Fenham and the Garden Suburb

When Fenham became part of Newcastle in 1904 it was largely in recognition of the proposed development of `garden streets’ by the Fenham Estates Company Ltd. In May, we will welcome Mike Greatbatch back to the Corner House to illustrate the story of this development and the impact the Great War had on accelerating the area’s suburban transformation.

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The  talk will take place on Wednesday 23 May 2018 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. Until 1 March booking will be open to Heaton History Group members only.

About our speaker

Mike has over fifteen years experience of researching the history of the Ouseburn and is currently working on a series of research papers for publication. He is a Committee member of the North East Labour History Society and is one of the co-ordinators of the society’s ‘People’s History of the North East’ project, supporting a group of volunteers at Newcastle City Library. Mike’s paper on Chartism in the Ouseburn (1838-1848) was published in North East History in 2013, and his latest paper on Poor Law administration in Byker Township and the Byker Dispensary (1835-52) was published in this year’s edition of North East History.

 

 

Sir Ove Arup: engineer and philosopher

You could be forgiven for never having spotted the black commemorative plaque high on the wall between the upstairs and downstairs bay windows of 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace, Heaton. The house is in the row of almost white brick terraced houses on the east side of Heaton Road, opposite the park. They have front gardens and, in the case of number 16, a high hedge so you really have to be looking for the plaque.

If you can catch sight of it from the road, you’ll see that it intriguingly reads ‘Ove Arup; 1895-1988; Engineer and Philosopher; Born here on 16 April.’

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Commemorative plaque at 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace

Arup is rarely mentioned among Newcastle’s great engineers. Even those who have heard of him usually assume he is Danish. (More of that later.) But almost everyone will be familiar with at least one example of his work.

Sir Ove Arup (for, although not mentioned on the plaque, he was awarded a knighthood in 1970) was one of the great structural engineers of the 20th century and he was instrumental in the construction of one of the world’s most recognisable buildings: the Sydney Opera House. But we can also see and admire examples of his work much closer to home. First, back to his local roots.

Geordie

Ove’s father, Jens, was Danish and a qualified veterinary surgeon who, in 1889, came to Newcastle to work for the Danish consulate, supervising the health of imported beef cattle. He found a house for the family in Jesmond but, sadly, the following year, before she could come to the UK to live with her husband and three daughters, Jen’s first wife, Johanne, died.

Following her death, Jens appointed a governess, Mathilde Nyquist, to educate his daughters and three years later he married her. Soon, with a child on the way, a larger house was required and so the Arups moved to Heaton, to the substantial 3-storey terraced house at 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace. And here on 16 April 1895, Ove Nyquist Arup was born.

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Members of the Arup family pictured at his birthplace in 1967

Very soon after, however, with the British government increasingly concerned about the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth, an Act of Parliament was passed which banned the import of live cattle from areas in which listed diseases were found. Jen’s job became redundant and so, with Ove just a few months old, the family relocated to Germany. Ove was educated there and then in Denmark, where he went on to university to study philosophy and engineering, specialising in reinforced concrete.

So Ove’s initial stay in the country of his birth was brief. But he was to return. And the north east was to become especially important to him.

Back to Britain

On completion of his studies Ove took a job with a Danish company, Christiani and Nielsen. But in December 1923, when he was 28 years old,  the company transferred him to their UK office as Chief Designer. He went on to join J L Kier and Co (reinforced concrete specialists) and to meet and work with the famous architect, Berthold Lubetkin, most famously on the Penguin Pool at London Zoo. In 1938, Ove and his cousin, Arne, set up their own company Arup & Arup Ltd.

It was shortly after this, in the early years of WW2, that Ove faced an example of the sort of resistance that was to plague him for much of his life. And it was a formidable north east woman who stood in his way: Ove had designed a bomb shelter in ‘new-fangled concrete’, which he firmly believed would protect London citizens during enemy air raids. Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, was the parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Home Security and entered into correspondence and talks with Arup about his proposals. While his designs would certainly save lives, Ellen Wilkinson and the government were concerned that the public would lose confidence in the existing brick and trench shelters and that those not able to shelter in the new concrete, underground shelters would be disadvantaged. In the end politics won the day, much to Arup’s disappointment, although his shelters were commissioned privately  by a number of wealthy clients.

After the war, Ove opened his own practice in London, Ove Arup, Consulting Engineers, which in 1949 became Ove Arup and Partners.

Iconic

In 1957, Ove began work on the project which would make his reputation. But little did he know then, how much heartache it would bring nor that it would be seventeen years before it was complete.

Throughout his working life Arup made a point of congratulating architects, who won prestigious prizes for their designs, in the hope that his company would win the contract to help realise their dreams. This is exactly what happened when the Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, won a competition to design an opera house in Sydney. The design was controversial and the engineering challenges immense. Ove had difficulty persuading Utzon to modify his original shell design to make it buildable and to take account of the acoustic requirements of a world class opera house.  Costs spiralled and there were constant personality clashes between client (Australian government), architect (Utzon) and chief engineer (Arup). Utzon eventually resigned in 1966 and the Australian government architect, Ted Farmer, appointed a team to oversee the completion of the building.

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Sydney Opera House under construction (made possible by Heaton-born Ove Arup)

Nevertheless this protracted project and its eventual success cemented (sorry!) the reputations of Ove and his companies. In October 1973, Sydney Opera House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II. Ove and his wife, Li, were at the ceremony. Utzon, the architect, was not invited and was not mentioned at all during the proceedings.

Bridge Over the River Wear

In 1961, Ove was approached to construct a concrete, pedestrian bridge across the River Wear from Dunelm House to Bow Lane, linking the university with the historic centre of Durham. There was a seemingly paltry budget of £35,000.

It was assumed that the financial constraints would mean the bridge would have to be a low one requiring most pedestrians to climb and descend steep banks on either side. But Ove was always ready for a challenge and decided to design and oversee the construction of a high re-enforced concrete bridge himself. To minimize costs, he ingeniously designed it to be constructed on conical pivots, in two halves parallel to the river. When finished in 1964, the two halves were swung manually, through 90 degrees to meet and be connected centrally by a bronze expansion joint.  Kingsgate Bridge is now a Grade 1 listed building.

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Ove Arup inspecting Kingsgate Bridge

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Kingsgate Bridge, Durham, a favourite project of Ove Arup

Of all the projects that Ove worked on this was to give him the greatest satisfaction, so much so that it was his wish that his ashes be scattered from Kingsgate Bridge into the River Wear. And so he was both born in the north east and returned to the region in death.

Brutalist

The adjacent Students Union building, Dunelm House, was also an Arup building. Ove acted as structural engineer and architectural adviser and his bust is mounted on the wall, which faces this bridge. It is built in the so-called ‘Brutalist’ style and excites conflicting emotions: In 1968 it won a Civic Trust Award but has also been called ‘the ugliest building in Durham’ by the university’s students. Although, in 1995, English Heritage said it had once been described as ‘the greatest contribution modern architecture has made to the enjoyment of an English medieval city’. In 2017, Durham University declared that no longer fit for purpose and announced plans for demolition so that it could redevelop the site but there is a well-supported campaign to save and list the building.  A decision is yet to be made.

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Bust of Sir Ove Arup on Dunelm House

 

Sir Ove’s Park?

In 1967 Ove Arup drew up radical proposals in which Newcastle United Football Club would share sporting facilities with the nearby Newcastle University. The ground capacity of the £32.6m complex would have been around 63,000 with 31,000 seated and 32,000 standing.

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Arup proposal to redevelop St James Park

Included in the plans were two gyms, four multi-purpose halls, five-a-side football and rugby fives courts, 13 squash courts, swimming, diving and learner pools plus a supporters’ club and restaurant. The plan for a state of the art stadium to replace the old ground fell through when the club was reluctant to share the facilities with the university.

Byker Viaduct

A local Arup structure which was built, albeit one constructed after Sir Ove’s retirement, and one which is still very much standing, is the elegant Byker Metro bridge.

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Arup-designed Byker Metro Bridge

Again, the design was challenging because it had to be squeezed in between an existing road bridge and a main line rail viaduct; it crossed a steep-sided valley with old mine workings beneath; the valley is crossed by a geographical fault as well as the Ouseburn. The solution, a tall 800m S-shaped viaduct, won the Concrete Society Award for Civil Engineering in 1980 and makes a striking addition to the bridges which cross the valley. It is an appropriate local memorial for the Heaton-born company founder.

Polymath

Ove Arup, besides being a talented structural engineer had many interests. He was an art collector, pianist and the accordianist as well as writer and artist: After his death, his daughter Anja published a book, ‘Doodles and Doggerel,’ of his drawings and verse. He was also a keen and successful chess player, going so far as to set up a company to manufacture chess sets, made to his own innovative designs.

He was often considered eccentric and many stories still circulate among those who knew him. He is, for example, said to have almost always carried a pair of chopsticks in his jacket breast pocket, so that he could sample other peoples’ food while dining with them.

Philosopher

But what of the ‘philosopher’ as mentioned on the plaque on the house of his birth? As already mentioned, Ove studied philosophy, along with engineering, at university and it remained an important influence on his work throughout his life.

His ‘Total Design’ vision was intended to encourage creative collaboration across all disciplines: not only engineering, building and architecture but other less obvious ones too, including computing, ethics and philosophy. He was a creative and critical thinker, who loved to debate and apply both original thought and what he learnt from other disciplines to his work and to the way his firm was run. Ultimately he wanted to make the world a better place.

Honours

Ove was much-honoured during his lifetime. including:

CBE (1953); RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture (1966) – unusual for a Structural Engineer to receive;Knighthood (1970); The Gold medal of the Institution of Structural Engineers (1973); Queens Award for Export Achievement (1984); Elected Honorary Royal Academician (1986).

Legacy

When Sir Ove Arup died on 5 February 1988, he was the figurehead of one of the largest structural engineering companies in the world. Today his company employs over 14,000 staff in 92 offices across 42 countries and is responsible for many prestigious engineering projects worldwide. The firm is owned by trusts, the beneficiaries of which are past and present employees, each of which receive a share of the firm’s operating profit each year. There is still an Arup office in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Ove Arup Foundation, a charitable educational trust, was set up in his memory for the advancement of education directed towards the promotion, furtherance and dissemination of knowledge of matters associated with the built environment’.

Can you help?

If you know more about Ove Arup and his work, especially his connections with the north east, we’d love to hear from you.  Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email   chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group, with additional research by Chris Jackson.

This article is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Heaton History Group and the Joicey Trust

Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.

Key Sources

‘Ove Arup Masterbuilder of the Twentieth Century’; Peter Jones, 2006

‘The Arup Journal 50th Anniversary Issue’

http://www.engineering-timelines.com/who/arup_O/arupOve12.asp

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/feb/12/durham-university-dunelm-house-threat-of-demolition-brutalism

https://www.themag.co.uk/2014/08/newcastle-uniteds-st-james-park-looked/

https://mymagicalattic.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/ove-arup-philosophy-of-total-design-at.html 

 

 

George Stanley introduces ‘Heaton!’

You may have noticed that, in July, the People’s Theatre is putting on a play called ‘Heaton!’ It’s been written by Heaton History Group’s very own Peter Dillon and will feature some of the figures from Heaton’s history that you may have read about on this website, alongside some new characters you don’t yet know. Over the coming months, we’ll be inviting some of them to tell us more about themselves and the show.

First up is George Stanley, the tragedian and impresario who you may remember founded the Tyne Theatre and who, we believe, played a big part in the naming of Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’ . Over to George:

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Welcome one and all – For many years now I’ve petitioned Newcastle Council for a licence to run a theatre in this fine city, and with a persistence matching rain they’ve regularly turned me down.  Well, the days of petitions, the pleading letters, chaining myself to the Town Hall railings are over. No more begging.  Instead –

SHOWTIME!

Now or never, I’ll be showcasing my ingenuity, my refusal to take no for an answer, my stagecraft, my indefatigable personality, my thespian artistry……..all of these virtues and more will be on show in July, yes JULY!  July 17 – July 21st to be precise – and the Box Office is open!

I’ve teamed up with those very good folks from the People’s Theatre to put on an all dancing, all singing entertainment to delight and inform the burghers of Heaton, and indeed far beyond.  

 I’m entitling the said theatrical extravangza, HEATON!

The show will feature some of the finest citizens of the borough that have ever lived, walked, and breathed in the Tyne’s fresh air.  Sir Charles Parsons himself and the Turbinia  from the Heaton Works on the Fossway, the good Lady Parsons, an engineer in her own right, the redoubtable Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell, Hotspur Street’s intrepid reformer, Ove Arup, born on Jesmond Vale Terrace, who built Sydney Opera House, a domestic servant, and Colin Veitch, Captain Supremo of Newcastle Utd and co-founder of the People’s Theatre. 

They’ll all be there, so why not you…………..Oh, and not forgetting, someone who might be called the juvenile lead, name of Freddie.  A dubious character, whose blog it’ll be my displeasure to introduce next time –

The dates of this not to be missed epic, once again, are Tuesday, JULY 17 – Saturday, JULY 21

And if this superior example of the performing arts fails to persuade the Council to grant me a theatre licence, I’ll have to settle for a One-Man Show at The Hoppings.  Now we wouldn’t want that, would we…….

A must for all Heaton History Group members, family, neighbours, friends and hangers on, we’re sure you’ll agree. Find out more and book tickets here.

Not only that: the show will be accompanied by an exhibition called ‘Brains, Steam and Speed: 250 years of  science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton’, brought to you by the schoolchildren of Chillingham Road, Cragside, Hotspur and Ravenswood Primary Schools, Heaton History Group’s research team and Shoe Tree Arts, who put on the ‘Under the Fields of Heaton’, mining heritage arts events a couple of years ago. This is thanks to another award from Heritage Lottery Fund. Oh, and there will be music and song in the foyer too!

 

Home Sweet Home

As you push your trolley round Sainsbury’s, have you ever wondered what went on there before the supermarket and nearby car showrooms were built? The photographs below (courtesy of Historic England’s Britain from Above project) show the area on 1 November 1938. The houses to the north, west and south east had been built over the previous decade or so but there was still open country to the east. On the extreme right of both photos, you can see Heaton Cemetery.

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A S Wilkin Ltd Cremona Park (on the right) from the west, 1938

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Cremona Park Confectionery Works, 1938

Cremona Park, the self-styled ‘ World’s Garden Toffery’  opened on what was then a green field site on Benton Road in 1920. It was founded by Albert Scholick Wilkin, the son of a Westmorland policeman. Wilkin had opened a sweet factory in Sunderland in 1908. It was an immediate success, especially its ‘Wilkin’s Red Boy Toffee’, which featured a detail from Thomas Lawrence’s famous painting, ‘Charles William Lambton’, later known as ‘Red Boy’. By the end of WW1, Cremona had become a national brand.

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Cremona’s Red Boy Toffee tin

At about the same time, the old Royal Flying Corps site in High Heaton, Newcastle was no longer needed by the military. It gave Wilkin the space he needed to expand his business. There were many new flavours of toffee in ever more beautiful tins.

In 1939, Albert received a knighthood for ‘political and public services in Newcastle upon Tyne’. He was a Justice of the Peace, Chairman of Newcastle Central Conservative Association, governor of King’s College (now Newcastle University), an honorary freeman of the City of London and a Liveryman of the Feltmakers Company. During the war, he served on committees which oversaw the regulation of the confectionery industry. But in 1943, aged only 60, Albert Wilkin died.

Sons, Gordon and Frank, took over the running of the company and after the war, the export markets returned: Hong Kong, China, Syria, Gibraltar, South Vietnam, Puerto Rico, the West Indies, the USA, among others, all loved High Heaton toffee. But, by the 1960s, larger companies began to dominate and Cremona Park had become part of Rowntrees Mackintosh and soon afterwards, the Benton Road factory closed its doors forever.

Home 

Veronica Halliwell (nee Erskine) has vivid memories of Cremona Park in the 1940s. Living what must be every child’s dream, she grew up in the grounds of a toffee factory.

Let Veronica take up the story: ‘I was born in 1940 and lived with my mother and grandparents at ‘The Lodge’, Cremona Park, Benton Rd. Newcastle upon Tyne until I was 8 years old.’ 

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Veronica with her doll’s house and the Cremona chimney behind (not part of the doll’s house!)

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Veronica and her mother outside the Cremona Park lodge where they lived

‘My grandfather was a commissionaire who checked transport at the gate of Cremona Park. He was also the office cleaner and a fire warden. My mother also worked in the factory – on the sweet machines. Meanwhile my father was a soldier on active duty with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. My grandmother looked after me.  I have many very happy memories of this time.’

Grandad

‘Grandad had a very smart uniform with brass buttons which, as a child, I loved to polish with him.  I had a toothbrush to collect the dampened solid block of brass polish and we polished it off when dry with a small duster at the dinner table in front of the black-leaded fireplace which always had a kettle on the boil.’ 

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Veronica and her grandparents with Cremona Park canteen to the right

‘When we had finished and the buttons were gleaming, grandad would toast me some bread on a long handled fork over the open fire. Then the tin bath would be placed in front of this fire and Grandad would have his weekly bath!

Now and again I was allowed to go to the offices while Grandad did his cleaning chores. With hindsight, the high, wooden desks were quite Dickensian in appearance with high stools which I couldn’t reach!  I used to play with the black telephones (probably Bakelite) and my Grandad lifted me up and I pretended to ‘clock-in’ at a very large ornate office clock.

The Boss’s office was a different affair altogether with a green leather top, silver ink pots and a wonderful green leather  chair which I could swivel away in to my heart’s content. One day, the boss appeared and I am told that he was delighted with me. So much so that for Xmas 1945 or ’46  he gave me my first hard-backed book, ‘The Little Fir-Tree’. It gave me such pleasure that to this day, 70 plus years on , I still retell the story to all manner of children at Christmastime, even though the book has disappeared in the sands of time.

The fire wardens met in the canteen when they were ‘on duty’ but they never seemed to put out any fires, they just played cards and dominoes while I had a few rides on the ’dumb waiter’ as a reward for singing ‘You are my Sunshine.’ No health and safety rules and regulations then!’

Sweet machine

‘I can remember being carried into the factory to see my ‘mam’ at her sweet machine. The jewelled coloured wrapping paper seemed magical, as sweets slid down a chute at an alarming rate. When all the machines had shut down for the day I can still recall the hot, clean smell as the thick wooden slabs where the  toffee was rolled  were sluiced down with boiling water.’

We are lucky enough to have copies of postcards which show what the factory looked like inside, at every stage of the production process. They are undated but the first image suggests they were taken soon after the factory opened in 1920. So before Veronica’s time but perhaps not her grandad’s.

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Wartime

Veronica continues: ‘We mustn’t lose sight that it was wartime and my uncle made me my very own ’Tommy gun’ which was almost as big as me.  I played with the two sons of the boiler man at the factory but they were older than me and they were boys so I always had to be a ‘Jap’ and spent most of my time tied up in prison. They had an indoor shelter in their bungalow which was a great den until the siren went off one afternoon and we heard the drone of the German planes overhead. According to the grown-ups they had a different sound to our planes.  We were told that the German bombers used the tall chimney of Cremona and the tall chimney next door of the Sylvan jam factory to navigate their way.

There was also a very large brick communal shelter which had slatted wooden benches  where the adults sat or slept during an air raid. I slept in my pram, so I am told, but I can very definitely remember my mam running with me in my pram to the shelter and whenever it is a cold, crisp, clear night I swear I can smell the fresh, cold air there as if it were yesterday. The sound of the ‘all clear’ siren still haunts me and gives me goose-bumps.’

Even though it was wartime I was very lucky to have an uncle whose hobby was making toys-hence the doll’s house you see on one of the photographs.’

When I was almost eight, we moved to a prefab in Wallsend but still continued to go to St Teresa’s School in Heaton.  When I was 11 years old we moved to a house just up Benton Rd. which was only a stone’s throw from Cremona Park and, in my teens, St George’s Methodist Church Youth Club paved the way to friendships and frequent visits to Paddy Freeman’s Park and Jesmond Dene.’

Lovely memories and photos of what must have been a very exciting place to grow up.

Can you help?

If you know more about Cremona Park Toffee Factory or have memories or photos to share, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email   chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Veronica for her memories and photographs; additional research by Chris Jackson

Sources include:

‘North East Life’, January 2010. Article by Jackie Wilkin, Albert Scholick Wilkin’s great niece.

If We Do Not Count, We Shall Not Be Counted

For our April talk, we will welcome back an old friend, Anthea Lang. Anthea will look at womens’ desire to get the vote in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the steps they took, peacable as well as violent, to achieve their goal. The title of Anthea’s talk derives from the tactic of avoiding being counted in the 1911 census. Newcastle was a hotbed of suffrage activity and Heaton’s own Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell was one of the movement’s leaders.

SUFFRAGETTES: Suffragette rally on the banks of the Tyne in 1914

Anthea, formerly Local History and Heritage Manager for Gateshead Council, is now a local history adult education tutor, Newcastle City Guide and a local history author. Her new book ‘Visitors to Newcastle’ is due for publication in summer 2018.

The  talk will take place on Wednesday 25 April 2018 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. Until 25 January booking will be open to Heaton History Group members only.

 

The King’s Shilling

We are delighted that Old English will bring their unique blend of local folk music and history back to the Corner House in March. Their latest presentation is about the history of enrolment into the British army, with special reference to the north east. It will focus on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and highlight the role of the recruiting sergeant. As usual, our help with choruses will be appreciated!

Old English comprises our very own chair, Alan Giles; Pete Cryer, who has been singing with Alan for over fifty years. And Alan’s wife, Pauline, who hasn’t been married to him for QUITE that long and only recently joined Old English. Between them, the trio will play guitar, whistle, Northumbrian small pies and percussion, as well as sing.

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Taking the King’s shilling

The event takes place on Wednesday 28 March 2018 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. Until 14 December, booking will be open to Heaton History Group members only.

Forgotten Music Makers of Heaton

If you were asked about Heaton’s most important exports, you might well mention great feats of engineering, such as Sir Charles Parsons’ ground-breaking steam turbines, or Grubb Parsons’ telescopes, both of which are still to be found throughout the world. Or perhaps you’d suggest music, with local boy Chas Chandler, inducted into Rock and Roll’s Hall of Fame with ‘The Animals’ in 1994 – the band’s 60s’ songs still played and performed all over the world half a century after they were written. We rightly commemorate such achievements with plaques, books and museum displays.

But hands up if you’ve ever stopped on Grafton Street and given even a passing thought to the local men who married both of the great Heaton industries of engineering and music?  In truth, you might never have had cause to go to Grafton Street at all: since redevelopment of the area, it’s perhaps the shortest street in Heaton (or is it Byker?) comprising little more than four parking bays (usually full) facing Shields Road and a single yellow line. There’s a pawnbroker’s shop on one corner and a council customer service centre on the other.

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Grafton Street

But there’s also a nearby bench on which you can sit and listen. There may still be music in the air.

So let’s rewind.

Apprentice

Charles William Howden was born in All Saints parish, of which Heaton was a part, in 1865 and baptised in St Nicholas’s Cathedral on 28 May of that year. He was the eldest child of Ryton born, Margaret Isabella, and John Howden, a shipping clerk from Wakefield in Yorkshire.

By 1881 at the age of 16 and still living with his parents and now four younger siblings in the west end of Newcastle, Charles was described as an ‘organ builder’s apprentice’. Ten years later, still living in the parental home, he is described on the census as an ’employer’ and ‘organ builder’.

We don’t yet know to whom young Charles Howden was apprenticed but we can trace the development of the organ building firm that bears his name from its foundation c1893  via Forth Street  and Snowdon Street in Newcastle to 65 Grafton Street, Heaton. Howden had joined forces with one William Charlton Blackett, the Bensham-born son of a coal agent, to set up the firm of Blackett and Howden Ltd.

Inventors

Like other more famous engineers operating around Heaton at this time, Blackett and Howden weren’t content to copy what had gone before. They wanted their organs to be better than everyone else’s. We can trace several patent applications: for ‘pallets‘ (1891). ‘pneumatic action’ (1895) and ‘blowing‘ (1904).

According to organ historian, James Ingall Wedgewood, they may have invented what is known as a ‘diaphone‘, the noise-making device best known for its use as a foghorn. While the invention of the diaphone is commonly attributed to Robert Hope-Jones,  it was apparently Blackett and Howden who first experimented with it as early as 1888:

‘It frequently happens in organ building, when the requisite conditions are fortuitously complied with, that a pallet will commence to vibrate rapidly, and it is often within the province of an organist’s or organ builder’s observation that such a “fluttering pallet,” or a Tremulant in a state of rapid vibration, when provided with a resonator in the form of a soundboard or wind trunk, generates tones of considerable power. The safety valves of steamboats constantly act similarly. … The idea must doubtless have occurred to many builders … that such phenomena might systematically be adapted to tonal use.

An experimental attempt at such adaptation was made in 1888 by Messrs. Blackett & Howden, of Newcastle [England]. The bulk of the apparatus employed was enclosed in a box (15 ins. square for the 16 ft. note). Wind passed into a chamber containing a vibrator in the form of a circular disc fixed on to the loose end of a spring, and so arranged as to beat against a hole in the under side of the resonator, being regulated in pitch and intensity by a sliding bridge and set-screw.’

Whether because they were louder or simply because they were of superb quality, Blackett and Howden organs were sold not only across the north east but soon throughout the UK and even overseas.

Some of the earliest church organs for which records exist are in Scotland; the one in the Braid Church in Edinburgh was built in 1898 and there were other early instruments in Glasgow, West Kilbride and Montrose. At one point the firm did so much business in Scotland that it ran a second workshop in Glasgow. Another one followed in Cardiff.

Close to home

According to the British Pipe Organ Register, locally, the firm built the organ for St Gabriel’s (date unknown), Heaton Methodist Church (1910) and Heaton Congregational Church (1920).

The transport costs to Heaton Congregational Church must have been among the lowest for any Blackett and Howden organ: the church (now Heaton Bingo) was only a few hundred yards from the factory. Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to this organ: it doesn’t appear on the current National Pipe Organ Register.

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Heaton Congregational Church’s Blackett and Howden organ was installed in 1920

 

There is some confusion regarding the St Gabriel’s organ. According to the British Pipe Organ Register, organ N04082 was surveyed in St Gabriel’s in 1944 and described as ‘built by Blackett and Howden (date unknown)’. According to the opening sentence of a report written in 1994 by Paul Ritchie: ‘The builders of St Gabriel’s organ would appear to be modest as there is no name plate on the console, nor do the bellow weights carry their initial letters’. Ritchie goes on to say: ‘Somewhere in the back of my memory is a little voice saying Abbott and Smith’. And indeed there is another entry in the register for St Gabriel’s: organ N12464 ‘built by Abbott and Smith in 1905; surveyed in 1980′. Another unsigned and undated report states that Blackett and Howden installed an exhaust-pneumatic action around 1920 and that, at the same time, tuba and pedal trombone were added ‘and the Great Organ gained a large Open Diapason with leathered upper lips. This latter stop was placed on a separate unit chest and was reported to be rather poor; it was removed by Willis in 1963′.

But there are no such doubts about the instrument in Heaton Methodist Church. It was inaugurated on Wednesday 4 May 1910: ‘there were recitals from 2.30pm, followed by a public tea. Special services took place on the next three Sundays and a concert took place on Monday 23rd May.’ And it’s is still going strong.

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Heaton Methodist Church organ

A celebratory concert was held in 2010 to celebrate the centenary of its installation and the programme included a short history of both the organ and of Blackett and Howden itself.

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Heaton Methodist Church organ centenary programme

 

Military march

But perhaps the most famous Blackett and Howden organ still played today is in the Royal Memorial Chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which was built in 1924. The instrument is described in the history of the organ as ‘for its time, fairly cutting edge technology’ with ‘pioneering use of tubular pneumatic action’. After the war, the architect Sir Hugh Casson designed a new organ case for the instrument above the chapel’s main war memorial. At this point the organ was rebuilt and enlarged but using a lot of the original pipework.

 Rescue

Sadly many Blackett and Howden organs have been destroyed over the years but that originally built for the Prince’s Theatre in North Shields was fortuitously rescued by an Australian enthusiast. Apparently this was the only unit theatre organ ever built by the firm (in 1929) and its console was displayed at the North East Trade Fair Exhibition.

Records show that the flue pipes were ‘voiced’ by Syd Goldsmith and the reeds and strings by Frank ‘Hubbert‘ (although we believe this to be Frank Hubbard who in 1911 was living on Tosson Terrace, Heaton). The skill of manipulating an organ pipe to make it sound is known as voicing: ‘Each pipe must be made to play with the proper onset of sound (known as speech), sustained tone, and volume. When the voicing process is complete, each individual pipe in the organ forms a beautiful musical instrument.’

According to locals, the Prince’s Theatre organ had ‘a beautiful tone with sweet voicing and ample power for the large house.’ Although its console was destroyed in 1969, its chamber contents were bought for £75 by the Organ Society of Australia.  They even obtained the original receipt!

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Blackett and Howden document

In 1975, it was installed in Cinema North in Reservoir, Victoria. In 1999, it was moved to Coburg Town Hall, also in Victoria. You can read the full story of  this wonderful instrument here:

Eastward ho

We have found a record showing that, on 16 January 1917, William Blackett sailed from London to Hong Kong on the Japanese ship, SS Fushimi Maru. It was a dangerous time to be at sea: over 200 allied ships were lost during January 1917 alone. But it shows that Blackett and Howden’s reputation was worldwide. As you can see below, most of Blackett’s fellow British passengers were missionaries or nurses.

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Fushima Maru passenger list including William Blackett

The organ of St John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong was built by William Blackett ‘an elderly, bearded gentleman’ who ‘had come to the colony to install one of their organs in a church in the colony. Finding the climate congenial, he decided to stay and set up a small organ factory in the city. He recruited a group of Chinese and taught them the trade’.

Full renewal of the existing organ was priced at $14,000 but fundraising was suspended because of what was called ‘troublous times’ in 1925: a strike and anti-British boycott ignited by a deadly shooting during a strike in Shanghai, fuelled to fever pitch by British and French guards killing demonstrators in Canton. Nevetheless the organ was complete by 1927 and services, in which the organ could be heard, broadcast on the radio the same year.

Sale

Meanwhile back home, Blackett and Howden was sold to the London firm of Hill, Norman and Beard in 1924. At this time, John Christie of Glyndebourne became the major shareholder and Charles Howden became general manager with Ralph Walton Blackett, William’s son, sub-manager.

But on 25 September 1927, with William Blackett still in Hong Kong, Charles Howden died at the age of 62 at his home, 35 Rothbury Terrace. He left £1873 3s 3d in his will, a modest sum considering the success of the company he had co-founded more than thirty years earlier.

Blackett and Howden’s name continued to be used, however. It traded from its Grafton Street premises for another half century. The Heaton factory finally closed in 1974, when the remaining part of the business was purchased by N Church & Co.

Team effort

William Blackett and Charles Howden did not, of course, build their organs alone.

Hopefully this article will enable us to trace people employed in the factory in later years. In the meantime, it seems appropriate to pay tribute here to some of the workers listed in the 1911 census whose reputation and, in some cases, expertly crafted musical instruments live on more than a hundred years after they were made.

One of these was Terrot G Myles who, in 1911, was 30 years old. He lived at 149 Molyneux Street.

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Terrot G Myles

Terrot is described in the census as an ‘organ builder‘. Thanks to his granddaughter, Grace, we have  photographs of him and know quite a lot about his life. Terrot was born in Glasgow but moved to Edinburgh as a young boy. After leaving school, he was apprenticed to Ingram & Co, a firm of organ builders, in their Edinburgh factory and progressed to become a journeyman. The firm described him as ‘smart, willing and punctual’ and recommended him to future employers. In 1908, Scovell and Company called him ‘a most conscientious and painstaking worker, perfectly steady and reliable and a good all round man’. His reference made it clear that he was leaving the company only due to ‘depression of trade’ and they expressed a hope that he would return at some future date.

By this time though Terrot had already married Isabella Younger, a bookbinder from Sunderland. Their elder son, Richard, was born in Hampshire in 1908 but by 1911, they were in Newcastle, where, a year later, their younger son, John was born. We can only guess that while in Heaton and working as an organ builder, Terrot was employed by Blackett and Howden but it seems a fair assumption to make.

However, in 1923, the family set sail from Liverpool to New York in search of a better life. Terrot spent the next eight years working for Henry Pilcher’s Sons, an organ builder, in Louisville, Kentucky. He became a naturalised American the following year and spent his career building and installing organs all over the USA. He received and treasured many glowing references, which Grace still has. Terrot and Isabella eventually moved to White Lake, Michigan, where Isabella died in 1954 and Terrot a year later, aged 73 years.

Others listed in the 1911 census include:

William Blackett, aged 52, 13 Brough Street, Heaton Joiner in Organ Factory (We don’t know whether he was related in any way to the firm’s co-founder, William Blackett, who lived in Whitley Bay at this time)

Charles Brassington, aged 31, 26 Heaton Park Road, organ builder

John Wastle Craig, aged 14, 15 Tynemouth Rd, organ builder assistance

William Gill, aged 54, 13 Addison Street, organ builder, voicer, tuner

Thomas Miller Hendry, aged 23, 39 Langhorn St, organ builder

Frank Hubbard, 83 Tosson Terrace, organ voicer (*Almost certainly the Frank ‘Hubbert’ who voiced the North Shields organ. See above.)

James William Jobson, aged 50, 10 North View, organ builder

John Jobson, aged 16, 10 North View, apprentice organ builder

John George Millington, aged 34, 188 Warton Terrace, organ builder (Later lived in King John Terrace until his death in 1962)

John Matthew Mitchell, aged 63, 72 Addycombe Terrace, organ builder

John Henry Reed, aged 22, 80 Eighth Avenue, organ builder

Ernest Routledge, aged 22, 57 Malcolm Street,  organ pipe maker (Ernest died in 1918 aged 29 as did his 2 year old son, Roland)

Whenever you listen to organ music this Christmas, spare a thought for these Heaton master-craftsmen and the lasting joy they have brought to the world.

Can you help?

If you know more about any of the people or organs mentioned in this article or of anyone who worked at Blackett and Howden’s, we’d love to hear from you. We’d also be interested to hear and see photographs of any other Blackett and Howden organs you see on your travels. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email   chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to HHG member, Joyce Lovell, and to George Cottrell for information about Heaton Methodist Church organ; to Pauline Giles for information about St Gabriel’s organ;  to Grace Myles for photos and information on Terrot Myles.

Sources

Biographical Dictionary of the Organ

Laurence Elvin ‘Family Enterprise: the story of some north country organ builders‘ 1986

Norman F Moore and W Kirby Robinson ‘From Byker to Heaton: the origins and history of Heaton Methodist Church’ Pattinson, 2000

 National Pipe Organ Register list of Blackett and Howden organs 

James Ingall Wedgwood ‘A Comprehensive Dictionary of Organ Stops English and Foreign, Ancient and Modern’ The Vincent Music company, 1905 (via Wikipedia entry for Diaphone)

Stuart Wolfendale ‘Imperial to International: a history of St John’s Cathedral Hong Kong’ Hong Kong University Press, 2013

and online sources eg Ancestry