He’s conducted painstaking research into many topics of local interest but, in a quiet moment during lockdown, Heaton History Group’s Ian Clough decided to get to grips at last with a mystery that had literally been staring him in the face, a trophy on his own sideboard:
‘It is probably something that magpie, Uncle Jimmy Irwin, paid a few coppers for at a jumble sale long before charity shops appeared. It’s a bit battered and lost its wooden mount. I don’t even know how I ended up with it but I have always liked the penny farthing bicycles. If I took it to the Antiques Roadshow they would probably say it was worth a few coppers – “but if you could prove provenance …“‘
The scroll on the richly decorated trophy gave Ian his first clue: ‘Science and Art School Amateur Cycling Club’; a shield at the bottom is inscribed ‘Ellis Challenge Shield’ and, on two further shields at the top the name, ‘Robert Bolam’, alongside the dates, 1889 and 1890 respectively.”
To put the dates in context, local cycling hero, George Waller, who twice won the World Six Day Championship on a penny farthing, was nearing retirement and living in Heaton. In 1885, the Rover safety bicycle had been invented and three years later John Dunlop introduced the pneumatic tyre. Penny farthings were still ridden but their days were numbered. Incidentally in April 1889, a new cycle track was opened in the Bull Park on the Town Moor, where Exhibition Park is now. George Waller did a test run on it and pronounced it to be ‘one of the finest in the kingdom’. More than 140 years later, Newcastle no longer has a cycling track. The Olympic and Paralympic medallists all come from elsewhere. But we digress!
Ian first set about finding out more about the school. It was founded in 1877 by Dr John Hunter Rutherford, a Scottish Congregationalist preacher, who qualified as a medical doctor at the age of 41. As well as running a medical practice, Rutherford campaigned for better sanitation, But he is best known as a pioneering educationalist. He founded Bath Lane School in 1870 and the School of Science and Art in 1877. A number of branch schools soon followed, in Gateshead, Shieldfield, Byker – and two on Heaton Road.
The first branch to open in Heaton was on 24 May 1880 in the Leighton Primitive Methodist Church Sunday School buildings, which, as has already been described here, stood on the site of the modern shops at the bottom of Heaton Road, just before you reach Shields Road.
In 1885, a further branch was opened at Ashfield Villa, Heaton Road to meet the local demand not just for elementary but also higher education. Ashfield Villa stood directly opposite the Leighton Primitive Methodist School, where Heaton Buffs Club is now.
Dr Rutherford died suddenly at the age of 64 on 21 March 1890. Amongst the extensive press coverage, the following appeared:
‘The announcement of the death of Dr. Rutherford has caused wide-spread regret…Yesterday the Bath Lane Schools, the Camden Street School, the Heaton Road School and the Science and Art School, Heaton were closed as a tribute of respect to the deceased gentleman.’
So we know something about the schools. But the Ellis Challenge Shield? A clue came in the British Newspaper Archive. On Saturday 13 September 1890, ‘The Newcastle Courant’ carried a report of the Newcastle Science and Art School sports day, which took place on the Constabulary Ground in Jesmond (now the home ground of Newcastle Cricket Club, the Royal Grammar School Newcastle and Northumberland County Cricket Club).
The article named one of the judges as Mr A M Ellis. Andrew Murray Ellis, another Scot, was headmaster of the Newcastle Science and Art School. On his retirement in 1905, it was stated that he had served the school for 28 years, which meant he must have been on the staff since the school’s foundation. The cycling shield surely bears his name.
The article went on to list the first three in every race at the sports day. There, under the hoop race, the egg and spoon race and the dribbling race ‘open to members of the football club’ was:
‘Ellis Challenge Shield. Bicycle Race, one mile (open to members of the Science and Art School ACC). Carries Championship of the club. Holder, R Bolam. Robert Bolam, 1; Robt. Redpath, 2 ; Alf. Bell, 3. Won by 12 lengths.’
But how could this Robert Bolam be identified? It’s quite a common name. Luckily, there was a further clue to the identity of the winner:
‘Challenge Cup (presented by Councillor Cooke). Holder, Robert Bolam. Bicycle Race (mile).- [Result] Robert Bolam, 1; George T Easten, 2; Joe Bolam, 3. J Bolam and Easten made the running until the last lap, when Robert Bolam went to the front and won easily by ten yards. Easten finished second six yards in front of J Bolam.’
A further search revealed an announcement for the previous year’s sports day, due to take place on 31 August 1889. Again the Ellis Challenge Shield is specifically mentioned. And on 17 June 1890, in the ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’, there was a description of the trophy and more information about the club:
‘One of the most unqualified successes among local cycling clubs has been the Science and Art School ACC, which, now in its third year, may claim to be one of the largest in the city.’
‘The Ellis Challenge Shield, a beautiful silver trophy, is competed for each year, in a one mile race, carrying with it the championship of the club – the present holder of the title being Mr R A Bolam.’
So now Ian knew Robert’s middle initial and that he perhaps had a brother called Joseph. He could look for census records.
Robert Alfred Bolam was born on 11 November 1871. In the 1881 census he is shown as a 9 year old scholar, the oldest son of John Bolam, a dispensing chemist, of 46 Northumberland Street and his wife, Isabella. He had three sisters and a brother. Yes, Joseph.
Seven years later on 31 July 1888, ‘The Evening Chronicle’ gave extensive coverage of the ‘Local Science and Art examinations’ and there, under the practical organic chemistry results advanced stage for Ashfield Villa, Heaton, is the name Robert A Bolam, ‘First Class and Queen’s Prize.’ Our champion cyclist had studied in Heaton and was 17 years old at the time of his first victory in the Ellis Challenge Shield.
A few weeks before his second victory, ‘The Evening Chronicle’ of 31 July 1890 gives the results of ‘Science and Art Examinations’ and among the entries:
’Framwellgate Moor Science Class examination. Hygiene – Advanced Stage, 1st Class and Queen’s Prize – Robert A Bolam.’ Still on track!
And, so not to leave him out entirely, at ‘School of Arts and Science, Corporation St, Newcastle – Practical Organic Chemistry, 2nd Class – J H Bolam’ his younger brother.
By the time of the next census in 1891, Robert, now 19, was described as a ‘student in medicine’. He studied at Newcastle College of Medicine and Kings College London. In 1896, he won the Gold Medal at Newcastle College of Medicine, awarded to the best student in his year. By 1901, he was a ‘physician surgeon’, married with a baby and living on Saville Place.
The next mention of Dr Robert A Bolam which is relevant to Heaton came on 5 July 1910 in the extensive coverage of the trial of John Alexander Dickman, then of Jesmond but previously of Heaton ( eg, in 1901 at 11 Rothbury Terrace), accused of the murder of John Innes Nisbet of 180 Heaton Road on a train between Newcastle and Alnmouth on 18 March that year. An expert witness was Dr Robert A Bolam, MRCP, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence in the College of Medicine at Newcastle. He had been asked to examine three items of Dickman’s clothing: ‘a pair of Suede gloves, a pair of trousers and what was known as a Burberry overcoat.’
Bolam told the court that he had tested the garments ‘as regards solubility, chemically, microscopically and with a micro spectroscope’. He said that there were recent blood stains on the gloves and trousers and that attempts had been made to clean an unidentified stain on the coat with paraffin. Dickman was eventually hanged for murder. The case was controversial at the time and it continues to be the subject of books, articles and television programmes even today. (Unfortunately, a number of them refer to Robert Boland rather than Bolam.)
In 1911, now 39 years old, Robert Bolam lived in Queens Square and was married with 3 children and 3 servants, coincidentally one called ‘Margaret Isabella Rutherford’ . He described himself as a ‘consulting physician’. In fact, by this time Robert was already the first honorary physician in charge of the skin department at the RVI. Robert, our cycling champion, was in the fast lane.
During the WW1, Bolam served as major and acting lieutenant-colonel in the First Northern General Hospital. He was mentioned for distinguished service and awarded the rank of brevet lieutenant-colonel and the OBE (Military). He was commanding officer of the Wingrove Hospital, which specialised in venereal diseases and, a speech by him in 1916 to the BMA is credited with doing more to secure the passage of the Venereal Diseases Act of 1917 ‘than any other pronouncement’. The act prevented the treatment of the disease or the advertising of remedies by unqualified persons. After the war, when the Ministry of Health merged the clinic with the skin department at the RVI, Bolam was put in charge of both, a position he held until his retirement in 1931.
At Durham University, he was lecturer in dermatology, professor of medical jurisprudence, president of the University College of Medicine, a member of the senate and in 1936-7, vice chancellor.
But Robert Bolam wasn’t just a major figure locally or regionally, he served as chair of council of the British Medical Association from 1920 to 1927 (‘which involved night journeys between Newcastle and London two or three times each week’). He oversaw the erection of the BMA’s headquarters in Tavistock Square, London and it was to him who fell the honour of welcoming King George V and Queen Mary in 1925, a year in which he was also awarded the association’s coveted gold medal.
He was a member of the General Medical Council from 1928 until his death, and elected President of the British Association of Dermatologists 1933-34. Robert Alfred Bolam was Knighted in 1926.
Sir Robert Bolam died in Newcastle on 28 April 1939 but not before, in February of that year, he had overseen the move of the King’s College Medical School to its new building opposite the RVI and received King George VI and the Queen on its official opening. Sir Robert was survived by his wife, Sarah, son, Robert, and daughters, Dorothy and Grace.
On his death, the above oil painting, which is currently in store at Newcastle University, was commissioned by friends and colleagues.
Bolam’s obituary writer for the British Association of Dermatologists stated that the distinguished medical practitioner was also an authority on the Roman Wall, a first class rifle shot who regularly competed at Bisley and once shot for England, and had ‘a large collection of prizes as a cyclist and swimmer’, which is where we came in.
When we first encountered Robert Bolam he was already in a lofty position atop his penny farthing and so it continued throughout his distinguished life. He certainly did ‘get on his bike’.
But that’s not quite the end of the story. During the course of his research, Ian found the Bolam family tree on Ancestry. He contacted the owner, Wendy Cox, who turned out to be the granddaughter of Sir Robert Bolam and a proud, exiled Geordie. She told Ian that she hadn’t known her grandfather as he had died when she was just weeks old. Neither had she heard of the Ellis Challenge Shield or her grandfather’s cycling achievements. But when Ian told her that, much as he’d enjoyed owning it, the shield rightfully belonged with her and the Bolam family, Wendy was delighted. She says it’s already sitting on her mantlepiece next to a photograph of her grandfather and plans are afoot to display it in a frame with a fabric background. The pedalling future knight is home.
Acknowledgements Researched and written by Ian Clough, Heaton History Group with additional material by Chris Jackson. Thank you to Wendy Cox for photographs of herself and her grandfather. And to Uncle Jimmy Irwin for his crucial rôle in this story.
British Newspaper Archive
Obituaries of Sir Robert Bolam in the British Journal of Dermatology, British Medical Journal, Nature, The Times
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