The Andy Capp creator Reg Smythe whose character was formed in Sunderland
Andy Capp is one of the biggest and most famous cartoon strips in newspaper history; up there with Garfield and Peanuts, translated into many languages and has even been referred to in episodes of The Simpsons.
He’s that famous; and his roots are, partly at least, right here in Sunderland
The comic strip’s creator was Reg Smythe, who is generally and rightfully most associated with Hartlepool. But he lived on Wearside for much of his childhood with his parents Richard Smyth (Reg later added the ‘e’ as he thought it would add to his appeal in the south of England) and Florrie Pearce, after whom Andy’s long-suffering wife was named.
Early days and the move to Wearside
Richard, then 23 and Florrie, 19, were married in Hartlepool on December 23, 1916, less than a year after they’d met – and seven months before Reg was born on July 10, 1917.
The Smyth and Pearce families did not get on, although they would overlook their differences for Reg and his sister Lily, who was born in 1919.
Richard was a shipwright, which was a reserved occupation meaning he was exempt from military service and the horrors of the First World War.
Reg’s cousin is Ian Smyth Herdman, who now lives in Seaham, has written biographies on his cartoonist relative, as well as the serial killer Mary Ann Cotton, both as yet unpublished.
Ian confirms: “The Pearce and Smyth families would get together and celebrate at one of the many local pubs. Even though times were hard and the First World War prevailed, this family group needed little encouragement to celebrate.”
So there was inspiration for the boozing, carousing Andy Capp right at the start of Reg’s life.
It was in winter 1919 when Richard found work in the Isaac Spain Ltd Shipyard, on the north bank of the River Wear at Manor Quay. He moved to Sunderland with Florrie and their children.
The Smyths were now enjoying a far better standard of living than they had been used to. They finally had what we now call disposable income and would remain in Sunderland for about eight years.
The Sunderland years and Redby School
According to Ian Smyth Herdman: “During their stay in Sunderland Richard and Florrie lived in several places including their first home which was in Warwick Terrace, and a later move to Barrington Street in Monkwearmouth less than 10 minutes walk from Isaac Spain’s shipyard.”
Barrington Street is long demolished, but it was close to St Peter’s Church. The Smyths also lived in Mowbray Terrace.
Lily and Reg were born in Hartlepool. But Florrie gave birth to twins, Laura and Henry, in Sunderland in 1924. Sadly they were born prematurely and Laura died the same year and Henry in 1925.
Like the fictional Florrie, Reg’s mother and her husband spent much of their time fighting in their Sunderland home.
When Richard’s mother and sister visited, Sunderland, they would sometimes take Reg back to Hartlepool with them to preserve him from the conflict.
Reg was sent to Redby School on Fulwell Road (demolished 1994). He would later say: “I didn’t want a higher school education, because I hated school. My urge for knowledge was killed off during the boredom of the lessons, but that was probably why I was bottom of the class all of the time.”
The 1975 Echo interview
The left-handed Reg was forced to write with his right. Nevertheless, he was happy to return to Redby School for an interview with the Echo in November 1975.
Reg’s main interest in life during his days at Redby was football. He became a lifelong supporter of the Sunderland AFC.
Roker Park was nearby, although he usually couldn’t afford to get in and would follow the game by standing outside and working out what was happening from the crowd noises, popping in for the last 10 minutes when the exit gates opened.
He told Echo reporter Carol Robertson: “Charlie Buchan (SAFC striker) was my hero. Years later I put him in a cartoon and he wrote me a letter asking for the original. That was a great thrill, even then.”
Andy Capp: a product of Sunderland?
Reg joined the Northumberland Fusiliers aged 18, served for 11 years and fought in the Second World War, as did his younger brother James. After the war he became a cartoonist almost by accident while working for the Post Office in London.
He later chuckled to the Echo: “The top and bottom of it is, I cannot draw.” Millions would beg to differ.
But how much is Andy Capp, an inveterate layabout and boozer, representative of the North East? How much of Sunderland and Hartlepool is in there? Smythe surprised some with his answer.
He said: “I have never, ever said that Andy Capp is typical of life in the North East. I do not regard him as a specifically northern man.”
For Smythe, Andy was an everyman to be found everywhere, as evidenced by his global appeal including in Russia, Japan, the USA and Yemen.
Reg Smythe died from lung cancer in 1998 aged 80. His wife Vera had died a year earlier. They had no children.
Andy Capp has since been drawn by other cartoonists and it isn’t quite the same. Many of the strips produced by Smythe would simply not be published today. Domestic violence was regularly made light of (with Flo giving as good as she got), as was casual adultery, sponging and regular arrests. Andy was always drawn with a cigarette in his mouth.
It was very much of its time and fans simply weren’t bothered. Andy’s more monstrous traits went unmentioned in Smythe’s 1975 Echo interview.
Andy Capp; a (partial) son of Sunderland is not done yet.
* Our many thanks to Ian Smyth Herdman