Fulwell woman given Royal honour after keeping North East tradition alive

Amy Emms at a quilting session at Roker British Legion in 1945.
Amy Emms at a quilting session at Roker British Legion in 1945.
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The remarkable life of a Wearside woman who was pulled from a bombed-out house during World War Two has been highlighted by a family friend.

Amy Emms was awarded an MBE for her outstanding services to the craft of quilting in 1984 - having narrowly escaping death some 41 years earlier.

Amy Emms - back left at East Community Centre Quilting Class 1951.

Amy Emms - back left at East Community Centre Quilting Class 1951.

“She played a key role in keeping North East quilting traditions alive,” said history enthusiast Meg Hartford, whose mother was friends with Amy.

Amy was born in Fulwell to Elizabeth Harrison on February 1, 1904. Her father Robert, a blacksmith’s striker in the shipyards, had died the previous June.

“Elizabeth worked to support Amy and her oldest child, John, but in the evenings she quilted by candlelight – a skill she learned from her mother,” said Meg.

“This provided a second source of income. Elizabeth also ran a quilting club, where she passed on her traditional skills.

Olive Emms wearing the quilted wedding dress made by her mother in 1957.

Olive Emms wearing the quilted wedding dress made by her mother in 1957.

“As a child Amy threaded needles for her mother but, by the time she was a teenager, she was quilting – and soon shops in the town were selling their work.”

After leaving school at 14, Amy embarked on a shorthand, typing and business training course. She continued, however, with her quilting at home.

Indeed, even after securing work as a clerk in a garage 15 months later, her leisure hours were still filled with her beloved sewing.

“In 1920 Amy met her future husband, Albert Emms – a glass blower who made stained-glass at a local glassworks,” said Meg.

“They married in 1924 and lived with Amy’s mother at 4 Hudson’s Cottages, Fulwell. A son, George was born in 1931 and a daughter, Olive, in 1936.”

The Emms were still living in Fulwell when World War Two broke out in 1939. Just a few days later Amy and the children were evacuated to Yorkshire.

But George remained behind and, after several months, Amy and Olive returned home, having left the safety of the countryside due to homesickness.

“Amy’s mother died in 1941, followed by her brother in 1942. After that, the cottage was sold and Amy moved to a two-storied house in Fulwell,” said Meg.

“But, in May 1943, a landmine destroyed the new house. Luckily Amy and Olive were rescued by air raid wardens from their shelter under the stairs.

“The explosion left many injured, but they escaped unharmed. Albert was away with the army at the time, but was discharged in late 1943 due to ill health.”

The bombing left the house in ruins and the Emms with “virtually nothing”.

Finally, in December 1943, they were re-housed in a council property.

But, despite the hardships, Amy served as a member of the Roker and Fulwell British Legion all through the war – even teaching quilting to members.

And, when she went on to start an evening class in quilting at East Community Centre in 1951, her class of 24 sewing enthusiasts proved eager students.

Indeed, they soon graduated from tea cosies to large items that needed frames to hold them – with the frames being made in the centre’s carpentry workshop.

“How my parents became friends with Albert and Amy I’m not certain, but the link could have been my father’s first job at Hartley Wood glassworks,” said Meg.

“My mum was a good needlewoman and Amy encouraged her to attend quilting classes. Soon she was hooked, and there was always something on the go!”

Amy’s rise to sewing fame, however, came after she made a quilted wedding dress for daughter Olive in 1957. An Echo photo of the dress sparked huge interest.

A lottery had to be held for places in Amy’s quilting classes after that and, once the wedding was over. Olive’s dress was displayed at Sunderland Museum.

“Amy and Albert retired in Weardale in 1967 but, despite her plans to lead a quiet life, it was not long before she was teaching again,” said Meg.

“She went on to demonstrate her skills at Beamish Museum, Shipley Art Gallery and on the TV – and was eventually presented with an MBE for her work. My parents often visited Amy and, when my son was born, she made a pram set for him. I am very proud to own a piece of her Durham quilting.”

l Amy, who made quilts for the rich, famous and even the Bishop of Durham, died in 1998. Her work, however, continues to be displayed in local museums.