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NEW VENUE When Laurie and Hardy Came to Tyneside NEW VENUE

Wednesday 22 February 2023 7.30pm Open for Booking: members and non-members

Of all the double acts in the history of entertainment and the cinema, arguably none have been more revered than Laurel and Hardy. Most of their films were made in America but Stan Laurel was, of course, a northern lad. He lived in North Shields between 1897 and 1902 and went to King’s School, Tynemouth. We will learn more about Stan’s origins but especially the pair’s 1932 visit to Stan’s old stomping ground.

Stan Laurel’s statue in Dockwray Square, North Shields.

Our Speaker

This is Freda Thompson‘s third talk for Heaton History Group. Those of us lucky enough to have been at the first two are looking forward to her return.

Our Venue

This talk will take place at St George’s United Reformed Church on Newton Road, High Heaton NE7 7HP. It is on the corner with Boundary Gardens, the same block as Heaton Stannington’s football ground, Grounsell Park.

There are excellent public transport links including the numbers 18, 38, 52 and 553, which stop right by the church.

There is car parking on the surrounding streets.

Booking The talk is free to members and cost £2.50 for non-members. Once booking has opened, reserve your place by contacting Maria on maria-graham@live.co.uk 07443 594154.

Legend Clouded in Myths: T Dan Smith

Wednesday 26 April 2023 7.30pm at St George’s, High Heaton

Open for member booking

Known as ‘Mr Newcastle’ or ‘Mouth of the Tyne’, T Dan Smith was, in his time, the best-known politician in the UK outside of Westminster. Following imprisonment for corruption in 1974, T Dan’s reputation was further damaged when he was blamed for planning mistakes in Newcastle city centre. Over the years he has become a legend clouded in myths. What is the truth about this charismatic visionary?

Our Speaker

Anthony Atkinson was born in Gateshead, attended St Cuthbert’s Grammar School, Newcastle and studied Economics at Clare College, Cambridge. He qualified as a chartered accountant and held various positions as financial director in industry before undertaking a management buyout acquiring 32 retail shops from Vaux Group Plc. After selling the business, Anthony reverted to his ‘first love’ of history. He is now a Newcastle City Guide, a volunteer for Friends of The Laing Art Gallery and also a volunteer guide at the Lit & Phil. This is one of his portfolio of ten talks.

Our Venue

This talk will take place at St George’s United Reformed Church on Newton Road, High Heaton NE7 7HP. It is on the corner with Boundary Gardens, the same block as Heaton Stannington’s football ground, Grounsell Park.

There are excellent public transport links including the numbers 18, 38, 52 and 553, which stop right by the church.

There is car parking on the surrounding streets. 

Booking The talk is free to members and cost £2.50 for non-members. Once booking has opened, reserve your place by contacting Maria on maria-graham@live.co.uk or 07443 594154

Stars and Stripes Forever: Professor Esmond Wright

What honour did a former Heaton schoolboy share with composer Sir William Walton, dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn, former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, writer and broadcaster Sir Alistair Cook, actor Dame Judi Dench, naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Ive, chief designer of Apple? We’ll come to the answer later but first of all, let’s go back to the early life of Esmond Wright.

Esmond Wright

Heaton

Esmond Wright senior, an armature winder, and his wife, Isabella,  were living in a Tyneside flat at 5 Amble Grove in what we now call Sandyford but which was then in the Heaton municipal electoral ward when, in 1915, they had their first child. They named him after his father, as many parents did.

Aged 11, young Esmond went to Heaton Secondary School for Boys, where he excelled. He then won a scholarship to read history at Armstrong College in Newcastle and graduated in 1938 from what had, by then, become Kings College, a constituent college of the University of Durham, also winning the Gladstone Memorial Prize. Coincidentally or perhaps a testament to the quality of history teaching at Heaton Secondary Schools, another distinguished Heatonian, Elsie Hume (later Tu) had graduated in History and English from the same institution just a year earlier.

USA 

After graduating, Esmond made the most of an opportunity which was to shape his future career. He was awarded a two year fellowship to enable him to continue his studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville,  which had been founded by Thomas Jefferson and was now considered to be one of the top academic institutions in the USA.

Esmond fell in love with America and quickly made his mark on it.  In 1939, he was awarded the University of Virginia’s John White Stevenson Fund Prize in Political Science. (Stevenson was a nineteenth century Virginia-born governor of Kentucky, who represented the state in both houses of Congress).  

Much closer to home, his article entitled ‘American Politics in the Roosevelt era‘ appeared in the Summer 1939 issue of C A Parsons’ ‘Heaton Works Journal’, an in-house magazine for the company’s staff. Little did Esmond know when he wrote it that, just a year later, he would witness in person a speech of Roosevelt’s at a key point in the growing tensions that, in summer 1939, were still to escalate into a global conflict.

The following year, Esmond won the American History Prize, offered annually by the Virginia Society of the Cincinnati. (The Society of the Cincinnati, the USA’s ‘oldest patriotic organization’ was ‘founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army who served together in the American Revolution. Its mission is to promote knowledge and appreciation of the achievement of American independence and to foster fellowship among its members’).   The prize was a bronze medal and 100 dollars.

This achievement along with the news that Esmond had been appointed to the board of directors of ‘The Virginia Spectator’, a monthly magazine published by the university was proudly announced by the ‘Newcastle Evening Chronicle’ under the heading ‘Newcastle Man’s Success in USA’.

10 June 1940 was both a high point and a low point for Esmond Wright. President Franklin D Roosevelt was already due to address that year’s graduating students, a cohort which included his own son, when it became known that Italy had declared war on Britain and France. The address was hastily rewritten during Roosevelt‘s train journey to Charlottesville  into the USA’s major political response to Mussolini’s act of war, which became known as the  ‘hand which held the dagger’ or ‘stab in the back’ speech.The occasion was charged with emotion and the speech, in which Roosevelt’s anger was never far from the surface marked a turning point in US foreign policy: from then on there would be all-out aid to the democracies and an unprecedented build-up in America’s military preparedness. It must have been an incredible experience to have been introduced to the president on such a momentous occasion. Wright’s fascination with US history and politics never left him – and nor did his love of Virginia, in particular.

But Wright’s sojourn in the USA was at an end and when he returned home it was to join the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Intelligence Corps where he served in South Africa and the Middle East and quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Below is a summary of his war service in Wright’s own handwriting.

Scotland

In 1945, with the war drawing to a close,  Wright was finally able to marry 27 year old Olive Adamson of Sunderland. (Their wedding service was officiated by the Reverend Herbert Barnes, late of Heaton.) Olive had been a fellow historian at King’s College who had graduated with a First.  She, like her husband previously, had won the Gladstone Memorial Prize in Modern History before going on to teach at Ulverston Grammar School and then her old school, Bede School for Girls. The couple were to be together for nearly 60 years.

After demobilisation, the Wrights moved north to Scotland where Esmond took up an appointment as a lecturer in the history department at Glasgow University. As well was teaching and research, a major part of his role was to facilitate graduate student exchanges between the UK and the USA. His work enabled huge numbers of young people to benefit from these, just as he had done on graduation from Kings College.

We know too that he also gave adult evening lectures in current affairs, on such subjects as ‘The Russian Attitude’, ‘America and the Dollar Problem’, ‘Conditions in Germany’ and ‘Life in Palestine Today’. By 1957 Wright had been appointed to the post of Professor of Modern History, the first American history specialist to be appointed to a general chair of history at a British university. During his tenure as a professor, he wrote several books on his specialist subject including

  • Washington and the American Revolution, 1957.
  • Benjamin Franklin and American Independence, 1966.

 Alongside his teaching and writing, Wright was also becoming known to the wider public, especially in Scotland, where he presented  current affairs programmes on both radio and television, programmes such as ‘This Day and Age’, where he was introduced as a ‘noted historian’.

But to the surprise of many, his time at Glasgow University came to a sudden end in 1967.

Politics

In December 1966, Alex Garrow the Labour MP for Glasgow Pollock died at the age of only 43. To the surprise of many, Esmond Wright was announced as the Conservative candidate to fight the resulting by-election. The campaign was complicated by the decision of the SNP to field a candidate for the first time, drawing votes from both main parties but especially Labour. Perhaps helped by his media profile but to his surprise, as well as that of others, and despite his stated lack of political ambition, Wright was the victor with a majority of just over 2,000. His parliamentary career did not last long, however. Labour regained the seat at the 1970 General Election. Nevertheless Wright continued to be involved in politics, becoming Deputy Chairman of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland and Principal of the Swinton Conservative Party College, a national, residential centre of education for party workers, based near Masham, Yorkshire.

Return to Academia

 After his electoral defeat, Wright was free to return to academic life. He became Director of the Institute of US Studies and Professor of American History at London University and retained his links with Scotland as Visiting Professor in the Department of Economic History at Strathclyde University.

During this period, his writing career really took off, with many published works on American history and politics including,

  • Benjamin Franklin; a profile, 1970.
  • A Tug of loyalties : Anglo-American relations, 1765–85, 1975.
  • Red, white and true blue : the loyalists in the Revolution by Conference on the American Loyalists, 1976.
  • Franklin of Philadelphia, 1986.
  • Benjamin Franklin: his life as he wrote it by Benjamin Franklin 1989.
  • The search for liberty: from origins to independence, 1994.
  • An empire for liberty: from Washington to Lincoln, 1995.
  • The American Dream: From Reconstruction to Reagan, 1996

He also found time to write several world histories for a general audience and he continued to appear on television on radio both north and south of the border.

Incidentally, the dedication in Wright’s 1986 biography of Franklin recognised the contribution of his wife, Olive.

‘To my beautiful wife who devoted herself to these studies for so many years’.

Other Interests

Outside higher education and politics, Wright had many other interests. In the private sector: 

  • he was a Director of George Outram & Co,  the publisher and printer of The Glasgow Herald, The Bulletin, The Evening Times and a number of weekly periodicals.
  • despite not being a driver or owning a car himself, he was associated with the Automobile Association for over 30 years, as Vice Chairman, Honorary Treasurer and Vice President.
  • he was associated with Border TV, as first Vice Chairman and then Chairman.

He also served on the British National Commission for UNESCO.

Accolade

But it was an accolade in 1986 which Wright considered the  high point of his professional career and to which the teaser that opened this article refers. His fascination with Benjamin Franklin,  scientist, diplomat, philosopher, inventor and Founding Father of the United States, had led to him producing  a number of works, culminating in ‘Franklin Of Philadelphia’ (1986), a ‘substantial, beautifully written biography’.

He was also a Governor of ‘Friends of Benjamin Franklin Ltd’ , a group which was striving to open a Benjamin Franklin Museum at 36 Craven Street, London, Franklin’s former home. (The museum finally opened to the public on 17 January 2006, the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth and three years after the death of Wright.)

Image copyright: RSA

Imagine then his thrill at the importance of his life’s work being recognised and also his being elevated into the illustrious company of people like Sir William Walton, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Harold Macmillan,  Sir Bernard Lovell and Sir Alistair Cook – Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Attenborough and Newcastle Polytechnic graduate Jonathan Ive came later – by his winning a major prize named after Franklin himself, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA)’s Benjamin Franklin Medal.  The prestigious award is conferred on individuals, groups, and organisations who have made profound efforts to forward Anglo-American understanding in areas closely linked to the RSA’s agenda. It is also awarded to recognise those that have made a significant contribution to global affairs through co-operation and collaboration between the United Kingdom and the United States. The citation referred to Wright’s ‘prodigious and persistent contribution to the promotion of Anglo-American understanding’. it also congratulated him on ‘his biography of Benjamin Franklin “Franklin of Philadelphia” which has received wide acclaim in this country and America’. He was presented with the medal, with his wife Olive seated next to him, by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Eulogies

Professor Esmond Wright died, aged 87, on 9 August 2003 in Masham, North Yorkshire where he and Olive lived in what could scarcely be called retirement –  Wright was writing and being published well into his eighties. Although he had travelled widely and lived in the USA, Scotland and Yorkshire, many of Wright’s obituary writers refer to his lovely voice and charm. ‘The Times’ said he was ‘Blessed with a pleasant melodious voice’; ‘The Independent’ wrote ‘behind his Oxbridge manner, there lurked something like a Northumbrian intonation in his voice that struck a note of warmth, informality and dry humour, which his students always greatly appreciated and his friends will miss.’ In the opinion of ‘The Guardian’, he had ‘a wonderfully relaxed, informal manner and an effortless personal charm which made it almost impossible to have an argument with him, or to persist in any kind of grievance’. Perhaps we can put both his dulcet tones and his geniality at least in part down to his Heaton roots.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group. Thank you to the Royal Society of Arts (RSA); Maurice Large, Unitarian Church Leader; Susan Cunliffe-Lister of Swinton Park and Masham and Newcastle University libraries for their help.

Can You Help?

If you know any more about Esmond Wright or have photographs to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

 Ancestry

British Newspaper Archive

Find My Past

Fold3

Guardian, Independent and Times obituaries of Esmond Wright

Who’s Who 2000

Other online sources

NEW VENUE Cobbled Streets and Penny Sweets: 1950s’ Newcastle NEW VENUE

Wednesday 22 March 2023 7.30pm Open for Booking: members and non-members

‘Cobbled Streets and Penny Sweets’ is an affectionate, at times hard-hitting and beautifully evocative portrait of life in a city that has changed beyond recognition. Above all, it is a story of family, friendship and getting through the hard times with a healthy dose of Geordie humour.

So soon after World War Two, the 50s were a time of great hardship and yet people made the best of what little they had, as housewives competed to scrub their doorsteps clean and children turned derelict houses into playgrounds. We’ll hear about some characters of the time and the down as well as the up side of the era.

Our speaker

Yvonne Young`s childhood in 1950s’ Newcastle was spent at the heart of the city`s industry. With her grandfather working as a ship painter, her uncle Tom helping to build them and neighbours working for the local armaments factory, the shipyards and factories were her community`s lifeblood. Yvonne has published numerous books including: ‘Benwell Remembered’ and ‘Westenders‘ parts 1 and 2, ‘The Grainger Market: the peoples history‘ and, in 2019, ‘Cobbled Streets and Penny Sweets’.

Our Venue

This talk will take place at St George’s United Reformed Church on Newton Road, High Heaton NE7 7HP. It is on the corner with Boundary Gardens, the same block as Heaton Stannington’s football ground, Grounsell Park.

There are excellent public transport links including the numbers 18, 38, 52 and 553, which stop right by the church.

There is car parking on the surrounding streets.

Booking The talk is free to members and cost £2.50 for non-members. Once booking has opened, reserve your place by contacting Maria on maria-graham@live.co.uk or 07443 594154.

NEW VENUE L S Lowry and the North East NEW VENUE

Wednesday 25 January 2023 7.30pm Open for Booking: members and non-members

L S Lowry’s creative work is much better known than the man himself. This talk attempts to redress the balance by examining his modest life and the relationships he established with others. He spent a considerable amount of time in the north-east, especially in his later years and this aspect of his life will be examined in detail.

‘Old Chapel’ by L S Lowry (Otherwise known as the Sailors’ Bethel, Horatio Street, Ouseburn )

Our Speaker

Ian McCardle attended Heaton Technical and Manor Park schools and then went on to Exeter University to study French and Spanish. He worked for twenty years as a modern languages teacher in England and Germany before joining Newcastle University as Deputy Director of the Language Centre. He has volunteered with Age UK and the Youth Hostel Association and he is a Victoria Tunnel guide on which he also give talks. He has previously given an informative and entertaining talk to our group about the history of the Lit and Phil.

Our Venue

This talk will take place at St George’s United Reformed Church on Newton Road, High Heaton NE7 7HP. It is on the corner with Boundary Gardens, the same block as Heaton Stannington’s football ground, Grounsell Park.

There are excellent public transport links including the numbers 18, 38, 52 and 553, which stop right by the church.

There is car parking on the surrounding streets. The nearest car park is in Paddy Freeman’s Car Park, just round the corner off Freeman Road, about a 3 minute walk away.

Booking The talk is free to members and cost £2.50 for non-members. Once booking has opened, reserve your place by contacting Maria on maria-graham@live.co.uk or 07443 594154

Sailing South with Shackleton

The parents and grandparents of Heaton History Group member, Valerie Moffit, were residents of Heaton and Byker from the early 1890s through to around 1930: the Browns, on her mother’s side, lived in Chillingham Road and later Ebor Street; her father’s family, the Smeatons, were in Corbridge Street, just the other side of Shields Road. In 1900, her grandfather Jack Smeaton (1875-1955) was not yet married and shared number 121 with his parents Thomas and Catherine, his two brothers, and four of his five sisters.  Another sister, Ellen, had left home some years earlier – on the 1891 census she is living with a family in Bishop Wearmouth as a domestic servant, aged twelve. 

The Smeaton home no longer exists – Corbridge Street was a victim of slum clearance in the 1960s.  The last time Valerie walked along there it was devoid of dwellings, reduced to little more than a service lane behind the Shields Road shops and other commercial buildings. 

Jack Smeaton was a wheelwright by trade, serving his seven-year apprenticeship at Atkinson and Philipson’s carriage works on Pilgrim Street and working there as a loyal employee until the firm closed in 1920.  During his time there he saw the rapid revolution in the transport industry from horse-drawn to mechanised vehicles: on his marriage certificate in 1910 he still described himself as a wheelwright, but by 1914 his declared job title was ‘motor finisher’.

Jack’s working life with Philipson’s was interrupted twice: he volunteered for the Boer War in 1900 and again for the Great War in 1915. 

Jack’s Journal

Just before his 25th birthday, Jack was sworn in with the 1st Newcastle Royal Engineer (RE) Volunteers who were to go to South Africa to support the regular REs, rebuilding bridges, roads and railways destroyed by Boer commandos. He was part of a small section of twenty-five volunteer sappers under the command of Lieutenant Pollard. 

Jack kept a journal of his experiences in the Boer War. It has been passed down as a treasured family possession and Valerie is lucky enough to be the current keeper. 

Page 1 of Jack Smeaton’s journal

Here is how Jack recorded the departure of the volunteers from Newcastle:

Receive orders and are served out with our kit, to leave on Jan 31st [1900] for Chatham.  Before leaving we were entertained to a grand dinner in Officers Mess and afterwards held a grand smoker in Drill Hall.  Fell in at 10.30 p.m. to march to station, and we were treated to a very forcible demonstration of the patriotism of Tyneside. At the station we had to literally fight our way through and on the platform we were swayed to and fro by the crowd and it was a great relief when we were safely seated in the carriage.  At 11.30 p.m. amid deafening cheers of the people on the platforms we steamed out of the station.’

The Newcastle men were stationed at Chatham from 1 February until 10 March, along with twelve more engineer volunteer sections.  They were ‘instructed in different arms of engineering such as bridging, defences, railway construction and demolition.

On 9 March the men were photographed.

Jack Smeaton, 1st Newcastle Royal Engineers, 9 March 1900

Next day, Jack and his comrades were transported by train to Southampton docks where ‘after piling our kit on board the Tintagel Castle we had breakfast at the Absent-Minded Beggar stall which is kept up by the Daily Mail fund.’

The name of the stall was from a poem that Rudyard Kipling wrote to raise money for British families suffering poverty due to the loss of wages by men who, as reservists, had volunteered for the war. 

Sailing South with Shackleton

You might say that Valerie’s grandfather was one of the first men to sail south with Shackleton.  But this was not an expedition to the South Pole: the voyage in question was aboard the ocean liner mentioned in the above quote, the Tintagel Castle, bound for South Africa.  The ship had been commissioned to transport 1,200 reinforcements to the Cape, and Ernest Shackleton was the newly-appointed Third Officer. 

Less than a year later, Shackleton was appointed Third Officer again, this time on board the Discovery on a famous expedition to the Antarctic, led by Robert Falcon Scott. The ship departed London on 31 July 1901. On arrival at the Antarctic coast, Shackleton was chosen to be a member of the party which continued on foot and sledge towards the South Pole. Scott, Shackleton and Edward Wilson arrived at the most southerly latitude hitherto reached by man on 30 December 1902. Just over six years later, Shackleton led his own expedition which got even nearer to the pole. He returned a national hero and famous the world over.

But, for now, Shackleton was an ambitious young officer on the Tintagel Castle, keen to make an impression on any contact who might prove useful in his future career.  Despite being a doctor’s son, he had joined the merchant navy as a boy and worked his way up through the ranks.  

Jack and Ernest were a similar age and must have read the same boys’ adventure stories during their very different childhoods.  Now, they are both aboard the Tintagel Castle as she casts off from Southampton docks and heads for the open sea on 10 March 1900.

It is unlikely that the two men met as individuals.  But Jack cannot fail to have been aware of the energetic Third Officer, who set himself the enjoyable task of organising entertainments for the troops, arranging sports and concerts to stave off boredom on the long voyage.  He was described by an eye-witness as ‘a vision in white and gold’: broad-shouldered and square-jawed, he cut a dashing figure as he strode around the packed ship.

Ernest Shackleton, photographed in 1901

Shackleton wrote a book about the voyage, in collaboration with the ship’s medical officer, Doctor W McLean, consisting of articles and photographs describing daily life at sea.  It is entitled OHMS or How 1200 Soldiers Went to Table Bay and Valerie was able to study the copy held by the National Library of Scotland.  

Several pages are devoted to describing ‘How we were Fed’, detailing the quantities required to provision the Tintagel Castle for her 6,000-mile trip with 1200 troops aboard.   Meat and other perishable foods such as fish and fruit were stored in four refrigerating chambers, capable of holding 160 tons of stores.  The baking of the bread supply fully occupied, night and day, three ship’s bakers and two volunteers from the ranks; some 1200 lbs of flour were used daily.

Jack Smeaton was very impressed with the catering arrangements and in his journal he described his first day at sea:

Reveille on board a troopship is at 5.30, so next morning we had to rise and stow hammocks before 6.0 a.m.  Breakfast was at 7.30, it consisted of porridge, fish, marmalade, bread and butter and coffee.  It being Sunday no work was done.  We entered the Bay of Biscay about noon, had dinner at 12.30 p.m., it being made up of three courses, soup, meat & potatoes, and pudding with stewed fruits.  As we travelled southwards the weather became very fine and summerlike, quite a contrast to what we had it just a day before.  At 4.30 p.m. tea was served with cold meat or fish, pickles, preserves and bread and butter.  There was no stint of any article of food and so it continued throughout the voyage.  A plan of diet was drawn up so that the menu was changed each day, and at 7 p.m. supper was put on the tables for those who cared for it, which consisted of cabin biscuits and cheese, and the canteen was open for an hour at mid-day and again at 7 p.m. for the sale of beer and mineral waters.  Everybody had to retire at 9.30 as lights went out at 10 p.m.’

Two days later Jack records that the members of the section were inoculated by the ship’s doctor and ‘that night and most of the next day was spent in bed in great pain’.  The commanding officer at Chatham had advised all the men to be inoculated against enteric fever (typhoid) and so Dr McLean was kept busy. 

From Scarlet to Khaki

On March 21st the Tintagel Castle crossed the Equator.

A few days later Jack makes a surprising revelation in his journal:

Sunday got orders to parade in red uniforms but most of us had done away with them, having threw them overboard.’

Even though more than 120 years have elapsed, this sentence still has the power to shock.  What can possibly have incited the men – normally responsible and obedient – to commit this act of insubordination?  On a visit to the Royal Engineers Museum, Valerie mentioned it to the librarian.  She was scathing.  ‘Oh well, they were volunteers.  Regular soldiers would not have done that.  It’s a matter of discipline.’ 

It is true that Jack and his fellow Newcastle sappers were volunteers, not professionals; but they have been ‘sworn in to serve twelve months, or as long as the war should last’.  They take their soldiering seriously.  Before leaving Tyneside, they practised bayonet exercises; and while at the Royal Engineers barracks in Chatham they were put through musketry drill as well as being instructed in engineering skills.  They were also given a short explosives course, learning how to make up and set charges.  This is not a jaunt – they know they are going to be involved in deadly warfare: several thousand British troops have already lost their lives in the first few months of the war.  So, what is behind the mad moment of indiscipline when the sappers hurl their dress uniforms into the sea?  Perhaps there is a clue in what happened a few days earlier, when the vessel crossed the equator:

… at 8pm King Neptune came on board with his retinue and fireworks were let off.  And the next day (Thurs. 22nd) the whole ceremony was gone through, shaving and baptizing in the big canvas bath all they got hold of.’ 

For a day, the strict military routine of life on board a troopship is turned on its head.  The men are swept up in the boisterous high jinks of the traditional crossing the equator ceremony, while Neptune reigns as lord of misrule.  The temperature climbs to 90 degrees in the shade that day.    Maybe one of the men stirs up his comrades, saying that their scarlet jackets will make them easy targets for the Boer marksmen.

‘They’ll pick us off like sitting ducks!  We need to be in khaki – it’s proper camouflage.  Let’s chuck this red stuff into the sea.’  

In the heat of the moment, it all makes perfect sense to Jack and his mates. 

Valerie said she likes to imagine the men leaning over the side and cheering as the scarlet tunics, bobbing in the wake of the ship, slowly disappear into the wide blue Atlantic.

The sappers’ fears were not unfounded.  Some of the older troops on board could have told cautionary tales of the Redcoats who were slaughtered in the First Boer War of 1880 to 1881, when their vivid jackets made them all too visible to enemy snipers.  Soon after that campaign, khaki began to be adopted by the British Army.  At first, soldiers experimented with mud and tea leaves on white cotton, but in 1884 an effective dye was developed.  The change was gradual, and traditionalists disapproved of the innovation – for instance, Queen Victoria describing khaki as a ‘café-au-lait shade quite unsuitable for uniform’.  But despite resistance from the Queen and other non-combatants, the benefits were obvious to ordinary soldiers.  The Second Boer War of 1899-1902 – Jack Smeaton’s war – was the first all-khaki campaign, and in 1902 it became standard battledress.

Cape Town Sights

Saturday Mar 31st [1900] we sighted Table Mountain and dropped anchor in the Bay at 7 a.m.  We lay in the bay until noon on the Sunday when we then went into the harbour and disembarked at 3 p.m.

The Tintagel Castle docked at Cape Town

In the afternoon [of Monday 2nd April] we had a march through Cape Town.  A very nice town with electric trams in full working order and lots of hansom cabs, no four wheelers to be seen.  There are also a great many rickshaws drawn by Zulus, who adorn themselves with pairs of horns and feathers round their heads.  It is marvellous the pace these men travel with their fares along the street.  We returned to dock at about 5 p.m., being fairly tired out.  It was a bit strange walking through the streets after having been three weeks on board ship.’

No wonder Jack feels strange walking the streets of Cape Town.  Just a few weeks earlier he’d been in sooty Newcastle, trudging to the carriage works each morning in the January sleet.  Now here he is under a baking African sun, strolling under trees full of exotic blossom.  As he breathes in their strange perfume of sweetness and spice, he must wonder what the coming months hold in store. 

To be continued…

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Valerie Moffit, Heaton History Group.

Sources

Jack Smeaton’s journal (unpublished)

OHMS or How 1200 Soldiers Went to Table Bay / by W McLean and E H Shackleton; Simpkin, Marshall etc, 1900.

Wikipedia and other online sources

Can You Help?

If you know any more about anyone mentioned in this article or anyone else with Heaton connections who sailed on the Tintagel Castle or had connections to Shackleton or to polar exploration, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

‘Town with No Cheer’*: 1890s’ Heaton

Why has Shields Road got so many public houses and Chillingham Road so few? Is it merely because of the limitations and restrictions stemming from the nature of land ownership, most notably that of Lord Armstrong, which then became part of property deeds and covenants? Or is the truth much less certain but more interesting in that it encompasses wider themes and controversies of late nineteenth century Heaton, Newcastle and beyond?

This article will concentrate on the granting of licensed status to the East End Hotel (the earlier name of the Chillingham Hotel) in 1892 which became the first public house in Heaton proper but the story will also involve the burgeoning temperance movement, religious passions and educational ambitions within the general context of rapid urbanisation. This became known in the local press as The Heaton Question

Chillingham Hotel in 1966

Licences

From 1552 local Justices of the Peace had been given the power to decide who should be given a licence to run a ‘common alehouse’.  Partly in order to tackle the increasing popularity of wine and spirits, especially gin, and what was considered to be their more pernicious effects on family life and employment, the government of the Duke of Wellington decided to encourage the drinking of beer. The 1830 Beerhouse Act meant that any ratepayer could brew and sell beer on their premises without the need for a magistrate’s permission as long as they purchased a licence costing two guineas. Unsurprisingly this era of ‘free licensing’ led to a steep and rapid rise in the number of ‘beerhouses’ but would have been restricted in those areas where landowners prohibited this via the property deeds. The low population together with the existence of alehouses nearby may be enough to explain the lack of facilities in Heaton itself before the 1880s, rather than the importance of any land ownership covenants. 

Heaton’s expansion in the 1890s started from the south and west (OS Second Edition, 1894)

The popularity of ‘beershops’ attracted some criticisms from magistrates and religious groups especially those with links to the growing temperance movement.

The 1869 Wine and Beerhouse Act reimposed the necessity for the possession of a magistrate’s licence for any type of property selling alcoholic drinks either ‘on’ or ‘off’ the premises. Thus, by 1870, the justices had the power to refuse to grant or renew licences for all types of retail outlet. The magistrates’ decision making was arrived at via the public occasions known as Brewster Sessions which were also opportunities for interested parties to make their voice heard.  

Changing Heaton 

The growth of housing centred upon Chillingham Road was of course neither even nor instantaneous. Initially the area bordering Byker was seen as being part of that district rather than belonging to Heaton which stretched further away north and west. As Alan Morgan points out inHeaton from Farms to Foundries’ the rise in population and associated need for housing only began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. There were 257 people living in Heaton in 1871 but by 1901 the number had soared to 22,913. Previously urbanisation and industrialisation had been features of areas closer to the Tyne than in Heaton itself. The opening of the North Shields railway in 1839 with a passenger station near Heaton Road and the concomitant marshalling yard at Heaton Junction created employment and demand for housing. The area along Heaton Road had of course already been the scene of some house building though this was for a more up market clientele with views across the parks and easy access to the local churches that had also sprang up. In 1878 Byker Road Bridge saw a massive increase in traffic in comparison to the earlier toll footpath along the railway viaduct. It is interesting to note that the impact of the railways on the movement from farming to residential use also became a significant factor in the opposition to, and the need for, licensed premises within the district.    

William Turnbull

It is worth noting that before William Turnbull began the quest to gain a licence for a new institution to be called the East End Hotel he had already embarked upon a range of initiatives and entrepreneurial activities.  Although born into a farming family in Northumberland, by 1871 he was living in All Saints parish and was described in the census as being a wine and spirit merchant. Ten years later he is the licensee of the Trafalgar Inn, 84 New Bridge Street. By the late 1880’s he was the occupant of Meadowfield House (now social club) which is immediately behind what is now the Chillingham Hotel.

There had been some attempts to gain permission for licensed properties in Heaton prior to the involvement of William Turnbull but these had been sporadic and relatively small scale. The Brewster Sessions of 1 September 1886 were attended by deputations from the United Temperance Societies as well as Byker and Heaton Ratepayers. A provisional (i.e., subject to later confirmation) beer and wine licence was asked for a house which was about to be constructed at 5 North View (the property of John Wilson). The application was refused and it is worth noting that one aspect of more successful bids in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that the premises would be hotels rather than mere ‘beershops’ or off licences. Part of the more specific opposition to this application was the existence of a School of Science and Art nearby on Heaton Road which had been established as part of Dr Rutherford’s educational expansion from his College on Bath Lane. 

The strength of feeling within the city but with a particular emphasis on Byker and Heaton is demonstrated by the meeting of temperance inclined ratepayers on 8 September 1886 which took place in the Primitive Methodist Chapel on Heaton Road. Councillor James Birkett occupied the chair.

He began by congratulating the recent Brewster Sessions in their decision to refuse any new appeals for licences in Heaton. It was reported in the Daily Chronicle that Councillor Birkett ‘condemned the idea of granting a licence to a public-house on the main road to a Board School, and on a road which the majority of their workmen traversed to and from their work’.  He noted that any drinking establishments would be close to ‘one of the most beautiful parks in the kingdom’ the approaches to which needed to be protected ‘as a duty to our fellow citizens’. The plea to assess the strength of local feeling amongst ratepayers and other inhabitants was also strongly expressed and, as we will see, did soon play a part in further appeals. Whilst the general aspects of concern and opposition can be well understood today what makes these protestors more particular is their adherence to the notion of ‘temperance’ itself. Birkett did look forward to a time when the ‘legislature passed a bill abolishing public houses altogether’. Other contributors to the meeting included Rev May and Rev Dr Rutherford who observed that ‘Newcastle was still a city largely given up to intemperance. They were worse than Liverpool.’ (sic) 

Drunkenness

Did Newcastle have a particular problem with alcohol abuse? Brian Bennison in his 1994 article ‘Drunkenness in turn of the century Newcastle’ noted the number of criminal proceedings for drunkenness in the period 1896 – 1900 with England recording 62 convictions per 10,000 inhabitants and Newcastle upon Tyne standing at 207. A report from Rowntree and Shadwell in 1899 found that Newcastle had one public house for every 43 dwelling houses or 307 persons.  

The growth in the number of ‘beershops’ had however helped to occasion a rise in the opposition to licensed premises more generally. In 1858 the North of England Temperance League was founded under the slogan ‘Total Abstinence for the Individual and Prohibition for the Nation’. The local strength of feeling against the growth of licensed premises is exemplified by the origin and popularity of the North of England Temperance festival which began on the Town Moor in 1882, the first year that saw Newcastle Races decamp to Gosforth. The estimated attendance over the three days was at 150,000 much more than other similar events in England. It is interesting though unsurprising that some of those who became involved in The Heaton Question were also participants in what became an annual celebration and promotion of temperance.  

Opposition 

The Brewster Sessions of 4 September 1888 saw a licence application from James Mackey for a house to be constructed and called Station Hotel at the corner of Heaton Grove and Heaton Hall Road as well as from William Turnbull for a new house at the south end of Chillingham Road. It is interesting to note that the seeking of licences was often for premises which had not yet been built.  

The Temperance party objected to both East End applications with Mr Edward Elliott, a handrail manufacturer of 20 Stratford Grove, presenting a petition which was 23 feet in length and contained 700 names. There was also a record of the formal objection of Hawthorn, Leslie and Co, engineering works. The opposition of local employers as well as religious groups is a feature of these occasions. After 15 minutes the magistrates returned and refused both Heaton applications. No explanation or justifications needed to be given. 

On 7 August 1891 Temperance Federation meetings were held at Jesmond, Elswick, Shieldfield, and Heaton. Arthur’s Hill, Heaton and Jesmond were remarked upon as being ‘free or nearly free from licensed premises’ till now. Reference was made to Sharp versus Wakefield in the House of Lords as being evidence of the legal possibility of reducing the number of licences by their withdrawal over time.  

In 1891 Joseph Bell, a key figure in the foundation of Newcastle United and later the club’s chairman, made an application for a ‘beer shop’ off licence for 41 Rothbury Terrace and this led to some interesting debate regarding the nature of the covenant within the property deeds. It was observed that Lord Armstrong had given his approval for this application though without the presentation of any evidence. A Mr Robinson, in his opposition to the plea, inferred that the covenant would be broken on payment of some pecuniary reward to Lord Armstrong. This brought a rebuke from the Chair of the Bench who said that the transgression of the covenant may bring some financial cost but that Lord Armstrong was not the beneficiary of this. After a short discussion the application was granted. At this point Margaret Bagnall from 6 Rothbury Terrace withdrew her application.  

Declined 

Early September 1891 also saw an application by Turnbull for an ‘alehouse’ at 7 and 9 Chillingham Road. This was granted by Sir Benjamin Browne, the Chair of the Bench, despite the opposition of Thomas Barker, a temperance missionary. Discussion had been relatively brief with an observation that otherwise the nearest licensed premises was 600 yards away. This decision was however reversed on the 9 September 1891. Speaking for the application were J K Joel, barrister, and Mr E Clark on behalf of householders in the vicinity. Opposing the confirmation of the provisional licence was F J Greywell, barrister, acting for Mr Thomas Barker, a temperance missionary. 

Mr Joel noted that on the previous occasion there was little determined opposition and that if, as Sir Benjamin Browne stated, each case should be judged on its merits (outside of the temperance question more generally) then the licence should be confirmed due to population pressures and the suitability of the premises which Mr Turnbull believed would be used for ‘concerts and entertainments’. Mr Clark spoke in favour of the application stating that on the Meadowfield estate and several streets adjoining it there were 280 houses with 270 occupied. A petition signed by 206 occupants was presented again to the Bench with the remark that some of those who signed signifying their support for the licence were teetotallers themselves. There was then some seemingly good-natured laughter in court when Mr Clark somewhat ironically observed that Mr Barker was a ‘very worthy man who wore his badge of office quite visibly’ but as an advocate of local opinion would do well to accept the popularity of this licence being granted.  

Mr Greenwell acting on behalf of Mr Barker declared that a counter petition had been assembled and that he would like to present this to the court. This petition contained 613 names, 310 of whom were householders. Mr Clark made the accusation that Mr Barker had sought the names of servants and children to add to his list with the Chair adding, to some laughter in court, that he could discern some names on both petitions. After retiring for a time, the Bench returned to declare that the provisional licence was not being confirmed.  

31 August 1892 saw an application from John Harper Graham (at the time the licensee of a public house at 4 Burden Terrace, Jesmond) regarding a proposed hotel at the corner of Heaton Road and North View. Graham’s proposal was criticised in terms of reducing property prices as well as it being a ‘source of annoyance and temptation’ to attendees at Sunday School and associated meetings of young men at the nearby Primitive Methodist Chapel. The application was refused. 

Board School 

It was announced that Mr Turnbull had delivered an application for a licence for 5, 7 and 9 Chillingham Road. It was pointed out that Mr Turnbull owned the land where the Board School was to be built and although his original plan was to build houses there, he would give the plot for nothing if his application was accepted. Turnbull’s Assembly Rooms already existed on the site and had eighty members who paid an annual subscription. The application was opposed by Newcastle School Board, Bath Lane Science and Arts schools, and Councillor Flowers on behalf of young people more generally.  Mr Dunnell of the North Eastern Railway Company as a local employer added to the voices against by remarking that the nearby sidings were to be extended and 400 men employed (with the signal cabin being right opposite the proposed venture). 

The licence was granted as long as the large hall was separated from the licensed premises. As Brian Bennison says in Heavy Nights ‘The opening of the East End Hotel was an exceptional occurrence’ . 

East End Hotel shown on Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and Environs OS Town Plan 1:500, 1896

William Turnbull became ill after inspecting some building works and died in 1897. His son, Adam, a builder had died in 1894 with his other son, Robert, only outliving William by a few months.

Turnbull family grave, All Saints Cemetery

The Heaton Question resolved? 

Apart from a veiled threat to refuse the building of a Board School on his land there are other aspects to Mr. Turnbull’s eventual success. East End FC, who played on land owned by William Turnbull, had held a public event at his Assembly Rooms in 1892 as well as taking part in the Temperance Festival in June 1883 where the junior team won a trophy. This continued after the establishment of the East End Hotel with a Rural Fete to support the move of St Gabriel’s ‘Iron Mission Chapel’ from Chillingham Road to Heaton Road as well as hosting the Byker and Heaton Conservative Club Ball. 

Beyond the 19th Century?

In 1897 the Heaton Anti Licencing Council declared that any new public house would ‘destroy the character Heaton had had in the past for moral perfection and purity’. It is worth noting that similar debates and disagreements were features of twentieth century applications for licensed premises though that may be a tale for another day.  

*The title of this article was inspired by the Tom Waits song ‘Town with No Cheer’ which is ostensibly about Serviceton, a town in the Australian outback that lost its railway station and, as a result, its only bar.

Can you help?

If you know any more about anyone mentioned in this article or the history of the Chillingham Hotel or other public houses in Heaton, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Karl Cain, Heaton History Group

Sources 

Ancestry 

British Newspaper Archive 

Drunkenness in turn of the century Newcastle / B Bennison; Local Population Studies (52), 1994  

From Byker to Heaton – the origins and history of Heaton Methodist Church / N F Moore and W K Robinson; 2000 

Heaton from farms to foundries / A Morgan, Newcastle City Libraries, 2012  

Heavy Nights A history of Newcastle’s Public Houses Vol 2 The North and East / B Bennison; Newcastle City Libraries, 1997  

Methodism in Newcastle upon Tyne 1742 – 2010 / G Fisher and Rev T Hurst; North East Methodist History Society, 2010 

‘The Town Moor Hoppings’ Newcastle’s Temperance Festival 1882 – 1982 / F Baron; Lovell Baines, 1984 

The Hoppings Newcastle’s Town Moor Fair / P Lanagan; Books of the North, 2010 

Trade Directories 

Food for Thought: Newcastle Corn Riots

Shoe Tree Arts in partnership with Heaton History Group was funded during 2021-22 to commemorate the events of 1740 when, following an exceptionally hard winter, hungry Heaton miners, their families and others protested against the high price and shortage of food, especially corn.

The project began with a Zoom talk about the events of 1739/40 by Heaton History Group’s Peter Sagar. You can refresh your memory about the corn riots here.

Schools

Three local primary schools, Chillingham Road, Cragside and Hotspur took part in the project. Children learnt about what life was like in their own neighbourhood nearly 300 years ago and what led to a shortage of food and eventually to anger and protests. They learnt what food people ate at that time and even cooked some for themselves. And they interpreted the events for themselves via art, music and drama.

Films

No Corn, No Coal , a short film about life in 18C Heaton and along the Ouseburn and the events of 1739/40, in particular, was made primarily for use by the schools by Heaton History Group’s Tessa Green and Peter Dillon. It it is now freely available to view.

Testimonies, the end of project film, brings together some of the historical research, writing, music and artwork that was carried out during the project. It was again made by Tessa Green and Peter Dillon but see the credits at the end of the film for a full list of people who contributed. The password is: corn

A special showing of the film will take place at the Magic Hat cafe on 30 November 2022. Please contact chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org for details.

General Jane

A socially distanced outdoor production of ‘General Jane’, specially written for the project by Ellen Phethean and performed by a mix of professionals and amateurs from the local community. It focussed on a real life leader of the protesters, Jane Bogie, also known as General Jane.

‘General Jane’ flyer
‘General Jane’ banner by Tessa Green
Scene from ‘General Jane’
Musicians and performers – ‘General Jane’
Havemaypolewilltravel dancers
The audience was socially distanced…
…but it felt like a real treat to be enjoying a live performance in the sunshine.

There have also been writing and animation workshops and a series of talks.

The project was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Joicey Trust and Newcastle City Council.

Mary Eleanor Bowes: the greatest heiress of the north

Wednesday 14 December 2022 7.30pm Open for Booking: members and non-members

Precocious and indulged, Mary Eleanor Bowes, the King’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother, was heiress to the Gibside estate. She became known as ‘The Greatest Heiress of the North’ and had an extraordinary life which included love, tragedy, debauchery, abuse, greed, kidnapping and adultery. Ultimately, her tale is one of triumph against overwhelming odds.

Our Speaker

Anthony Atkinson was born in Gateshead, attended St Cuthbert’s Grammar School, Newcastle and studied Economics at Clare College, Cambridge. He qualified as a chartered accountant and held various positions as financial director in industry before undertaking a management buyout acquiring 32 retail shops from Vaux Group Plc. After selling the business, Anthony reverted to his ‘first love’ of history. He is now a Newcastle City Guide, a volunteer for Friends of The Laing Art Gallery and also a volunteer guide at the Lit & Phil. This is one of his portfolio of ten talks.

Booking and Venue

The event will take place on Wednesday 14 December 2022 at Heaton Baptist Church, Heaton Road, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne NE6 5HN at 7.30pm.

We use the Mundella Terrace entrance. There is on street parking nearby and a car park about five minutes walk away off Jesmond Vale Lane in Heaton Park. If you have mobility needs which mean that you you would require access to the very limited parking by the door of the venue, please request this when you book.

The nearest bus stop is that of the number 1 on Second Avenue near the junction with Seventh Avenue. From there it’s a two minute walk to the church. It is about a twelve minute walk from the Coast Road bus stops near the Corner House.

The closest Metro station is Chillingham Road, about twelve minutes walk away.

The doors open at 7.00pm.  All welcome. FREE for Heaton History Group members. £2.50 for non-members. Members have a priority booking window. Please book your place by contacting maria-graham@live.co.uk / 07443 594154

Arrangements

There is ample room for social distancing at Heaton Baptist Church. The building has very high ceilings and  good ventilation. There is even a gallery in which anyone who would prefer to be further apart can sit. Tea and coffee (with biscuits!) is normally available for £1 per cup.

We look forward to seeing old friends and welcoming new members and visitors.

The Sinking of the Cobra: a Heaton maritime disaster

When, on 18 September 1901, HMS Cobra sank on its maiden voyage on route from Newcastle to Portsmouth, it was a huge shock for the country and a particular tragedy for the north-east, but nowhere was the loss felt more keenly than in Heaton.

Steam

Only four years earlier, Charles Parsons had amazed onlookers by gatecrashing Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review and racing his yacht, Turbinia, between the lines of the officially invited vessels at speeds of up to 34 knots.

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons (1919) by Walter Stoneman
(National Portrait Gallery)

Turbinia was powered by marine steam turbines invented at C A Parsons and Co in Heaton by Parsons himself alongside other great engineers such as Gerard Stoney, whose home, as well as his office, was in Heaton and Robert Barnard, who worshipped at Heaton Congregational Church.

Turbinia

Turbinia’s spectacular demonstration of speed prompted local armaments and shipping firm Armstrong Whitworth to build a torpedo destroyer to be fitted with a turbine engine, confident that a buyer would quickly be found. The ship’s design was based on those of two other vessels built at Elswick and it was launched on 28 June 1899. Six months later the ship was offered to the Admiralty.  However, the turbine machinery on board was much heavier than the machinery on the earlier ships (183 v 110 tons) and 30 tons more than expected. Despite the assurances of the designer, Philip Watts, who was head of the Elswick shipyard and the firm’s chief naval architect, that the weight was within tolerance limits, the prospective purchaser expressed a number of concerns including about the  strength of the upper deck. 

Viper

While what was to become HMS Cobra was being modified on the quay at Elswick, a collier ship accidentally collided with her, delaying completion by another seven months. This misfortune allowed a sister ship, HMS Viper, ordered by the Admiralty from another Charles Parsons company, Parsons Marine (who subcontracted the building of the hull to a third local firm, Hawthorn Leslie) to become the world’s first turbine-driven warship. Sadly on 3 August 1901,  HMS Viper was grounded on rocks during naval exercises in fog off Alderney in the Channel Islands. The crew were forced to abandon ship as she sank.

HMS Viper

Disaster

Less than seven weeks later, at 5.00pm on 17 September 1901, HMS Cobra was deemed ready to leave Newcastle for Portsmouth, where she was to be armed and commissioned. On board were 79 men, 24 of whom were from the north-east, mainly employees of Armstrong Whitworth, the shipbuilders,  and Parsons, the turbine builders. 

HMS Cobra

As the weather deteriorated and the ship began to roll, the thoughts of many of those on board must have turned to the recent demise of the Viper, a ship well-known to the Parsons contingent in particular. Conditions, however, began to improve at first light until a sudden shock was felt throughout the Cobra. Within seconds, the ship had broken in two. There wasn’t time to launch any of Its five lifeboats but twelve men, including the ship’s chief engineer, John J G G Percy, were able to scramble into a small dinghy. They were the only survivors. Sixty seven men lost their lives, twenty three of them from ‘contractors’, mainly Parsons.

Local

Among those known to have Heaton connections were:

John Abel

John originated in Brighton, Sussex and, aged 28, worked for Parsons as a ‘steam engine maker and fitter’. His daughter had been born in Portsea, Hampshire in December 1899 so it’s possible that the family hadn’t been in Newcastle long. At the time of the 1901 census, they were living at 12 Morley Street but by the time John lost his life on the Cobra, they were at 44 Denmark Street.

Robert Barnard

The Essex born marine engineer was the senior Parsons Turbine representative aboard the Cobra. He was manager of Parsons Turbine Works, Newcastle and Wallsend. He had assisted in the design of Turbinia and superintended its construction. During its trials, he usually acted as steersman alongside Gerard Stoney and Parsons himself.

Barnard had also superintended the erection of the works at Wallsend and supervised the building and engineering of the Viper and the King Edward as well as the Cobra. Aged 38, he had been ‘associated with the development of the modern steam turbine from the very first. No one next to Mr Parsons believed more in the possibilities’. He was also, until shortly before his death,  treasurer of Heaton Congregational Church. He is buried in Preston Cemetery, North Shields with his wife, Mary.

Alfred Bryans

Alfred’s was one of the first six bodies to be found and it was formally identified in Grimsby Hospital mortuary by the coroner’s jury three days after the disaster. An envelope addressed to him at his home address of 25 Meldon Terrace, Heaton was found on him. Alfred was born and raised in Co Durham but in 1901, aged 25, was living in Heaton with his widowed mother. He described himself as a ‘steam engine maker and fitter’.Regarded as an exceedingly promising and capable young man’, he had worked as an electrical engineer at Parsons for five years and was previously on board the Viper ‘superintending work in connection with the dynamos’ when it sank. 

He had then been sent to Stockport to be in charge of the dynamos of the new electric car system there and had just returned to Tyneside to travel to Portsmouth aboard the Cobra ‘in the same capacity as he had worked on the Viper’. He had three brothers, one of whom was a doctor at the Middlesbrough hospital where some of the survivors of the Cobra disaster were taken. His older brothers were also engineers, one in London, and the other on a railway in South America. Alfred was among the first to be buried. His funeral took place at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. Among the mourners at his funeral were Gerard Stoney, John Barker, manager of Parsons Turbine, and Sir Richard Williams who, in 1889, had moved from Clarke and Chapman with Parsons to help him set up his own company.

Edward Lee

Edward was a foreman fitter from C A Parsons and Co. He lived at 21 Morley Street.

George McGregor

Aged only 17, George was the youngest of the Heaton victims. He lived with his widowed mother, younger brother  and  two sisters at 69 Molyneux Street and was an apprentice fitter at Parsons. His older married brother, David McGregor, aged 29, who lived nearby at 33 Algernon Road was also a fitter at the firm.

John W Webb

John, a 32 year old Parsons fitter, lived at 9 Fifth Avenue with his wife, said to be ‘of delicate health’ and his sister in law. He was reported to be ‘well known and highly respected in the eastern part of the town’,  a member of Bainbridge Memorial Wesleyan Church and superintendent of the Sunday school.

Aftermath

Among the first announcements after the disaster was one the following day from the Admiralty declaring that they would ‘cease naming vessels after  the snake tribe – first the Serpent, next the Viper and now the Cobra’ (HMS Serpent had run aground and sank in a storm off Galicia in Spain  in November 1890, less than two years after going into service. 173 of her 176 crew lost their lives).

Locally, Charles Parsons headed to London immediately and the whole Parsons workforce was given the rest of the week off. There were reports of ’the horrors of scalding steam’ adding to the other dangers experienced by those on board. ‘The Evening Chronicle’ reported that Charles Parsons had foreseen this risk and insisted that the steam pipes on the Viper (on which no escape of steam was reported) were fixed as flexibly as possible. However, on the Cobra, the Parsons Company, as engine builders ‘were bound to follow specifications and these provided that the steam pipes should be as rigidly fixed as possible.’ The war of words between the various interested parties had begun.

The Admiralty immediately absolved the ship’s captain of any blame or navigational error, reporting that the ship was in deep, clear water when it sank. It conceded that it could have struck a wreck or some floating obstruction. A Captain Smith of a Yarmouth herring drifter which was the first vessel on the scene said that he might have seen a shark’s tail but it was impossible to know. A wounded whale, seen in the area, was also implicated until it was discovered that it had been landed a week earlier. The inquest jury expressed  ‘an informal opinion that the Cobra was too lightly built and hoped the government would build stronger destroyers’.

Meanwhile a special memorial service was held at Heaton Congregational Church on Sunday 22nd, led by the Reverend William Glover.

Appeal

And on Saturday 21st, a public meeting was announced by Councillor Thomas Cairns, to be held at the Victoria Hotel on Heaton Road ‘with a view to forming a committee to give assistance where necessary to the families deprived of their bread-winners by the loss of HMS Cobra’. The meeting was said to be crowded. Letters of support had been received from the Mayor, the Sheriff, MP Mr Crawford Smith, eminent trades unionist and Heaton resident Alexander Wilkie and the Reverend J Robertson of St Gabriel’s Church among others. Councillor Cairns made a stirring speech which concluded by assuring listeners that the organisers wished to alleviate distress only where it existed and so prompt enquiries into the circumstances of every case would be made. It was stated that the appeal would only be on behalf of the bereaved of the ‘Tyneside district’. A committee was elected and a further meeting convened.

However, a few days later it was announced that a national relief fund had been opened in Portsmouth. When Councillor Cairns contacted the mayor to ask that the Heaton committee be left to support its own bereaved as they better understood individual needs and appealed for the national fund not to appeal for donations for Parsons’ families, he was told the 600 letters had already been sent to national and local newspapers and that the fund would be for the widows and orphans of all those lost, not just the naval men. Cairns responded that Newcastle wouldn’t have dreamt of setting up a national fund. ‘If it had been set up in London, that would be different’. An agreement was soon made for the Heaton executive committee to be broadened to include the mayors of all the Tyneside boroughs. Mr Alfred Howson of 8 Heaton Road was appointed secretary and local councillor Thomas Cairns, treasurer.

Armstrong Whitworth contributed £1,000 to the Tyneside fund.

Court Martial

On 10 October 1901, the naval enquiry or court martial opened at Portsmouth. The Hon Charles Parsons was in court to hear his company absolved of any blame for the accident but Philip Watts, the designer of the ship for Armstrong Whitworth, endured lengthy questioning about the strength of the vessel and what might have caused it to sink. Watts said that he believed that wave action alone could not have sunk the Cobra because of where the ship broke and he maintained that the disaster could not have been caused by striking a rock as the shock felt by those on board would have been greater still. His best guess was that the destroyer had struck some drifting wreckage perhaps with an iron mast attached. He believed that if the aft half of the boat, which was still missing, were to be found, the likely damage would show this to be the case.

Parsons then gave evidence to the court. Perhaps undiplomatically, he said that he believed destroyers like the Cobra were intended to be ‘fine weather vessels but that gradually, having been found to survive heavy seas , they were not taken the same care of as they were originally.’ He clarified that he meant that they were designed to shelter in bad weather. When pressed on the fact that heavy seas were to be expected around the British Isles, he confirmed it ‘would become a necessity to ensure that the strength of these vessels is sufficient to stand any stress they may be likely to come across.’

He confirmed that the turbine machinery installed exceeded the original estimate of 155-160 tons, being 183 tons.

The enquiry concluded that Cobra didn’t meet with any obstruction and that there was no navigation error but ‘the loss was attributable to the structural weakness of the ship’. The court also found that the ‘Cobra was weaker than other destroyers and, in view of that fact, it is to be regretted that she was purchased into his Majesty’s service.’

Defence

Armstrong Whitworth immediately contested the court martial’s findings. The company pointed out that similar boats had sailed to Australia and Japan without incident.

Asked about Parsons’ comments the following day, an Armstrong Whitworth representative said that Parsons had meant that destroyers fitted with the turbine system of propulsion were constructed essentially for their high speed and this high speed could only be obtained in smooth water.

The company authorised Philip Watts, the ship’s designer, to conduct a search operation to try to restore its and his damaged reputations.  However, the missing aft section, which could have provided evidence of a collision and exonerated both Watts and the firm, wasn’t found.

Tutor

However, Armstrong Whitworth was invited to submit an article to a literary and current affairs magazine ‘The Monthly Review’. It commissioned John Meade Falkner, the English novelist best known for ‘Moonfleet’, the classic children’s story of shipwrecks and smuggling, written just a few years earlier, to write the piece. 

Why him? Well, soon after the Wiltshire born, Marlborough educated Falkner had graduated in history with a third class degree from Hertford College Oxford in 1882, he was introduced to an Eton schoolboy who was struggling to prepare for his Oxford University entrance examination. The boy was John Noble, son of Sir Andrew Noble, physicist, ballistics expert and partner of Sir William Armstrong.

John Meade Falkner

Falkner came to Newcastle to be a tutor both to John and to Sir Andrew Noble’s other children. You can see the 32 year old listed among the large extended household living in Jesmond Dene House on the 1891 census, even though by this time the youngest of the Noble children at home was 20 year old Philip who was recorded as being at Balliol College. 

Falkner’s occupation then appears to read ‘MA Oxon Secretary’. There is a second census entry for him as a lodger in Elswick and ‘secretary to engineering company’. He had become company secretary to Armstrong Mitchell in 1888. ‘Moonfleet’ was published in 1896.

By the time of the Cobra disaster in 1901, Falkner was living in Divinity House, Palace Green, Durham and described as a ‘mechanical engineer’  and an ‘employer’. At some point during that year, he became a director of what was now Armstrong Whitworth. His persuasive writing skills were undoubtedly a reason for him being chosen to pen the piece.

Like the naval enquiry, Falkner, in his article, quickly exonerated Parsons and the turbines but questioned the credibility of the court by drawing readers’ attentions to its members’ lack of knowledge of marine engineering. He went on to cast doubt on the competence of the naval divers who had dragged the wreck into deeper waters, searched in poor visibility and, in one case, ‘a foreigner, and his evidence, which seemed naturally vague, was rendered still more obscure by difficulties of interpretation.’

Falkner called for a ‘properly qualified tribunal’ … ‘which will command respect, and the country will accept nothing less’. The  truth would then be uncovered ‘on better authority than the verdict of a casual court-martial.’

His words fell on deaf ears but Armstrong Whitworth survived the blow to its reputation and, like Parsons’ turbine business, went from strength to strength in the following decades. Falkner succeeded Sir Andrew Noble as Chairman of Armstrong Vickers in 1915. He later became Honorary Reader in Paleography at the University of Durham and Honorary Librarian to the Dean and Chapter Library of Durham Cathedral. 

Sixty seven men, including twenty four from Parsons and at least six who lived in Heaton, weren’t so fortunate.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

Can You Help?

If you know any more about the people named in this article or the sinking of HMS Cobra, we’d love to hear from you.You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

Ancestry

British Newspaper Archive

‘The Cobra Trail’ / George Robson and Kenneth Hillier in ‘The John Meade Falkner Society Journal’ no 9, July 2008

‘Down Elswick Slipways: Armstrong’s Ships and People 1884-1918’/ Dick Keys and Ken Smith; Newcastle City Libraries, 1996

‘From Galaxies to Turbines: science, technology and the Parsons family’ / W Garrett Scaife; Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000

www.rjbw.net/JMFalkner.html

Other online sources