Readers have recently contacted me about the “Dolly Peel” on Commercial Road, and why I chose this particular pub as DCI Mason’s favourite lunchtime watering hole. Apart from its close proximity to the South Shields Magistrates Court, it’s Mason’s kind of place. Often frequented by police officers and court officials alike, it sells real ale and serves a good pint. Named after a local fishwife and smuggler whose husband and sons were press ganged into the Royal Navy, today the pub attracts a more mature clientele. Close to the River Tyne, the interior is divided into two areas, with large-screen TVs for sporting events. Wednesday is buskers’ night, with live music on Saturday night.
So who was Dolly Peel you may ask? Dolly is one of those iconic female figures who, at the time of Britain’s wars with America and France at the turn of the 19th century, joined their menfolk in the fighting ships of the day. The records show that Dolly’s husband Cuthbert Peel was pressed from a merchant ship called the Crawford, at Quebec, Canada, in March 1808, onto the frigate HMS Amelia. During this period, wives often sailed with their husbands on merchant vessels, so Dolly may have stowed away on HMS Amelia. During 1809, HMS Amelia was involved several sea battles – two of which involved the complete destruction of French warships. At the time, Dolly’s husband Cuthbert was a gunnery specialist serving on one of HMS Amelia’s gun decks. During fierce sea battles, this was a dangerous place to be. With decks full of smoke and working in very cramped conditions, enemy cannon balls constantly crashed into the ship sending showers of oak splinters amongst the British sailors.
As legend goes, during the battles Dolly was down below the waterline helping the surgeon with the wounded. Some say she even helped carry powder to the guns – but this is stretching it a bit. However the first Admiralty book for 1812 confirms that Cuthbert and his older brother Ralph Peel of South Shields were indeed press ganged into naval service. They appeared on board the Lyra on March 28th, 1812, and were described as stragglers. This meant they’d deserted from another ship, that ship being the frigate HMS Amelia. All too often during this period, tragedy would strike the family. In August 1813, Ralph Peel fell out of the rigging of HMS Nereus and drowned.
When in 1815 the Peel family finally returned to South Shields, Dolly’s husband would go back to earning his living with the Shields merchant fleet. So many colourful stories have flourished in the town since then. Some say Dolly worked as a hawker of contraband goods, others say she was a poet. What is fact is that in 1987 a statue of her was unveiled on River Drive – for those interested – that’s near the junction with Palatine Street in South Shields?
Well there you have it. Now you know all about DCI Mason’s dinnertime watering hole. Just for the record, the Dolly Peel pub features in my next novel: ‘Satan’s Beckoning.’ But that, as they say, is another story.
Keep in touch – Michael
Dolly Peel - South Shields