Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Spennymoor Settlement (NZ260342)

In 1930, with the world sliding into the Great Depression, there were some on the front line of this desperate historical low who took matters into their own hands and sought to make the most of their lives despite the odds being stacked against them. One extraordinary example of this was the ‘Spennymoor Settlement’.

It all began with a charitable organistion called the Pilgrim Trust, which was founded by American philanthropist, Edward Harkness. He had a great fondness for the country of his ancestors and in recognition of Great Britain’s sacrifice during the First World War he gave us £2million to spend on worthy causes. A small amount of this found its way to Bill & Betty Farrell, who, in 1931, founded a local arts community at a disused shop on King Street, Spennymoor, to encourage tolerant neighbourliness and voluntary social services and give its members opportunities for increasing their knowledge, widening their interests, and cultivating their creative powers in a friendly atmosphere. It was known as the Spennymoor Settlement – or more commonly as the Pitman’s Academy – and was a runaway success.

At the time, though, both the present and the future were grim. Unemployment was rife and poverty spreading like wildfire. The Farrells, however, together with deputy Jack Maddison, provided a means by which the locals could fight back. At a time when central government provided little support to the impoverished, the organisation showed the town’s residents how to broaden their horizons and make the very best of a poor hand.

It was all about self-improvement. Education – in all areas, not just the arts – as well as practical lessons such as shoe-repairing and needlework, ran alongside innovative schemes such as pre-school playgroups, a citizens’ advice bureau and a volunteer-run library. The biggest success, though, was arguably the Everyman Theatre, built in 1939 by unemployed miners, which encouraged appreciation – and, indeed, critical thinking – of the arts. The theatre, having been renovated a few years ago, still operates today, and the building is considered so important a part of our social history that it is Grade II Listed.

A great many men and women of artistic note have the Spennymoor Settlement to thank for their renown. Heard of writer Sid Chaplin? Or of artists Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness? Both these, and many more besides, have the old Pitman’s Academy of Spennymoor to thank for their deserved success.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Jack Greenwell: Football Pioneer (NZ160372)

One of the North-East’s greatest sporting heroes is also one of its least known: John Richard “Jack” Greenwell, who was born at Billy Row, Crook, in January 1884. Like many of his generation, he was a notable North-Eastern footballer and manager; but, unlike pretty much every other sportsman of his ilk, he made his name overseas – and big style, too.

Though Greenwell’s managerial achievements would heavily outweigh those of his playing career, he did take part in one extraordinary episode as a jobbing midfielder. Whilst he turned out almost exclusively for his home town team, Crook, during 1901-12, he also guested for the West Auckland squad that won the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy in Turin in 1909 – a tournament often referred to as the ‘first World Cup’, and quite a story in its own right.

Then, in 1912, he left these shores and began a short playing career for the then part-time FC Barcelona – making 88 appearances over four seasons. In 1913, he arranged a three-match series between his new and former team-mates – one can barely imagine such a thing now! He made such an impression on the pitch that he was then (in 1917) appointed the club’s first full-time manager by president, Joan Gamper. He remained in the post for more than six years – the second longest run in Barcelona’s history – and won seven major trophies. Leaving Barcelona in 1923, he went on to manage several other Spanish clubs, with a good deal of success – and even returned to Barcelona for a second spell in charge during 1931-33, taking his tally to 492 matches in charge of the club. Civil unrest caused him and his family – a wife and daughter – to spend much time apart during the mid-late 1930s.

The Spanish Civil War eventually caused him to flee, first, to Turkey, then to Peru – where his family joined him, themselves leaving Britain on the last passenger ship out of the UK prior to the outbreak of World War II. He was appointed manager of Universitario de Deportes, won the national championship, and was then put in charge of the Peruvian national team. Astonishingly, he led them to their first ever South American Championship in 1939 (aided by the withdrawal from the tournament of several top teams) – the only non-South American coach to win this competition, and, of course, the first Englishman to manage a national team to win an international tournament.

In 1940 he moved into Columbian football, where early promise was cut short by a fatal heart attack (some sources say a brain haemorrhage) in 1942 in Bogotá.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Brancepeth’s Silver Lining (NZ224377)

© Copyright Oliver Dixon and licensed for reuse 

When fire swept through the medieval church of St. Brandon’s, Brancepeth, in September 1998, the locals – and, in fact, everyone of a historical bent in the North-East – couldn’t imagine that anything good could ever come out of the tragedy. A smouldering shell was all that was left of the building – no roof, no windows, no internal fixtures or fittings and, importantly, not a trace of the famed 17th century Cosin woodwork. It all seemed like a very, very bad result indeed.

It took more than 15 years to complete a £3 million renovation of the building – and a beautiful one it is, too – but it turns out that the fiery intervention actually had, unbelievably, a really rather impressive silver lining: the discovery of a large horde of rare medieval tombstones hidden in the heights of the structure.

More than 100 of these curious artefacts were found – essentially large stone grave covers – all of them engraved with crosses, swords and other emblems, and dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. They are known as ‘cross slabs’ because of the preponderance of large cross-like images to be found on the pieces; but many of the etchings remain a mystery, and have been collectively termed the ‘Brancepeth Code’. Furthermore, it is the largest collection of its kind in the north of England.

It seems that the slabs were placed up in the heights of the church by Bishop Cosin in the 17th century – possibly to keep them hidden from puritan reformers (they were found facing upwards), or maybe for purely structural purposes. A selection of the best examples are on display in the refurbished church and more can be found on view at Brancepeth Castle – whilst the rest have been retained in the structure of the church.

Note: Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any decent images of the Brancepeth cross slabs online, though a general search of the subject matter will give you a good idea of the look of the items.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Thomas Tredgold, Civil Engineer (NZ233401)

Born in Brandon, Co.Durham, in 1788, Thomas Tredgold was to become an unlikely hero of American history. Though he spent his early years as an apprentice cabinet-maker, by his death in 1829 he had established himself as a leading thinker and exponent in the field of civil engineering; and, thanks to his writings, his ideas and principles influenced many like-minded individuals for decades after his demise. Most notably, his theories held great sway in the early days of railroad construction across North America – which in itself is quite a legacy.

His road to the top was somewhat circuitous. He went from his apprenticeship days to journeyman carpenter in Scotland. Eventually, he found himself working in London for his uncle, William Atkinson the architect, during which time he studied architecture (of course), mathematics and engineering – much of it in his spare time. But from around 1820 he began writing in earnest – and on the topics he knew and loved so well: the principles of carpentry, the properties of materials and, essentially, the science of building.

From 1823, Tredgold became a full-time writer; and during 1825-27 came three important works on the mechanics of that brand new mode of transport: the railways. His final book, The Steam Engine published two years before his death in 1827, was perhaps his most famous, and was reprinted several times in the ensuing decades. Both this and his Practical Treatise on Railroads & Carriages (1825), were pounced upon by American railroad developers of the era as North American pioneers swept into the open spaces of the New World. Many of his recommendations were adopted on an industrial scale, propelling the Brandon boy to an unlikely form of celebrity.

Tredgold’s definition of civil engineering contained the memorable phrase “[civil engineering is] the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man…”. Needless to say, he was an early member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and was its president for a time.
Tragically, he died in London in 1829 aged only 40. It was said that his early demise was due to his general ill health following his years of dedicated study, during which he denied himself proper rest and sleep.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Inkerman, Tow Law (NZ113398)

Prior to the 1840s there was next-to-nothing at the spot now known as Tow Law. Then, in 1844-45, an enterprising chap by the name of Charles Attwood decided to take advantage of the local reserves of iron ore and coal to set up an ironworks. And, though the ironworks only lasted 30-odd years, the related industrial activity continued unabated – well, until recent times, of course.

One of the village’s strangest claims to fame is the fact that the cannonballs used in the Crimean War of 1853-56 were made from Tow Law Iron (as well as, in fact, girders for the London Underground). This direct link between the conflict of the time and the village was reinforced when, in 1862, a new pit was sunk to the north of Tow Law and named ‘Inkerman Colliery’ – the Battle of Inkerman being one of the key clashes of the war and still very fresh in everyone’s minds. The OS map of 1861 shows that there was also an existing ‘Inkerman Inn’ at the site – having probably been renamed immediately after the 1854 battle. So, strictly speaking, the pit was named after the pub!

So, again, where once there had been pretty much nothing, a little community sprung up – with a rather odd-sounding name. At its height, more than 300 men were employed at the new colliery, so there would have been quite a throng at Inkerman at its peak. The railway fed into the location, and there were great banks of coke ovens to the north and east of the site. At one point, Tow Law’s Salvation Army was based there, albeit briefly.

In time, though, the demise of, firstly, the main iron works, then eventually coalmining in and around Tow Law took its toll. The fall from grace was spread across several decades: from the early exit of the former to the closure of the last deep mine – that of Inkerman, in fact – in 1969.

Whilst Tow Law remains very much on the map, there is nothing of note to be found at the settlement once known as Inkerman – though some of the old coke ovens were repaired for display recently.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Flag of County Durham

County Durham’s official flag is something of an oddity, having been designed and adopted in the very recent past – 2013, in fact – being the last of England’s northern counties to take up the flag-waving mantle. As you can see, it shows the outline of St.Cuthbert’s Cross counter-changed horizontally between the county colours of blue and yellow (or gold, if you prefer!).

Prior to this, the ‘unofficial’ flag looked like this…

…being the county council’s official effort, and in use from the 1970s county boundaries reshuffle. However, in the summer of 2013, campaigner Andy Strangeway launched an online competition for a new design – and the winner was the splendid effort at the top of this piece. It was put together by twins Katie and Holly Moffatt and their father James from Chilton, near Ferryhill, who beat off the competition by public vote. And by the end of November 2013 the flag was flying proudly over Durham Cathedral.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Quebec & Other Odd-Sounding Places (NZ181437)

What might be called the ‘shrunken village’ of Quebec lies a mile or so NW of Esh Winning in Co.Durham. It is one of the better known of the many odd-sounding placenames which pepper the North-East – and periodically throw locals and outsiders alike into a mildly confused state. I mean, just how do these little settlements get their peculiar names?

Daft place-names fall into various categories, of course. Near to Quebec there is Click-em-Inn Farm (one of several across the UK) – names of this form are probably corruptions of earlier versions. Then there are bright-sounding monikers such as California, Paradise, and the like – applied quite often to dour-looking situates, possibly with a hint of irony or to attract new settlers to an otherwise ordinary area. But what of those spots that are named after not-so-glamorous, out-of-the-way corners of the earth, such as Greenland, New York, Toronto … and, of course, Quebec? The explanation is two-fold. Basically, it’s down to one of two things: geography/topography or historical events. In Quebec’s case it may be down to both.

When new farmsteads, or even individual fields, are created and named, quite often (at certain points in history and as fashion dictates) they may be given labels to tie in with current trends and particular historical events. These days, a modern housing estate or ‘new town’ may be named in honour of some past historical figure or event, or a feature of the landscape; but in times gone by it was often the present which was honoured. And when much of our countryside was so controversially enclosed in the eighteenth century many new names were called upon, for both farmsteads and fields. In the case of little Quebec, it seems, it was the fantastically important victory of our boys over the French in the Battle of Quebec in 1759 which brought the name of the North American province into prominence and, consequently, onto the face of our map. Famous battle + new farmstead/field system = fancy new placename for Co.Durham. In time, a settlement grew around the spot, and Quebec expanded into a village.

However, there is a counter-argument. You may have noticed that many of these new placenames are imported from very distant corners of the globe. And there is a theory that as enclosure often placed particular fields at a considerable distance to their ‘home’ farms, the new tags arose as a sort of mickey-take on their relative remoteness. Places like Quebec, Toronto and New York all seemed a very long way away to eighteenth century farmers; just as some of their newly-allocated fields seemed to be!

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Beginnings of Ushaw College (NZ219438)

The building complex which was, until very recently, known as Ushaw College was for many years the principal Roman Catholic seminary in the north of England. It acted as a training facility for young catholic priests, but was closed in 2011 due to falling numbers of scholars. From its founding in 1808, it grew into an institution of substantial proportions over its 400+ acres.

Despite its high profile history (in the catholic world at least) the most interesting aspect of its 200-year existence is the backstory to its establishment. Amazingly, the tale begins in the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I and the re-imposition of Protestantism in England, which led to the exile (voluntary or otherwise) of many of those of the catholic faith. At Douai in northern France (then in the Spanish Netherlands), a small community of English exiles assembled, who, in turn, helped establish the University of Douai – indeed, the institution’s first chancellor was an Oxford University import. Almost immediately the idea of an ‘English seminary’ was mooted for the little commune – and so was founded Douai’s ‘English College’ in 1568.

The academy effectively became a ‘Catholic University of Oxford in exile’, readying itself for the reconversion of England to the catholic faith. Although this, of course, never transpired, a great number of priests were secreted into England in the decades and centuries that followed – though the fortunes of the college ebbed and flowed over the years. Then, when the French Revolution hit in the 1790s, the great majority of the officials fled back to England and the college was quickly suppressed.

The fleeing clerics and their students were eventually able to establish new college sites in Ware, Hertfordshire, and at Crook Hall, Durham – the second of these relocating, in time, to Ushaw. As for the Ushaw site, a building programme spanning 1804-1808 saw a new seminary opened as ‘St.Cuthbert’s College’ – under the guidance of Bishop William Gibson and to the designs of James Taylor. In the following decades it was much expanded with the aid of several other eminent architects.

Since its closure as a seminary in 2011, the site has been run by a charitable trust with a view to long-term educational use (possibly, eventually, as a catholic scholarship/heritage centre). It is also, in stages, being opened up to the public, including as a venue for concerts, etc.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Greenwell’s Glory (NZ168464)

William Greenwell was born in 1820 at Greenwell Ford, a little to the south of Lanchester, Co.Durham. He lived a long and full life, dying a few weeks short of his 98th birthday in January 1918 - and, being born into a life of some privilege, he was accorded many opportunities during his extended stay on the planet. However, Greenwell is best remembered for something remarkably trivial.

He was educated at Durham School and at University College, Durham, before shunning a career as a barrister in London, deciding instead to return to the North-East and a life in the church. In 1854, he was appointed canon of Durham Cathedral (a post which he held until his death), and dabbled, too, in the life of the university. He was also an archaeologist, and became a leading light in the various clubs and societies of the region which were dedicated to the pastime. He excavated sites at Danes Graves, Yorkshire, and Grimes Graves, Norfolk, and amassed an immense collection of artefacts, which is now held by the British Museum.

His greatest claim to fame, though, is the delightfully named ‘Greenwell’s Glory’ - a trout fly for flyfishing, created for him by famed fly-dresser, Jimmy Wright of the Borders. It came about following a day of disappointment for Greenwell whilst fishing in the Tweed; whereupon a visit to Mr Wright brought about a new creation based on the canon’s observations of the day. The new design was fashioned thus:

The wings, inside of a blackbird wing; body, red and black hackle; tied with yellow silk.

Simple, yet highly effective, as, the very next day, Greenwell returned to Mr Wright’s abode with his creel and pockets bulging with trout - and the name ‘Greenwell’s Glory’ was born in the ensuing celebration. This is all thought to have happened in the mid 1850s, but the new fly soon caught on, and, indeed, is still with us today.  

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Lanchester: Site of the Battle of Brunanburh? (NZ160469)

A few hundred yards to the SW of Lanchester in Co.Durham lie the remains of the Roman fort of Longovicium. And it was here that, possibly, was fought one of the most important encounters in English history: the Battle of Brunanburh.

I say ‘possibly’ as no one really knows where this history-shaping clash took place, only that it happened in the autumn of 937AD. But, my goodness, it was an important one, as King Aethelstan of the recently formed England led his forces to a crucial victory over the combined armies of Scotland, Strathclyde and the Irish Vikings. The battle put the English nation firmly on the map for good.

What is not on the map, though, is the venue. Several sites across the north of England have been put forward, with current thinking favouring a spot on the Wirral peninsula. However, as has already been suggested (here), the North-East of England also lays claim to the battle; but recently it has been proposed that the aforementioned site near Lanchester could well be the spot we’ve all been looking for these past few hundred years.

By studying the word itself, historian Andrew Breeze suggests that ‘Brunanburh’ means ‘the burgh by the Browney’ – that is, ‘the stronghold near the River Browney.’ The stronghold being, of course, the old Roman fort, with the River Browney running around the foot of the hill below. To help seal the deal, the Roman road of Dere Street runs north-south through the site, which, it is suggested, would have facilitated the movement of the respective armies to and from the site. This, frankly, makes a lot more sense than the awkward situate of the Wirral … and may well give the region another important historical claim to fame.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Venture Buses

for the use of the above image)

Those of a certain age who live in, or frequent, the Derwent Valley will remember a grand old bus company by the name of Venture Transport. They were once major players in the public transport industry, and have actually made a mini-comeback of late, to the delight of many.

In the early days of motorised road travel - the immediate post-WWI era - many dozens (hundreds?) of independent bus companies battled for the custom of a populace who didn’t own very many cars between them. And Venture Transport, who were based in Consett and ran services around and about the Co.Durham town, were at one time the biggest concern of their kind in the North-East. With a pool of vehicles hovering around the 80-90 mark, for many years they played a very important role in the lives of a great number of people.

Launched shortly after the First World War, they expanded further after amalgamation with Robson Bros and Reed Bros in the 1930s, by which time their distinctive yellow, maroon and cream livery had become well-known. Operating out of Consett, the company maintained depots at High Spen and Blackhill, and, in time, integrated its services with the United and Northern bus companies, whilst remaining independent.

As the market tightened and the private car industry boomed, Venture experimented with the car sales, hire and servicing industry - and it also provided tours and excursions.  In time, though, things got a little too tight, and in 1970 it was eventually swallowed up by the giant that was the Northern General Transport Company - though its fleet still extended to an impressive 86 buses and coaches, and many vehicles maintained the distinctive ‘look’ for some time thereafter.

Though the Venture name disappeared from our streets for a time, Go-Ahead Northern revived the name shortly after deregulation in 1986; then relaunched it yet again recently by way of a network of services between and around Consett and Stanley. So, once again, the familiar colours of the Venture buses grace the roads of the North-East - if in slightly fewer numbers.

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.