Dirty Back Lanes

Three, six, nine, on the banks of the Tyne, here comes Bobby Shaftoe
Canny day doon the Waggon Way, we’ll may the Keel Row

Dirty back lanes, kids playing games
Skippys and marbles and kick the block
Clippy mats, up and down flats
Days when your back door would never be locked

When I was young, we made our own fun
We always found something to pass the time
Playing football, against the yard wall
Or bicycle riding by the banks of the Tyne

In many ways, they were happier days
Though money was short in those post war years
One and six, for a seat at the flix
At the Palais, the flea pit, just off Felling Square

Whip and top, Granny’s claes prop
Monday was washing day, rain or shine
If it was dry, no clouds in the sky
The back lane was littered with clothes on the line

Credits : Wilf Mitford Vocal & Guitar, Julia Mitford, Vocals & Whistle; Pamela Mitford, Fiddle. Recorded at Red Nose Studios 1991.


Dad didn’t have much to say about the background to this song, so figured I wouldn’t have much to write, but once you get into decoding it for the non-Geordie there’s so much to unpack, so strap in! The one interesting thing he did mention was that Gateshead was known as the dirty back lane of Newcastle!

Photo of Wilf as a child of around 6

This song was another project that Dad undertook for Mum for her to use at her school. Mum recalls they were doing a project about old playground games and street games, and this culminated in a class assembly featuring this song. Dad wanted the starting section to sound like a game being played in the backyard and he was definitely inspired by The Belle Stars version of The Clapping Song which had hit No 11 on the UK charts in 1982 and would have been part of his own childhood having originally been recorded by Shirley Ellis in 1965.

If you’re not familiar with The Clapping Song, it starts;

“3,6,9 the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the street car line,
The line broke, the monkey got choked, and they all rowed to heaven in a little row boat.”

I love the way he’s taken that basic idea of a clapping song and woven in some of the traditional songs from the area.

The song paints a vivid picture of the back lanes of Felling. If you’re not from the North then if you think of the opening title for Coronation Street that should give you a good visual of terraced house backyards all facing onto a shared lane. ‘Up and down flats’ refers to the common ‘Tyneside Flats’ which were configured in a row with entrances paired at the front to upstairs and downstairs flats. Both Mum and Dad were born in Tyneside flats, with Dad living in one with his family until he was married. There’s a great article about Tyneside Flats from the BBC in 2015;

The clippy mat referred to in this song is a mat made from old rags, cut up into small pieces and poked through some hessian webbing. They’re also known as proggy mats, and they made a bit of a comeback through the COVID pandemic as people looked for crafting activities to keep busy. If you google proggy mat you’ll find all sorts of kits you can buy. The Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead have a fantastic leaflet detailing some of the history of the mats in the North East as well as how to make one;

The back lane became a meeting point for kids where you were out of the way of the grown-ups and where you could mark out goalposts for a footy game with friends or if you were by yourself you had a yard wall to kick the ball off. Whilst marbles requires no explanation as it continues to be timeless, ‘kick the block’ was a new one for me. I’ve found this great explainer for what appears to be a tag / tip / stuck in the mud / British Bulldog style game;

I love this quote from this 2007 article on historical games from the BBC about kick the can (much the same thing) “… a form of hidey where one kid was ‘man’ and he looked after the ‘can ‘ (an old baked bean tin) If a kid sneaked back and kicked the can , he could automatically get the other captured kids free”

Whip and top was a simple game with a bit of wood for spinning and a leather strap – the British Library have an interesting recording of a young girl describing it.

Image of a whip (small wooden pole with leather strap) and top (small wooden spinning) courtesy of Tairawhiti Museum

It appears that there are versions of this across the world. The Tairawhiti Museum in Aetoroa (New Zealand) also have a video, and note that spinning tops have made it into modern culture through Beyblades!

Image of Imperia courtesy of Gateshead Libraries

When you see ‘flix’ written down it may not immediately make sense, although when you hear it you’ll probably realise that he means the ‘flicks’ or the cinema! The Imperia Palais de Danse (or ‘Pally’) operated from the late 1920s to the 1960s.

One and six refers to one shilling and six pence (probably the equivalent of about 7p today according to Project Britain). Whilst I always knew or at least could assume that ‘flea pit’ would mean a bit of a dive, I didn’t realise it was a term common in referring to cinemas. From Oxford Languages via Google “a dingy, dirty place, especially a run-down cinema”. You can still see the building that housed the Imperia standing in Victoria Square, now a bingo hall. The Chronicle as always can be relied upon for a bit of history and some great photos;

A ‘claes prop’ or clothes prop is a piece of wood used to prop up a clothes line for drying clothes and beating the dust off rugs or mats. Laundry was soaked, scrubbed, rinsed and dried on a clothes line in the back yard. There’s a brilliant song by Thomas Wilson from the early 1800s which depicts life before indoor washing machines beautifully. It’s called The Washing Day and you can learn more at Gateshead Libraries Folk Archive Resource North East (FARNE) or listen to Brian Watson singing it on Spotify ;


In really old photos (and certainly at Beamish Museum) you’ll see a metal bath hanging outside the back door at the top of the stairs – ready for the weekly wash. There was also often a coal shed and an outside netty (toilet) found in the backyard.

There’s so much to learn about how people lived even only 60 or 70 years ago through a simple song such as this. I’m off to try and finish the clippy mat I started in the lockdown!

Creative Commons License

Dirty Back Lanes by Wilf Mitford, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://mitfordmusic.wordpress.com/.

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