We know of Shoe-tie Anty, Nan the Mazer and Quayside Kate, but these women are shadowy figures in comparison with their larger-than-life male counterparts. We certainly have to look carefully at Irving’s painting of the Blaydon Races to spot a well-known woman.
The effort is worthwhile though, for there she is, almost rollicking her way out of the canvas – Cushy Butterfield.
Cushy was a beauty of the steam age. Large, strong, noisy and bustling, she would have been a good match for Puffing Billy, thundering through her home town of Gateshead.
Her florid complexion was matched by her tastes in fashion. Big goloshes, white stockings and lilac gowns, topped with rakish hats, would have lent a splash of colour to the drabness of the quayside.
She collected clay, which she rolled into balls and sold to the house-proud who treated their floors and steps with it. The yellow clay, with a texture like sandstone, was probably obtained from near the banks of the river Tyne. This was undoubtedly thirsty work, and Cushy Butterfield is reputed to have liked her beer.
She chose not to marry her keelman, to his great sorrow, and left him singing the well-known refrain of ‘She’s a big lass and a bonny lass and I wish she was here’.