Wearside Echoes: Ripping yarn of Sunderland wool entrepreneur

FAMILY FUN: Maurice, Marion and Clive enjoy a trip to the seaside.
FAMILY FUN: Maurice, Marion and Clive enjoy a trip to the seaside.
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THE man who got Wearside knitting has died at the age of 96.

Maurice Newble used wages saved while fighting in the Second World War to open his first drapers in 1947. Within just a few years, he had 19 shops across the North East.

“Many people will have bought their knitting yarn from him over the decades, or their school uniforms, clothes or prams,” said his son Clive, who lives in Barnard Castle.

“He always remembered with fondness the encouragement and support given to him by his customers and staff, in particular during those very early days in Sunderland.”

Maurice, the youngest of seven children, was born in Lancashire in 1915. As an ambitious young lad he dreamed of becoming an architect, but found it impossible to get paid work.

“My father spent three weeks working on Liverpool Cathedral, but didn’t get paid. He then joined British Home Stores, where he helped set up stock rooms for new stores,” said Clive.

“That is how he met my mother, Marion. She joined the new BHS in Sunderland and shared her sandwiches with him in secret. Junior managers weren’t meant to mix with shop staff!”

The couple married in 1942, but war forced them apart. While Maurice was posted to Palestine as a Quarter-Master Sergeant in the Pioneer Corps, Marion kept the home fires burning.

“When he returned, my father went back to BHS, but, after walking out four times, he either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go back. He was very independent, with his own ideas,” said Clive.

“He seemed to fill every hour of the day with mental or physical activities. He had tremendous energy and decided to start his own business with £94 saved from his wartime service.”

Maurice and Marion chose to open their first shop, Newbles the Drapers, within a derelict pub – the Hetton Arms – at the top of Silksworth Row bank in May 1947.

“Life was very different back then,” said Clive. “My father used a large pram to collect wood from bomb sites around the town, which he then made into shelves for the shop.

“I was just a baby and as he couldn’t afford a house, we all slept at the back of the shop. Eventually, we moved to Ravensworth Street in Millfield, after he got a mortgage on a cottage.”

Maurice was determined to make his new business work and after getting hold of a couple of suitcases, often spent his free time selling his wares door to door around the colliery areas.

“Post-war clothes rationing was still in place, which made things extremely tough,” said Clive. “But he managed to sell his goods, and met some very nice people along the way too.

“He ended up with shops all around those areas, like Ryhope, Silksworth and Seaham, very often employing the people who had fed him on his rounds. He never forgot their kindness.”

Maurice’s business went from strength to strength and after opening his first branch store at Ryhope in about 1953, he expanded across the North East – from Redcar to South Shields.

Clive, an only child, went on to join the firm after leaving university, helping to extend stock diversity, launch self-service and negotiate directly with factories rather than wholesalers.

“We used to buy in raw wool and have it bleached, dyed or treated as we needed, then put our name on it. Knitting yarn accounted for a quarter of total turnover in later years,” he said.

“Our Silksworth Row store specialised in school uniforms, which were extremely popular too. We bought in fabric and had it made up to our own designs for 50 different uniforms.

“We used to get so busy during the back-to-school season that we had to let people in in batches, then lock the door after them. There were queues right up Silksworth Row.”

The Newbles stores continued to thrive until the economic downturn of the early 1990s, when traditional shops fell out of favour as supermarkets started offering cheaper brands.

“My father officially retired in 1989, but still worked with the wool into the 1990s. My mother worked six days at Silksworth Row until she was 80, as she loved it so much,” said Clive.

“But we had to gradually close the stores from 1992 onwards. Now we rent out some of the shops, and my daughter, Alison, keeps the family name going with a shop in Seaham.”

Maurice continued with his active retirement after Marion died in 1993, spending his time gardening, drystone-walling, writing poetry and pursuing an interest in art and current affairs.

He passed away on March 12, at Whorlton in Teesdale, just a few months short of his 97th birthday. His funeral was held at Holy Trinity Church, Eggleston, on March 23.

“His health only deteriorated recently,” said Clive. “His death certificate states old age as main cause of death. Not bad for a man who was in the Second World War and worked into his 80s!

“But, even as he got older, he never lost his respect for the people who helped him in those early years of business in Sunderland. He was certainly a character, and will be sadly missed.”

l Do you have fond memories of Newbles the Drapers? Write to: Echo Letters, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.