The Last Wilkinson’s Employee?

Billy ? – Interviewed by Jim Rickard

Jim Rickard has very kindly given us permission to republish the following article.

It first appeared in the Northumberland & Durham Bottle Collectors Club Newsletter, number 107 p20-23. All copyrights belong to Jim Rickard.


W. A. Wilkinson’s Last Employee
It was 1990, and we were exploring the old part of North Shields that was once home to William Arthur Wilkinson’s thriving business. There was little evidence of his premises, the area had been redeveloped years before.

Still living nearby was one of Wilkinson’s former employees, an elderly man called Billy. In his broad Shields accent he invited us into his small terraced house to tell us his story. He took us into his front room and settled into his chair beside the gas fire, he talked about his years working for Wilkinson and showed tremendous affection for his old boss. His memory was sharp for a man in his eighties, and we struggled to write even half of it down into our notebook.

Billy with enamel sign

Billy with enamel sign

Unfortunately for all our high expectations, Billy didn’t have a house crammed with stouts and codds. In fact the only souvenir he kept was an enamel advertising sign which he had given to one of his children living in the Midlands. He showed us a photograph of his family holding it and it was a belter ….about 3 ft by 2 ft in about 5 colours with a central picture of Wilkinson’s factory. I’ve tried to recreate it from the rough sketch I did then.

Billy had lived all of his life in North Shields, he was born in 1904 and went to Eastern Board infants and juniors and then to Kettlewell School on George Street and at this time it was referred to as the “kipper college” because it was so close to the kipper factory. An old school, it was founded in 1825 as a school for the Shields poor with a preference for orphans. During the First World War, soldiers were billeted at the school meaning that half the children had lessons in the morning and the rest had lessons in the afternoon. As was typical in those days, Billy left school at the age of 14 and went straight into work. His first job was as a delivery boy for a bakery, Fred Hannah of North Shields. Shortly afterwards, he saw that Wilkinson’s were hiring delivery boys and he was hired just before the end of the war. On Armistice day (11th November 1918), Wilkinson declared a day off so Billy was able to enjoy the celebrations. To celebrate, he bought a packet of cigarettes “5 Robins for tappence. I was as sick as a dog, ever since then I’ve smoked Woodbines”.

A day off was a rare treat for Wilkinson’s employees as they had to work hard; often working from early in the morning until 8 o’clock at night (without being paid for overtime), they had to work Sundays and Bank holidays and there were no trades unions to look after their interests.

William Arthur Wilkinson had 9 children and all three of his sons worked in his business. His eldest son, also called William Arthur, worked at the factory. He lost an eye operating the Beavis bottling machine. His second son, George, worked in the firm’s depot in Choppington. We have a 10 oz codd and pint aqua cylinder embossed Wilkinson Junior/Choppington with a central WAW monogram. When Billy started, bottling wasn’t carried out in Choppington. The filled bottles were transferred from North Shields and three draycarts, each pulled by two horses, were used for this purpose.

After the Choppington branch closed (1918), George did selling and was in charge of deliveries. Wilkinson’s youngest son, Ernest, was in charge of the factory itself. All the employees at the factory were women. Billy remembered an old woman who cleaned the bottles, and women that pasted the labels onto the bottles by hand (surely a dull job!)

Billy himself used a smaller cart pulled by only one horse and usually did the round of Whitley Bay and area, 3 or 4 trips there and back each day. There were several other rounds although Billy would only do these when he was “on relief”. Of interest to us, he had occasionally done the round of New York and Murton villages and could recall delivering pop and cigarettes to the Rickard’s general store in New York which was ran by my Dad Stew’s uncle and grandfather. My Dad has fond childhood memories of drinking Wilkinson’s delicious “Smila” brand lemonade, from pint screw top bottles. Aside from pop, Wilkinson sold Bass, Bulmer’s cider, his own port wine (6 shilling a bottle) and Guinness. The Guinness had to be checked by a “traveller” to see that it wasn’t too old. Wilkinson supplied many pubs including the famous Wooden Dolly in North Shields.

W. A. Wilkinson became a limited company in 1926. The only bottles we have from W.A. Wilkinson Ltd are a soda syphon, clear glass pint screw top minerals and the bottom half of a 6 oz codd. W. A. Wilkinson Ltd must have been one of the last North East companies to use codd bottles. How many codds do you get on a 1920s dump?

Delivery was central to the business and horses were essential, so they were well cared for. Horses were left with a filled feed bag overnight and were fed between 3:30 and 4:30 in the morning by a lamplighter, a part-time employee who did this after putting the street lights out. Billy’s first job was to muck the horses out and then clean and harness them. Every Sunday the leather harnesses and brasses also had to be cleaned, (maybe they even used a horse brass with a codd bottle on it?) As Billy said “This one Monday it had poured down and the harness was spoiled and everything was dull. As I was coming out of the gate, Wilkinson was standing there with his white hair and beard wearing a grey 3-piece suit and a gold Albert, and shouted “hey boy, stop that pony! Take that pony back into the stable, clean that harness and you’ll do your deliveries when it’s clean”. All that work, and all for 8 bob a week.”

Billy didn’t like delivering 6 oz codds because not only were they heavy, he was also expected to haul them across the Long Sands beach at Whitley Bay to supply the seaside kiosks. Aside from the hard work of delivery, it could also be dangerous. One day in 1920, Billy was making his usual Whitley Bay delivery. He left North Shields and as he ascended out of Spital Dene (which in those days would have been quite steep) his horse became unsettled and lurched away sharply. The jerk threw Billy to the ground and since the weight was all at the rear of the cart it tipped backwards spilling the delivery onto the road. Billy had to pick himself up quickly and run to catch the horse. It says a lot that Billy was more worried about turning up in the delivery yard with an injured horse and a spilt delivery than he was about his own injuries.

Unsurprisingly, we were keen to know what happened to the empties and as we might have known they were collected and re-used. If Wilkinson’s ended up receiving another company’s bottles they took them to South Shields bottle exchange and got paid a portion of the deposit on the bottles and also picked up any Wilkinson’s bottles that had been handed in by other companies (but they had to pay the full deposit (a penny) on these so they ended up out of pocket overall). Billy especially remembered exchanging bottles from Evans and Reaveleys. Any broken bottles were collected by hawkers from Gateshead for “a few coppers”. By the time Billy joined the company, stone bottles weren’t used although they were still stored – sometimes Billy took them home to use as hot water bottles. The only stoneware bottles used were “gallon jars” in 1 & 2 gallon capacities for malt vinegar.

When other local mineral water manufacturers closed down, Wilkinson bought their bottles; Billy remembered half pint and pint glass bottles from Matthew Knott, Holliday & Co. (both North Shields) and Sam Vincent (Howdon) being stored in a garage in the yard (sadly emptied long ago).

In 1954, W. A. Wilkinson’s brother, Joseph, sold his factory and bottles to Margaret Pearson of Sunderland. It wasn’t long before W. A. Wilkinson met a similar fate; he sold up in 1964. In 1900, Wilkinson was a big fish in the small pond of North Shields, but by the sixties he just couldn’t compete with the larger national companies that dominated the market.

When Wilkinson’s factory closed, all of the old equipment and the bottles were taken away and dumped. Billy remembered making several trips to the municipal tip with a lorry full of old crates and boxes of bottles. It took Billy and the other workers about three days to complete, they must have tipped thousands of bottles. Anyone for digging 1960s dumps?