31 January 2004

First Draft: South Shields. Mill Dam and the Mission

We often went down Mill Dam jetty to look at the ships and the busy jetty activity. On the way we would call in at the Mission to Seamen Club. This was run by the Anglican Church for the welfare of seamen of any nationality. Here could be found snooker tables or darts, get a cup of tea or a meal, relax in the lounge or a quiet read in the reading room. Religion was there for those in need and the Chaplin was always available. Otherwise the place ran just as any club would. Religion was not normally mentioned but there if it was needed.

It was only open to active seamen and we as prospective seamen were allowed to use the facilities, which we did. We would often call in even if it were only for a cup of tea or a meal or a game of snooker. Recently looking at their website and I see they are advertising bar facilities. Whether or not they serve alcohol or not I do not know at this point of time, they certainly didn't in the 1950 era.

The Mission had a roomy launch and on Sunday's the Chaplain would do his rounds of the new ships in port. He would go aboard each one and check for any welfare cases there might be in need of help. More often than not the visit was just a chat with the officer of the watch and the exchange of local news.

The roomy launch would hold quite a few more than the Chaplain and the launch master so the Mission ran a list to book a place on the launch. On a sunny Sunday it was pleasant on the river seeing all the berthed ships and sometimes laden vessels coming and going on the top of the tide. If the Sunday river activity were quiet the launch master would turn the wheel over to one of us and tell us to steer towards that buoy or that marker. He always made sure each of us had a turn of the wheel. Newbie?s always got first chance.

Just up from Mill Dam each summer 2 large ships called the Southern Venturer and the Southern Harvester would berth for cleaning and refit. These were whaling factory ships returned from the southern ocean. It was summer in the UK but down there in the high latitudes of the southern ocean winter reigned.

Everyone knew when the factory ships arrived; the smell of them would percolate through the town. Even after a thorough clean down they still smelt when we went down to Mill Dam. Tales would be told of how much money the crew had earned during the whaling season with high wages and catch bonuses. Of course the figure would increase as the tale was told and re-told but yes, the returns were high for the crew. It was a hard life for them down in the freezing cold wastes of the southern ocean and a lonely life too.

I'm not sure why Mill Dam was so called, may be once a stream entered the river here to be dammed for mill operation. I looked on an old 1860s map but Mill Dam was marked as a jetty and wharf even then. This was an old part of the town and I remember everything was old, who knows what existed here long ago.

Yes, Mill Dam was a busy jetty with seamen, shipping officials and other visitors coming and going from locally berthed ships picked up and set down by numerous small boats and launches. One boat, a dingy I remember clearly. Just 6 feet long, the operator rowed standing with one oar only from a rowlock on the centre of the stern. The blade of the oar was operated in a figure of eight motion and the dingy would shoot along in a twisting motion fast as if he had a motor on the stern. I remember him as proudly aware of his skills a little smile would start to appear at the corners of his mouth when he caught someone watching him. He always seemed to be delivering parcels and packages to the nearby ships.

And yes, Mill Dam was one of my favourite stopping places.

No comments: