South Shields: the town that fought austerity

Four months after Lord Howell told parliament the “desolate” north-east was perfect fracking country, South Shields is showing more vibrancy, determination – and Toryphobia – than ever before.

The skateboard park on South Shields seafront.
The skateboard park on South Shields seafront.

The striking miner William Jobling was one of the last men in Britain to be gibbeted publicly, a defilement of the dead that served as a gruesome warning to the living. He’d been drinking in an ale house in South Shields with Ralph Armstrong, another pitman who’d downed pickaxes. On the trudge home to Jarrow, Jobling stopped a local magistrate riding by named Nicholas Fairles and begged a few pennies. Fairles refused and Armstrong, who’d been walking some way behind, attacked the local worthy. The luckless Jobling didn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of a fair trial.

It was 1832 and the ruling order didn’t take kindly to the miners of Durham and Northumberland flexing their muscles in the recently formed Northern Union of Pitmen, led by Thomas Hepburn. The inspirational Hepburn was sent down the pit from the age of eight, yet learned to read and write and was a respected Wesleyan lay preacher. Jobling and Armstrong were among thousands of colliers who refused to sign a bond committing them to slave another year in deadly conditions for a pittance – earnings that often had to be spent in the pit owners’ expensive “Tommy shops”.

Armstrong, an ex-sailor turned miner, then killer – after Fairles died of his injuries – is believed to have fled back to sea. Jobling was arrested on Shields beach a couple of hours after the assault and dragged to the home of the fatally wounded magistrate, where it was established he was present but hadn’t struck a single blow. But the judiciary was a bulwark of the establishment and looked after its own better than any trade union – an injury to one was an injury to all on the bench. Jobling was hanged and his body covered with pitch, riveted into a cage and left swinging from gallows on Jarrow Slake close to the cottage of his wife, Isabella, for 25 days, until a bribed guard looked the other way and the family reclaimed it.

I took my youngest son to see the sandstone plaque commemorating a miner celebrated as a martyr in north-east England. The modest plinth is on the site of the former Gaslight public house and, according to local folklore, near to where his remains were buried in an unmarked grave.

“Knowing the past,” I told my lad, “helps us understand the present and create the future.” He nodded. Like any kid his age, he preferred to be on the rides in the seafront fairground to standing on the banks of the Tyne listening to another homily.

South Shields is my home town, South Tyneside my patch. Coal and shipbuilding were the motors of the economy when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m hewn from a mining family, though I ply the cushier trade of journalism. My mam’s dad, my maternal grandfather, went down St Hilda’s and Boldon collieries before going to sea. Both pits are now gone; closed too is Harton, where my dad’s father was a miner after moving to the north-east from Cork. He subsequently laboured on building sites. Dad recalls their eviction in the 1930s, the family’s worldly possessions piled on a horse and cart when a downturn in construction left them penniless. Nostalgia in workingclass homes is punctuated by memories of the bad old days.

Dad’s working life was the reverse of his father’s. A brickie, he travelled across the top end of England and North Wales for work, often cycling hundreds of miles. He laid a fair few bricks in the early days of the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria. The birth of my eldest sister (I’m the third of six) created a demand for regular wages nearer home, so he went underground.

Westoe was a coastal pit, the huge concrete block housing winding gear an industrial watchtower dominating the skyline when we played on the sandy beaches. Five times a week for 25 years, my dad would walk into a cage to be dropped into the earth to cut coal three or four miles out under the North Sea. The mine was a super-pit, “million-tonners” they were called, the prodigious output supposedly guaranteeing work to the end of time.

Before my dad quit in the early 1980s, one of my two brothers followed him down 1993 pit closure programme of the Major government, putting 1,000 men on the dole. Houses were built on the site but the jobs were never replaced. The same is true of shipbuilding jobs, which sank in their tens of thousands. The world-famous yards of my youth – Redhead’s, Brigham’s, Middle Dock – no longer build magnificent vessels to sail the seas. Nor do Palmer’s in Jarrow or, shut more recently, Swan Hunter in Wallsend.

The sense of resentment is palpable in Shields when George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith smear the unemployed as skivers. The Conservatives dumped many a striver on to the dole then and now – with David Cameron’s austerity strangling the work out of a local economy where one in every three people is employed in health, education and public administration.

Unemployment is persistently above the average and wages continually below, gross full-time pay averaging £425.50 a week against £507.60 nationally, according to the Office for National Statistics. Fighting for new jobs was the main promise of the Labour MP for South Shields, Emma Lewell-Buck, who succeeded David Miliband earlier this year when he retired to New York, but she is under no illusions – an event she organised for job hunters and employers only reinforced the scale of the mountain to climb.

“When I got elected, I said that one of my pledges to the people of South Shields would be to do everything I could to bring jobs and employment to the town,” said Lewell-Buck, a former social worker. “I appreciate that one jobs fair isn’t going to solve all of our problems when we’ve got over 3,500 people unemployed, and 1,000 of them 16-to-24-year-olds. But I’m hoping that this will make some kind of dent in these figures.”

The draining away of jobs, income, selfworth and respect is the most significant change I’ve witnessed in close on half a century. In the 1960s there was not a single house on our street, Rodin Avenue in Whiteleas, a large council estate on the edge of town, without an adult in work. If you did finish on a Friday, you started a new job on a Monday. My mother, an early transfer from manufacturing to the service sector – she took a bingo hall cleaning job when Wright’s Biscuits baked its last fig roll in 1973 – is able to list families house by house through their work: shipyards, miner, council, shipyards, Plessey’s electronics, miner ... 

The employment conveyor belt started to malfunction in the early 1970s when unemployment topped a million for the first time since the war under Ted Heath. It worsened horribly under Thatcher, when the Jarrow March felt like yesterday. Dole queues shortened during the Labour era, but you don’t need to listen long before you hear complaints that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown valued Middle Englanders above traditional Labour voters, who felt taken for granted – and, disgracefully, to a large extent were by New Labour.

On a trip home in October I rediscovered my old school reports (“I do think that a slightly more serious approach would be helpful”) in a box under the stairs of my parents’ house. The grammar I initially attended was transformed into a comprehensive after two years, Thatcher approving the plan when education secretary. Today it thrives as Harton Technology College with an “outstanding” tick from Ofsted. The executive head, Sir Ken Gibson, ribbed mercilessly by colleagues after he was pictured in Hello as Prince William’s first knighting, is justifiably proud. An inclusive school with an above average proportion of pupils on free school meals, it beats the national average for five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Gibson is one of life’s optimists, despite witnessing third-generation unemployment in some homes. He’s opened a new sixth form, funded by Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme before it was abandoned by Michael Gove. Yet the spectre of youth unemployment hangs over the town, sapping young hope. “That makes it even more important for schools to do the best possible job they can to prepare the children for university, training or employment,” Gibson told me.

Defiant optimism is a trademark of a town with the motto “Always Ready”. Ray Spencer, executive director of the Customs House arts centre, busy battling lost grants, is a glass-half-full man – though he’s retired his alter ego, the festival and panto favourite Tommy the Trumpeter. “It’s not all doom and gloom and there’s no point whinging about what happened,” he insists, pointing out that the flattened Middle Docks, where his dad worked for 42 years, is now his centre’s car park: “There is a real vibrancy in South Shields. People aren’t beaten down. We make the best of what is thrown at us and forge our own opportunities.”

The Nissan car plant in nearby Sunderland is thriving and the Tyne is livelier than it was, with oil and gas exploration providing work on the river. Specialist engineering companies survived a deindustrialisation tsunami that claimed the larger employers.

Shields is a lovely place to live, despite the shortage of jobs; sandy beaches and miles of National Trust cliff-top grassland, known as the Leas, are glories promoted by the council since they ceased calling the area “Catherine Cookson Country”.

Lord (David) Howell, Thatcher’s former energy secretary and George Osborne’s zillionaire father-in-law, alas has yet to accept my public offer to introduce him to the joys of a “desolate” north-east (“There are,” he mooted back in July, “large and uninhabited and desolate areas. Certainly in part of the north-east where there’s plenty of room for fracking ... ”). Where did the lofty Tory have in mind: Hadrian’s Wall? Beneath the Angel of the North? The precincts of Durham Cathedral? Holy Island? Northumberland National Park? Howell’s subsequent apology, admitting he meant the north-west (the Lake District?) cost the Tories even more votes.

I’d happily buy the Tory peer an ice cream in Minchella’s parlour and a ride on the steam train in the South Marine Park or a walk in the Roman fort, before explaining that these kinds of prejudices – the same contempt that pith-helmeted colonialists showed natives of the British empire – are some of the reasons his son-in-law and Cameron are reviled.

Howell’s crassness reinforced Tory phobia. South Shields remains the only parliamentary constituency since the Great Reform Act of 1832 (the year of Jobling’s gibbeting) never to have elected a Conservative MP. Of 29 Westminster seats in the north-east, the Tories hold two. Howell’s remarks help explain why.

Janis Blower has chronicled life in the town for 42 years as a journalist on the Shields Gazette, Britain’s oldest provincial evening newspaper. Folk are almost immune to the ignorance of the likes of the Lord Howell. “He provoked more mockery than anger,” laughs Blower, “We’ve heard it all before from his type.” She’s another optimist, positive about South Tyneside Council’s £100m plan to redevelop the main shopping drag down King Street, which has struggled since House of Fraser shut the Binns department store nearly 20 years ago. Yet talk to Blower and the conversation inevitably turns as it always does to worries about jobs and pay.

“There are new jobs,” she observes. “Not enough of them, true, but there are jobs. The difficulty is they’re too often low paid and on zero-hours contracts. It isn’t easy to bring up a family when you’ve no idea if any money will be coming in.”

Ukip and the EDL are exploiting economic worries by scapegoating migrants, stirring up tensions in a town with a history of good community relations. The Yemeni community dates back to the start of the 20th century when Shields was a massive merchant port, Arabs recruited to stoke ship’s boilers staying in the town. I was a schoolboy in 1977 and the major event wasn’t the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. And not just because I was a republican from an early age. The undisputed highlight was the visit of Muhammad Ali and his new wife to have their wedding blessed by the imam of Laygate mosque. The most famous Muslim in the world in Shields was as bright a symbol of community harmony as the curry houses lining Ocean Road. Horror at EDL knuckleheads marching a few months ago was tempered by the hostile reaction of the decent majority to the hate-filled yobbery.

I’ve no doubt Cameron and his brigade of toffs are as out of touch with life in, say, a city such as Portsmouth losing shipyard jobs as they are with South Shields. Economic class is a better guide to inequality and lack of interest than any north-south divide. Austerity is the enemy whether you live in northeast England or on the south coast. Or for that matter Yorkshire, Merseyside, Birmingham, Dartford, Trowbridge, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. But I can feel the gap widening between the north and a Torydominated government as it always does, economic and political divides reinforced by geographical remoteness from Blue Britain. The country is redividing into two nations.

I, too, remain optimistic for my hometown yet it feels as if good people are constantly swimming against dangerous currents, determination and initiative undermined by malign economic forces and a regime in London that doesn’t care. They may no longer gibbet people but in the 21st century unemployment and low pay are cruel life sentences.