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Memories from Harry Smith
Edited by Paul Lanagan, 2010
Memories relate to the 1940s - 1955

Newbottle Street didn’t seem to change much from being a youngster in the early 1940s going to the penny pictures, Saturday mornings at the Empire and Grand, until I left Houghton in 1955. There was always butchers, bakers and a family firm called English, which made candles in premises behind the Lambton Arms. Most things were available on the street, from a poss-stick to a coffin (bespoke of course). One big difference between then and now is: Coral was a rocky reef around Australia and William Hill was somewhere to bowl your eggs at Easter! To have a bet on the horses you had to go into the Robbie Burns pub and then into the toilets to find the bookie!

I'm not sure of the postal numbers of the shops but I remember it like this: Copyright © Books of the North 2010

Newbottle Street, c1920

The Britannia Inn on the edge of Broadway, next a good stretch taken up by Houghton branch of Newbottle Co-op. Like most of the businesses, what you saw at the front was usually like the tip of the iceberg. Round the back of the shops was the Co-op undertakers and joiners workshop. Two lovely gents actually made the coffins and even now when I smell new sawdust and wax polish I think of that workshop. Then when the time came, one of these gents would take off his bib and brace, get cleaned up, don a morning coat and top hat and lead the funeral. This area now known as Wheeler House.

Next was a tall dark brick building used at different times by the local authorities and at one time was the Probation Office. As if Houghton needed such a service.

Between here and the Coliseum I can only remember an open space. Copyright © Books of the North 2010

Over the alley from the Coli were a couple of grocery shops. The Meadow Dairy and I think Duncans. Like most shops in those days they would have had a counter right across the shop with the staff behind having to go fetch from wherever the goods the shoppers in front of the counter asked for [in buildings now known as Scruton House].

Then there was Woolies. That great long red facia with the big gold letters: F.W.WOOLWORTHS, everything 3d or 6d (that’s about 1p or 2p). I helped put the gold leaf on those letters and the 3d and 6d came off about the end of the war. Inside, Woolworths was massive and you could walk about, as the counters were more like big square islands with the girl assistants in the middle of each. With the goods on display on the counters it was like early self service as you could point at or even pick up what you wanted and hand it to the assistant to be wrapped and paid for. The store at that time had a hardwood floor which seemed to be oiled or polished with a product unique to Woolies - the nice smell of it lingers in the memory. Going into any branch of Woolies in the country you seemed to get that same aroma.

Next, 38 on recent maps, was Blackburn’s newsagents. I think the family lived above the shop.

And coming up at 40, I can smell it now - Stone’s pork butchers. Ah, those penny dips, saveloys and pies. The Stones did live above the shop but must be long gone. Surely they left some of their recipes with someone?

Barclays bank was next but nobody lived there. Copyright © Books of the North 2010

Corner of Newbottle Street, c1914

Across Wheeler Street then, on map as no. 44, was Bruce & Tuckers. Quite a large shop selling what I think was called haberdashery and just about anything for the home. The name Bruce seems to come up often when Houghton businesses are mentioned.

Next was Hodgson’s Electrics. Again the shop was the tip of the iceberg. Behind and in the basement were workshops for the electricians and equipment for charging up the towns batteries. After the war Hodgson’s wired up most of the terraced houses in Houghton and district (as far out as Sunniside) and piped radio to all who wanted it for 6d a week. Known as The Relay this would be the first time many had radio at home!

The west side of Newbottle Street in the 1950s

No. 48 on the map has to be the old post office. I was still buying postal orders and stamps there to send off the family pools coupon well into the 1950s. Again there was plenty going on behind the scenes. The postmen worked in the basement getting the mail in and out. Two or three telegram boys waited with their bikes at the ready for telegrams to come down from the upstairs telephone exchange to be delivered anywhere in town. About one up on the pony express. This was because very few homes had telephones. My first employer’s telephone number was ‘Houghton 75‘. The exchange on the first floor, as most people will have seen on films or at Beamish, needed someone to connect two phones by sticking two plugs on the ends of two long cords into two sockets. Working in there once I actually heard a subscriber say: “Morning Doris, put me through to Michael Watson the decorator, please.” And she did! Could we manage without the phone now. In those days for instance, if you needed a doctor to call, you had to leave a message at what was called the doctors’ ‘call house’. These must have been dotted about the town. Ours was in Grasswell Terrace and as long as we left the message before 10am the doctor would call. Now we simply have to pick up the phone in the hall, dial his number and sit with the phone to your ear for about three quarters of an hour till the receptionist gets round to you. But that’s progress and I'm wandering off a bit.

Next at 50 was Bruce’s Tobbaconist & Fancy goods. No scents or aroma smell memories here but whenever I here the phrase ‘Under the counter’ for some reason I think of Bruce’s. Probably because when there were shortages during the War, especially of cigarettes, smokers were heard to mutter: “Them buggers have got tabs under the counter for their favourites.” Maybe the phrase originated here in Newbottle Street. Here at Bruce’s I bought my wife (then girlfriend) a pair of earrings for 10/- (50p). Well I had had a double-up, courtesy of the bookie in the Robbie Burns’ toilets. Fifty years on she still wears them.

Next at 52 was a bakery. It might have been Gilroy’s. Copyright © Books of the North 2010

54/56 on the corner of Grey Street was Johnson’s drapery. In their basement, girls sat at knitting machines making mainly pit stockings after the War.

Across Grey Street then, the Grand and Empire. Memories of the three cinemas are mostly of the long queues, three or four deep, right round the buildings most evenings before television came along and spoilt it all. The patrons usually seemed divided more or less equally between the three cinemas. Unless there was a blockbuster like ‘Old Mother Riley Goes to War’ showing at the Empire then the queue for that would go on to infinity. Well, down towards the Welfare Hall anyway. No matter how long the queues most people seemed to get in. If you were unlucky and didn't make it in you had dash off to one of the other two, hoping not to miss any of the shorts before the main feature. Of these shorts, ones like ‘The Three Stooges’ or ‘Donald Duck’ were always welcome, whereas documentaries such as ‘The March of Time’ were greeted with loud jeers and much stamping of feet!

Further on up that side was getting out of town but there were a few shops; I remember a bicycle shop, a ladies hairdressers, a florist and a music shop which always seemed deserted. It must have been a music shop because in the window there was always a mouth organ (a jewsharp?) and a couple of pages of sheet music. There was always a chippy about here. Even during the War, walking home from the pictures we could call here for a bag of chips. A building we called ‘the clinic’ was about here. This spot seemed to treat children’s ailments, especially ones picked up on medical checks at school.

Just about here, before the War, was Reed’s Sale Rooms. All we ever bought here was a peashooter when on our way to the penny pictures. During the War the place was used as canteen many called the British Restaurant. Ran by the Council, it served up hot lunches five days a week for a few pence. It helped the workers in the town have a break and helped patrons eke out their rations. Among these properties was the Gas Shop, where one lady seemed to take care of all business and enquiries. Again this was the tip of the iceberg. Out back were the gas works and the enormous gasometer. As far as one could tell, the Gas Company employed one fitter, Walter Moss, with his bag of tools in the front carrier of his bike. He kept gas flowing smoothly through the whole of Houghton and district, as well as fixing any appliances ordered for homes.

Coming back down into town are: Copyright © Books of the North 2010

The Comrades, which I first knew as a converted farm house. From about there the buildings look to have been flattened to make way for the new roads but I remember the candle factory and a big building housing two removal vans (with Pearson’s on their sides). They might have part of the national company.

Then Richardson’s barbers. Working there was little Harry Slee. Little Harry because he didn't grow much more than four foot! He was probably one of the most popular lads in Houghton, always happy, always smiling. If you went in there for a haircut, no matter how long the wait Harry would keep you entertained with his gags and good humour. Have a quip with your clip.

Greenhow's Hardware Store, Houghton-le-Spring

Getting back down to the bustling centre we come to Greenhow’s. This place had its own distinctive aroma - putty, paint and paraffin, but it wasn't at all unpleasant. In Greenhow’s one could buy the latest model poss-stick, have a piece of glass cut to size, or buy an exquisite china dinner service.

The Robbie Burns was next. Most haunted spot in Houghton? It would be great to think there was a ghost of that bookie’s runner hanging about in those toilets, waiting for punters to go in with their slips!

Next along Riani's perhaps, then a shop selling furniture and household stuff. The name Hadden or Staddon seems to come to mind. We bought our first vacuum cleaner there.

Newbottle Street in the 1940s

Wheatley’s corner shop. We seemed to have two chemists, Frank Jones and Timothy Whites & Taylors. Cousin Rita worked in Jones .

Then there was the grocers, Walter Wilsons Smiling Service, Moores Stores, Dewhurst the Butchers, Fletcher’s Greengrocers, and Betty’s. If Stone’s got the taste buds working, Betty's gave old sweet tooth a working over. As a youngster I can remember my Grandad bringing home cough candy from Betty’s. Visiting the Empire Bingo just before it closed about 1995/6 I called in at Betty's and yes, bought a quarter of cough candy. Aint life sweet?

Newbottle Street in 1949

Crossing Mautland Street after Wheatley’s, the Co-op had a couple of shops, one of which was opened as an opticians after the War.

Montague Burtons. Got my wedding suit there (bespoke of course). Copyright © Books of the North 2010

Doggart’s clothing. Doggart’s had that quiet hushed atmosphere with carpets on the floor, glass counters and a million drawer fronts covering the wall behind the counter. Ask an assistant (likely to be one of the Belton lads out of North Row, Sunniside) if you could see, say some white shirts, long sleeves, 16 neck and he would go unerringly to a particular drawer and show you just that! If your name was good you didn't need money, just see one of their agents in your street and she would let you have a voucher with a value of a few pounds. You could spend this in their shops and then pay it back a shilling or two a week. This was the forerunner of the plastic we wave about with such gay abandon to-day.

Doggarts, Newbottle Street, in 1966

Between here and Carrick’s bakery (run by a family called Hall) at the entrance to the covered market, placing spots gets a bit hazy but there was a Tyler's Shoes, a Chiropodist, and Davidson’s the Bakers who also made ice cream (a story here that makes Shelia Quigley's yarns look like Enid Blyton stuff, but hardly appropriate for this site).

The indoor market itself must have had a few businesses at one time but I only ever saw Harry Grayson’s the butchers in there. Mr Grayson was a character alright. If after buying your meat you had any money left he would take it off you playing dominoes in the White Lion. At the other side of the market entrance was Robbie Roxby’s barbers. Robbies brother, Alf, had a barbers shop in Colliery Row. A sister worked in Wheatley’s for a few years. Then it was the entrance to Willie Holts’ snooker hall, which was always a popular spot for the young men of the town trying to misspend their youth for a few pence per half hour.

The London Lending Library was in the vicinity. Unlike the County Council free libraries, this was a private concern that charged about a penny or tuppence a week to hire a book. It was still very popular and seemed to have a lot of best selling fiction, especially Westerns. A young friend of ours called Agnes worked there.

And here we are at the White Lion. Copyright © Books of the North 2010

One thing never seen on Newbottle Street up until then were plaggy bags. All shoppers carried a basket or shopping bag, and as my old Mum would say back then: “I've been right along that street, spent over ten shillings, and hardly covered the bottom of my basket.”

So what’s new? Copyright © Books of the North 2010

Harry Smith, 2010


Collected & Edited by
Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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