Wearside Echoes: Adventures on the high seas

The Wheatsheaf - home to happy memories
The Wheatsheaf - home to happy memories
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IT was dark and snowing when a torpedo hit George Bell’s ship. Within minutes, the Sunderland seaman was struggling for survival in the Atlantic – surrounded by floating wreckage.

“To crown it all, the moment we left the sinking ship our pay was stopped. My discharge book shows I was paid off at sea!” said George, who served in the merchant navy during World War Two.

The story of the 1944 U-boat attack on SS Empire Housman, a Doxford’s-built ship, is just one of dozens of adventurous tales penned by the former Doxford Engine Works fitter in his new book.

The 150-page paperback, My Single Days – 1921 to 1949, traces George’s life from birth until marriage, featuring anecdotes about his Monkwearmouth childhood, school days and wartime career at sea.

Tales of swimming trips to Roker, out-of-school capers, roller skating high jinks and party fun are included too, together with memories of air raids, ballroom dancing and row boating on the Wear.

“My adventures began at an early age, and I have been adventurous all my life. I was part of a large group of adventurous boys and girls, and this spirit has remained with me ever since,” he said.

“This is a personal story of how I saw, and learned, about life in Monkwearmouth, and my adventures in other countries, until February 19, 1949 – when I married and ended my single days.”

George’s book opens with a rich description of Monkwearmouth in the 1920s – a close-knit community surrounded by shipyards, sawmills and factories, as well as dozens of shops and pubs. “It was very busy,” he said. “There were coal carts, taxi cabs, laundry vans, milk floats and beer drays – all being hauled by horses. With so many horses, you’d expect the streets to be fouled up.

“That wasn’t so. Within minutes of a horse leaving its trademark, someone would be out with a brush and a shovel. It made excellent manure for the gardens and nearby allotments.

“And every day the water carts swilled the streets. Housewives step-stoned their doorsteps too, and kept their piece of pavement clean and tidy – even in the snowy winter months.”

Tales of school sports days, street games and youth club adventures fill the early chapters of My Single Days, with George recalling in vivid detail the names of classmates and local characters.

His memories of wartime work at Doxford Engine Works in later chapters are similarly detailed, as are his escapades at sea during the 1940s – when George sought out adventures around the world.

Only love finally brought him home. After meeting wife-to-be Ruth Gordon at Wetherall’s Dance Hall in 1947, George opted to become a landlubber again – turning his back on the sea for Civvy Street.

“The decision was mine only,” he said. “Ruth said she would accept whatever I decided to do. I believe that, had I gone away again, she would have waited for my return.”

George has drawn on childhood diaries to write Single Days, although the inspiration to put pen to paper actually came in 1985 – when he entered an essay competition called My First Day At Work.

“My entry did not win a prize, but the judges thought its historical content was good enough to warrant a place at Beamish Museum. A copy of the essay is there now,” he said.

“From an early age, perhaps from 11, I began to write notes about events that evolved around me. Some experiences were written into diaries and notebooks within days of the actual event.

“After my essay was sent to Beamish, I had the idea of collecting my notes together. Writing the book has been another sort of adventure altogether – and I hope people enjoy reading it.”

l My Single Days is available from internet book shops, such as Amazon and WHSmith, at around £10.

Sidebar: Monkwearmouth memories

THE hustle and bustle of Monkwearmouth in the 1920s remains a vivid childhood memory for retired merchant seaman George Bell.

George, who grew up in Dock Street East, still recalls the weekly cattle auctions at the Sheepfolds, the excitement of ship launches and the fairs which visited the Block Yard.

“The houses in Dock Street once belonged to shipowners, ship captains and other well-to-do people. But, some years before my arrival, all these people moved to the west part of town,” he said.

“The empty properties were let out to tenants. At the time of my birth the area was densely populated. It was common for three of more families to occupy one building.”

Young George shared the downstairs front room of Number 2 with his parents. The Hubbard family lived in the downstairs back rooms, while his aunt, uncle and cousins made their home upstairs.

“Our attic window overlooked Millum Terrace and I could see Blumer’s shipyard, Greenwell’s repair yard and Young’s ship-breaking yard from there,” he said.

“I saw two clipper sailing ships arrive in the river and berth at Young’s, to be broken up. I believe they were the last two sailing ships to come here. Sails were being replaced by steam engines.”

But, as well as his happy recollections of playing among derelict wharves and watching ships of all nationalities arrive on visits to Sunderland, George also has a few less pleasant memories.

“On the west side of North Bridge Street were a few wholesale butcher shops. In the back lane behind these shops there were the slaughter houses,” he said.

“Animals were killed in full view of anyone passing. Every day, porters would carry carcasses to lorries parked at the roadside – which were then transported to shops around the town.

“Common sounds to be heard day and night were the squealing of pigs and the lowing of cattle.”

On the opposite side of the road, close to the bridge, was the Oak Tree pub – now demolished – while further down was a line of shops selling fresh fish, meat and fruit.

“There was Smith’s furniture shop too, Simmons sweets, Cheritt the chemist, Brown the draper – who was once Mayor – and Mr Truffle, an Austrian immigrant who sold cigarettes,” said George.

The seven busy roads leading to the nearby Wheatsheaf culminated in a “small island,” he recalls, where a policeman would stand – attempting to control the passing cars, lorries, bikes and carts.

“In Roker Avenue stood the Roker Cinema, as well as the Ryhope and Silksworth Co-op store, a garage, several small shops, a Post Office and The Fort Pub,” added George.

“On the opposite side was the replica of a lighthouse built above a shop, together with the Miners’ Hall, a shop displaying cars for £100, the Red Lion pub and the Ropery.”

Other long-gone places of interest George can recall from his childhood include Tyzack’s brickworks, Wilson’s sawmill – which sent rafts of logs floating up the river – and the ferry landing.

Deucher’s brewery, the shipyards of Crown’s, JL Thompson and Blumer’s, as well as the North Dock Basin oil terminal and Palmer’s Hill engineering works are also etched into his memory.

“Many of the streets bordering these industries were destroyed during the air raids of the Second World War, and most surviving properties were demolished in the 1960s,” he said.