YEMENI IN BRITAIN
Yemeni/British Integration, 'South Shields, the town where colour doesn't count'
South Shields is an example to all of peaceful and tolerant coexistence. The original Yemeni men who came to the town were seamen who worked on British ships in very difficult conditions. They risked their lives to feed their families and many ended up settling in the port town of South Shields.
Records show Yemenis in the town as early as the 1860's. Many local women married Yemeni men, for love and for life and brought up families as a family unit. However, it was more than marriage that tied the two communities together. Their children, businesses, friendships and generosity united two cultures in the most positive and permanent way.
Today there are 4th 5th and possibly 6th generation Yemenis walking around the streets of South Shields. Many no longer hold Arab names or even features but the blood remains the same. The Yemeni legacy is imprinted on the fabric of the town and here we will see some of the stories that helped changed its shape and indeed that of Britain.
Childhood for British Yemeni children
"They were very happy times, people didn't have very much money. We had our own way of amusing ourselves, playing games of buttons and having cut-outs. Placing different pages of a book and using a pin to go to the leaves of a book and if you were very lucky you found a cut out. That was a great prize. You'd have skipping ropes and whips and tops you know, we were just like other children."
A quote taken from Mrs Selma Hussein (early 1990's).
Differences in race, faith and culture, often met with mutual respect, tolerance and kindness.
Mohammed Muckble, one of the first Yemeni seamen to come to South Shields with his Scottish wife, Rosetta, in later life.
One example of such love, respect and unity is the example of Mohammed and Rosetta Muckble shown above in their later years. Together they had 10 children though sadly lost 2 and ran a boarding house in Holborn and later a cafe and fruit shop on 21 Laygate Lane.
Rosetta, a staunch Catholic, married Mohammed who was a Muslim at the age of 17. She held firmly to her Catholic faith throughout her life and never converted to Islam, though many of the local women who married Yemeni seamen did.
Their oldest granddaughter, Maureen Marshall (nee Dellin), who was born on Laygate Lane has vivid memories of her grandparents happy home.
"They agreed to respect each others religion, so my mother married my father in a mosque and my father married my mother in a church"
"In Ramadan, she stood by him. She prepared all his food and put a little banquet on for him for when he was allowed to eat in the morning".
"He (Mohamed Muckble) was a bit of a scrooge really, and he had this parrot and the Arabs were terrified of this parrot. and he used to laugh, this giggle would come because he knew the Arabs were frightened and he used to sell them glasses of lemonade, and coffee but sometimes the lemonade would go out of date, he still used to keep it and sell it and the Arabs liked him that much they never complained about it" - Maureen Marshall
"I remember when I was about 8 years old, I used to meet him to open the coffee shop. And he had this great big massive stove, old fashioned stove, and he used to light the stove and you couldn't see anything for smoke. You had to open all the windows, winter time and all til it settled down and then I'd have banana and toast with him, just me and him until the Arabs would come and and he'd make them coffee" - Granddaughter of Mohamed and Rosetta Muckble, Maureen Marshall.
Together, Mohamed and Rosetta ran successful businesses including a cafe on the site of what today stands as the Al-Azhar Mosque.
"But Christmas and New Year my grandfather celebrated, and New Year was fantastic because he didn't have enough seats but he used to get all these fruit boxes (for people) to sit on. At first he used to have an old gramophone but then my mother gave him a radiogram, so he had this radiogram and played English music, rock and roll and everything. His coffee shop was packed with people and we would all sit round, but there was no alcohol. I think my grandmother used to have a little sip upstairs with her sister but there was no alcohol and everyone used to get up and dance and trying to teach the Arabs how to dance was funny!Come 12 O'clock New Year, everyone gathered round Trinity Church Clock, and all of Cornwallis Square, Commercial Road and Laygate gathered round this clock waiting for midnight, a big crowd of us all holding hands. 12 O'Clock came and everyone would wish each other a happy new year and back to the coffee shop we'd go and that would carry on til about 2-3 O'clock in the morning. And for an Arab and he was old, he was old then but he really enjoyed it." - Maureen Marshall
Most of the Yemenis in South Shields started out by living in the Holborn and Laygate area. These parts of the town included Cornwallis Square, Portberry way and Laygate Lane which still remain today. Though often described as 'Arab Quarters' these areas were not of course limited to only Yemenis and in fact were home to a wide range of nationalities.
"There was a massive, lovely community, everyone knew each other. Mams played with their kids in the street, it was lovely growing up in that. You didn't really know anything different and it wasn't just Cornwallis Square it was the whole of Laygate and houses that have (since) been pulled down; Bowman street, beside old trinity church. There were Yemeni communities, there was people from the Carribean , there were English people, you didn't know any different. It was just a nice community, everyone was together, there was no prejudice, you could walk into other peoples houses and that's how we lived." - Aminah Hasan
Aminah Hasan, a South Shields resident, of English and Carribbean heritage was born on Portberry way and grew up on Cornwallis Square.
"The influence of the Yemenis has a massive impact on my life, that's why I became a Muslim. Especially through Uncle Saeed and my auntie Hagra who knew the Quran through going to the school, the way of life, the food, was a massive influence. I became a Muslim and never looked back, I was really happy to do that. Aminah Hasan
Aminahs uncle Said went on to be an Iconic Sheikh in South Wales, a reminder that the Yemeni communities of the UK are also intricately linked.
An Iconic Welsh figure in the History of Islam
Freedom of religion:
One problem faced by the 1st generation of migrant Yemeni men was where to bury their dead according to Islamic customs. Ali Fasa campaigned tirelessly to have a section of the cemetary, for Muslims, facing Mecca and succeeded in 1937. The proposal was initially rejected by the council but was discussed again and put to the vote. 27 councillors voted for it and only 7 against.
The first person to be buried in the new Muslim section in Harton Cemetary was the wife of Sheikh Ali, Miriam Ahmed.
Council minutes of proceedings surrounding the approval of a Muslim section within Harton Cemetary
The following excerpts are taken from the above book which can be found at South Tyneside Library.
The following excerpts (right) are taken from the above book which can be found at South Tyneside Library.
The first entry in the council minutes pertaining to discussion on potentially giving the Yemeni community a Muslim area of Harton cemetery to bury their deceased.
Ali Fasa (Farrah Ali), his wife Mary Catherine Mayne celebrating their golden wedding anniversary with family.
Mariam was looked after by Ali Fasa and his wife Mary Catherine Mayne when her birth mother left. Her birth father had no choice but to go to sea to earn money for his family. Sheikh Al-Hakimi asked for Miriam to be his bride and shortly after they were married, Miriam, a young girl of 19, died tragically as a result of child-birth. Her infant daughter, Rafia, did not survive and they were both buried together in 1937.
The people of South Shields driven by curiosity and interest, flocked in droves to see the traditions of a Muslim funeral. Over 2000 people came out to see the procession, police struggled to contain the crowds and the event dominated Shields Gazette headlines.
© Shields Gazette">
© Shields Gazette">
The demolition of Holborn
The 1930's demolition of Holborn posed new questions for Council officials in South Shields such as where to re-house the resident Arab population. The original suggestion was the building of four/five storied flats on Commercial Road itself to house the community together.
This social segregation was widely opposed by the Labour Party, certain councilors and many socialist groups.
Furthermore, the whole debate triggered many powerful letters in the Shields Gazette on both sides of the debate. In this 1930's England, many South Shields residents chose to stand against segregation and turning those of a different ethnicity into the 'other'. The Yemenis too, fought back. Here are some examples of such letters.
No place like home
For the children of the Yemeni expatriates in South Shields, there was no question of South Shields being home. This poem written by Gladys Muckble, daughter of Mohamed Ali Muckble sums up beautifully the happiness of a family built on integration, and nostalgia for the home she loved on Laygate Lane.
When I am alone and feeling blue,
My thoughts return to the street I knew.
It's altered now, not for the best.
It is clean, and modern and all the rest,
But its character is gone, and nothing is left,
Of the warmth, we knew, the love that was there, the home to rest, but in my memory it is always there, as clear and alive, precious and rare.
A busy street, not posh, not clean, seamen from ships from ships were often seen.
Buses going by every second, houses above shops, bay windows where friendships beckoned.
Our house, a green door, was one of these.
Where we cleaned our front step, front step down on our knees.
A ghetto they called it, just near a port, with foreign seamen on leave for sport.
But no harm was done, no muggings there, and crime on the whole was very rare.
We were young then, the years flew past.
But memories of home will always last.
Up the stairs and in the room, where love and warmth was such a boon.
The fire so bright, where mam and dad sat. One on the left and one on the right.
A haven for us wherever we roam,
such a heaven for us to return to our home.
We knew there would be welcome and love galore,
not much money, but comfort and more.
The years have gone by, we are much older now.
The family have differences, sometimes we row.
But one thing in common we all can share, our old home with love in it that none can compare.
Mam and dad we love you dear, you're presence to us is ever near.
That house, that street, will always be here.
It is in my heart so very clear.
I lock it away, as a precious gem, and I return to that place, every now and then.
I turn back the years with not a few tears, for memories hurt and often sear,
Fall all the heartaches, for all the pain.
I long for my home, my street, dear Laygate Lane.
- Gladys Muckble
South Shields Yemeni community makes a great social and cultural contribution to our town. The first generations of merchant seamen who arrived in the 19th century were a vital part of the shipping industry that was the heart and soul of local life, and that legacy is still with us today. Our shared history is something we can all be proud of.
People from outside the North East are often surprised to hear that South Shields was and still is home to the first settled Muslim population in the UK, as well as the first purpose-built mosque. To me it isn't a surprise; it says a lot about the successful integration of the Yemeni community and the respect and tolerance our town has for other cultures. We have always depended on visitors and traders and I think that has made us an open and welcoming community.
The example of the Yemeni community is a fantastic demonstration of how different cultures can live together in modern Britain, with different traditions but shared goals and values. Previous generations worked and lived side by side, shared ideas, and started families together, and that process of sharing has enriched our community.
Emma Lewell-Buck - Labour MP
Dear Leyla, I think the project is a great idea for those who had fathers and grandfathers who came from Yemen. For me, my Grandfather was the most precious person I had in my life. He was one of the first Yemeni men to come to South Shields. He had a barbers shop and a fruit shop and was very generous with his time and money. He came from the same place as the Muckbles.
Kenny McRitchie, South Shields - 3rd Generation Yemeni
I think the Yemeni project is a lovely idea as I have been interested in learning more about my grandfather's native Yemen for many years. I feel the Yemeni people are amongst some of the most generous hearted in the world. It is great to share resources, especially photos and the project will help preserve a record of what has become, in South Shields a diminishing community. I am happy to support such a project!
Michelle Hern, South Shields - 3rd generation Yemeni