“I’ve always felt I belong to Shields”

I’ve adored Laurel and Hardy since I was a child, and agree with the great Buster Keaton who remarked at Stan’s funeral that “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest – this man was the funniest.” Indeed, how could anyone fail to laugh at classics like this, or this?

Although he was born in Ulverston (in that part of Lancashire since annexed by ‘Cumbria’), what made me especially fond of Stan is the fact that I was born (and now live) in his real home of North Shields, then a booming fishing port and shipyard town, where he lived in the rather grand Dockwray Square overlooking the river.

This is a matter of some controversy, but the absolutely wonderful Letters from Stan allows us to discover what Stan really thought. So Ulverston may be home to the Laurel and Hardy Museum, but Stan himself seems to play down the link to the town in his correspondence to the many fans that wrote to him.  In a letter to a Mrs Short in 1959 he admits that ‘Yes, I was born in Ulverston, Lancs. in 1890 but left there at an early age – lived in Bishop Auckland, Durham, a few years then came to North Shields & went to school in Tynemouth’.

He responds to a Frank Graves in 1952 with ‘I was born in Ulverston Lancs. but spent several years in North Shields – due to my Dad having several Theatres in the Tyneside section, I also spent a few years in Glasgow Scotland. Don’t be too hard with your colleague, as I am partly claimed in both latter places.’

To a Richard Sloan in April 1964 he notes that although ‘born in the same county – Lancashire’ as the Beatles ‘my accent of course is not so pronounced due my leaving that area in my very early days & raised partly in Northumberland & Scotland … my Lancashire accent does appear occasionally in my speech (unconsciously).’

But the killer evidence of Stan’s Geordieness is his 1955 response to Vic Silver (the stage name of Sylvester Blackett a Tyneside comedian) admitting that ‘Even tho’ I was born in Lancashire, I’ve always felt I belong to Shields’. 

In many respects the time he spent on Tyneside was the most formative of his itinerant early life. His father, the theatrical impresario Arthur Jefferson owned theatres and music halls across the North East and Scotland (including Blyth, where Stan’s nephew Huntley Jefferson Woods went to school with my grandfather).  ‘AJ’ noted in his own autobiography ‘that who could have foreseen that the wistful drollery of this little boy in a North Shields attic would one day hold thousands of American audiences simultaneously?’

Stan’s first appeared on a public stage during the celebrations for the Relief of Mafeking in North Shields in 1900, when Stan noted that ‘My Dad (Arthur Jefferson) produced a show battle of Boers & Britons in Dockwray Square – Fireworks & bonfires etc. with impersonations of Lord (Bob) Roberts – Kitchener – Buller – Kruger etc. & myself as bugler Dunn [14 year old hero of the Battle of Colenso] – I still have a photograph of myself taken that day.’

It has been even claimed that Laurel and Hardy’s magisterial ‘Music Box’ was inspired by an episode in Stan’s childhood when he watched some workmen struggle to get a heavy load up the steep Union Stairs from the North Shields Fish Quay to Dockwray Square  (one wonders if he witnessed this wacky Tynemouth river pageant in 1901 captured by Mitchell and Kenyon).

Stan returned to his native ‘Tynemouth’ (as the old borough was called) several times, and this footage from his first triumphal return in 1932 shows the civic welcome to his ‘native village’ at the old Tynemouth Plaza, and the genuine affection between Stan and his father. He later wrote to a Mr and Mrs Wray that ‘It was a grand home coming for me – I’ll never forget it – Bless them all, it was so genuine – it hurt me. My whole time was taken up with Public – Press – & Photographers. I went over for a rest – but came back a nervous wreck. However, if I died from it all, it would be a humble way of showing my appreciation.’

Stan himself recalled to Vic Silver his youth ‘on the Tyneside’:

‘Got a hell of a kick out of your letter. Enjoyed every line, re living those wonderful care-free days with your vivid description, sprinkled with laughter & Tyneside humour.

‘I don’t remember going to King St. school, I first started at a kindergarten at some house in Dockwray Square, it was down in a basement, then went to a private school in Tynemouth, it was called Gordon’s – he was quite a character, he collected Cats, don’t think he ever let them out of the house – you could smell the joint from Jarrow, the fish quay was like a garden of roses compared. The old screwball used to write poetry & we had to sit and listen to it all day long, his favourite one was “Ode To The Tyneside”

‘After this episode I was sent to a boarding school in Tynemouth I believe it was called Tynemouth College, the reason my folks had me board there was due to my always being in mischief & trouble at home, like setting fire to the house, (accidently of course) & falling into a barrel of fish guts in my best Sunday suit on the fish quay near the “Wooden Dolly”. [a wonderful film of the Edwardian fish quay that Stan would have known can be seen here]. Drinking Gin (thought it was water) got cockeyed & many more escapades too numerous to mention. Think this was the forerunner of my film character!

‘Got a terrific laugh out of your Dr. & Geordie gag – so typical. Reminded me of another similar gag about a coal miner who had terrible bow legs, his wife begged of him to have an operation & have them straightened out, his excuse was “No hinney they’re good enough to go to work in.”

‘Thought I’d die re the ‘apenny Dips & Black Bullets etc. what a memory you have.’

His correspondence to fans in the 1950s and 60s betrays a certain nostalgia and interest in his old home town. To Jean Mitchell in 1962 he recalls ‘the ferry plying tween North & South Shields, it was in my time known as the ‘Happney Dodger’ – still running incidentally – I took a crossing on it in ’54 just for old times sake!’ (I often use it myself). To Mrs Short in 1957 he notes that he ‘wouldn’t be surprised if the new ‘Wooden Dolly’ looks like Marilyn Monroe, they’ll probably have a water tank in her Creel to keep live Silver Herring!’ He notes to Lillie Wray in 1958 the ‘great progress [being made] in modernizing ‘Canny aad [old] Shields’, and his concerns at the decline of the Grand Hotel in Tynemouth (where, incidentally, I had my own wedding reception), recalling that in 1952 ‘we spent a miserable two weeks there, the place was so dilapidated & run down & most uncomfortable – was happy to leave the place … we expected to stay at the Railway Hotel in Newcastle, but unable to get reservations’, before signing off ‘Take care of yourself ‘Hinney”.

So that settles it, Stan Laurel – whose statue (designed, appropriately enough by local artist Bob Olley) looks out from Dockwray Square across the river Tyne – was a Geordie after all.  But let us leave the last word to Stan himself, writing to his friends in Bedlington, Mr and Mrs Short, in 1958:

‘I enjoyed reading the items you enclosed – very interesting.
 Well I’ll have to be a gaan now, dinner’s ready – am having a Tyneside Pheasant (a kipper with a feather stuck in it.!!!).’