Whatever Happened To You?…..

Yesterday in Fit For A Princess I wrote of a moored ex-ferry that in the 1980’s was revamped into a floating nightclub on the Gateshead side of the River Tyne. It’s location close to where the Sage arena now sits.

Also located only a stones throw from where the Sage resides stood the now demolished Hawks Road factory my dad managed during the 1970’s/80’s. This company, who’s Leeds headquarters pater left for its Gateshead branch in the late 1960’s, being the Northern Butchers Hide & Skin Company.

His new factory, akin to most in ‘that game’, a rundown building storing bovine pelts/ovine skins, along with the wagons that collected them and, following salt preservation treatment, latterly distributed onwards to fell-mongers .

Adjoined this old storage yard was a small aesthetically unappealing office building where, amongst other relatively diminutive rooms, my dad’s office resided. A chamber my siblings and me visited many times throughout our childhoods.

It’s minimalist layout typical of that era; sparsely furnished with a solid dark wood desk, huge safe, dark green filing cabinet and a second smaller desk located by a sash window to the front. The view wasn’t brilliant, however net curtains and dirty windows can hide a multitude of aesthetically displeasing sights.

From recollection, upon the old man’s desk lay a rectangle blotting pad complete with doodles, a first generation office calculator, a large desk diary and a folded up pair of black rimmed spectacles similar to those worn by actor Michael Caine in The Ipcress File.

Prior to witnessing these specs for the first time I’d no idea my dad had a need for eyesight correction. I’d certainly never seen him wearing them at home – Although to be honest, as they were enigmatically perched on his desk calculator not astride his not inconsiderable conk, I wasn’t actually witnessing him adorning them in the office either.

Northern Butchers 1997

During my post-‘O’ level hiatus as a 16 year old, I occasionally worked in Northern Butchers’ yard, as this dark open plan outdoor working area was known. A filthy job lugging hides and sheepskins off wagons, before salting them prior to loading them back onto the vehicles for redistribution.

Apparently the expression ‘Piss poor’ came from this particular industry’s old practise of paying the poor for their urine; fluid delivered in chamber pots which was used as pelt preservative. The expression ‘He hasn’t got a pot to piss in’ comes from the even poorer people who couldn’t afford a chamber pot, consequently having to urinate on the skins when they arrived at the tannery.

Thankfully by summer of 1979 pelt preservative practises had evolved from those of Victorian and Georgian times. Consequently, and mercifully, I wasn’t subject to the sight of a steady flow of paupers arriving with chamber pots full of steaming urine. Or indeed the even poorer uninvitedly turning up to ‘preserve’ the pelts/skins in front of me.

Regardless of this, working in the yard during the final summer of the 1970’s was still a pretty awful job. Particularly, at the back of the factory where the skips of bones and damaged hides and skins were located. A place where it wasn’t uncommon to witness rats who were nesting in the adjacent railway viaduct wall.

One Saturday morning, my brother Ian and I witnessed a rat the size of a cat in that area of the factory. The rodent rendered almost inert by the poison that’d been scattered by Northern Butchers in a seemingly vain attempt to control rat infestation.

At least I assumed its slow stumbling movement was a consequence of poisoning; not that it was actually a drunken feline staggering home after a heavy Friday nights drinking at a rat fancy dress competition.

Regardless what it was, the animal was in the wrong place at the wrong time as on being spotted by a yard worker was flattened by a spade, it’s body scooped up and unceremoniously thrown into one of the skips.

Thankfully, over the last two decades the NE8 area has changed markedly for the better. As well as the iconic Sage arts and entertainment arena on the banks of the Tyne, the Gateshead Quays development has enjoyed a multi-million pound revamp, including hotels, bars and St Mary”s Heritage Centre.

Rightly or wrongly, whenever I see image of urban decay in the opening titles of 1970’s TV comedy Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads they manifest recollections of the NE8 area of Gateshead back then, and journeys to the old man’s place of work.

To close I wanted to share one of my most vivid memories of working at Northern Butchers Hide & Skin Company in the summer of ’79. The anecdote surrounding a fish and chip lunch I shared in the office area with my dad and his fellow office workers John Tulip, Alan and Michelle.

This recollection not revolving around the food itself, moreover my fascination at the fact the vinegar bottle had a dead fly floating in it. I couldn’t believe someone would actually remove the top to place the insect into the glass container, consequently I was mystified how the hell it got in there. Particularly after concluding it couldn’t have possibly entered through the tiny hole in the lid.

Looking back now, it strikes me that lunchtime I perhaps unknowingly had the honour of meeting the David Blaine of the Diptera world.


Leave a Reply