“Naughty girl! I’ll pack your bags and send you to Greystones!”
As a small girl growing up in Seaham Harbour in the 70s, the threat of Greystones was generally enough to make me mend my ways. Set on the headland in front of Seaham Hall, directly overlooking the grey North Sea above Seaham Hall beach, Greystones was actually the Girls’ Remand Home – a sort of female Borstal ( Young Offenders Institution in current parlance). Named after the adjacent 19th Century vicarage, which looked like something out of a Hammer Horror Film, it was the bleakest of spots. I often wondered about the unfortunate, invisible girls who resided there, and the nature of their “crimes”.
Luckily, as I was a shy timid little mouse back then, always top of the class, always with my nose in a book, the prospects of me ever actually being packed off to Greystones were somewhat slim. I’m not sure having a messy bedroom would have met the criteria for being classified as a Young Offender. It was demolished in the 1980s, and no trace of it remains. The Vicarage is still there of course, its blackened stones now sandblasted and gleaming, a comfortable and opulent mansion, private electronic gates keeping out the rabble. Gazza lived there for a while, which probably tells you all you need to know.
It’s fair to say there wasn’t a great deal for children and teenagers to do back then. There wasn’t a great deal for anybody to do if I’m honest. There was one restaurant, the Phoenix, on the Mill Inn Bank (where the small Tesco is now) where everyone went for every single special occasion, and a few insalubrious cafes in Church Street – Valentes, Murleys Bakery, and upstairs above Liptons. All I can recall of each is the abundance of formica and the fog of cigarette smoke.
In its heyday Seaham had several cinemas and even a couple of theatres. However when I was a child the only one that remained was the Fairworld Cinema, just off the bottom of Church Street, opposite the Engineers Arms and roughly where the back of Byron Place shopping centre is now. I can remember being taken there by my parents when I was very small to see various Disney films – The Aristocats, Mary Poppins, Clarence the Cross Eyed Lion, Battlestar Galactica, The Rescuers, and Condorman.
The lights would go down, accompanied by the usual cheers and owl hoots, followed by the Pearl and Dean Music and the ubiquitous advert for Ibbitsons Pork Butchers. There was always a double bill, with an interval in between. An usherette would come round and stand at the bottom of the steps, with a tray suspended from a ribbon around her neck, selling ice creams in little tubs and those square plastic cartons of orange juice where you had to stick a straw through the foil lid. Some kid was always sick and you’d inevitably be sat there watching the main feature accompanied by the faint smell of vomit and disinfectant.
When I got a little older I used to go the cinema with my friends on a Saturday morning. I have a particular memory of my friend Allison and I taking our younger brothers to see all three Superman movies which were being screened in a single day. For some bizarre reason known only to the projectionist, they weren’t screened in order. In our very early teens we had a phase of going to see popular tearjerkers, usually involving some dying woman or sick child . Who Will Love My Children, The Last Snows of Spring, that sort of nonesense. They were all terrible cheesy melodramas but we loved them. A double bill of the Jazz Singer (Neil Diamond) and Kramer vs Kramer (Streep/Hoffman) just about finished me off and I cried so much I was sick. However, my absolute favourite was Airplane, which I saw as a 12 year old, and thought it was THE single most hilarious thing I’d ever seen. Especially the bit with the boobies. I still love that film now. Just don’t call me Shirley.
We used to hang out at a shabby little park, littered with broken glass and fag ends, in a field near the railway line, between the rows of single storey pit cottages and the Northlea housing estate. The swings were usually rendered unusable, tied up in their chains around the top of the frame. There was a climbing frame with monkey bars; if you could “do the bars” that was quite something ( I never could) although you risked life and limb if you fell off onto the shards of broken bottles that lay beneath.
The whole park would be closed down on health and safety grounds these days. There wasn’t much else in the way of leisure facilities, so the opening of what turned out to be the world’s crappest leisure centre in the early 80s caused quite a stir. There wasn’t anything in it apart from a couple of squash courts and sports hall. No swimming pool. What a disappointment.
When I was 10 years old I joined the Girl Guides (2nd Seaham Christ Church Company). We used to meet at 7 o’clock every Wednesday evening at Dillon House opposite the bus station. It’s still there, and still used by Guides today. Girl Guiding in those days was very tame by today’s standards. We would play team games (which included learning the points of the compass and how to set a table correctly…), sing songs and learn various skills.
I can still put up a tent in the dark and cook a meal for six on a campfire, should the need ever arise. However there was only ever one thing one the menu, panacalty, followed by banana in tin foil with melted chocolate or two digestives stuck together with a melted marshmallow. Girl Guiding taught me a great deal ( not cooking, obviously) and I’m eternally grateful to the ladies who gave up all of their free time to ensure that we were educated and entertained.
Although some of the activities would cause raised eyebrows today (we worked for badges in needlework and “homemaking” and even childcare) I also learned really useful stuff like mapreading (Allison Swainston, I’m looking at you) and first aid. We even had a two week holiday to London. (I’ll save the Captain Sensible incident / pair of socks stuffed in my bra episode for another time) .
The best thing about Girl Guides was that it afforded the occasional opportunity to meet Boy Scouts, although the chances for romance were somewhat limited as these meetings usually took place at the dreaded monthly Church Parade. There was always the annual Christ Church show though, when our poor parents had to sit through painful renditions of popular classics and watch their children mime to the pop hits of the day in various forms of fancy dress.
So it was that I found myself on stage, aged around 13, wearing a man’s waistcoat, a bow tie and a fake moustache, with a cushion stuffed up my shirt and a plastic rose in my hand, giving a “performance” of Save Your Love by Rene and Renata. Trust me. You had to be there. I won’t even mention the very un-PC version of Doctor I’m in Trouble (Allison Swainston, I’m looking at you again) or the piece involving fake ostriches a la Bernie Clifton (google him, kids).
For slightly older teenagers there was there was the legendary “Cuthie’s Disco”on a Tuesday night, held in St Cuthbert’s Parish Centre, and the occasional Vane Tempest Disco. ( The Vane Tempest was one of Seaham’s 3 coalmines, and the Vane Tempest Hall was a large social facility housing a bar, a stage, and various function rooms, originally built for the miners and their families). I LOVED the Vane Tempest Disco.
Everybody who was anybody was there. I can still remember my various outfits – an orange jumpsuit with matching snood and little white ankle boots, white cropped trousers and a FRANKIE SAYS vest, and then when I was in my goth phase a long black skirt with tassels, black silk blouse, lots of crucifixes and way too much eyeliner. It was the eighties, OKAY? And I can still remember who walked me home. But we’ll gloss over that.
The main highlight of the year was the Civic Show, which used to take place on the field between the railway and the Vane Tempest Colliery, just along from Seaham Harbour Cricket Club. The show usually ran over a whole weekend in late August/ early September and attracted various very minor celebrities. The Civic, as it was universally known, was part entertainment, part village fete and part fun fair.
There were all the usual marquees, where the leek show, flower show and baking competitions were held. Unfeasibly large onions and dahlias jostled for position with Victoria Sponge cakes which looked like they’d seen better days. I distinctly recall the humiliation of having to attend in my girl guide uniform one year, as we’d been asked to “help out” by the Council. I spent the entire weekend trying to avoid bumping into my much cooler, more fashionable friends.
Every year we’d be treated to various displays, usually of a military nature, from the White Helmets Motorcycle display team, the Red Devils Parachute Team, the Navy Gun carriage competition, mock warfare (usually involving chaps in camouflage running about shouting a lot, setting off smoke grenades and firing blanks). If we were really lucky we’d get the RAF Police Dogs who’d run over various obstacles and jump through flaming hoops, before bringing down an escaping “offender”. I salute you, Air Dog Max, star of the show (and occasional half time entertainment at Roker Park).
Behind the marquees and set back from the show field was the fun fair. There were two rides I absolutely loved, the Waltzter and the Meteor. These are pretty tame by today’s theme park standards but back then they were the very epitome of thrill-seeking. Only the brave went on “the eggs”, a sort of ferris wheel with spinning cages rather than seats, that had a propensity to break down and leave the occupants hanging upside down. I went on it once. That was enough. I hated it. I emerged almost in tears and covered in bruises. If you were cool you went down to the Civic on the Friday night, when only the fun fair part was open. I was never cool, but I was allowed down on the Friday evening once or twice.
Every year my mother would give me the same three warnings: don’t talk to any of the show folk, don’t get into cars with any strange men, and don’t bring home any goldfish. Of these, not bringing home a goldfish was the one she seemed to emphasise the most. She had a pathological hatred of goldfish. One I had owned as a small child jumped out of its bowl during the night. The next morning, said fish lay camouflaged against our orange and brown shag pile carpet, and my unsuspecting mother stepped on it in her bare feet. We buried what was left of it in the back garden, and I got a puppy instead. RIP Gussie.
It’s easy to look back on those times through rose tinted spectacles, or to think, “ooh times were hard, back in my day”. In truth, they weren’t ( with the exception of the Miners’ Strike). We weren’t poor, nor were many people I knew. There was almost full employment. I didn’t know anyone whose father didn’t have a job. That was to come much later, when the mines began to close. It’s just how things were then. It was just…ordinary.
And I never did do anything wicked enough to get sent to Greystones.
Would you send this child to Greystones?
You can read more about Seaham, its people and its history on this blog. There are 6 articles in this series.
My first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017) tells the true story of a young Seaham woman who left behind the mining villages of County Durham in 1886, to start a new life alone in Australia. You can read more here.
My new book, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story, will be published in Summer 2020 and is now available to pre-order. The book tells the true story of the Clydes, a Seaham family during the Second World War, and follows the fight for survival of 19 year old RAF wireless operator Jack Clyde and his bomber crew.