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Ron Wright describes sanitary conditions of North Shields

North Shields like most places around here, especially Newcastle all started at the river and it was all on the river. Eventually it pushed itself up the banks; basically the rich people went and lived up the banks because the smell and the dirt and the effluent was that bad in the Low Town as it was called, that you could hardly imagine it. If you think that from the Ferry Landing by Collingwood Mansions to Kaley’s (sic) at the other end of the Fish Quay, the big white building, the ship’s chandlers, there was five toilets for that whole area. So everything was thrown out on the street. The streets just ran in effluent and cholera was rife. Life expectancy in the late early 1900s was 45 years. Whereas at Cullercoats, life expectancy in the 1850s there was seven people who reached the age of 100: that purely because of their life style. They washed in the sea; they lived in the sea; they ate herring. There was one wag said one day we have, “herring and spuds for dinner. The next day we have spuds and herring.” That was basically their life style was fish and oily fish but they didn’t have the effluent and they didn’t have the cholera; North Shields to Cullercoats is less than two miles.

Everything was on the Low Town and eventually the ship owners and the people who were becoming rich, because of the Industrial Revolution, they moved up to the top basically so they could look down on what they were seeing, which was theirs; keep an eye on it, but also to get away from the smell. Places like Dockwray Square were built. If you go to Dockwray Square now it is supposedly a facsimile of what Dockwray Square was. It is not exactly, but it is as close as and it remains with the square in the middle. They were huge, big Victorian houses, three and four stories. They would have had servants. The ship owners lived there. That was the place to live.

By the 1930s, 1940s, Dockwray Square was pretty run down, pretty seedy and it was eventually demolished in the 1950s and lay derelict for quite some time until the built the current Dockwray Square.

The other thing, obviously with the Fish Quay is, because it was fish, it was smelly down there. There was more than that. There was a tanner’s and there was, (I forget the exact terminology) but it made fish meal by boiling fish. Apparently, there was this green pallor just used to hang over the top. The smell was almost as bad as the Walker Bone Yard, which now is no more. The whole area was geared to the maritime industry, but because we had such a large amount of people, there were other industries down there. There was pottery; there was a tanner’s, as I said previously and in order to cure the leather and to dye the leather they used to use dog excrement. There was women who used to go around and jealously guard their patch for picking dog excrement. But, it all sort of shows how smelly it must have been.

© Copyright Ron Wright 2007-8