Saturday, 28 April 2012

Days of hot metal and Biffo the stonehand

The news that the Shields Gazette is moving from its Chapter Row offices in South Shields has taken me on a brief journey down memory lane. When I was a trainee reporter at the Shields Weekly News, on the other side of the Tyne in North Shields, all of our copy was set and our pages made up at the Gazette offices. An elderly messenger used to pick up the copy and pictures, walk down to the ferry (the Freda Cunningham), cross the river, head up the hill to the Gazette, deliver our typed copy and then come back again. He did this on a continual loop every day. Then, on one memorable occasion, I too got to make the journey. The editor, the colourful Robin Thompson, was going on holiday and decided I should learn how to sub and stone-in the pages. So after laying out the sports pages I headed off across the Tyne for my first ever experience as a stone sub. It was 34 years ago but it remains one of my most vivid memories. Hot metal, chases and flongs, the clatter, the dominant smell of ink and the stroppy stonehands, who clearly thought the 22-year-old trainee in the ill-fitting John Collier suit was an idiot. I remember just standing and staring. It was there and then that I acquired my lifelong subbing fascination. And then I was whisked off to the General Havelock for the compulsory, and very quick, two-pint break before finishing off the pages. Once they were done I read them, marked up all the changes and then, grabbing my first set of final proofs with enormous pride, legged it back for the last ferry home. It became a regular trip. I eventually got to know what I was doing, played for the Gazette football team (which included Mel Vasey who went on to edit the Wharfedale Observer and qualify as a referee) and met some great friends. A year later, when I was off to The Northern Echo, I had farewell drinks with all the inkies in the Havelock. With Dutch courage I turned to the huge bald stonehand who I had worked with for the last 12 months. I had no idea what his real name was, only that he was known as Biffo. Tell me, I slurred, do they call you Biffo because you look like the bear from the Beano? No, he said, they call me Biffo because I'm a Big Ignorant Fucker From Ouston. Good luck to current editor John Szymanski (@John_Szy) and all of those moving from Chapter Row. They carry with them a huge slice of history.
Picture: Shields Gazette 


  1. Thanks Peter. That really carries me back. I started work at the Shields Gazette in 1958 fresh from school and v wet behind the ears. I too remember the stroppy (but kindly) stonehands, the attractive girls in the accounts department and some inspiring journalists. Does anyone go back far enough to remember Vivian Turner (a Dickens fan who sported a colourful waistcoat and gold-topped cane), Michael Bateman (now dead), Tony Loftus, or Walter Dow. I often woder where they are.
    Had no idea the Gazette was moving from Chapter Row. Best of luck in their new home, wherever it's to be.
    Hew Stevenson

    1. Hi Hew, hope you are well. Great memories. Did you see the piece on Richard Wooldridge's Memorial service, written by David Flintham (now Kernek)?