Tuesday, 9 February 2016

World’s First Salvation Army Brass Band (NZ109509)

The Salvation Army began life in the 1860s as the ‘East London Christian Mission’ under the guidance of William and Catherine Booth. In 1878, the organisation was restructured and renamed – becoming ‘The Salvation Army’ proper. The set-up went nationwide and eventually, of course, worldwide.

Part of the Sally Ann’s thrust from day one was music – both singing and band-playing. In the very early days, when the organisation’s open air meetings would often attract hostility, the tactic of musical diversion was a common trick. Early Salvationists, the Fry family, were the first to pick up their instruments to this effect in Salisbury.

However, after the 1878 restructure, individual Salvation Army corps groups were officially established across the UK. One of the first was that at Consett – originally called the ‘Consett Station’ – which was founded in 1878 in Puddlers Row. A year or so later, in December 1879, the local converts formed their own little brass band – officially the first Salvation Army Corps Band in the world. The bandmaster was one Ned Lennox, and he was joined by George Storey, James Simpson and Robert Greenwood – all of them workers at the nearby iron works. Their first gigs were playing on the streets of the town during Christmas 1879.

The happy little quartet were soon in demand, playing at many meetings in the area – and even William Booth himself employed their services on several of his northern campaigns. More corps bands followed elsewhere across the country, but that of Consett’s was undoubtedly the first – research into the organisation’s history during a 1906 inquiry established this as fact (the early Salisbury Fry family, being attached to the Salvation Army’s HQ, were not considered a ‘corps’ band).

And Consett’s Salvation Army Brass Band is still going strong today, the very first example of its kind – and a part of which is now a huge worldwide phenomenon.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Shotley Bridge Swordmakers (NZ090527)

The story of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers is well-known to those with an interest in the Derwent Valley, yet their history is surprisingly brief and not an altogether successful one at that. It started with a mystery and ended with a whimper.

In 1687, around twenty men and their families slipped out of the German town of Solingen and made their way secretly to the shores of England. Somewhat strangely, they ended up on the banks of the River Derwent and settled in the area now known as Shotley Bridge. No one quite knows why they came (possibly religious persecution and/or the restrictions of their guild secrets) or why the Derwent Valley (some say they were invited by a couple of enterprising Newcastle businessmen, or that there was already a small German community there). Whatever the backstory, they brought with them a very great skill: the ability to forge swords and blades like no other – springy, hollow, three-sided affairs made from tempered steel – the likes of which had not been seen before in England. The very finest of these implements bore the distinctive stamp of the Running Wolf or Flying Fox.

Such was the need for high quality weaponry of this nature that the little community soon became a roaring success – and, in 1691, they were granted a royal charter for the conduct of their particular line of work. The immigrants assimilated well, and provided for themselves – including in their work, where they mined, processed and prepared the raw materials for their trade. The site was perfect, it seems, for their needs: the fast flowing river drove their mills and the surrounding hills held the essential ores – though a good deal of iron ore was imported from Sweden, too. Many family names are associated with the swordmaking phenomenon of the time, the Oleys and the Moles being among the most famous.

They produced all sorts of implements: swords, cutlasses, bayonets, knives, etc., before moving onto more common-or-garden tools later on, such as scythes, sickles and cutlery. Up until the 1720s business remained good – excellent, in fact – but for a variety of reasons (lack of demand for weaponry, primarily) their success began to wane thereafter. Internal wrangling accentuated their plight and individuals began to leave for pastures new (e.g. Sheffield and its burgeoning steel industry). By the early-1800s, only the Oley family remained in business – and the last Shotley Bridge steel company was eventually taken over by Wilkinsons (of Wilkinson Sword fame).

The very last of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, Joseph Oley, died in 1896, aged 90 – and he hadn’t made a sword since 1840.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Horsleys of Hollywood (NZ197524)

We don’t like to crow about it here in the North-East, but not a lot of people know that it was two brothers from West Stanley, Co.Durham, who founded the Hollywood movie business on America’s west coast. That’s not to say it wouldn’t have happened without them, but David & William Horsley were most certainly the very first businessmen to set up a film studio in the famous suburb of Los Angeles.

History seems to place David, the younger of the siblings, as the driving force behind the extraordinary venture. Born in 1873 at West Stanley, then a bustling little pit village in the heart of Durham, he seemed destined to follow his family members into the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed – until two significant events changed the course of his young life. Firstly, aged nine, his hand was crushed under the wheel of a train, necessitating the amputation of his lower arm; then, in 1884, the family emigrated to New Jersey in search of a better life.

As he entered adulthood, the disabled David set up a bicycle business and ran a pool hall. In time, he fell in with a former Biograph Studios employee, Charles Gorman, and the two of them – together with brother William – decided to set up the Centaur Film Company in 1907. By 1910, they were turning out a handful of films per week, including the famous Mutt & Jeff comedies.

In order to really make an impression in the industry, though, they needed reliable sunlight – and the west coast was the place they targeted. So, in the summer of 1911, their set-up was moved to California, and the name changed to the Nestor Motion Picture Company. Though a handful of film companies were already operating in the area, the Horsleys’ studio was the first to be established in the LA suburb of Hollywood. The very first movie set was erected in the backyard of the Blondeau Tavern Building on Sunset Boulevard – and in late October 1911 the first short Hollywood film was shot.

LA operations were, in the main, entrusted to the Horsleys’ general manager, Al Christie, whilst the brothers ran the film processing and distribution side of the business from their New Jersey base. However, things moved fast, and as other companies arrived in Hollywood in their droves, the Horsleys decided to merge with several other concerns and form the famous Universal Studios in April 1912 – with David listed as among the new company’s founders.

Within a year or so, however, he had sold his share in the new organisation and embarked on a life of travel. He returned to the film industry a few years later, but his venture failed, and he eventually died – and was buried – in LA in 1933. William Horsley also left Universal (in 1916) to concentrate on the processing and developing side of the business.

Interestingly, David’s son, David Stanley Horsley, became a movie special effects expert.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Pontop Pike (NZ148527)

In the days before Sky and Virgin Media, a healthy majority of TV aerials in the North-East pointed squarely towards the famous Pontop Pike transmitting station, near Dipton, Co.Durham. It is a largely unloved regional landmark, but it is responsible for enlivening and enriching all our lives these past several decades – and it has one or two notable historical facts linked to it, too.

The mast isn’t difficult to spot at 149m (489ft) in height, being visible for tens of miles in every direction. It was built in something of a hurry in 1953 so that we could all gawp at Her Royal Highness during her coronation. The very first TV programmes were transmitted via the station on 1st May, and the royal extravaganza followed a month later.

Initially, we had to put up with substandard black and white VHF signals, but this was joined by UHF colour in 1966. It has, of course, also carried radio signals – most notably being one of the UK’s first FM transmitting stations in 1955. Its lengthy period of service continues to this day with digital services, though it formed part of the last-but-one transmitter group in the UK to shake off the old analogue service and complete the digital switchover in autumn 2012 (Northern Ireland was the last). It remains the main broadcasting transmitter in the North-East of England, covering Tyne & Wear, Co.Durham, Tees Valley, most of Northumberland and even extends into parts of North Yorkshire – with a population coverage of around 2 million.

Harking back to that very first evening of broadcasting, 1st May 1953, here’s a review of the night’s viewing from the local press (culled from the Test Card Circle website):

Your first evening offered first class entertainment. The visit to the Severn Wildfowl Trust Sanctuary must have been delightful to nature lovers and was excellently produced, the close shots of the birds being particularly fine. The Boys Brigade display from The Royal Albert Hall, London, was another good outside broadcast, and had an efficiency worthy of Horse Guards Parade. The programme "In The News" is usually well worthy of attention; last night's discussion of the M.I.G. reward offer was given many interesting angles. "Kaleidoscope" is a show for the family. It aims only to please, and while it does not always do that, it did so last night after having had an overhaul. The short play-story however, was rather childish.


Note: In case you’re wondering, the nearby Burnhope transmitter was originally an ITA/ITV effort, and has, generally speaking, relayed commercial TV and radio signals since its construction in 1958.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Derwentcote Steel Furnace (NZ130566)

© Copyright Helen Wilkinson and licensed for reuse 

Close by the banks of the River Derwent near the village of Hamsterley Mill can be found a rather important relic of the Industrial Revolution: the Derwentcote Steel Furnace. It is the oldest and best example of its type remaining in the world – a cementation furnace which turned wrought iron into high grade steel.

Of the remains that can be seen today on the site, the oldest parts date to at least as early as 1719; and the plant remained in use until 1891 when a more advanced form of steel production was developed. As for Derwentcote, it began as a forge (and mill) around 1719, with the furnace added c.1733. Various storage buildings were then added as the complex hit full pelt. Iron would be imported from Sweden, via the Derwent, and handy local resources (charcoal, coal, clay and sandstone) made it a perfect spot for its intended purpose.

The cementation process involved layering bands of iron bars and charcoal powder in the central cone. A fire was lit and the temperature raised to about 1,100°C in the sealed chambers, causing the carbon from the charcoal to diffuse into the iron. The whole process – including the cooling period – took three weeks, and produced 10 tons of ‘blister’ steel. The steel was then taken to the water-powered forge to be made into items such as tools – steel, of course, being preferable to iron due to its combined strength and flexibility.

For a time Derwentcote and the Derwent Valley were the epicentre of the British steel industry, but progress eventually overtook it. After it fell out of use the building endured a century of slow decline – until English Heritage restored it in 1990.

Currently an archaeological programme of investigation is examining a nearby row of ruinous cottages thought to have been occupied by the families of the furnace workers.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Colin Milburn – An Indomitable Spirit (NZ172569)

The mighty Colin Milburn is perhaps the biggest name to come out of Burnopfield – in more ways than one. At 18 stone, his size was both the making of him and, perhaps, his downfall. One thing’s for sure: he was a supremely talented cricketer, appearing in a ludicrously paltry nine test matches for England.

‘Ollie’ was born in October 1941, and followed his sportingly talented father into cricket at an early age. He played in local leagues, before progressing into the Durham team (who were then a minor county) at 17 – and scored what was described as a ‘dynamic century’ against the touring Indians at Sunderland in 1959. By the summer of 1960 he was playing for Northamptonshire at first-class level, with his forceful batting, useful bowling and famous convivial personality. He was mooted several times for an England call up during the early ‘60s, but had to wait until 1966 for his international debut against the West Indies. A promising series (including scores of 94 and 126 not out) ended in disappointment when he was dropped for the final test, supposedly due to his lack of mobility in the field. It was not the last time he would be messed about by the selectors.

After being voted one of Wisden’s ‘Cricketers of the Year’ in 1967, he spent a varied few years playing across the globe – including Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia, where he excelled, once scoring an incredible 181 in a two-hour session. Unable to ignore his obvious talents, he was given the chance of the occasional additional test match during the late 60’s – against India, Pakistan and Australia. He scored a memorable 83 against the latter at Lords in 1968, and a spectacular 139 at Karachi against Pakistan in the Spring of 1969. This innings would be his last for England.

The 1969 season opened with another Milburn century for Northants, but on the way home he was involved in a car accident which robbed him of the sight in his left eye and damaged his right. He battled on in the months and years ahead – including a comeback of sorts during 1973-74 – but never recaptured his former glories. He moved back down into league cricket and commentated on the game, before a fatal heart attack took him from us at the age of 48 in 1990. He was buried in Burnopfield.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Uses for Chopwell Wood (NZ136580)

It may now be the area’s prime source of Christmas trees, but the famous Chopwell Wood overlooking the Derwent Valley has had a good few more uses over the years – and, dare I say it, rather more important ones, too. The little patch of green in question has been there for a very long time indeed, once forming part of the original Wild-Wood which blanketed most of Britain in ancient times. It has, however, not changed a great deal size-wise since the days of the Romans.

Most notably, timber taken from Chopwell Wood has been used to build several important ships over the centuries. The first recorded use of this type was in 1294 when wood was gathered for a galley ship being built at Newcastle for King Edward I’s navy. And then, in 1635, King Charles I tapped the wood for timber for the construction of his fanciful Sovereign of the Seas – his new flagship, which included more than 2,000 oak trees from Chopwell (as well as other woods, too). The tax levied by the monarch to build this showcase ship was one of the major causes of the English Civil War.

Castle builders have also made use of Chopwell Wood’s resources. In 1538, timber for Dunstanburgh Castle’s new roof and floor were sourced there – and soon afterwards Bamburgh’s roofers put out a similar call. In 1593, the constructors of Berwick’s new pier put in an order for 40 tons; and more than twice that was later sent to Norham Castle for general repairs. Berwick was back again in 1620 with a request for 250 tons of timber for bridge work. It is also known that Newcastle’s old Tyne Bridge, in need of urgent post-Civil War repairs, was patched up with Chopwell timber in 1647.

The Napoleonic Wars brought demand for timber to something of a crisis point, too – with Chopwell Wood being reduced to a few hundred specimens come 1820. After that, more careful management of the wood secured its future. In the 20th century it was used for the training of foresters; and pine grown there was used for pit props down the mines. World War II saw demand for timber rise again, and the wood was heavily utilised. The Forestry Commission’s North-East base was stationed there from 1923 to 1947, and a District office replaced it in 1955. Since then it has been used increasingly for recreational purposes.

Quite apart from all of this, Chopwell Wood has been regularly plundered for the construction and repair of dwellings, bridges and the like by the locals. And Christmas trees, of course.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Who Was Rowland? (NZ167587)

Rowlands Gill, now a town of some substance in the Derwent Valley, was, until around a century or so ago, little more than an open expanse of countryside with a building or two surrounding the railway station established there in the 1860s. As you might expect, its name came from a rivulet which ran through the area before dropping into the Derwent – but who exactly was the ‘Rowland’ in question?

The answer is that, well, no one knows. Not for sure, anyway. For, new though the former village and present-day town may be, the name of the little beck seems to go back quite some time – to at least the early 1700s. So no wonder we’re having trouble pinning down the original Rowland.

An 1896 history of the area (History of the Parish of Ryton by William Bourn) states that Rowlands Gill (once a part of Ryton parish) derived its name from a 17th century landowner, Robert Rowland. However, a recent archival discovery and subsequent research* indicate otherwise. This tells us that the earliest reference to the name of the stream in these parts dates to 1728 and a ‘Rowland Richardsons Gill’ – and there is no evidence of a landowner by the name of Robert Rowland to be found.

That, however, is about as far as we can go – with any degree of certainty, anyway. The aforementioned research has brought us three possibilities as to the precise identity of this mysterious Rowland Richardson, but we cannot say for sure which is our man. There were certainly Richardson landowners in the vicinity at the right time, but there are several Rowlands among folk who bear this name. The three so far unearthed were plucked from the Ryton parish registers of the 17th century.

So that’s the best we can do…

* see here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

An Unwelcome Winlaton First (NZ175619)

Hannah Greener, a 15 year-old girl from Winlaton, can claim for both herself and her home town a most undesirable of medical firsts. For this unfortunate young lady was the first person in the world to die after having received a chloroform anaesthetic – for the removal, would you believe, of a toenail.

At the time of her death in January 1848, chloroform was new to the scene as regards anaesthetics – previously, ether would have been the norm. In fact, when Miss Greener stepped forward somewhat gingerly with her seriously in-growing toenails, it was precisely during this ‘changeover period’. In late 1847, ether was used on her to remove the nail of her left big toe (at Newcastle Infirmary); then a few weeks later she was back under the knife – this time at her home in Winlaton – to have the less serious right big toenail detached.

And so Dr Meggison and Dr Lloyd set about the operation. A teaspoon of chloroform was poured onto a handkerchief which was then held to her mouth. An incision was made, and she flinched – so a little more chloroform was administered. The patient then turned a funny colour, spluttered and expired. All attempts at resuscitation failed – the whole process taking little more than two minutes.

The resultant inquest (at the New Inn, Winlaton), concluded that death had most probably been caused by congestion of the lungs – a known side effect of the use of chloroform. The doctors were thus exonerated and young Hannah Greener was laid to rest in Winlaton churchyard.

In 1911, however, medical experiments suggested that the death was most probably due to fatal cardiac arrhythmia (ventricular fibrillation). This would place the point of death at the moment the incision was made, which would have caused a fatal hormonal surge to the chloroform-affected heart.

Debate over which was the best and safest anaesthetic on the market raged for many years after Hannah Greener’s death. Chloroform was very popular in many countries for a very long time, though – until the discovery of barbiturate-based concoctions in the 1940s.

More information on the Hannah Greener case can be found here and here.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Garibaldi Statue, Blaydon (NZ175636)

If you studied Italian unification at school, then you’ll know all about Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famous general and politician who had rather a lot to do with the creation of the present-day Mediterranean state. But his fame extended well beyond the borders of his own corner of the world – and he was especially popular on Tyneside.

The enthusiasm among the North-East’s working classes for Garibaldi was largely down to Blaydon’s very own Joseph Cowen Jnr, the industrialist and Radical politician who was very prominent in Tyneside affairs in the Victorian era. He championed the cause of many a European revolutionary movement, and entertained several prominent figures from the continent at his home, Stella Hall, in Blaydon (now demolished). And, in 1854, it was Giuseppe’s turn to answer Cowen’s call.

As it happened, Garibaldi was in the middle of his travels anyway, and needed to pop into the Tyne to pick up some coal. As for his North-East stay, he arrived on 21st March 1854 and left in late April. Spending most of his time in Tynemouth, he popped up river to Blaydon at the behest of Cowen for a very brief sojourn. Whipping the locals up into a frenzy, the eager host eked every last bit of positive propaganda out of the visit – with memories of the occasion surviving comfortably into the modern era.

Anyway, Cowen gave his guest ‘the tour’, presented him with a gift or two, then off he went back to Italy where he eventually carried through with his unification process during the 1850s and 60s. Back in Blighty, Cowen mused over the experience for a few years, before eventually erecting a statue of the great man in the grounds of his Stella Hall estate. It was created by sculptor George Burn and erected in 1868 a little to the north of the present-day remains of the ‘Summerhouse’ which still overlooks Blaydon.

Cowen died in 1900, and very soon afterwards the statue disappeared. Fingers were pointed at Cowen employees, who had had to pay a penny towards its construction; but a more likely story is that it was sent into the undergrowth at the base of the hill by playful youths. Shattered into several pieces, all but the head were then lost forever – with Garibaldi’s bearded bonce finding its way into a builder’s garden by the 1940s, then eventually, in 1977, into a glass case in Blaydon Library. It’s still there today.

Garibaldi made a second visit to the UK in 1864, but the somewhat nervous authorities sent him packing almost immediately – and before he could so much as contemplate a return to Tyneside. It may have been this rebuffal that prompted Cowen’s statue a few years later.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Clarence of Prudhoe (NZ096630)

The scene illustrated above will be instantly recognisable to most of a certain age – especially those with so much as a passing interest in movies. It is, of course, a still from the film It’s A Wonderful Life, featuring James Stewart (right) and his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers. And what hardly anyone knows about the latter is that Mr Travers was born on the banks of the Tyne at Prudhoe in 1874.

There is much confusion over the origins of our Henry, though, with biographies having him born in various places. He spent many years in Berwick, so most claim he was born there; others say Ireland. But his birth was certainly registered in Hexham registration district (which, in 1874, included Prudhoe), so that would seem to clinch it for the good folk of our Tynedale town.

He was born ‘Travers John Heagerty’, but would barely have known the place of his birth. At a very early age (around 2) his family moved to the aforementioned Border town (Tweedmouth, actually), and he spent his childhood there, before training as an architect. He enjoyed amateur musical/dramatical roles from the 1890s onwards, briefly visiting Broadway in 1901. He returned to England thereafter to enjoy many successful years on the stage.

In 1917, he returned to the States, where he trod the boards prolifically for the next two decades on Broadway. In 1933, he appeared in his first movie, Reunion in Vienna; and in the years that followed cornered the market in roles very similar to that for which, ultimately, he would be best remembered: bumbling but loveable old men. His career seemed to peak in 1942 when he was nominated for an Oscar in Mrs Miniver.

However, he will be remembered and loved by most as the kindly, confused and ultimately life-saving guardian angel to Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, in that 1946 classic. So when it comes around again next Christmas, see if you can spot a hint of a North-East accent…

You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

He retired in 1949 and died in 1965, aged 91.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Venerable Charles Thorp (NZ151648)

When you hear the name Charles Thorp muttered in and around the parish of Ryton these days, it is almost always in connection with the secondary school bearing his name in the heart of the town. The recent renaming process of the said institution has helped, if nothing else, to bring back to the fore the distant memory of a man who led a quite extraordinary life – and most certainly put Ryton well and truly on the map in his day.

Born in Gateshead in 1783, Thorp led an admittedly privileged life. The son of an archdeacon of Northumberland, he was educated at Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and Durham School, before spells at both Cambridge and Oxford Universities. He became a tutor at Oxford, before eventually returning to Tyneside as Rector of Ryton in 1807. He remained in the post for 55 years.

Rising through the ranks, he was also created Canon (1829), and then Archdeacon (1831) at Durham, before becoming the very first Warden of the University of Durham in 1832 – playing a major role in the founding of the institution. He also became, simultaneously, the university’s first Master. As if that wasn’t enough, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1839.

Even that, in fact, wasn’t anywhere near enough. He was years ahead of his time in many other spheres of society. Firstly, of course, there was education, where he set up a free school in Ryton; then there was the establishment in the town of the country’s very first ‘penny bank’ (enabling those on low incomes to save and borrow at reasonable rates); and he was also a bit of an environmentalist, planting trees in the churchyard as well as purchasing the Farne Islands and appointing a wildlife warden.

Just as notable were his activities on the international front where he campaigned tirelessly against slavery. In Sierra Leone his efforts were especially worthy – to the extent of setting up a university for freed slaves in the country’s capital, Freetown.

He was married twice, and died in Durham in 1862. He was buried in Ryton churchyard.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Lemington Glass Cone (NZ183645)

© Copyright HelenWilkinson and licensed for 

Situated where it is – a few miles upstream from Newcastle on the north bank of the Tyne – the settlement of Lemington was ideally placed to contribute significantly to the economy of Tyneside in its own special way. It was for centuries the point where many local collieries offloaded their coal onto waiting boats for export, and the make-up of the terrain thereabouts triggered the establishment of many other industries. One such speciality was glass-making, and the one remaining glass cone – a famous local landmark – is in itself rather special, being one of only four of its kind left in the UK.

Originally, in 1787, four glasshouses were built on the spot, and four cones were quickly added – the pride and joy of the newly-established Northumberland Glass Company, who had leased the site from the Duke of Northumberland. The chimneys’ striking form was designed to draw air up through underground tunnels to heat the glass to 2000°C. Glass production – originally flat glass – continued there until 1882, when the site was taken over for a short while by an ironworks. A depression in the glass industry had led to the decline, and in fact three of the four cones were demolished in 1837. Only by chance, it seems, did a single specimen survive into the Victorian era.

The industry picked up again in the 1890s and famous glassmaker, George Sowerby, reinstated operations at the ‘cone site’ in 1898. In 1906, the General Electric Company purchased the establishment from the Duke of Northumberland and the site was expanded and refitted for the production of light bulbs and tubes. Another refit/expansion took place in 1920, and the manufacture of light bulbs and related lampware (mainly industrial and technological items) limped on through the 20th century. The last glass was produced there in 1997.

Lemington glass cone was the last operational glassworks of its kind, and upon closure all but the giant cone was demolished. A little prior to this, the structure – the largest of the set at 120ft and said to contain 1.75 million bricks – was restored and given protected status. It has since been home to a variety of businesses.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Stephenson’s Cottage (NZ127651)

© Copyright Ken Brown and licensed for reuse 

On a quiet byway on the north bank of the River Tyne a few hundred yards east of Wylam, lies a lucky survival of North-East history. For, sitting sedately on a former waggonway out of the reach of motorised vehicles, can be found a modest cottage whose claim to fame is that it is the birthplace and childhood home of the ‘Father of the Railways’, George Stephenson.

It is nothing much to look at, made to seem all the more modest due to the fact that four families lived here at the time of the famous man’s birth – each crammed into a small apartment in the tiny two-storey abode. Humble beginnings indeed for the the little chap with the big future, who entered this world on 9th June 1781.

At the time of his birth, railways, of course, did not exist. But waggonways did, and young George must have been used to the horse-drawn affairs rumbling slowly past his window. In later years much larger and noisier items would have trundled before the family home – though George, by this time, was long gone, of course. Interesting, though, that it was largely due to his own efforts that the transformation was made possible…

We are told in an 1857 account that… The lower room in the west end of this house was the home of the Stephenson family, and there George Stephenson was born, the second of a family of six children ... The apartment is now, what it was then, an ordinary labourer’s dwelling; its walls are unplastered, its floor is of clay, and the bare rafters are exposed overhead.

Bizarrely, the cottage is now painted white. Until around the turn of the millennium it bore its original bare stone walls. Institutionalised vandalism?

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Frenchman’s Row (NZ145669)

On the north side of the B6318 midway between Throckley and Heddon-on-the-Wall stands a terrace of houses known as Frenchman’s Row. They aren’t the original buildings (being replaced in the 1960s), but the name is a strange survival from a former age. Moreover, the more substantial eastern-most structure was for years the famous Royal French (or Frenchman’s) Arms pub. But where, one might wonder, does the strange name come from?

It all dates back to 1796, when the lessees of Heddon Colliery built a row of flats on the spot for their workmen. They were stone-built, and had an outer flight of steps and a gallery. However, before so much as a single collier had moved in, three ships full of French refugees arrived – being Huguenot clergymen fleeing the shenanigans on the continent – and the new accommodation was used instead to house 38 of these individuals. The Frenchmen stayed until 1802, when they were able to return to their homeland – leaving a sundial as a parting gift (still to be seen today on the rebuild terrace).

Despite their short stay, though, the name ‘Frenchman’s Row’ stuck. The buildings were used as a poor house for a time, but were renovated and relaunched as accommodation proper in 1883. The more substantial building at the eastern end was not added until 1897 and became the Royal French Arms (a small beer-house had originally been housed in the end house of the ‘row’).

The original row was eventually demolished in 1960, to be replaced by the current affair in 1962 – but the name was retained. And the Victorian pub has now been converted into apartments, but is still known as ‘Royal French Court’.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Varied History of Ouston Airfield (NZ081700)

The little patch of Northumberland to the south of Stamfordham has gone by a few names over the past half century or so. Since the start of World War II it has been almost exclusively a military affair, and remains so as modern-day Albemarle Barracks. But it began life in 1939 as one of many hastily-built aerodromes, and was commonly known as Ouston Airfield or RAF Ouston.

Though it has not seen an aeroplane for several decades, the rather odd arrangement of runways can still be clearly made out on modern day maps: three long strips criss-crossing one another, with an outer ring-road enclosing the site. Its aviation history is a standard affair: opened in 1941, hosting Hurricanes and Spitfires initially, to be followed by all sorts of warplanes, from Defiants to American Mustangs and Typhoons to Wellingtons. Post-war, it continued in use in a ‘reserve’ role into the late 1950s, and some aircraft maintenance work was carried out there into the 60s.

Just when its useful life seemed to be coming to an end, it suddenly burst back onto the scene as a car and motorcycle racetrack in the early to mid-60s. Racing may well have taken place there as early as 1961, but what is known for certain is that the Newcastle and District Motor Club organised meetings at Ouston Airfield in consecutive Junes in 1962, 1963 and 1964. Jackie Stewart is known to have blown the field away at one race at Ouston in his Jaguar E-type in one of his earliest wins (1962 or 1963, reports differ); and the great Jim Clark was paraded there in 1964 and presented the prizes. In 1965, apparently, a crowd on 20,000 watched a motorcycle race meet at Ouston.

Two years later, in 1967, the site was reopened as an airfield for a short duration, acting as the North-East Regional Airport for five months whilst Newcastle Airport’s runway was extended.

Then, in the early 1970s, it was handed over to the army and renamed Albemarle Barracks, and aeroplanes have never left its surface since (though Apache helicopters are still to be seen there). Recently it has found yet another use: as a secure compound for the transport of nuclear material and/or warheads – or so the rumours go…

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Matfen Hall’s Relic of War (NZ032717)

Before the present-day Matfen Hall was built (around 1828) there existed on the spot an old manor house which once belonged to Admiral Lord Collingwood’s father-in-law. John Erasmus Blackett was to die in 1814, but his name lives on in Newcastle’s Blackett Street.

Rewinding a few years to 1797, our hero, Cuthbert Collingwood, was engaging the Spanish in the famous Battle of Cape St.Vincent, off the coast of Portugal – an encounter which the Brits were to win. And during this skirmish, Collingwood, aboard his ship, Excellent, scraped alongside many enemy vessels, not least the largest warship of its time, Santisima Trinidad. The Spanish flagship was a major target of the British Fleet and, though she was not captured, she was badly damaged and hobbled home to Cadiz for repairs after the battle.

During Collingwood’s exchange of fire with the ship he laid his hands upon a 50lb double-headed Spanish bar-shot, which he pocketed and took back home on a rare visit to Blighty. He thought it a rather neat idea to give it to his father-in-law as a gift, whereupon it was put on proud display in both Blackett’s old manor house in Matfen and the later hall which replaced it. The relic is suitably engraved with the ship’s name and the date of the battle (Valentine’s Day) – and, as far as I know, it is still there to this day.

Strangely enough, the Santisima Trinidad would pop up again in Collingwood’s sight-lines in a slightly more famous naval encounter in 1805, where the Spanish giant was to meet its fate.

[image taken from author Max Adams’ website at 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Water to Newcastle (NY968763 & thereabouts)

When we think of the water supply provided to the region, the mighty Kielder Water springs instantly to mind. However, a number of other reservoirs form part of the intricate network of watery connections that keep the North-East quenched – with three of the most important crowded into a few square miles of the Northumbrian countryside about eight miles north of Hexham.

Colt Crag, Little Swinburne and Hallington Reservoirs were all built a long time before the 1970s creation that is Kielder Water, being completed, as they were, in 1871 (East Hallington), 1884 (Colt Crag), 1886 (Little Swinburne) and 1889 (West Hallington). Their construction finally brought to an end centuries of struggle to feed an ever-thirsty Tyneside, all but banishing the threat, finally, of typhus – to say nothing of the needs of fire-fighting. Prior to this, glorified ponds on the Town Moor, Arthur’s Hill and at Carr Hill, Gateshead, struggled manfully against the booming populations either side of the Tyne.

Between the ‘heyday’ of the aforementioned ‘ponds’ and the new complex of 1871-89, Whittle Dene Reservoirs (completed 1848), a little to the SE, carried the responsibility of water supply for the area. And, when it was ready, the Hallington/Swinburne/Colt Crag supply was bolted onto the Whittle Dene system before being piped to Newcastle and Gateshead. The network was further extended in 1904 when Catcleugh Reservoir near the Scottish border was brought into use. And then, seventy years later, there was Kielder.

The really quite amazing (and largely hidden) system of tunnels, pipes and aqueducts that connect these large expanses of fresh water both to each other and their points of service was the result of the work of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company… and is one of the hidden wonders of the Great North-East.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Belsay Castle (NZ084785)

© Copyright Brian Norman and licensed for 

The grounds of Belsay estate a few miles NW of Ponteland present one of the region’s most attractive and curious touristy days out. Firstly there is the classical hall, built by actual Grecian builders who were dancing to the tune of landowner, Sir Charles Monck, in the 1810s; then there is the unusual quarry garden, developed in and around the hole left in the ground following the construction of the Hall; and finally there is the best of the lot – the medieval castle-cum-tower house, which now lies beautifully abandoned, superseded, as it was, by the 19th century hall.

Belsay Castle has been described as the “finest English tower-house in the north”, and even this is surely an understatement. On a fine, summer’s day it presents as handsome a prospect as any in the land. For centuries in the possession of the Middletons, the castle began as a three-storey pele tower built in the late 14th century (though this may have replaced an earlier effort). In 1614, the family added a Jacobean range, which can still be seen today. Another wing, added in 1711, has since been demolished.

When, in the early 19th century, the new hall was built nearby, the old place was gutted and left, deliberately, as a folly. It was later renovated by the family, but still left largely unused. Since its take-up by English Heritage, the castle and its Jacobean annex has continued to receive the appropriate care and attention to maintain its stunning demeanour.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Dissenting Madam Babington (NZ073804)

Situated between the villages of Belsay and Bolam, not far off the main road to Newcastle, is the hamlet of Harnham. The little settlement was once home to the famous Babington family who resided in Harnham Hall – little more than a glorified farmhouse, which still exists to this day. In the mid-1600s, it was the home of Katherine Babington, daughter of Sir Arthur Hesilrige, the great Parliamentarian, and the wife of Major Babington, Governor of Berwick.

Katherine was regarded as something of a beauty, but with this came a stormy temperament – making her something of a celebrity in her day. People would go out of their way to catch a glimpse of this petulant character, such was her ability to attract the wrong sort of attention (she was once reputedly banned by the authorities from ‘eating pies in public’!). Most infamously, this most notorious of nonconformists cocked a snook at the local clergy by bribing a butcher-boy to drag the local parson from his pulpit. Later she was prosecuted for contempt, and even imprisoned in her own home by her husband to keep her from causing chaos. Amidst all of this she was, of course, excommunicated – so when, in 1670, she died, the vicar refused to allow her to be buried in the parish churchyard.

Her well-to-do widower soon came up with an answer, though. In a move with which the stroppy Madam Babington would most surely have approved, he buried her in the back garden – in a cave hewn out of a rocky outcrop. Years later, the tomb was robbed and her remains scattered.

Her bones may have been interfered with but her tomb and vault remain, complete with stone coffin and accompanying inscription and poem…

My time is past, as you may see,
I viewed the dead as you do me;
Or long you’ll lie as low as I,
And some will look on thee.