Category Archives: Research

Heaton! The Show

Heaton History member, Peter Dillon, has written a play that’ll be a must see for anyone interested in Heaton and its history. Luckily for those of us still living in the neighbourhood, we won’t have to catch a train to London’s West End or even traipse into town. It’ll be performed at Heaton’s own People’s Theatre. But if you don’t live locally, now’s the time to start calling in favours and bagging the spare rooms and sofas of your Heaton friends and relations.

And if you encounter a film crew over then next few weeks, it might not be another episode of ‘Vera”. It’ll probably be Peter, the writer, on location.  He explains:

‘Once a script is ready for the actors to rehearse it’s usually a sign for the writer to take a back seat.    Of course the text will change & develop– all the way to ‘curtain up.  Meanwhile…… the Heaton! draft delivered there’s time enough to put my feet up and  ponder the sights of the allotments from my office window.

No, not a bit of it.  With my film head on, I could strangle the writer.  He’s gone and written a number of film extracts both dramatic and documentary.  So the tasks continue: crews to contact, facilities and locations to visit, actors to wrangle and the whole machinery of film making kicks in.  Anyone know a penny farthing rider, who’d impersonate George Waller on film?  Thankfully, the answer’s yes, Michael Stout from Durham.  A motor cycle, circa 1910, anyone?  Thank you, Jon Hill.

George Waller on Penny farthing

George Waller will appear in Heaton! at the Peoples

Then I’m reminded of the famous film producer, coming to the end of his career, who was asked what he considered the most important element essential in the production of a film, replied, “After a good script, the catering.  Like an army a film crew marches on its stomach.”  So what about a caterer?  Yes, again.

Up early one morning to catch Mark Armstrong, the Factory Manager at Siemens, who is taking me on a tour of the Heaton Works – C.A. Parsons in its day.  We stand on some cobbles, the only  remains from Sir Charles’s day.  Problem is the view’s less than inspiring, and we head off to the Heavy Machinery Shop.  Bingo! This massive shed houses an impressive number of lathes, turbines and industrial hardware that on film will give a sense of muscularity to the scene in which Parsons returns to the Fossway factory.  

Siemens in the form of Mark, Ruth Baldasera, who has made a study of the Parsons’ family and is behind the drive to repair Charles and Lady Katharine’s grave at Kirkwhelpington, and Geoff Horseman have been extremely supportive of Heaton! and a great help.

Next, the Mining Institute and their fabulous library, a grocer on Chillingham Rd,  and, if the rain and snow ever relent, Grounsell  Park for Heaton Stannington vs Darlington etc……

Lyric cinema 1936

Heaton! will be performed in the People’s Theatre, itself a historic local landmark

Come and see the show at the People’s Theatre; July 17 – 21, and all will be revealed.’  

Book here




Two Davids: Grubb Parsons’ stellar double act


Heaton’s Grubb Parsons led the world in the design and building of high quality large astronomical telescopes for almost 60 years until the company’s untimely demise in 1985.

Grubb Parsons 98 inch Isaac Newton telescoperesized

Grubb Parsons 98 inch Isaac Newton telescope, 1967

For almost 30 years, from the late 1950s until the company closed, that success was driven by two very different men, both named David, whose skill and expertise complemented one another, driving the company’s success and world renown.

David Scatcherd Brown was an academic, with extensive mathematical insight, an expert on designing and testing telescopes, whose understanding and interpretation of test results was such that the quality and consistency of the firm’s products rapidly grew.

David Sinden on the other hand came from a working class background and learnt through doing. He became an expert in working with glass, producing the optically perfect mirrors essential to the large telescopes produced by Grubb Parsons.

Together they made a formidable team, both very different characters and backgrounds, but with a shared passion for astronomy. Although there’s no evidence that either David ever lived in Heaton, their work at Grubb Parsons certainly put it on the map.

Grubb Parsons

The firm of Sir Howard Grubb Parsons and Company was established in Heaton in 1925, although the roots of the firm in astronomy and telescope making go back to Dublin in the early 19th Century, with the establishment of a telescope manufacturing company by Thomas Grubb. The firm quickly developed a reputation for the quality of its astronomical telescopes. When Thomas retired in 1868, his son Howard took over, moving the business to St Albans in 1918. The business struggled under Howard’s leadership and some seven years later was bought out by Sir Charles Parsons and the new firm re-located to Newcastle, where C.A. Parsons and Company already had its headquarters.

Grubb Parsons Factory

Grubb Parsons, Heaton works

That Charles Algernon Parsons should have taken an interest in telescope making when he already had a well established business making power generating equipment and steam turbines may seem unusual. However, his father William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, was a famous astronomer. Charles, along with his two older brothers, was privately educated at the family seat of Birr Castle, County Offaly, Ireland, where one of his tutors, Sir Robert Ball, was later to become Astronomer Royal for Ireland. So it’s hardly surprising that Charles had an interest in astronomy. Furthermore, the Irish connection almost certainly would have meant that he was familiar with the Thomas Grubb Company and would have wanted to continue its tradition.

Grubb Parsons was already well established and had a reputation for its large astronomical telescopes by the time the two Davids joined the company in the 1950s, but they would go on to achieve world renown over the next 20 years.

David Scatcherd Brown

David Scatcherd Brown was born in Coventry on 25 August 1927. The family were from Yorkshire, where his father was a headmaster. He attended Oldbury County School before securing a place at Queen’s College Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, specialising in physics and maths. The 2nd World War interrupted his studies while he served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, gaining valuable engineering experience and skills, before returning to complete his studies.

Grubb Parsons David S Brown - pic

David Scatcherd Brown

By that time, Brown was already interested in telescopes and astronomy, so it must have been a natural fit for him to take up post at Grubb Parsons straight from University in 1950. He was put to work with the optical team, under the leadership of George Manville, working specifically on the testing and manufacturing methods for the large mirrors and lenses needed for large telescopes. At the time the business was just picking up after the war and David was quick to adopt and adapt the latest testing technologies, making the whole process more objective and improving the quality of the finished product. It was on his advice that a testing tower was built allowing mirrors to be tested lying on their back, which greatly improved the process and perhaps explains the unusual shape of the Grubb Parsons building.

In 1950, David married Margaret Stephens, whom he’d met at Cambridge, when she was studying Natural Sciences at Girton. The couple would go on to have two children.

David Sinden

David Sinden was born on 31 July 1932 in Hartlepool and was a keen astronomer from an early age. At the age of 16 he built his first telescope, with the help of his father, Fred, causing a stir among the neighbours in Hood Street, Haverton Hill. By the age of 22, now living in a council house in Billingham, a story appeared in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer when David, already a member of the British Astronomical Association, applied for planning permission to build an observatory in his parents’ back garden. The observatory was to be made of galvanised steel sheets on a wooden frame with an 8’ diameter dome. The council, approving the plan, admitted that they didn’t have any precedents for planning applications for such buildings on a council estate! In the article, David admitted that he had to wait for the street lights to go out and that the heat from Teesside’s factories sometimes made the stars appear square, although he did say that they may just be flying snuff boxes!

Grubb Parsons D Sindon L with George Oliver and 72 in Helwan mirror

David Sinden (extreme right) with George Oliver and the 72 inch Helwan mirror

Having been apprenticed as a fitter at ICI, the young David found that the work wasn’t to his liking and moved to work for a local optician, becoming an expert in optical instruments. It was while working there that he made a mirror, which he sent to Grubb Parsons on spec. So impressed were they that they offered him a job. So it was that David Sinden joined the firm in 1957, working for David Brown.


David subsequently married Helen, although we’ve been unable to confirm the date, and the couple were recorded in the 1980s as living at the Poplars, Coley Hill Farm, North Walbottle, far enough out of town to avoid the worst of the light pollution.

Polar opposites

In 1961, David Brown was appointed Optical Manager focusing exclusively on telescopes and a year later he appointed David Sinden as Glass Shops’ Manager, with control over scientific instruments as well as telescopes. As David Brown’s obituary notes ‘There could not have been two more different types working together, the one with a deep mathematical insight and ability to interpret obscure testing problems, the other with the instinctive feel for working glass, the hardness of the pitch, the construction of the polisher and methods of working.’

It seems that the two men were also polar opposites in terms of personality. David Brown was described as a quiet, good natured and unassuming man, whereas David Sinden was much more outgoing. Many of his friends and former colleagues posted tributes after his death, all speaking warmly of a friendly, generous, passionate man with an improbable number of outside interests which included, but were not limited to, photography, sculpture, motorbikes, steam engines, archaeology, marathon running and pistol shooting. An exceptional public speaker with a passion and enthusiasm for science, astronomy and anything even vaguely telescope-shaped, who could hold an audience entranced for hours and hours.

Their time working together at Grubb Parsons saw the company produce some of its finest work and arguably some of the best large optical telescopes ever produced. The list is extensive and includes:

  • 48-inch reflector, Victoria, Canada, 1961
  • 40-inch reflector, Pic du Midi, France. Optics only, 1962
  • The 40 inch Elizabeth telescope, South Africa,1963
  • 74-inch reflector, Helwan (Kottamia), Egypt, 1963
  • 30-inch reflector, Jungfraujoch, Switzerland, 1966
  • 16/24-inch Schmidt, Castel Gandolfo, 1967
  • The 98 inch Issac Newton Telescope, Hestmonceaux, England, 1967
  • 72 inch (182cm) Mirror for Padua, Italy, 1973
  • 48/72-inch Schmidt, Siding Spring, Australia, 1973
  • 154 inch Reflector, Siding Spring, Australia, 1974
  • 48-inch reflector, Athens University, Greece, 1975
  • 150-in mirror, UKIRT, Hawaii, 1976
  • 60 inch Reflector, La Silla, Chile, 1976.

Many of them are still in situ.

Grubb Parsons 98 in mirror - Ds 1965

Magazine cover featuring Grubb Parsons

Grubb Parsons, during their time there, was a curious mixture of the latest techniques and processes that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the dark satanic mills of old. In one room David Brown might be working on the very latest in computerised testing and design processes, while in another a vast cauldron of pitch was being boiled. David Sinden always spoke of his work as dirty, grubby, grimy, filthy and gritty, although the results were world renowned.

Decline of Grubb Parsons

By the late 1970s, despite the obvious success of a series of large scale telescopes, Grubb Parsons was in difficulty. The scientific instrument side of the business, which had always supported the more impressive work on large telescopes, started to decline and being part of a much larger group of companies with different priorities saw a lack of new investment.

David Sinden was the first to leave, in 1976, to set up his own business, the Sinden Optical Company. David Brown, having been promoted to Technical Director in 1975, stayed on with the company, taking control of all of the optics work and completing a number of major projects, including the 4.2m Herschel telescope even as the works were pulled down around the glass shops.

Life after Grubb Parsons

In 1981, David Brown was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Durham University and when Grubb Parsons finally closed in 1985 joined the Physics Department as the Grubb Parsons Research Fellow. As well as working on a number of major projects, he travelled extensively around the world to advise on the construction of large telescopes. He also lectured at both Durham and Edinburgh Universities, where his lectures were said to be stimulating, with many practical demonstrations. He maintained his lifelong interest in Astronomy, with his own observatory and active membership of the Newcastle Astronomical Society.

He died at the young age of 59 on 17 July 1987 after what is described as a short illness. Probate records show his address at that time as 17, Douglas Avenue, Gosforth and that he left an estate of £97,063.

In 1979, David Sinden established his own optical company in Raby Cross, Byker, although the firm eventually moved to Ryton after being plagued by repeated problems with vandalism. The company dealt with all types of optical work, including building quite a reputation for Camera Obscuras. Loved by the Victorians, the Camera Obscura projects images of the locality onto a large circular table in a darkened room. SOC’s first commission was to build one for the Gateshead Garden Festival, where it was set up in a large tent. They then went on to build others for places as far flung as Portugal, Spain and Cuba. After the garden festival the Camera Obscura was moved to the Foredown Tower in a Country Park in Hove, where it remains the only example of SOC’s work in the UK.

In addition to Camera Obscuras, the company began to specialise in restoring historic telescopes and even in building new large mirrors, the largest being 48”, using equipment bought from Grubb Parsons when it closed down.

In 1993, David Sinden was awarded an Honorary masters Degree from Newcastle University. Perhaps the greatest accolade for his lifetime’s work though was the naming of a minor planet in his honour. In June 2005, Asteroid 10369 Sinden was named in his honour, with a team from Armagh University visiting his workshop to present him with documentation about his own star.

Grubb Parsons Presentation from Armagh Uni re asteroid 10369 Sinden June 2005 (1)

Sadly, he died just two months later on 29 August 2005, at the age of 73 after being diagnosed with lung cancer some 18 months earlier.


The Sinden Optical Company closed in 2005 after David’s death. Although Grubb Parsons has been closed for almost 40 years, the old telescope testing tower can still be seen behind Siemens on land owned by a company called Houghton International;. But the real legacy of Grubb Parsons and their two optical geniuses, David Brown and David Sinden lives on in the great optical telescopes they built, many of which are still in regular use in all five continents of the world.

Can you help?

If you know more about Grubb Parsons, including the work of Davids Brown and Sinden, we’d love to hear from you.  Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email


Researched and written by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group.

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

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

Sir Ove Arup: engineer and philosopher

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

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


Commemorative plaque at 16 Jesmond Vale Terrace

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

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


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

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


Members of the Arup family pictured at his birthplace in 1967

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

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

Back to Britain

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

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

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


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

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

Sydney Opera House under construction - 5 shells erected

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

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

Bridge Over the River Wear

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

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


Ove Arup inspecting Kingsgate Bridge


Kingsgate Bridge, Durham, a favourite project of Ove Arup

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


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


Bust of Sir Ove Arup on Dunelm House


Sir Ove’s Park?

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


Arup proposal to redevelop St James Park

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

Byker Viaduct

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


Arup-designed Byker Metro Bridge

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


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

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


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

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


Ove was much-honoured during his lifetime. including:

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


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

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

Can you help?

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


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

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

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

Key Sources

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

‘The Arup Journal 50th Anniversary Issue’ 



George Stanley introduces ‘Heaton!’

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

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


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


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

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

 I’m entitling the said theatrical extravangza, HEATON!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Home Sweet Home

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


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


Cremona Park Confectionery Works, 1938

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


Cremona’s Red Boy Toffee tin

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


Veronica and her grandparents with Cremona Park canteen to the right

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

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

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

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

Sweet machine

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

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

CremonaToffee1131 RLC

CremonaToffee2134 RLC

CremonaToffee3132 RLC

CremonaToffee4135 RLC

CremonaToffee5133 RLC

CremonaToffee6136 RLC


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

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

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

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

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

Can you help?

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


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

Sources include:

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

Forgotten Music Makers of Heaton

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

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


Grafton Street

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

So let’s rewind.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Close to home

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

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


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


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

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


Heaton Methodist Church organ

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

Organ Centenary Concert - Programme

Heaton Methodist Church organ centenary programme


Military march

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


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

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

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


Blackett and Howden document

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

Eastward ho

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


Fushima Maru passenger list including William Blackett

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

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


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

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

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

Team effort

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

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

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

Blackett&HowdenTeretGMylesIMG_2086 (1)

Terrot G Myles

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

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

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

Others listed in the 1911 census include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you help?

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


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


Biographical Dictionary of the Organ

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

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

 National Pipe Organ Register list of Blackett and Howden organs 

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

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

and online sources eg Ancestry

10 Sefton Avenue: a time-line

It seems fitting that the first owner of 10 Sefton Avenue was the daughter and granddaughter of at least two generations of watchmakers who had lived in a place that, in the nineteenth century, was synonymous with monitoring the passage of time. For studying the history of buildings to help us understand those who have inhabited them fascinates the current owner of the house. Conversely the stories of those who have lived and worked in a building over time can breathe life into inanimate bricks and mortar.

The discovery in his loft of a large collection of objects and documents that had belonged to a previous owner aroused Jules Brown’s curiosity.


10 Sefton Avenue, 2017 (undergoing a loft conversion)

What we came to call the ‘Sefton Hoard’, along with the deeds and other documents relating to the property were the starting point for our investigation. But we’ll begin before the house was built.

Little Broom


Plan of Heaton which accompanies the deeds of 10 Sefton Avenue

In October 1894 Lord Armstrong had passed on his land in Heaton, including Heaton Town Farm, to his great nephew, William Armstrong Watson-Armstrong. In 1907, the plot which became 10 Sefton Avenue was sold by Watson-Armstrong to a local builder, Peter Grant Tulloh. By comparing the above plan accompanying the house deeds to modern maps, we have calculated this plot to have been part of Heaton Town Farm, somewhere in field 95, formerly pasture known as Little Broom.

Peter Tulloh had been born in Forres in Moray, Scotland in 1859 but had moved south as a young man, first to Bishopwearmouth and, by 1891, to 28 Falmouth Road in Heaton at which time he described himself as a ‘traveller’, which we think means what we later called a ‘commercial traveller‘ or ‘travelling salesman‘. Ten years later, he described himself as a ‘traveller’s manager’ and was living at 48 Heaton Road.

We don’t know when or how he became a builder and property developer but he was soon successful. By 1912, he was living at 330 Heaton Road, a house later demolished for the building of the Coast Road, ending his days at Eastwood on Jesmond Park East. He died on 13 April 1939, leaving almost £30,000 in his will. Peter is buried in Byker and Heaton Cemetery with his wife, Isabella and young daughter, Olivia.

The time traveller’s daughter

In January 1907, Peter Tulloh sold 10 Sefton Avenue to 32 year old Fanny Louise Baker. Fanny had been born in Newcastle in c1874 to parents who had moved from the midlands. Her father, William, had worked as a finisher in the watchmaking industry as did his father before him, at a time when the area around Spon Street, Coventry, where they lived, was one of the oldest and most important centres of the industry in the world. Old watchmakers’ houses still stand in this historic quarter of the city and the Coventry Watch Museum tells the fascinating story of the industry and the people employed in it.

But specialist skills were also in demand in the rapidly expanding cities of the north and so William and his wife, Frances, were assured of a bright future when, around 1867, they set off for Newcastle, three young children in tow. (Fanny herself was born some seven years later.) The family settled in Elswick, where William continued to work as a watchmaker. He eventually died in September 1905 leaving £635 6s 9d in his will, a sum that would secure his family’s future by enabling Fanny to buy the brand new house (10 Sefton Avenue cost her just £575 ) she was to share with her now 72 year old mother and her older sister, Elizabeth, a schoolteacher and the only wage earner in the family. By 1911, they had been joined by a boarder, Reuben Charles Salmon, whose rent would have been a welcome supplement to the household income.

The power of love

So, what brought Reuben to Newcastle? He had been born in Bethnal Green, Middlesex in 1881 and by the age of 20, still at home, he was an apprentice electrical engineer. Ten years later and now in Heaton, he described himself as ‘electrical engineer (electric supply)’.  For an ambitious young man in Reuben’s relatively new line of work, Newcastle, was the place to be.

As early as 1860 Sir Joseph Wilson Swan had developed a primitive electric light bulb. But it took him almost twenty more years to develop the incandescent electric light bulb, which would stand the test of time. He patented it in 1878 and a year later, Mosley Street in Newcastle became the first street in the world to be lit by electricity.

Cragside, the Northumberland home of Lord Armstrong, former owner of the land on which 10 Sefton Avenue was built, was famously the first house in the world to be lit by electricity. The picture gallery was illuminated by arc lamps by 1878. And in 1887, 45 of Swan’s light bulbs were installed to light the whole house, the power generated by hydraulics, Armstrong’s own speciality. But Armstrong was interested in physics more generally and he also worked with Professor Henry Stroud, who lived at 274 Heaton Road, on research into the nature of electricity.

But it was one thing generating the power to serve one wealthy person’s home, another to produce enough to cost-effectively service heavy industry. But once again this area was at the forefront of developments. In 1901 Neptune Bank Power Station was built at nearby Wallsend by the Newcastleu pon Tyne Electric Supply Company. Servicing shipyards and other local industry, it was the first in the world to provide electricity for purposes other than domestic and street lighting. It was also the first in the world to generate electricity using three-phase electrical power distribution at a voltage of 5,500 volts. In 1902, two 1,500-kW Parsons steam turbine driven turbo-alternators, developed and made in Heaton, were added. They were the largest three-phase steam turbine driven alternators in the world, as well as the first of a revolutionary barrel type, rotary design. But they weren’t enough.

In 1904 Carville Power Station was built, again using Parsons’ steam turbine alternators from Heaton. The first electricity produced by the station was provided to the NER for the very early electrification of the railway line that passed through Heaton. Carville was extended in 1907 and, in 1916, with demand for electricity soaring because of the war, a second power station, Carville B, was built. This was the largest power station in the UK at the time and was considered to be the ‘first major generating station in the world’, as well as the largest and most economical in the UK. The power supply industry may have been what brought Reuben north. It was certainly where he made his living. However, he found more than work in Newcastle: in 1913, Reuben Charles Salmon married Fanny Baker, his landlady. They lived on Sefton Avenue for eight more years, before moving to Bristol.


In October 1921, the house changed hands for the first time. It was bought by Henry Lowery, aged 35, variously described as a ‘ship breaker’ and an ‘iron and steel merchant’, whose business was based in Gateshead.  Born in Newcastle on 16 June 1886, Henry had grown up locally – in Byker. Aged 4, he was living with his widowed mother, Mary Ann, described as a ‘hawker’, and three elder siblings. Aged 14, Henry was described as a painter. In 1911, he was married and still living in Byker but now working as a clerk in an iron and steel merchants.

His wife, like his mother, was called Mary Ann (nee Wilde). And they had daughter called? You guessed it: Mary Ann! Ten years later, now with his own business, he had done well enough for himself to buy a very nice house in Heaton, initially with the help of two sisters from Berwick, Isabella and Barbara Forbes Atchison, his relationship to whom we don’t yet know.

Henry repaid the sisters a year later and lived at 10 Sefton Avenue for 28 years before retiring to Gateshead. When he died, aged 73, he left over £17,000 in his will, very much a self-made man.


The next owner, George Arrowsmith Barnet, had been born on 8 April 1911 in Bishop Auckland. He married Moira H Ashley in Lambeth, London in 1935 and by 1939 the couple and their three children were living in Portsmouth, where George was a cafe manager. Soon afterwards, however, they returned to Bishop Auckland before, in 1949, buying 10 Sefton Avenue from Henry Lowery. George was now described as a ‘catering manager’. But the Barnet’s didn’t stay in Heaton long. Post-war austerity and rationing won’t have made his job easy and Canada was eager to attract new workers: George and his wife, like another half a million Britons in the thirty years following WW2, made the brave decision to emigrate. After giving Moira Power of Attorney so that she could manage his affairs, including the sale of 10 Sefton Avenue, on 13 May 1953 George sailed from Liverpool to Quebec on SS Franconia.  Four months later, Moira and their four children followed him. George Arrowsmith Barnet died aged 77 in White Rock, British Columbia, thirty six years after leaving Heaton.


The person who Moira Barnet sold the house to was Robert Edward Topping. He and his wife Greta (nee Gerner) moved the short distance from 10 Roxburgh Place to 10 Sefton Avenue in August 1953. And for the first time we have more than archival records to help us tell their story.

But first we need to jump ahead around sixty four years. Thinking of expanding his living accommodation, current owner Jules Brown, ventured up a ladder to survey the available roof space. To his amazement, as he arced his torch in the darkness, objects began to emerge from the shadows: some boxes but also individual items, large and small: once-treasured books, many of which were inscribed: some birthday gifts to a young Robert from his father and others presented to Greta for excellent attendance at Sunday School; photographs and personal letters; journals; home made tools, furniture and electric lamps; a canvas rucksack; toys and games, again some home-made; part of a lantern slide projector with slides and a couple of cine films; even a bike. Many of the items seemed insignificant, but clearly all had had meaning enough to become keepsakes for someone. All now black with the dust and soot of more than half a century.


Jules Brown examining the contents of his loft

Luckily for us, Jules works for Historic England and North of England Civic Trust as a conservation manager. Naturally, he was intrigued by the finds and what they might tell him about his home and those who had lived there before him. He invited Heaton History Group to help sift through the items and decide what had a historic value and who might appreciate it. He wondered whether it was fanciful to think descendants of the hoard’s owners might be traced.

It soon became apparent that most of the objects in the loft had belonged to a Robert Topping and his wife, Greta. Some items were fit only for the tip. Time hadn’t treated them kindly. But there was a small pile relating to C A Parsons, journals, engineering text books, pencils, a slide rule. They were gladly accepted by Siemens’ Heaton Works historian, Ruth Baldasera. The North East Land Sea & Air Museum said they’d love the old BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) military bike.


Another group of items related to Heaton Presbyterian Church – Robert and Greta’s religious conviction was clear: there were books about the church, tales from the New Testament, a prayer book but also sermons, hand-written in pencil. We remembered that the daughters of Olive Renwick, of whom we have written before, were parishioners. Would the church like the items and did they happen to know of a Robert Topping? Of course they did. Robert was only their uncle!

He was Olive’s brother and the son of Isabella and Frank Topping, the railway signalman who featured in another article we’ve published.


Olive, Robert and Sybil Topping with their mother Isabella c1925

And so, over a cup of tea a few nights later, Robert’s nieces, Margaret and Julia, put flesh on the bones of what we’d already pieced together about ‘Uncle Rob and Auntie Greta’ and were reunited with photos, letters, cine films and other personal effects.


Julia & Margaret, Robert Topping’s nieces with Arthur Andrews & Chris Jackson of HHG

Robert was born on 5 March 1922. He worked as an engineer at Parsons for many years but he’d also served in the Royal Navy during and after the second world war.  Jules’ next door neighbour, who had known Robert as an elderly man, believed he had been a submariner. Robert had told Margaret and Julia that too. But his nieces also recalled that he had a vivid imagination and told many fantastic stories, many of which they suspected to be made up to entertain and impress them.

Amongst the documents in the attic were letters that showed Robert had been at a naval base in Virginia in the USA, a postcard addressed to him as an Engine Room Artificer (a fitter, turner or boilermaker) on HMS Queen Elizabeth and a telegram addressed to him aboard HMS Hargood at Rosyth naval dockyard, suggesting he served on ships in the Royal Navy rather than submarines.


Robert Topping in the Royal Navy

But there was also a ship’s diary, hand-written in Spanish, in which the author recounted watching the German Graf Zeppelin in the sky above Reykjavik in 1931, on its way to carry out research into the Arctic. Robert would have been nine years old.  ‘Perhaps some of those fantastic stories of a life of adventure were true!’, joked Margaret. Julia remembered with affection her uncle’s sense of humour: ‘He was the only one who could make Aunt Sybil laugh!’ As we looked at family photos around Jules’ kitchen table, we could feel his jovial, larger than life presence in the room.


Robert Topping in later years

Some of Robert and Greta’s belongings have now been returned to the family and others donated to specialists who would appreciate them but Jules has kept a few items ‘for the house’. He will restore the home made bird box and put it in the garden. And five books by Ramsay Guthrie will be cleaned up and returned to the now converted loft.

Ramsay Guthrie was the alias of John George Bowran (1869-1946), a Primitive Methodist Minister from Gateshead, who wrote many novels set on Tyneside. They feature miners, ship builders and other working class characters and were concerned with morality and redemption. They were written around the time the house was built and, like the lives of the house’s former inhabitants, help to tell its story.


Robert Edward Topping died in 2002, while still living at 10 Sefton Avenue. The house was then home to first the Kemptons and later the Kemps from whom Jules Brown bought it. Their life stories will add another layer to the fascinating history of 10 Sefton Avenue in due course.


Thank you to Jules for sharing his finds with us and to Julia and Margaret for supplying photographs of their uncle and adding to what the ‘Sefton Hoard’ had told us about him.

Researched and written by Chris Jackson and Arthur Andrews.

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