Wearside Echoes: Sunderland skinheads gang to re-form

Station Skins
Station Skins
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SUNDERLAND’S old Central Bus Station was once ‘home’ to dozens of Wearside skinheads.

Now, more than 30 years after Sunderland Station Skins first set up base at the No 20 Pennywell stop, the gang is to re-form – for one night only.

“We are holding a reunion at The Chesters later this month,” said Martin Donnelly, whose Station Skins nickname was Cheshire Cat.

“It will be great to see some of the old faces again. Looking back, it was one of the best times of my life. It was just like having a big family.”

Holmeside-based nightclub Fusion, which originally opened as a roller-skating rink in the 1930s, provided the first ‘home’ for Sunderland Skins.

“The club used to hold discos for under 16s, and it was where most of us first met. Afterwards, we’d hang out at the bus station,” said Martin.

“We always used to knock around the No 20 bus stop. Every minute of the day there would be some of us round that stop in the early 80s, and loads more on a night too.

“That’s how we ended up being known as the Station Skins, because we were always there - and more and more people, loads of girls as well as boys, kept on joining us.”

Indeed, such was the popularity of Sunderland Skins that Martin and his mates even devised initiation ceremonies for would-be members.

“We’d go up to the Civic Centre and get them to jump off the highest walls, or hang over the bridge and drop to the ground,” he recalls.

“We’d also go down to the beach, when the tide was in, and get them to jump in, with full gear on, and swim to the steps near the Seaburn Hotel.

“I don’t think anyone ever failed. As long as they tried, that was good enough. It was all part of the fun - nothing bad or serious.”

Clothes played just as an important part in the life of Sunderland Skins as the initiation tests - with Doc Martens an essential part of their kit.

“We used to get our combat trousers from Reynolds and our Union Jack t-shirts from a record shop opposite Crowtree Leisure Centre,” recalls Martin.

“The Doc Martens came from the Army and Navy store in Blandford Street. I used to wear one black one and one ox blood-coloured one at the time!

“I remember we’d get white stay-pressed trousers from a shop where Tescos is now, and our jeans came from the old Levi’s shop – that’s gone too.

“Some of us even got the same tattoo as well, a British Lion with a St George’s flag. You didn’t have to though, although I did.”

It was hair, however - or rather a lack of it - which provided the most defining image statement of the Sunderland Skins.

“I grew up in Norman Court in Hendon surrounded by skinheads,” said Martin, who now lives in Grindon. “But my mam still nearly died when I shaved my hair for the first time.

“One of the older lads took me to a nearby barbers called Sweeney Todd’s. I was only about six or seven and had long blond hair at the time.

“I still shave my hair today - but that’s mainly because I haven’t got quite as much as I used to have!”

The Central Bus Station may have been their ‘spiritual home’ – but Sunderland Skins also favoured the steps at Crowtree Leisure Centre, Mowbray Park and the beach as meeting places.

“We always used to get moved on from the park by the police though and, when the YMCA heard about what was happening, they let us meet there instead,” said warehouse operator Martin.

“We also went on trips with them. Once we were taken to an army assault course at Catterick, which was loads of fun, and we also went camping in Scotland. I remember there was a 24-hour pool marathon for charity as well.”

Music also played an important part in the life of Sunderland Skins – with Madness, The Specials, The Sex Pistols, Red Alert, The Clash and Red London all hugely popular.

“Once we hit 18, we’d knock around places like the Upper Deck, The Borough, The Beehive and The Painted Wagon, but our Saturday afternoons were always spent at The Old 29 watching bands,” said Martin.

“One of of the lads was in a band, Zone 57, which we all followed, and we used to go to London and all over the country with the Sunderland band Red Alert. It was such a great time.”

Despite the fun and laughter, however, Sunderland Skins finally started drifting apart in the mid-1980s – when several of the lads signed up for the forces and Martin joined the Territorial Army.

“At its height, we must have had 30 or 40 members. There were people from all over, like Farringdon, Pennywell, Hendon and Ford Estate, and meeting new people was all part of the fun,” said father-of-four Martin.

“Skinheads always had a reputation for fighting, but that wasn’t totally true for us. We did fight now and again, but mostly we just enjoyed ourselves. The laughs we used to have were tremendous.

“Everyone was joking and laughing all the time and, looking back, I do miss it some times. It was a great time. Like having a big family, with everyone looking out for each other – something we still try to do.”

* Contact Martin via Facebook for further details. Follow Sarah Stoner on Twitter @WearsideEchoes