Danny Lawrence is the author of several volumes with a focus on Stan Laurel and on the North East. His latest ‘The Making of Laurel and Hardy’ tells the tale of the boys development up to and including the seminal picture ‘Duck Soup’ and I found it a fascinating read. (Mike Jones)
‘Even tho’ I was born in Lancashire, I’ve always felt I belong to Shields’ (Stan in a letter to a correspondent).
Like Arthur Stanley Jefferson, I spent my formative years in North Shields. It was a fascinating town in which to live – although not as vibrant and exciting as it had been in Stan’s day. If you should make a pilgrimage to it today, please do not think that you are seeing the North Shields that either Stan or even I knew and loved. Like so many other towns it has long been in a downward spiral. Apart from its natural features, Stan would scarcely recognize it as the place where he lived from 1895-1905, between the ages of five and fifteen.
After I took early retirement in 2000, I decided I would write a long overdue history of North Shields. It was published by Carnegie in 2016 as Shiels to Shields. The Life Story of a North Tyneside Town. But, before it was finished, I had allowed myself to be side-tracked by my growing interest in the boy who later changed his name to Stan Laurel. When growing up, I was told that his father had been the manager of the Theatre Royal, which had been demolished a few years before I was born. That was about all that anyone seemed to know. The sad truth is that North Shields had all but forgotten its most famous son.
How different from Ulverston, where Stan was born and lived until the age of 5. It has a wonderful museum housed, appropriately, in a former cinema, as well as a bar and restaurant named after him. In 1984, the local newspaper published a book Laurel Before Hardy about Stan’s early life (albeit with significant errors). In 2009, a huge crowd descended on Ulverston for the first sight of a statue of the famous pair in the town’s refurbished County Square. It was unveiled by Ken Dodd, who with obvious love and admiration for his heroes described them ‘not as the princes but the kings of comedy’.
Even Bishop Auckland makes much of its link to Stan Laurel although there is no evidence he lived there except for a few months as a 12-year-old schoolboy. In contrast, Stan’s association with his boyhood home is not celebrated, and virtually nothing is done to capitalize on his link with it. Unlike Ulverston, where the house in which he was born still stands and is a place of pilgrimage for Laurel and Hardy fans, the two North Shields houses in which he lived have long since been demolished.
Above is the plaque on a house standing on the site of his Dockwray Square home but, embarrassingly, the information on it is incorrect. It states that he lived there from 1897-1901 when it was from 1895-1902. The only significant tangible reminder of Stan in North Shields is Bob Olley’s statue which stands in ‘Laurel Park’, a gift from Persimmon Homes who developed the third generation Dockwray Square. Current Beau Chumps tent Grand Sheik, Mike Jones, MP Neville Trotter, Bill Cubin and several of the original Chumps were involved in commissioning the statue; indeed, Mike still has his own mini statue (also above) commemorating the unveiling event on 29 March 1992. More recently, a block of sheltered accommodation in the area was named Laurel Court, and a small housing development Laurel Heights, but only Laurel and Hardy aficionados are likely to guess why.
North Shields’ neglect of Stan Laurel has been matched by the neglect of North Shields in Stan Laurel’s biographies. One author even describes the once thriving sea and fishing port as a mill town! With the exception of Marriot’s work on Laurel and Hardy’s UK tours, what little had been written about Stan’s association with the town was at best superficial, despite the fact that any book that purports to explore the origins of Stan’s passion for comedy cannot ignore the legacy of his formative boyhood years.
The Making of Stan Laurel is my attempt to remedy this major omission in the literature. The sub-title, Echoes of a British Boyhood, relates to the fact that many of the comedy situations and gags which Stan helped to create on screen, echo elements of Stan’s early life in the town. The book begins with Stan’s unusual family history on his father’s side, and the circumstances which led Stan’s father to bring his family to North Shields. It records what is known about Stan’s family, education and boyhood, and his father’s theatrical empire, which gave Stan what must have been almost unparalleled access to theatrical performances and performers.
The book describes the kind of local theatrical world in which the young Stan was brought up, before and at the very start of commercial cinema in the early years of the twentieth century. In making my bold claim that I have succeeded in making a greater contribution to our understanding of The Making of Stan Laurel than other writers, I have had an advantage over earlier biographers. I was born and brought up just a five-minute walk from Stan’s boyhood home, as well the sites of his father’s three North Shields’ theatres. I have also had access to local knowledge and sources not readily available to those others who have written about him.
Initially, I was pleased at the local response to my book. It was given an excellent wine and nibbles launch at the town’s main library. It received lots of publicity and many reviews which I had reason to hope would put North Shields firmly on the Laurel and Hardy map. A few years later, I was even encouraged to believe that the new local authority for the town was going to start to capitalize on the connection. I should explain that since 1974 the responsible local government unit has been the more remote North Tyneside rather than the much smaller Borough of Tynemouth of which North Shields was the major part.
In 2015, I was invited to be the guest speaker at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Stan’s death. It was held in the beautifully restored Grand Hotel, where Stan and Oliver had stayed on two occasions, and is located in the ward for which Stan’s father, Arthur Jefferson, had once been the local councillor. The event was in its biggest room, overlooking the beach on which Stan had once ridden his pony Peggy. The occasion was graced by North Tyneside’s civic dignitaries and when I rose to speak it was to an attentive capacity audience with people standing in the aisle and back of the room.
After I had explained the importance of Stan’s association with the town; how it had influenced his development and passion for comedy, and been the source for many of the settings and gags in Laurel and Hardy films, we settled down to watch Towed in a Hole and then The Music Box. They were chosen because they are two of the most obvious echoes of Stan’s boyhood.
Stan’s Dockwray Square looked down on the Fish Quay and out to sea. Stan loved being down on the Quay and, like me and countless other boys over the years, fished from the edge of the quayside with just a baited and weighted line as he is seen doing in the opening scene of the 1930 Laurel-Hardy Murder Case.
During his time in North Shields, the fishing industry was booming. Annual catches were 8,800 tons in 1895 when he arrived in the town and 12,500 tons by the time he left in 1905. By then, there were hundreds of fishing boats registered in North Shields, from first class vessels over 15 tons to third-class vessels with less than 15 ft keels, more reminiscent of the one which Laurel and Hardy buy and set out to repair in the 1932 Towed in a Hole. It may not be a coincidence that the script for the film was written in October 1932, just months after Stan (with Oliver) had made a return visit to North Shields.
Whilst he lived in the town, he would have witnessed fresh fish being sold around the doors (though not from Model T Fords!) and, on many occasions, fishing boats being maintained and repaired. During just part of the time that Stan lived in North Shields, Edward Bros. built 133 ships and the Smith and Hepple yards many more. The type of boat built most often by the smaller yards was the 20-35ft wooden Northumbrian coble.
The second film shown that night in 2015 was The Music Box. Originally North Shields was limited to a narrow strip of land alongside the river. The bankside rose steeply to a plateau about 70 ft above. That was free of building until 1763 when Dockwray Square was the first of many developments on the Bank Top. To get to the buildings on the bankside and the plateau above, a series of steps were built at intervals running up from the riverside. They were narrow and steep and suitable only for those on foot. The only ‘roads’ that led from the Bank Top to the riverside were once described as being so precipitous that they put the lives of both men and horses at risk.
At one stage, according to the local historian Jack Shotton there were 67 such sets of steps, though not all went all the way to the top of the bank. Most were removed in the 1930s (when the bankside dwellings were demolished) and 1950s (when many of the unused stairs were filled in to avoid having to maintain them), but several remain to this day. If you are feeling energetic you can climb the more than 100 steps from the Fish Quay to the Bank Top where Stan’s statue is located. Do so only once and it is obvious how the experience (which Stan had numerous times) is capable of conjuring up the kind of images portrayed in The Music Box.
The fact that the stairs led to and through the overcrowded bankside dwellings in Stan’s day, means he would have actually seen furniture being carried up and down the stairs. As you will all know, the idea was first used in the now lost 1927 silent film Hats Off, when Laurel and Hardy carried a washing machine up the steps, before being used again so successfully in the 1932 award-winning sound film The Music Box.
After such a successful evening, organized by officials of North Tyneside, with the help of the organizers of the Whitley Bay Film Festival, I was optimistic that I was witnessing the start of a renewed interest in Stan Laurel (and his partner Oliver Hardy). For that reason, I later made this suggestion, separately, to both the Mayor of North Tyneside and its Heritage Officer, who I had met and shared a platform with at the launch of my Shiels to Shields book in 2016.
As you know, I’ve commented in the past not only on how North Shields has been neglected in previous biographies of Stan Laurel, but also on how North Shields has neglected to capitalise on its association with Stan Laurel. North Shields has a genuine claim on Stan. He lived longer in North Shields than the total of his time elsewhere in the UK. He spent ten years in the town, twice the time he spent in Ulverston where he was born, and much longer than the couple of years he spent in Glasgow before ‘going on the road’.
So, how’s this for a fun idea which would raise the profile of North Tyneside and bring in more visitors to North Shields? What I am proposing is that North Tyneside hold an annual Stan Laurel Day on the Saturday nearest to his birthday (16 June 1890) or his first visit to the town with Oliver Hardy (28 July 1932).
- The main attraction would be a time trial Music Box competition, based on Laurel and Hardy’s Oscar-winning film. It would involve each pair of contestants carrying a Music Box (albeit an empty one) up one of the sets of steps from the Fish Quay. Competitors would be required to undertake the task wearing bowler hats (cheapo novelty hats, ideally in two sizes). Pairs who arrive on the Bank Top without either one of them would be deemed disqualified. However, stopping on the way up to retrieve the hats would be allowed – and add to the fun.
My idea is based on a throw away remark by Ivan Davis (a North Shields resident who wrote recently to compliment me on The Making of Stan Laurel and Shiels to Shields). Apparently, whilst in the Bell and Bucket, he suggested to his drinking chums that they have a race up the Fish Quay steps whilst carrying a crate of beer. That prompted me to come up with this more practical, family-friendly version!
There would be a worthwhile prize for those who complete the climb in the fastest time; perhaps also a trophy of some kind and a record of the names of the winners in a prominent local position. The prize-giving would probably attract more photo opportunities if held close to Stan’s refurbished statue in Dockwray Square. However, if is judged that not enough people would be prepared to brave the steps to attend the ceremony, if could be held somewhere on the Fish Quay. The most obvious place there would be the open area outside the Low Light Heritage Centre.
It would probably be a good idea to ask for competitors to register in advance so that an appropriate schedule for the competition could be worked out. In the first year, it might be worthwhile for North Tyneside to consider encouraging some of its own employees to compete, to ensure the event gets off to a good start! Hopefully, as well as local people, some of those who would register would be from the Laurel and Hardy appreciation societies (i.e. the ‘Sons of the Desert Tents’) around the country. I can sound some of them out in advance of you deciding on my idea, if you think it warrants further consideration.
- A series of Laurel and Hardy films (obviously including The Music Box) at the Exchange, perhaps in conjunction with the Whitley Bay Film Festival committee. Ideally, any admission fee would be nominal to encourage a large attendance. Hopefully, the Exchange’s expenses would be covered by sales at the bar.
- An exhibition at the Low Light Heritage Centre focusing on Stan Laurel’s association with the town. I’d be happy to help with that.
- Provided you have a sufficient budget at your disposal, we could arrange for a Laurel and Hardy lookalike couple to be present on the day, along with a model T Ford. It would also be nice if a few local amateur actors could dress up as the policeman, nurse with pram, pompous professor and other characters who appear in the film. There are people who sell Laurel and Hardy memorabilia who turn up regularly at exhibitions at place like the N.E.C. They might be prepared to come to an event in North Shields to help build up an atmosphere.
- Visitors to the town could purchase a detailed Stan Laurel trail booklet, introducing them to relevant sites in the area. I’d be happy to help with that too.
We might even be able to enlist volunteers to act as guides for (a) the North Shields section and (b) the Tynemouth section for those prepared to make that additional journey.
Once prepared, the trail booklet could be available from North Tyneside visitor centres throughout the year.
I would be surprised if businesses on the Fish Quay and at Tynemouth did not rise to the occasion given that they would stand to gain in terms of additional takings. The Grand, for example, would hopefully choose to put Stan’s genuine hat on display along with photos of the two occasions Laurel and Hardy stayed there. It might also choose to have a screen in a public area displaying the amateur film made when Laurel and Hardy visited Tynemouth in 1932.
Hopefully, retailers and places offering refreshment will add to the spirit of the occasion by decorating their premises with a Laurel and Hardy theme and use appropriate Laurel and Hardy background music to mark the occasion, rather than their usual ‘muzak’.
North Tyneside’s communications team will no doubt have their own views on how the media will respond to a Stan Laurel Day but my guess is that they will be happy to play their part, promoting it in advance and reporting on it afterwards.
A Stan Laurel Day might also encourage one of the TV companies to work on a serious treatment of Stan’s association with the town.
I appreciate that organizing the first Laurel and Hardy Day would be a major project and involve a lot of work but, if it could become an established annual event, the preparation for the first event would make subsequent events much easier to organize.
If you think my idea has any potential, I’ll be happy to discuss it with you further. If you think it’s a non-starter don’t hesitate to say so. I have a thick skin.
I regret to say that all I received in reply was deafening silence. Mike tells me that an approach he made more recently, and entirely independently, suffered the same fate.
Let me end with this simple point. I believe that I demonstrate in The Making of Stan Laurel. Echoes of a British Boyhood that Stan’s time in North Shields was vitally important both to his development as a performer and as a source of ideas for many of the films he made with Oliver Hardy. As one reviewer put it, the book is a deft demonstration that you can take the boy out of North Shields but not North Shields out of the boy. However, for reasons I don’t understand, and unlike other towns, North Tyneside seems to have little interest in taking advantage of that important connection.
I’d like to thank Danny again for taking the time to produce this splendid article specially for the Beau Chumps Website. Rest assured, despite my ‘blanking’ by North Tyneside Council earlier this year, I will get in touch again and remind them of Danny’s thoughts with the addition of the fact that the Beau Chumps Tent is running again, and that we will undoubtably be able to offer help in organising and running such an event.
In addition to those mentioned above, Danny has written two other books (below) with relevance to our heroes, and the North East, as below. He has a page on Amazon which you can visit here. Though please note that for some inexplicable reason, his 4 books are split up by a reference to an unavailable 1998 book on Tunisian Travel by someone called Danny Lawrence Newman!