Wearside Echoes: Frocky Horror Show for Sunderland boys

DRESSED UP: Arthur Wilkinson, three, pictured in Pallion in 1910.
DRESSED UP: Arthur Wilkinson, three, pictured in Pallion in 1910.
Have your say

FOOTBALLER David Beckham may have set the fashion world alight when he donned a skirt in the 1990s – but he was only following in the footsteps of Wearside youngsters.

“Some folk who contact me about their ancestors tell wonderful tales of times long gone,” said local historian and Sunderland Antiquarian Society map archivist Norman Kirtlan.

“A photograph of three-year-old Arthur Wilkinson, taken at Pallion in 1910, shows that young lads didn’t always sport this season’s latest replica footy strip.

“In fact Arthur, like many a youngster at the turn of the 19th century, had to wear girls’ frocks for the first few years of his life.”

The photo, donated to the Antiquarian Society by Arthur’s grandson Peter, tells of an age when young boys were not allowed to wear trousers until they had been ‘breeched.’

“This weird custom stretched back to the 1500s,” said Norman. “Over the centuries, boys and girls often had no distinction in the dresses that they wore during their early years.

“By the 1890s, however, boys wore much plainer dresses than their sisters and, finally, by the 1920s the custom of breeching had all but disappeared in Sunderland.

“The wearing of long, curled hair by young boys took a little while longer to disappear.”

Once a boy reached the milestone age of five, however, skirts definitely become a thing of the past. Tough times and tight household budgets left little money, though, for new clothes.

“But, if the poor bairns had to come to school in rags because they couldn’t afford a decent outfit, there was at least one day a year when they could dress to impress,” said Norman.

“The Shrove Tuesday School Concert meant infant school youngsters could wear one of the many wonderful outfits that depicted characters and nursery rhymes from a distant age.

“Dressing up and posing for the camera – and then going home for pancakes – was a highlight of the school calendar for many of our local children.”

Usworth Colliery youngsters Arthur Jones and Gladys Ward can be seen here re-enacting a scene from the American Deep South – although neither seems overjoyed at the prospect.

“The Usworth School concert in February 1912 featured some wonderful costumes, including those depicting traditional local dress,” said Norman.

“Ena Lawton, who would have been no more than eight years of age when the pictures were taken, is seen dressed as Caller Herrin’, which was an age old fish-wife’s cry.

“The costume that Ena is wearing is typical of that worn by local fish-sellers, including our own Peggy Potts, who died at the end of the 19th century.”

Another common link between Edwardian and Georgian Wearside children was an ability to amuse themselves for hours – without the need for computer games, mobiles or laptops.

“Entertainment in those days, and indeed up until more recent times, was very much outdoors and healthy,” said Norman.

“Games like mounta-kitty and hidey were played from dawn until dusk, while young lads tried their hand at marbles or the more aggressive British Bulldog.”

How many readers remember chalking a numbered grid on the pavement and using a tin of polish as an itchy dabber, to slide along the ground while hopping from square to square?

“Chuckstones was another favourite. Poor kids made do with little pebbles, while money-folk had proper sets with metal jacks and cubes of carved and coloured wood,” said Norman.

“And it’s a wonder more of us didn’t end up with cauliflower ears from the clips we got after getting caught hammering on someone’s letterbox in a rousing game of knocky nine doors.

“In an age when children’s bedrooms have more equipment than Apollo 13, and transport to school requires a 500 yard trip in Mum’s 4X4, one wonders just how modern youngsters would fare if they had to endure the conditions and deprivations of their great grandparents

“With all our bairns stuck inside of mission control bedrooms, maybe it’s time that they took a leaf out of granny’s book and got themselves out into the fresh air to play – before some European Health and Safety law bans suntanned knees. It’s only a matter of time!”

* Do you have a story to tell about Sunderland’s history? Write to: Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.


WEARSIDERS are being offered a helping hand in tracking down their dearly departed – and learning more about the rich heritage of the area too.

A DVD featuring 19th century trade directories, rates lists and pauper records has just been produced by Norman, with all proceeds in aid of the Antiquarian Society.

“One of the things that gives me great pleasure is helping people trace their family history,” he said. “Having traced my own to the 1400s, I know what a remarkable journey it can be.

“Every day I receive, via my website, communications from all over the world – exiled Sunderland folk trying to make a breakthrough into their past.

“And while there is much on the internet that can help, it is quite often limited to births, marriages and deaths, and outside of the free sites can prove to be a very expensive venture.

“Having access to so many records at the Antiquarian Society, we play host to many visitors who are anxious to use our resources in order to shed a light on that illusive ancestor.

“Helping these visitors along the way gave me the inspiration to provide a unique reference document that they could access in the comfort of their own homes.”

The new DVD, Where Did My Ancestors Live, features details from 11 trade and street directories from 1820 to 1897, together with the 1840s Monkwearmouth Rates Documents.

Other archive information, unique to the Antiquarians, includes the 1818 paupers lists, the Monkwearmouth Jury list and Sunderland wills dating back to the 1500s.

“The 1897 Town Guide is also faithfully copied, and this gives a wonderful insight into our town at the end of the Victorian Period,” said Norman.

“Old maps, interesting books and documents complete this valuable resource, and it has already proved very popular with overseas Mackems and locals alike.”

Priced at £8, including postage, the DVD can obtained by sending a cheque to Norman c/o Sunderland Antiquarian Society, Sunderland Minster, High Street West, SR1 3ET.

Further information is also available from Norman via email on oldsunderland@yahoo.co.uk or by telephone on 07765 635 128.

** Win a copy of the DVD by answering this question: Which popular Sunderland timepiece disappeared from the town in 1971? Send your answers to Sarah Stoner at the address above.