool that were a stop on the way to the pit heaps - one of the main ways that we kids went to the Colliery school. To get to school, we used to cross the Pool towards a gate, which we always climbed over. This led down to a bridge over the Yellow River, as we called it, a dirty quite wide stretch of water that came out of the middle of two pit heaps and disappeared into the houses of Front Street. The bridge was made of pit props and had no parapets. Ahead was a patch of level pit spoil, in the middle of which was a large pool of water, to the left a farmer's field and to the right u-shaped heights of spoil, one arm red and the other dark grey. There were two ways to the Colliery from this point. The one we always took in the morning was straight towards Woodlea. There was a small stream at the Woodlea end that had to be crossed by a strange structure. This was two brick walls going across the stream but with a gap in middle that you had to step across. For a little boy, that step always seemed to be a big one. The other side of the stream before you hit the concrete of the houses was often very muddy and I remember losing a shoe in it once. My mam was not pleased.

The other way was to head for the pit heaps themselves, either over the top of them or by the western edge and walk towards the pit. The target was to go under the bridge that carried the tubs and turn left on Oakwood Avenue towards what became Minto Lodge, which at that time was the pit offices. The pit with its winding gear was on the right as you came under the bridge and you had to turn left towards the Colliery houses. As you walked down that road, on the right hand side was a field that the NCB kept the pit props in. There was one summer, during the miners' fortnight, when we spent every day building forts from these props and having a great time playing cowboys and Indians. At the end of the field you could get through to Brentwood Avenue passing the two big gas tanks that were built on top of brick cradles. This was a handy route if I was visiting my granny who lived at 1 Storey Crescent. You would emerge on Woodhorn Road near the shops; Cranstons was one, Jimmy Dodds the other and opposite was the Coop. The Cooperative buildings had a bakery at one end and a grocery shop at the other. The latter, in the 1950s, was an old-fashioned store with two counters. On the left was the groceries section, where you could be served with fresh produce including butter taken from a big slab and slapped into shape with special paddles. On the right there was a hardware section with all manner of things like batteries. As you came out of the store there was a cigarette machine on the outside of the main door - I wonder how long that would last these days!

To get to my Grandma's, Harriet Chalder, I would always head down the little unpaved alleyway by the side of number 1 Storey Crescent and go in between a small unlighted outhouse and an asbestos garage. The outhouse was where my Aunty Mimi Gray used to gut the fish and peel the potatoes (in an odd old tumbling machine) for the fish-and-chip shop that was the right hand shop of three at the bottom of the back garden. I cannot remember what the middle shop was (it was eventually knocked through to form a bookies), but the left hand shop was a barbers. To go in the back door at number 1 was difficult for small boy, as the door was up two steps (always kept leaded by my grandma) and the handle was very high. The door was at right angles to the back kitchen window with a sill that the cat could get up on and, using its weight, swing down on the handle to open the door for myself. As my Uncle Willis said, the cat was brighter than I was because it could open the door and I could not. My grandma replied that I was brighter because I could shut the door after me, when the cat never did.

To get to Aunty Mimi's at the last house in Storey Crescent, number 133, was a straight walk up Pelaw Avenue, but I preferred to snake through two big squares of houses, now gone, that had big play areas in the middle of the squares where there always seemed to be a game of something going on. Carrying on up to the top of Pelaw Avenue brought you to Store Farm Road, where the Coop farm was situated. I believe that this was the location of the original Woodhorn Demesne, but all I can remember of it was a yard with cows in.

If I was going to school via the pit, I would carry on down what is now Oakwood Avenue, with the train track on my left. Where this met Woodhorn Road, on the right was the War Memorial, in those days surround by lilac trees, where you could run around and find hidey holes for hide-and-seek. On the left the rails went over the road to the Tankey gate. This was a large metal frame with steel mesh over it. If the tankey was coming through at lunch time, all the kids would climb on to the gate and be carried back and forth by the pitman who opened it, at quite a speed - or so it seemed. The tankey carried on up Collingwood Road towards the screens. This was a large building behind a tall concrete wall and a huge wooden gate where the road turned north. The screens were where the coal from the pit was transferred onto freight trains, and the train station was just beyond it.

From the Colliery school itself, there were other ways to my Grandma's. The obvious way was straight up Woodhorn Road to the coop bakery and then go by the side of it, where there was a rough path through, either by the back of Coop, which was a prime place to play muggies, or to drop down a couple of steep steps at the electricity sub-station and call in at the wooden Paper shop on the left for a quick read of the Beano. The more exciting way however was by tubs! Between the pit and the screens and next to the rails, there was a system of a continuous loop of an iron cable, with four tubs at regular intervals, to carry the coal to the screens. Unlike the tankey, the tubs dipped down towards Woodhorn Road and went under it, to come back up steeply towards the screens. When leaving the school gates, we would cross the road to a wooden two bar fence that sectioned off the pit heap there. We would tightrope along the top of the fence and then drop into the field as we reached the single house before the bridge. From there, we could go round the back of the house and climb over to the cutting where the tubs were coming up. We scrambled down the sides of the valley and then would climb on the tubs for a ride, to just before the screens wall started. A quick hop over a wall and we could move up Brentwood towards Storey Crescent.

The pit heap opposite the school, where the Sports Centre now is, was a route to Long Park and the west end. Before the low pit heap rose up, there was a rough piece of grass, unsuitable for any sort of game, but towards Front Street, the pit heap got higher and there was one place where the slope had a double dip on the way down, which made it perfect for sledging on the winter and playing on your bicycle in the summer. Behind that, the pit heap gave in to a line of trees that marked out where Long Park was. Further down Woodhorn Road, where the care home is now, stood the Church School, with traditional sandstone Church School architecture, blackened by time and the pit. There was a rough road beside the school which separated a little pit heap area that was fenced off and fronted Woodhorn Road. On the Woodlea side of the road, the path wound down to the dip where the allotments were on Woodhorn Lane and there was a little slope up to a fence next to the pavement, at the top of which kids had made their own clay path.

Marine Street to Front Street

In the fifties, the main way to Front street from Marine Street was straight up Queen Street, past Firmin's on the corner; the classical corner shop, small, packed full of everything and very friendly service as they knew everyone in the surrounding streets. This was the main road to Front Street as well, for cars and horse and carts. At the corner of Front Street was Porters', the Queen's Head, a home from home for my da. The Queens at that time was run by Bob Robinson, famed as a professional goalie, and whose son, Barry, I did the Sunday papers with for about five years. And straight ahead was Baker's, another little shop with good ice cream as I recall. However, there was a quicker, if a less clean route, through Mauds Pool.

At the western end of Marine Street and the back of New Queen Street, there was a way into the Pool. The houses of Marine Street and Moor View were separated from the Pool (named after a Police sergeant who was murdered there (?)) by a long, thick concrete and pebble rim, which hung above a big drop into a clarty mess that was the Pool. It was always deep with mud, even in the summer, but there were ways through it, if you knew what you were doing. At the southern end, near the allotments at the back of New Queen Street, there was a large slab of worn slate-like rock which had 'footsteps' worn into by generations of Eastenders using it as a short cut to the shops. You used the rock to drop into the Pool, either to head straight across to a little entry to the bottom of Moor Croft, through a narrow opening made narrower by a large concrete post to stop motorcyclists getting through, or heading towards the Salvation Army hut that stood at the Front Street entrance to the Pool. To get there, you needed to be able to negotiate a complex system of pools and clarts, depending on the time of the year. If you went towards the heights of the allotments, you found yourself cut off by the garage that stood opposite the Salvation Army Hut. If you went towards the Mauds Terrace side, you had to reach the Blacksmiths that dominated the bottom of the Pool by leaping over deep and treacherous mud. The Blacksmiths was a green and white rough structure with the doors at the Front Street end. The doors were always open during the day, and there was a distinctive smell of leather, horse and heat that came out of it.

Coming out of the Pool, you emerged on Front Street, opposite Crosby's, the Barbers where I had my first haircut. The barber had a kids' plank which he put across the adults' large red-leathered chair. He also had old-fashioned hand clippers that hurt as he went close to your scalp, which was the requirement of the time. In Robinson Square, there were a number of small traditional fishing houses, arranged around an open space, including 2-5 Henderson Buildings, later pulled down for garages, with number 1 surviving, as the home of friends John, Lynn and Leigh Taylor. At the west end of the Square (surely the most ancient part of Newbiggin) was the Old Salvation Army building. Robinson Square was the main route from the East End to the beach, but there were many other ways from Front Street to the Bay. However, Front Street had its own attractions.

As you came out of King Street in the summer, I can remember old fisher women having tables at their front doors selling whelks in paper cones to holidaymakers. This was on the front of Robinson Square, Turning down towards the Quay Wall, you passed the Central Club and then the Wallaw picture house, which became a bingo hall before being pulled down for housing. Just beyond was the entrance to the Store Yard, where my da worked as joiner first, then foreman, then undertaker. To get to his woodshop, you passed under the arch and walked past the small cottage type houses on the left. Straight ahead was the abbatoir, where Sutton Cook slaughtered and prepared the meat for the Coop butchers. Turning left, an external wooden stair with a corrugated iron canopy led up to the Store cobblers and straight ahead were the garages for the milk delivery service. Turning left again the big double doors of the Store works stood open. My da was often found in the tiny little office to the left, with a big wooden counter that the workmen used to lift me up on. Going further into the Works, the wonderful smell of wood was dominant, but hidden in the back room was the place where they made the coffins.

Going further down Front Street, the old Coop grocery stood where the furniture shop now is. This was a large shop with various counters for different provisions, where service was personal and you had to give your check number for each purchase. Divi day was always looked forward to, as it gave members of the Coop a nice little sum at each half-year end. But the Coop also had hidden treasures. At each end of the building, there was a recessed entrance, one of which led to the upstairs Library. At the top of the stairs, you entered to a big counter straight ahead, with the books arranged on shelves in two rooms. The children's section was the first you came to, and there was a little reference room at the back. The other door led up to the Store Hall, where dances were held and where my mam and da (and many, many others) had done much of their courting. The Dramatic Society also held their annual plays there, with my da providing much of the scenery. I can't remember how big it actually was, but it seemed large to a small boy and always very busy. I remember watching Ivy Whitelaw in rehearsal and marvelling at how she turned into another woman when on stage.

Opposite the grocery on the beach side of the street, the Coop also had a little arcade of shops, where the main Coop is now. On the right corner entrance was the butchers, where Sutton Cook's voice boomed out over the street. To the left was the furniture section, run by Mr Dixon of the West End. The entrance to this store was towards the back of the arcade. Another Coop shop was the chemists' further towards the east, which was managed by Alec Wallace, a gentle Scot who weighed you on an old fashioned balance machine with little metal weights that ran along the balance arms. The shop always had a distinctive medical and soap smell and a door with a metal sneck on it. Other premises that were memorable, between the pubs, were; Johnsons the shoe shop, all high stacked shelves full of leather; and round the Quay Wall, Miss Mann's sweet shop, steps down to a dark small space and across the road; Cracketts the paper shop, the left hand side of another small arcade. On the Quay Wall itself, the public toilets had a back room mortuary for those occasional and tragic accidents on the beach and the unchanging art deco heaven that was Bertorelli's Café. I have never tasted as good ice cream as Mando's again. When I worked there in my teenage years. I had so much of it that I hardly eat it at all now. Ella Clarke was the supervisor there and a lovely woman to work for, for we young ones.

Near the number 3 bus stop to the Colliery and Ashington, Bertorelli also had a 'middle shop', which was narrow and had a great pinball machine that was there for years. The buses were always a gamble if you wanted to get to Ashington. We youngsters would wait at the Quay Wall, straining to see if the single-decker 31 or the double-decker 3 came first round the bend where the Queen Victoria was. If it was the 31, it was a sprint back to the Coop, hoping that someone would already be there to flag it down. You had a better chance if it was the 3, but the odd driver would ignore you running towards the shelter if no-one put their hand out at the stop and turned the White House corner before you knew it.

The Promenade

The bay in the 1950s.My first recollection of the South Bay was before the eastern part of the Promenade was built. The way down from Marine Street was either by Attlee Cottages, before the playground was built, and via a very sandy track, which is still there, or by the back of New King Street, past the small chippie at the top of where Downies Buildings were, across High Street and down Sandridge by the Lifeboat House. This was the only solid route onto the beach at the East End, because the rest of the sea front was composed of sandy cliffs above which and set back, were the houses of Covent Garden and other sea-facing housing. The 'new' prom must have built quite early in my life, but I cannot remember the actual construction - I guess we were kept well away while it was being done. The prom was much more open than it is now, with an iron railing at the edge rather than concrete bastions. The way down to the beach was by steps set regularly into the prom. At the Quay Wall end, the new prom had a ramp down to meet the original ramp of the inter-War prom, with a flat concrete section connecting them, to allow boats to get down to the beach. For young lads, the temptation was too great when the sea was up, to try and cross this flat piece without getting swamped by incoming waves. Needless to say that we very rarely ended up without white tide marks on our shoes! A variation was when there was a really high tide and the dare was to get along the top of the prom, from Bertorelli's to the Cable House in-between the whoosh of the waves. The Cable House was owned by Bertorelli, but was originally where the cable from Denmark came ashore.

The actual sea defence facing the square was a tall, concrete and pebble, quite thin wall with occasional thicker cast posts to support it. On the landward side of the wall was a series of wooden benches that the old men of the village would sit on to have a smoke, but which we stood on to see over the top. Across the prom at the landward edge of the prom there was a shelter and to its west, a ramp down to the actual square where boats could be brought onto the prom. The other way of getting to the prom was over a set of steps near Bertorelli's café. On the seaward side below the Quay Wall, there was a drainage outlet for a stream that had originally (I was told) run from the Moor. This was a large iron pipe with a heavy door and was a favourite with the boys of the village. The aim was to try and dam the outlet before the tide came in and swept away the sand-built walls.

Slightly west again was the Old Ship Inn (now the Black Pearl). The retaining wall of the Old Ship was a curious construction of a stone base, with arched stones set across the width of the wall at small regular intervals, but only about two foot high. This allowed us to run down the top of these stones from Front Street, right round to the Quay Wall. Opposite the Old Ship was the first of a number of steps down to the beach, most single but one double that were built all the way up to the top of the old prom. As the houses on the Bay were built at the top of the cliffs, there were also a series of stairways to give access from the main street to the beach. The first of these were the Police steps which went up from the street past the Methodist chapel on the east, with the Police Station on the west at the top of the rise. They then went steeply down to the prom. Moving west, you would come to the First Shelter, a 1930s white painted structure, whose function I never really found out. It was smaller than the Middle Shelter, located at the bottom of Windsor Road, where the Horseshoe Steps gave access to the beach. These were so-called because they were wide and had a railing down the middle to deal with hordes of holidaymakers going up and down to the beach. Pleasure-seekers came here because the Middle Shelter was bigger and had rooms to hold deck chairs and wind breaks that were hired out. I have a suspicion that at one stage there was also a tea room there, but cannot recall it myself. The shelter was also white-painted and had large columns to support a canopy to protect sun-worshippers from the rain (although I can remember more sunshine than wet when on the beach). Adventurous boys could also get up onto the roof of the shelter via the railings on the steps and could look over the beach from a parapet that stopped them from jumping. Near the Middle Shelter on the beach was the Hunkleton Stone, a strange anomaly of a large rock that stood out from the flat sands. It was the perfect place to climb on and wait for the tide to come in. For a non-swimmer, there was always the danger that you would leave it too late and have to have help back to the beach.

The band stand at the south end of the promenade. Further west, you came to the Bandstand area and the snaking ramp that led you up to Dickson's Corner, by the back of what was then the Modern School. There were the occasional brass band performances that I can recollect, and I even remember people dancing at one event, though there were not many of these. The joy of the ramp was hurtling down it on your bicycle at top speed, with the ever-present danger of coming off as you had to slam the brakes on as you reached the bottom. The Third Shelter was further west still. This was similar to the First, but additionally, had seats built into it where courting couples would often take refuge in the winter months. At the end of the prom, which was not at the end of the beach, there was a ramp down and to get up to the entrance to the Needle's Eye, you had to climb up rough paths on the cliff, or go through the Eye itself and round the other side. At the top of the cliff, was Beach Terrace, which led onto a municipal area of a bowling green and tennis courts. To reach the end of the Needle's Eye, you crossed the 'bridge', which in those days was safe and wide.

The West End

Beyond the White House corner towards the West End was the Methodist Chapel, in those days, with a steep flight of steps straight up to the iron studded wooden doors. This was our chapel, but my mam's family were Primitive Methodist, whose chapel on Simonside, I think, had been bombed during the War. I have a recollection of a ruined bomb site where the Methodist Hall on Simonside now stands, but I am not sure whether this memory is real or not. When I was in the Lifeboys and Boys Brigade, the new hall was where we met every Tuesday under the stewardship of Colin Ryder. The rest of the West End was much of a mystery to me, as it was furthest from Marine Street. However, I got to know bits of it when Olive, Sutton, Raymond and Barbara (my best friend) Cook moved to Haweswater Crescent in Spital for a while. So, as you moved up past Long Park, you came to the Station on the Northern side of the road, where the Doctors' Surgery is now, opposite Memorial Park, The approach to the Station was covered by three advertising hoardings, one on the Long Park side and two facing the Park. The entrance to the Station was just beyond and you entered through an opening on the right to the single platform facing you. The line from Newbiggin to Ashington was single track, so the driver had to collect the permission pouch from the Signal Box, by holding out his (and it was always a man) arm to receive the pouch by its leather handle as the train slowly passed the Box.

Up towards Welfare, at the top of Cleveland Avenue, but before the entrance to the 'new' school, there was on the east, a sports ground, where the Colliery School had its Sports Days and where the Newbiggin Colliery Dynamos played their games (I think!). My memories of the Ground are very happy, except that I never seemed to win anything and fell over in the sack race flat on my face. There was a relatively new development at the Welfare where my dad's old friend Eric Thirkell, painter and decorator, lived. From here, you could cross a stretch of open ground, with a jumpable stream in it, to Haweswater, to visit the Cook's. An alternative route would be to go straight up Gibson Street, past the Presbyterian Church with its Hall where Friday nights had its young people events, through Dickson's Corner and down to the Garage at the bottom of North Seaton Road. To get into Spital Crescent, you went through paths, with big hedges and little bridges which crossed the stream that further up was able to be jumped even by a relatively small boy.


Tony Lawson
Originally printed in A Creeful of Coals, October 2010

Anyone with any recollections or information about old buildings etc, should get in touch with Cllr Kirkup, who will be delighted to hear your stories.