I was born and brought-up on the Lawe Top, where I still live.
It meant, as a child, my playground was the Roman Fort and the North Marine Park, especially the Hill Top where the old pilots’ lookout, Trinity Towers, with its battlements and secret spaces, provided endless scope for adventure.
Growing up in these streets, with their evocative Roman names, was probably where the first seeds of my interest in history were sown.
After Ocean Road infants’ and junior school, I gravitated to the Girls’ Grammar School where I was taught by, among others, the late Edna Thornborrow. Edna was a leading light in South Shields Archaeological and Historical Society and did much to encourage me in my interest.
From school I started a three-year apprenticeship as a trainee reporter at the Shields Gazette. One of the jobs of juniors in those days was to write-up a week’s ‘Agoes’ as they were known – extracts from 25 years, 50 years and 100 years ago from the old bound files of the Gazette. Left to my own devices, I could lose myself among the old pages of the paper for hours!
A decade and more of court, council and news reporting followed and by the 1980s I was holding the posts of Assistant News Editor and also Women’s Editor, while at the same time developing an interest in feature writing.
Then, in around 1987/1988, it was decided to drop the paper’s old-established Odd Man Out column – essentially a daily digest of gossip – and replace it with a new column, to be called Cookson Country. I was asked to take it on.
The name, Cookson Country, never really had anything to do with Catherine Cookson, other than that it was inspired by the tourism initiative, Catherine Cookson Country, which the South Shields-born writer had agreed to lend her name to.
The closure of the shipyards, pits etc had left the area with high unemployment and in the economic doldrums. I remember interviewing her about it. “If it takes just one person off the dole, it will be worth it,” she told me.
To illustrate the column, I’d long had my eye on a cabinet of glass photographic negatives which had been given to the paper after the death of the photographer, James Cleet, in the late 1950s.
I asked if they could be printed up – some had, most hadn’t – to see what was on them.
Of course what we turned out to have was a wonderful collection of pictures of parts of Shields which had virtually vanished. But which parts? Few were identifiable, so I put them in the column and asked readers if they knew where they were taken.
The response was huge – partly, I’ve always thought, because it was a period of huge change for the borough. We had always been an area that had been defined by what we did – building ships, hewing coal, making things. With all the heavy industry going, I think we’d started to feel a bit lost, to not know who we were anymore. The past was a more familiar country.
I have to say, though, that I have never liked the word ‘ nostalgia.’ I always tried to make sure in Cookson Country that we didn’t look at that past through rose-tinted spectacles. Many people’s lives were hard.
But it meant I found myself launched on a massive learning curve. How had I not known that where I had played as a child down on the riverside below the Lawe, there had been a whole town that had been swept away in the slum clearances of the 1920s and ‘30s?
The photographs bred others from readers’ themselves, supplemented by pictures from the Gazette’s extensive collection of shipping photographs which allowed me to indulge my interest in maritime history.
And if the success of the column taught me one thing – as useful for young journalists as it is for historians – the best stories are told by those who’ve lived through them.
In 2015, having become features editor, I eventually retired. It was sad to give up the column but I’m still writing – and still endlessly curious about this amazing place we live in.
Through Northeast Press:
- Aa’ll T’githor Like The Folk O’ Shields (five volumes).
- Banks of the Tyne (magazine, 12 issues).
- Stotties, Stews and More (recipe book).
- The Big River, a picture history of the Tyne in association with the Port of Tyne.
- South Tyneside: The Millennium Remembered (with Doris Johnson. South Tyneside Council).
- Tyneside’s Finest: A contribution: Born on The Skyetend (Tyne Bridge Publishing).
Written by Janis Blower