Jack Common’s Avenues in Wartime

Jack Common was born at 44 Third Avenue on 15 August 1903. In his autobiographical novels, ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ and ‘The Ampersand’, he wrote about growing up in Heaton. Although ostensibly fiction, Jack’s writing is clearly based on his own experience and his vivid memories. It tells us about aspects of life in the avenues, before and during World War One, that often we’d have no other way of knowing. Jack describes his milieu, life as a ‘corner boy,’ and gives us a rare (pupil’s) insight into life at Chillingham Road School. He writes with feeling, humour and from the perspective of the socialist he became. While we have to remember the fictional element and the personal viewpoint, Jack Common’s work is an important source for our Heaton Avenues in Wartime research.

The avenues

Some of the places Jack describes have changed, of course, but to anyone familiar with Heaton, the streets (or avenues) of terraced houses and Tyneside flats are instantly recognisable over a hundred years later:

…’ the south side started with a grocer’s shop on the corner, ran straight past some eighty front doors arranged in twos, one for the upstairs flat, one for the down, and each pair separated from the next by the downstairs garden.’

…’when you could crawl and totter, you always made for the street whenever the door was open. Over the rough cement path, down the step onto the wonderfully smooth pavement, perhaps on again to the cobblestones in the middle of the road.’

So far, we’ve traced only one photograph of the Avenues taken during this period. it shows Heaton History Group member, Arthur Andrews’ great aunt, Ruth Castle, outside her home at 47 Tenth Avenue and it chimes with Jack Common’s description of his ‘territory’.

Ruth Castle outside 47 Tenth Avenue

Ruth Castle outside 47 Tenth Avenue, early 1900s


‘These gardens were just narrow fenders of soil laid around the buttress of the bay window but they were magnificently defended from depredation by low brick walls, coped with granite slabs, each sprouting a complicated fence of spiked railings… Between them lay cement aprons in front of the doors.’

Regular visitors

Some of the most evocative descriptions of the avenues are the lively street scenes; the traders and entertainers who passed through: the rag and bone man with his bugle, barrow and paper windmills, ‘made of rough sticks and coloured wallpaper or an umbrella of the same or a fan or a piece of pineapple rock’ which he’d exchange for the jam jars or rags the children brought him.

‘… such a procession of horse-drawn vans, man-pushed barrows, milk chariots, coal-carts and steam wagons… Practically any moment of the day, one or other of these strange craft, ark or pinnacle, was bound to come upon our horizon. The hooves of the faster traffic, doctor’s trap or post office van, shot sparks from our cobbles…’

‘… the slower moving door-to-door tradesmen announced their presence: the milkman with a hand-bell and a high-pitched cry, the firewood seller with a long wail ‘d’ye wa-a-nt any sticks’, the coal-man bluff, solid and low, ‘coal ter wagon, coal ter wagon’, and the hardware merchant, standing on his high cart, with a rapid ringing of plate against plate, produced an insistent tintinabulation which rang across several streets. Very often several of these were around at the same time, plus one or other of varieties of street musician, the tin whistler, the barrel organist or German band….’


‘And that was only the front street…. Though milk and bread were front door deliveries, greengrocery and fish and coal came to the back door…..

'Coo-al' by Mark James

‘Co-al’ by Mark James, Heaton History Group

Down here came the Cullercoats fishwives crying ‘Caller herrin’ in that season and otherwise ‘Fresh fish, hinny, straight from the sea’. They wore their traditional dress of dark blue which so well set off their biscuit tan of arm and face, the salt-white hair and they were like caryatids walking under the great baskets they carried on their heads.’

‘Everbody’s washing hung across the lane so that the appearance of a tradesman’s cart meant a rush to tuck sheets and things round the rope and to raise the diminished bunting high over the horse’s head with a prop.’

Close friends

Common’s descriptions of childhood are equally wonderful and will resonate with many older readers, in particular:

‘… the many games that made their immutable processions across our year. Marbles, tops, hoops and girds, bays, monty-kitty, kick-the-block, up-for-Monday, they came and went in their due seasons.’

‘The marble millionaire gambled untold wealth at the Big Ring, increasing the stakes as the evening wore on until there was a fortune out there on the cement; whole constellations of fat Millies and coloured glass alleys with twinkling spirals down their centres and clear sea-green or whipwater-white pop-alleys winked in the shaky gaslight, nothing less than these high counters allowed in the big game, stonies and chalkies definitely barred. Then in came the bullocker shot from the ringside. The constellation shook and was scrambled; single stars fled or rolled towards the chalk ring. All that went over belonged to the lad that made the shot. Sometimes none did. Right, next player. The winners dropped their captured beauties with a happy plonk into the poke they nearly all carried; losers might fish for a last treasure, a broken pen knife or a watch-compass, to barter for another stake.’

And bonfire night:

‘At the bottom end, on Ninth back lane a mattress in the bonfire had just caught alight, the dervishes around it jumped and yelled from fiery-smudged faces; Eighth were entrenched within their narrow gardens, hurling Chinese crackers and jumping-jacks at all who passed by; Seventh were engaged in a slanging match because the great pyramid of their fire, crowned with a guy sitting in an armchair, had toppled over and was burning against somebody’s back door…. You could even see the near-toddlers solemnly lighting each other’s sparklers from the hot end of the last one to burn out, and there were little girls running wild as they tried to throw London Lights into the air.’

He also describes life in what he refers to as the ‘corner-gangs’. That the camaraderie and solidarity of his gang ‘Sons of the Battle-axe’ meant a lot to Jack can be deduced from his writing and the politics he espoused but also in the fact that, all through his life, he held onto treasured mementos of his Heaton childhood.

The Jack Common Archive is now in the Robinson Library at Newcastle University. Amongst the novel manuscripts, correspondence with publishers and friends, family photographs and cuttings of reviews are the rules, oaths and codes relating to the Sons of the Battle-axe. Examples are displayed here with the permission of the Common family and the university.

Jack Common's 'corner-gang' codes

Jack Common’s ‘corner-gang’ codes

Sons of the Battle-axe oath of allegiance

Sons of the Battle-axe oath of allegiance

Many of Jack Common’s boyhood friends, such as the Ord brothers, appear in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, with their names unchanged, even if, writing thirty or forty years later, Common appears to have fictionalised some of their back stories.

School

The Chillingham Road School Jack Common attended still stands proudly today, of course. Jack didn’t look back on his schooldays with much affection, believing that working class children like him were being ‘trained for boredom’ as he put it. He conveys his negative feelings in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’:

‘There was a school bell which tolled for some five minutes in the mornings, a peculiarly flat despondent sound, not urgent, not very loud, though it carried over all the Avenues, and it always seemed as if it meant to go on forever.’

although he did have some fond memories:

‘… a class of some fifty children, more than half of them girls, I was disgusted to note. It was a very pleasant classroom though. The morning sun shone in through the wide windows over blue glass vases and painted pottery jugs holding flowers on to the yellow desks.’

But Jack’s daughter, Sally, wrote in a letter to Heaton History Group:

‘I have just looked at their website, and it comes across as such an amazing, vibrant establishment. It makes me want to be a child again and go there! So different from the place my father described that trained children in boredom – in preparation for the boring jobs they would have later’

and Jack would surely have been amazed that today’s pupils learn about and are rightly proud of their somewhat reluctant predecessor.

Winner

For all his later cynicism, Jack (or John as he was known there) Common had some notable successes while at school. He won prizes for at least two of his essays – one a citywide competition on the war-inspired theme of ‘Thrift‘. The essay itself doesn’t survive but he was proud enough of the letter inviting him to collect his prize of Government War Bonds and the newspaper coverage to keep them. They survive in the Jack Common Archive and copies will be displayed at the Chillingham pub from mid-February to mid-April 2015.

The same goes for two compositions about Jesmond Dene for which he also won prizes. Jack later referred to the florid writing style he had adopted in his teenage years and you can judge for yourself from the extracts to be displayed at the Chilli or by visiting the Jack Common Archive.

Jack Common is known for his working class Newcastle upbringing, his strong socialist beliefs and his friendship with George Orwell rather than his love of nature but a lot of his writing and especially the personal diaries in the archive show how much he cared about and knew about the natural world. He may not have acknowledged the influence of his Heaton boyhood or his education at Chillingham Road School but it’s a deep love which began in childhood and which the school log books show was shared by his head teacher, even if neither teacher nor pupil recognised it at the time.

War

Jack was ten years old at the start of the first world war. He refers to it only briefly in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, writing through a child’s eyes:

‘One Saturday morning a rumour came round that the schools were to be commandeered as temporary barracks; a second report said that the soldiers were already in. Some of us tore round to have a look. Chillingham Road School stood bare and empty, a maw gaping for Monday. We back-pedalled round a corner so as to put it out of sight again, wishing we hadn’t come. But somebody passing on a bike said that North Heaton was taken. We moved off into the territory presided over by that semi-cissy academy, hunching together in case we got raided on the way.

It was true. North Heaton School echoed to the bawls of a couple of sergeants drilling their awkward squads in the boys’ yard….’

But the descriptions of the attitudes of the adults around him are enlightening as well as entertaining. Jack Common is typically unafraid to go against the grain or to offend. He refuses to romanticise and so adds to our understanding of a particular place and an important time:

‘But I had a feeling deep down that war wouldn’t apply to my father. I couldn’t see him waving a flag and leaping over a parapet, as the wild bugles blew, straight into the enemies’ fire; I could see him sitting firmly as ever in his own chair, pointing out that the war was a lot of fat-headedness started by old grannies and bosses-on-the-make and carried on by young fools who believed what they said in the newspapers.’

‘After the customary visit to the boozer, argument waged hot and strong. Uncle George, Boer War veteran, would join up at once – only there was no one to run his greengrocery business if he did. True-blue Uncle Will was hot against the Germans; he would throw in a couple of sons against them right away – the sons, though, did not endorse this generous patriotism. Red Uncle Robin, bachelor, vegetarian and crank, saw the conflict as a power-struggle between rival groups of bosses to be boycotted by all intelligent working men. Sad Uncle Andrew thought it was one of those madnesses good men have to go into because they couldn’t stand being with the crooks and sharpers who’d stayed out. Burly, gentle Uncle Bill knew no rights or wrongs in it, he had the countryman’s view, that it was a super-thunderstorm or tremendously bad weather – ‘Thor’s ne help for it, we’ll hae t’last it oot’. ‘

His presentation of dissident voices is another reason, if we need one, to read, reread, remember and appreciate Heaton’s Jack Common.

Postscript

‘Kiddars Luck’ is currently out of print but can be obtained in a Kindle version and from second-hand bookshops, online and in libraries.

More about Jack Common

This article was written by Chris Jackson, as part of Heaton History Group’s ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. We would like to hear your views on anything relating to the article. You can leave them on the website by clicking on the link immediately below the title or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

A related exhibition will be in the lounge bar of the Chillingham pub from 16 February to mid April 2015. It contains digital copies of documents from the Jack Common Archive at Newcastle University and Tyne & Wear Archives as well as illustrations by local artists.

The Home Front in World War One

Blackouts, rationing and air raids were not just features of the Second World War, they were all experienced during the First World War too. Our talk on 27 May looks at how the war affected the lives of everyone living on Tyneside, the opportunities it gave to some and the problems it brought to others. Anthea Lang, formerly Local History & Heritage Manager for Gateshead Council and author of four local history books, will discuss the effects of the war on the people of Tyneside both during the war and afterwards.

Rose Vanner, Gateshead's first lady tram conductress in 1916

Rose Vanner, Gateshead’s first lady tram conductress in 1916

The talk will take place on Wednesday 27 May 2015 at The Corner House, Heaton Road, NE6 5RP at 7.30pm (Doors open at 7.00pm. You are advised to take your seat by 7.15pm as we are expecting a full house). It’s essential to book your place by contacting maria@heatonhistorygroup.org /07443 594154. Booking is currently open to Heaton History Group members only but any remaining seats will go on general sale in mid-March. This event has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of our ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project.

The Heaton Main Colliery Disaster 1815

This year is the 200th anniversary of Newcastle’s worst ever peacetime catastrophe, often known locally as ‘The Spinney disaster’. In the first of a series of events to take place in and around Heaton over the coming year, Les Turnbull will give the fascinating historical background, tell us what happened at Heaton Main Colliery on 3rd May 1815 and in the months that followed – and he might surprise you when he explains WHERE the events unfolded.

Celebration of our Mining History cover

Les, who is a member of Heaton History Group and an acknowledged expert on the history of mining, especially in the North East, was born near the Middle Pit in 1941, educated at Tosson Terrace Primary, Chillingham Road Secondary and Heaton Grammar and now lives near the ‘C’ Pit.

The talk will take place on 29 April 2015 at The Corner House, Heaton Road, NE6 5RP at 7.30pm (Doors open at 7.00pm. You are advised to take your seat by 7.15pm as we are expecting a full house). It’s essential to book your place by contacting maria@heatonhistorygroup.org /07443 594154. This event has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of our ‘Heaton Beneath Our Feet’ project.

Celebration of our Mining Heritage

Les Turnbull’s book has been written to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the major disaster at Heaton Main Colliery in which 75 men and boys died. However, it covers much more than the terrible events of 1815. As the title indicates, it celebrates the importance of mining in the North East, Newcastle and Heaton, in particular, to the industrial revolution, mining safety, the development of railways and indeed to world history. It also looks at the lives of the colliers, engineers, mine owners and their families that contributed to Heaton’s mining heritage and the development of Heaton as a centre of population.

Celebration of our Mining History cover

The fully illustrated 92 page book contains many rarely seen maps and plans of Heaton. It was published by Chapman Research (ISBN 978-0-9561248-2-1) with the support of over 70 subscribers and is available, priced £15 (plus postage where required), from:

Heaton History Group – in person at our regular events

The Literary and Philosophical Society (Lit & Phil)

Newcastle City Library

North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers (Mining Institute)

The book’s publication is the first of over a year of commemorative events, supported by the Arts Council and Newcastle City Council, to take place under the banner of the Shafts of Light Festival. Check out the programme so far – and arrange events of your own which can be added to it.

In addition, a programme of talks, community research and the development of a heritage trail called ‘Heaton Beneath Our Feet’ is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. If you are not already on our mailing list and are interested in finding out more, please contact chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Back Close to Craigmore

Craigmore is a large red brick house on the east side of Heaton Road, number 252. It’s in the same block as Heaton Methodist Church. The current owners, Kelly and Ian Atkinson, have documents going back to the original purchase of the building plot from William Watson Armstrong, Lord Armstrong’s heir. From these deeds, mortgage applications and letters, together with trade directories, census returns and other archival material, we’ve been able to compile a short, albeit incomplete, history of the house and some of the people who’ve called it ‘home‘.

Craigmore today

Craigmore , Heaton Road today

Field on the farm

The house stands on what was, until the 1880s, Heaton Town Farm. We can even see, from estate plans held by Northumberland Archives, to what use the land which lies below the house was once put. In 1865, when William (later, Lord) Armstrong auctioned some of his estate, it was a field with the unassuming name of ‘Back Close’, used for pasture. An even older map in Newcastle City Library, the original of which can be dated to between 1756 and 1763 (the library has a copy made by John Bell in 1800), also shows Back Close. Thank you to Tyne and Wear Archives for the transcription below. It looks as though animals grazed on this patch of Heaton for far longer than, to date, people have lived there.

Fields of Heaton in the 18C

Fields of Heaton in the 18C.

Speculative build

But in 1901, the land was sold to a local man, Frederick Burn White. Frederick had been born in Blyth in 1871 but by this time was living with his widowed mother, Jane, at 28 Rothbury Terrace. His father, a joiner, had died while Frederick was a boy. In the 1891 census, Jane describes herself as a ‘builder’ and so presumably was managing the family business. If you walk down the back lane, you can still see the substantial outhouse in which they must have stored materials at that time. Eventually Frederick seems to have taken charge of the firm. He later married and moved to 309 Chillingham Road, and eventually died, aged 92, in Morpeth.

There were strict conditions attached to the sale of the land and the quality of the houses to be built on Heaton Road, including on Back Close: roofs were to be of ‘Bangor or Westmorland slate or roofing tiles from Ruabon or Staffordshire of uniform tint’; every home was to be ‘self-contained, that is should never be let or occupied in separate parts but… by one family only’.

Crystal balls?

In 1902, Frederick sold the newly built house to the well-to-do Robert Keith Imeary. The Imeary family had many business interests. Robert’s father was best known for his chemical works in Heworth, which manufactured ‘alkali, soda ash, crystals and bleaching powder’. At one point, it employed 77 men and 13 boys. He also manufactured lamps, owned ships and farmed 35 acres. Robert himself was born in Co Durham and lived as a young boy in Westoe with his parents, maternal grandmother (also described as a ship owner), an aunt, sister, brothers and a servant. By 1881, now 20 years old, he was living in Hexham with Sarah, an aunt on his father’s side, helping her to farm over 100 acres. When she died in 1889, it’s possible that Robert inherited a substantial sum, as Sarah died a spinster and with no children. By 1901 Robert himself was married and living in Jesmond with his wife, Margaret, her mother, their baby son, also called Robert Keith and two servants. Robert at this time described himself as a ‘gentleman (medical student)’ and was soon to buy Craigmore. The Imeary family’s stay was short, however. By 1909, the family had moved to Lancashire.

Three balls

The next occupier was the family of Frederick Charles Davison, who rented the property. Davison was the eldest son of an auctioneer and had followed in his father’s footsteps. In 1891, 23 year old Frederick was an auctioneer’s cashier, living with his parents and seven brothers and sisters in Jesmond. But a year later he married Jane Ann Slater, daughter of a pawnbroker, and, by 1901, Frederick described himself as both a pawnbroker and an employer. By 1911, he called himself ‘Master Pawnbroker’ and was living at Craigmore with his wife, and three young sons. The family business, called Slater and Davison, had several shops, including in Bamborough Street in Byker. Frederick died in Jesmond in 1939, with his address given as 18-20 and 22 Bamborough Street Byker. He had evidently done well though, leaving over £9000 in his will.

Wherries and lighters

In 1912, Robert Imeary finally sold the house to Constantine Charleton Brown. Constantine was born in 1865, the sixth and youngest child of wherry owner, Allen Brown and his wife. Allen Brown had started his working life in Howard Street, near Byker Bar, as a waterman (someone who transfers passengers or cargo across and along city rivers and estuaries – an occupation going back to medieval times). He moved to Richmond Street by his early 20s and married Isabella Stead. In the 1869-70 trade directory, Allen is described as a lighterman; a lighter being a cargo-carrying river craft. Later, perhaps a sign that the business was thriving, the growing family moved to Ridley Villas, on what is now New Bridge Street, where his neighbours were mainly manufacturers, engineers, clergymen and managers.

In 1889, Constantine married Annie Hill Gray, daughter of another steam boat owner, Edgar Gray, and they moved to Clarence Street. By 1901 they were living at 61 Heaton Park Road with their five children, Nora, Constance, Charleton, Stanley and Lesley plus a servant. By this time, Constantine described himself a steam wherry owner. The business was still called Allen Brown.

Ad for Allen Brown wherry owners

This advert appeared in the trade directories for many years

The company was still going strong well into the 1930s. Constantine died in 1933 and three years later, his daughter Constance sold the house. (Look out for our talk by Mike Greatbatch ‘Wherrymen and Chain-horse Lads‘ on our 2015-16 programme. It’s scheduled for January 2016.)

Dark ages

The new owner was Mary Hall of York, who two years later married Arthur Mason. They didn’t live at the property but rented it to a Mrs Constance E Crawford, who lived there for almost 15 years. The owners and occupiers for the next 50 years or so remain something of a mystery. We know their names: after Mrs Crawford, in 1953, came Dorothy Corbett nee Ritson; then in the 1960s, it changed hands three times, first of all to John Irving Hurst, ‘licensed victualler, formerly of the Queens Head , Cullercoats’ and his wife, Edith, and then to Mary Winifred Johnson of Pooley Bridge in Cumbria, then finally to Thomas and June Conway, formerly of Longbenton, who stayed for 20 years before selling to Alan and Elizabeth Hynd. Hopefully, we’ll add some of their stories as time goes by.

Sole trader

The current owners are Ian and Kelly Atkinson and, if we mention Ian’s middle name, generations of Geordies will know it. It’s ‘Amos’, a name which has been handed down through generations of Atkinsons, with Kelly and Ian’s son, Evan, continuing the tradition. Kelly told us that the Atkinson’s family tree goes back to Tudor times: ‘All were cobblers or tanners’, including Ian’s father, Glyn.

The first Amos Atkinson we have found in the local trade directories was born in Morpeth in 1768 and, by 1804, he was already a boot and shoemaker. His first son (1833-1902), pictured below, naturally also called Amos, gradually expanded the family business. He was running a boot and shoe manufacturers on Percy Street by 1859.

Amos Atkinson (18XX-1901)

Amos Atkinson (1832-1902)

It’s interesting to look at Amos’s immediate neighbours at that time. There were rope and hemp manufacturers, a gilder, a basket manufacturer, a saddler, a cartwright, a chimney sweeper (sic), a hay dealer and a farmer, as well as at least four other boot makers, none of whose Newcastle city centre businesses, we can be fairly sure, lasted into the late twentieth century. By 1861, Amos employed 7 men, 1 woman and a boy. Ten years later, 11 men and two boys and, by 1881, 13 men and 3 boys. He operated from a number of Newcastle addresses before opening the shop which many people will remember on Northumberland Street.

Amos Atkinson's, Northumberland Street in the 1970s

Amos Atkinson’s, Northumberland Street in the 1970s

Incidentally the ornate plaster work isn’t as old as many people imagine. It was added in 1953 to commemorate the queen’s coronation. Eventually, the company had five branches, with the Newcastle branch a familiar sight in one of Northumberland Street’s best loved buildings until the early 1990s. The Morpeth shop was the last to close, following the floods which devastated the town in 2008.

Amos Atkinson's c1900

Amos Atkinson’s, Northumberland Street c1900

The above photograph was taken around 1900 at just about the time William Watson Armstrong was selling a small parcel of his Heaton estate to Frederick Burn Wright, but the local farm hands, dairy maids and shepherd boys, who previously strolled through the field formerly known as Back Close, may, if they were lucky enough to have been shod at all, have been wearing Amos Atkinson boots decades before that.

Can you help?

If you know any more about the house or its owners and occupiers down the years, please get in touch. You can leave a comment by clicking on the link underneath the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Your house history

Also, don’t hesitate to get in touch if, like Kelly and Ian, you’d like to find out more about the history of YOUR Heaton house.

Pit to Pi: the life of Charles Hutton

How many Cragside or Heaton Manor pupils, struggling with their homework, realise that, in High Heaton, they’re following in the footsteps of one of the greatest mathematicians who has ever lived? The remarkable story of the one time Geordie miner, who became one of the most famous and esteemed men of his time, deserves to be better known.

Detail from painting of Charles Hutton by Andrew Morton now in the Lit and Phil

Detail from painting of Charles Hutton by Andrew Morton in the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne

Charles, the youngest son of Henry and Eleanor Hutton, was born in what was then called Side-Gate at the corner of what we now know as Percy Street and Gallowgate on 14 August 1737. He was expected to be employed in mining like his father who, by the time of Charles’ birth, seems to have been an under-viewer, which was in effect the deputy manager of a coal mine. But Henry died when Charles was just four years old and his mother married another colliery manager, Francis Fraim, an overman (the third person in the hierarchy of a coal mine). The older boys duly followed their father and stepfather underground but what Charles later viewed as a happy accident, at the age of about seven, changed the direction of the youngest brother’s life.

Street fighter

In a quarrel with some other children in the street, Charles’ right elbow was hurt. Being afraid to tell his parents, he apparently concealed the injury for several days by which time surgeons were unable to put the damage right. Charles’ mother, in particular, was said to have worried that her son wouldn’t be able to earn a living in mining as expected and to have ensured that he received a first-class education.

The first school Charles attended was in Percy Street, close to the family’s home. It was ‘kept by an old Scottish woman’. According to Hutton, she taught him to read but was no great scholar. Whenever she came to a word which she couldn’t read herself, she directed the children to skip it: ‘for it was Latin’!

To High Heaton

The family then moved to Benwell and soon after, according to contemporary and friend, John Bruce, to High Heaton. We don’t know exactly where they lived but Charles was able to go to a school across the Ouseburn valley in Jesmond. The school was run by Rev Mr Ivison and was an establishment at which Charles seems to have flourished.

Nevertheless, writing at the time of Hutton’s death in 1823, Bruce said that he had recently been shown paperwork which showed that in 1755-6, Charles did work in a pit albeit only briefly – as a hewer (a coalminer who worked underground cutting coal from the seam), at Long Benton colliery, where his step-father was an overman.

At around this time, however, Mr Ivison left the Jesmond school and young Charles, by now 18 years old, began teaching there in his place. The school relocated to Stotes Hall which, some older readers may remember, stood on Jesmond Park Road until its demolition in 1953. He then relocated in turn to the Flesh Market, St Nicholas’ Churchyard and Westgate Street in the city centre. There he taught John Scott, famous locally for eloping with Betty Surtees and nationally, after being elevated to the House of Lords with the title Lord Eldon, for his tenure as Lord Chancellor. Lord Eldon spoke glowingly of his old teacher as did many of his pupils.

‘As a preceptor, Dr Hutton was characterised by mildness, kindness, promptness in discovering the difficulties which his pupils experienced, patience in removing these difficulties, unwearied perseverance, a never-failing lover of the act of communicating knowledge by oral instruction’ Dr Olinthus Gregory

Charles Hutton by Benjamin Wyon, 1823 (Thank you to the National Portrait Gallery)

Charles Hutton by Benjamin Wyon (Reproduced with permission of the National Portrait Gallery)

Hutton was often described as ‘indefatigable’. One advert he placed offers:

‘Any schoolmasters, in town and country, who are desirous of improvement in any branches of the mathematics, by applying to Mr Hutton, may be instructed during the Christmas holidays.’

Bobby Shafto

Another interesting pupil was Robert Shafto of Benwell Towers, who originally hired Hutton to teach his children. He gave Charles the use of his extensive library and directed him towards helpful text books. In return Charles gave his mentor refresher classes. (There is considerable disagreement about whether this Robert was the ‘Bonnie Bobby Shafto’ of the well-known song. Robert was a traditional family name of more than one branch of the Shafto family so it’s difficult to be sure. One theory is that the song was originally written earlier about a previous Robert but that further verses were added over the years as it continued to be sung about a succession of members of the family who were in public life. This Robert was certainly Sherriff of Northumberland and may also have been the Robert Shafto painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.)

On 3 March 1764, Charles published his first book ‘The Schoolmaster’s Guide or a Complete System of Practical Arithmetic’ . The book was praised for its clarity and precision and the second edition, published two years later, became a standard school textbook for at least 60 years.

Bewick Engravings

But it was in Charles Hutton’s next book on measurement, ‘A Treatise on Mensuration both in Theory and Practice’ that he ‘first eminently distinguished himself as a mathematician’. The book, published in 1770, is also notable for the diagrams, which were engraved by a 16 year old Thomas Bewick, at this time an apprentice wood engraver.

Extract from Hutton's book with Thomas Bewick engravings

Extract from Hutton’s book with Thomas Bewick engravings

This volume is evidence of Hutton’s growing reputation: the names of some 600 subscribers who supported its publication, are listed at the front: many are from the North East and include the Duke of Northumberland but others are from as far afield as Aberdeen and Cornwall, many of them schoolteachers.

Further evidence of the esteem in which Hutton was held came when the Mayor and Corporation of Newcastle asked him to carry out a survey of the town. A commission to produce an engraved map, based on the survey, followed and, after the terrible floods of 1771 in which Newcastle’s Medieval bridge was washed away, Hutton was approached to produce calculations to inform the design of its replacement. It included a brief to examine ‘properties of arches, thickness of piers, the force of water against them’. A copy of the original map can still be seen in the Lit and Phil.

And soon an opportunity arose to cement his reputation in London and beyond. A vacancy was advertised for the post of Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. It appears that, at first, Hutton, who was at this time by all accounts a modest, shy young man, was reluctant to apply but his mentor, Robert Shafto, persuaded him. He was up against competition of the highest order but was appointed and moved to London. His wife, Isabella, and his four children, remained in Newcastle. Isabella, who died in 1785, is buried in Jesmond Cemetery.

Good company

A string of important works followed including ‘The force of Fired Gunpowder, and the initial velocity of Cannon Balls, determined by Experiments’ for which he won the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, still awarded annually for ‘outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science’ anywhere in the world. The list of winners reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the sciences and includes Benjamin Franklin, William Herschel, Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, another adopted Heatonian, Charles Algernon Parsons and, more recently, Francis Crick and Stephen Hawking. Charles Hutton, our former pit hewer, is in good company!

Bust of Charles Hutton by Sebastian Gahagan now in the Lit and Phil

Bust of Charles Hutton by Sebastian Gahagan now in the Lit and Phil

But he didn’t stop there. Hutton’s discoveries, publications and positions of importance are too numerous to mention here but perhaps his greatest achievement was his series of calculations to ascertain the density of the earth.

‘The calculations… were more laborious and, at the same time, called for more ingenuity than has probably been brought into action by a single person since the preparation of logarithmic tables’.

Hutton made the calculations based on measurements taken at Mount Schiehallion in Perthshire by the Astronomer Royal, The Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne and his team. Although the result has since been refined, the methodology was a significant scientific breakthrough. A bi-product was Hutton’s pioneering use of contour lines: geographers, cartographers and walkers, as well as mathematicians, have reason to toast the name of Charles Hutton.

Legacy

Our knowledge of Hutton’s personal life is limited, but we do know that he married for a second time and fathered another daughter. Tragedy struck in 1793 when two of his four daughters died. One of them, Camilla, had married a soldier, who was posted to the West Indies. Camilla and her two year old son, Charles, accompanied him but her husband firstly was injured and then contacted yellow fever, a disease to which his wife also succumbed. Young Charles was both orphaned and a prisoner of war until he was rescued by an uncle and taken to his grandfather in London. Hutton, who was, by this time, 58 years old and his second wife, Margaret, brought up the boy as their own and ensured that he received a good education. Although Hutton did not live to see his success, Charles Blacker Vignoles became a bridge and railway engineer of world renown. He pioneered the use of the flat-bottomed rail, which bears his name. Neatly, one of the first lines in Britain to use the Vignoles Rail was the Newcastle – North Shields line through the area in which the grandfather, who was such an influence upon him, grew up.

Geordie to the Last

Charles Hutton himself never came back to Tyneside: although he often said he wanted to return, he suffered persistent ill health in his later years and, according to his letters, he was ultimately deterred by the extreme discomfort he had endured on the journeys of his youth. But he took a great interest in Newcastle’s affairs, regularly corresponding with friends here, remaining a member of the Lit and Phil and regularly supporting a number of local causes financially, among them the Jubilee School in Newcastle and a school teachers’ welfare society. The education of young people in the city of his birth was close to Charles Hutton’s heart right until his death on 27 January 1823 at the age of 85. He deserves to be remembered, especially by Heaton, where he spent some of his formative years.

Sources

Sources consulted include:

A memoir of Charles Hutton by John Bruce, read at the meeting of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, May 6 1823

Brief Memoir of Charles Hutton LLD FRS from the Imperial Magazine for March 1823

(both held by the ‘Lit and Phil’.)

Charles Blacker Vignoles: romantic engineer by K H Vignoles; Cambridge University Press, 2010 9780521135399

Many thanks to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne for permission to publish the photographs of the Andrew Morton painting and Sebastian Gahagan bust, and to the National Portrait Gallery, for permission to reproduce the Benjamin Wyon medal.

Dreams of Nature: William Armstrong and Jesmond Dene

William Armstrong, Baron Armstrong of Cragside (1810–1900) is best known as a practical engineer and scientist – the inventor of modern artillery and creator of the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity – but he had an intensely romantic side that revealed itself in his shaping of the landscape around him. ‘I am a greater lover of nature than most people give me credit for,’ wrote Armstrong in 1855, by which time he had started to transform his garden and grounds in Jesmond Dene to reflect his dream of living in the mountains.

Early 20C postcard of Jesmond Dene, published by Alexander Denholm Brash of 92 Heaton Road

Early 20C postcard of Jesmond Dene, published by Alexander Denholm Brash of 92 Heaton Road

Armstrong’s attachment to Jesmond Dene, which began in childhood, remained strong throughout his long life. As his prosperity increased, he was more and more inclined to share the pleasures of the place with others. For example, in the early 1860s, he built a Banqueting Hall in the dene – not for lavish feasting, but for entertaining his workers at tea parties. In 1884 he handed over the dene and the hall to the citizens of Newcastle in perpetuity, with clear instructions about their preservation and use.

Another early 20C card of Jesmond Dene by Alexander Denholm Brash

Another early 20C card of Jesmond Dene by Alexander Denholm Brash

AT our talk on Wednesday 25 March 2015, Henrietta Heald, author of ‘William Armstrong, Magician of the North’, will talk about the long association between Armstrong and Jesmond Dene, the dene’s status as a public park, and the future of the Banqueting Hall, which is now the subject of a restoration campaign. The talk will take place at The Corner House, Heaton Road, NE6 5RP at 7.30pm (Doors open at 7.00pm. You are advised to take your seat by 7.15pm). Please book your place by contacting maria@heatonhistorygroup.org /07443 594154.

Please note: this replaces the originally advertised talk by Andrew McLean.