Friday, 25 February 2011

William Harbutt: Inventor of Plasticine (NZ355682)


Plasticine is one of those toys with which we all played during our childhood, surely without exception. And it was invented by one William Harbutt, who was born in North Shields.

Harbutt entered this world in 1844, the seventh of eight children of Thomas Harbutt, who ran a local galvanising works which served the Tyne shipyards. Little is known of his early life, though he ended up at the National Art Training School in London – eventually becoming a teacher of art and an associate of the Royal College of Art.

In 1874 he became headmaster at the Bath School of Art and Design, and in 1877 opened his own art school together with his artistically talented wife, Bessie. At some point in the 1890s (1895 or 1897, accounts vary), he developed the new-fangled modelling clay out of utter frustration at the materials currently available for use by himself and his sculpture students. Crucially, it was non-drying, as well as being non-toxic and extremely malleable – though its exact composition is still kept a closely-guarded secret even today.

He was granted a patent in 1899, and commercial production began in Bathampton in 1900. Originally grey, the range of colours soon expanded as its popularity as a toy among children grew. It continued to be manufactured in Bathampton until 1983. Harbutt himself travelled widely to promote his invention, and died of pneumonia whilst on a trip to New York in 1921, aged 77.

For an interesting little piece on plasticine, see here.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Collingwood Monument (NZ372691)

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

This Monument

was erected in 1845 by public subscription to the memory of

Admiral Lord Collingwood,

who in the “Royal Sovereign” on the 21st October 1805, led the British Fleet into action at Trafalgar and sustained the Sea Fight for upwards of an hour before the other ships were within gun shot, which caused Nelson to exclaim “See how that noble fellow Collingwood takes his ship into action”.

He was born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1748 and died in the Service of his country, on board of the “Ville de Paris” on 7th March 1810 and was buried in St.Paul’s Cathedral.

The four guns upon this monument belonged to his ship the “Royal Sovereign”

This magnificent tribute to one of the region’s greatest historical figures stands overlooking the entrance to the River Tyne at Tynemouth. The statue is the work of John Graham Lough and stands atop a formidable pedestal designed by John Dobson. The cannon were added in 1849, four years after its original completion.

Friday, 18 February 2011

The UK’s First Volunteer Life Brigade (NZ374691)

Formed in 1864, the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade was a true trailblazer in the annals of sea rescue. On 24th November of that year, a huge storm drove two vessels, The Friendship and The Stanley, onto the Black Middens rocks at the mouth of the Tyne and, amidst the confusion, none of the available lifeboats went to their immediate aid, each thinking the other had already launched. By the time a proper rescue attempt was made, lives were already being lost, until the count reached a total of 32 – all within yards of the watching crowd.

As a result of the confused rescue attempt, three men, John Morrison, and brothers, Joseph and John Foster Spence, got their heads together and decided that it’d be a good idea to train a band of locals to assist the ‘emergency services’ in times of need. The response at the specially convened public meeting of 5th December was huge, with over 100 men signing up on the spot.

The notion of ‘volunteer brigades’ became so popular that the idea was soon rolled out across the land, with the Board of Trade circulating the Tynemouth Brigade’s rule-book to coastguard stations throughout the UK. In time, dozens of new bodies were formed to offer their assistance to the local HM Coastguard Stations. Thus, the still-existent Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, established in 1864, can rightly claim to be responsible for the founding of the national Coastguard Rescue Service, which continues to perform its supporting role to the mainstream rescue services today.

The TVLB’s website can be found at

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Tynemouth’s Three Kings (NZ374695)

Above is the coat of arms adopted by the Borough of Tynemouth upon its formation in 1849. The various bits and pieces are all pretty self-explanatory (the motto means something like ‘harvest of the deep’ – coal and fish, get it?). But what exactly do the three crowns mean?

Well, the shield which lies at the centre of the emblem was adopted due to its being that of the Prior of Tynemouth. And the story goes that the three crowns represent the three kings buried within the priory’s walls, namely Oswin, Osred and Malcolm.

The earliest of these, King Oswin, was the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Deira, that portion of Northumbria which lay between the Tees and the Humber. The northern bit, Bernicia, was at the time ruled by another individual. In 651, however, that other individual, one King Oswy, attacked the southern kingdom, sending Oswin first into retreat, then into surrender. Sending his troops home to save their lives, he then gave himself up to the enemy (or was betrayed – sources vary), was murdered by them, and interred at Tynemouth. He was later elevated to sainthood.

King Osred II became ruler of a united Northumbria in c.788-89, but soon fell himself in 790 to the previously deposed Aethelred. Fleeing into exile, he returned for another crack at the top job in 792, but was slain – probably by Aethelred’s men – before he’d had a chance to get himself organised. His murderers at least had the decency to have him buried at Tynemouth Priory.

King Malcolm III of Scotland died doing what he did best; raiding Northumbria. He was forever at it, and eventually paid with it with his life when he was defeated and slain at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093. His remains were interred at Tynemouth – though they were later reburied next to those of his wife, Margaret, at Dunfermline Abbey in the thirteenth century.

If you’d like to know more about the crest, see  

Friday, 11 February 2011

Dial Cottage, West Moor (NZ274705)

Still standing on the Great Lime Road a little to the south of Killingworth, this splendid little relic of the past was home to George Stephenson and his young family during the early years of the nineteenth century. George was just starting out on his incredible career when he moved into the cottage – as a brakeman in charge of winding machinery at nearby West Moor Colliery – but was internationally famous by the time he relocated to Newcastle twenty years later.

When our man moved in, the cottage consisted of one room and a garret reached by a ladder. During his stay, though, he extended and converted the premises into a four-roomed house. The cottage has a sundial above the door, made by Stephenson himself, and an adjoining plaque which reads:-

George Stephenson. Engineer. Inventor of the Locomotive Engine. Lived in this cottage from 1805 to 1823; his first locomotive (Bl├╝cher) was built at the adjacent colliery wagon shops, and on July 25th 1814 was placed on the wagonway which crosses the road at the east end of this cottage.
George’s baby daughter and wife died during 1805-06, leaving George and his infant son as the only surviving family members. Dial Cottage therefore doubles its fame as the childhood home of the great Robert Stephenson…

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Winslow Homer’s Cullercoats Period (NZ364715)

No one really knows why, but in the spring of 1881 eminent American painter, Winslow Homer, chose to spend eighteen months of his life in the Northumberland coastal village of Cullercoats. It was a period of his life which resulted in a widely acknowledged improvement in his artistic style and not a little fame for the fishing community itself.

The Bay Hotel, demolished as recently as 2005, was the great man’s home during his extended stay (then known as the Hudleston Arms Hotel). He maintained a studio across the road at No.12 Bank Top (demolished 1930), which enjoyed fine views out to sea and over the harbour.

Homer remained in the village until November 1882. A very private man, he was left in peace by the residents, who were no doubt used to his type, Cullercoats being something of a magnet for artists during 1870-1920 (other notables included Henry H.Emmerson, Robert Jobling, Arthur H.Marsh, Isa Thompson, John Falconer Slater and John Charlton). Homer was fascinated by the disappearing old ways of the fisherfolk, especially the fisherwives, who adorn many of his canvases. The images are sober, unfancy affairs, with an edgy realism – a style which was new to the artist, and which won him much admiration on his return to the States in late 1882: “He is a very different Homer from the one we knew in days gone by”; now his pictures “touch a far higher plane...They are works of High Art.”

An apartment block called Winlsow Court now stands on the site of the old Bay Hotel.

For a selection of Homer’s paintings of the village, see ; and for general Cullercoats history see (and click on ‘history’- a good deal, too, on Homer here). More general biographical detail on the man can be found at ; and a splendid collection of his works is hosted at .

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Fat Ox (c.NZ355721)


This beauty was so famous in its day that the great engraver Thomas Bewick had an audience with it – if only to immortalise its image prior to the poor beast’s slaughter.

The famous eighteenth century quadruped – known variously as ‘The Fat Ox’, ‘The Whitley Large Ox’ or ‘The Whitley Great Ox’ – was the property of one Edward Hall, and was grazed up to its immense proportions upon fields now occupied by The Fat Ox pub in Whitley Bay. The engraving was produced for the owner, Mr Hall, and published on the 10th April 1789 – presumably to commemorate the animal’s demise.

The occasion of its death produced quite a stir, much as a public hanging might have, in fact. Truly a legend in its own lifetime, it was 5ft 9ins in height and an incredible 216 stone in its prime. It was so big and cumbersome – and presented such an awesome sight – that when it was due for slaughter it took seven days to walk it the ten miles or so to Newcastle through sizeable crowds.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

John ‘Guinness’ Gilroy (c.NZ360720)

You may not have heard of him, but you will be familiar with his work.  For John Gilroy was the man behind the famous Guinness ads of the mid-twentieth century.  Still not sure?  Well, take a look at this lovely collage…

You all know him now, don’t you? And Gilroy, you’ll be pleased to learn, was a native of Whitley Bay.

Born into a large family in 1898, Gilroy followed his father William into the world of art. His dad was a marine landscape painter and technical draughtsman, and by the age of 15 young John was being paid for producing cartoons for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. He went to school in Sandyford and Heaton (the family were by then living in the latter suburb) and ended up at Armstrong College Art School, Durham University.

He served in the Royal Field Artillery during World War I, and recommenced his studies at the Royal College of Art, London, in 1919. Prior to his graduation in 1923 he won many awards, prizes and scholarships, and went into teaching thereafter. He married his wife Gwendoline in 1924, with whom he was to have a son.

In 1925 he began his long-running association with Benson’s advertising agency. He worked on numerous commercial ventures (Bovril, Maclean's, Colman’s Mustard, etc) before his employers won the Guinness contract in 1928. Beginning with his first effort in 1930, he turned out more than 100 press advertisements and nearly 50 posters for the stout brewers over a 35-year period, the most famous being the ‘Guinness for Strength’ and ‘zookeeper and animals’ campaigns. From the 1940s he worked freelance.

Gilroy was also an accomplished painter of landscapes and portraits – including paintings of Churchill, the Royal family and the Pope. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, and during World War II his work could often be seen via the Ministry of Information’s many campaigns. After his second marriage in 1950 he began an association with greetings card manufacturers, Royles.

He was appointed a Freeman of the City of London in 1981, and died in Guildford in 1985, aged 86.

If you’re eager for more, extended biographies can be found at and