Monday, April 9, 2012

The Wooden Dollies Of Shields

North Shields (known locally just as "Shields") is a town on the north bank of the River Tyne in NE England, by Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
It's synonymous with seafaring and Geordies, and a quirky part of its history is...or rather ARE...the Wooden Dollies.
Wooden Dolly statues have stood in Shields for two centuries. There've been many incarnations, beginning with a ship's figurehead, then a fishwife, before returning again to its original form.
The tradition began in 1781, when a collier brig Alexander and Margaret, captained by 25-yr.old David Bartleman, was attacked along the Norfolk coast by notorious English pirate John Fall. The lightly-armed crew of ten managed to hold off Fall's cutter, but the victory was short-lived. Two hours later, Fall attacked again and the plucky collier was no match for 100 pirates with 18 four-pounder guns! Alexander and Margaret was totally disabled. With the mate dying, and himself and two crew seriously wounded, Captain Bartleman was obliged to strike and pay ransom of 400 guineas. He then brought his shattered vessel into the port of Yarmouth and died on Feb.14th 1781. His father Alexander Bartleman (the vessel's owner) engraved on his son's headstone in St.Nicholas' Churchyard, Great Yarmouth: "T'was great. His foe though strong was infamous (the foe of human kind). A manly indignation fired his breast. Thank God my son has done his duty." [more on this stone later...]
Dolly No.3
Three decades later, the ship's figurehead settled in Shields. A 1931 newspaper recalls:
'The first Dolly came from a collier brig which was in dock for repairs in 1814. Mr.Alexander Bartleman presented the figurehead to the quayside tradesmen', who placed it at the entrance to Custom House Quay on Liddell Street. It stood there until 1850 when it was vandalised. A second figurehead was placed on the same spot. The Wooden Dolly, as the figurehead became known, was used by seafarers as a source of good-luck charms: they cut pieces of wood from it and took them on voyages!
Eventually the second figurehead was also defaced beyond repair and after 14yrs was replaced by Dolly No.3. Work began on a new dock at the Tyne mouth in 1864: to celebrate the anticipated increase in trade for Shields, workmen removed (stole?) a figurehead from the barque Expert, and put it at the head of Custom House Quay. By 1890, Dolly was wearing a bright emerald-green dress which gave 'unqualified satisfaction to the greater proportion of residents.' No.3 lasted until the turn of the century, but was not treated well –
Dolly No.4:
the fishwife
a letter in the local newspaper noted it had been broken in two by a reversing cart. Within a few years its nose had been cut off by a knife-wielding youth and a local blacksmith made a new one out of iron. The mutilated portions of its figure were filled with cement but, by 1900, it was noseless again and very battered.
It was replaced by Dolly No. 4, this time in the form of a fishwife with a creel (a small wicker basket used to hold fish) on her back. This was carved by May Spence of North Shields, was officially unveiled in 1902 and remained on the site until 1957 when it was
Dolly No.5,
in the Square
replaced...but in a different location.
Prior to this, the Wooden Dollies always stood by Custom House Quay. But the fifth Dolly (also a fishwife) was placed in Northumberland Square in 1958 and remains there...
Dolly No.6, by the
Prince of Wales pub
However that's not the end of it. In 1992, a sixth statue appeared in the same spot previously occupied by Dollies 1-4. The buxom belle in red, a throw-back to the original ship's figurehead, was carved in oak by Martyn and Jane Grubb. Dolly No.6 stands proudly at Custom House Quay next to the Prince of Wales pub, continuing the 200-year old tradition.
"the other woman"!
…but what's this other Dolly (well, her top half anyway), standing a kilometre away by the Wooden Doll pub on Hudson Street?
As a postscript to the Dollies, thanks to the painstaking chisel work of a Great Yarmouth stonemason, Captain David Bartleman's headstone was restored and re-dedicated in July 2011. The funding for the restoration came from a family whose distant ancestors were pirates!
And so the story of the Wooden Dollies comes full circle...why aye, man!

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