What have they done to Gateshead?

I travelled the world for country and King
It took two years off my life
And when I returned to Gateshead town
I courted and took me a wife
And that was July nineteen fifty one
When Gladys and I were wed
In October we sailed for Australia
And said farewell to Gateshead

The years passed by, twenty five in all
It was Christmas nineteen seventy six
When I returned on holiday
To visit the relatives I’d missed
At the airport I was met by brother Bill
Sporting his middle aged spread
Then we drive through Newcastle and across the Tyne
I was home again in Gateshead

But it looked so diff’rent from the place I’d left
I could hardly believe my eyes
When I saw those towering blocks of flats
As we drove through that highway in the sky
And that multi-storey car park even higher still
A concrete nightmare over head
It was then I began to ask myself
What have they done to Gateshead?

As we drove through the streets that I had walked
When I was just a lad
And I saw what had happened to my home town
It made me very very sad
Where I used to live had been pulled down
And another tear I shed
What have they done to the town I knew?
What have they done to Gateshead?

Those fields I’d kicked a ball around
Had all disappeared as well
With St Cuthbert’s Village down Askey Road
Resembling something out of hell
The old school was empty and derelict
Though I still remembered the head
The Empire and The Ritz had gone
What have they done to Gateshead?

It was on my return to Australia
That I began to regret
Returning to the land of my younger days
In this age of travelling by jet
I should have just relied on my memories
Of the place that I was born and bred
Then I never would have asked the question
What have the done to Gateshead?

From The Mitford Family album ‘Geordie & Northumbrian’
Credits: Wilf Mitford, Vocals & Guitar; Pamela Mitford, Violin; Julia Mitford, Flute

Dad wrote this song from the viewpoint of my great uncle Richard Mitford who migrated to Australia in the 1950s.  At the time he wrote the song Gateshead was a bit of a concrete nightmare and Dad used to often wonder what Uncle Richard would make of it after being away so long.  To give you an idea, one of the places Dad mentions is St Cuthbert’s Village.  This is what it would have looked like before Uncle Richard left and on his return;

St Cuthbert's Terrace, Bensham
St Cuthbert’s Terrace Bensham, taken in 1970s, demonstrates how this area once looked. (Source : http://www.gatesheadhistory.com/st-cuthberts-village.html)
St Cuthbert's Court
Conrete is cheaper! This shows how it was replaced in the 1970s (Source : http://www.gatesheadhistory.com/st-cuthberts-village.html – this page also includes a great video put together when they pulled some of the 1970s architecture down)

I vividly remember Uncle Richard & Aunty Gladys coming to visit England in the 1980s – the beginnings of my connection with Australia.  Australia has been a rather curious magnet to my family.  My Mum and her sister, with their parents, also migrated as ten pound poms in the early 1950s when she was just a toddler.  Mum has shared many of her own memories of the experience from the Nissan Huts they stayed in, to the Crossing of the Line Ceremony when the boat crossed the equator (a terrifying experience for Mum).  In contrast to Richard & Gladys, Mum’s family found the distance too difficult and returned to England as soon as they could afford the passage.  Not before Granda got arrested for his involvement in protest against the poor conditions in the migrant camps I’ve since discovered – go Granda!

Uncle Richard and Aunty Gladys lived very happily down in Victoria for many years.  Sadly Uncle Richard is no longer with us, but Dad has stayed in touch with Aunty Gladys through a Christmas card, letter and sometimes video each year. I remember recording videos singing We Wish You A Merry Xmas when portable cameras first came in!

As I’ve mentioned in other posts I’ve been doing our family tree so this gave me a great excuse to get in contact with some of the relatives in Victoria.  Hopefully I’ll meet them one of these days.  Dad has written other songs inspired by Uncle Richard and also by my departure too – they’ll be in future posts!

I’m now experiencing what I’m sure Richard & Gladys would have on their return to the North, seeing how the landscape changes – buildings getting knocked down and new ones in their place.  When I left, Gateshead was certainly at it’s peak in my view, with the development of the Quays where I had been proud to be part of the original team of staff at The Sage.  I got to see the Millennium Bridge floating down the Tyne to its resting place in front of Baltic, whose staff we used to share offices with.  They were exciting times.  The title of Dad’s song does make me think about where things are at these days with Gateshead.  After such a wonderful period of development and redevelopment, under this current government it is so sad to see cuts to the area.  I have friends and colleagues working for Gateshead Council Libraries which is one of the best library services in the country and it is devastating to see branch libraries being closed and staff losing their jobs. One of the big changes for me (for the better) last time I was home was the redevelopment of the ‘Get Carter’ car park – another 1970s concrete eyesore famous for its’ appearance in the movie.   I saw even that got nominated for an award for ugliest design, but a huge improvement on what was there before.  I hope the leaders at Gateshead Council can continue to be visionary against all odds.

Update May 2017:  I’ve finally added the recording for this song (see above).  I’ve loved rediscovering these recordings.  In this one I think as well as the lyrics my sister’s fiddle playing is a standout.

Julia Child

4 thoughts on “What have they done to Gateshead?

  1. Great memories. I still have the sheepskin rug Uncle Richard brought us. Washes like new. Must have been hardy sheep!


  2. Sorry, I am old. but I am a bit confused as to who wrote the information above, especially where it refers to…”My Mum and her sister with their parents also migrated as 10 pound poms”
    Love, Aunty Caryl.


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