South Shields Local History Group

Under Construction

Johnson, Alan

Alan’s story… I give you an image… picture Alan at home in West Avenue, with May and the company Jack the Lakeland Terrier.  He’s surrounded by papers and photos, in readiness for the publication of his book ‘The Marine School of South Shields’.  A splendid book, well worth the £11.50 it cost.  It was published in 2010, the year he turned eighty-three.  Quite an achievement for a man whose life had been rich in interest, activities and pursuit, in campaigns and thoughts.  So where did that fascinating grand old man come from? What made him the man he was?

Alan Johnson (The Marine School of South Shields by Alan Johnson)

Early Days
To find out, we need to go back to ‘once upon a time’ and ‘long ago’.  To a Monday in the autumn, September 12th 1927, when Alan first faced the world, born to Jenny and Tom.  She was Manageress of Hugh Robson’s Cake Shops and dad had Tommy Johnson’s Baccy Shop in Frederick Street.  Alan, a South Shields lad through and through then, earliest days in John Williamson Street.  Those were the days.  Children playing out all day long until the sunset over the backyards walls. 

School Days
1932; Stanhope Road Infants and Juniors.  Picture the scene, boys sat in straight rows, seen and not heard because teachers in those days wielded bamboo canes.  A bright lad Alan, passed the scholarship for the Boys High School.  Pages turning.  We reach 1938.  Strange and tumultuous times ahead. 

Alan’s School report 1938 (Image courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery)
Atom the school magazine (Image courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery)

The War began just days before his twelfth birthday.  Hitler’s bombers over the Tyne so like many of the town’s children he was evacuated to the safety of the countryside, stayed for a while in Appleby in Westmorland.  And then home to get on with his growing up.  Days that shaped the man, Alan already emerging as an organiser, a natural leader.  Still at school when he founded Talbot Road Youth Club. 

Leaving School
The big bell rang one sunny Friday afternoon and at sixteen he left school ready to face the big world.  1943; applied to three shipping companies for deck- 2 apprenticeships, but failed his eyesight colour test.  So in March 1944 he began his apprenticeship as an electrical engineer at the huge Reyrolles factory.  Twelve thousand worked there at that time, the size of a town in its own right.  An annual salary of fifty pounds, nineteen bob a week, that’s ninety five pence in todays’ money. 

Alan’s Apprentice indentures (Image courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery)

After the War
The War got over at last and he completed his apprenticeship.  The morning of his life and time of his life.  A time of hope, the crest of optimism.  Attlee’s Labour government in 1945, the foundation of the Welfare State, and Alan caught the mood of the time, he’d be a lifelong socialist.  Politics and Jazz.  Not sure when but we know he played the trombone.  Pages turning; 1947.  Life, just like a story, indeed just like ours this morning, turns on little moments of luck, chance and brief encounter. 

Meeting his Wife
Alan himself highlighted three memorable events that would change his life.  Here’s the first… And it was like this… Working in the drawing-office at Reyrolles as a tracer was a beautiful girl, a Shields girl from Newbury Street, and Alan couldn’t help but notice her.  It was May, of course, May Thornton Hedley.  Photos capture the times of our lives.  There’s that black and white studio portrait of her from that time, a touch Avant-Garde; hair in a fringe, cigarette, serious and enigmatic.  Alan and May chatted, they clicked, and they were ‘courting’ as it was sweetly known, falling in love.  A wedding on a Monday in springtime; married on March 26th 1951 at St Oswin’s on Stanhope Road.  There’s May in white and Alan in his suit with huge turn-ups and lapels; curly hair combed back into a parting.  A ‘do’ afterwards at the Harbour View with a three-tier cake.  A honeymoon in Edinburgh and having a splendid time; sailed with the McIntyre twins, Dougie and William.  Stayed at the elegant Suttie’s Hotel on South Bridge.  Characteristically Alan kept the receipt, five nights at a total price of eleven pounds nine shillings and sixpence. 

New Home
Home for the newlyweds, a rented flat in 154 Alfred Street.  Alan doing alright; working away with Reyrolles, worked in Wales and London.  His annual salary had increased significantly.  By 1955 it was £550, and increased again when he left Reyrolles for the North Eastern Electricity Board.  Able to afford a home of their own in Bideford Gardens in Marsden. 

Marine School
1958, a significant year because he left the NEEB.  He wrote of how he ‘wanted a position with improved prospects’, and so with that in mind, he took a post as lecturer at The Marine and Technical College, based back then on Ocean Road.  To quote the foreword of his book

“So secure was the town in the heart of its maritime orbit that in establishing a marine school they were giving the world an institution.”

Opening of the new Marine and Technical College (Image courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery)
Price Philip opening the college (Image courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery)

Working so hard, lectured day and night, a member of The Marine Engineers Institute and the Institute of Electrical Engineers.  We come to the second event that Alan identified as life changing.  1959; things were hard going.  In his words he was heading for a breakdown because of overwork.  The Doctor advised that he give up evening lecturing and embark on outdoor activities. 

Bird Watching
And so he joined the RSPB and a course in ornithology.  Alan and May become lifelong twitchers.  Bird watching trips to Northumberland, and farther afield; to The Isle of Wight, Crete, Trinidad and Tobago and Florida.  A hobby in accord with his embrace for nature and conservation.  Always a passion for wildlife, ahead of his time, an environmentalist and campaigner.  He understood the risks to the planet and explained to anyone who’d listen.  His interest as ever was social.  He organised annual trips to Holy Island and Lindisfarne, a member of the Tyneside and Teesside bird clubs.  A natural leader; a founding member of the Durham and Northumberland Wildlife Trust and helped to set up the Washington Wildfowl Refuge.  Alan and May cared for sick and injured birds including oil-stained seabirds.  Used every available space at home. 

Other Interests
Home in 1963 was West Avenue, a forever house, love in the bricks Alan and May; a life rich and full.  May worked in the Engineers’ Department at Jarrow Town Hall before becoming a Primary School teacher at Temple Park Junior School, and after work, a prolific painter.  Alan became a Senior Lecturer at the College.  Both working hard and enjoying their holidays.  Bought a caravan, toured the UK and beyond.  Alan enjoyed sailing.  He was in the Sunderland Yacht Club, had his own dinghy and still great friends with the McIntyre twins.  Pages turning and we reach our third pivotal, life-changing moment in his story… It is February 1973. 

Tyneside Barbershop Singing Club
A friend introduced Alan to the Tyneside Barbershop Singing Club, and he was soon singing the bass parts.  I’m sure that the particular style of music, the precision and discipline of the acapella arrangements suited him down to the ground.  Barbershop singing was relatively rare; only six clubs throughout the country.  But of course Alan took on his new hobby as a collectivist.  He formed the National Association of British Barbershop Clubs, and organised the first National Quartet Championships in Newcastle. 

(Image courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery)

A member of The Country Clouds Quartet and the intriguingly named comedy quartet ‘The Formaldehydes’.  September 1974; Alan helped to form the Wearside Barbershop Harmony Club, a founder member of the choir The Roker Peers of Harmony, providing the songs for our ceremony today.  1982; won the National Chorus Championships, the same year he became Vice Chairman of the Society, membership of which had reached forty clubs.  A passion, a huge part of his life.  Holidays with fellow enthusiasts around the world.  And instrumental in all kinds of activities concerning membership, training and support for fledgling groups.

So, three life-changing events identified by Alan.  Meeting May, that first interest in birdwatching and his introduction to singing.  Time passes.  All the time in the world once he’d retired from work in 1986.  Golden days.  He’d earned them; seen a few changes in his time since he set out as an apprentice at Reyrolles. 

Time for all his other interests and campaigns in his life. 

Hard to know where to start.  I’m sure Alan would have approved of the orderly use of a list:
· Camping and caravanning. 
· Sailing.  Still sailing at the Tall Ships race in 2005 at the age of seventy eight. 
· Bird watching and wildlife
· Member of the North East Reptile and Amphibian Group.  2006-13; rescuing toads along the Leas.  During the breeding season toads would attempt to reach a pond but become trapped by a wall.  So Alan wrote to the Council to suggest making holes in the wall.  Sadly his idea was rejected. 
· Gardening.  His own garden at home thriving and blooming and had his allotment at Brinkburn. 
· Jazz music. 

(Image courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery)
(Image courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery)

· The University of the Third Age.  Taught ‘Bird watching for Beginners’. 
· Writing.  2010; had his book published ‘The Marine School of South Shields’.  He had a particular interest in the school’s founder Dr Thomas Masterman Winterbottom.  Indeed he campaigned for his Blue Plaque.


A published author Alan.  Still a lifelong socialist but also quite a capitalist entrepreneur.  There was good mate Keith ‘minding his own’, washing his car that day when Alan asked him if he’d like a copy of his book.  ‘Yes please’ Keith was touched by the gesture.  ‘Thank you, that’ll be eleven pounds fifty ‘please’.  So Keith tendered a tenner and two pound coins and sure enough the book was posted through his door in an envelope along with his fifty pence change. 

What else?
· Organised the Neighbourhood Watch in his street. 
· A lifelong member of the Labour Party attended the meetings and voiced his opinions, avidly against Brexit. 
· Alan always stood up for what he believed, especially if the issue was environmental.  Campaigned against the Sunderland Training Academy in the Cleadon Green Belt and Shields’ new fire station at Temple Park
· And history, Alan was a true enthusiast, a respected local historian. 

Local Historian

This from Adam Bell who wrote,

“Alan was a regular at South Shields Local History Group, where I first met him.  His particular interest was the history of South Shields Marine School, and it was while he was writing his excellent book on the School that I got to know him better.  Alan and his fellow Marine School lecturer and friend Doug McIntyre collaborated in the mid-1980s to produce a fascinating two-volume scrapbook charting the history behind the Marine School, a precursor to Alan’s later book.  In February this year Alan kindly donated the volumes to South Shields Museum.  With his passing, we lose a passionate local historian, and a true gentleman”

Later Life
Alan the public man and Alan the private man.  Close to his mother throughout his life.  She was a grand old lady, died at the age of one hundred-and-seven in 2006 with Alan holding her hand. 

Alan and May.  So much had gone by since the Reyrolles’ drawing office.  They led their lives, did separate things and things worked out fine.

Years had flown with the speed of birds in flight, but love was undiminished.  Their Diamond wedding at The Sea Hotel in 2011.  Home and always the company of a dog.  There were the Lakelands Turk and Tan and more latterly there was Jack.  And the dogs were much adored. 

But time passes.  Today’s become tomorrows.  May was poorly and he was by her side to take care of her.  Heartbroken when she passed away in 2014.  It hit him hard.  He was lonely, he withdrew a little, and he was down. 

Still getting out, however.  There was his monthly history group, and the Probus Club and afternoon tea at the church.  And the Bereavement Group, met Beryl there and they became good friends.  Meeting at the Hillhead Café.  He’d bring along newspaper cuttings and photos of May’s paintings, so very proud of her.  Patch the Parson’s Terrier from ‘Happy Days for Strays’ came into his life in 2018.  A happy day indeed for both; Patch became man’s best friend.  A grand old man in his nineties.  Independent and aware, and still enjoying company, visits from friends. 

Final Days
But time passes.  We reach 2020, the strangest year of them all; isolation and shielding.  Like so many elderly people, Alan felt vulnerable.  He turned ninety-three that September.  The New Year turned.  Comfy as he could be at home, home for nearly sixty years.  The Chase, Tipping Point, sport, David Attenborough and news on the telly.  Simple pleasures.  Carers at his side to look after him.

But he was struggling.  Hospital a few weeks ago but then home again.  As his long story neared its end.  At home where he belonged, Patch waiting just outside his door and Alan lying in Beryl and Karen’s arms, he left us quietly and gently in the other Wednesday. 

At peace, let us take that consolation on his behalf.  Also, that he hadn’t suffered; that would never have done, never have suited such an independent, and dignified man.  Cherish all of the other days and savour the essence of the man. 

A great character, highly intelligent, a thinking-man with deep convictions and principles, high standards and expectations, determined, a campaigner, gregarious, chatty, a storyteller, he was independent, ahead of his time in so many respects, an environmentalist, lifelong socialist.  Loved and he loved back.

It is how we remember him today, with dignity and respect, with affection and all the love in the world.

Eulogy written by Humanist Celebrant Ian Hunter

Dorothy Fleet
The Marine School of South Shields by Alan Johnson

Images courtesy of South Shields Museum & Art Gallery with special thanks to Adam Bell
Terry Ford

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