Monthly Archives: November 2020

A Peacock’s Tale

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

19 Cheltenham Terrace in November 2020, no sign of the ‘small tiled level surface’ or 3 steps.

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

44 Third Avenue in November 2020, the spiked railings long gone.

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

School

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

Chillingham Road School

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.

Divergence

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.

The Peacock Family c 1899. Basil is third from the left, next to his mother.

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.

Military

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.

Writer

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.

Heaton Presbyterian Church, taken from the corner of Cheltenham Terrace.

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.

Acknowledgments

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

Can You Help?

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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

‘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

Robbie Burns in Heaton: a Scottish mystery

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.

On Tour

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.

 To Newcastle

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’.

Commemorations

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.

Walker

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 capital also bore the final lines from Burns’ well-known song A Man’s a Man for A ‘That’ :

‘It’s Coming Yet for A’ That

That Man To Man, the Warld O’er

Shall Brithers be for A’ That.’

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.

Fresh Water

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).

King John’s Well, Armstrong Park c 1901 with drinking cups

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.

Restoration

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.

Heaton

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 years in 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.

Forgotten

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.

Journal 16 March 1994 and the only photograph we have found so far of Burns in Heaton Park (far right), sadly almost impossible to see in this digitised copy.

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.

Football Fundraisers

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.

Walker Park’s replica statue on a new plinth and Alexander Nasmyth’s 1787 portrait on which the likeness was based

A number of contemporary portraits of Burns exist.

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.

New Plaque

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 [2010] 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.

Slavery

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.

Replica

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.

Burns in the YMCA Walker Park Cafe, a community hub

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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

STOP PRESS

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?

Acknowledgments

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.

Sources

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)

burnswalkerstatue.wordpress.com

https://memorialdrinkingfountains.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/robert-burns-memorial-drinking-fountain/

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/burns-night-statue-newcastle-walker-15729980  11:54, 25 JAN 2019 

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/statue-great-rabbie-burns-returns-11778972

https://www.twsitelines.info/smr/13508

Shields Daily Gazette 15 July 1901

Evening Chronicle 15 July 1901 p2

Newcastle Daily Chronicle 15 July 1901 p 5

Journal and North Star 7 May 1927 p8 

Journal 13 June 1956 p 5

Evening Chronicle 27 September 1963 p12

Journal 24 February 1984 p 5

Journal 15 March 1994 p

Journal 16 March 1994 p 17