South Shields Local History Group

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Peel, Dolly

Dolly Peel, a famous and colourful South Shields character, was born Dorothy Appleby in 1782.  She lived in Shadwell Street on the riverside in South Shields with her husband Cuthbert, whom she married in 1803.

Dolly (South Tyneside Libraries, Unknown STH0002874)

Her official occupation was that of a fishwife but she was a notorious smuggler of brandy, tobacco, lace and perfume – in fact ‘anything dutiable’.  She was known to take and execute orders for any excisable article that might be required, smuggling up and down the North East coast from Cullercoats to Marsden Grotto and beyond.  One source dubs her the “Queen of the Smugglers”.

However, it was her determined opposition and fight against the Press Gang which still stirs the imagination of all who hear her story.  She is reputed to have outwitted their efforts to capture the local seamen on numerous occasions by, among other things, hiding men and boys under her voluminous petticoats.  Perhaps the most famous story tells how the Press Gang, in hot pursuit of her husband who had managed to reach their home, was kept at bay by Dolly, single-handedly, while he escaped through a window and on to the roof of their house.

When Cuthbert was eventually caught Dolly followed him to sea, serving in the cockpit – that part of the ship where crude surgery was performed on wounded sailors.  She also served as a powder monkey, fuelling the guns in the thick of battle.  It was said that she had a nerve of iron.

There was, however, another side to this brave and indefatigable woman.  A great storyteller and amateur poetess, about whom George B.  Hodgson (Shields Gazette editor and author of “the Borough of South Shields”) wrote, “Had she been an educated woman she might have made a reputation as a poetess.  As it was she was famous for her ability to rhyme extempore on any subject”.  Among other things she composed an address in poetry congratulating Robert Ingham, with whom apparently she was a great favourite, on his return as the first MP for South Shields.  Her song on the loss of the Sunderland barque Dove, laden with Russian tallow, on the Herd Sand, enabled the ‘Townenders’ (as the inhabitants of the ‘low end’ of the town were known) to feel that the wreck was a special dispensation of providence to help them through the hard winter of 1836.

Obviously a woman of great wit and humour, she was reputed to regularly entertain the crowds in South Shields Market Place wickedly imitating the sales patter of quack doctors, whilst waving one of the boxes of pills they were trying to sell there.

Dolly died from bronchitis at her home on 14th October 1857.  She has inspired many tributes in her home town including a public house bearing her name, several oil paintings, a play (last performed at the Customs House in South Shields in 2005), a video about her life filmed on location in South Tyneside and a statue overlooking the river which was unveiled in 1987.  Her great, great grandson, Reg Peel, who was largely responsible for the commissioning of the statue by Bill Gofton, continues to piece together Dolly’s story with help from relatives at home and all over the world.

Although there is uncertainty about the number of children Dolly and Cuthbert had, there are many who claim descent from them and 150 years after her death she still captivates all those who belong to her line and others besides – a daring and resourceful character and a woman ahead of her time.

Dolly Peel Statue – 2022

South Shields Local History Group, Sand Dancer Leaflet
The History of the Borough of South Shields (George B. Hodgson)
The Shields Gazette
The Newcastle Journal

South Tyneside Libraries
Terry Ford

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