The Seaton Snook
The following two quarter-inch tapes were found in an Ogden's St Bruno Flake tobacco tin belonging to Robson Booth.
Main Tape (SS204)
The main tape a consists of a 19-minute piece in what appears to be the style of Ewan McCall, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker's Radio Ballads↗️. These were hour-long documentaries broadcast on the BBC Home Service between 1958 and 1964 at a rate of one per year. They dealt with the lives of working class people in the British Isles, and as well as containing sound effects, songs and instrumental music, they also featured the actual recorded voices of the working class people who were the subjects of the documentaries, a revolutionary addition at the time.
We know that Booth had an interest in creating spoken word pieces for tape, and as Booth's narration dates the piece as being recorded in 1959, it is perfectly possible that Booth was influenced by the first Radio Ballad, The Ballad of John Axon, which was broadcast on 2nd July 1958.
Booth's "Tape Ballad" (our title; the Booth tape is unmarked), is obviously shorter, and unlike the McCall/Seeger/Parker productions includes a narrator to guide the listener through the various sections. The interviewees are a Mrs Anna Wren of Stockton on Tees, and a Mr Michael Cole of West Hartlepool. Census records show an Emma Wren living in West Hartlepool in the late 19th, early 20th century, but no mention of a Michael Cole in the Hartlepools until 1982. It is possible, therefore, that the names of the interviewees were changed by Booth, possibly at the interviewees' request due to some personal and possibly inflammatory comments.
The overall topic of the tape appears to be Childhood at Seaton Snook, and the sub-topics can be divided into:
Crabbing and fishing
Rudolph, a resident
Music in school and church
There are five musical cues, possibly played by Booth himself.
Two verses and burdens of a song we have titled "Blodscar Rocks", with a male voice and viola accompaniment
Rudolph the Russian Rugmaker, from Gaynor Leigh's Piano Primer, played on piano
How Beautiful Are The Feet from Handel's Messiah, played on the harmonium
A tune possibly entitled The Crofter, resembling the main subject of The Crofter's Dream by Gaynor Leigh, and the Pity Me Horn Chorale, played on the Northumbrian Smallpipes, and including the Sumer Tempo.
Most of the voices have been recorded on one track, with accompanying environmental sounds on the second track, to be played simultaneously. There are some tape splices, but most of the editing appears to have been done by way of Booth playing dialogue from one tape machine, and recording onto second, pausing the recording where necessary to skip unwanted dialogue. This can be heard most clearly around 17:10 - 17:35.
Main Tape Transcript
MC: Michael Cole
AW: Anna Wren
RB: Robson Booth
[Sound of Seagulls]
It’s funny what sticks in your mind innit.
I mean, all the memories are there, but the memories you care to remember and focus on are what makes you who you are isn’t it?
My recollections may be totally awry
You can see the people and, you know, it was just, it was fantastic.
I think that’s what makes it exciting isn’t it, because you’ve got - everybody sees it in a different light, don’t they?
Seaton Snook is a small town on the coast of County Durham. It lies 17 miles as the seagull flies East South East from Durham Cathedral, near the north bank of the River Tees. At its South, the Zinc Refinery, that employs nearly half its residents. At its north, the Wide Open, a grazing pasture that separates The Snooks from neighbouring Seaton Carew and West Hartlepool.
Anna Wren is a retired lifeboat coxswain in Stockton-on-Tees. She fondly remembers growing up in Seaton Snook in the 1920s.
[Sea; walking; cows; seagulls]
Because there was a path, well there wasn’t a path, we used to just walk through it. but then we used to come out at where the beginning of the sand dunes were from the Gare End, and used to walk the rest of the way on the beach to the boat.
There was two; when you went in the Snooks, you went through the Works, there was a row of houses there and that was for the workers, and then there was another row that went further round, and there was another row of houses there, and then the chapel-cum-hall was on the other side, and when you went right through, we called it the Canch End.
We have chosen Mrs Wren for this project despite her no longer living in Seaton Snook, because she has several unique memories of the town from before her birth, as well as some that have not yet happened.
It was like a dam. It was a, oh it was a great big massive, like a black thing, and it was really deep. When the tide came up, it filled up, but it also leaked out and there was a great big pond in this field in front of the cabins, and of course there was no fencing or anything there then, and we used to play in that pond, and you’d think “Oh Heck”, and it used to look like, em, like a turquoisey colour. And then you’d see it in the sand and in the grass and it was growing, and how anything grew on it I don’t know. They used to put horses down there, we’d say it’ll kill them all that poison that’s on there.
Michael Cole agreed to participate in this project, but unexpectedly relocated to West Hartlepool shortly before recording. He regrets the move.
[Sea; walking; seagulls]
I remember sunny days, and getting just playing in the sand and in the sea, all the time. Much happier at Seaton, playing on the beach.
I suppose it’s good innit cos we were always on the rocks in bare feet, so you learnt which was the slippy seaweed and which wasn’t, and you learnt that fairly quickly. You learnt which rocks were attached to other rocks and weren’t going to give way, and which weren’t, you know, and so you got savvy with it. You’d build things with the sand and you’d learn how different sands do different things, wet and dry. Learnt about the tides. Getting cut off. Learnt about getting wet and getting cold, and feeling sand on your feet. Sun on your back.
Aye when the tide was up, that was good. Avoiding the huge waves. Big waves. And you know there was, when they’d come over there’d be a big splash, then another one, then another one, and every 7 8 9 or 10 there’d be a massive one. Swept a lot of me friends away. A lot of them are dead. Drowned. But you know, there was too many kids in those days. They had to do something. Just had to go and play in the tides. Well cos there was no chimneys left for us to disappear up.
One night young William went to town
And drank like he were older
And when he got to Blodscar rocks
He wan’t exactly sober
Watch yersel’ on Blodscar rocks
He stood alone on Blodscar Rocks
And watched the waves come over
He slipped and fell and crowned hisself
We found him next October
Watch yersel’ on Blodscar rocks
The sea was like, well, me dad taught us to swim in the sea. Because Seaton used to be heaving in them days. People used to come from all over. It used to be packed. We were all on the beach, all us kids on the beach - ah, fabulous.
When my older sister was 21, we had a birthday party on the beach. We made a table with sand. We built it up and built it up and built it up, until it was a big round table, [feedback] and me mam had put a cloth on it, and us kids around it, and the grown ups an that, and we had a party on the beach.
As well as a being a major part of the economy of Seaton Snook, crabbing is also a popular amusement amongst children
[waves on rockpool; seagulls]
When the tide goes down, and you’d see a rock with a lip, and you kind of knew “Ah yeah you can see there’s gonna be something in there.” So you’d either poke with your hand, which was silly; or you’d get a stick and have a little poke in, and you can have a look. Which is why everyone has a wet ear, because you do that… [laughter] All us kids had wet ears. [laughter]
But aye, you just used to poke about and the crab would grab hold of the stick and you’d pull it out. They were a bit silly. As long as they sat in underneath they were alright, but they grabbed and you pulled them out. And then you just either pull the legs off and let ‘em go, or let ‘em go. We didn’t deliberately pull the legs off.
Limpets! We used to see who could get the most limpets off. And that involved creeping up with a stone and hitting them sideways, cos they could feel your vibrations and they’d go *Clack*, and you had no chance.
Never liked seafish, seafood. Fish I liked, but not your actual shellfish. Me gran made great kippers. And trout.
Shall we go fishing? And of course we’d all *gasp* “Oh yeah, yeah!” and he’d go “Shhhh!” Yeah, and we used to go fishing in the coble. We’d go out and we had our lobster pots and crab pots. Me mam did as well, me mam used to come as well. We used to go over the winkle beds and collect the cockles and the winkles.
Anyway we were over the winkle bed and me dad says to me auntie Florrie, and our Philomena, and me mam, and our Mary, and me, and we were all just busy picking winkles and everything, and our Philomena’s terrified of crabs, so I found this - it was only a little crab like that and I just put it down her back. Well, she went like a raving lunatic, as you would! [laughter]
We used to get great big whacking crabs as well.
They all had wet ears. [laughter]
Mrs Wren was one of many Snookians who lived in houseboats on the beach: cabins built atop old cobles, and anchored above the high tide mark.
And the boats that they used were, er, lifeboats off the ships. one end of the, the stern end was used for storage, and the bow was used for to put the cinders in. So when you went, you went up the steps, obviously, to get into the boat; and then you stood on that little bit of a deck; but then when you went down the steps to get into the boat, underneath the steps there was a little door, and that’s where the cinders were. And then on the side, when you first went in like on this side, on the left there was a little like a little area like you could work on, there was a Primus stove, cos that’s what we cooked on as well, Primus stoves, and then there was a cubbit, to keep pots and things in and food, mainly tinned stuff because obviously we didn’t have fridges, and we used to bury the milk, we used to bury it in the sand to keep it cool. And then at the other side when you went in at the other side there was another ledge and another cupboard, and in that cupboard you opened it and there was two enamel, white enamel buckets wi lids on, and that’s how we collected our water. And we used to get the water from the zinc works.
It had bunks, so there was two, what you would say the equivalent of a single bed at the stern end, and there was a curtain across, right, and that was the beds. Me dad slept on what was a camp bed, and he used to put it across the two sides, and he slept there. Joseph slept on one side, and Maureen slept on the other if we were all there together.
It’s funny because you look back, and you never feel as if you were ever cramped or crowded, but we must have been. But there was never any feeling of that.
Of course, the spring tides on occasion took the houseboat residents by surprise.
[Waves, getting louder]
Sank, when I lived in it, it sank. I was in the bed, and obviously I was just married, it was when I first got married, and the waves are coming over the bow, and, yeah, it’s just going down and down, and we had the stove on and it’s sizzling when the water was hitting it! [laughter]
Joe got out, and he was up to his waist in water, and it was February, so it was freezing! And then he put me on his back and carried me to our other boat - fortunately we had another boat, so he carried me to the other boat, and I went in and got the fire going, and then Joe was going backwards and forwards getting our stuff.
[Waves begin to fade]
When she was named, me dad had put her name on in the plastic letters from Woolworth’s, and broke the bottle of beer on her bows. It kind of breaks me heart really when I go, because I stand there and I think, well, our boat was there, and then our other boat was there, Mrs Thomas’s boat was over there, Mrs Todd’s boat was there, Thomases’ other boat was there, me auntie, me uncle Albert’s boat was up there, and there was another Thomases’ from there, Benson’s was over here… Thomases they were a big family as well and they had mebby three or four boats with different parts of the family in them, you know? There was the Welfords, and they had, they finished up with two boats. Jack, I can’t remember his second name… Corkins! Now they lived in the village. Billy Corkin. I think on the beach, if I remember right, there was mebby about 38 boats mebby.
Mrs Wren recalls the residents being ordered by the Tees Conservancy Commission to remove their houseboats from the beach, or else to incinerate them where they stood.
It was sad when the boats had to go. So that’s what we did with ours. Well, me dad didn’t - he couldn’t do it, he was broken hearted, as all of us were. So they were burnt. My [shout in background] husband, he did them and one of his mates went and did our boats. Cos none of us could do it, it was too hard.
We’d had such a wonderful childhood there, and me dad had been going down the Snook since he was a young lad, so it was hard for all of us, it was really hard for every one of us, it was terrible.
Mrs Wren’s memories… Mrs Wren’s memories of the burning of the houseboats is certainly most moving, but fortunately as at 1959, it has not yet happened.
One memory that both Mrs Wren and Mr Cole share, is that of a now-deceased houseboat resident, whose skills in handicrafts and electronics made him a popular figure in the community.
[Piano: Rudolph the Russian Rugmaker by Gaynor Leigh]
There was a Russian man called Rudolph, and he used to make mats out of rope, and oh they were beautiful, I mean we had them as well cos you know he was a nice man, but he never bothered with- he always kept hisself to hisself, but yeah he made these lovely- and he make them different shapes, sometimes they were like rectangle, sometimes they were oval, but they were all made out of rope. Yeah, he was dead clever.
Very very clever with his hands and everything. Very bright - he built his own television with an oscilloscope. Little tiny green screen like that. I saw cricket on it! First thing I ever saw on television was the cricket.
Me mam’s brother used to play the tin whistle, he used to play it at home when we were at home.
Yeah, there wasn’t much music on the beach.
And indeed Mr Cole is right. Fishermen of Seaton Snook tend to work in near silence, such is their reverence for the terrible power of the sea. Adults attend musical entertainments at the Fifth Buoy Light club, and there is of course the annual Carnival on the Wide Open. But for children not blessed with a musical household, their primary exposure to music making is at school and church.
[Harmonium plays "How Beautiful Are The Feet" from Messiah (HWV 56) by G F Handel, 1941]
I was head chorister at one time. Not cos I could sing, but I looked particularly angelic to the choir master. Fred Hill used to take us on trips in his little Austin Standard. Sang at Durham Cathedral. I sang How Beautiful Are The Feet. [sings:] “How beautiful are the feet of them”.
I don’t know the rest. I had good memories of the choir.
But on a Sunday morning, we were Catholics and so we used to get up dead early and in them days you had to fast from midnight the night before. Our Philomena used to faint in church cos she’d had nothing to eat or drink or anything, but.
And, eh, our mam and dad always had a lay down on a Sunday, so you weren’t allowed to go anywhere near on a Sunday cos they… you know they used to have a lay down.
Put something about the solstice in here
Yeah we were all finished up dancing around this thing with no shoes on, “Take your shoes off take your shoes off!” and there was this bloke, and he had a white skirt on and a long skirt and he had like a fez on with all knitted, well I don’t know if it was knitted but it was all bonny colours, and he had this like a bowl, like a brass bowl, and a bell and he going round tinkling. I thought “What the hell is he doing?” There’s another bloke and he’s playing the bagpipes…
[Northumbrian Smallpipes playing Sumer Tempo and The Crofter]
Yes, so it’s a funny childhood for me to remember cos it’s just so fragmented so it doesn’t make a narrative - just a false narrative. Well, this is what I was saying, memories are false aren’t they? You remember what you… well you remember what you want to remember. And when you remember things you don’t want to remember you don’t talk about them, so they don’t come out do they?
I just, I just wished it would still been around when my kids were growing up. But anyway, it happened and you can’t fetch it back cos it’s gone.
[19:51 - Tape Ends]
Extra Tape (SS204a)
The second tape is a 4-minute section comprising clips from the same interviews with Anna Wren and Michael Cole. The topics are:
A lesson at school
Possibly the cocklewomen
A tramp at Seaton Snook
Life at the Zinc Works
It is possible that the first three are outtakes from the main tape, while the final section on the Zinc Works was intended for use in a second Tape Ballad about work or adult life at Seaton Snook.
Extra Tape Transcript
We went out with a dozen of us and we had a tape measure. Fifty, twenty-five yard tape measure. So - I don’t know he was - he’d stand there, and he’d be the starting point; and then you’d walk twenty-five yards, and somebody else would stand there; and you’d walk twenty-five further along, the rest of us, so you had fifty yards, seventy-five, a hundred yards. We’ve got half a mile. So you could see what it looks like. Half a mile: “Oh, it’s him over there!” That was one of the most useful lessons I ever had at school, that. He was good, Fred Hill. Except for his… peccadilloes.
I dunno if they used to… I don’t know what they did in that hut to tell you the truth but it was always there.
We had to get the water from the Zinc Works, and we had to carry the water the water from the Zinc Works to drink, so it was really precious
Father had a cabin at the snooks.
There was, when we were kids, there was a tramp. Me mam used to often feed him. She used to often take a bag of bread and, you know, bits and bobs that we’d had left and she used to often feed him. But he lived there for years, that tramp. I can’t remember his name. I don’t know if he had a, well he will have had a name but I can’t remember him. But he was there for a long time. I can remember him being there as a kid. And that’s where he lived. And he lived off stuff off the tip.
I remember getting cystitis, and finding great comfort from drinking barley water standing by the blast furnace, when they poured the iron into the containers, the heat. Ooh, it was lovely on your liver, kidneys.
What was the other guy called…? He was a lunatic. Can’t remember his name now. But I remember going into a big empty vessel to do some welding, and oh it was dead echoey, and he’d come in with a headache, I mean a real hangover, cos he used to drink a lot, all of them. And he’d get in: “Oh, me head”, and just cos he had a headache, he’d start hammering at the sides of things just to make it even louder to try and get rid of his headache.
Did it work?
Well… maybe he transferred it to me because I ended up with a fucking headache, I don’t know what happened to his. [laughter] Mental.
And he thought it was dead funny cos one of his mates had found a dead cat, maggotty cat. And hidden in the bush, and when somebody came past he swung it round and hit this bloke cycling past with this maggotty cat - they thought it was hilarious.
He said he was given a job of painting this shed, it had the top was red and the bottom was green, so he dipped the paintbrush half into the red and half into the green, and done the stripe along like that. “Oh it was really… you couldn’t see the join!” he said, “it was really…” And you’d think, well it wouldn’t work! But that was his claim to fame that he’d done this shed so well that he was made foreman.
His dad had one arm. We used to salute him when he went past because we knew he couldn’t do it back. [Laughter] We thought that was funny!
You know, on the odd times that we sort of like got to the fence, it always looked tidy. You know like you see some works and they’re scruffy - no it wasn’t, it was tidy.
[04:19 Tape Ends]