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The Boarding House by David Campbell


When Ali Said opened his South Shields boarding house for Arab seamen in August 1909 he connected the north east of England to colonial networks that ran from Europe through Suez to India and beyond. Over time these lodgings in the Holborn district of the town, down by the river, marked a transformation in the character of the region. Having settled in the town in 1894, Said and his fellow seamen were part of a growing contingent of Arab seamen working on British steam ships. Originally from Yemen, these seamen were drawn into the British Empire after the annexation of Aden in 1839. As the first colonial possession acquired during the reign of Queen Victoria, the Aden protectorate was established on Yemeni territory to provide a coaling station half way between Bombay and Suez.
Run by the authorities in Bombay, Aden doubled in size as the rural population of the Yemen highlands sought work in this new colonial centre. The work available to these farmers seeking to support the families at home was distant and gruelling. The global growth of merchant shipping in the second half of the 19th century required new labour. ‘Tramp steamers’ – those ships that plied irregular routes and required crew willing to work for long periods – were unattractive to European sailors. Into this breach Arab workers willingly stepped, taken on as fireman to toil below decks shovelling coal into the furnaces. In the intense heat and noise of the boiler room the fireman had the most arduous of working conditions. By some estimates one in every 200 firemen who started a trip returned certifiably insane. – In the years up to and including the First World War there were several thousand Arab seamen in British ports. Although most were only temporary migrants following work, those that settled made up the first substantial Muslim communities in Britain. As the fourth largest UK port (after London, Cardiff and Liverpool), the Tyne came to host the second largest Arab community in the country. Barred by law from residing in private lodgings with local families, seamen of all nationalities required larger commercial accommodation and the boarding houses that were established to meet this need were organised along ethnic lines. As centres for their respective diasporas, they were cultural homes, welfare organisations, financial institutions and the hub of the labour network. South Shields in 1920 was home to eight boarding houses hosting between 300 and 600 Arab seamen at any one time. In the post-colonial context of twenty-first century Britain, despite the many transformations to community and industry, and despite their declining population, these boarding houses continue to have an active life in contemporary South Shields.

Over the years these boarding houses have been points of controversy in debates about community, identity and citizenship. During the First World War UK seamen were drafted into the Navy, leaving a demand for labour in the merchant marine. With northern Europeans who had previously worked on British ships barred because they were regarded as “enemy aliens”, the demand for new sources of maritime workers was great. Residents of the Aden protectorate were British subjects and thus able to be employed. Colonial work, its wages an improvement on the poor rural economy of Yemen, became an attractive option for those seeking financial security for their families. However, with many Yemeni labourers coming from the highlands beyond the protectorate, they had to either bribe local authorities to designate them as residents and hence subjects, or hope that British immigration controls were few and far between. During the First World War the latter turned out to be true, as issues of citizenship were brushed aside in the need to staff the ships supporting the war effort. As a result of their commitment, some 700 Arabs from South Shields lost their lives when their vessels were sunk during the Great War. Being fireman working long hours below decks, escape from a torpedoed vessel was rarely an option.