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.