Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Quaker Activity at Wheelbirks (NZ052586 & thereabouts)

When a Quaker eccentric named David Richardson purchased the farmhouse known as Wheelbirks a couple of miles SW of Stocksfield in the 1880s, he set about stamping his mark on the landscape around his new home with some verve. He died in 1913, and managed to leave several points of interest for us to enjoy today.

The proud new owner of a small estate, he first of all carried out significant improvements to his new pad – and followed that up by building six new estate cottages. Then came the slightly strange stuff…

Richardson’s newly-purchased domain sat astride Dere Street, the ancient Roman thoroughfare which angled through the North-East from York in the south to Corbridge (and beyond) in the north. The stretch which crossed the Wheelbirks estate dipped rather clumsily over the valley cut by the Stocksfield Burn, so Richardson decided to oversee the construction of a new bridge there in 1890 – and marked it thus:

© Copyright Clive Nicholson and licensed for reuse 

And on the other side of the bridge can be found…

© Copyright Clive Nicholson and licensed for reuse 

The latter, I think, is a metaphor for life, in typically Quaker-ish style you may say. But Richardson left loads of these little inscriptions all over the place – in his estate cottages, on roadside walls and on seats in the woods. I have no idea how many more, if any, of these can still be found today, but a decent list of those which once existed can be found here (and scroll down a bit).

Strangest of all, though, was the sanatorium he built – a most curious affair (see here). It was intended for use by TB sufferers from his Elswick leatherworks factory on Tyneside, but remained unfinished on his death and was probably never put to use. Well, other than as a farm storage depot, that is…


  1. From a poem, "Uphill" by Christina Rosetti

  2. Anybody know what Wheelbirks means?

  3. I can't be sure, but can only guess at 'circle of birch trees'. 'Wheel' is derived from an old word for circle; and 'birks' is an archaic alternative spelling for birches (trees).

    1. Mick you've made me look it up.

      Weal(d) in Old English is open country. Weall is wall.

      Birk is birch in Old Norse and in OE it is bierce.

      So is it not more likely to be
      birches in open country, or birches walled round. That would make sense if they needed to be protected from scavengers, such as deer.
      I prefer the former.

    2. 'Birches in open country' sounds at least as likely as my suggestion, and seems eminently sensible.

  4. It makes sense also because Broomley wasn't enclosed until 1812.