3rd Tynemouth

(Ritsons Own) Scout Group

Billy Mill Lane, North Shields, NE29 8LP

Lesley Greenacre

Leslie Greenacre is George Greenacre’s son and is one of the earliest members of the Group we have managed to speak to. He moved to Surrey in 1956 so we have never met him in person but we have had a number of letters from him which have filled in a lot of gaps in the group’s history.

Sadly he passed away in April 2011 so his story has been made up from extracting relatively small parts of those letters and putting them together. The result is what you read below.

My brother Alan and I were born in 1924. Alan died 22 years ago (1981).

We joined cubs at the age of 8, went through the ranks, and went off to sea as engineers in 1946. Before I went to sea the group was the centre of my life: any spare time tended to end up at the hut!

I was a King’s scout and had an armful of badges. We tended to have four, occasionally five patrols but numbers were fairly stable.

My father was born, I think, in 1885. He was a coal miner at Preston colliery until it closed a few years before the war (second). I can still remember him using a tin bath in front of the fire when he came home. Several of his brothers were miners and two were marine engineers. My father’s father was a farm labourer in Norfolk, but conditions were so poor that he and some friends walked from Norfolk to Tyneside to get work in the coal mines. That would have been around 1875 / 1880.

My father was killed in an air raid in 1941 when my brother and I were 16. He was fire watching at the old Preston colliery air raid shelter, which was converted out of the mine ventilation shaft – a horizontal air tunnel. This received a direct hit from a 500lb bomb on the entrance and my father was killed.

There was a real “bombers moon” on the night he died. I never remember a more brilliantly lit night anywhere. I was sent out to look for my father when he didn’t come home after the bomb dropped. We lived quite near and all our windows were blown out (or rather sucked out!).

A humorous note! We had brass ornaments belonging to my grandfather over our living room fireplace and these were also sucked out into the back yard. My mother hastily collected them all up and threw them into the dustbin! “I’ve been cleaning those damn things for 40 years” she said “and I’m not cleaning them anymore!”

George Pilgrim then became scout master. I remember George coming to our house for supper when he first joined the group, whilst I was a cub.

I was assistant scout master for a year or so before I went off to sea. Going away like that was a quite salutary experience. One went off for variable periods as one’s generation moved on and Ritson’s carried on. I still swap letters with Walter Arkley at Christmas and cards with Joe Hall.

Ritson’s was always an open group. My father started out with the help of Colonel Ritson using a disused stable, which I remember, at the colliery. We always had a proportion of “home boys” who were recruited by my father from a local boys home.

I remember a number of occasions when former scouts called at our house to see my father, having returned from New Zealand or somewhere, and expressing gratitude for the start in life they got through Ritson’s.

I remember St. Luke’s mission still going on when I was very young and would guess that it closed around 1930. The church on the Balkwell opened at about the same time.

During all my time in North Shields my understanding was that the troop’s first home was in a stable. My father told me this and it seemed to be perceived wisdom at the time. I was on two occasions taken into a room in the colliery offices with a stable door and told that “this was where Ritson’s met until they got the hut”.

The stable was on the front of the offices, on the main road from Billy Mill cross roads near the pay office. I recollect seeing the story in print on more than one occasion – “Scout troop started in a stable” or equivalent words.

I was very sorry when they pulled Billy Mill down. When I was a lad it was derelict but a fine landmark. There was also a mill connection with the troop, which used to be referred to colloquially as Preston colliery, Ritson’s or the Billy Mill troop.

I have a strong memory of the hut, the old cannon inn and Billy Mill lying roughly on an E – W line.

Relatively few people had cars in those early days. We used to cycle into the sticks carrying our rucksacks and tents and then hike around. A farmer weighed our rucksacks once and we had 50 – 60 lbs each. This was in wartime and we had to take pease pudding to eke out the butter ration!

We had truck borne camps before the war – 20 odd scouts on the back of a lorry – usually at Alnwick. We had another at Lanercost at the end of the war – in fact we heard of the Japanese surrender while we were there. George Pilgrim cycled through to tell us of the birth of his son.

I include some photos, one of which is of a jubilee or coronation bonfire of 1935 or 1938. My father built both fires in the quarry near the hut assisted by some of the scouts, including me. Corporation lorries dumped hundreds of railway sleepers in the quarry and my father took it from there. They became the borough bonfire celebration on each occasion.

I don’t suppose the Duke of Wellington competition is still held? This was held for patrols (picked patrols) camping overnight and having to hike, fill in nature questionnaires, cook etc. Ritson’s won the competition the last year my brother and I were in it. The shield went missing (when one went to sea) and was found some years later under my mothers bath! George Pilgrim used to be very droll on the subject.

(Note: The Duke of Wellington is still running and the shield is now kept in a bank vault most of the year due to it’s value)

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