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.