Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The King’s Meadows (NZ230628)

The steady uninterrupted flow of the River Tyne – both its general sea-ward course and the ebb and flood of its tidal stretch – has not always been as stable and balanced. There was a time when its banks angled gently into relatively shallow depths, its bends choked with silt rendering passage difficult for all but the smallest of vessels.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace in the Victorian era, though, Tyneside’s industrialists began to worry about access to their growing network of factories and shipyards. The river needed to be cleared of all encumbrances … and that meant a major programme of dredging. So, in 1850, the Tyne Improvement Commission was established.

The TIC improved and maintained the river – and the Port of Tyne as a whole – for more than a century. Navigation of the waterway for the industries of Tyneside was made a good deal better and helped make the region the powerhouse in became in the latter half of the 19th century. Of the many straightening and clearance works that were carried out in this period the most famous was perhaps the removal of the river’s most prominent island, the King’s Meadows.

This long, thin landmass extended some 2,000m in the middle of the Tyne between the villages of Dunston to the south and Elswick to the north. It amounted to some 30 acres and even had its own pub, the Countess of Coventry, whose landlady grazed cattle on the island which produced milk for the locals. Occasionally, horse racing meetings and regattas would be held on and around this little sliver of dry land – all served by a ferry service.

But the march of Victorian industry showed no sentiment toward the famous landmark, and it was eaten away by one of the new-fangled steam dredgers in the late 1870s. Nearby Clarence and George Islands (also known as Annie and Little Annie) were also swept from the riverscape, and the region lost a little more of its old-fashioned charm. But at least the businessmen were happy.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Accident on the High Level Bridge, 1849 (NZ251637)

From the Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore & Legend, August 1887:-

Not fewer than 1,300 workmen were at one time employed in the construction of the High Level Bridge across the Tyne. Amongst them was a man named John Smith, a ship carpenter, who, finding work slack at his own vocation, accepted an engagement at the High Level. To him a remarkable accident occurred on July 28, 1849.  
While at work he stepped upon a loose plank, which canted over, and he was thrown headlong from the bridge. In his descent, the leg of his trousers caught a large nail which had been driven into the timber just upon the level of the lower roadway, 90 feet above the river, where he hung suspended for a considerable time until rescued by his fellow-workmen.  
Doubtless Smith owed his marvellous escape to the toughness and strength of the fustian trousers he wore at the time; and a well-known firm of Newcastle clothiers, long since retired from business, asserted in one of their advertisements that the wonderful “fustians” had been made and purchased at their establishment. Smith, however, contradicted this assertion through the local papers, giving the name and address of the tradesman who had supplied him with the “lucky bags” in question.  
We are sorry to have to add that poor Smith was killed by an accident after all. Falling down a ship’s hold in the Tyne early in 1878, he died soon after from the injuries he then received. Shortly after his providential escape on the High Level, Mr Smith was induced to join the Wesleyans, and it was not long ere he became one of the most valued local preachers in that body. Mr Smith had been asked by a minister to occupy his pulpit on the Sunday, but he declined, on the ground that he had been working hard and needed rest. On that very day he died from the result of the accident we have mentioned.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Tyne Bridge Myth (NZ253638)

One from the archives: the Tyne Bridge (& other bridges!) 
from the Milk Market, as photographed by the 
author in 1984.

Constructed during 1925-28 and opened on 10th October 1928, the Tyne Bridge which spans the gorge between Newcastle and Gateshead is undoubtedly Tyneside’s greatest landmark. It was on the drawing board for more than 60 years before the councils of the two towns pushed through their final plans – the design being by Mott, Hay and Anderson (architect R.Burns Dick), and the contractors Dorman, Long & Co. of Middlesbrough.

The three-year construction programme cost some £1.2million and the life of a single worker (Charles Tosh). Its distinctive form made it an instant hit, and it has remained so ever since – and it was the largest single span bridge in the country at the time of its unveiling.

It is commonly believed that the Tyne Bridge was the model for the much larger Sydney Harbour Bridge, but this is not so. Sydney’s bridge was actually begun first (in 1923), but completed much later (in 1932). The only obvious link between the two structures is the identity of the constructors, Dorman, Long & Co. – which is possibly where the common confusion arose. If anything, because of the respective timelines, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was a model for the Tyne Bridge!

In actual fact, the bridges don’t really resemble one another anyway – well, not when you look at the Sydney Bridge’s true inspiration, the Hell Gate Bridge in New York (built during 1912-16). Now there’s a model for the Ozzie landmark if ever there was one!

Buy a Xmas pressie for yourself...
see here.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Gateshead Town Hall Debacle (NZ254634)

The building in central Gateshead now known as the Old Town Hall was designed and built by way of a torturous procedure during 1867-1870. An Act of Parliament, a design competition and the appointment of the appropriate officials all preceded the commencement of work – which led, eventually, to the building opening for business in February 1870. It remained the centre of local government for over 100 years.

The superstitious among the residents of the town may, however, have feared the worst for the future when an extraordinary accident befell the gathered throng on 11th June 1868 during the laying of the foundation stone. Officials, various hangers-on and a sizeable chunk of the town’s population turned up for the event, and the organisers thought it a good idea to erect two special platforms at the construction site to accommodate the crowd.

After refreshments at a local pub, the slightly tipsy officials turned up at around 3pm and took their places – along with several hundred others – on the aforementioned platforms. The mayor, Robert Stirling Newall, was handed a silver trowel with which to perform the ceremonial duties. This he did without incident, then the usual round of speeches commenced.

Everyone’s attention was soon diverted, however, by a loud creaking noise. To the general horror of all present, one of the platforms began to lurch groundward, taking around 500 unfortunates with it. After the dust had settled the site was carefully cleared, and twenty or so folk were wheeled off to the Dispensary. One fatality followed – that of 70-year-old Mr Barnet of Windmill Hills, who died a few weeks later following a blood infection caused by bruising to his feet.

Fancy some cheap family/local history books? 
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Tuesday, 3 December 2013

'Get Carter' Car Park (NZ256632)

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

Gateshead’s Trinity Square Car Park (to give it its proper name) was constructed during 1964-69 and demolished as recently as 2010. It was always controversial: from its troubled construction, through its fitful existence, until, finally, the furore surrounding its planned and actual destruction. Yet it remains lodged in the minds of all North-Easterners of a certain age as the scene of the region’s most famous moment in the history of film.

The Owen Luder Partnership was responsible for its design, dreamt up, as it was, as a rival for Newcastle’s planned Eldon Square Shopping Centre. For the car park itself was only a part of a greater whole, sitting, as it did, atop the Trinity Square shopping precinct. The latter opened in 1967, the car park suffering construction problems which delayed its opening until 1969.

For four decades thereafter it dominated Gateshead’s skyline, to the delight of few and the distain of many. It found international fame as the starring venue of the 1971 gangster flick Get Carter, from which Michael Caine famously hurled Bryan Mosley’s character to his death.

Atop the car park stood the shell of a restaurant which was never actually used due to its inaccessibility. The shopping centre was utilised reasonably well throughout its lifetime, but the car park – unused for long periods – was never well liked and soon became unsightly.

Once hailed by experts as a Brutalist classic, it slowly fell into a state of dangerous dilapidation. Its film fame helped it stave off demolition for years, until it was finally dismantled during 2010 during phase 1 of the town centre’s long-term redevelopment.

Fancy some cheap family/local history books? 
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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Demise of Gateshead House (NZ257632)

(taken from the iSeeGateshead website – copyright expired. 
Click on image to enlarge)

In the early days of 1746, everyone south of the border with Scotland was a little agitated. Both anti-Scottish and especially anti-Jacobite sentiment was running high – well, among the protestant majority, at least. In January of that year, a few weeks before the decisive encounter at Culloden, King George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, marched north, passing through Gateshead and Newcastle en route.

Delayed by troublesome roads, he arrived in Gateshead at 1am on the morning of 28th January …

…  where he was welcomed by a kind of illumination which gave his royal highness great uneasiness to see. The mob having set a mansion-house, with a popish chapel within it, on fire, at that place on the occasion. The outrage is said to have proceeded from the following circumstances. The family being from home, the house, chapel, &c. were left to the care of the gardener whose name was Woodness; when the duke and his attendants were coming down, the mob being anxious to see them, several of them climbed upon the garden walls to have a better view, when the gardener afraid of his master’s property, let loose some dogs upon them which bit several who were keelmen; being exasperated, they attempted to catch the gardener, who, no doubt, would have fallen a victim to their rage. Finding the object of their fury had eluded them, they set fire to the mansion-house, &c.

The mansion in question was Gatshead House, which used to stand to the east of the present-day St.Edmund’s Church on the High Street (aka Holy Trinity). Once the property of the Riddells, a catholic family, at the time the house was torched it was the seat of the Claverings, who were related to them. The fire rendered the property uninhabitable and it fell into ruin. It was eventually demolished – and the site is now taken up by high rise flats and a major trunk road. A repositioned gateway from the house remains in the grounds of St.Edmund’s Church. 

Fancy some cheap family/local history books? 
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Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Dunston Staithes (NZ237626)

© Copyright AndrewCurtis and licensed for reuse under this CreativeCommons Licence.

The riverside monster that is Dunston Staithes is well known to all Tynesiders. Despite being severely damaged by fire twice of late, its skeletal form still looms large over all within a good mile or so of its muddy situate on the southern shore of the River Tyne.

The bare facts alone are all you need to know…

  • Contructed by the North Eastern Railway Co. during 1890-93 to transfer coal from trains into seagoing vessels
  • 1,709ft long, 50ft wide and 40ft high – reputedly the largest timber structure in Europe (and possibly the world)
  • Total weight of timber: in excess of 3,000 tonnes
  • Cost: £120,000+
  • Materials: North American Pitch Pine
  • Shipped 1.5 tonnes of coal in first year
  • Peaked in 1939 with nearly 4 million tonnes shipped
  • Operations ceased in 1977, and structure closed in 1980
  • Centrepiece of Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990

Recent uncertainty over the structure’s future seems to have been averted as plans are afoot to preserve and develop the site.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Shocking Suicide at Dunston, 1888 (c.NZ230626)

From the Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore & Legend, August 1888 –

July 7 – A shocking case of attempted murder, followed by the suicide of the perpetrator, occurred at Dunston, near Gateshead. About eight o’clock in the evening, Sergeant Green and Police-Constable Lindsay, the only two policemen in the place, were informed that John Swaddle, a waterman, had gone into the house of Thomas Dawson, and assaulted him with a poker. They went and turned Swaddle out, the latter making no disturbance about the matter at the time. An hour later, however, the officers came across Swaddle carrying a double-barrelled gun, which he immediately levelled at the sergeant and fired. Green reeled and fell, shot in the left side. Lindsay rushed at Swaddle, who fired at him also, the result being that the constable fell to the ground. Swaddle, after a moment’s glance at his two victims, ran off, taking the gun with him, in the direction of the River Tyne. Green, meanwhile, assisted by the people of the village, his wounds being serious, was conveyed with all speed to his home. Lindsay had received a large number of pellets in his arm and back, but was not so dangerously hurt as his superior. Swaddle, on reaching the riverside, threw his gun into a boat, and jumped into deep water. He soon rose to the surface, and was seized by a man who was in the boat and dragged on shore. An unattached locomotive soon afterwards came steaming along the Redheugh Railway close by the river towards Gateshead. Swaddle jumped to his feet, sprang over the low wall at the side of the railway, and flung himself upon his face right in front of the advancing engine, which literally cut him in two. Swaddle, who was 41 years of age, left a wife and a large family; and the jury, at the inquest on his body, returned a verdict of death by suicide. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Bensham Tram Crash of 1916 (NZ246619)

(image from the iSeeGateshead website)

Private Edward Hutchinson was one of the many who dutifully joined up (with the Durham Light Infantry) during the First World War – doing so in mid-September 1914. In April 1915 his battalion was posted overseas, where he fought in (and survived) the Second Battle of Ypres. Returning home due to sickness or injury, he found himself in the Gateshead suburb of Bensham in early 1916.

Despite his major scrape with death in the trenches, Hutchinson had the ironic misfortune to find himself crushed to death under a runaway tram one chilly winter’s evening, in what became known as the Bensham Tram Crash of 5th February 1916.

The vehicle in question was travelling up Bensham Bank, having just passed the junction with Saltwell Road, when the driver, 20-year-old motorman Leonard Jane, applied his brakes and left his tram to assist a colleague in an oncoming vehicle who had had to deal with a fight. In his absence, the half-full car filled with several more passengers and the extra weight caused it to trundle slowly backwards. On meeting the junction with Saltwell Road, it turned sharply and its momentum caused it to topple over.

All on-board survived (though there were several injuries, including a couple of broken legs), but the four pedestrians trapped under the hulk of the falling tram were all killed – among them our WWI veteran. The other three were all members of the Morrell family – a father, mother and a boy of seven. The distraught motorman was later acquitted of manslaughter.

Strangely, Gateshead tramcar No.7 was later repaired and pressed back into service – and it now enjoys a new lease of life at the National Tramway Museum in Derbyshire.  

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Funeral of Harry Clasper, 1870 (NZ210613)

(from Wikipedia)

It is difficult to imagine these days (when the overhyped sport of association football so dominates the headlines) that there was ever a time when other athletic pursuits held sway in the public mind. But the fact is that in the decades immediately prior to the birth of organised football, rowing was probably the chief spectator sport. The River Tyne held its first official regatta in 1834 and for a good fifty years thereafter rowing was pre-eminent in the minds of North-East sports-goers.

Arguably the greatest of the many local oarsmen who made it big on the national stage was Harry Clasper. Born in Dunston in 1812, he enjoyed an astonishing career as a rower and boat-builder/designer – in 1845 he and his brothers (and uncle) were declared the four-oared world champions at the Thames Regatta. For the next fifteen years he enjoyed sustained success in various tournaments and challenge races throughout the land – most of the occasions held in front of huge baying crowds.

He coached other up-and-coming rowers, designed and built vessels and ran several pubs thereafter – finally settling at the Tunnel Inn, Ouseburn, in Newcastle. In July 1870 he died quite suddenly – probably from a stroke – and Tyneside went into deep, deep mourning for the loss of perhaps the region’s first sporting superstar.

Clasper’s funeral was a monster of an affair – an event perhaps only comparable to the huge outpouring of emotion following the death in 1988 of Jackie Milburn. Grown men were seen to cry before, during and long after the half-day procession, which began with a slow march through the streets of Newcastle from Ouseburn to Sandhill. There was Harry’s coffin, of course, mounted upon a horse-drawn hearse with accompanying finery, with a band leading the way – all of which was followed by two hundred local oarsmen and members of the Tyne Rowing Club. Then there were several mourning coaches containing friends and relatives, with more friends walking three abreast behind this. These were followed by twenty private carriages with the general public bringing up the rear on foot.

The route was from Tyne Street via New Road (now City Road), Gibson Street, New Bridge Street, Grey Street and Dean Street to the river’s edge where the cort├Ęge was taken on-board tug boats to Derwenthaugh, and then on to Whickham for burial in the town’s churchyard. The route – the streets and riverbank – was lined with people all the way, everyone wanting to pay their last respects to a very great man. It was estimated that about 130,000 people had witnessed the proceedings.

And all this fame achieved before the world of mass media…

(N.B. a good deal of the detail from the funeral is taken from an article by John Bage which can be found here)

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

William Shield Memorial, Whickham (NZ210613)

In memory of
Musician and composer
Born at Swalwell,
March 5th 1748.
Died in London,
January 25th 1829.
Buried in Westminster Abbey.
by public subscription

The above memorial – a stone cross atop an engraved base – sits at the west end of Whickham churchyard. William Shield, the son of a local boat-builder, began his musical career by fiddling on his fiddle whilst apprenticed at his father’s trade. Losing his parents whilst still a child, he went on to study music with Charles Avison in Newcastle. Throughout his youth he appeared at local gigs until his reputation gained for him the chance to opt for a full-time musical career.

He was a violinist, violist and, most famously, a composer – rising to lead the Spa Orchestra at Scarborough. One of his most notable early efforts as a music writer was to pen a piece for the consecration of St.John’s Church, Sunderland, in 1769 at the specific request of the Bishop of Durham.

For 18 years Shield was first viola at the Italian Opera in London, and also found time to play with, and be composer to, Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House). He became acquainted with Joseph Haydn during the great man’s London visit of 1791, which further inspired him to write many operas and other stage works. In 1817 he became Master of the King’s Musick.

Like many of his type of the time, Shield plundered local folk music for his own purposes – in his case, that of Northumberland and Durham. Many of his pieces were light and popularist in nature – more or less forerunners of what we now know as ‘musicals’. He has been strongly linked with the New Year ditty, Auld Lang Syne (the tune’s composer, that is, set to Robert Burns’ words), but no conclusive evidence has been unearthed to back this theory (it appears briefly near the end of his opera Rosina). It is far more likely that the roots of the famous old tune lie buried in English/Scottish/Border folklore – a rich pool of material into which Shield (and indeed Burns) regularly dipped their talented toes.

He died in London on 25th January 1829 (coincidentally, Burns Night) and was interred in Westminster Abbey at the specific request of King George IV.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Peter Wilson: Ozzie Recluse (NZ277618)

Peter Wilson, left, at the 1974 World Cup (From Wikipedia)

Felling is quite famous for its footballers. Chris Waddle, for one, was born there; as was Albert Watson, who was a Blackpool regular between the wars. But perhaps the most curious is one Peter Frederick Wilson, who was born in the Tyneside town in 1947.

A tough, uncompromising defender, Wilson was unable to make the grade in England (Middlesbrough, actually), so emigrated to Australia in 1969 where he joined South Coast United. His career there soon blossomed, and within a year was representing Australia at international level. He made 65 appearances for his adopted country, scoring three times – and, most famously, captained the team during the 1974 World Cup Finals tournament in West Germany.

Australia’s first foray into the final phase of the competition was met with little success, as they were beaten 2-0 by East Germany, 3-0 by West Germany and drew 0-0 with Chile (which sent them home early). But it was a ground-breaking achievement for the rag-tag bunch of individuals, and Geordie-boy Wilson was at its heart – he can be seen exchanging pennants with the East German captain in the picture above. Including representative games other than full internationals, he pulled on the Ozzie shirt a total of 116 times during 1970-79 – an amazing achievement. Ironically, his final appearance was at the Newcastle International Sports Centre, Australia.

The really strange thing about the Wilson story, though, is his activity since his sporting retirement – or rather the lack of it. After falling out with Australia’s soccer hierarchy, ‘Big Willie’ (as he was called) drifted out of the game and has not spoken publicly for more than two decades – living, as he does, as a recluse near Wollongong in New South Wales. When tracked down by a newspaper in 2005 he responded from his mountain hideaway with, “There’s nothing I want to say. I've got nothing to add.” He was, it was noted, heavily tattooed, had a Harley Davidson parked in his driveway and owned a Clydesdale horse called Bonza – and his ‘home’ was surrounded with barbed wire.

There was a ‘1974 squad reunion’ in 1997 and a Sydney street was named after him in 2000 – but Wilson shunned both events.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Heworth Hoax (NZ289617)

During a spot of routine gravedigging in Heworth churchyard in late 1812 a group of unsuspecting workmen found a little clay pot filled with 20-odd ancient looking coins. They dutifully handed them to their boss, the Reverend John Hodgson, who also happened to be Northumberland’s famous historian and antiquarian.

Hodgson was well pleased, and the following year saw fit to go public with the discovery by way of his colleagues at the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The coins were cleaned – several being discarded due to their advanced state of decay – and, after much headscratching by the experts of the day, Hodgson declared them to be stycas from the reign of King Ecgfrith, who ruled Northumbria during 670-685AD. This was a rare find indeed.

Ecgfrith was a significant ruler of ancient Northumbria, being responsible for the founding of the famous St.Paul’s monastery in Jarrow (as well as St.Peter’s, Wearmouth). Historian Hodgson was intrigued with this possible link between Heworth and neighbouring Jarrow, and set about developing a theory for the ancient origins of the former being entwined with the well-known roots of the latter. When he concluded the construction of his new chapel at Heworth in 1822 he even placed a dedication stone above the south door claiming that his little religious site was originally founded in the reign of Ecgfrith.

Other historians had their doubts both at the time and in the years and decades that followed. Turns out, in fact, that the little pot and its curious contents were a hoax, conducted by perpetrators unknown – possibly to fool poor old Hodgson. The scam came to light as late as the 1980s when, with the church’s 1,300th anniversary approaching, the relics were subjected to scientific analysis. The pot, it was said, was medieval at best (and probably much younger) - and as for the coins, well, they were fashioned from Georgian copper.

No evidence has ever been found which may point to the identity of the hoaxer. All that can be said is that it was a very clever ruse and must have taken an expert hand to execute.

More discussion and analysis of this extraordinary story can be found here (and click on ‘Church Tales’).

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Merry Widow of Windy Nook (NZ272610)

Mary Elizabeth Wilson, a resident of Windy Nook, Gateshead, for more than 40 years, had the dubious distinction of being the last woman to be sentenced to death in County Durham. The infamous serial killer was tried in 1958, but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and she died in Holloway prison in 1963.

Born in Hebburn in 1893, Mary will be forever known as the ‘Merry Widow of Windy Nook’. For many, many years prior to her misdemeanours she lived with her first husband, John Knowles, along with her lodger and lover, John Russell, in the quiet Gateshead suburb. When her husband died in 1955, she quickly married Russell; but within a couple of years he, too, was dead from ‘natural causes’.

Within months along came Oliver Leonard, who lasted less than a fortnight before leaving her £50 in his will. Mary then got herself hitched for a fourth time – almost immediately – to Ernest Wilson. She is alleged to have joked at her wedding reception that the left-over sandwiches could be saved for his funeral – and when poor Ernie died soon after, she supposedly suggested to the funeral director that she should be offered a trade discount. In fact, she did not even bother attending the fourth funeral – though she was handily bequeathed £100, a bungalow and an insurance pay-out.

Understandably, rumours then began to spread about Mary’s tendancy to lose husbands – four within three years – and the authorities eventually saw fit to exhume Oliver Leonard and Ernest Wilson in 1958. Traces of phosphorus pointed to the use of rat or beetle poison, and Mary was swiftly accused, tried and convicted of the murder of both men at Leeds in 1958. She was sentenced to hang at Durham, but due to her age (66) this was reduced to a life sentence.

Subsequent exhumations of her first two husbands also resulted in phosphorus being found, but Wilson died before she could be tried again.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Mr Swan’s Underhill (NZ262606)

(from Wikipedia)

Now a residence for the elderly, the elegant Victorian building known as Underhill on Kells Lane, Low Fell, was the first domestic property in the world to be lit by electric light bulb. Which is not surprising, really, as it was once the home of Sir Joseph Swan, the local lad who invented the said item.

The blue plaque on the wall (which you can just about make out on the picture above) pretty much says it all:

Joseph Wilson Swan
lived here 1869-1883
A physicist and chemist, his experiments
here led to him inventing the first
electric light bulb. Underhill was
the first house in the world
to be wired for domestic
electric lighting.

It was in the conservatory of his home that most of his experiments were conducted. Dry plate photography and engraving, for one thing; and, of course, the making of filaments for incandescent electric lamps. He had been fiddling around with his idea on and off since 1850, but was not able to declare the idea a success until 1880 – which is when he probably had Underhill suitably kitted out. In December of the very same year, Swan travelled up to his friend’s house, Sir William Armstrong’s Cragside, to supervise the installation of electric lighting there, too.

Internally, Underhill remains relatively unspoilt, retaining its staircase, most of the woodwork, fireplaces and the original bathroom.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

‘New’ Durham Road (north & south of NZ257604)

Anyone coming north though the suburbs of Gateshead towards the bridgehead with the River Tyne will usually take the A167 – a route which carries the traveller from the Angel of the North in an almost perfectly straight line through Harlow Green, Low Fell, Shipcote and the like, until the town centre itself is reached on the banks of Tyne. It is an almost constantly busy road, strewn with junctions, shops, rather grand houses and many other features of suburban sprawl.

It could have been there for ever – built by the Romans, you might think, due to its arrow-like trajectory through the heavily build-up streets. Surprisingly, though it was thrown down as recently as the 1820s – to replace the undulating nature of its predecessor a little to the east (and now known as Old Durham Road).

The ‘new’ Durham Road was, quite simply, driven straight through the almost entirely rural landscape of the time, from Birtley in the south to Gateshead town centre in the north. Low Fell grew to be its primary settlement, situated about half-way along the new thoroughfare, but still separated by gaping farmland to all around it – including Gateshead itself, a good mile or so up the road. Construction of the new highway commenced in December 1824, with the mail coach making first use of the road in the summer of 1826.

In the years and decades that followed, the newly-laid road became a magnet for urban sprawl. Initially, it was the wealthy who sought out plots on the new ribbon development – hence the profusion of stately affairs found hereabouts, built by the wealthy families of Newcastle to escape the grime of urban living. A great many of these buildings remain, and are Grade II listed.

Gradually, the yawning gaps of greenery around and about were swallowed up as the lower classes leaked out into what was once rolling countryside – fell land, in fact – and the town/suburb we now know as Low Fell was truly born. Licences were granted for the construction and opening of new pubs, and houses of all shapes and sizes sprung out of the ground. One notable exception was the area put aside for Saltwell Park, which was created from land sold by William Wailes to the town council in the 1870s.

The ‘old’ road through Wrekenton and Sheriff Hill became a backwater of sorts for a while, but the twentieth century population boom ensured that it remains an important highway in its own right.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Birth of the Team Valley Trading Estate (NZ245599)

Such was the state of both the region’s economy and its industry in the 1930s that Stanley Baldwin’s Tory-led National Government (1935-37) took pity on the area, and decided to site Europe’s first purpose-built industrial estate near Gateshead. The huge concern that was the resultant Team Valley Trading Estate proved to be a resounding success, and still flourishes today.

Unlike the present-day, once the decision was made they didn’t mess about. The largely rural banks of the River Team were quickly surveyed over an intense eight-week period during July-September 1936, and the contract for the laying of the infrastructure awarded to George Wimpey & Co. in October (for £80,000 – around £4 million in today’s money). Work began on 6th November that very same year.

The contract stipulated that the first factory should be opened within 11 months – and it was. In October 1937, Orrell and Brewster Ltd, haulage contractors, moved into the first factory to be opened on the estate. Subsequent demand for units was much greater than anticipated, and within a few more months over 70 factories had been built, opened and let. More than 7,000 much-needed jobs were up for grabs.

On 22nd February 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth travelled north to formally open the Team Valley Trading Estate. More than 500 folk turned up for the occasion, and a commemorative plaque was unveiled.

And the site has never looked back since. Now more than 700 businesses employ over 20,000 workers. It is truly one of the North-East’s great success stories.

Some fabulous images here (note: one or two of the dates quoted in the captions are slightly inaccurate).

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Bell Pits of Street Gate (NZ210592)

A little to the east of Sunniside, scattered liberally over the junction of the A692 and Pennyfine Road, lies the small community known as Street Gate. Wood- and meadow-land lie strewn hereabouts, and in a patch of land betwixt the village and its larger neighbour to the west was recently found the remnants of two old bell-pits.

Bell-pits, as I am sure many of you will know, are relics of the earliest days of mining – coalmining, of course, in this case – dating back to the 14th-17th centuries. Basically, a gang of prospectors would sink a simple shaft into the ground where they had reason to believe there was coal to be found, then they would gradually mine out a small underground room and hoist the black stuff to the surface by basket. When the bell-shaped pit assumed dangerous proportions, they would simply abandon it and move down-seam by sinking another shaft a few dozen yards away. They would back-fill the old pit with the earth taken from the new one.

In the centuries that followed mining techniques developed considerably, of course. But odd remnants of the bell-pit system remain dotted around the region – and two such shafts were unearthed here at Street Gate by the Woodland Trust during deep ploughing work when they were preparing to lay a wild flower meadow. Two circular ‘gaps’ in the underlying boulder clay were noticed (each about six metres across), and investigative work revealed them to be evidence of our most basic of early industrial activity.

Studies of old maps pinned the dates down to at least as early as the 1630s, but such activity would most likely have stretched back in the area to perhaps the 14th century. Such was the significance of the discovery that it was decided to launch a campaign to mark the spot in some way, and in October 2007 the revamped site together with a plaque/plinth was officially unveiled amidst great pomp and ceremony.

The full story (with lots of pics) can be found here.

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Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Heady Days at Ravensworth Castle (NZ233591)

© Copyright johntollitt and licensed for reuse under this Creative CommonsLicence.

There isn’t much left of Ravensworth Castle. This once grand mansion near to Gateshead’s Team Valley was demolished / deteriorated during the mid-twentieth century, leaving only a few outbuildings and odd pieces of masonry intact. For centuries it was the home of the multi-titled Liddell family, eventually falling victim to mining subsidence. 

It had known great days, however. Most notable of these were two great events which took place in the first half of the nineteenth century. Firstly, in October 1827, it was visitied by the Duke of Wellington during a high profile national tour. Fine enough, one might think, but at the behest of host Lord Ravensworth the equally famous Sir Walter Scott was also invited to Ravensworth – the two great men staying at the castle for a few short days.

The Duke’s opinion of the stately pile do not seem to have been recorded, but Scott’s diary reveals a few pointed thoughts. After returning to Ravensworth from a banquet at Durham Castle in the early hours of 4th October, he records:

Slept till nigh ten; fatigued by our toils of yesterday, and the unwonted late hours. Still too early for this Castle of Indolence, for I found few of last night’s party yet appearing.

The next day he describes a quiet day, followed by an evening with…

… plenty of fine music with heart as well as voice and instrument…. The Miss Liddells and Miss Barrington sang “The Campbells are coming’ in a tone that might have waked the dead.

Lord Ravensworth’s reputation as a host was further cemented by an even grander gathering in October 1842 on the occasion of his grandson’s 21st birthday. Around 500 distinguished guests from home and abroad were invited, including the Archduke of Austria, together with dozens of lords, ladies, earls and barons. Most of the aristocracy from the northern counties were there, it seems. It must have been a sumptuous occasion.

All a far, far cry from the sad sight of today.

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Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Wrekenton: Named by a Historian! (NZ274590)

You don’t have to look far into the history of Wrekenton to discover that it appears to have been named by a historian. The famous antiquarian, Rev John Hodgson – he of the History of Northumberland fame – is said to have manufactured the word. He wrote, “After the enclosure of the common (in 1822), Mr Watson, of Warburton Place, Carrhill, founded a considerable village at this place, which, at my suggestion, he called Wrekenton.”

Hodgson created the word from the nearby Roman road, the Wrekendyke, which runs from this spot all the way to South Shields. Thus, ‘Wrenken-ton’ means ‘the homestead by the Wrekendyke’. Clever, eh? And so antiquarian-like!

‘Wrekendyke’ itself is an Anglo-Saxon word derived from the Old English wraecca, meaning ‘fugitive, or criminal’. So we have ‘the fugitive’s ditch/dyke’. We can just about recognise the old term in the modern word ‘wretch’.

It is possible that a Roman fort sat hereabouts, too – perhaps on the local golf course – but no trace of any such structure has yet been found.

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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Bowes Railway (NZ285589)

Many people don’t realise it, but the width of railway tracks around the world vary. The distance between the inside edges of the rails of any railway track is called the ‘gauge’, and the gap in the UK (and across most of the world) is 4ft 8 ½ in, or 1,435mm. It is called the Stephenson Gauge, after the famous George.

The Bowes Railway Museum near Springwell, Gateshead, has preserved amongst its many bits and pieces, stretches of this Stephenson Gauge – which, amazingly, date back to 1826. It is, in fact, the only surviving operational Stephenson Gauge cable railway system in the world.

The small site maintained by the museum is only a part of the bigger whole – this being the complex operation of getting coal from the Durham pits to the River Tyne. This particular stretch of cable railway hauled wagons up from Black Fell (just north of Birtley) to what we now know as the heights of Eighton Banks (Blackham’s Hill), then down again to Springwell village. The ‘hauler house’ controlled both ascents/descents from the highest point at Blackham’s Hill, and used rope to move the equipment in question.

The network around Springwell came to be called the Bowes Railway after prominent local mineowner John Bowes. Construction commenced in 1826 and continued in fits and starts until the 1850s. Incredibly, it continued working, essentially unchanged, until 1974 – testimony to the efficiency of the system. The present hauler uses electric power instead of steam, and the wagons were originally of the distinctive ‘chaldrons’ variety, but wooden and steel wagons eventually took over.

The present-day museum includes resident steam and diesel locos, a historic wagon collection, mining displays, an underground loco collection, as well as engineering workshops. Guided tours and special ‘operating days’ can also be enjoyed.

There’s a nice description, map and pics here. The whole railway, including the buildings, machinery and rolling stock, is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Blaec: Lost Hero of the North? (NZ283581)

On a small prominence at roughly the spot where the Bowes Railway meets the southern-most extremity of Eighton Banks lies, possibly, the burial site of a once mighty Anglo-Saxon warrior. For centuries known as Blackham, or Blackim, Hill, the nondescript piece of wasteland may well be the final resting place of Blaec, a warlord who seems at one time to have held sway over a rather large tract of what we now know as County Durham during the Dark Ages.

The word Blackham/Blackim (Hill) is derived, it is argued, from the Anglo-Saxon word blaecen, meaning ‘of Blaec’ or ‘belonging to Blaec’ – hence ‘Black’s Hill’. And until the Victorian times it seems that there existed a legend that a mighty warrior of this name was buried there. Texts mention the persistent rumour until as late as the 1880s … but nothing much seems to have trickled down to the present.

Despite its twentieth century fall from grace, the land hereabouts has given up signs of ancient human activity – most notably between the wars when shards of worked flint dating back to the Mesolithic age were found. It’s a prominent spot in the landscape, and it stands to reason that humans would have made use of the site through the centuries. Iron Age activity/settlement is certainly likely, the Romans passed by this way … so why not the Anglo-Saxons, too?

No one has any solid evidence as to who this Blaec chap may have been – or even when he lived. It can only be speculated that he rose to prominence during the yawning gap that is 400-1066AD – most likely after Northumbria’s ‘Golden Age’, which ended in the mid-eighth century. So we’re talking about 750-1000AD.

And evidence from maps suggests that his area of influence may have been substantial. One thirteenth century cartographer marked a huge inland tract of land stretching from the Tyne to the Humber as ‘Blachamoz’ – ‘the settlement of the people of Black’. Yet the question remains: if he existed, why was this man excluded from the royal lineages of Dark Age Northumbria? Perhaps he was just a very powerful, non-royal upstart.

Or is it all some woolly North Country myth?

More fascinating reading can be found at www.washingtonlass.com/BlackhamHill.html .

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