Friday, 31 December 2010

Seaton Delaval Hall’s Extra Bits (c.NZ325765)

Seaton Delaval Hall, recently saved for the nation by a high profile campaign by the National Trust and a tenacious gang of enthusiastic locals, lies in a landscape full of interest to the amateur historian. However, rather than the old hall itself (whose history is interesting enough), it is to the pile’s lesser known outlying landmarks that I shall be turning to in this short article.

Perhaps the most conspicuous of the estate’s secondary constructions is the 18m-high stone obelisk 900m south-by-south-west of the hall. This was erected to the memory of Admiral George Delaval, the man who was responsible (with a little help from architect Sir John Vanbrugh) for the construction of the mighty edifice itself. The Admiral had bought the estate in 1718 from his debt-ridden kinsman, and was in the process of building the hall when he was tragically killed in spectacular fashion in 1723. When out riding in the fields he was unseated, caught his foot in a stirrup, and was dragged several hundred yards across the countryside before coming to a lifeless rest where the monument now stands. A second, now ruinous, obelisk lies just off the north side of the A190 a little to the west of the hall, marking the spot where the Admiral was originally unseated.

He wasn’t the last of his family to die an unusual death. Half a century later, a certain John Delaval, the then heir to the estate, died in 1775, aged 20, “as a result of having been kicked in a vital organ by a laundry maid to whom he was paying his addresses.” His father was so distraught, that he built a grand mausoleum in his honour half a mile east of the hall. The building is now ruinous.

© Copyright Michael Batey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. 

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

New Hartley Pit Disaster (NZ308768)

On 16th January 1862 one of the worst mining accidents in British history befell the workforce of New Hartley Colliery, a little to the north of Seaton Delaval in the South-East Northumberland Coalfield. A total of 204 men and boys – from age 10 to 70 – lost their lives underground when they became trapped and suffocated before help arrived. The catastrophe was to lead to a notable change in the industry’s working practice across the globe.

At the time of the accident the mine was served by a single shaft, as was the norm. This sole point of access took the miners to and from the coalface, and was the means by which both materials and air entered and exited the bowels of the earth. The mighty pumping beam cast its great shadow over the shaft head – as it did countless collieries the world over – its job being to clear the pit of flood water. And on that fateful winter morning its brittle cast-iron form snapped under the strain, sending 20 tons of metal thundering down the 12ft-square shaft, taking all with it. The beam, it is believed, had suffered a fatal fracture a week beforehand when it was rather heavy-handedly reassembled after its bearings had been replaced.

The debris which blocked the miners’ only means of escape proved impenetrable to the desperate rescuers over the coming days; the sounds of the entombed men and boys below a constant torment. After repeated collapses, the cause was lost – the trapped workers eventually falling silent. A little over a week later their bodies were finally recovered, many in quiet and peaceful repose, as if sleeping after a day’s hard work – brothers arm in arm, and fathers and sons in touching embrace.

Some good came of it, though. Such was the national public outcry that it was decreed that henceforth all mines should have two separate means of access and escape. Furthermore, the incident led to the establishment of the Miners Permanent Relief Fund – a fund that has since conferred benefit upon thousands in the mining community, including widows, orphans, injured workman and the aged.

The monument (pictured) stands in St. Alban's churchyard in Earsdon.

Read more here and here.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Tommy Thompson (NZ275783)

Thomas W.Thompson was born to become a miner, or so it seemed. A native of Shankhouse, Cramlington, that’s just what he became, in fact, like countless others of his generation, born, as he was, in 1884. But he dreamed of better things. Learning that a family friend had emigrated to America in the late 1800s, he set his dream into motion and decided to do likewise. So in 1910 he set sail.

He must have had some drive, though, for by the early 1920s he was the owner of a coal mine in East Peoria, Illinois, called the Manhattan Coal Co. In 1926, he married Hazel Appleby, who was 17 years Tommy’s junior. It seems that in Hazel’s father, John, Tommy had found a useful ally in his rise to the top.

His business was a strong one, and he was able to ride the Great Depression, it seems, with some ease. Such was his standing, that he was even able to co-found the First National Bank in East Peoria in 1934. Additionally, he became a director of a major savings & loan company, and ran a real estate business, the Manhattan Realty Co. – all of which helped him keep going after his coal company ceased operating in around 1940.

There is no doubt that Tommy was a major figure in the business life of his town. However, he and Hazel had no children, and she committed suicide in 1951, aged only 50. Tommy himself passed away in August 1965, aged 81, and was buried next to his wife – a very, very long way away from the Great Northern coalface of his youth, and a self-made man if ever there was one.

The great working class hero even has his own Facebook page here!


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Cramlington’s Airships (NZ254782)

In its pre-‘New Town’ days, Cramlington was a good deal smaller than it is today. It was essentially rural for centuries; and even after the first coal pit was sunk there in the 1820s it remained modest in size.

However, in 1916, the town was selected as the site for the establishment of the ‘No.36 Home Defence Squadron’, with the protection of the coast south from Cramlington all the way down to Whitby coming under its remit. There was already a small base on the site, so the move was more of an ‘upgrade’, and it did its bit during the Great War by bringing down a zeppelin over Hartlepool in November 1916. When the airships were withdrawn from the skies, the base reverted to a training camp and the squadron was disbanded in 1919. Though the outfit has been reformed and disbanded several times since, its base was never again to be sited at Cramlington.

But the town is perhaps more famously remembered in aviation history as the home of a British airship landing ground and shed, from the latter stages of WWI to the 1930s. At a time when Britain was looking for ways to provide additional aerial scouting cover over the North Sea at the height of WWI, a site near Nelson Village to the NW of Cramlington was selected as a landing/technical site for our ‘Submarine Scout’ airships. However, the facility was not completed in time to be of any use during hostilities, with the war coming to an end before the base was finished.

The site was still completed, though, and some post-war activity did take place. But the complex was eventually taken over by a private company, who themselves constructed a modest airship which did some aerial photography and advertising during 1929-30 – before being lost in a storm over Belgium.

And that seems to have been that, with the giant airship shed surviving until the 1960s when it was demolished as part of Cramlington’s ‘New Town’ development.

See here for further information and some pics.


Friday, 17 December 2010

Plessey Waggonway (NZ229791 to Blyth)

Described as one of the earliest and longest waggonways in Northumberland, Plessey Waggonway is known to have ran from Plessey Hall Farm eastwards for some five and a half miles to the port of Blyth. It was in use from at least as early as 1709 and continued carrying goods – mainly coal – until 1812. Though it was very probably far from the earliest – nor, indeed, the longest – in the county, it is remarkable for its survival in the landscape.

Though now overlaid for long stretches by both the A192 and A1061, it can be seen in places as an earthwork over six feet in height. Out of commission by the time of the birth of the railways proper, it was used to transport coal on horse-drawn waggons and was made from beech wood rails laid on oak sleepers – though iron runners were used in later years. The horses would have been small in stature, each animal pulling a ‘chaldron’ of 52 hundred weight – and would be expected to make two round trips per day.

One may look at Plessey and its environs today and wonder what all the historical fuss is about. But this now largely empty space on the map was once a thriving village, with coal being mined from the immediate area – and shipped to London – from as early as the thirteenth century. Plessey Hall Farm itself dates from 1680, but the site was almost certainly occupied by an earlier building belonging to the Plessis family and formed the centre of the local manor. A series of lumps and bumps in a nearby field provide likely evidence of the deserted medieval village.


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Blyth Battery (NZ321794)

Blyth Battery is a decommissioned coastal defence artillery station on the Northumberland coast a little south of the town whose name it bears. It was originally built during WWI to defend two vital assets – namely, the port of Blyth and the nearby submarine base – and then upgraded for re-use during WWII. It has recently been re-opened as a military and local heritage museum.

One of the best survivals of its type in the country, Blyth Battery is, in fact, a complex spread over a small area, comprising gun and searchlight emplacements and associated buildings. Though the temporary structures which once adorned the site have disappeared, all the major buildings survive and are Grade II listed.

During the restoration project of the past couple of years or so, a clever colour scheme was employed to differentiate between the periods of contruction (based on samples salvaged from the structures themselves) – grey = WWI, pink = WWII, and white = alterations between and after the Wars.

If you fancy a visit – and it’s free – take a look at

Friday, 10 December 2010

The Bedlington Terrier (NZ260818)

Often referred to as a ‘lamb on a leash’ (or something similar), the Bedlington Terrier is a breed of dog named after the town of Bedlington, Northumberland. Somewhat nippy for a terrier, it is (or rather was) traditionally used for hunting quarry that involved quick-turning prey. The dogs would often have long hair around their fore-quarters to protect them from the snapping jaws of their victims – which included such animals as otters, badgers, foxes and vermin.

The history of the breed goes back in excess of two hundred years. It was originally known as the Rothbury Terrier, after a group of Staffordshire nailors introduced the curious canine to the Northumberland town when relocating there in the eighteenth century. The progenitor of the current breed, though, is usually held up as being ‘Old Flint’, a dog born in 1782 and belonging to ‘Squire Trevelyan’. It became the ‘Bedlington Terrier’ from around 1825, when a local mason, Joseph Aynsley, renamed the breed, no doubt as a result of its popularity among the town’s mining community. They were also known as ‘Gypsy dogs’, due to their association with poaching.

Usually mild-mannered and intelligent, they make excellent and loyal companions nowadays; but owners should remember that they are bred for hunting and, indeed, combat – where they are said to fight to the death. Since their Bedlington days, though, they have become ‘the miners’ dog’, and would often be raced, much as whippets and greyhounds are today.

As many of you will know, the town’s football team are known as the Bedlington Terriers.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Bedlington’s Place in Railway History (NZ276820)

The history of Bedlington Iron & Engine Works is a complex, detailed – if surprisingly short – one. However, it played an absolutely crucial role in the development of the railways. Sited on the tidal limit of the River Blyth, either side of Furnace Bridge, they were at the very forefront of the Industrial Revolution here in the North-East.

Ironworking probably began in this little rural corner of the region in the 1730s. Its progress was somewhat chequered, however, and it was not until Biddulph, Gordon and Co. took over the enterprise in the early nineteenth century that things really began to take off. The company ran the site for fifty years as the ‘Bedlington Iron & Engine Works’, exploiting the existent facilities to maximum effect with the dawning of the age of steam.

It was the invention (and patenting) of cleverly-designed malleable rails for the railways in 1820 at Bedlington by John Birkenshaw which brought the works into the limelight. This development – and the process by which they could be manufactured cheaply and in high quantities – enabled the laying of long lengths of rail, and greatly facilitated the birth and expansion of the new industry in the 1830s and 40s.

In the 1850s, rail production and forgings were at their peak as the Crimean War effort was in full swing. Additionally, between 1837 and 1852, around 150 steam engines were manufactured – including many for George Stephenson. However, it wasn’t to last. Competition from the likes of Middlesbrough forced the works out of the market in 1867, remnants of the site falling into gradual decay until the plot was cleared in 1959. Virtually nothing of this important piece of North-East history remains visible today.

For more information see here

Friday, 3 December 2010

High Light, Blyth (NZ320814)

One of Blyth’s oldest structures, ‘High Light’ stands in a curious position for a lighthouse, adjoining a house at the rear of Bath Terrace. Being some 100yards inland, it is difficult to imagine it ever being of any use to passing mariners, but when it was built in 1788 it was, believe it or not, a few yards from the shoreline.

It was constructed in three stages, a process evidenced in its appearance. In 1788, it was raised to some 35ft, with another 14ft being added exactly a century later. In 1900, it was heightened by a further 12.5ft, extending it to its current 61.5ft – each ‘storey’ being necessary due to the rising heights of the surrounding buildings. It was de-activated in 1985, and became a Grade II listed building in 1987.

As can be seen from the picture, the building has a flat roof with railings, and internally is served by a spiral staircase + ladders in its top two (later) section. The lighthouse worked in conjunction with ‘Low Light’ (itself rebuilt in 1936) – well, until 1985, anyway, when new navigational aids were brought into use.


Tuesday, 30 November 2010

North Blyth Staithes (c.NZ314823)

If, like me, you love seeing the North-East depicted in old movies, then you’ll know all about the classic British gangster flick, Get Carter. A marvellous 1971 effort – if for no other reason than to see so much of the region as it was forty years ago – the closing scenes are famously acted out on Blackhall Beach, just north of Hartlepool.

However, the scene immediately preceding the ‘beach chase’ between Michael Caine and Ian Hendry (where the two are seen scrambling over giant coal staithes, before progressing to the beach) was actually filmed thirty miles north, at what used to be North Blyth Staithes. Nowadays, there ain’t much to see on the seafront at the Blyth estuary – and it is really quite peaceful; but at one time it was a hive of activity. As recently as the early 1960s, it was Europe’s busiest port for shipping coal, with five sets of staithes and numerous other loading points. But the subsequent decline of the coal industry led to to the staithes being left as idle skeletons for many years, until the North Blyth set – originally built during 1910-23 – were severely truncated in the 1990s.

Nowadays, Blyth makes a decent living, ironically, from importing goods. This amounts mainly to material for the nearby Alcan works – namely, alumina and, believe it or not, coal.

For some absolutely splendid ‘then & now’ shots of the North Blyth Staithes (and dozens of other scenes from the famous film) see the Get Carter Tour website. Look for the ‘Locations Tour’, and then the ‘Staithes’ links. Super stuff.


Friday, 26 November 2010

Lost Vikings (c.NZ305840)

Cambois – another of those odd-sounding place-names of the North-East – is situated on the Northumberland coast, roughly equidistant from Newbiggin-by-the-Sea to the north and Blyth to the south. Pronounced ‘Kammus’, it’s name is Celtic in origin, and means ‘bay’. And, in 1859, it was the the site of a small but unusual archaeological find.

The discovery in question amounted to a cist burial containing three bodies, an enamelled disc-brooch and a bone comb. A ninth century tumulus on the east side of the River Wansbeck had been excavated, and of the bones only the skulls survived (believed to be that of a woman, aged 45-60, and two males, one in his 20s and one in his 40s). What made the find so unusual was that the mode of the burial and the objects found indicated that it was Scandinavian (i.e.Viking) rather than Anglo-Saxon.

Viking influence in Northumberland in the ninth and tenth centuries was negligible, with both finds and place-names being very thin on the ground. But even if the Cambois cist was not an actual Viking burial, the interment is certainly heavily laden with Scandinavian influences.

It was, and still is, a bit of a mystery.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Bomarsund & a Piece of Military History (NZ270845)

What an odd name for a village, you may think. Slap bang in the middle of the south-east Northumberland coalfield, this little settlement on the short stretch of road between Bedlington Station and Stakeford offers a curious little conundrum to those who are interested in the origin of our place-names. A quick search of the internet soon solves the problem, of course. And it turns out that this former pit village owes its moniker to an obscure piece of British military history buried deep in the folds of the Crimean War.
It all began with Sweden’s defeat at the hands of Russia in the Finnish War of 1808-09, after which the Aland Islands and Finland became part of the Russian Empire. Despite the terms of the peace treaty forbidding it, Russia began to build a fortress at a place called Sund on the Aland Islands from 1832 – in the strait between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea. This was a strategically sensitive spot on the globe, and the British were not happy about it. So, during the Crimean War of 1853-56, we (and the French) took the chance to blow the still unfinished fortress to smithereens in 1854. The ruins can still be seen today.
The Battle of Bomarsund, as it was called, must have been seen as quite an important victory at the time, for the guy who sunk the brand new pit shaft in the middle of nowhere a little to the south of Stakeford decided to call it Bomarsund Pit – officially known, however, as Bedlington F Pit. Sunk in 1854, the new colliery soon attracted a few rows of houses, and the village was born. The pit finally closed in 1965.

Friday, 19 November 2010

North Seaton Hall (NZ297866)

You can barely imagine it today, but in the middle of a 1960s housing estate in North Seaton, near Ashington, there once stood a fine classical house which went by the name of North Seaton Hall. Pictured above in its declining years, it may even hold the distinction (according to his daughter) of being architect John Dobson’s very first commission in 1813.

However, there was without doubt a building already on the site – and known by the same name – throughout most of the eighteenth century. Directories give 1710 as a possible starting point, when the Watsons were in early residence. It is more likely that Dobson carried out alterations in 1813 – and was most certainly back on the estate in 1831 to add some outbuildings (workers’ cottages and, possibly, the Gothic lodge).

The grounds occupied a wooded site north of the present B1334, near to the junction with the A189. The Watsons remained in residence until deep into the Victorian era, the estate falling into the hands of prominent industrialist Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell in the 1880s. In the 1950s, Pevsner noted the hall’s “very neglected” state; and in 1960 it was razed to make way for modern housing.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Sporting Capital of the North-East? (NZ275875)

This little piece will come as no surprise to those of you with even a passing interest in North-East sport, but there may just be a few readers out there who are blissfully unaware of Ashington’s rich sporting pedigree.

For what is still regarded by many as a village – but a damned big one at that – Ashington has produced a good deal more than coal in its long, proud history. In fact, it is probably fair to say that its reputation for producing footballers over the past century outweighs all of its other claims to fame put together. For it has produced dozens over the years; and has recently branched out into other sports, too.

‘Wor Jackie’ Milburn is perhaps the most famous of them all – at least among us North-Easterners. He is arguably Newcastle United’s most famous player, and probably Ashington’s best-loved son. His exploits for ‘The Toon’ are legendary, punctuated by three F.A.Cup wins in the ‘50s. Just as famous, of course, were the cousins of Jackie’s mother, namely, Bobby and Jack Charlton, whose exploits we are familiar with – and this talented pair were also born in Ashington. But ‘Wor Jackie’ also had some famous first cousins of his own: the four-brother set of Stan, George, Jimmy and (another) Jack Milburn all played at the top level, amassing hundreds of appearances for several teams.

But they weren’t all related. Jimmy Adamson was another Ashington man who made good, becoming a Burnley legend. And there have been plenty more besides – many of them still playing today in the lower echelons of the game. Additionally, Sir John Hall, the man who was for several years connected with the running of Newcastle United, was born in nearby North Seaton.

In recent years it has been the turn of cricket to bring the village (town?) its dose of fame. Steve Harmison has excelled for Durham and England, and was once rated the world’s best bowler; and his brother, Ben, is not far behind him, too. In golf, Ken Ferrie almost stunned the sporting world when he led the 2006 US Open for most of the week before finishing sixth. And in basketball, Alan Hoyle has made quite an impression.

Must be something in the water, as they say.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Newbiggin’s Famous Librarian (c.NZ309876)

John Gerard Braine is the chap in question. Some of you may even remember him as a stalwart of the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement of British playwrights and novelists of the 1950s. He wrote several novels, the most famous being his first, Room at the Top, published in 1957.

Braine was born in Bingley, near Bradford, in 1922, leaving school at 16 to work in, firstly, a shop, then a laboratory, and a factory. By 1940 he found himself working as an assistant librarian in his home town. There are conflicting accounts of his biographical detail during the 1940s, but he seems to have abandoned his career around 1951 and moved to London to try his hand at writing. He struggled for some time writing articles and doing some radio work, before contracting TB and being forced into an extended period of convalescence.

Though much of the early to mid-50s were spent in hospital, he somewhat surprisingly popped up in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in 1954, where he worked in the town’s library for a couple of years. One can only assume that it was considered part of his recovery programme. It was here that Braine both met his future wife and put the final touches on Room at the Top. He’d been working on the text for some six years before it finally hit the bookstands in 1957. Sadly, the library building in which Braine worked has now been demolished, the site now being occupied by a small car park.

Room at the Top was a massive success, selling 5,000 copies in the first week, 35,000 in the first year, and half a million by the end of the 1950s. It was made into a film in 1959 – “the first British film to take sex seriously and the first to show the industrial north as it really was” – and won two Oscars and three BAFTAs.

Braine left Newbiggin-by-the-Sea for the south of England in 1956 to lap up his success, penned another eleven novels, and died London in 1986, aged 64.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Newbiggin’s Long Stretch (NZ314880)

Newbiggin-by-the-Sea has several claims to fame – my favourite, perhaps, being its place in submarine telegraphy history.

The laying of telegraph cables under the sea must have been a heck of a job, especially when you consider that it began as long ago as 1850 with a stretch across the English Channel. This unravelling of the first cable – presumably, an immense task – was thwarted by French fishermen after three days when they accidentally severed it. A year later they tried again, but ran out of wire before they reached the continent, bodged the repair, then had to do it all again a few weeks later.

So by 1868, they’d had a bit of practice. And this time it was the turn of the North Sea, and the first ever link-up between the UK and Scandinavia. The scheme was part of a master plan to link England, Scandinavia and Russia, by the Dane, C.F.Tietgen, using contractors R.S.Newall & Co to make and lay the cables. The vessels Archimedes and Chevy Chase were chosen to make the journey.

All that seems to survive of the momentous occasion is a short report in The Times which informs us that on 9th September 1868 “cables were floated by tar barrels, towed ashore by Danish seamen in longboats, then pulled up the beach by horses and placed in trenches cut by local fishermen – they terminated in the ‘Cable House’.” Longboats, eh?

Anyway, this was a notable first for Newbiggin, believe me. And the ‘Cable House’ actually still exists! Here it is…

The building's owners still received rent for what is known as ‘wayleave’ (permission for the cable company to access their equipment) until as late as 1960 when the firm set up by C.F.Tietgen all those years ago (The Great Northern Telegraph Co.) finally ceased to operate from the town.
More information on the industry’s history can be found here. The above photograph was lifted from . Oh, and there’s a nice picture of the little plaque you can (just) see above here.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Alcan Aluminium Plant (NZ295898)

Lynemouth’s famous Aluminium Smelter and Power Station, known locally simply as ‘Alcan’s’, is one of only three such plants in the UK (the other two being in Anglesey and Lochaber). The smelter was opened by the Canadian company in 1974, shortly after the construction of the power station needed to run it.

Aluminium comes from ore called bauxite. Before the ore reaches Lynemouth, it is first processed into alumina. The plant then extracts the metal from the alumina by heating it. And as the production of one tonne of aluminium requires the same amount of electricity as an average family does in 20 years, a cheap and handy source of power is needed to facilitate the process. Hence the existence of the nearby power station. Until they closed, the coal mines of Lynemouth and Ellington supplied the fuel for the power station – since when coal has been brought from local opencast operations, Scottish mines and a little from overseas. Bauxite is not found in the UK, and is brought from Jamaica and Australia – after it has first been processed into alumina in Ireland. Two trains bring a total of 42 wagons of alumina to the doors of Alcan every day from the port of Blyth.

The chimneys of both the power station and the smelter dominate the landscape for miles around, though it is a very thermally-efficient concern. It remains a major polluter, though, despite recent improvements. So much so, in fact, that its very future is in doubt. The development and employment of ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ technology and/or the using of biomass as a fuel instead of coal may yet save its skin.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Whale Wonder (c.NZ305915)

From J.Hodgson’s A History of Northumberland, Pt II, Vol.II of 1832:-

The mouth of the Line [Lyne] was rendered remarkable by a spermaceti whale of the species called physeter macrocephalus being killed at it on August 8, 1822. It was 61 feet long, and 37 feet 4 inches in girth. The breadth of its tail was 14 feet; of its head 10 feet 9 inches; and the space from the eyes to the nose 21 feet. The upper jaw projected 5 feet over the lower one, which had two rows of teeth, externally resembling ivory, but porous and ash-coloured within. Its height, when first thrown on shore, was 12 feet; and it produced 9 tons and 158 gallons of oil. It was claimed by the proprietors of the land on each side of the Line; but the admiralty settled the dispute between the claimants by seizing the oil, and fixing their broad arrow upon the bones, which were latterly given up to Mr Cresswell-Baker, and removed into the pleasure grounds at Cresswell, where they will be long admired as objects of rarity and vastness of size. For several days after it was killed, immense crowds of people flocked from the adjacent country, and even from great distances to see it; and its stupendous size never failed to rivet the attention of all who viewed it. Whales of this kind are natives of the Greenland seas and Davis Straits; but they are occasionally found further south.
Other sources have the poor wretch being initially wounded by being thrown against the rocks, hounded by locals trying to kill it, and being finally ‘put out of its misery’ by the local blacksmith with a makeshift harpoon.

Cresswell Hall was demolished in 1938. Not sure what happened to the whalebones.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Lynemouth’s Boxing Brothers (NZ294913)

In the 1930s, Lynemouth became famous as the home of the O’Keefe brothers: six guys from the same coalmining family who all became accomplished boxers. Tommy was a pitmen’s lightweight champion – before going off to war with the Duke of Wellington Regiment in North Africa, Sicily and Italy; Pat (pictured above) was a respected middleweight who began fighting at 14; and Ralph Henry – better known as ‘Sexton’ – was a professional flyweight by the time he was 15.

Competing at a slightly lower, amateur level were Mattie, a welterweight who excelled in the ring during his navy years, winning several trophies; John, who similarly won titles in the forces (for the West Yorkshire Regiment) in the featherweight division; and Eddie, who seemed particularly proficient at dishing out knockouts – a couple of dozen in a row at one point – as a middleweight.

The brothers once challenged the world to find them another six brothers to fight. Needless to say, the appeal fell on deaf ears.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

‘Big E’: The Last Pit (NZ283917)

Ellington Colliery in Northumberland holds the distinction of being the last of the North-East’s deep coal pits to close, so ending the 800-year+ history of the industry in the region. When the ‘Big E’ finally shut up shop on 26th January 2005, it was also the last remaining British deep mine to extract coal from under the sea – a practice in which it solely specialised.

Ellington didn’t actually gain its colliery until 1909, when the Ashington Coal Company began operations there – with production starting in 1911. It slowly grew and grew, combining with nearby Lynemouth Colliery and reaching over 1,300 employees by the time of nationalisation in 1947. Despite the mechanisation of the post-war period, the workforce had swelled to well in excess of 2,000 by the otherwise troubled times of the mid 1980s.

It was a big pit, producing 45,000 tonnes of coal per week at one point, but began overstretching itself under the North Sea as time wore on – miners having to travel an astonishing 16km to reach the coalface. Flooding was always a problem, with as much as one million gallons being pumped out of the pit daily, and it was reported that at one time three tons of water were being raised for every ton of coal wound. Flooding effectively led to the closure of the pit when, in early 2005, water catastrophically burst from a new coal face that had promised to provide another five year’s work. Its operators had little choice but to close the colliery in its entirety and the last 340 jobs were lost, along with the Great North Coalfield itself.

A few years before its closure, the pit found international fame via its appearance in the 2000 film Billy Elliot, where it doubled for the long-gone Easington Colliery. And in 2009, 100 years after the pit was sunk, a bronze memorial was raised on the deserted site, in honour of both the 83 men who lost their lives there and the industry in general across the region.


Friday, 22 October 2010

Ulgham’s Place in Football History (NZ234924)

I know you’re curious, so let’s start with the pronunciation. Is it, literally, ‘Ulg-ham’? Or maybe ‘Ulf-ham’? Or is it a silent ‘g’, perhaps? Well, you’re getting closer. It is, in fact, a silent ‘l’, giving us ‘Uffam’, as I’m sure all you locals know! Place-names and their pronunciations never cease to fascinate, do they? And in case you’re still a little puzzled, the literal meaning of ‘Ulgham’ is ‘the hollow frequented by owls’.

The way in which the village’s name is uttered is one of two things which have always fascinated me about the place. The other is the repeated reference to Ulgham in the early history of football. It doesn’t take long to find the very basics of the story via Google, which, to save you the trouble of looking yourself, go something like this …

Records show that one of the earliest references to the sport of football (i.e. seeming to indicate that the ball is kicked rather than carried or otherwise propelled), dates to 1280 and the village of Ulgham, Northumberland. The source (the Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, Vol.1, p.599) reportedly states that Henry, son of William of Ellington, was killed while playing at ball with a large number of friends. In the course of play, he ran fatally against David le Kell’s (or le Keu’s) dagger, which pierced his belly.

In my hunt for further information, I have been unable to trace the story back through any of my books (or the Internet). I’d love to learn of the finer detail. Can anyone help?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Widdrington Castle (NZ256957)

Of all the lost houses, castles and mansions of the region, Widdrington Castle is one of the more notable losses.  Today, a little to the south of the village church, lies a barely discernable collection of lumps and bumps in a field – it seems that not a single stone or brick has survived from pictures I have seen – yet this is how it was supposed to have looked in its prime, c.1728:

Not that it enjoyed much as regards a ‘heyday’, you understand. For despite its apparent grandeur, its history is brief, unremarkable and somewhat cursed. Earliest records indicate that Gerard Widdrington was granted a licence to crenellate in 1341, and the pile was still in use by the same family in 1415. King James VI of Scotland stayed at the house on his way south to claim the throne of England in 1603, providing the pile with perhaps its greatest claim to fame. It seems the house was greatly rebuilt and/or added to shortly after this, attaining its above form.

The Widdringtons ceased using the castle as their main residence in the 1640s, then subsequently disgraced themselves for their part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 – the castle being confiscated by the Crown and sold to Sir George Revel. In 1720 it was described as ruinous. By marriage, it then passed into the hands of Sir George Warren in 1761, who demolished what was left of the place. Warren attempted a rebuild, but the new erection was destroyed by fire prior to completion. Undaunted, he tried again sometime after 1778, but this new Gothic-style effort fell into disuse as early as 1802. In 1832, it was described as “now obliterated” by historian Hodgson, a state assisted towards the end of the nineteenth century by the requisitioning of the remaining stone for the construction of a new vicarage.

And that was that.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Templar HQ (NZ265965)

Low Chibburn Preceptory, near Widdrington, is recognised as one of the region’s few surviving relics of the Knights Templar (or possibly Knights Hospitaller, depending on which historical source you use).  There is still a fair bit to see today, even though its lifespan covered a mere two centuries or so, c.1313-1540, thus…

© Copyright JohnDal and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

There are the remains of a chapel and house – the latter being the younger of the two, dating to the early 1500s.  The site was given to the Knights in order that they may raise revenue to help fund their sorties to the Holy Land during the Crusades.  Low Chibburn would have effectively acted as a small farm, with a chapel for worship and an accommodation block.  The plot was originally surrounded by a moat, but this has faded from view thanks to land movement due to coalmining in the 1950s.

© Copyright Antonia and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. (Artist's impression of how Low Chibburn may have appeared in the 1400s drawn by Terry Ball)

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Turnspit Dogs and Hedgehogs (NU186003)

Whilst aimlessly surfing the Web, as I am prone to do, I came across a curious reference to a pet hedgehog kept by an old native of Felton, Northumberland. As the Internet almost always does, I was then led off on a related tangent until I forgot what I was originally looking for. Anyway, back to the hedgehog. A number of sources have the same story to tell, which relates something like this…
In the year 1799, there was a hedge-hog in the possession of Mr Sample, of the Angel Inn at Felton, in Northumberland, which performed the duty of a turnspit, as well, in all respects, as the dog called the turnspit. It ran about the house with the same familiarity as any other domestic quadruped, and displayed an obedience, till then unknown in this species of animal.

Search as I might, that is all I could find about the peculiar little animal. But whatever is a ‘turnspit dog’, I wondered? Is it what it seems to be from its title? Well, as it happens, yes, it is.

Turnspit dogs were in reasonably wide use until the middle of the nineteenth century as a labour-saving device in large households for the turning of meat on a spit. The dog would be placed in a small wheel connected to the spit and as he ran the spit would turn. Dogs were often kept in pairs to spread the workload – the saying ‘every dog has his day’ possibly coming from this practice. The breed appears to have died out as kitchens became more mechanised.

These curious beasts had, obviously, very short legs and long-ish bodies – and apparently doubled as foot-warmers in church on Sundays! But I read this last bit on Wikipedia, so don’t take it as gospel.
A turnspit dog in action.  Quite what our industrious pooch thought of his feline friend’s way of life we can only imagine.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Radcliffe R.I.P (NU270025)

Though it is still marked on the map, the village of Radcliffe effectively no longer exists. It once lay a little to the east of the current A1068 a mile south of Amble, populated by some 700 folk, all of them pretty much tied to the local colliery of the same name. It was your typical mining community until around 1892, when the discovery of a fault in the seam, followed by fire and flood, made the extraction of coal uneconomical. The engineers tried sinking shafts at nearby Newburgh and Hauxley, but these, too, proved to be problematic. They struggled on at Radcliffe as best they could, until the towel was finally thrown in in 1962.

In 1965, plans were drawn up for the much more economical form of coal extraction from the area, namely, opencast mining. To effect this, it was necessary to clear the aging housing and pit-head buildings of Radcliffe, and this was completed by 1971. Those that had not already moved were relocated to Amble – and onto an estate named the Radcliffe Estate, a complex which itself contains many streets named after those of the old village.

Opencast operations have themselves now passed into history, and the area generally given over to agriculture. A few buildings survived the demolition of c.1970 – a garage, a farm and a few private dwellings along the A1068, but nothing of the main village in the fields to the east.

The Radcliffe War Memorial, erected in 1928 and added to after WWII, was relocated to Amble Town Square during the village’s dismantlement.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Thomas Jefferson’s Hero? (NU209025)

John Rushworth, that is. Who? I hear you ask. Well, the third President of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was something of a fan of this now largely forgotten native of Acklington Park, a settlement a few miles to the south-west of Warkworth in Northumberland.

Rushworth was born in 1612 to a very well-to-do family with Yorkshire roots. The somewhat remote site of his birth did nothing to hinder his progress in life, however, progressing to Oxford University, from where he graduated in 1640. He became a student barrister, and thence clerk-assistant to the House of Commons, having made the acquaintance of King Charles I – and even married the sister of the future Speaker of the House. When all hell broke loose a year or so later, Rushworth became a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, with whom he had much in common, both politically and religiously. When the English Civil War commenced, he became Secretary to General Fairfax as well as Secretary to the Council of War.

John Rushworth effectively became the first ever official chronicler of a major war, being present at many of the big battles which ensued during 1642-51. He was also involved with negotiations with the king, as well as events surrounding his trial and execution (though he was not a signatory to the death warrant). Oliver Cromwell appointed Rushworth his personal Secretary during his ‘reign’, and was given much in the way of new responsibilities and roles thenceforth, much of them related to law reform.

John Milton, John Bunyan and Samuel Pepys were all close friends of his, and he became MP for Berwick on several occasions over the ensuing decades. In 1659, a year after Cromwell’s death, he published his famous Historical Collections (aka The Rushworth Papers), effectively a chronicle of the Civil War years (if a somewhat biased one), in which he espoused his methods and his reasoning. As Richard Cromwell’s power ebbed away during 1659-60, Rushworth, as Secretary to the Council of State, became, briefly, a very influential figure.

Despite the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Rushworth managed to maintain positions of power, and was even made a Knight of the Order of the Bath in 1661. But it wasn’t to last. King Charles II never could quite forgive and forget, and Rushworth was eventually tried and imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison in 1684. He died in 1690, isolated from his family (he married and had four daughters) in a damp room in Rule's Court, Southwark, depressed, under-nourished, and suffering from senile dementia, aged 78: “where, being reduced to his second childship, for his memory was quite decayed by taking too much brandy to keep up his spirits, he quietly gave up the ghost in his lodging in a certain alley there, called Rule’s Court, on 12 May 1690”.

When, in 1890, King’s Bench Prison was demolished, ‘Rushworth School’ was built on the site and the thoroughfare was renamed ‘Rushworth Street’. His writings, however, found greatest favour in the US where they served as a source of inspiration for Thomas Jefferson. Rushworth's Historical Collections occupied pride of place in the great man’s library and he often quoted from them. Rushworth’s views of Charles I as a monarch who had “declared war on his own people” were later echoed in words by Thomas Jefferson and others when writing about the reign of George III and his actions during the War of Independence.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Guyzance Tragedy (NU202028)

  © Copyright Les Hull and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

On 17th January 1945, a group of ten teenage squaddies convened on the banks of the River Coquet a mile or so upstream from the small village of Guyzance in Northumberland. The spot was once the site of the old Acklington Ironworks, and the eighteenth century dam constructed to power the plant is today considered to be one of the finest examples of its kind in England. It will now, however, forever be remembered as the scene of the Guyzance Tragedy.

The soldiers were serving in the 10th Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) / Durham Light Infantry, and had been charged with the task of practising a river crossing. The river was in full flood, and locals warned the men against the action. The decision was taken to proceed, however, and the 18-year-olds entered the water one mile upstream from the weir/dam, quickly lost control of their craft and were swept down the Coquet and over the weir. Weighed down by their kit and the force of the water, all ten were tragically drowned.

The spot is marked with a modern-day copper plaque mounted on a block of sandstone, and by two older memorials mounted upon a post.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Nelson’s Forgotten Memorials (NU165028 & NU174029)

Yes, plural. For there are two of them, within yards of each other, in fact, just off the A1 near Swarland in Northumberland. But they take some finding, though.

Swarland Hall is one of the county’s lost houses, having been demolished in 1947. At the time of Lord Nelson’s pomp it was owned by one Alexander Davison, businessman and close personal friend of our great national hero – as well as being his agent for a short period. After the famous British victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Davison redesigned his park at Swarland to reflect, in shape, that of the scene of the battle (Aboukir Bay), and planted it with trees to represent the British fleet in battle order. Not much of this creation remains today, but it is (very) faintly discernable on Google Earth.

Also, after the Battle of Trafalgar (and Nelson’s death), Davison erected a dwarf obelisk beside the old A1 (the modern road runs a little to the east) in honour of his friend. Now known as the Nelson Memorial, it is largely hidden behind a curtain of trees just off the old trunk road, though still accessible to the determined tourist.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Coquet Island (NU294045)

This small island, one mile east of Amble off the Northumberland coast, has an eventful history for such a tiny wee place. It is now an RSPB reserve, of course, and a well-protected one at that, with no members of the general public permitted to land on its rocky shores. Even the lighthouse is now fully automated.
Not that it has ever been ‘populated’ to any great extent, you understand; hermits are those most closely associated with its barren 15 acres or so. St.Cuthbert spent a little time there, famously granting an interview to Elfed, Abbess of Whitby and sister of King Ecgfrith, during which he was effectively offered the bishopric of Lindisfarne. But the island is most closely tied to the solitary life of one St.Henry of Coquet.
Henry came to Coquet Island in the early 12th century, having been guided by a vision to make good his escape from an arranged marriage in his native Denmark and dedicate his life to a one in lonely praise of God. After a quick word with the powers-that-be at Tynemouth Priory, he ensconced himself on the rocky outpost and set about his calling. He lived a severely austere existence, surviving on only three small meals a week and gave up speaking for several years. His extreme mode of living brought much criticism from the monk formally in charge of the island – a manifestation of his envy, presumably, due to what can only be described as the ‘high standards’ of his vows of poverty – and cries aplenty from his relatives back in Denmark to return to the bosom of his family and a hermitage much nearer to home. Being afflicted by a “loathsome affection” to his knee, however, he insisted upon staying put.
He was credited with ‘second sight’, of course, as most of his type were. He saw lots of things others couldn’t, made premonitions, magicked up miracles, and was considered something of a wiseman. You know, the usual sort of thing. In early 1127, though, his ulcerated knee finally sent him on his way to the other side, with his remains being buried at Tynemouth Priory.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Amble’s Footie Legend (NU268045)

Well, if you’re a Burnley fan, anyway. The chap in question being one John Angus, a ‘one-club man’ who spent his entire professional career playing for ‘The Clarets’.

Angus was born in Amble on 2nd September 1938, and was plucked out of local schoolboy football by the Lancashire outfit in 1954. A year later, on his 17th birthday, he signed his professional papers. He took some months to settle, but the day after his 18th birthday he made his first-team debut for Burnley against Everton, performing well in a 2-1 victory. He was in and out of the team for a couple of seasons; but on the arrival of new manager, Harry Potts, Angus became a regular at right-back. And there he stayed for the rest of his career.

‘Cool John Angus’ was one of the key pieces in the Burnley jigsaw which saw them win the Football League Championship in 1960. He was known for his calm and collected style of play, usually carrying the ball out of defence rather than ‘hoofing it up the park’, as was so often the norm in those days. He was rewarded with international honours at Youth and Under-23 levels; and won a single full cap for England – in a 3-1 defeat against Austria in 1961 – when he was, ironically, played out of position at left-back. With the likes of Jimmy Armfield and George Cohen ahead of him in the queue for the right-back spot, Angus never played for his country again – though England manager, Walter Winterbottom, described his performance as one of the best debuts he had ever seen.

He hung onto the No.2 shirt at Burnley through until the club's relegation from the top division in 1971, played two matches in Division 2 the following season, then retired due to injury. He played a total of 521 games for his beloved club.

Last I heard, John Angus was living in contented retirement in Warkworth.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Warkworth Hermitage (NU241059)

One of the most famous – and curious – of beauty spots in the whole of the North-East is the hermitage hewn into the sandstone bank of the River Coquet near Warkworth. This fascinating corner of the region is accessible only by boat, following a short walk westwards along the river from the castle.

Ascending a short flight of stone steps brings the visitor to the spot in question, amounting to a chapel (complete with ribbed vaulting and an altar), a sacristy and a couple of small rooms presumed to be the hermit’s old living quarters. A quick image search of the internet will bring adequate results for the curious reader, and far more information than I could by way of written description. Either way, one may wonder just how this place came to be. The answer, naturally, lies in legend. Or so we are encouraged to believe.

Sir Bertram of Bothal, one of the Earl Percy’s knights, was betrothed to Lady Isabel, the daughter of a local noble. Wounded in battle, he sent for Isabel, but was dismayed when she failed to show. When he had recovered, he made for her home, only to find that she had set off to meet him upon his original call – so must have been kidnapped. Sir Bertram and his brother then set off in different directions to search for her, and eventually the former tracked her down to her place of captivity – a tower in a remote castle. During a night-time vigil, Bertram spotted a shadowy figure helping his betrothed from her tower and down a ladder. He drew his sword and leapt to her defence, unaware that the other man was his brother. Isabel threw herself between the men in an attempt to prevent the clash, and the sword swept through them both, killing them instantly.

Wracked with guilt, Bertram returned to his Warkworth home and gave all his property and land away to the poor. He built the Hermitage with his bare hands, and there he lived in solitude for the rest of his days in self-imposed penance. Over the doorway he carved an inscription, which, translated, reads: “My tears have been my meat night and day”. The original hermitage was greatly added to by subsequent occupiers over the centuries.

It is now thought that the tale was compiled by a chancing bishop who wanted to be accepted by the Percy family as one of their own. He failed in his aim, though his yarn has survived through to the present. In all truth, the place was more likely built as a simple chantry in the fifteenth century, and was known to have been occupied by a series of clergymen in the decades leading up to the Reformation. But that’s just plain boring.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Saturday 13th July 1174: Bad News Day (NU247062)

During the eighteen month period from April 1173 to September 1174, King Henry II of England, Normandy and Anjou, spent most of his time fending off a revolt from his wife and three of their sons. And all of this at a time when he was in most people’s bad books after the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. But he came through it all successfully, continuing his rule until his death in 1189.

The north of England suffered a fair bit during this period of upheaval, with the rebels’ alliance with both the Scots and Bishop Pudsey (the most powerful of Durham’s Prince Bishops) bringing a good deal of hassle the way of the local populace. And one day in particular stands out: Saturday 13th July 1174.

Now I’m not sure of the exact order of events on that fateful day, but as for Bishop Pudsey, well, he must have awoken that morning thinking that his plan was coming together very nicely. For that day, forty knights and 500 Flemish soldiers sailed into Hartlepool to support the rebellion, and were placed under the command of the bishop’s nephew, Hugh, Count of Bar.

Elsewhere, and at the very same time, the Scots were busy rampaging around the Northumberland countryside, as they were prone to do. And this summer Saturday morning it was the turn of Warkworth to suffer, as the ravishing hordes descended on the town. Duncan, Earl of Fife, under orders from the Scottish king, William the Lion, unleashed the full force of his army upon the hapless men, women and children of Warkworth, setting the streets ablaze. Amidst the chaos, 300 of them took refuge in the Church of St.Lawrence – but the Earl’s men broke in and butchered them all, paying no regard to age or sex.

St.Lawrence’s Church, Warkworth

But the day was not yet over. The Scottish king, William the Lion, was keen to commence his siege of Alnwick Castle before the day was out, and this he did with such enthusiasm that he ventured too close to the castle’s walls and was snatched and taken prisoner. The Scots were effectively beaten, and the rebellion thereafter crumbled. Bishop Pudsey’s Flemish mercenaries quickly turned on their heels and scarpered home, and the rebel cleric made a hasty peace with Henry II.
Astonishingly, King Henry had only just visited Canterbury the day before (12th July) to do penance for his involvement in the death of Thomas Becket in December 1170….


Friday, 10 September 2010

Alnmouth’s Wind of Change (NU247100)

The wind in question being the storm of Christmas Day 1806 – the defining moment in the history of this Northumbrian village. If most of the history books are to be believed, that is. But was it?

Many of you will be familiar with the tale. Until the fateful day a little over two centuries ago, Alnmouth was doing very nicely, thank you. It had made a good living from its spot at the estuary of the River Aln: an ample harbour offering shelter to sizeable vessels from Scotland, London and continental Europe, and plentiful trade besides. Plenty of stuff came in, but it was the export of local agricultural produce (wool and grain, mainly) and coal which kept the locals busy. At one time there were sixteen granaries on and around the quayside and room enough for more than a dozen ships at a time in the harbour. And, of course, there were the fishing boats, too. During the 1700s, the port was at its peak.

Then on Christmas Day 1806 came the wind and the rain, an act of God powerful enough to change the course of the river from its southern course around the village’s dilapidated old church to a more northerly one, separating the ruin from its flock – and pretty much destroying what was left of it, to boot.

Afterwards, Alnmouth’s fortunes slowly declined. And the change in luck was blamed on the river. It seemed as if the ships couldn’t navigate the river’s new course quite as easily and trade fell away. That’s what tradition would have us believe, anyway. The fact is, the records show that shipping ‘trends’ didn’t really change at all pre- and post-1806. The river was beginning to silk up anyway, and as ships were simply getting bigger and heavier, the Aln’s days may have been numbered regardless of the weather. Shipping activity to and from the port did not begin to seriously decline until the mid-1800s, a development accelerated by the arrival of the East Coast rail line around the same time. In 1896 the final sea-bound imports arrived – and then, nothing.

The railway, thought to have signalled the end of Alnmouth’s heyday, launched, in fact, a new era in the village’s history. For the rich Victorians discovered the town, and turned it into a fashionable holiday resort. The old granaries were turned into accommodation, the main thoroughfare (Northumberland Street) was developed and Alnmouth found a new niche in the modern world.