Memories of the hot potato seller who plied his trade in Sunderland - and how the cinema goers loved him

In the first half of the 20th century, street sellers were a common sight around Sunderland.

Monday, 24th August 2020, 11:29 am
Jackie Reay pictured with his hot potato stand.
Jackie Reay pictured with his hot potato stand.

They were usually selling items such as crabs, fish, fruit and even hot potatoes.

Many remain in the memories of the older generation of Wearsiders who can still readily recall the wonderful mix of characters who plied their goods outside in all weathers.

Philip Curtis,of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, reports.

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Queuing for hot potatoes from Jackie Reay.

Amongst those street sellers who are most fondly remembered, one is certainly the hot tattie man.

He was called John Reay and he was known locally in Sunderland as Jackie.

He was an impressive figure. Jackie was always dressed smartly in a suit and flat cap and tendered his mobile tattie engine in Bedford Street, outside the Theatre Royal.

He did it in all kinds of weather, and was usually there from 6pm every evening, no matter whether it was sun, rain, wind or snow.

Phil explained: “His mobile tattie engine was a long cylindrical oven on wheels.

“It had a compartment for baking the potatoes, a coal tender and a couple of brass or copper-capped pans on the top. They were used for keeping the cooked potatoes hot.

“By the side of the oven, there always seemed to be a bag of potatoes waiting to go into the engine and a bag of coal to cook them with.”

There were bags which were at the side of the oven and they were used to put the cooked potatoes in.

John also provided smaller ones which were filled with salt.

Phil added: “Once cooked, the tatties were lined up in rows on the top of the engine.

“And with their wonderful smell it was very difficult for anyone walking past to avoid temptation.”

The discerning theatre goer often would mix a night of live entertainment with a tasty meal before they went in.

Phil added: “Certainly, the patrons of the Royal cinema were his best customers, not least because the tatties were an excellent appetiser for the ice cream that always followed during the intermission inside.”

And even if you weren’t buying potatoes, the oven still served a purpose.

“There was a warm cosy glow from the engine that seemed to extend around to a radius of several feet,” said Phil.

“And on a cold Wearside evening, many a local would stand just to make sure they would get a warm – even if they couldn’t afford the price of a bag of potatoes.”

Depending upon size of the produce, the tatties came to you three or four at a time in a bag. But that system could often change if it was getting late in the evening.

If the engine was closing down for the night, and if John wanted to get rid of his stock of cooked potatoes, there was a good chance you would get more.

Overnight, John’s barrow was kept in a lock-up garage which was behind the cinema.

Sadly John died in September 1953. By then, he had sold his tatties in Bedford Street for more than 50 years and left memories for hundreds of hungry Wearsiders. He plied his trade for five decades, six days a week, every week, in all kinds of weather.

His business was passed on to Tommy Reay, who carried on the enterprise for a few more years before having to give it up because of his full-time work.

Sadly the tattie oven is no more and it was sold for scrap metal when the business closed.

The Royal cinema too is long gone, but the memories of the hot tattie man linger on.

Our thanks go to Philip and Sunderland Antiquarian Society. To find out more about the society, visit its Facebook page or its website at

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