On Thursday 5 July 1923, Prince Edward Prince of Wales paid a short visit to CA Parsons’ Heaton works, before returning to Newcastle past the dense crowds which lined Shields Road.
Heaton History Group’s Arthur Andrews recently came across brochure produced to commemorate the visit and set about researching the occasion further to mark its centenary.
Heaton had experienced royal visits before, of course, including, within living memory, that of Edward’s grandfather, later to be crowned King Edward VII. In August 1884 the then Prince Albert Edward Prince of Wales and his wife Princess Alexandra had opened Jesmond Dene and Armstrong Park. Then, as now, there was huge excitement.
Prince Edward was aged just 29 in July 1923 and, in those pre-Hollywood days, was arguably the most photographed celebrity of his time not just in Britain but also in the United States and indeed in many other countries around the world.
He was lauded for his good looks, he set trends in men’s fashion and, of course, was unmarried, which led to regular speculation in the gossip columns of the day.
Furthermore, the prince’s choice of women friends, many married, others not considered to be from a sufficiently elevated social class, did not, to put it mildly, always meet with the approval of either his father, King George V, or the British government.
A case in point was Marguerite Alibert, a Parisian prostitute, with whom the Prince is said to have been infatuated some six years earlier. He wrote a series of passionate letters to her in which he was apparently indiscreet about both royal and military matters. When the relationship ended, after about a year, he was aware that she had kept all the correspondence, with the huge potential for embarrassment and blackmail that it contained.
And events which caused establishment concerns about this affair to resurface were unfolding even as the royal visit to Heaton was taking place. After her relationship with the Prince of Wales ended, Marguerite had married twice, the second time in December 1922 to an aristocratic Egyptian businessman, Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey. Immediately before Prince Edward left London, the couple had checked into the Savoy Hotel in the capital. It was said they had a tempestuous marriage and that they had been heard arguing vehemently in the hotel. There were also allegations of abuse on both sides – we will never know the truth – but what is not in doubt is that in the early hours of Tuesday 10 July 1923, three shots were heard coming from the direction of their rooms. Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey had been wounded and died soon afterwards in hospital. Marguerite did not deny that she had fired at her husband but, to many people’s surprise, in court a couple of months later, she was acquitted. There has been much speculation in the century since then that intervention by Buckingham Palace may have been a major factor in the outcome. Certainly it was helpful to the royal family that the trial judge did not allow any reference to the accused’s past as a courtesan, ensuring that the prince’s name was not dragged into the case.
But, despite his notoriety in some quarters, Edward is said to have been particularly popular among war veterans. He had been 20 years old at the start of World War One and joined the Grenadier Guards. Although, he wasn’t allowed to serve on the front line, he visited it on many occasions. It is perhaps appropriate then that one of the prince’s duties during the visit was to formally unveil ‘The Response’, Newcastle’s war memorial.
The royal visit started in Alnwick. Prince Edward stayed overnight at the castle before two days of official visits.
On the morning of Wednesday 4 July, he made the journey south to Newcastle by car, stopping briefly at Morpeth and Gosforth to receive addresses of loyalty. He then spent the day on an official visit to the 82nd Royal Agricultural Show on the Town Moor, the fifth time it had been held in Newcastle and the first time since 1908. King George V had been unable to attend, so Prince Edward was representing him. There is a Pathé news clip of the prince at the show shaking numerous hands and being driven past the cheering crowds. In the evening he was the guest of honour at a dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor and the Corporation of Newcastle before returning to Alnwick.
The next day was dubbed the visit’s ‘Industrial Day’ although factory visits only occurred during the afternoon. In the morning the prince inspected around 42,000 school children in the stands at St James Park as they displayed flags of red, white and blue in different combinations at given signals and ‘in perfect silence’. The Prince is said to have described the scene as ‘the finest sight he had ever seen.’
From there, his motorcade made the short journey to St Thomas the Martyr’s Church in Barras Bridge to unveil ‘The Response’ war memorial.
The memorial had been commissioned by Sir George Renwick, a politician and shipping magnate, and his wife, Lady Renwick. They wanted to give thanks for the raising of the Commercial Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the return of the five Renwick sons from the war and Sir George’s attainment of 50 years of commercial life on Newcastle Quayside. It is considered by many to be one of Britain’s finest war memorials and was featured on a stamp in 2014. There is another Pathé news clip of the unveiling.
After lunch at The Guildhall, the Prince visited the Armstrong Whitworth Naval Yard in Walker before going on to CA Parsons & Co in Heaton. Here the Prince was greeted by Sir Charles Parsons who introduced members of the board and long-serving staff.
They were all people who had worked for the company for between 27 and 34 years, that is since the company was founded and the Heaton works opened in 1889. Prince Edward was also given a guard of honour by Parsons’ employees who had served in the war.
The booklet that Arthur found comprises 28 pages with 32 photographs. It is bound with a blue ribbon. There are many details to interest local historians, including a 1900 photograph of the ‘original Shop’ and another of the first Parsons turbo-dynamo, constructed in 1884.
On the centre fold there is a photograph showing a panoramic view of the Heaton works as it looked in 1923 as well as a plan of the site.
There are also descriptions of the products then manufactured at Parsons: steam turbines, high speed alternating current dynamos (alternators); air coolers for ventilation of alternator; slow speed alternators; high speed centrifugal fans; surface condensing plant for steam turbine installation; searchlight reflectors (Grubb Parsons).
And the various areas of the works as they stood in 1923 are listed: pattern shop; foundry blade rolling shop; large machine and erecting shops; test house; the old shop; electrical insulation shop; balancing house; mirror department; other department; offices; works communications and power supply.
On the final page is an illustration of the first turbine driven battleship, HMS Dreadnought and the world famous Mauretania with the tiny Turbinia alongside, all ‘propelled by Parsons steam turbines’.
The Prince can’t have seen all of the works in detail because, after about an hour, the visit concluded. He returned to the city centre and then Alnwick, this time via Shields Road. We have previously published an account of this part of the visit, with photographs taken by local butcher, Edgar Couzens. You can see the large crowds on what was reported to be a particularly hot day.
The following morning, the prince toured pit villages in the Morpeth area before returning to the Royal Agricultural Show, this time for an informal visit. The future King Edward VIII then returned to London by train after a visit which lived long in the memory of those who saw or particularly met him. A few days later, his association with a woman of whom the British establishment heartily disapproved caused consternation for the monarchy. It was not to be the last time.
Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group with additional material by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to the National Portrait Gallery and the Evening Chronicle for photographs.
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