During the years immediately following World War One, the world very quickly became a smaller place. Developments were taking place almost on a daily basis in aviation. An international air mail service was becoming established and newsreels, introduced before the war, became a must-see bi-weekly feature of cinema-going. As a result of all of these, the events of 14 December 1920 and the name of a Heaton pilot were spoken about, not only across Britain, but around the world.
Robert Wilkinson was born on 27 June 1886 in Byker, the second son of Margaret Chambers, a single mother. Margaret went on to marry Lawrence Bager, a merchant seaman, and, by 1891, the family were living in Wallsend. Lawrence and Margaret had had a baby son together, while the older boys, Foster and Lawrence, were both recorded on the census under the surname ‘Wilkinson’ and as the stepsons of Lawrence, the head of household.
By 1901, the family were in Byker. Fourteen year old Robert was employed as a merchant’s clerk, as was his older brother, now listed as Fredrick. Both boys now had the surname ’Bager’ and were listed as sons of Lawrence, just like their younger siblings. Lawrence died in 1910 leaving Margaret at home, now 109 Tosson Terrace, Heaton, with her three grown up sons.
The older boys’ names had changed again by the time of the 1911 census to Robert William Moore-Wilkinson and Foster Moore-Wilkinson. Robert, now 25, was an engineer’s fitter at a firm of marine engineers. Apparently, prior to WW1, he made trips to Germany for Sopwith, a new company designing and building military aircraft and the ‘Bat Boat’, an early flying boat, which could operate on sea or land, one of which was bought by the German Navy Air Service.
It’s no surprise, to find that, on the outbreak of war, Robert quickly joined the Royal Navy or that he was recruited to serve in the Royal Naval Air Service, the pioneering forerunner of the RAF. It is from Robert’s war records that we learn a little of what he looked like: 5 ft 91/2 inches tall, blue eyes and a complexion described as fresh. The photograph below is from the Royal Aero Club records.
Robert was a member of No 7A Squadron (which, in 1917, became 14 Squadron) at first working as an aerial gun-layer. The squadron flew Handley Page Type 0 biplane bombers. In a report in the ‘Daily Mirror’ on 3 November 1917, headlined ‘Cavalry of the Clouds: honours for heroes who have been bombing foe docks’, Leading Mechanic R W Bager is listed as a recipient of a Distinguished Service Medal. We know too that he was wounded in engagements over Zeebrugge but was soon able to resume his duties. After the war, Robert joined the Handley Page Co, whose aircrafts he was so familiar with.
Handley Page, founded in 1909, was Britain’s first publicly traded aircraft manufacturing company. During the war it built heavy bombers at its factory in Cricklewood. Having been narrowly beaten in June 1919 to the kudos of making the world’s first transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown in a Vickers Vimy, on which there was a cargo of 196 letters and one letter packet with them, four months later Handley Page’s plane the ‘Atlantic’ won the consolation prize of carrying the first airmail from Canada to the USA.
The company had already launched a goods and passenger service between London and Paris and Brussels. The first Brussels service was advertised as three times weekly and the Paris service daily (except Sunday). A single ticket cost £15.15s and a ‘double journey’ £31.10 (No saving there then!) ‘Luncheon Baskets ‘ could be ordered in advance and passengers would be conveyed between the aerodrome and the respective cities by ‘landaulette cars’.
Just a month later on 11 November 1919, the first public overseas airmail service began, flying between London and Paris. This historic flight, captained by Lt Henry ‘Jerry’ Shaw, chief pilot of Aircraft Transport and Travel, flew the first commercial flight across the Channel, a de Havilland DH.9 biplane. The flight from Hendon to Paris-Le-Bourget took 2 hours and 30 minutes and cost £21 per passenger, the equivalent of more than £1,000 today. Pilots sat in unheated open cockpits before the age of reliable radio, often following landmarks such as railway lines to ensure they were on track.
The following year, Handley Page inaugurated its own air mail services to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. The Paris flight left daily at noon. The price was still £10 10s but there was now a discounted return fare available for £18 18s.
One of its pilots was Major Robert Bager of Tosson Terrace, Heaton.
In mid-December 1920, England was experiencing severe weather. The headlines in the ‘Halifax Evening Chronicle’ on Tuesday 14th were typical: ‘Bolshevik weather: cold winds direct from Russia.’ ‘Iceland Warmer Than England’. The article went on to say that the Hebrides was the warmest part of Britain, while ten inches of snow was lying in Plymouth. The overnight temperature was ‘1 degree above zero’ FAHRENHEIT (-17 degrees Centigrade) in Peterborough. There were stories of happy polar bears in London Zoo and hardy swimmers in the Serpentine.
And below under the heading ‘Aeroplane Thrills’ was the story of the previous day’s Handley Page Transport flight from Paris. The pilot described his three hour flight across the Channel in a blizzard ‘Mine was the only machine to arrive in London today’ pilot Lt R H Macintosh is reported to have told the ‘Daily Mail.’ ‘The conditions were terrible, particularly on the English coast and the machine was covered with ice… when nearing London, I completely lost my bearings and flew about aimlessly until I succeeded in getting in touch with the aerodrome by wireless, which put me right and guided me home.’
As people read this in Yorkshire, other local papers from Portsmouth to Dundee were beginning to carry news of the crash of that day’s outward flight at Golders Green, very close to the Cricklewood aerodrome. In early editions there were just a couple of lines but, by late afternoon, news came through of fatalities.
By the following day, Handley Page Transport had issued a statement saying that an accident occurred to one of its 0/400 aeroplanes (G-EAMA HP-25) shortly after it left their aerodrome at 12.30pm for Paris.
It named the four victims: ‘Mr Salinger of London, an employee of a bristle merchant, passenger; Mr Van der Elst, of Paris, passenger; Mr Bager, pilot; Mr Williams, mechanic.’ Four other passengers survived: Mr Pierre Curioni of Lima, Peru and Mr E Rosenthal, a London shipbroker, were slightly injured; Mr Alexander Bona, an agent for Cinzano of Turin and Mr Eric Studd of Harley St, London, who was on his way to India via Paris, were unhurt. Mr Studd was said to have left for India by train later that afternoon.
The company pointed out that it was the first accident that had occurred in connection with its air services, which, it said, had been running since September 1919, during which time they had carried 4,000 passengers over a total distance of over 320,000 miles. The details of the passengers gives us some idea of the sort of people making international flights a century ago.
Some of the survivors were soon interviewed: Alexandre Bona, the Cinzano rep, who described himself as an ‘Italian balloon pilot’ is reported as saying:
‘It is only through our coolness that my friend, Curioni, and I survived.’ He said they broke windows and were able to jump out. ‘They’re easy to break these mica windows’. He said that those who died were seated in the front section of the plane.
There were eye witness accounts too: ‘Nursemaids, postmen, milkmen and policemen [were among the first to] rush to the scene’ . ’Many of them said that the ‘machine’ appeared to be in difficulty immediately after take off, swerved but hit a tree and then an outhouse in the garden of no 6 Basing Hill ‘the eight-roomed residence of Miss E Robinson’. The fire service responded to a telephone call from Miss Robinson, who said she was in her front room when she heard the noise, but by the time they arrived, there was only ‘the skeleton of the plane’ left. As time went on, the accounts became ever more graphic. One witness said he saw one person jump clear and make an attempt to help others. Others said they could hear the harrowing shouts of those inside.
By the end of the day, it had emerged that the pilot was from Newcastle. The local press had printed his address and interviewed his mother, said to be ‘overcome by the news’ but who proudly told journalists of her son’s many achievements and his award for gallantry.
And within a few days, cinema-goers in Heaton and elsewhere were able to see the scene of the crash for themselves in a British Pathe newsreel which survives. You can clearly see the snow falling.
Interest in the accident was unsurprising. Flying was in its infancy and fascinated the public. Landmark achievements seemed to occur almost daily but setbacks too were big news – and there were plenty of them: The previous year, Winston Churchill, the UK’s first Secretary of State for Air, having resumed flying lessons which had been interrupted by the war, had suffered severe bruising after crashing his plane, severely injuring his instructor; in the USA, airmail pilots had gone on strike after being forced to fly even in zero visibility, a policy which resulted in 15 crashes in a fortnight with two fatalities; a year ago almost to the day, Sir John Alcock of Manchester, the first person to pilot a flight across the Atlantic, had died after crashing in fog near Rouen on route to an air show; and just a few months before, actor and stuntman, Ormer Locklear and his flying partner were killed while filming a night time spin for a feature film ‘The Skywayman’ before a large crowd in Los Angeles.
But the accident on 14 December was the first ever fatal, commercial air crash on British soil and is widely considered only the third in the world. The first, in July 1919, was the crash of the Wingfoot Air Express, an airship, into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building in Chicago, killing one crew member, two passengers and ten bank employees. The second, and the first involving a heavier than air plane, occurred near Verona in Italy, in August 1919. Tullo Morgagni, the founder of many still important cycle races, including the Giro d’Italia, was among the 14-17 (reports vary) victims.
The inquest heard that Major Bager was a very experienced pilot and that the machine had always functioned well. It had been examined before take-off by two ground engineers and, according to a Major Brockley, who said he had helped start the engine before the flight, it was ‘quite satisfactory’. The verdict was that the four victims died from the consequences of burns due to the crashing of an aeroplane to the ground after it had struck a tree and that there was not sufficient evidence as to how it crashed to the ground.
There appears to have been no allusion to the weather, the previous day’s dramatic flight, the design of the aircraft, communications with the ground or the commercial pressure to fly.
Major Bager’s funeral was held on 20 December. The cortege left his family home in Tosson Terrace, accompanied by the chief mourners, his mother, brothers and sister, fiancé Ethel Gibbett of Cricklewood and representatives of Handley-Page and the Amalgamated Engineering Union, as well as many old friends and ‘sympathetic spectators.’ Reverend R Trotter, Vicar of St Gabriel’s, conducted the funeral at Heaton Cemetery where Major Robert William Bager rests still.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.
Over the years, Heaton has been the home of many photographers, a number of whom we’ve already written about here: portrait photographer Edward Brewis, whose familiar half-timbered house on Heaton Park Road was built to house his studio and darkrooms; Gladstone Adams, official photographer to Newcastle United, as well as the inventor of the windscreen wiper, and once of Lesbury Road; Thomas Maitland Laws, one of a dynasty of photographers, who photographed the Prince and Princess of Wales’ visit to Newcastle in 1884 and was later a resident of Addycombe Terrace; Hungarian Laszlo Torday who lived in High Heaton and who has left us with thousands of photographs of Newcastle, and especially Heaton, in the 1960s and ‘70s.
We can now add three more names to the list, brothers-in-law who were the subject of a recent book ‘Photographers Three: three brothers-in-law, one love for Northumberland’ but who were also, to one degree or other, drawn to Heaton.
The oldest and first of the three to take up photography was Harry Ord Thompson. He was born on 16 February 1871 in Gateshead, the eldest son of Elizabeth and George Thompson, a barrister’s clerk. To help make ends meet, Elizabeth went into business first selling knitting wool and later photographs at the premises of Durham photographer, Frederick William Morgan, where, at the age of 14, her son, Harry, began an apprenticeship. On qualification, Harry went to work for Tynemouth photographer, Matthew Auty. It was while working for Auty that he was sent to the premises of a photographic materials’ supplier, where he met Beatrice Isabel Dudley Collier, who was to become his wife.
The couple married in 1899. In 1901, they had a baby daughter and Harry was described as an ‘under-manager for a photographic view company’. By 1902, the Thompson family were living at 74 Bolingbroke Street and, soon after, Harry had started his own business as a studio portrait photographer and photographer of artistic views, which could be turned into picture postcards. By 1908, he was described as a ‘technical, outdoor and publishing photographer’. He had now moved to a larger house in Portland Terrace, which had room for his business premises, and which was to remain his business base and the Thompson family home for the rest of his working life.
By 1912, however, Harry had changed the emphasis of his business again. The trade directories now described him as a ‘commercial and industrial photographer.’
Harry had also been a long-time member of the Volunteer Force, a fore-runner of the Territorial Army so, on 12 September 1914, aged 43, he enlisted in the Army Service Corps, with which he served in France. He was posted to a section that processed aerial photographs of the front and made them into maps.
In 1918, Harry returned home to his business in commercial photography, taking pictures for company brochures, journals and magazines. Customers included Heaton’s C A Parsons and Grubb Parsons. But he also continued to take photographs of Newcastle streets and buildings, including war memorials and churches, many of which were produced as postcards.
Another sideline was developing and printing amateur snaps for Boots the Chemists. He was a member of the Institute of British Photographers and exhibited several times.
Harry was also a keen local historian and an active member of Newcastle’s Society of Antiquaries. He had a particular interest in Hadrian’s Wall. The negatives of the many photographs he took of excavations were donated to Newcastle University after his death. Somehow, he still found time to sing in church choirs, be vice-chairman of the Newcastle branch of the British Legion and restore grandfather clocks.
For his busy retirement, Harry and Beatrice returned to Heaton, to 15 Stratford Grove, where Harry died on 18 December 1950 aged 79.
Walter Percy Collier was the younger brother of Harry Ord Thompson’s wife, Beatrice. He was born on 20 July 1875 in Elswick, the son of draper, Walter Dudley Collier and his wife, Isabella. When Walter was just 16 years old and an apprentice draper, his father died and his mother left England to become a lady’s companion to a wealthy American, leaving the family in his sister, Beatrice’s care. By 1901, with Beatrice now married to Harry Thompson, Walter was working as a hosier’s assistant in Manchester, where he was living with his younger sister, Flora. Alfred, the youngest member of the family had been with them until, in 1900, he emigrated to New York. Soon afterwards, now in Bootle on Merseyside, Flora married John Samuel Hart with whom Walter went into business as a tailor and draper.
Soon afterwards, however, no doubt influenced by the success of brother-in-law Harry, the two men exchanged tailoring for photography. In 1905, Walter married Bootle girl, Catherine Florence Poynor and, by 1908, it was arranged that the two families (Walter and Catherine by now had two children) should move to Newcastle to join Harry in his business.
The Collier family circumstances around the time of the move were tragic. First of all, Catherine’s father became very ill so Walter left her and their two children on Merseyside to take up residence in Newcastle alone, firstly in Sandyford and then at 106 Chillingham Road. Not only did Catherine’s father die but her mother developed a condition which required constant nursing so Catherine was still on Merseyside when she gave birth to the couple’s third child at the home of her brother and his wife on 15 September 1910. Just a few weeks later she, the baby and the older children travelled to Heaton to join Walter but on 20 December, Catherine died of heart failure in the RVI. She is buried in Heaton Cemetery.
Walter continued to work. On the day of the 1911 census, 2 April, he was at a hotel in Whalton, Northumberland while his sister-in-law, Flora Hart, was at 106 Chillingham Road, Walter’s four room downstairs flat, looking after her and John’s two children and Walter’s three. This situation could only be temporary and it was not long before the Collier children were taken back to Lancashire to be looked after by his wife’s relatives. Walter later conceded that he may have put work before his family.
Soon afterwards, with the professional and financial support of Harry, Walter left Heaton and Harry’s business to become an independent photographer, based in Bellingham, Northumberland. He set up as a general dealer but took photographs of rural Northumberland for sale in his and other village shops and post offices in the county. He may well also have done tailoring and drapery work, especially over the winter, when their were few tourists to buy cards or use his shop. Certainly when he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, he gave his occupation as ‘draper’s assistant (temporary)’.
After war service as an aerial photographer, Walter returned to Bellingham, where his daughter, Edith, also a talented photographer, joined him in the business several years later. Walter died on 7 September 1937 in the RVI, as his wife had done 27 years before. He is buried in Bellingham. His professional legacy is a superb collection of photographic plates which show rural Northumberland between the wars. You can visit a mock-up of Walter’s Bellingham shop and see his photographic archive at the Heritage Centre, Bellingham.
Sadly, postcards of his prints do not bear his name so, like many of those of Harry Ord Thompson and their other brother in law, John Hart, can be hard to identify. But Walter’s beautifully handwritten titles do often offer a clue.
John Hart, the youngest of the three photographers, was born in South Otterington, Yorkshire on 19 July 1881, the son of coachman, Samuel Hart and his wife, Annie. John joined the army in 1900 and, in 1902, was posted as a gunner to the Royal Garrison Artillery at Seaforth Barracks in Lancashire. One of his duties was to man the coastal artillery battery at Bootle, which stood at the end of the street where Flora May Collier, Walter’s sister was living at the time (possibly with Walter). John and Flora soon met.
Incidentally, there’s a connection between Heaton and Bootle in that Flora was living in Shakespeare Street in a group of terraces named after poets. (And a little over a mile away in South Bootle, there is now a group of newer roads named after Shakespeare characters – Macbeth, Othello, Beatrice, Benedict and many more.) At the same time, Harry, her soon to be brother-in-law, was living in Bolingbroke Street in Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’ and he would retire to Stratford Grove, another one.)
John and Flora married later that year and, in 1903, helped by a gift from Harry Thompson, John returned to civilian life. The following year he joined Walter Collier in business, firstly in drapery and tailoring and then in photography. Within a couple of years, the brothers-in-law had gone their separate ways, with Walter, as we have seen, concentrating on scenic photography and John, it seems, on studio and portrait work.
By 1908, however, as we have seen, both brothers-in-law and their families moved north to Newcastle to work first of all with Harry and then in their own businesses. At this time, John and Flora were living at 95 Rothbury Terrace.
Their stay in Heaton was short, however. By 1913, the Hart family had moved to Norfolk, where John continued to work as a photographer. That changed when war broke out. John enlisted with the Royal Field Artillery and served until he was medically discharged in 1917.
He did not find it easy to readjust to civilian life and did not return to photography or stay in Norfolk for long. He relocated to Kent but Flora and their two younger children did not follow him. They returned to Merseyside from where they sailed to the USA, where eventually Flora was reunited with her mother in Florida.
John remarried and had a series of jobs in building and driving. He died aged 69 on 21 November 1950, one of many people who survived the war but whose life was profoundly changed by it.
So, three brother-in-law photographers who were all living and working in our neighbourhood at one point. They all left behind a valuable archive of photographs. One of them in particular, Harry Ord Thompson, spent most of his adult life in or near Heaton and made a huge contribution to Newcastle and Northumberland life in photography and many other fields.
Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group with additional material from Chris Jackson, also Heaton History Group. With thanks to fellow HHG member, Brian Hedley, who drew Arthur’s attention to an article in ‘The Journal’ which mentioned that Walter Collier had lived on Chillingham Road; the staff of Bellingham Heritage Centre who showed Arthur Collier’s photographic archive and the W C Collier exhibition; S F Owen for permission to use his books for reference and illustrations.
Can You Help?
If you know more about any of the photographers featured in this article or have memories or photos 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Photographers Three: three brothers-in-law, one love for Northumberland’ / S F Owen; The Heritage Centre, Bellingham, 2017
‘Postcards from Bellingham’ / S F Owen; The Heritage Centre, Bellingham, 2012
It’s a two minute walk from 44 Third Avenue to 19 Cheltenham Terrace, 150 metres if that. Like most buildings in this part of Heaton, the two properties date from the late nineteenth century. And it’s easy to imagine what they, one a Tyneside flat, the other a terraced house, would have looked like in, let’s say, 1904, when the families occupying both included a young boy.
After revisiting his birthplace many decades later, one of the boys wrote:
‘ The terrace seemed little changed except that the entrance to it had been barred for motor traffic. It consisted of about thirty close-built houses on each side of a road [He failed to notice that the houses immediately opposite number 19 were replacements for those destroyed during the Second World War] , the original surface of which was made of granite sets. Number 19 stood well and firm, looking fresher than I remembered it… in our period of residence, most outside and inside paintwork was a dull yellow or brown because light colours would soon tarnish in the dust and smoke of Newcastle, a sooty industrial town.
Each house in the terrace had a miniature garden about four feet wide in front of it, showing signs of care and cultivation. In our time, they were mainly scratch places for cats and dogs, as the soot and even coal dust in the atmosphere precluded successful gardening. Those householders who managed to grow some privet or tatty chrysanthemums were counted as skilled horticulturalists, making use of the horse manure gathered in the street. There were three front steps to each dwelling leading to a small tiled level surface before the front door. These and the gardens raised the tone of the terrace, as in many streets in Newcastle there was only one front step from the pavement to inside the house’. NB p2
While the other recalled:
‘That part I knew first, the south side, started with a grocer’s shop on the corner, ran past some eighty front doors arranged in twos, one for the upstairs flat, one for the down and each pair separated from the next by the downstairs garden.These gardens were just narrow fenders of soil laid around the buttress of the bay window but they were magnificently defended from depredation by low brick walls, coped with granite slabs each sprouting a complicated fence of spiked railings. The Edwardian builder imitated magnificence even in the cheapest house. Between them lay cement aprons in front of the doors.’ KL p16
If you were walking between Chillingham Road and Heaton Road down Third Avenue and Cheltenham Terrace back in 1904, you might well have encountered two year old Jack Common on the street. For, as many readers will know, 44 Third Avenue was his home and he wrote:
‘ …when you could call and totter, you always made for the street whenever the door was open. Over the rough cement path, down the step not the wonderfully smooth pavement, perhaps again to the cobblestones into the middle of the road. As soon as you got into that dangerous area, however, some girl would come to lift you up and totter with you back to safety. They were your street guardians, the little girls.’ KLp15-16
Much has been written about Jack Common, including on this website. He went on to become an acclaimed writer. Local children even learn about him at primary school.
But further on you might well have caught sight of a slightly older boy. Basil Peacock of 19 Cheltenham Terrace, would have been six years old:
‘There were few children’s playgrounds, and only well-to-do people had gardens so we played in the streets and back lanes. There was little traffic except for the occasional tradesmen’s carts so it was comparatively safe’. NB p57
Contradicting those words somewhat, both Common and Peacock described the wide variety of visitors to their street. Peacock remembered the the striped-aproned butchers’ boys, white-clad grocers’ boys, the bell-ringing muffin man, the milkman on his horse-drawn float, bonneted nurses and midwives in starched cuffs, policemen in high-collared tunics and tall helmets, organ grinders, a hurdy-gurdy man with a bear on a chain and, of course, Cullercoats fish wives but it was a Heaton postman who really captured his imagination:
‘The postman came three times a day and wore a smart, blue tunic and trousers with a red stripe down the legs and what I thought an enviable head-dress, a kepi similar to that of an old-fashioned French soldier, with a peak back and front which turned the rain from his house and neck. I once thought of becoming a postman so I could wear such a uniform. The Cheltenham Terrace postman carried a large sack over his shoulders in which were parcels as well as letters; and one of my first girlfriends, aged six, informed me confidentially that he also had babies in it which he delivered to those who wanted them.’ NB p32
Additionally, Jack Common recalled the rag and bone man, coal carts, doctor’s trap, firewood seller, tin whistler and a German band.
Both also described in some detail the games they played on the streets. Here, Basil Peacock’s memories of marbles:
‘Most marbles were then made of pot (fired clay). – the glass ones were too expensive, and much prized if obtained. In addition to a pocketful of small ones, every lad had a “plonker”, which was a large one used to pitch at the others. A cheap plonker could be had by breaking up a lemonade bottle and obtaining the glass stopper… In addition to the normal game in which small marbles are placed inside a chalked circle and knocked out with plonkers, we played one which took place in street gutters… the drain gratings were hazards, as ill-judged shooting led to marbles being lost forever down them.’ NB p61-62
And Jack Common’s:
‘The marble millionaires gambled untold wealth at Big Ring, increasing the stakes as the evening wore on until there was a fortune out there on the cement, whole constellations of fat milks and coloured glass-alleys with twinkling spirals down their centres and clear sea-green or water-white pop-alleys winked in the shaky gaslight, nothing less than these high counters allowed in the big games, stonier and chalkies definitely barred’. KL p37
Both boys attended Chillingham Road School. Jack Common, in his autobiographical novel ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, was famously negative about some of his school experiences.
Basil Peacock wrote that from the age of three as ‘some schools administered by local authorities were prepared to take toddlers into the baby class providing they were properly weaned and toilet trained.’
‘Coming from a “respectable” family, and being rather a timid and retiring child, I found it difficult at first to associate with more robust and turbulent pupils coming from less orderly homes, who spoke in extreme Geordie dialect, so I dwelt on the words of my school teacher, which I could understand, and gained her approbation as a “bright pupil”’. NB p76
He didn’t say much more.
Both authors, however, said they were keen readers at an early age:
Jack Common recalled:
One day, however, I made a discovery. I could read myself! I was four years old now, I suppose, thin, rather weakly, too feminine in appearance for the taste of the local matrons but undeniably bright; and while sprawling on the floor with a comic open at the pictures of Weary Willie and Tired Tim, or Dreamy Daniel, or Casey Court, or the Mulberry Flatites, I found that the captions under suddenly began to read themselves out to me. Marvellous!’ KL p 27
while Basil Peacock wrote:
‘Early in life, I became a voracious reader, especially of adventure stories, once I had advanced beyond the ‘Tiny Tots’ sort of publications. Children’s comics were proscribed in our household, though I read them in secret if I obtained copies; with the result that I was introduced to better literature, such as stories and serials written by first-rate authors in the famous “Boys Own Paper” when younger than most of its readers.’ NB p19
Parallel lives just 150 metres and four years apart.
There were differences between the two boys’ upbringing, however. The Peacocks considered themselves middle class. Basil’s mother came from a family of sailors. Her father and brother were master keelmen. Basil’s father was privately educated at elementary school and although he had to leave school early because his family weren’t well off enough for him to continue, eventually he was able to set himself up in business because of his wife’s dowry.
In explaining how the family was considered prosperous, Basil Peacock described the area in which he grew up as follows:
‘The working men were factory hands, pitmen, shipyard workers and artisans. White-collar workers were comparatively few and tradesmen, office workers and particularly, council employers were considered well-to-do… On Saturdays the gutters were strewn with helpless drunks … the pitmen, delving and sweating miles underground, were a race apart; they took their beer in quarts, needing the liquid to replace the copious perspiration they lost during working hours.’ TM p6
We can see from the 1901 census that the Peacock’s neighbours on Cheltenham Terrace included two booksellers, a sailor, a commercial traveller, a draper, a manager in an iron foundry, an overseer at the Admiralty, a clerk to an oil merchant, an agent for Cook’s Tours, two butchers and a self employed builder. Diverse occupations but definitely no pitmen!
Jack Common, on the other hand, always stressed his working class credentials. The neighbours of his parents in that same census included: a self employed grocer (like James Peacock, Basil’s father, on Cheltenham Terrace), a butcher, a self employed dairyman, several commercial clerks, a foreman potter, a master mariner, a sailor, a ships’ surveyor, a marine engineer, an electrical engineer, a telegraph clerk, a pupil teacher, a meat and egg importer, an iron turner and bricklayers, as well as several who, like John Common, Jack’s father, an engine driver, were employed on the railways, mostly as clerks.
The occupations are just as diverse as those on the next street. It perhaps suited both men, later in life, to give a particular impression.
Another difference between the two is that, while Jack Common lived in Heaton throughout his childhood and adolescence, Basil Peacock’s family relocated to the west end when he was seven years old. This may be an explanation for some of the things he wrote about Cheltenham Terrace and its environs not quite ringing true: when he left, he was simply too young to understand the economic and social nuances of Heaton and its people and he hadn’t built a memory bank to compare with that of Jack Common.
A third crucial difference is that, at the start of World War One, Common was not yet 12 years old while Basil Peacock was already 16. So, while Common wrote of the excitement of North Heaton School being commandeered as temporary barracks and of school being reduced to half days, Peacock joined first the Junior Training League and then Durham University OTC before signing up, ‘aged seventeen and a half’ and eventually serving as a commissioned officer with the Northumberland Fusiliers. This experience undoubtedly shaped his whole life.
An army instructor suggested that Peacock study medicine when the war was over and that, after qualifying, he apply for a regular commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Peacock tried to follow his advice but, because he didn’t yet have the Latin qualification that was required at that time, he was accepted instead for dentistry. He studied at Durham University Dental School, which was based in Newcastle.
On qualification, Peacock moved south to find work but remained a member of the Territorial Army. In WW2 he served in the far east, where he was imprisoned by the Japanese military and forced to work on the construction of the Burma Railway, a project on which about 16,000 allied prisoners and up to ten times that number of Asians died. Peacock returned to dentistry after the war and in the 1950s, he was seconded by the NHS to North Borneo.
After retirement, Basil Peacock’s life once more converged with that of Jack Common. From the 1960s he became a successful writer, broadcaster and public speaker. And it was as an octogenarian that he visited Newcastle to deliver a lecture on ‘Soldiers and Soldiering in Ancient Times’ to a ‘Society of Senior Male Citizens’ at Heaton Presbyterian Church, where he had attended Sunday school over 70 years earlier.
After the talk, he and his brother crossed over the road, apparently on impulse, and knocked on the door of their old childhood home at 19 Cheltenham Terrace. The visit led to his ‘A Newcastle Boyhood 1898-1914’ – there is no indication in the book that he was aware of Common’s earlier work. So we are lucky enough to have published accounts of, not one, but two writers who spent their early years in Edwardian Heaton.
Basil Peacock died in 1990, aged 92. You can still find his books in libraries and in secondhand bookshops.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.
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If you know more about Basil Peacock or have memories or photos 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 email@example.com
‘Kiddar’s Luck and the Ampersand’ by Jack Common; Frank Graham; rev ed, 1975
‘A Newcastle Boyhood 1898-1914′ by Basil Peacock; Newcastle upon Tyne Libraries and London Borough of Sutton Libraries and Arts Services, 1986
‘Tinker’s Mufti: an autobiography’ by Basil Peacock; Seeley Service, 1974
Who remembers a statue of Scottish poet, Robert Burns, in Heaton Park between the mid 1970s and mid ‘80s? It seems that, even among those of us who lived in Heaton back then that not many people do, which is something of a mystery. We are hoping that this story of the statue and how it came to be in Heaton will jog some memories and maybe even unearth a photograph or two.
Robert Burns was born in Alloway near Ayr and later lived less than 30 miles from the border in Dumfries, so it’s perhaps surprising that he only visited England, or indeed left his native Scotland, three times, all in the same month, May 1787, while on a tour to collect orders for a collection of his poems. On two occasions, he ventured only a very short distance over the border to Coldstream and Berwick but on the third occasion he came to Newcastle via Wooler, Alnwick, Warkworth and Morpeth.
The date of the poet’s visit to Newcastle was Tuesday 29 May but unfortunately, although Burns kept a diary, it doesn’t give us any clue to the route he took through the town, where he stayed or what his impressions were. He recorded only that his party met ’a very agreeable and sensible fellow, a Mr Chatto, who shows us a great many civilities and who dines and sups with us.’
A letter, written during his brief stay, to his friend, Robert Ainslie, who had originally been with the group but had returned home, suggests he wasn’t particularly happy while he was here. Burns wrote, ‘Here am I, a woeful wight on the banks of Tyne. Old Mr Thomas Hood has been persuaded to join our Partie, and Mr Kerr & he do very well, but alas! I dare not talk nonsense lest I lose all the little dignity I have among the sober sons of wisdom and discretion, and I have had not one hearty mouthful of laughter since that merry-melancholy moment we parted.’
The following day, Burns and companions were on their way again. After breakfasting at Hexham, they continued west.
Although Robert Burns only made a fleeting visit to Newcastle, his younger brother, William, did live and work here. He completed his apprenticeship at Messrs Walker and Robson, saddlers. He then briefly worked in London before his untimely death in 1790.
While William was trying to find work in Newcastle, Robert wrote to him: ‘I need not caution you against guilty amours – they are bad and ruinous everywhere, but in England they are the very devil’.
Robert Burns died in 1796 at the young age of 37, only nine years after his visit to Newcastle. By this time his work was extremely popular in Scotland and the tradition of Burns Night, in effect a second national day, began within a few years of his death. The first ‘Burns supper’ is said to have been held in Scotland in 1802 but it has been claimed that the first Burns club in the world was founded in Sunderland shortly afterwards. A Newcastle club was in existence by 1816.
Migration of Scots into north-east England grew during the nineteenth century and with it a strong attachment to the national poet of their homeland. Many events were held in January 1859 to commemorate the centenary of Burns’ birth, including a supper for 70 in Low Walker and a festival dinner for 400 in the Newcastle Town Hall. There were further events in 1896, the centenary of Burns’ death.
It was in this context that Walker Burns Club, which comprised mainly workers in the local shipyards, decided to donate to the people of their district a ‘monumental drinking fountain’. At the unveiling of the ‘Burns Memorial Fountain’ on 13 July 1901 the secretary of the club, John McKay, said that for four or five years (ie from around the time of the centenary of Burns’ death) the members had wanted to do something for the people who had supported them and so had saved the profits of the club’s programme of concerts and lectures. As he formally handed over the memorial to the chairman of Walker Urban District Council, he said the club members ‘were trying to do what they could to leave the world a better place than they found it and to more fully appreciate the beautiful and humane sentiments contained in nearly all Burns’ poems .’ He made no mention of Burns’ visit to Newcastle.
It was left to Hugh Crawford Smith, Liberal Unionist MP for Tyneside, who unveiled the fountain, to make passing reference to this visit:
‘[Burns] was once very near to Walker. In 1787, he came to Newcastle, slept there a night and then went home by way of Hexham and Carlisle. Burns never really got to Walker – laughter – but he might have done so if he could have foretold that more than a century later a drinking fountain would be erected to his honour’… the memorial would stand for all time as a practical manifestation of what the Burns club had done for Walker (Applause)’.
The event merited only four and a half lines in the ‘Evening Chronicle’:
‘A Burns memorial fountain, the gift of the Walker Burns Club was unveiled in Walker Park on Saturday by Mr H Crawford Smith MP, who together with Father Berry, chairman of the council, and other speakers, made some interesting remarks about the ploughman poet.’
However, luckily for us there was much more detail in Joseph Cowen’s more radical ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ and other local papers in Northumberland, Durham and Scotland.
From them, we know that the memorial comprised an ornamental, iron drinking fountain topped by a bronze ‘statuette’ of the ‘National Bard’ which stood on a capital on top the fountain, which itself was mounted on a raised platform accessed by four steps and surrounded by flower beds. It must have been an impressive sight. Father Berry, leader of the council, was the first person to point out that the poet had his back to his homeland. This became a recurring theme over the years.
The drinking fountain was cast in Glasgow by Walter Macfarlane’s Saracen Foundry, the most important manufacturer of ornamental ironwork in Scotland. Among its surviving works in Britain are the Alexander Graham Memorial Drinking Fountain in Stromness and the Barton Arcade in Manchester. Overseas works included gates in India and Argentina, fountains in Tasmania, Malaysia and Cyprus and verandas in South Africa and Singapore (at the Raffles Hotel). The Walker Burns Club chose their fountain from a pattern book. It was designed in a way that a statue of choice could be added.
The statue, which depicted Burns with right arm outstretched in the act of reciting his song ‘A Man’s a man for A ‘That’, was sculpted by David Watson Stephenson of Edinburgh whose many well-known works include a bronze statue of William Wallace on the National Wallace Monument in Stirling and the figures of Mary Queen of Scots, Halbert Glendinning and James VI on the Sir Walter Scott Monument in Edinburgh. The Scots of Walker chose the very best craftsmen to make their memorial.
A shield attached to the capital between the fountain and the statue bore the inscription ‘Presented to the District Council by the Burns Cub, Walker on Tyne 1901’.
The full song asserts that a man’s value lies not in his wealth, position or social class but in his mind and character. Of course, these sentiments still resonate today and the song is still performed in Scotland on major occasions, memorably at the opening of the Scottish Parliament and the funeral of Donald Dewar, the inaugural minister for Scotland. The Walker Burns Club’s choice of inscription has stood the test of time.
So, it is very clear from accounts of the unveiling that the drinking fountain was considered at least as important a part of the gift as the statue.
Installation of free public drinking fountains, the first of which appeared in Liverpool in 1854, was often linked to the Temperance Movement, who wanted to give people a safe and easily available alternative to alcohol, although the irony of this in relation to Robert Burns was not lost at the unveiling. Expressing an expectation that the memorial would ‘stand for all time [dispensing] pure water’, Crawford Smith joked that Burns would probably have liked something stronger in it.
The Walker fountain had tin cups suspended on chains at the base to allow passers by to drink the water but even in 1901 the public health dangers of many people sharing unwashed vessels was recognised and safer designs were being introduced elsewhere. (But there were still similar cups at Armstrong Park’s ‘King John’s Well’, the postcard below also dating from 1901).
Interestingly, although they seemed to have had their day, there has been a revival of public drinking fountains in recent years in response to concerns about the use of plastic bottles, increasing summer temperatures and as an alternative to unhealthy sugary drinks. A 2019 campaign for the installation and restoration of drinking fountains in Newcastle seems to have stalled due to the current pandemic but the reasoning behind it is still strong.
The first mention we have found of repairs to the monument was in 1956 when the council noted that the fountain was ‘now disused’. The plan was to point the masonry part of the base, remove the steps and clean and paint the statue. It would not be turned around to face Scotland!
Today painting a bronze statue sounds like an unusual piece of restoration work. Nevertheless, we know that the work was done and afterwards it was returned to Walker Park, where it stood until the mid 1970s at which time ‘vandals’ and ‘the passage of time’ had reportedly left it without a head and arms. In 1975, the North East Federation of Burns Societies, rather than the city council, commissioned another restoration by a Hatfield firm of welders where a Mr Bill Fraser, himself a Scot, led the work to pin the arms and head back onto the statue and recreate fingers missing from the the right hand with glass fibre.
This time, at least in the reports we have read, there was no mention at all of the fountain.
The next newspaper report we have found dates from 24 February 1984. It was reported in ‘The Journal’ that the statue of Robert Burns had been ‘stolen from its home of five yearsin Heaton Park , and smashed to pieces by vandals’
Mr Max McGregor, president of the Ouseburn Burns Society, is reported as saying ‘The statue was donated to the city by a Burns society and was to have been used for our celebrations on Burns Night this January. This year’s visit had to be cancelled because of this affair’.
Mr Roger Neville, spokesman for Newcastle City Council, said: ‘The statue was stolen by youngsters and as they were rolling it away, it toppled down the hill and broke into pieces. It is now in our Jesmond Dene depot’.
So still no mention of the fountain and no photograph but, based on this report, we can apparently date the statue’s sojourn in Heaton Park from 1979 to 1984. There is at least one inaccuracy in the account though. As we know, the donation was to the Urban District of Walker, not the neighbouring City of Newcastle. And, as we’ll soon see, doubt has been cast on the date.
All went quiet for a decade when, in response to an enquiry from Newcastle United historian, Paul Joannou, ‘The Journal’ ran two articles which showed that collective memory can be very short. On 15 March, it asked ‘Was there ever a statue of Robert Burns on Tyneside?’
Joannou was enquiring as he was aware of a series of football matches in the 1920s, staged for the purpose of raising money for a statue to Burns in Newcastle. He said that large crowds watched legends such as Hughie Gallagher and Alex James and that players who took part were presented with a medal, one of which was on display in the Newcastle United museum. He had put an appeal in the club programme but nobody had come forward to say they knew of the statue.
At this stage ‘The Journal’ knew nothing about the statue either, with journalist Tony Jones writing ‘I reckon the nearest one to Newcastle is 90 miles away in Dumfries.’ However, the following day, it revealed to its readers that the statue had been found in storage ‘at a council depot’ (presumably Jesmond Dene where it had lain in pieces since 1984).
‘The Journal’ had ‘learnt ‘that the statue had been removed from Walker in 1979’, which fits in with the 1984 account in the same paper (so perhaps its own archive is where it learnt it from). Again, there was no mention of the fountain nor the 1975 restoration, only the temporary removal for repair in 1956. A photograph, showing the statue on a graffiti covered cylindrical column carrying a plaque, was labelled ‘Heaton Park, 1983’ but it is very difficult to see the surroundings.
The paper had by now been contacted by a reader who remembered walking past the memorial in Walker Park every day on his way to school in the 1950s but still no such memories had come to light of its much more recent time in Heaton Park. We are hoping that 26 years on, we will have more luck.
‘The Journal’ was naturally bemused as to why fundraising football matches would be played to raise money for a statue particularly if there had been one all along. They wondered if the statue had originally stood somewhere else and only came to Walker after the 1920s.
We now know that the statue fund was for one in Newcastle, as opposed to Walker, and that the fundraising through popular and high profile football matches was extremely successful.
However, a spanner was thrown in the works by the Burns Federation, which at its annual conference in September 1926, passed a resolution to say that there should be no more statues and instead affiliated clubs should be encouraged to honour the poet’s memory by donating to local hospitals. An opinion piece in the ‘Dundee Telegraph’ didn’t mince words:
‘Few of the Burns statues are good, many are bad and a considerable number are very bad.’ Too generally they make the subject look like a moon-stricken idiot’.
We don’t know what the writer thought of the Walker statue but you can make up your own mind about its quality.
The honorary president of Newcastle Burns Club at this time was Sir Thomas Oliver who, though born in Ayrshire just like Robert Burns, was now a world famous professor of medicine at Durham University. He specialised in industrial diseases such as lead poisoning and had also been instrumental in raising the Tyneside Scottish Battalions during WW1. Former shipyard worker and trades unionist, Alexander Wilkie, once of Cardigan Terrace and Third Avenue and by this time of 36 Lesbury Road in Heaton, who had been Scotland’s first Labour MP, was an honorary vice president.
These were not men to mess with! In May 1927, in apparent defiance of the federation, the club reported that over £2,500 had already been raised and ‘with another £100 they could go ahead with the scheme and procure the site.’
Details thereafter are sketchy but the statue was never erected and we know that the Newcastle Burns Club donated considerable funds to local hospitals.
So by the second decade of the 21st century, all we had was one broken statue lying in pieces in Jesmond Dene council depot. The next document we have dates from around 2011 and confuses things further.
An entry in Tyne and Wear’s Historic Environment Record is headed ‘Robert Burns Memorial Fountain’ but states:
‘In 1901 a statue commemorating Rabbie Burns was erected in Walker Park by the local Burns Club supported by the numerous ship builders who moved to Walker from Clydesdale.The plaque reads ‘THIS STATUE WAS ERECTED IN WALKER PARK BY THE WALKER ON TYNE BURNS CLUB ON 13TH JULY 1901 TO MARK THE VISIT TO NEWCASTLE BY ROBERT BURNS ON THE 29TH MAY 1797. REMOVED TO THIS SITE BY THE CITY OF NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE ON THE 27TH SEPTEMBER 1975’. It is a bronze cast and is in very poor condition. It is presently stored at Jesmond Dene Nursery. The Walker Park lottery bid  has plans to recast the statue and put it back into the park.’
So the fountain is mentioned in the heading but nowhere in the text and there is no mention of either of the original plaques but we find that a new plaque had been created at some point – it might well be the one in the 1983 photograph – and the date it gives for its removal to a new site is four years earlier that the dates we have seen so far. But does ‘this site’ even refer to Heaton Park or did it stand somewhere else after Walker but before Heaton? Confused? You bet! And that’s why we need you to wrack your brains and sift through your old photos.
Here, for the first time, we read the claim that the statue was erected to commemorate Burns’ visit to Newcastle and this might be a suitable point to question whether Burns really was a worthy recipient of such a memorial.
It is 36 years since the Burns statue was ‘stolen by youngsters and as they were rolling it away, it toppled down the hill and broke into pieces’ but that sentence surely brought to mind recent scenes in Bristol and elsewhere. Thanks, in part, to the Black Lives Matter movement, we are much more aware of the flaws of historical figures once revered – by some.
Burns was honoured by the people of Walker and people like Heaton’s Alexander Wilkie because he was a poet who spoke for ordinary workers and their families. It may come as surprise then that the year before his visit to Newcastle, Burns had accepted a position as overseer at a friend’s sugar plantation in Jamaica, a plantation which was, of course, worked by slave labour.
In 1786, Burns faced financial ruin as his father’s death combined with the poor soil on the farm he worked with his brother had reduced both of them to near starvation. To compound matters, his love life was even more troubled than usual. It has been noted that Burns, ‘had been nearly married to his first love Jean (to the horror of her parents and the Church) but they had agreed to separate (without knowing that Jean was pregnant with twins); then Robert had fallen in love with another, ‘Highland Mary’ who died suddenly while waiting for him to come to her. Jean’s vindictive father sought court proceedings to arrest him so, like a fox with the hounds snapping at his heels, Robert needed to escape.’
He accepted Patrick Douglas’s offer of a post on a small team of overseers on his plantation. There are some who argue that this wasn’t such a bad decision as Burns was only to be a ‘bookkeeper’. But others have claimed that Burns would, ‘have a daily interface with the truth of slavery – from assisting in purchases, through recording punishments and deaths’. Burns himself described his role as ‘a poor Negro driver’, not a good look for a poet who revered as a champion of freedom and who came to Newcastle, shortly before 3,000 of its residents made their way to the Guildhall to sign a petition against the slave trade.
Fortunately both for Burns and his legions of fans down the centuries, in a last act of defiance before taking this huge step, he decided to publish his ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’. They were instantly acclaimed and so Burns was able to turn back from his journey west into the dark world of slavery administration and instead turn east to a brighter future in Edinburgh and fame and marriage to Jean. The next year he was able to do his literary tour and come south to Newcastle.
There is of course a great irony in the fact that Burns almost ended up playing a part in the deeply destructive and dehumanising slave trade and it is one that arguably cuts right to the heart of Scottish society today. Many of Burns’ poems spoke out strongly about freedom and against forms of human slavery. His national poem ‘Scots Wha Hae’, has its title taken from words attributed to Robert the Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where Bruce’s army won the national freedom of the Scots against a larger English army. But this is the rub; as has been pointed out on a recent BBC Scotland series, many Scots who are today advocating national freedom again, through a second independence referendum forget the major role Scotland played in the transatlantic slave trade. It was this trade that Burns himself nearly played a role in.
Burns’ only poem which is directly relevant to the issue of slavery is ‘The Slave’s Lament’ from 1792. This is clearly an abolitionist poem. It does beg the question then of just how was it that Burns so nearly became part of the trade he later seemed to abhor. There has been much speculation but we will never know.
But we do know that a young Abraham Lincoln came to the settlement of New Salem and craving books found a ready made library in the home of a Scottish neighbour Jack or Jock Kelso who, unsurprisingly given his name, was a Scotsman. It is said that Lincoln was heavily influenced by the poetry of Burns that Kelso had in his collection and this would help him on the road to becoming the US president who freed the slaves.
Another American who was to read Burns’ poems and be heavily influenced by themes of liberty and the brotherhood of men found among them, was escaped slave, Frederick Douglass. When Douglass visited Britain, he made a point of visiting Burns’ birthplace in Alloway. Like Burns, he visited Newcastle, and he became a freed slave due to the fund set up by two sisters-in-law from Jesmond. Douglass went on to become known as the ‘Father of the American Civil Rights Movement’ and a close adviser to President Lincoln. Perhaps we should leave the last words on the matter to Douglass. Speaking of Burns, he said ‘we may condemn his faults, but only as we condemn our own’ and he argued that Burns was ‘far more faultless than many who have come down to us on the pages of history as saints’, words which might serve as a warning to anyone planning to erect a statue to any historical figure in future.
Nevertheless in 2016, Burns’ statue was returned to Walker Park. A Heritage Lottery Fund grant was obtained for a revamp of the park as a whole and as part of that, a replica of the Burns statue was installed exactly where the original had stood – but this time facing Burns’ birthplace. At the same time, repairs were made to the original and it was placed in a new cafe in the park. There are now just three full length statues of Robert Burns in England, one in London’s Victoria Embankment Gardens – and two in Walker Park!
Talking in 2016, park ranger, Katharine Knox, noted that, ‘The statue was a prominent feature of the park and a lot of local people have memories of it’.
Newcastle City Council cabinet member for culture and communities, Kim McGuinness, added: ‘It’s really pleasing to see this statue, a prominent historical feature in the park, restored to its former glory and taking pride of place.’
It’s unfortunate that it was only the ‘statuette’ that was ‘restored to its former glory’. Somewhere along the line, the magnificent fountain, the quote from Burns and the plaque which explained who gave the statue to whom all became separated and, as far as we know, lost and there is nothing on the monument to tell passers by who the replica Walker Park statue depicts. There is brief information on information panels around the park which direct those interested into the cafe where the heavily restored original stand proudly along with detailed and well-presented information about Burns and the words of ‘A Man’s a man for A ‘That’, as well as a summary of the statue’s story.
At present, however, you can’t see the exhibition because, due to coronavirus, the cafe is offering a takeaway service only, alongside other community activities. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine that both Burns and Walker Burns Club would be satisfied at the current resting place of the the original statue, in a community hub, and they would understand why the display of a statue had to take second place to the incredible work YMCA staff and volunteers are doing to helping local people hit hard by the current pandemic.
Can You Help?
So, as you can see, there is much in the story of the Burns’ memorial which gives food for thought and much that has been forgotten or misremembered over the years. We would especially like to find out more about the statue’s stay in Heaton, which was well within living memory. Why Heaton? When was it here? Where did it stand? What became of the original fountain? Which way did Robbie face? Did you know who he was?
If you can help in any way, please get in touch. You can contact us either through this website, by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Before the ink was dry on our article, we had received the photographs below which, if you look carefully, show the statue in Heaton Park, on the far side of the pavilion before it was restored. It’s clear that the statue is mounted on a pedestal but there is no fountain. A big thanks to Ann Denton of Heaton History Group and Friends of Heaton Park. Do they stir any memories? Do you have a photo?
Researched and written by Peter Sagar of Heaton History Group, with additional material by Chris Jackson. Thank you also to Kevin Mochrie of Heaton History Group for sharing his library factsheet, to the staff and volunteers of YMCA Walker Park Cafe and Centre, who kindly gave us access to the cafe to photograph the Burns’ statue and to Ann Denton of Heaton History Group and Friends of Heaton and Armstrong Parks for supplying the photographs of the pavilion.
‘Burns: a biography of Robert Burns’ / James Mackay; Alloway Publlshing, 2004
‘Burns in the USA’, BBC Scotland
‘Myers’ Literary Guide: The North East’ / Alan Myers; 2nd Edition, 1997
‘Robert Burns: his connections to Newcastle and the North East’ / Kevin Mochrie. Newcastle City Library Factsheet, revised, January 2020.
‘Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame’, BBC Scotland (TV programme)
Heaton was, as many readers will know, the home for many years of East End, the team that became Newcastle United. But in the 1880s and ‘90s East End was just one of many teams that played in Heaton. Recently we were shown a photograph that led us to research the early history of one of them.
This silver memento was found some decades ago among the possessions of a deceased relative of Stephen Maddison, who told us that the person whose name was engraved on it ‘W Donaldson, Captain, Heaton Rovers 1893-4’ was not, as far as he knew, a member of his family. It lay forgotten for many a number of decades until it came into Stephen’s possession and he asked Heaton History Group whether we could tell him anything about Heaton Rovers or W Donaldson.
Luckily, contemporary newspaper reports have helped us build up a picture of the club’s early years. Although there is a single reference to a team called Heaton Rovers playing a match in March 1885, the club appears to have been founded in 1887, the year before the Football League was founded. The first of what would become regular references in the press to their matches was, in fact, to a game against Heaton Malcolm (presumably with a connection to the street of that name) on 19 March 1887 that was never played. It had been postponed in order to allow players to watch the Northumberland Cup Final between West End and Shankhouse, which was being played in Heaton on the same day.
The club’s secretary, G W Greener, who at that time was living in Heaton’s Morley Street, confirmed this conjecture in an 1890 dispute about other clubs not fulfilling their fixtures. It is clear from appeals in the press for opponents that, at this time, Rovers was a club for boys aged 12 to 14 years. The following year, the secretary appealed for players between the ages of 14 and 15.
There were lots of disputes reported during the club’s early years, on and off the pitch and with the press. G W Greener regularly took opponents to task for the state of their pitch, for fielding unregistered, over-age or otherwise illegal players and wrote to the press to correct mistakes in their reporting. Games were also abandoned because of on field arguments. Remember this was at a time when the rules of the game were in their infancy. Even at the top level, referees and penalty kicks were not introduced until 1891. Even the duration of a match wasn’t fixed at 90 minutes until 1897, the same time as teams were formally required to comprise 11 players.
But the boot was on the other foot following Rovers’ one and only mention in the national press:
Under a headline ‘Extraordinary Goal Scoring’ the famous newspaper ‘The Sporting Life’ reported ‘On Saturday when the Heaton Rovers and Union Harriers (Byker) met, the former won by 22 goals to 2. Shortly after half time, Rovers scored 6 goals in 10 minutes.’ (7 April 1888).
Even in the current free scoring Premier League, we haven’t seen anything quite like that (but we are publishing before the Newcastle United attack takes on the leaky Manchester United defence).
However a couple of weeks later, ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ issued a rebuttal: ’Union Harriers beg to contradict the score…. as the match was never played.’ (26 April 1888).
It’s interesting to track how far Rovers were prepared to travel for a fixture. Advertising vacant dates in the 1888-9 season for what was now an under 16 team, G W Greener (who was now living in Byker) cited a radius of ‘about eight miles’ (‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ 12 June 1888). Early season matches against Swalwell and Scotswood Harriers were within the specified distance but, early the following year, a Rovers’ fixture v Gainsborough appeared alongside fixtures such as Everton v Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa v West Brom, both of which will grace the Premier League this season. (‘York Herald’ 26 January 1889).
It’s not completely clear where Rovers played home games during the early years. They boasted of having a home ground as early as 1888 but we don’t yet know where it was. Certainly by spring 1890, they were playing at least some of their matches on East End’s ground, which was roughly where Chillingham Road Metro Station is now. They also sometimes seem to have played at Millers Lane in Walkergate.
The 1890-91 season was a good one for the club. In February, their record was: Played 23 Won 16 Drawn 4 Lost 2 For 75 goals Against 19. They boasted that no Northumberland side had beaten them, ‘only Felling and Washington’. In March, it was announced Rovers would play Weetslade in ‘the final of the medals competition’. The match was played at the East End ground on the same day as senior teams played the final of the Northumberland FA Cup Final. There was an admission charge of 6d to watch both games. We are indebted to ‘The Morpeth Herald’ (18 April 1891) for a full match report of the final of ‘this new competition for players aged 18 and under’ – and the first Rovers’ team sheet we have seen: ‘Donaldson’ was one of the half backs. Heaton Rovers won the game 2-0, their first trophy that we know of. Presumably W Donaldson will have won a medal but evidently not the one Stephen has. Jubilant new secretary, Frank Purdy, expressed a hope that the team would stay together and announced that the club’s fourth anniversary would be celebrated with a grand dinner.
Soon after, we hear that Leighton Football Club had amalgamated with Heaton Rovers and it had been decided to form a reserve team. The club was going from strength to strength. There was great excitement in Blyth the following Christmas when it was arranged that a ‘Blyth young lady’ would kick off Blyth Star’s match v Rovers: ’This innovation will be such a novelty in the annals of football that the whole of the inhabitants should be in the field at 10.00m as play commences at 10.30 and give the twinklers a bumper gate’ (‘Blyth Weekly News’ 24 December 1892).
At the end of the 1892-3 season, a meeting was held to launch a new competition ‘open to players who have taken part in this season’s English, Northumberland or Durham Senior Cup ties’ and ‘promoted by Wallsend NE Rangers’. It took place on 11 April 1893 at the Cafe, Wallsend with ‘Mr G W Greener of Heaton Rovers’ in the chair. The draw took place for the first round and, hopefully coincidentally, Heaton Rovers, received a bye. Intriguingly ’11 silver medals’ were explicitly mentioned as being offered in the competition. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find out any more details. Did the competition take place? How far did Rovers progress? Did they even win it? And is it the medal that W Donaldson received for captaining the team to glory now in Stephen’s possession? It’s tempting to think so.
However, there is some contradictory evidence. The following season, that in which the engraving states that W Donaldson was captain, was reported to be a much less successful campaign than those that had preceded it. At the club’s ‘8th AGM‘ on 16 June 1894, presided over by F W Purdy and held at Henderson’s Cocoa Rooms on Shields Road, it was reported that the first team had fallen back considerably, having played 19 matches of which only 3 had been won. The second team had won 12 out of 17. But the club had successfully obtained a place in the Tyneside League and they had a small balance in hand of 14s 5d. Interestingly, the club president was listed as C T Maling and A Ripley was now said to be the captain. Presumably, he had replaced Donaldson at the end of the previous season. There was no mention of any trophies. Perhaps W Donaldson’s medal was in recognition of his one season as captain.
On the other hand, it could have been the case that the previously mentioned cup competition had taken place between the Wallsend meeting on 11 April 1893 and the previous year’s AGM, which presumably took place in June 1893 and so would have been celebrated then, making the contrast with the following unsuccessful year even more stark. We don’t yet know but feel that the answer is out there somewhere in football archives. If you can help, please get in touch.
Even if it was going through a comparatively lean time, the club still had plenty of life left in it. The last mention that we have found so far was on 6 December 1909 when they were heavily beaten 8-2 by Wallsend Victoria but that may be more to do with the lack of digitised local papers between then and the outbreak of WW1 than on it being the final straw for the club.
But Heaton Rovers is only part of the story. What do we know about W Donaldson and some of the other key characters in its history?
C T Maling The club president referred to at the 1894 AGM was Christopher Thompson Maling of the famous pottery family. At this time he was almost 70 years old. The family’s Ford B factory at St Lawrence, Walker was the largest pottery in Britain when it was built in 1879 and Maling’s 1891 census return serves as an indicator of his wealth. A widower, he was living on Ellison Place in Newcastle with three grown up children, aged between 22 and 26 plus a ladies’ maid, a footman, two housemaids, a cook, a laundress, a kitchen maid, a professional nurse and a waiting maid. Hopefully, he had enough money left over after paying his staff to fork out for the odd football!
F W ‘Frank’ Purdy We think the club secretary who succeeded G W Greener could have William Francis Purdy, an engine driver’s son, who in 1891 was an 18 year old clerk to a shipbroker. The family were living at 16 Chillingham Road, very close to Rovers’ ground. He spent his early married life in Byker but later returned to Heaton, living at 44 Sackville Road and 17 Swindon Terrace. He died in 1929, aged c 57.
G W Greener George William Greener, son of Frederick Cawthorn Greener, an iron forgeman, was born in Northumberland but in 1881, aged nine, was living with his parents and four siblings in Middlesbrough. When Heaton Rovers was founded in 1887 with him as secretary, the family were living in Heaton. He would have been only around 14 or 15 years old, the same age as the players he was trying to attract to play both in and against the team. The family soon moved to Byker but George didn’t stay in the area as an adult. He married Lillie in 1898 and by 1901 the couple were living in Gateshead and in 1911 in Hartlepool with three children. George described his occupation as a ‘forge clerk’. He died in 1928, aged 56.
What is striking about both the secretaries during Rovers’ early years is how young they were. G W Greener, in particular, was rarely out of the newspapers, taking every opportunity to promote the football club and also founding a cricket team. He also took on positions beyond the club itself. The youth of early football organisers has been noted elsewhere and is perhaps not surprising considering how few of their parents’ or teachers’ generation would have any experience of playing or supporting a team.
A Ripley Andrew Ripley was the captain who succeeded W Donaldson. Another engine driver’s son, born in St Anthony’s in 1874, Andrew would have been around 20 years old when he took over the captaincy. After getting married, he briefly lived in Cullercoats but by 1911 had returned to Walker with his wife and five children. He died in 1947, aged 74.
And so to the name on the medal, W Donaldson. Unfortunately, there are a number of possibilities for the identity of the Heaton Rovers captain living to the east of Newcastle, some of about the expected age, perhaps the most likely being:
William Richardson Donaldson, son of Thomas, a stonemason, and Annie, who was born in Amble in July 1873 but by 1891, aged 18, was living with his parents and six siblings in Harbottle St, Byker and working as a blacksmith. He married Isabella in 1899. Wallsend Freemasons’ records in 1908 list his profession then as a ‘contractor’. In 1911, the couple were still living in Wallsend with their three children. Official records sometimes included William’s middle name and on other occasions, it was omitted. But maybe someone will be able to confirm this or tell us otherwise? It would be good to know more about an early figure in Heaton’s football history.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Stephen Maddison for sending us the photograph of the medal and explaining how he came by it. Thank you too to Stephen for permission to publish the photograph.
British Newspaper Archives
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In August 2020 the Woodland Trust shortlisted a sycamore in Armstrong Park, known as the ‘Shoe Tree’, for its English ‘Tree of the Year’. Our representative in the competition certainly isn’t as ancient as many of the other contenders, although that didn’t stop an anonymous wit constructing a fictional history for it, as this panel, which mysteriously appeared one night in 2012, shows.
Definitely not true but the tree is certainly growing in an area of the park with a very interesting actual history, some of which may provide an alternative narrative for why it now sprouts footwear.
Estate plans, estimated to date from around 1800, shows this particular part of Heaton, which was owned by the Ridley family, covered in trees and described as ‘plantations’. On the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map, the area is labelled ‘Bulman’s Wood’. We know that by the first half of the 19th century, it was owned by Armorer Donkin, the solicitor who in the 1830s employed William Armstrong as a clerk and became almost a father figure to him. On Donkin’s death in 1851, Armstrong inherited much of the land that he in turn gifted to the citizens of Newcastle, including the park which bears his name and houses the Shoe Tree.
But from the 1830s there was a house in the wooded area adjacent to where the Shoe Tree stands. It can be seen on the first edition OS map below, the square just below the old windmill. A very substantial stone-built single storey house, some 20 metres squared, stood here. This house was occupied for over twenty years by Joseph Sewell, a man who deserves to be much better known in Heaton than he is.
Joseph’s early life remain something of a mystery but we do know he was born c1777 in Northumberland. By 1804 he had become the owner of the already substantial St Anthony’s Pottery less than three miles from Heaton. The road now known as Pottery Bank led from the factory to the works’ own staithes on the River Tyne.
According to a modern reference book, ‘Although in recent years, Maling has received more attention than [other north-east potteries], the highest quality ware was made by the St Peter’s and St Anthony’s potteries.’
Under Sewell’s stewardship, the pottery went from strength to strength. It did not, for the most part, compete in the English market with the Staffordshire firms, which had advantages in terms of transport links by road. Instead, it took advantage of its position on the Tyne, with links to Europe, particularly Northern Europe.
Mr T T Stephenson, former works manager at St Anthony’s, interviewed by C T Maling in 1864, said:
‘I cannot go back to when it first began as a small white and common brown ware works but about 1803 or 1804, it was taken over by the Sewells and gradually extended by them for home trade until 1814 or 1815, when a considerable addition was made to manufacture entirely for exportation, chiefly CC or cream coloured, painted or blue printed [wares] and when I came to the works in 1819, the description of works then produced [was] say about five glost ovens and two or three enamel kilns per week, say CC and best cream colour to imitate Wedgwood’s tableware, then made in considerable quantities for Holland and other continental countries.’
As well as in local collections, there seem to be particularly large numbers of Sewell pieces in museums in Denmark which suggests this was a big market for Sewell’s pottery.
From 1819, the firm was known as Sewell and Donkin. Armorer Donkin, Jesmond and Heaton landowner, solicitor and businessman and soon to be Joseph Sewell’s landlord, had become a partner in the firm.
We know that there were ‘dwelling houses’ on the site of the factory and a newspaper of 9 June 1834 reported that ‘The lightning struck the house of Mr Sewell at St. Anthonys and broke a quantity of glass’. Whether this event was a factor, we don’t know but the following year, Sewell moved to a new house on Donkin’s land in Heaton.
Ironically, the advent of the railways from the 1830s, pioneered in the north-east, made things more difficult for Tyneside potteries as they enabled fashionable Staffordshire names to access the local market directly rather than have to transport goods by road and sea via London. Consequently their ceramics became relatively cheaper and more popular in this part of England.
The north-east firms were also affected by changes in shipping. Until this point, they had enjoyed access to cheap raw materials that were used as ballast on wooden collier ships making return journeys from Europe and London. But from the 1830s larger iron-clad ships came into use. They made fewer journeys and increasingly used water as ballast. The result was that as Staffordshire pottery became more affordable, local ware became comparatively expensive. Nevertheless St Anthony’s pottery continued to thrive by concentrating on cheaper mass-produced items. This plan is from the 1850s.
In 1851, the year in which Armorer Donkin died, the pottery name reverted and became Sewell and Company.
Sewell, the man
We know that Sewell diversified. He was manager and shareholder for a time at the Newcastle Broad and Crown Glass Company, the shareholder who recommended him being Armorer Donkin.
That Joseph had some philanthropic leanings is shown by charitable donations including one from ‘Messrs Sewell and Donkin’ in 1815 to a relief fund set up after the Heaton Colliery disaster and in 1848 to another following a tragedy at Cullercoats when seven fishermen drowned.
There are also references in the press to scholars such as those of the Ballast Hills and St Lawrence Sunday schools being taken up the Ouseburn to the ‘plantation of Joseph Sewell Esq’ including some mentions of tea and spice buns!
His gardener also gets several mentions for having won prizes for horticultural prowess.
Joseph died on 10 June 1858 at his home in Heaton at the age of 81.
At the time Sir William Armstrong gifted the land now known as Armstrong Park to the people of Newcastle in 1879, the tenant of the house was a Mr Glover. He may well have been the last occupant. Joseph Sewell’s house was soon used as a tearoom or refreshment rooms. Later, possibly about 1882, a kiosk seems to have been built onto the side.
Yvonne Shannon’s dad, who is 85, remembers going to the refreshment rooms for ice cream but he can’t recall anything about the big house. Heaton History Group member, Ken Stainton, remembers it too. He told us that an elderly man ‘quite a nice guy’ called Mr Salkeld ran the refreshment rooms when he was young. Ken remembers the name because he went to school with Norman Salkeld, one of the proprietor’s grandsons. But Ken’s memories are from the second world war: ‘Sweets were rationed. I don’t think they had cake. I just remember orange juice.’ The identity of the writer of the letter accompanying the first photo below would seem to confirm Ken’s recollections.
What Ken remembers most vividly, however, is the ‘dark, dingy room at the back’ that was used as changing facilities for another great Heaton institution, Heaton Harriers. Again this was during world war two, in which many of the Harriers served and some lost their lives.
It’s fitting that Heaton’s athletes were among the last known users of the space before, in 1955, the refreshment rooms were demolished. Is it a coincidence that a tree close to the site has, for the last thirty or more years, been the final resting place for worn trainers and other footwear belonging to Heaton residents past and present?
And although a number of truly historic buildings, such as ‘King John’s Palace’ and Heaton Windmill, survive just metres away, it’s the Shoe Tree, which particularly seems to capture the imagination of local people. It’s that which has a Heaton Park Road cafe named in its honour and has inspired local designers and artists.
But next time you pass, look up at the trainers and think about all the runners who set off from that spot, some of which were to lose their lives soon afterwards, and give a thought also to the entrepreneur, industrialist and philanthropist, Joseph Sewell, whose house footprint is beneath your feet.
Cast your vote for the Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year here.
Researched and written by Yvonne Shannon of Friends of Heaton and Armstrong Park and Friends of Jesmond Dene, with additional material by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Shoe Tree designs depicted by Colin Hagan.
‘St Anthony’s Pottery, Newcastle upon Tyne: Joseph Sewell’s book of designs’ / edited by Clarice and Harold Blakey on behalf of the Northern Ceramic Society and Tyne & Wear Museums, 1993
‘The Development of the Glass Industry on the Rivers Tyne and Wear 1700-1900’ / by Catherine Ross; Newcastle University thesis, 1982
‘William Armstrong: magician of the north’ / by Henrietta Heald; Northumbria Press, 2010.
British Newspaper Archive and newspaper cuttings
Ordnance Survey maps 1st and 2nd edition
Ridley collection, Northumberland Archives
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If you know more about the Shoe Tree, Joseph Sewell, The Armstrong Park refreshment rooms or have memories or photos 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
A house that is shrouded in mystery….. a house that seems to have all but dropped out of living memory, yet Nursery House certainly existed and Sue, who lived there as a child, shared with Heaton History Group’s Ann Denton her memories of living right in the heart of one of Newcastle’s most popular parks. Ann explains:
As an Ouseburn Parks volunteer guide, I am accustomed to many of the people who join us on our guided walks sharing stories and giving us additional snippets of local history.
However, during one recent guided tour of Heaton Park, I was really surprised to be asked ‘What about Nursery House?’ Despite having researched the history of the park, I had never heard of it. Yet, from the descriptions Sue shared with me about the house and her dad, the gardener, it clearly did exist. This called for some further research.
At first, I drew blanks – even some of our most eminent local historians hadn’t heard of Nursery House. My first task was to establish exactly where it was sited in the park. After poring over several maps, I identified the outline of a possible building. The location looked right, next to some large glasshouses but it wasn’t named as Nursery House. Then we had a break-through, one of my fellow guides found a map from 1950 that had the house clearly marked and named.
Nursery House was a gardener’s cottage situated just below King John’s Palace (Adam of Jesmond’s Camera). It probably occupied what is now the upper tarmacked car parking area which has a straight line of trees separating it from the Grade II-listed ruin.
The house had a garden with a fence around it dividing it from the public park. The orientation of the house was that it looked out towards Heaton Park Lodge.
These are the memories Sue shared with me over coffee:
Her dad was Edward Seymour who was a gardener/park keeper at Walker and then Heaton Park. The park superintendent was a Mr Hall who lived in Heaton Park Lodge (now the park rangers’ offices). Every day Sue’s dad would go off to work in the nearby glasshouses, cultivating the flowers and plants which would grace the many formal flowerbeds in the park. Remember those?
Sue has been researching her family tree and found that her dad and most of her half-brothers and half-sisters moved from Walker to Nursery House on 3 April 1944. She was born in 1956.
‘One of my sisters remembered going to see the house, with a close friend of hers. Upstairs they started “ballroom dancing” as the rooms were so huge and Dad told them off!
Upstairs there were three rooms: two large bedrooms and a third smaller one. Downstairs there was a room which was rarely used, also a living room, a kitchen with a bath under a bench – I remember my brother once closed the bench down when I was in the bath! There was a large walk-in larder, an outside toilet, a coalhouse and a shed. The garden was quite a size. It contained a statue called the ‘one-armed fiddler’ : the blue tits used to fly through its arm! Dad gardened weekdays and, one day in four, he was the park keeper.
I remember there was a clock on the pavilion that had a very tinny chime on the hour. And Mam used to help out at the ice cream hut at weekends. The people from the ice cream parlour on Heaton Road used to come down with supplies. They sometimes gave me the broken cones!
As no papers were delivered on Sundays, Charlie and Joey (other gardeners) would bring the Sunday papers and mam would make a bacon sandwich for them.
Mr Hall, the park superintendent, lived in the house near the pavilion. There used to be an aviary there and a grapevine along the wall near the steps. The flowerbeds down there had dahlias which Dad dug up and re-planted every year. We left Nursery House in 1962, as dad retired.‘
Sue also recalls finding tennis balls in her garden which had come over from the single tennis court below King John’s Palace. (This court was still there in the 1980s because I remember playing on it.)
Apart from a reference in Fiona Green’s extensive research on the Ouseburn Parks (carried out for Newcastle City Council prior to a Heritage Lottery Fund project}, there is very little trace of Nursery House. The reference she cited is to council minutes where ‘permission was sought to demolish Nursery House in 1963’.
So, we are very grateful to Sue for sharing her family history with us and drawing attention to a ‘lost house’.
Researched and written by Ann Denton, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Sue Barrett for sharing her memories and her photographs.
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In a recent article, Peter Sagar looked at how Jack Common described life in Edwardian Heaton in his famous semi-autobiographical novel ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, here he considers how Commons’ writing been viewed down the years and how we look upon it today:
It has been noted that Common was born in Heaton, in an upstairs flat at 44 Third Avenue. Of this background, the trade unionist and activist, Dave Douglass, ‘drew me to recall just such a Heaton street parallel to the railway (South View West) and a back bedroom in which I was to pass many a night in the formative political years. It was in the upstairs flat which Les Howard shared with his father. Les was a member of the first Tyneside Committee of 100 [an anti war group of the 1960s] and I became secretary of the second Committee. When I first met him Les had a magical aura which surrounded all the early crowd. The ILP Hall on Shields Road was the meeting place of anarchists, pacifists, the old ILP and the exponents of direct action…’ If you can excuse the pun, this kind of identification with Common’s work is not uncommon, among a number of commentators.
Douglass goes on to tell us how from beginning to end you can ‘almost smell Tyneside’ in ‘Kiddar’s Luck‘. Douglass says how reading ‘Kiddar’s Luck‘ is the ‘next best thing to a visit home’ and capable of bringing on ‘nostalgic homesickness’ in him. Interestingly, Douglass then goes on to talk of how he felt sympathy for Common in his role as worker-writer. Indeed this sympathy and empathy with Common was so strong in Dave Douglass, that he goes on to say that reading again of Common’s experience had cause him to, ‘man the pumps and set to, with renewed vigour to pull together my mountain of unfinished work which lies upstairs awaiting an injury or illness to provide me with the time to bring it all to life’. As somebody who knows that feeling well, this would seem to be high praise indeed!
It has also been noted by local writer, Dan Jackson, that, ‘the novelist Jack Common, future friend and correspondent of George Orwell, was …………. smitten with belles-lettres growing up in a Tyneside flat near the railway sheds in Heaton.’
It is argued that Common was a well-read man and while his observations of Heaton truly came from the streets, his way of of expressing them were shaped by more exotic influences. It has been further argued that, ‘a love of great literature sharpened the pen of this “Geordie Proust” who was moved by “the birds at dawn, as well as the babble of the lounge bar”, yet as Common himself admitted later in life the life of a working-class writer was not an easy one: “There’s no talking to the lightning struck, the fatally illuminated are always alone.” ‘
If Common was undoubtedly one of those who was fatally illuminated, does that mean that his talent set him apart from his contemporaries in Heaton? He did leave Tyneside for London. Is that always the curse of the so-called ‘working-class writer?’
We saw in a recent article about ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ and its descriptions of Heaton, that Common had a quite contemptuous view of his education at Chillingham Road School. However, there is also evidence that the same school nurtured Common’s love of poetry. It has also been claimed that it was at this school that Common developed a lifelong love of the poetry of Shelley.
As for Common’s love for the classics, ‘The Chronicle’ in 2015 reported his son, Peter, as saying, ‘My mother taught me to read and write at an early age because I was confined to bed in a darkened room suffering from mumps, I believe. This gave my dad an opportunity to introduce me to many of the classical authors. His admiration and appreciation of these short stories made a big impression on me and I know that he tried to emulate them in his own short stories’.
This is surely what made Common such a great writer: with one foot in the rough and tumble streets of Edwardian Heaton and the other in the world of some of the greatest writers of all time, Common was able to convey an authentic impression of life in Heaton and the wider Newcastle.
This ability meant that Common was able to convey the richness of working-class life in Heaton in a way which still resonates with us today. And it has been argued that this was not only true when considering better known works such as ‘Kiddar’s Luck’. Jack Common’s story, ‘Nineteen’, which was first printed in the 1931 edition of the London-based literary journal ‘Adelphi’ is seen as a case in point.
Philip Hensher, editor of ‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story’ , in which ‘Nineteen’ was republished in 2015, said: ‘What I loved about “Nineteen” was its understanding of how broad and varied working class culture could be, and its warm and humane understanding of two young people. It is so beautifully written, and so very special. Jack Common was a wonderful writer and I hope to give him some circulation again.’ These characteristics of Common’s writing could be said to be the hallmarks of his work and why he was so revered by people like George Orwell.
Indeed Common developed a strong friendship with Orwell and it has been noted that, ’Common and Orwell became friends, corresponding and occasionally meeting when Common was running the village shop in Datchworth, Hertfordshire, about ten miles from Orwell’s Wallington cottage.’
This was around the time when Common, ‘inspired, prefaced and edited’ the compilation ‘Seven Shifts’ (1938), in which seven working men told of their experience.
Orwell was famously rather envious of Common, stating that Common was the writer he would like to have been. This was because Common had genuine working-class roots in Heaton, the likes of which Orwell might have yearned for, but could never have claimed. This quality, being a great writer, but being from a genuine working-class background is what set Common apart. It has been said of Common that his writing was, ‘warm, ironic and quirky’. He soon won admirers throughout the 1930s as a writer with a genuine proletarian viewpoint, as distinct from the purveyors of middle-class Marxist fiction.
Common was invited in 1930 by John Middleton Murry, founder and editor of ‘Adelphi’, who had noticed an essay he had written, to become circulation promoter and later assistant editor of the magazine. For a period in 1936, he was acting editor and a collection of his articles ‘The Freedom of the Streets’ appeared in 1938.
The writer, V S Pritchett, considered the ‘The Freedom of the Streets’ to have been the most influential in his life, and George Orwell heard in the essays ‘the authentic voice of the ordinary working man, the man who might infuse a new decency into the control of affairs if only he could get there, but who in practice never seems to get much further than the trenches, the sweatshop and the jail.’
It has also been said Orwell had written of Common: ‘he is of proletarian origin, and much more than most writers of this kind he preserves his proletarian viewpoint’. It is further argued that this, ‘viewpoint was developed by Common with a clear critical intelligence, in a variety of reviews, essays and satirical pieces’ and that he was, as another reviewer put it: ‘a knowing bird, [whose] life appears to be spent with his head on one side forever questioning the quaint ways of the bourgeois, whilst he chuckles down his throat at their dependence upon the proletarians’.In this “knowingness”, however, there is no hint of smugness or self-satisfaction. The perspective he offered was not one of class prejudice or “workerism” (he had little time for middle class socialists who were determined – in dress, manner and speech – to outdo the workers on their own terms!) His concern was with a humanistic analysis of capitalist society. One which saw the proletariat to lie at the heart of an immense economic and social crisis which affected all classes.’ Here again we see Common portrayed as having the ‘authentic voice of the working-man’, or at least the working man from Heaton.
It has also been argued that Common paid the price for being this authentic voice of the working-man. It is said that, ‘Common grew up as a writer when the proletarian novelist, whether from the north-east or south Wales or Clydesdale, was worth a casual aside over dinner in Bloomsbury but was unlikely to be offered a seat at the table or a square meal.’ Like his contemporaries, the Ashington ‘pitmen painters’, Common was to be admired and talked about…from a distance.
Much of Common’s writing can be said to express the nobility of working life in the north-east, but he could also demonstrate some of the less positive aspects of life in the region. As Dan Jackson notes in ‘Northumbrians’,‘The working-class novelist Jack Common wrote of the stifling conformity of suburban Heaton, where the pursuit of respectability, through a clean front-step and spotless rent book, was pursued fanatically and all under the watchful eyes of one’s neighbours’.
‘And there by the slight fold of a lifted curtain, he encountered an Eye’, wrote Common in his autobiographical ‘Kiddar’s Luck’. ‘It was Mrs Rowley’s and there was no doubt about it. The woman was a natural overlooker.’
The north-east has never really lost that slightly oppressive sense of community and a certain suspicion of individualism. I do wonder, however, if it has begin to lose its sense of community somewhat in recent decades as the forces which bound communities together, such as large employers and their accompanying trade unions have either disappeared or declined drastically in their importance.
Common himself describes another downside of working-class life in Heaton, when describing how when coming home his mother would more often than not return to ‘an empty house, in a hateful suburb. She loved the town and was happiest in company, with the full household of her childhood. True she was very much in love with her husband. She’d sit up far into the night waiting for his return, a pleasant enough parcel of pretty wifehood for any man to find at the end of the day’s work. But he didn’t like it. He was shamed, shamed in his manhood that he was kept like a slave away from her and could only slink back in the late hours when work had done with him and left him too tired and irritable to toss the nice nothings of love towards his waiting fancy. He spoke sharp and hurt her, he didn’t want to hear about the people she had met in town that day..’.
Again we see Common describing working-class life in Heaton in all its gritty realism, almost as if he was foreshadowing the northern kitchen sink dramas that were to come on television ten years later. But Common wrote of it with compassion and understanding and an honesty that came from having lived in the same house, the kind of honesty that could never have come from a writer from a more affluent background, the kind of writer who might glorify working-class life, without having experienced it for even a minute.
Regional v Universal
The Jack Common who wrote ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ was undoubtedly a north-east writer. As Jackson says, ‘consider the working-class novelist, Jack Common in “Kiddar’s Luck”, sallying forth eastwards – on foot – from industrial Heaton to the glories of the Riviera:
“From North Shields on, the air was full of the sea glow, a salt radiance heightened all along the Tynemouth streets. At the end of them, the land fell off at the cliff-edge into a great shining nothingness immense all ways over the lazy crimping of seas on their level floor.”’
Common could write about the harshness of working-class life in Heaton, but as we see here was also more than capable of writing of the glorious setting so much of Tyneside enjoys to this day. Common was seen in his day by many as a ‘regional writer’.
Was Common a universal writer, or what would be seen as merely a regional writer? There are numerous arguments that what Common wrote about involved universal themes, about family relationships or the role of working people in society, which pertain to humanity as a whole, but sadly it seems that, like many artists and writers from our region, Common has often been firmly put away in the box marked ‘regional’. Indeed it has been noted that,
’In 1951 Turnstile Press published Common’s best-known book, the autobiographical “Kiddar’s Luck”, in which he vividly describes his childhood on the streets of Edwardian Tyneside, as seen through the lens of his adult socialism. There are four chapters on his life before five years old – a feat of detailed memory – while his mother’s alcoholism and the overbearing father whom Jack at length dramatically defies, form the dark background to the vigorous, at times bravura, narrative. The book found praise as a slice of Geordie naturalism, a convincing depiction of “the other England” which so beguiled the imagination of contemporary intellectuals. On the other hand, its irony and subtly bitter universality went largely unrecognised.’
Perhaps the truth is simply that writers such as Common have had things to say which worry establishment elites and worry them to such an extent that it is safer to just put him away in a box which limits his relevance to only the north-east. If so, that only shows the cowardice of the literary establishment and just how narrow their own thinking really is. Perhaps they simply can’t imagine that the ‘other England’ is as real as their own…
This ‘other England’ would indeed take decades after Common’s best work to even be fully discovered. Alan Plater, the north-east born playwright, has described how when writing for ‘Z Cars’ in the 1960s, he and his fellow writers had to make up the name for a town for the series to be set in and call it ‘Newtown’, near to the large city of ‘Seaport’. Everybody knew it was Kirkby near Liverpool, but those were the rules of the game at the time. Indeed Plater himself has stated that, ‘the setting was an ill-defined, generalised lump of the good earth called “The North” and the writers were categorised as “northern writers”’.
Hull-born Tom Courtenay starred in ‘Billy Liar’, despite its West Riding setting and Salford-born Albert Finney found his way to Nottingham in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, all without comment in the posh newspapers, though there were comments aplenty in the areas listed. We can also consider the way the north east finally found its voice on television. In the 1960s there was the first series of ‘The Likely Lads’, which is portrayed as being set ‘somewhere in the north-east’, which could, in practice, have been anywhere from Tyneside to Hartlepool. The 1970’s reprise, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ is clearly set more firmly on Tyneside, with the pictures of a changing Newcastle during the intro and outro music and its habitual Whitley Bay jokes, but still one of the two likely lads themselves is played by Bingley-born Rodney Bewes, while another Yorkshire-born actor, Brian Glover has a starring role in perhaps the most famous of all the episodes, when Bob and Terry try to avoid the score of an England match. It took the 1980s and ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ for three Geordie actors to be playing the parts of three Geordie characters.
As it took drama and literature so long for the ‘other England’ to be taken seriously on a national level in the 20th century, it is little wonder that Common’s writing has been put in this regional box. Yet, if the universal themes of the work of the Bronte sisters from Haworth can be acknowledged then perhaps so will Common’s one day. But then again, the Bronte sisters’ father wasn’t a humble railwayman.
So how should we look upon the legacy of Common’s work today? In the last two years, I have had the pleasure of going into seven north-east primary schools to teach them old north-east songs and teach them some north-east history. Almost without exception the pupils loved it. They have seen the songs as their songs and the history as their history. They listen to music from many different cultures in primary schools and rightly so. Music is there to be enjoyed from whatever background it comes and if pupils can enjoy music from many parts of the world, then that is great. And it almost goes without saying that music is a great way to break down barriers between people and anything that can do that is surely to be applauded, especially at a time like this. But, I would also say that their musical learning should be based on starting with music form their own heritage. How can pupils in our region have any real understanding of other musical traditions, if they have no knowledge of their own? And why should our musical traditions in north-east England be seen as any less important or valid than any others from anywhere else in the world?
If this is true, then the same can be said about writing like that of Jack Common. Here was an authentic Tyneside voice articulating what it was like to live on the same streets as us a century ago. I would be the last person to say that Heaton school pupils should be deprived the chance to read great literature from around the world during their school days. After all, we have seen that Common did just that himself. But it does seem a pity that you will look in vain to find mention of any books by Common in the National Curriculum or in most north-east schools. Common is still seen as not quite important enough. Perhaps it is time for the north in particular to re-find its voice and one of the best starting points would be the writings of Jack Common.
For an example of what could be achieved, one only has to look north of the border to see how Scotland has regained its sense of cultural self-confidence. However, it can easily be forgotten that it has been a century’s long journey to get there. In the years after the first world war, Scottish culture was embodied in the person of Harry Lauder, who presented to Scotland and the world a kitsch, tartan-clad version of ‘Scottishness’, a million miles away from the offerings on BBC Alba today. A similar renaissance of northern English literature and culture in general is long overdue and Common could and should be a major part of it. In the hands of writers like Common, the ‘other England’ had much to say which was valid and important. It still does.
Researched and written by Peter Sagar.
Geordies / edited by B. Lancaster and R. Colls; Edinburgh University Press,1992
Kiddar’s Luck / by Jack Common, 1951
The Northumbrians: North-East England and Its People — A New History / by Dan Jackson; Hurst, 2019
If you know more about Jack Common 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
On 17 March 1911, Mary ‘Molly’ Wharton Parkinson of Heaton stood on the deck of RMS ‘Victorian’ in Princess Dock, Liverpool and waved at the cheering, flag-waving two thousand-strong crowd below. Moments earlier she had joined in a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘God Save the King’ and, if she had shed a tear as the ship left the port, she would have been in good company.
Molly, aged 32, was a teacher, vocalist and music teacher. Born in Penshaw, Co Durham, she had lived in Heaton with her family for many years, first of all at 32 Kingsley Place and then 19 Holmside Place. She was the eldest of 16 children, nine of whom had survived beyond infancy. In later life, Molly recalled that at about the age of nine she could ‘simultaneously read a book propped on the mantle, knit a stocking and rock the baby’s cradle with my foot’.
Molly was better placed than most on the ship to have known that the ‘Victorian’ was the first large civilian ship to be powered by steam turbines and that those turbines had been made by the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company. Not only had marine steam turbines been developed by Sir Charles Parsons and his team less than a mile away from where she lived but she had recently got to know (and like very much) a young marine engineer, Fred Christian, who had lodged nearby while studying and working in Newcastle but who had recently returned home to New Zealand. Perhaps his absence and the possibility of a brief reunion had motivated her to put her name down for the trip.
When the crowds were no longer in view and Molly had retired to her cabin, she was joined by a familiar face: Florrie Hamilton was nine years younger than Molly but they had got to know each other. Not only did Florrie live in the next street at 27 Eversley Place but they also sang in the same choir, the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union, which rehearsed every Tuesday night at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil. Molly sang contralto and Florrie soprano.
And singing was what brought them together now. They were about to embark on a hugely ambitious and exciting six month long world tour with a 225 strong choir.
The idea for the tour had been that of Dr Charles Harriss, a London-born composer, choral conductor, organist of Ottawa Cathedral and founder of the McGill Conservatorium of Music. He was described as a ‘staunch British imperialist who sought to bring British cultural “standards” to the crown’s dominions abroad’ . He was certainly keen to build bridges, initially between Canada and ‘the motherland’. This led to the Sheffield Union Choir travelling to Canada in 1908 and, following the success of that visit, he was determined to foster similar ‘reciprocity’ between Britain and a British Empire recently bruised by events such as the Second Boer War – or at least with those regions where white settlers formed a majority of the population.
A very wealthy and well connected man, he garnered support for his ideas in the highest political echelons including the British government at home and the 4th Earl Grey, former MP for Tyneside and at that time both Governor General of Canada and a great patron of the arts.
He was also able to underwrite the tour financially to the tune of £60,000 (some £7,000,000 today). And crucially, he was a great organiser. In the 12 months before the tour began, he visited every country personally ensuring that the arrangements in place were ‘second to none’.
The conductor of the touring choir was Henry Coward, later to become Sir Henry. Coward was born in Liverpool in 1849, the son of a publican. Henry’s father had died when he was a small boy and his mother relocated to her home city of Sheffield, where the young boy could become an apprentice cutler to her brother, a pen-knife maker. Henry had shown an aptitude for music at an early age and had played the banjo but in Sheffield he taught himself how to read music and soon became a great advocate of the tonic sol-fah method of teaching others. He went on to achieve a first degree and doctorate in music from the University of Oxford.
Coward was a man of great energy and passion for singing, especially choral singing, not only from a musical point of view but also for its social, psychological and health benefits. He became a renown singing teacher and choral conductor, especially known for the huge choirs he could manage. He founded the Sheffield Tonic Sol-fa Association, later renamed the Sheffield Music Union and conducted over 50,000 voices in front of Queen Victoria at the opening of Sheffield Town Hall. Coward was a natural choice as lead conductor for Harriss’s tours.
Although based in Sheffield, Coward travelled hundreds of miles every week to conduct choirs in Leeds, Huddersfield, Southport, Glasgow and, of course, Newcastle at a time before motorways or even private cars. His Newcastle choir was the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union, of which Molly, Florrie and all the other Heaton singers were a part.
Coward selected the tourists, mostly from the choirs he regularly conducted, on the basis of their singing, sight reading and temperament.
The Newcastle Journal of 18 July 1910 published a list of ‘Local Singers who have passed the musical test and qualified to take part in the world tour of the Sheffield Musical Union next year’
Apart from Molly and Florrie, there were 5 other Heatonians:
Herbert Alderson. Born on 26 December 1877 in Bishop Auckland, so on tour Herbert, a joiner, was 33 years old. He lived with his parents and younger siblings at 147 Bolingbroke Street. He sang tenor.
Margaret Howson, born on 21 February 1888, and so aged 23 at the time of the tour, was living with her family at 8 Heaton Road, although by the time of the 1911 census, they had relocated to Stocksfield. She was a music teacher and sang contralto.
Jean Finlay Terry, born on 25 August 1865 in SE Northumberland, she was aged 45 at the start of the tour and, like Molly and Margaret, a teacher. She had lived at various addresses in Northumberland but, at the time of the test, was at 16 Stratford Grove. She was a contralto. On the ‘Victorian’, she shared a cabin with Margaret Howson. We also know that she kept a tour diary (but, alas, so far haven’t tracked it down).
John Charles Hamilton was aged 50 at the start of the tour and sang bass. Originally from Crook in Co Durham, he worked as a school board attendance officer and was Florrie’s father.
Miss M Atkinson of 64 Cartington Terrace is also listed as having passed the singing test but her name doesn’t appear on later lists of the tourists so presumably, she either withdrew or was on the tour’s reserve list.
The successful candidates would, in most cases, have needed permission from their employers to take six months unpaid leave and they would not be paid to participate, although their expenses would be covered and some ‘pocket money’ was distributed.
They also had to sign up to a gruelling programme of private study and rehearsals in order to learn and be able to sing no less than 160 different pieces, from composers such as Handel, Verdi, Bach, Berlioz and Elgar, as well as Harriss himself, along with arrangements of English folk music and ‘empire music’. Every month between July and March, the whole choir convened in Sheffield for five hours of rehearsal and ‘team bonding teas’.
On tour, the travelling was alternately gruelling and thrilling. Starting with a storm off the south coast of Ireland, there were numerous ‘weather events’ to contend with. Intense cold, a storm and icebergs slowed the progress of the ‘Victorian’ as it approached St Johns in Canada; in Montreal the singers had to walk through a narrow passage through snow piled ‘higher than our heads’; a train ride through the Rockies was described as ‘fifty Switzerlands rolled into one’; In the Pacific it was so hot that one of the crew went ‘insane with the heat’ and between Australia and New Zealand, the captain told the passengers to ‘put on a lifebelt and try to go to sleep’ before a ferocious cyclone flooded every cabin, the water so deep that everyone was trapped where they were. The boat deck and bridge deck were washed away, ‘ironwork twisted as though it were paper’. Many of the choir were injured, some of the crew badly hurt.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine the excitement the choir members, very few of whom had travelled much if at all, felt when they saw their first icebergs, walked behind the Niagara Falls, saw the Northern Lights in all their glory, watched flying fish, albatrosses and whales and sailed through coral reefs, all before the days of television and Sir David Attenborough.
In Honolulu and Suva, they saw coconuts, dates, mangoes, ‘bananas growing in the streets’ and sampled many foods you’d be hard-pressed to buy in Heaton (even today!):
‘papaya … was like pink melon to look at but was soft and ripe and tasted of strawberries and cream’.
May Midgley, a singer from Bradford, was particularly impressed by the desserts in Canada:
‘..such ices! The ladies said “We make our own always!” They have a refrigerator in every house almost and they don’t make them in little slices like we do in England but like puddings and you can help yourself to as much as you like.’
Unlike many of the singers, Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb was well-travelled but even she was impressed by one of the American hotels ‘it has all the latest gadgets, two telephones in each bedroom, one to servants and one to the office, electric lights at the bedside…’
Activities put on for the party included a chance to speed round the Indianapolis motor racing track ‘at seventy or eighty miles an hour’;‘bathing in a steaming bath in a snowstorm’ in Banff; visits to diamond and gold mines in South Africa (‘Except that the dust was white instead of dark, it looked greatly like going by Middlesbro’’ – Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb).
There were large, enthusiastic crowds everywhere: in Canada, apparently ’an old native of Sheffield travelled two days by dog-sleigh and snowshoes and 400 miles by train’ and another music lover ‘two days and nights on horseback’; elsewhere ‘ a large crowd of cowboys [unable to gain admittance] climbed onto the [concert venue and] showed their appreciation by thumping on the roof and sides of the building’. The audiences frequently numbered in the thousands: in Sydney there were 5,000 inside and an ‘immense crowd’ outside for a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and, following that, the choir performed outdoors in front of almost 40,000 people for George V’s coronation celebrations and there were at least half that number at the tour’s farewell and thanksgiving service in Capetown.
In Toronto, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St Paul and Chicago, the choir was conducted in ‘Dream of Gerontius’, a work then only ten years old, by Sir Edward Elgar himself. Elgar travelled with the party across North America, much to the excitement of some of the younger choir members.
In Cincinnati they were directed by a young Leopold Stokowski, best remembered now for his involvement (and appearance) in the Disney film ‘Fantasia’ some 30 years later.
In Ottawa, they met Earl Grey who expressed his pleasure at hearing the ‘north country burr’ again and in Chicago they met the brother and wife of President Taft. In Honolulu, they sang before Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and its annexation by the USA, and in South Africa, they met the Governor General, Lord Gladstone, the former British Home Secretary and the son of William Gladstone.
The tour was well-documented. Many of the choir, including our own Jean Terry and Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb wrote diaries, others kept scrapbooks and Henry Coward later wrote a published account. Letters home have been preserved and ‘there were forty cameras in our party’. They were even filmed:
‘We were invited to the Bijou Theatre Co to see ourselves on the cinematograph and it was funny… what a laugh we had!’
Reading the first hand accounts now, we cannot help be struck by some of the attitudes expressed and language used.
The aim of the tour was certainly to foster good will and promote peace. This can be summed up by Henry Coward’s words on reaching South Africa less than ten years after the Second Boer War had ended:
‘two hundred and twenty invaders entered Pretoria, not in the panoply of hateful war but holding the olive leaf of peace, good will and reciprocity, by means of song’.
In Durban, Eliza Vinycomb showed an awareness of apartheid ‘The rickshas had on them “For Europeans only” and at the post office a place partitioned off “For Asiatics and Natives” and in the trains were separate carriages for blacks and whites’. ‘The people say the Boers will never rise again, they felt their beating so thoroughly but they think the blacks may rise sometime.’ But she didn’t comment on the rights and wrongs.
Elsewhere Coward expressed his distaste for slavery and reported that the party was shocked by the poverty and inequality in Chicago. The choir sang for the patients at a leper station ‘where we saw some sorrowful sights but felt we had done a little to cheer their hopeless lot.’
But reading his and other accounts through the prism of 2020, some of the language and assumptions are nevertheless shocking.
In Buffalo, USA, the choir had ‘the new experience of being waited upon by negro attendants’; train staff were complimented by being referred to as ‘our dusky friends’; In Suva, Coward thought ‘the natives showed a strong indisposition to work’. About being taken to the spot where Captain Cook first landed in Australia and ‘captured it for England’, he later wrote, ‘Well done, Whitby!’
Descriptions of visits to a Sioux encampment at Portage la Prairie in Manitoba where the ‘Indians were very shy’ and ‘the occupants declined to thaw from their reserve’ and a Sursee reservation in Calgary where ‘the moderns [tried] to coax the occupants to show themselves but they gave no sign of obliging us’ make uncomfortable reading in the 21st century. Coward wrote that he was sorry that the tribe was dying out because of ill health and what he saw as ‘the fixed inferiority complex in their minds’.
Coward also reported an incident in Honolulu when a man trying to board their ship was apprehended by police officers, apparently having reached for a gun. ‘One of the two detectives settled the argument by giving the “wanted man” a tremendous bang on the head with the butt of his revolver…I was pleased to see this bit of summary, wild west justice. It impressed me very much.’
Such an amazing experience, good and bad, must have affected the choir members for the rest of their lives. Coward reports that ‘about a score of happy marriages resulted from the tour’. Were many of the choir politicised and did they continue to make music and travel? We are lucky to know at least a little about the subsequent lives of our Heaton singers:
Herbert continued to sing. We have a record of him as a soloist in 1913 at a ‘Grand Evening Concert’ in aid of Gateshead Independent Labour Party, alongside another well-known Heatonian, Colin Veitch, who lived just five minutes walk away on Stratford Villas. The following year, he performed with Gerald Veitch in a Newcastle Operatic Society performance of ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’ and soon after Colin conducted Herbert in Newcastle Amateur Operatic Society’s ‘Merrie England’.
In 1916, Herbert married shorthand typist, Edith Jane Ord of 54 Rothbury Terrace. Edith was also a keen singer. The couple lived in Jesmond when they were first married but soon returned to Heaton to 22 Crompton Road, where they lived for almost 20 years. That is where they were living at the outbreak of WW2, when Herbert was still listed as a joiner. Later they spent time at 211 Benton Road and then 12 Ravenswood Road, where Herbert died in 1961, aged 83.
We know that, after the tour, Margaret spent some time in South Africa because on 12 October 1919, she set sail from Cape Town to Southampton and was listed as a recent resident of that country and a music teacher. She returned to the north east where in 1923 in Hexham, she married Sidney Wilfred Lewis, a travelling sales rep for concrete and quarry plant, who had two children from a previous marriage. The couple lived in Stocksfield where their daughter, Dorothy, was born two years later. But by the outbreak of WW2, Mary had separated from Sidney and was living in London, where she described herself as a retired violin tutor. She died in Northampton in 1971, aged 82.
Jean Finlay Terry
In 1913, a book‘Northumberland Yesterday and Today’ by Jean F Terry LLA (St Andrews) 1913 was published. LLA stands for ‘Lady Literate in Arts’ and was offered by the University of St Andrews from 1877, fifteen years before women were admitted to Scottish universities. It became popular as a kind of external degree for women who had studied through correspondence or by attendance at non-university classes and continued until the 1930s. You can still find Terry’s fascinating local history book online and in second hand shops. We haven’t yet been able to prove that it was written by our Jean but there don’t seem to be any other likely contenders. If more evidence is required, not only does the author mention Heaton and Armstrong Parks in the text, she also included many poems and, particularly, folk-songs.
In 1914, Jean was elected to the committee of the Newcastle branch of the Victoria League at its AGM held at Armstrong College. The Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship was founded in 1901 to connect people from Commonwealth countries and promotes cooperation and peace. It was noteworthy in that, during the early years, it was predominantly a women’s organisation at a time when women still didn’t have the vote. At that time, ’through philanthropy to war victims, hospitality to colonial visitors, empire education and the promotion of social reform as an imperial issue, it aimed to promote imperial sentiment at home and promote colonial loyalty to the mother country’, all aims which Henry Coward and Charles Harriss would heartily endorse (in fact Coward pays tribute to the league in his account of the tour). It is still active today.
In 1926, there is a record of her travelling back from Marseilles to her home in Jesmond.
At the outbreak of WW2, Jean was described as a retired teacher, living with her younger brother Arthur, a retired civil servant, and their housekeeper in Stocksfield, where she lived until she died in 1951, aged 86.
Florrie continued to sing with the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union and in April 1912 was billed as ‘soprano of the famous Sheffield choir’ when she sang at two East Cramlington Primitive Methodist Church services. There is a record of her singing another solo the following year at the annual Wesley Guild and Christian Endeavour rally in Seaton Burn alongside Walter Gardner of Heaton Road Wesleyan Guild. Less than two and a half years later, she married Walter, a shipbrokers’ clerk, who in 1911 was living with his family in Falmouth Road, just three minutes walk away from Florrie and her family. The couple went on to live at 92 Cartington Terrace. In 1919, Florrie gave birth to their daughter, Muriel.
Florrie continued to perform. In 1923, she ‘acquitted [herself] with refinement and expression’ as an accompanist at a recital at Bainbridge Memorial Wesleyan Church.
Parenthood didn’t signal the end of travel for Florrie either. We know that in July 1926, she and young daughter, Muriel, were in the USA. They travelled back from New York to Southampton on the RMS ‘Homeric’. By this time, the family was living in Whitley Bay. Sadly, Florrie died in 1936, aged only 49.
John Charles Hamilton
John returned to Heaton where his wife, Rachel, and son, Walter, had been continuing to live while John and Florrie were on tour but the family was soon separated again when Walter joined the Northumberland Fusiliers to serve in WW1. In 1917, Rachel and John received the news that he had suffered slight gunshot wounds.
John died at Florrie’s home in Whitley Bay on 30 August 1925, aged 64.
As for Mary Wharton Parkinson, she and Fred continued to write to each other and, only two years after the world tour, she set sail once again, this time straight to New Zealand. The couple married on 11 December 1913 in Wellington.
By this time, Fred had set up an engineering and plumbing business in Tauranga in Bay of Plenty on North Island. Music played a big part in the couple’s life together. The month after their wedding, Molly and Fred performed in a local Methodist church concert: they played a piano duet together and both sang solo. We know that Molly also played the organ. And later in the year, Molly gave a talk about the world tour. If only we could know what she said!
But, important as it was, there was much more to Molly’s life than music. She and Frederick had four children. In 1916, she was elected president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and, when her children were older, she also became a ’leading light’ in the Country Women’s Institute, Maori Women’s Welfare League, the Girl Guides and other community organisations, often providing hospitality and accommodation to these groups in the extensive property, she and Fred had bought when they were first married. Fred died in 1957 age 73.
Mary Wharton Christian was awarded the MBE in 1975 and died one month short of her hundredth birthday in 1979.
Although it has only been possible to give a flavour of the tour and the lives of the Heaton singers who experienced it, none of it would have been possible without the help received on a virtual round the world journey reminiscent of that undertaken by Molly and our Heaton tourists 109 years ago, albeit this time online.
After reading about those who had passed the audition in the ‘Newcastle Journal’, just as for the successful singers, my first stop was Sheffield, where Chris Wiltshire, composer, choral conductor and the author of a book about the letters home of choir member, May Midgley, told me that he too used to do Henry Coward’s regular commute between Sheffield and Newcastle, as for many years he had conducted the Felling Male Voice Choir as well as the Sheffield Chamber Orchestra. Going the extra mile to help us find out more about our local singers, Chris put me in touch with Caroline Roberts of Durham University, who he said was also researching the north east representatives.
Meanwhile, via North America (well, Google) came the exciting discovery of an article on a local history website much like our own. This told the story of how Molly had got to know Fred Christian and their subsequent life together in Tauranga. It mentioned that one of Molly’s daughters had been a generous benefactor of the local history society. A couple of emails later and we had learnt that the piece had been written by Julie Green, the wife of Molly’s step grandson, and that all Molly and Fred’s photos, diaries and letters were in her loft!
And there was more! It turned out that not only had Caroline Roberts done a huge amount of research into the tour and, in particular, the Tyneside contingent, over many years and was very generously willing to share everything she knew about our Heaton singers – and more – but incredibly she was the daughter of Heaton History Group members, Joyce and Paul Craggs. Paul’s great grandfather, Fred Knowles, was a member of the touring choir and it was fellow HHG member Paul who, browsing in a Corbridge antique shop, had found the framed photograph from which the individual images of the singers you see above have been taken. All roads truly lead to Heaton!
Researched and written by Heaton History Group’s Chris Jackson with huge help from Julie Green, Caroline Roberts and Chris Wiltshire. A big thank you to all of them.
The Diary of Eliza Bustin Vinycomb (unpublished); Christchurch Archives, New Zealand
Round the World on Wings of Song: reciprocity / by Sir Henry Coward; Northend, 1933
12 Oak Avenue: the letters of Henrietta May Midgley 1911 / by Christopher Wiltshire; Wiltsmusic, 2018
To Walk Upon the Grass: the impact of the University of St Andrews’ Lady Literate in Arts, 1877-1892 / by Elisabeth Margaret Smith; University of St Andrews PhD Thesis, 2014
Women, Gender and the Promotion of Empire: the Victoria League 1901-1914 / by Eliza Riedi; The Historical Journal 45.3 (2002) pp 569-599
Ancestry, British Newspaper Archives and other online sources.
Can You Help?
If you know more about any of the Heaton singers or have photographs (or diaries!) 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 email@example.com
Newcastle and Tyneside in general, is rightly famous for the inventions produced here. From the railways to the hydraulic crane and from the first turbine driven ship to the electric light bulb (and many others besides), Tyneside was the home of some of the most important inventions in human history. But the last invention mentioned above would be of little use to use without a switch to help us turn it on. Thankfully that was also invented. And the place where it was invented? Yes, Newcastle again, not far from Heaton, by a man with strong links to Heaton itself.
That man was John Henry Holmes, an engineer, Quaker and inventor. Holmes was born in Newcastle on 6June 1857 and grew up first of all in Gateshead and then in Jesmond. His father was a ‘paint and color manufacturer, glass and oil merchant’ with his own factory. John attended the Friends School in Bootham, York, where he was taught the rudiments of science. Holmes must have absorbed much of what he was taught as, at the age of 16, he won a place at the Durham College of Physical Science, later Armstrong College, now Newcastle University. Two years later, having completed his studies, Holmes was apprenticed to Head, Wrightson and Co of Stockton-on Tees.
It was at Head, Wrightson and Co that Holmes began to handle electrical apparatus. Then in August, 1881, Holmes became an electrical engineer, working for John S Raworth of Manchester. His first work with Raworth was helping to fit out a new ship, City of Rome, built by Barrow Shipbuilders in 1881, with 16 arc lamps and 230 Swan lamps.
In April 1883, John made a bold decision. Having built upon his successful work with City of Rome by continuing to install lamps both onshore and in ships, Holmes decided to establish his own company in Newcastle, along with his father and two elder brothers, Alfred and Theodore. So it was that an electrical engineering business under the name of J H Holmes was established. The company was to last until 1928, fully 45 years, until their work was taken under the wings of A Reyrolle and Co Ltd. Consequently, the work initiated by Holmes went on for over 50 years under his supervision and in some respects continues to this day.
It was the following year that Holmes invented his light switch, the first in the world, at his workshop on Portland Street, Shieldfield, just outside Heaton. This switch enabled electric light to be easily used. In1883, Holmes had installed electric lighting in ‘Wellburn’, the family home in Jesmond, which thus became the first house in Newcastle to be lit by electricity. This work caused Holmes to develop what is now the familiar quick break switch. He patented this invention in Great Britain and the United States in 1884.
This was a huge breakthrough, in helping people to use electric lights. This new technology ensured that what was known as electric arcing was prevented, by causing the internal contacts to move apart quickly enough. This was very important as electric arcing could cause fires or shorten the life span of a switch. You can still see Holmes’ original invention at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.
Holmes didn’t restrict his work to this country. The Suez Canal was opened in November 1869 and by the late 1880s had become an important transport artery for the British Empire, cutting travel time for ships between the Indian subcontinent and Britain. In 1889, Holmes visited Egypt, where he studied the requirements of vessels traveling along the canal at night. Subsequently, Holmes ‘designed and supplied portable lighting apparatus that effectively increased the capacity of the Canal by greatly extending its use in the dark hours’.
Holmes then moved on to finding ways of lighting trains and producing electroplating dynamos. These are described as being, ‘designed for low potential and high current intensity. They are wound for low resistance, frequently several wires being used in parallel, or ribbon, bar or rectangular conductors being employed. They are of the direct current type. They should be shunt wound or they are liable to reverse. They are sometimes provided with resistance in the shunt, which is changed as desired to alter the electro-motive force.’ So there, now you know… However you describe Holmes’ work, he was certainly developing a reputation for pioneering electrical engineering work.
Holmes was indeed a prolific inventor. In 1897, Holmes commenced the sale of ‘Lundell’ motors under patent from the USA. This has been seen as a ‘pioneering step in the electric driving of industry’ and indeed one of the early and most interesting uses of this motor was in electric cabs.
The following year Holmes was at it again! This time he invented something which would help the publishing industries, for it was in 1898 that the Holmes-Clatworthy 2-motor system was patented and this would go on to drive newspaper presses for many of the world’s most important newspapers.
As the twentieth century dawned, so the company continued to develop and Holmes remained involved. It has been said of Holmes that his, ‘personal influence on its engineering side was invaluable because of his almost passionate love of good mechanical ideas’.
Holmes was known as a kindly man, with a reputation for having a quiet, retiring nature. Indeed it has been said of him that his nature prompted Holmes to perform, ‘many kindly acts and caused him to take a particularly keen interest in young people, and his orderly mind compelled him to do his best in all that he undertook and enabled him to play a notable part in the spread of a new way of doing things’.
Holmes and Heaton
So we have learnt that John Henry Holmes invented the light switch very close to Heaton in neighbouring Shieldfield, but what links did he have to Heaton itself?
Holmes had at least two close links with Heaton. The 1901 census shows us that his brother Ellwood was living in High Heaton at ‘Wyncote’ on Jesmond Park East. It describes him as being 35 years of age and an ‘employer’. He is described as an ‘Electrical Engineer and Paint and Colour Manufacturer.‘ He is evidently working in the family business. At this time, Ellwood has a 28 year-old wife called Edith, a son called Charles, aged three, and two sisters, Margaret and Ada, aged 30 and 24 respectively, living with his family. In 1911, Ellwood was still on Jesmond Park East and had added ‘licensed methylator’ to his list of occupations. This is someone licensed to manufacture and sell methylated spirits.
In 1928, when John Henry Holmes was 71 years old, his company, J H Holmes and Co, was incorporated into A Reyrolle and Co in Hebburn as a wholly-owned subsidiary. So it was that six years later, in the last year of his life, Holmes’ work gained a direct Heaton connection. It has been noted that, ‘A Reyrolle and Co established Parolle Electrical Plant Co Ltd as a private company for construction of electrical and other plant with the specific aim of acquiring shares in C A Parsons and Co from the executors of the estate of the late Sir Charles Parsons. Two directors were appointed by Reyrolle and one by Parsons.’ So Holmes’ work became directly connected to Heaton’s most famous company.
John Henry Holmes’ eventful life ended in 1935. He is buried in Old Jesmond Cemetery.
As the saying goes, ‘if you want to see his legacy, look around you’. If you are reading this somewhere indoors, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see an electric light switch. It has been noted that Holmes’ ‘quick break technology remains in use in domestic and industrial light switches modern times.’
‘A Fine and Private Place: Jesmond Old Cemetery‘ / by Alan Morgan; Tyne Bridge, 2000. 1857951557
‘The Northumbrians: North-East England and Its People: a new history’ / by Dan Jackson; Hurst, 2019. 1787381943
Researched and written by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group with additional material by Arthur Andrews. Thank you to Newcastle Libraries for the image of John Henry Holmes.
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