As I watch Tish, a haunting documentary about Tyneside photographer Tish Murtha, I’m reminded of my mum’s stories about her North East childhood. 

It was post-war Britain and the country was on its knees. In Wallsend, where my mum grew up alongside her younger sister and brother, the council housed the family – ‘housed’ being a loose definition in this instance – down the quay. The property was condemned which meant it was unsafe to go upstairs. So, the five of them lived in two ground-floor rooms with no electricity and an outdoor toilet next to the coal bunker. Although the council promised it would rehome them within three years, it was six years before they finally moved out.

While this was two decades before Tish’s photography began taking shape in the 1970s, the similarities in subject matter and landscape are unmistakable. In both my mum and Tish’s world, there is unvarnished working-class life, crippling poverty, and a disregard by those in positions of power to do anything to help. But perhaps this is why Tish’s photos continue to exert such a compelling grip on the viewer, 11 years after her death and following a life in which her work was criminally overlooked? It’s 2024 but it feels like very little has changed – meaning that Tish’s depiction of the communities and people she knew and loved are more important than ever. 

A Geordie childhood

One of ten children, Tish grew up in Elswick in Newcastle’s West End. Life wasn’t easy but that didn’t stop her from studying photography at the University of Wales at a time when few people in working-class inner cities could make the leap to higher education. Each step was a challenge but, as everyone interviewed in this new film attests, she had fire in her belly and an unquenchable desire to document marginalised communities from the inside. 

Image by Tish Martha © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved

Paul Sng is the director of Tish. His previous films include the critically acclaimed Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché and Dispossessed: The Great Social Housing Scandal. He explains what sparked his interest in Tish‘s work. “I thought that she was a really interesting photographer, not purely because of her ability and what she was documenting but the ‘why’. I think it’s really important what we make but I’m always interested in the ‘why’, what’s the motivation, what led someone to do something.”

Not surprisingly, Tish’s daughter Ella guards her mother’s legacy fiercely. But it soon became clear that a collaboration with Paul was on the cards.

“I asked her about doing a film about her mum,” says Paul. “She’d been approached before and always said no. She’s a very private person. But we had this two-hour phone call and then we met up. We spoke about the type of film we wanted to make and agreed that it would be political, and that although it was about the past, it was speaking to the present day. The inequality that Tish was documenting, the issues and the themes are still very much relevant and those inequalities have never really gone away.”

Ella agrees. “My mam’s work remains painfully relevant for anyone who wants to understand the brutality of poverty and its lifelong generational impact. She was deeply worried that the pressures would always stay with the young people she photographed, having massive repercussions for years to come, and we are now living with the impact of the class warfare that Tish wrote about in her Youth Unemployment essay all those years ago.”

While much of Tish‘s work focuses on lives not traditionally seen in galleries and is unsparing in its spitting honesty, the underlying seam is infinitely more complex. Here we have humour, joy, camaraderie, and love. It’s all so bloody human.

Image by Tish Martha © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved

“I think what she captured was, it’s not that these are ‘it’s grim up north’ places,” says Paul. “These were communities that had experienced hardship because of deliberate government acts of industrialism and Thatcher’s policies. But they had each other. I know that sometimes that can sound quite trite but it’s what kept them going. They didn’t have much but they had solidarity.”

One of our own

Perhaps Tish‘s unique ability to capture light within dark was her status as “one of the tribe”. This is mentioned more than once in the documentary and rings true. Whether it’s images of children playing in the back lane, teenagers jumping from derelict buildings onto piles of mattresses or the infectious grins of toddlers bouncing off the camera’s lens, Tish reaches out and grabs the viewer, leaving us with a personal memory reawakened and a smile on our face. If that isn’t art at its most successful, I don’t know what is. 

Again, I wonder if this universality is what makes her so special. Yes, her black and white images were mostly taken in Newcastle but they have a startling amount in common with other 20th century chroniclers. Consider Richard Davis’s monochrome photography of Hulme in the 1980s and 90s, then look at Anne Worthington‘s 1990s’ images of East Manchester. And what about painting? The Ashington Group of artists, known as the Pitman Painters, were coal miners, working up the road from Tish some 40 years earlier. Their days were spent down the pit but, when they returned to the surface, they wanted to document what they experienced and what they saw. Similarly, Norman Cornish, another coal miner from the North East, also captured “what was in front” of them. 

I suspect that these photographers and painters would agree with one of the people in Tish’s documentary who says “I’ve always thought that history is so posh”. We can only hope that the overdue recognition of Tish’s work goes some way to correct this.


Tish died suddenly in 2013 from a brain aneurysm, the day before her 57th birthday. As an organ donor, she went on to save the lives of four women and the eyesight of four men. She died as she lived, supporting and celebrating the lives of others. 

Today, you can see Tish’s photos in the permanent collection of Tate Britain. With this in mind, it is unbelievable that Tish died penniless, too afraid to turn on the heating. When she was found by her daughter on Mother’s Day, she was so cold that paramedics thought she had hypothermia. 

But don’t remember her this way. Tish Murtha was a force of nature, deeply committed to where she was from, to the people who lived there, and to the possibility of a better future. Believe, because she did. 

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

Main image and left image: (c) Demon Snapper Productions / Freya Films 

Tish is on BBC Four at 9pm on April 1, 2024. For more information, click here

To read Northern Soul’s 2017 interview with Ella Murtha, click here