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.

Why not come along to...