Category Archives: Arts

BBC at 100 and a Heaton choir boy at 14

Before her recent death at the age of 105, Lilian, the wife of St Gabriel’s parishioner Herbert Dixon (‘Dix’) Hodgson, shared some memories of her husband. Among the stories about Dix’s short but eventful life was one about a solo performance by him being broadcast on the opening night of Newcastle’s first BBC radio station. She also said that, as a young girl, she was taken to a neighbour’s house to listen to the historic launch. What she said she didn’t realise was that, among the voices she heard seemingly magically beamed across the Tyne into her neighbour’s living room in Whickham, was that of her future husband.

Dix and Lilian, March 1940 aboard SS Kirriemoor (Lilian borrowed one of the Mate’s uniforms and the captain’s cap!)

Chorister

Herbert Dixon Hodgson was born in October 1908.  Records show that in 1911 he was living at 41 Tosson Terrace, Heaton with his father William, mother Margaret and his four year old sister Hilda Annie. Another sister, Nellie Blue (Blue was a family name) came later.

Young Dix became a member of the choir at St Gabriel’s Church. He was soon recognised as having an excellent voice and starred as a soloist at church concerts. This seems to have led, as we have heard from his wife’s account, to him being selected to sing solo to mark a momentous occasion, the opening night of Newcastle’s first radio station.

There are, however, a number of unanswered questions around Dix’s involvement. We wondered whether his performance was live. And when and where did it take place? How old was Dix? And the listening Lilian? What do the historical records tell us about the occasion?

5NO

Newcastle’s first radio station was known as 5NO, its call sign. According to the BBC, its opening broadcast was a hundred years ago this year, on Christmas Eve 1922, so Dix would have been 14 years old. Incredibly the British Broadcasting Company had been in existence for only a couple of months. It had been set up by a consortium of wireless manufacturers, including Marconi, General Electric and Metropolitan Vickers, primarily in the hope of a commercial bonanza from the sale of radio equipment, although very few people at that time saw its full potential to ‘inform, educate, entertain’ as its first director, John (later Lord) Reith later put it.

Newcastle was just the 4th BBC station to open behind London, Manchester and Birmingham, set up by Marconi, Metrovick and General Electric respectively, all of which were a matter of months or weeks old. In fact, it was the first to be established by the BBC itself: the other three had been put in place before the national broadcasting company’s formation. The British Broadcasting Company had been set up on 18 October and BBC broadcasting had officially begun on 14 November. John Reith had been appointed General Manager on 14 December and hadn’t even started work that Christmas Eve. In fact he was to visit Newcastle on 29 December en route from Scotland, where he had spent Christmas, to London to take up his appointment.

The station Reith visited was set to become the first radio station to operate from new premises, independent of their parent wirelesss manufacturing company. They were in Eldon Square and had been kitted out by a small group of enthusiasts. However, there were technical problems on the 23rd, the night of the promised ‘before Christmas’ opening and so a decision was made to conduct proceedings as close as possible to the newly constructed transmitter on a tower at the Cooperative Society buildings on West Blandford Street. So, the opening broadcast of Newcastle’s first radio station was from a ‘donkey cart’ in a stable yard. Very Chrismassy! And perhaps not surprising that the BBC chose to ignore this first broadcast in its official records.

The station manager was a man called Tom Payne. Tom was born in South Shields in 1882 and was an accomplished musician. But he was most famous for his feats during a competitive walking career which began in 1906. By 1916, he had broken world records for 12 and 24 hour duration feats and won three London to Brighton and six Manchester to Blackpool races. In the meantime, he had found time in 1910 to  open Morpeth’s first cinema, ‘The Avenue’, and then set up a business on Gallowgate as a wireless dealer and a music promoter.  It was because he recognised the potential for his business that Tom got involved with 5NO and, at least according to Tom himself, financed the arrival of broadcasting in the city out of his own pocket. (You can hear him tell the tale on the podcast mentioned below this article.)

Programme

It isn’t easy to tell whether later references to the opening night referred to 23rd or 24th December. But we know it was scheduled to last just one hour. There were live acts including Tom himself playing violin and a Mr W Griffiths playing cello. Miss May Osbourne sang ‘Annie Laurie’ but she couldn’t be accompanied in the stable yard as intended by pianist, W A Crosse, because the piano Payne had borrowed for the occasion wouldn’t fit on the cart. There may have been  recorded music on both occasions, as well as other live acts whose names aren’t recorded. There were no listings in the press ahead of the event. The first we have found date from the first week of 1923 but, as you’ll see if you scroll right at the bottom of the image below, they weren’t exactly comprehensive in Newcastle’s case. The Radio Times didn’t appear until 28 September 1923.

In the event, on that very first night a barking dog in the stable yard reportedly forced proceedings to end early.

It was because of these difficulties that John Reith was asked to break his journey from Scotland a few days later. Reith was unlikely to be of much help to Tom. He admitted that he knew nothing about broadcasting, he didn’t own a radio set and, unlike Lilian, aged 5, hadn’t even listened to a BBC broadcast. His diary entry for the day reads:

‘Newcastle at 12.30. Here I really began my BBC responsibility. Saw transmitting station and studio place and landlords. It was very interesting. Away at 4.28, London at 10.10, bed at 12.00. I am trying to keep in close touch with Christ in all I do and pray he may keep close to me. I have a great work to do.’

Dix’s Debut

So where did Dix’s solo fit in? The truth is we don’t know. It has been suggested that the full St Gabriel’s Choir performed and that the concert took place in Newcastle Cathedral. Both are unlikely.

There certainly was no outside broadcast from Newcastle Cathedral. The first music outside broadcast nationally did not take place until January 1923 and was a high profile performance of ‘The Magic Flute’ from Covent Garden.

If St Gabriel’s choir had performed on the very first night, it would have had to have been in the Co-op stable yard. Ensembles did perform in those early days but, even in a proper studio, a full choir would have posed enormous problems for the equipment and space available in Newcastle at the time. It certainly wouldn’t have fitted onto a donkey cart!

Perhaps the choir had been recorded on a previous occasion and played on a gramophone on the opening night. But recording music was still an expensive and laborious process. In the early 1920s, the quality of the live music broadcast would be far superior to any recordings used. A search through the St Gabriel’s parish magazine from that period yielded nothing.

This suggests that, if Dix did perform on that opening night, it was as a solo, probably unaccompanied, voice. Achieving the right balance between a singer and an accompanist or multiple voices had not been fully mastered at that point even if there hadn’t been the issue with the borrowed piano. 

What did Dix sing? Given the time of year, one could imagine him singing carols but the above poster for a St Gabriel’s concert just a few weeks later on 13 February 1923 suggests another possibility. Then, Master Hodgson sang Handel’s‘ Rejoice greatly’ and ‘Angels ever bright and fair’ . There may not have been a dry eye either in the Coop stable yard or that Whickham living room.

Lilian

Lilian would have been one of a select few listening to that first north-east broadcast. There were apparently only about 100 potential listeners in the Newcastle area at that time and only those within about 15 miles of Newcastle were expected to be able to hear 5NO, although a ship’s radio as far away as Gibraltar reportedly picked up the signal. At home, many of the radio hams who had crystal sets or early valve radios at that time were ex-servicemen who had learnt how to use radio during the war.

However, there had been a huge advertising campaign for sets ahead of that Christmas. They weren’t cheap (from about £4) but the audience was set to expand quickly.

Petition

Tom Payne did not last long at 5NO. There are conflicting accounts about his departure sometime in 1923. One account says that he was heard to swear on air and was fired, another that his quirky presentation didn’t fit with the more formal style favoured by Reith. A petition to have him reinstated was unsuccessful.

But Tom’s walking exploits continued to keep him in the public eye. Indeed on 15 November 1926, he delivered a lecture on athletics to members of Heaton Harriers at their headquarters in Armstrong Park Refreshment Rooms.

The headline of a local newspaper report of his death at Walkergate Hospital in 1966 said ‘Champion walker dies’ rather than the ‘Broadcasting pioneer’.

Master Mariner

Two years after Newcastle’s first BBC broadcast, aged 16, Dix signed indentures and became an apprentice to the Moor Line, the merchant fleet operated by Walter Runciman and Co. He attended college to gain qualifications, including, to obtain his Master’s Certificate in 1936, at Nellist’s Nautical College.

Shields Daily Gazette, 7 Nov 1936

Between 1931 and 1938, Dix’s name appears on the Newcastle electoral register. He is still living with his father and mother but now at 31 Tosson Terrace, a few doors away from where he grew up. In 1938 and ‘39, a Leonard and Wilhelmina Runciman are registered at his childhood home at number 41. A coincidence? Were they part of the Runciman shipping dynasty and were they known to the Hodgsons? By 1939, the Hodgson family is registered  at 305 Chillingham Road.

We don’t know when and where Dix eventually met Lilian Mary Spittle. They lived on opposite sides of the Tyne but we know that Lilian had trained as a fever nurse and the Newcastle Upon Tyne Infectious Diseases Hospital was situated at Walkergate just up the road from Heaton.

Dix and Lilian were married in spring 1939, sixteen and a half years after that first broadcast, and Andrew their first son was born in late 1940. Douglas came along soon after.

By now, Dix was a master mariner, the highest rank in the merchant navy and what is usually referred to as a ship’s captain.

Tragedy

But on 21 May 1942, he was in charge of the SS Zurichmoor as it left Halifax, Nova Scotia in ballast bound for St Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

SS Zurichmoor

Three days later while 400 miles east of Philadelphia, it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank within 90 seconds. Dix, his crew of 38 and six naval gunners were lost. Many of them were, like Dix, from north-east families.

Tower Hill Memorial Panel 121

They are all remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial, London, a war memorial to ‘merchant seamen with no grave but the sea’.

Runciman and Co Moor Line Book of Remberance 1939-40

In Tyne & Wear Archives there is a Book of Remembrance commissioned by the directors of Walter Runciman and Company, owners of the Moor Line.

Angels ever bright and fair, take o take them to your care.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Robin Long of Heaton History Group with additional material from Chris Jackson; thank you to Andrew and Douglas Hodgson for their help and for the photograph of Dix and Lilian.

Can You Help?

If you know any more about the people named in this article or about the launch of the BBC in Newcastle or the sinking of SS Zurichmoor especially as they relate to Heaton, we’d love to hear from you.You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

Ancestry

‘The Birth of Broadcasting 1896-1927’ by Asa Briggs; OUP, 1961

‘British Broadcasting Century with Paul Kerensa’ podcast series

https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-british-broadcasting-century-with-paul-kerensa/id1516471271especially Season 1 Episode 20 ‘The First BBC Christmas’ and Episode 34 ‘Newcastle’s Christmas Launch: Let it 5NO, Let it 5NO, Let it 5NO’.

British Newspaper Archive

‘Into the Wind’ / by Lord Reith, 1966

Other online sources

The Dewey-Eyed Librarian and his Legacy in Heaton

One of Heaton’s most recognisable buildings and one which contributed to the education and entertainment of generations of Heatonians is 120 years old this autumn. The Victoria Branch Library was opened by Earl Grey on 6 October 1898.

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The library was gifted to the city by Alderman William Haswell Stephenson who, two years earlier, had financed a library for the west end of the city in Elswick. When nobody else responded to the council’s appeal for another local benefactor to ensure that the people of the east end also had access to books, Stephenson put his hand in his pocket a second time, stipulating only that the council should undertake the equipment, management and maintenance of the building.

The position chosen for the library was controversial. Many people had concerns which resonate today about the encroachment of buildings, even a library, onto a public green space, Heaton Park:

‘It might seem a small thing to take 450 yards out of a park but they did not quite know where this nibbling process would end’ reported the ‘Daily Journal’.

Local residents also wanted the Corporation to approve both the site and the design of the building rather than all decisions being made by Alderman Stephenson, again a contemporary concern as private enterprise becomes increasingly involved in what have previously been public sector concerns. However, the site on Heaton Park View and the design by Newcastle architect, John William Dyson, were eventually approved.

Inside, on the ground floor there was a large reading room and a newsroom (where people had access to newspapers), a smoking room and a ladies reading room. Upstairs was the library itself, which measured 70 feet by 36 feet and would be able to house around 25,000 books; a committee room and the janitor’s room. External features included a turret on the roof, the dome of which was covered in copper. Carved panels depicted the royal arms, the city arms and Alderman Stephenson’s arms.

Grand Opening

At the opening,  over 200 of the great and the good enjoyed breakfast and speeches.  Apart from benefactor Alderman Stephenson, guest of honour Earl Grey, and the architect, they included the mayors of Newcastle, Gateshead, Tynemouth and South Shields; the Bishop of Newcastle; the Sheriff of Newcastle; most of the council; industrialists such as shipbuilder, John Wigham Richardson and many many more.

Alderman Stephenson reminded the audience that it was 44 years to the day since the ‘Great Fire of Gateshead’, which he remembered well as a young boy serving his apprenticeship on the Quayside. He regretted the absence of Heaton Councillor James Birkett, a great supporter of the project, who had recently died. And he spoke about the success of the Elswick branch library, including how few books had been lost.

The library was officially opened by the Right Honourable Earl Grey. In his speech, Lord Grey praised Alderman Stephenson’s generosity at a time when ratepayers’ money wasn’t forthcoming and also his modesty in not requiring the library to be named after him (although this may have been because he’d already ensured that the Elswick Library carried his name!), preferring instead to honour the queen. He urged others to follow the alderman’s example perhaps by gifting ‘more pleasure grounds, great and small, bright with flowers; drinking fountains of artistic design; clocks with chimes, for bells are the best music a crowded city could enjoy; nursing homes in every ward; halls in every ward with the best organs money could buy..’

The Bishop of Newcastle gave a vote of thanks, in which he said:

‘Even fiction, if it were rightly chosen, would aid in the development of character and if that aid was found in fiction, it would certainly be found in other books as well.’

Lord Grey was presented with a copy of the library’s initial catalogue of 7,000 volumes. This was a significant document as contemporary newspaper accounts state that the shared catalogue with Elswick Library (To save money, they both carried the same stock) was ‘ the first catalogue published in the Dewey Decimal System in the British Isles’.  The newspaper praised Andrew Keogh, Assistant Librarian at the Central Free Library ‘ who had earned the gratitude of all who have need to consult the catalogues’.

We are used to Heaton being at the forefront of developments in the various branches of engineering, science and mathematics and Heatonians excelling in arts, music, literature and sport but should we also be trumpeting our place in the history of librarianship? And does the library and its innovative catalogue partly explain why Heaton was at the forefront of so much. We carried out a little more research.

Catalogue

Amazingly, copies of that first catalogue survive eg in the Lit and Phil and so we can see exactly what was on the shelves of Heaton’s Victoria  Library when it opened. There was a broad selection, catering for all interests and some written in foreign languages, as you can see from the first page of the author listing below.

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To mention just a few, artist John Wallace  will have watched the library being built at the end of his street, Kingsley Place, and was surely delighted with the selection of books on painting and other arts as, a little later, would  Alfred Kingsley Lawrence of Heaton Road. And suffragist and social campaigner Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, who married in 1896 and went to live on nearby Hotspur Street, suddenly had access to a wide range of books on politics and sociology including Engels’ ‘Condition of the Working Class in England’ as well as a surprising number of books on the emancipation of women and ‘The Woman’s Manual of Parliamentary Law’. Gerald Stoney of Meldon Terrace then Roxburgh Place, who had helped Sir Charles Parsons develop the record breaking Turbinia the previous year, had many books on engineering and physics from which to choose.

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There were plenty of books for ‘juveniles’ too, marked with a J in the main catalogue, as well as having their own separate listing. The musical Beers children, living on Kingsley Place just yards from the library when it opened,  had access to a vast array of fiction, including many classics still enjoyed today, but also books on music – and photography, a hobby which led to their wrongful arrest years later.

The library was an incredible resource for the people of Heaton, even if the books weren’t on open access. As was normal practice at the time, you made a choice from the catalogue and asked the librarian to bring you the book if it wasn’t on loan. A bit like Argos today. This made the catalogue extra important.

And the catalogue of the Victoria Library in Heaton was groundbreaking. Although the Dewey system had been copyrighted in the USA over 20 years earlier by Melvil Dewey, in the eighteen nineties almost all British libraries, if they were classified at all, used very broad classes, such as ‘Theology and Philosophy’ or ‘ Arts, Sciences, Law, Politics, Commerce’. Readers would have to peruse lists of accessions arranged chronologically under each heading. No further breakdown was considered necessary in Victorian public libraries, although by 1908, the absence of a detailed classification system was described as a weakness by the Library Association. Yet, ten years ahead of his time, the year in which our library opened, an Andrew Keogh (whose name you might remember from the newspaper report mentioned earlier) had written in ‘Library World’  that it was highly desirable that a uniform, detailed classification system be adopted across the country.

Assistant Librarian

Andrew Keogh was born on 14 November 1869  the son of recent Irish immigrants, Bridget and James Keogh, a shoemaker. In 1871, aged 11, Andrew was living with his parents, older sister, May and younger siblings, Bridget, Elizabeth and Edward at ’14 Trafalgar Street (or, as the census form gives as an alternative, 8 1/2 Back Trafalgar Street, All Saints, off New Bridge Street). Did this young man of such humble origins really produce the first published Dewey catalogue in Britain? Luckily we have enough further sources of information to draw on in order to flesh out Andrew’s career and confirm his pioneering work for the people of Elswick and Heaton.

1945.140, 44785

His biography would grace any library shelf.

While Andrew was a student, Newcastle’s first public library opened at the end of his street. It is said that he was never away. The staff got to know this ‘modest, serious, polite young boy’ and, if a staff member was ill or away, they called on him. Two years into his college course, the library offered him a full time job.

His parents were divided and he too was unsure about giving up his education but he accepted the post. He clearly took his work very seriously and researched developments which he could bring to Newcastle.

Keogh became an advocate for Melvil Dewey’s Decimal Classification System and was allowed to try it out on the stock for Stephenson’s new branch libraries. So the people of Heaton were able to easily see in detail what books they could take home on ornithology, plumbing, physics, horticulture, world religions, baking, poetry or whatever else interested them when most of those few libraries in Britain that already used Dewey used it only in their reference libraries. It seems that, at this time, not only was it a first for Britain but no library in Europe had published a catalogue arranged and indexed by Dewey.

What Next?

In July 1897, when Keogh was 27 years old, a big international librarians’ conference was held in London. It was attended by 641 librarians and influencers from all over the world – from Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, Jamaica, Japan,  New Zealand and South Africa, as well as from right across Europe and the United Kingdom. Newcastle Public Library’s head librarian, Basil Anderton; Councillor Robert Flowers, Vice Chairman of the Books Committee of Newcastle Public Library; Councillor Henry Newton, Chairman of Newcastle Public Library Committee and Robert Peddie of the Lit and Phil were among the many British delegates. But by far the largest foreign delegation was from the United States, including Melvil Dewey himself, who delivered a paper on the relation of the state to the public library.

Afterwards many of the American delegates took a tour of important English libraries, including on Friday 6 August, those in Newcastle. We haven’t been able to discover whether Dewey was among them.

Andrew Keogh was put in charge of their reception and arranged an evening river trip, followed by dinner at the Grand Assembly Rooms and ‘conversazioni’ at the Lit and Phil. One of the delegates was Jessica Sherman Van Vliet, a librarian from the Armour Institute in Chicago. Keogh immediately fell in love and it is said ‘took her home that evening’. He saw her and the rest of the delegates off the following day and the pair started to correspond. His letters often contained poetry, ‘some original, some quoted, always meticulously referenced’. Soon he proposed by letter and, his proposal having been accepted, Keogh set about finding a job in the USA.

Eventually he secured a post in a Chicago bookshop which was looking for someone who knew the Dewey system (the manager no doubt impressed by Keogh’s pioneering catalogue for the Elswick and Heaton libraries) and in January 1899, he sailed for America, reaching Chicago in February. But with his aim a position in a library, Keogh soon made the arduous 720 mile journey to the next annual meeting of the American Library Association in Atlanta, where he reacquainted himself with some of the delegates he had met in Newcastle. He was offered posts in several public libraries but, with his heart set on an academic position, turned them down, a brave move for a foreigner of humble origins and no university education. Eventually though, his persistence paid off with the offer of a post in Yale University library. He began work on 1 August 1900 and on 6th, he married Jessica Sherman Van Vliet.

By 1902, Keogh was teaching bibliography at Yale and he quickly progressed up his chosen career ladder, also becoming a lecturer and professor of bibliography. In 1909, he successfully applied for an American passport, from which we have a description of him as 5 feet 8 inches tall with an oval face, hazel eyes, dark brown hair and a moustache.

On 1 July 1916, despite ‘certain limitations of a middle class Englishman which he will probably never overcome’,  he was appointed Librarian of the University of Yale.

Keogh wrote many papers and books and one of his many career highlights was a term as President of the American Library Association in 1929-30.

Keoghpaper_IMG_2812res

On his retirement in 1938, Andrew Keogh was named Librarian Emeritus of Yale University. He and Jessica were together for over 50 years until her death in 1952 aged 84. Andrew died a few months later on 13 February 1953 at the same age. Not a bad shelf life for the working class Geordie who cut his teeth cataloguing the collections  of Elswick and Heaton branch libraries and whose life was shaped by love at first sight  – and an equally strong passion for books.

Heaton’s Victoria Library, loved and appreciated by generations, closed in 2000. The nearest public libraries are now in High Heaton and Byker.

Librarypc

Can You Help?

If you have memories or photos of Heaton Library or know more about Andrew Keogh, 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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

Sources

Andrew Keogh: his contribution to Yale / James T Babb; The Yale University Gazette Vol 29 No 2, October 1954

Classification in British Public Libraries: a historical perspective / J H Bowman; Library History Vol 21, November 2005

Heaton: from farms to foundries / Alan Morgan; Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2012

Transactions and Proceedings of the Second International Library Conference held in London July 13-16 1897

The Lit and Phil library

plus Ancestry, British Newpaper Archive and other online sources

 

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.

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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.

Apprentice

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.

Inventors

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.

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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.

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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.

 Rescue

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!

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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.

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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.

Sale

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.

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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   chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

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.

Sources

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

To Heaton for Love: an artist’s life

What do the present queen and her 16th century namesake; Vivien Leigh (in the roles of Cleopatra and Blanche DuBois); scenes from Romeo and Juliet and these ‘builders’ have in common?

 

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‘The Builders’ by A K Lawrence Copyright: The Governor and Company of the Bank of England

 

A clue – naturally, there’s a Heaton connection. No, nothing to do with The People’s Theatre but, yes, the answer is arts related. They were all depicted by a notable artist who spent part of his life in Heaton. Not Kingsley Place’s John Gilroy (though he too painted the Queen) nor John Wallace (landscapes were more his forte) but a painter still more lauded in fine art circles. You may not have heard of him but you may well have seen his work.

Early life

Alfred Kingsley Lawrence was born in Lewes, Sussex on 4 October 1893, the third son of Fanny Beatrice and Herbert Lawrence, a solicitor. His father, however, died, when Alfred was only around a year old and when the boy was just three years old, his mother remarried  George Giffin, a customs officer.

By 1901, while Fanny continued to live in Lewes with the children (by now there was a younger half brother, George junior too), her husband seems to have relocated to Newcastle (We don’t know why.) and was living in Roxburgh Place in Heaton.  The family eventually followed, although one of Alfred’s older brothers, Frederick, had died in 1906, aged 14 in Sussex.  By 1911, they were living in Sandyford.  Alfred, now 17, was a ‘civil engineer’s clerk and student’.

He was, in fact, a student at the King Edward VII School of Art, Armstrong College, where his teachers included Professor Richard Hatton, who was soon to found the Newcastle University gallery which still bears his name. A local newspaper article in 1925 said that ‘not since the[ school of art] was founded has a student displayed such conspicuous talent or worked so consistently and with such conspicuous talent as a student of painting’.

Alfred won the John Christie scholarship, aged 18, in 1912; the School Medal for the most brilliant student in his year in 1913 as well as Silver Medal s awarded by the Royal College of Art in both 1913 and 1914. In the latter year, he was also awarded a Royal Exhibition Scholarship tenable at the Royal College of Art in London.

But by now the country was at war.

Heaton wife

It was apparently while at the King Edward VII School of Art that Alfred met his future wife, Margaret Crawford Younger, a Heaton lass. Margaret was the daughter of Robert Younger, a marine engineer, and his wife, Catherine, who lived at  42 Heaton Road. The family were very comfortably off: the 1901 census shows a governess lived with the family, presumably to home school the four daughters.

By 1911, Robert had retired: local trade directories now refer to him as a ‘Gentleman’ and no occupations are listed in the census for the daughters, now aged between 21 and 27. Alfred married Margaret on 26 June 1915 and joined his wife at his parents in law’s on Heaton Road (by now known as Elmire House), although mostly he was away from home.

War Service

In 1914, he had voluntarily joined the Northumberland Fusiliers’ 19th battalion (2nd Tyneside Pioneers), which was posted to France in 1916. Alfred, a Second Lieutenant, was mentioned in despatches in January 1917, most likely for his actions during the latter stages of the Battle of the Somme. Upon discharge in 1919, he resumed his scholarship at the Royal College of Art. He won a travelling scholarship to Italy in 1922 and in 1923 won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which allowed him to study in Rome for  three years. Paintings by Lawrence during this period and during his military service can readily be found on line. Influenced by his time in Italy, he often painted classical themes.

Success

From this point on,  commissions came thick and fast and Alfred’s adopted city was among the first in the queue. The Hatton Gallery owns two works ‘Male Nude’ and ‘Female Nude’ painted in 1922 (hopefully they’ll be on display when the gallery reopens later this year) and his magnificent ‘The Building of Hadrian’s Bridge (Pons Aelii) over the Tyne, c122’ is in the Laing. (But not on display at the time of writing).

When next you’re in London, head to  St Stephen’s Hall in the Houses of Parliament,where you’ll find his ‘Queen Elizabeth Commissions Sir Walter Raleigh to Discover Unknown Lands, 1584’ and to the Bank of England, which commissioned a group of large oil paintings, of which the above work is one.

In 1930, Lawrence was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and in 1938 he became a Royal Academician, a huge honour for an artist. The photograph below shows the Academicians selecting works for the 1939 summer exhibition. AK Lawrence is nearest the camera on the right. The president, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens is holding a letter D, which stands for ‘doubtful’ (for inclusion in the exhibition).

 

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Royal Academicians, 1939 Copyright: Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Lawrence himself exhibited in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition almost much every year from 1929 until his death, a period of almost 50 years.

His ‘Study for Leda’ was presented to the Queen as part of the institution’s coronation gift in 195 3 and is now in the Royal Collection. His painting ‘Elizabeth II at the State Opening of Parliament 1962’ is in the Parliamentary Art Collection.

Character

In the 1920s, the young Alfred was described as ‘shy of temperament but studious and painstaking, with sound and erudite knowledge and the crowning gift of imagination. He has high ideals and his conception of art, particularly in the employment of the figure, is lofty and virile’.

Lawrence’s entry in the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’  refers to his great interest in the theatre and suggests that that he might have been a successful professional actor ‘particularly in heroic roles. He was a tall, dignified man with a resounding voice, a stalwart in debate, forthright in his adherence to traditions and rather grand in his renderings of Shakespeare (We wonder, did Lawrence,  before he left Newcastle for London,  see his Heaton neighbour, Colin Veitch, play Falstaff in  the People’s first Shakespeare production in 1921?)… he was a stickler for the correct use of words…strongly against the use of photography or substitution for good draughtsmanship’.

The article also states that Margaret, with whom he had been married since their days on Heaton Road during WW1, died in 1960, after which ‘AK’, as he was known, became a rather solitary figure. Their son, Julius, had emigrated to New Zealand.

Legacy

Alfred Kingsley Lawrence died suddenly on 5 April 1975 at his London home. His legacy is his art, however.

In addition to the works already mentioned, Lawrence paintings and drawings are in the collections of National Portrait Gallery; Victoria and Albert Museum;  Imperial War Museum;  Scottish National Portrait Gallery;  National Trust; Queens College, Cambridge; Guildhall Art Gallery; Royal Society;  Royal Air Force Museum and many other collections, both public and private. Digital copies of many of those in public collections can be seen here.

As recently as April 2015, A K Lawrence’s classically inspired ‘Persephone’ (1938) was the Royal Academy’s ‘Object of the Month’ and in December of the same year, the ‘Daily Telegraph’ illustrated an article about the government owned works being hidden from public view with a Lawrence painting.

And now, at last, Heaton, where he found love, has paid tribute to him.

Acknowledgements

This article was written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Research was carried out by Joe Chipchase, Christopher Durrans and Chris Jackson.

Can you help?

If you know more about Alfred Kingsley Lawrence or have photos of him or works by him that you’re happy to share or if you know of any other eminent artist with a Heaton connection, we’d love to hear from you. Either click on the link below the article title to post direct to this website or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org.

John Wallace: landscape painter in oils

This evocative detail of ‘Newcastle upon Tyne from the South West’ is available on a greetings card, sold by Tyne and Wear Museums.

 

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From John Wallace’s painting ‘Newcastle upon Tyne from the South West’

 

The original painting hangs in the Laing Art Gallery. It is the work of John Wallace who, for more than 20 years, lived at 28 Kingsley Place in Heaton.

Journeyman joiner

John Wallace was born in Ryton, Co Durham in 1841, the son of Henry, a cartwright, and his wife, Mary. On leaving school, young John joined his father’s firm as an apprentice and progressed to become a journeyman joiner. In his late twenties, he branched out into building and property development in Ryton and, by 1871, aged 27, was a successful businessman, married with a family. On census night, in addition to his one year old daughter, Jane, there were two ‘nephews’, Henry and William, in the household. The family was by now living in the west end of Newcastle.

Eventually though, during a period of recession affecting the building trade, John abandoned his livelihood to devote himself to art. According to a contemporary profile, it was only now that he took up painting, initially taking lessons from a local teacher. He progressed quickly, however, and, in 1880 and 1881, he exhibited works at the Arts Association  in Newcastle.

By 1881, he was still living in Elswick with his expanding family: Henry (17) and William (15)  were now described as ‘sons’ and were an architect and draughtsman respectively and there were three school-age daughters, Jane (11), Mary (7) and Alice (2). John now considered himself to be a professional painter and was described on the census form as  ‘artist – painting’.

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Wallace was a prominent and early, maybe even founding, member of the Bewick Club, which was established by local artists in 1884. It is from one of its catalogues, held by Newcastle City Library, that this portrait was taken. The club’s primary function was to promote the needs of professional artists and to encourage not only the patronage of rich individuals but also that of the less wealthy. The club’s headquarters were in Lovaine Hall, St. Mary’s Place, where Northumbria University is now. Wallace remained a member until his death. We know that some of his exhibits at the club were bought by collectors and patrons such as Dr Charles Mitchell and Lady Armstrong. 

Kingsley Place

By 1891

, John, now a successful artist, and Mary, his wife, had moved with their three daughters to a newly built house in Kingsley Place, a quiet, pedestrianised street in a prime location overlooking the recently opened and picturesque Heaton Park. Soon a fine public library would open at the end of the street.

Their next door neighbours at 30 Kingsley Place were the musical Beers family from Holland, who we have written about on this site previously. Conveniently, a couple of doors the other way lived an Italian picture framer. Another soon to be well known painter and illustrator, John Gilroy, grew up across the road at number 25. He was a young child at the turn of the 20th century as John Wallace approached the end of his life. And, at the same time, a photographer, William Thomas, and more musicians, including Mary W Parkinson, who described herself as a ‘music teacher and vocalist’  moved into the street. It’s intriguing to imagine that the man in the photograph below could have been John Wallace and the little boy on the right a young John Gilroy.

 

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Kingsley Place looking towards the Victoria Library from the collection of Hilary Bray (nee Bates)

Little wonder that, like their brothers, Henry and William, the Wallace girls also were drawn towards creative occupations: Jane and Mary were both dressmakers and, perhaps more unusually for the time, youngest daughter, Alice, was a photographer. Could she have even taken the above photograph?

You won’t be surprised to hear that John Wallace stayed in Kingsley Place for the rest of his life and that he thrived as an artist here.

Wallace painted many scenes around North East England especially in the Tyne valley. But he also travelled apparently and, for example, painted locations around Stratford upon Avon, including Anne Hathaway’s cottage, to increasing acclaim. So far though we know of only one painting of the area immediately around his home, even though Jesmond Dene, in particular, would seem to provide the perfect subject matter for him.

Royal Academy

In 1892, Wallace’s painting ‘Butter Washing’ was selected for inclusion at London’s Royal Academy annual exhibition. Wallace exhibited at the Royal Academy on two further occasions, with ‘A Northumberland Dairy’ selected in 1896 and ‘Derwent Vale’ in 1902.

In 1901, 59 year old John was described on the census form as ‘a landscape painter in oils’. He also produced black and white drawings for use in printed publications.

A number of Wallace’s works were selected for the newly opened Laing Art Gallery’s first ever ‘Artists of the Northern Counties’ exhibition in 1905. They included the one familiar local scene we know of, ‘Jesmond Falls’ , dated 1901. He died on 4 November 1905.

You can see John Wallace paintings at the Laing and Shipley Art Galleries and at George Stephenson’s birthplace in Wylam. They are reproduced here. His works also appear regularly at auction. ‘ Waterfall – Jesmond Dene’ was sold in 2013. You can see it here.

And perhaps you have a John Wallace on a wall at home? Although we are not art experts and cannot help with identification or valuation, it would be lovely to discover more John Wallace works, perhaps even more local scenes. We are sure he must have painted many more. Do let us know.

Postscript

This John Wallace shouldn’t be confused with his contemporary, the Scottish artist John Wallace who died in September 1903 and who, under the pseudonym George Pipeshank, did artwork for Cope’s Tobacco Company in Liverpool.

Aside from his work for Cope’s, John Wallace was primarily a watercolourist, who exhibited at the Scottish Academy. The two, their works and their dates are often confused but death notices for each can be found in the Newcastle and Edinburgh press respectively. There is also a self portrait of the Scottish John Wallace in the Liverpool University Special Collections and Archives John Fraser Collection.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group. Sources included: ‘The Artists of Northumbria ‘by Marshall Hall, 1973.

Can you help?

If you know more about John Wallace or his work,  please either leave a comment by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

 

The Bard of Stratford (Grove Terrace)

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Twilight

Across the sky with outstretched wings

Of ev’ry colour blest,

A mystic bird of paradise

Is speeding to the west,

Upon its wings the night gods ride

To yonder burning glade,

 That they might crowd and give to earth

That sweet magenta shade. (Alex Robson, November 1929)

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Heaton History Group has been researching the many interesting people who have lived in those of our streets that were named in his honour (Hotspur, Bolingbroke, Malcolm, Mowbray, Warwick and the Stratfords, as well as Heaton Park Road, which it had originally been intended to call Shakespeare Road) and which, since the 1980s, have been overlooked by a magnificent brick artwork of the man himself.

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Brick Shakespeare on  South View West gable end

Aware that, like other parts of Heaton, these streets are now home to many talented writers, artists and musicians, we wondered whether we might find anyone from the past who had followed in the bard’s footsteps. We were not to be disappointed. Our researcher, Michael Proctor takes up the story:

While searching for stories about the residents of Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’, I came across a poem by a Mr Alex Robson of 13 Stratford Grove Terrace, published in the ‘Berwickshire News and General Advertiser’ in 1929, then I came across more, and more, each of them attributed to ‘Alex Robson, formerly of Crag Mill Belford’.

Being 1929, there was no recent census information available, but I did manage to track Alex down in the 1930 Electoral Register, along with his wife, Gertrude Winifred and William and Mona Mushett (who subsequently turned out to be his second daughter and her husband), also living at the same address. Beyond there I could go no further, as I couldn’t locate an Alex Robson in Belford on any previous census, so decided simply to publish a selection of his poetry.

Until, that is, I decided to search for his name, rather than his address ,on the British Newspaper Archive. A search that turned up many, many more poems dated from the early 1920s through to the mid 1940s and a potted biography published on 27 November 1923, which gave me the key to the story of this remarkable self educated man: a war hero; a significant figure in civic society; a musician and poet; a patriot and royalist; and a great believer in physical and mental activity and wellbeing. And, from 1929 to around 1939, a resident of Stratford Grove Terrace.

Lowest rung

Alexander Robson was born on 30 January 1884 in Gateshead. His father, Robert, aged 42, was an engine fitter, most likely working at the North Eastern Railway’s engine works at Greenesfield, situated between the High level Bridge and the current Redheugh Bridge. His mother was called Mary and he had three brothers.

Alexander left school at the age of 11, having passed the ‘labour exam.’ The 1923 article describes his parents’ lot as ‘not very brilliant’ meaning that further schooling was out of the question, so the young Alex found himself working for a J W Kent, a grocer, where he stayed until at the age of 16, when he was old enough to follow his father and elder brothers into the Greenesfield depot of the North Eastern Railway.

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By 1901 Alex was working as a railway engine cleaner, the lowest rung on the railway ladder.

Volunteer

Right from his early days, the young Alex seems to have had a strong commitment to physical fitness as well as public service. In the newspaper article he speaks of the great evils he witnessed in Gateshead, brought about by the ‘drink traffic’. Although it’s not clear whether this was a personal experience or a general comment, he clearly took a different path, becoming a member of the St James’ Physical Culture Society, (what we’d now think of as the gym) which he attended most nights. He also joined the Tyne Division Submarine Miners Electrical Engineers as a volunteer. In this capacity he was present at King Edward VII’s birthday review in June 1906 and was part of the guard of honour when the King opened the RVI in Newcastle later that summer. Alex’s duties included searchlight operator, signaller, and member of the Special Services Division as well as being in a bugle band for 3 years. He particularly recalled being in charge of the searchlight at the Spanish Battery.

During this time, Alex briefly left the railways and started as a labourer for John Abbot and Company, Steam and Hydraulic Engineers, at the Park View Iron Works, Gateshead.

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Here he was promoted to Traffic Manager, a position that was short-lived as the firm closed in 1907 and he found himself back at the Greenesfield depot.

This must have been a difficult time for him, as he had married Gertrude Winifred in 1905 and the couple had a rapidly growing family. However over four years, he got promoted to the position of freight guard at Tyne Dock, South Shields, where he was still working at the time of the 1911 census.

Poet

It was around this time that he began to pursue his musical and poetic interests. He’d long been interested in learning the violin and had purchased one for 7/6 while still living with his parents, but he ‘hadn’t been encouraged’ so sold it. Now though, he was able to spend 5 or 6 hours at a time ‘annoying the household and probably the neighbours’.

The circumstances in which he took up poetry were quite bizarre. Around this time, he was approached by a fireman at the goods yard who told a story of an old widower who’d fallen in love with a barmaid. He asked Alex to ‘make a bit of poetry about it’. He thought the request was very odd, but didn’t say that he hadn’t ever written a poem, nor did he refuse. Instead, he wrote a poem called ‘The Chocolate King’, which was to be the first of very many.

War hero

When war came he joined the 9th Yorks, 23rd Division, Kitchener’s Army on 1 September 1914 and was among the first to be sent to France, writing his first war poem, ‘For Honour and Glory’, which was recited in the recreation marquees at the camp.  It was subsequently printed and sold at 1d per copy, with proceeds to the YMCA. His initial spell in the army was short-lived as he was discharged on 2 October due to a bout of bronchitis, having just been promoted to lance corporal.

A year later, he joined the military hospital service, stationed at Richmond, where he not only borrowed a violin and formed an orchestra to cheer the wounded, but continued his poetry, with a set of three patriotic poems: To Nurse Cavell; L Battery; and British Vengeance published in a pamphlet to raise funds for the Blinded Soldiers Funds. Copies were sent to Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra, from whom he received letters of thanks.

By 1917, he was posted to a range of hospital stations at the Somme, Ypres, Rouen, Passchendael, and Amiens. En route he received a dose of gas, yet continued after a short break, moving from the hospital service to maintaining the light railways, which served the front. In June 1918 he was appointed yardmaster on the light railways. It was here, on 12 June,  where an ammunition train was fired and he was blown up with a wounded colleague whom he attempted to save. For this, he received the Meritorious Service Medal for ‘Conspicuous Services and Gallantry’.

After a month’s convalescence, spent in the band at the 72nd General Hospital, he was sent to Calais as Orderly Sergeant, conducting troops to different parts of the line, where he was to be injured again, when a train carrying troops crashed into a coal train. He was recovering at Etaples, when the armistice was signed. Orderly Sergeant Alex Robson was demobbed on 29 November and arrived home on 4 February 1919.

Of course surviving a chlorine gas attack, an explosion and a train crash had taken a toll on his health and he was no longer fit enough to take up his former position as freight train guard and shunter, which is heavy physical work. This is most likely how he ended up at Crag Mill.

northumberland-cragmill-crossing-keepers-cottage

Crag Mill was a small railway station about 2 miles north of Belford on what is now the East Coast Main Line. It opened in 1871 and appears to have closed again in about 1877, probably as it was too close to Belford to be viable. However a coal yard and signal box remained. It is likely that Alex moved here to take up lighter duties, probably as signalman or crossing keeper. It was here where his publishing career in the ‘Berwickshire news and General Advertiser‘ took off in earnest.

Civic duty

The newspaper biography notes that he’d not only written many poems while on active service, but that he’d had plenty of opportunity to recite them and had made a deep theoretical study of elocution, passing his first exam in Berwick on his return. It also notes that Belford people and school children had very much enjoyed his recitals and invited him back repeatedly.

Alex’s deep sense of civic duty was made clear in the article when it listed the organisations he’d had to resign from on moving to Crag Mill. These included:

-The South Shields War pensions Committee, where he represented the railwaymen of South Shields

-Governorship of the Ingham Infirmary

-The Town Mayors Committee on the United Services fund, where he represented the Comrades Club

-Chairmanship of Tyne Dock Railwaymen’s Holiday Association

-West End War Memorial Committee

-Tyne Dock National Union of Railwaymen’s No 1 Branch Committee and various sub-committees.

To Heaton

Although the Robsons only stayed at Belford for about six years, Alex clearly made a significant impression on the local community, as indeed he had in South Shields. By 1925, he was in Newcastle and we can track his movements by the addresses on his published poetry. 1925 sees him living in 20 Stanton Street; 1927 at 5 Finsbury Avenue and in 1929, the Robsons, along with their second eldest daughter, Mona and her husband, moved to 13 Stratford Grove Terrace, Heaton, where they seem to have stayed until 1939.

 

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Alex Robson with grandson, Max, 1932

 

For a short time during World War 2, Alex was living in Haggerston Barns, Beal, most likely as a crossing keeper or signalman once again. But by 1943, he was back in Newcastle once more. In a perfect piece of serendipity, the newspaper article records that he was a great admirer of Burns, Pope, Tennyson, Kipling and, of course, William Shakespeare. Alex Robson died in 1969.

 

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Alex Robson (2nd left) with members of his family in the late 1960s

 

We also know that Alex wrote music but his greatest legacy was his poetry, which, never apparently having been published in a book, is lost in the back copies on newspapers, so it seems fitting to honour the man and his achievements by publishing a short selection.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Michael Proctor for Heaton History Group’s Historic England funded ‘Shakespeare Streets’ project in which we are working with Hotspur and Chillingham Road Primary Schools to explore both Heaton’s theatrical heritage and the people of the streets named in William Shakespeare’s honour. Additional information and photographs were supplied by Janet Robson, the wife of Alex’s grandson, Chris Robson. Many thanks, Janet! 

Can you help?

If you know more about Alex Robson or his family or have any photographs you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

 

 

The People’s Shakespeare

On 20 June 2016 (with perfect, even poetic, symmetry, the very day on which this year’s midsummer solstice will fall), actors from the People’s Theatre, Heaton, will take to the stage at Stratford upon Avon for the first time, alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company, in a performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. They will perform an encore the following night.

The troupe has already played the parts of the ‘mechanicals’ (Nick Bottom, the weaver; Peter Quince, the carpenter; Snug, the joiner; Francis Flute, the bellows-mender; Tom Snout, the tinker and Robin Starveling, the tailor), the comic characters who perform a play within the play, to critical acclaim at our own Northern Stage. But The People’s connection with Shakespeare goes back almost 100 years and, although the theatre company wasn’t based on this side of the city then, Heaton was nevertheless already centre stage (if you can forgive the pun) and has remained deeply connected to both the theatre group and the bard.

Veitches of Heaton

The People’s was founded in 1911 by members of the Newcastle branch of the British Socialist Party to raise money to fund their political activities and enable them to pay the rent on their meeting rooms at the corner of Leazes Park Road and Percy Street. (Today you’ll find Tea Sutra Teahouse in what was to become the new company’s first home).

The first meeting of around half a dozen interested members was dominated by one family: 32 year old telephone engineer, Norman Kidd Veitch, and his wife, Edith, who lived at 19 Stratford Grove Terrace, Heaton and, Norman’s younger brother, Colin Campbell Mackenzie Veitch and his wife, Minnie, who lived just around the corner at 1 Stratford Villas. Fittingly both couples lived in what we now call Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’, a group of roads with connections to Shakespeare, the story of which goes back to the 1864 celebrations of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

Colin was, of course, a professional footballer, still fondly remembered as Newcastle United’s most successful captain in the Edwardian era, during which the club won three Football League Championships and graced Wembley six times in seven years, at a time, of course, when FA Cup semi-finals weren’t played there, and the first League Cup was still fifty years away.

Colin Veitch

Colin Veitch

But there was much more to Colin Veitch than his football talent, immense though that was, as shown by his presence at that inaugural meeting of the Clarion Dramatic Society, as it was then called. Sometime between the initial meeting and the society’s first dramatic performance on 11 July 1911, Veitch captained Newcastle United, the holders, in the 1911 FA Cup Final (which they lost 1-0 to Bradford City after a replay at Old Trafford) but he was by now approaching 30 and in dispute with Newcastle United, and so although it was only the outbreak of WW1 which brought the final curtain down on his playing career, he was ready for new challenges.

Colin Veith's commemorative plaque

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The Veitches, as well as being keen socialists – Colin was a founder member and later chairman of the Association Football Players Union (now the PFA) and turned down the invitation to stand as a Labour MP – were all lovers of the arts. Minnie was a star of Newcastle Amateur Operatic Society, where Colin, Norman and Edith were members of the chorus; Colin wrote music and conducted; Edith and Norman both wrote plays, a number of which were performed by the Clarion and later The People’s, so what started as an income generator for the British Socialist Party soon took on a life of its own.

From the beginning, the Clarion were ambitious. They performed the works of George Bernard Shaw, the eminent contemporary – and socialist – playwright.  They also performed Ibsen, Galsworthy, Chekhov and other great playwrights. As Norman Veitch said: ‘ If we are going to murder plays, let us murder the best’.

In 1920, the company invited George Bernard Shaw to see them perform. Shaw replied ‘I wouldn’t travel so far overnight in a railway train to meet Shakespeare himself’ but come he did on 25 April 1921 to see the company perform his play ‘Man and Superman’, with Colin Veitch playing the part of Old Malone.

The People’s Shakespeare

The next and final play of the landmark 1920-21 season was ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’,the Clarion’s first Shakespearean production. Colin Veitch was Falstaff, Minnie and Edith merry wives. Norman Veitch later wrote that ‘it was a jolly and inspiring performance’.

That summer, the Clarion was renamed The People’s Theatre and Shakespeare became a staple: ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, ‘Coriolanus’, ‘Cymbeline’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Henry IV Part 1’, ‘Julius Caesar’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’,  ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘Othello’, ‘Pericles’, ‘Richard II’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Troilus and Cressida’,  ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and T’he Winter’s Tale’, were all performed before the company moved to Heaton.

People’s in Heaton

The People’s Theatre was based in a disused chapel in Rye Hill from 1930 but by 1953 the company recognised it had outgrown the premises and they set their sights on their own arts centre. A public appeal was launched in 1955 at a luncheon attended by Sir John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft. Eventually by 1959 a suitable building was found and enough money was in the bank to start to convert it into a theatre.

Lyric cinema 1936

Entrance to the Peoples 2013

The soon to be refurbished People’s Theatre

 

The building was the recently closed Lyric Cinema, next to the Corner House on Stephenson Road (the Coast Road). It reopened as a theatre on 24 September 1962, with Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman’ (of course!) and the season appropriately ended with the People’s first Shakespeare performance in Heaton, a Christmas production of ‘Twelfth Night’. The official opening by Princess Alexandra followed on 20 October 1964.

The company continued to bring new Shakespeare plays to Heaton audiences eg Henry IV Part 2 (1965), Richard III (1967), Henry V (1981) but soon there was an even more exciting development, which cemented the east Newcastle relationship with Stratford which had begun with Frank Benson’s company in 1895.

RSC at the People’s

The RSC had made Newcastle its third home in 1977, bringing productions annually from Stratford to the Theatre Royal and the Gulbenkian, but in 1987 and 1988 they needed a third venue and so actors such as Jeremy Irons and Brian Cox trod the People’s boards.

The second season will always be remembered for a particularly gory production of ‘Titus Andronicus’, after which reports of fainting audience members even  made the pages of ‘The Sun’!

The RSC returned to Heaton in 2004 when the Newcastle Playhouse (now Northern Stage) was undergoing refurbishment. It’s an honour for both the People’s and Heaton for our own theatre company to be able to accept a return invitation to Stratford twelve years later in this most special of seasons for both theatres. There’ll be a few charabancs of Heatonians heading down to the midlands in June. It would be lovely to welcome members of the RSC back to our own soon to be even more fantastic theatre before too long.

Sources

The main sources used in researching this article were:

Chris Goulding ‘The Story of the People’s’

Norman Veitch ‘The Peoples’

http://www.ptag.org.uk/about-us/history.html

http://www.colinveitch.co.uk/

where you will be able to read much more about The People’s Theatre and Colin Veitch respectively

Can you help?

If you have memories of the People’s or any performances or readings of Shakespeare in Heaton or can provide further information about anything mentioned in this piece, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Shakespeare 400

This article was written and researched by Chris Jackson, as part of Heaton History Group’s project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

We are interested in connections between Heaton and Shakespeare through its theatres, past and present; writers, actors – and of course, the famous brick Shakespeare on South View West. See:

A Road By Any Other Name

The Grand Opening

We are also researching and writing about some of the people who have lived in the ‘Shakespeare Streets’: initially, we are looking at Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm, Mowbray and Warwick Streets plus Heaton Park Road, Stratford Grove, Stratford Grove Terrace, Stratford Grove West, Stratford Road, and Stratford Villas. See:

Colin Veitch’s Twelve Days of Christmas

George Waller: world champion cyclist

George Waller: life as a champion

More to follow!

If you would like to join our small friendly research group or have information, photos or memories to share, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

The Grand Opening

In our previous article about Heaton’s Shakespearean heritage, we showed that, in the late 1870s, Heaton was home to an important local theatrical figure at the time when a number of streets in the area were given names connected with the bard. But we also claimed that this part of Newcastle’s connections with the Royal Shakespeare Company itself go back much further than the 1970s when the RSC’s made Newcastle its third home and its actors began to stay in digs in the east of the city. Here’s why:

On Saturday 21 December 1895, it was announced in the ‘Newcastle Courant‘ that the ‘accomplished and popular Shakespearian actor, F R Benson‘, had laid the foundation stone of a new theatre in Heaton the previous Tuesday.

NPG x96407; Sir Francis Robert ('Frank') Benson as 'Romeo' in 'Romeo and Juliet' by Alexander Bassano

Frank Benson as Romeo by Alexander Bassano, half-plate glass negative, 1886, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Francis Robert Benson wasn’t local. He was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1858 and after studying at New College, Oxford, he immediately took to the stage. Benson’s first recorded appearance at the Theatre Royal was in 1881, before he had officially turned professional, when he performed with the company of Charles Bernard and Miss Alleyn. Soon afterwards, Benson started his own company. From the outset, he concentrated on Shakespeare.

Stratford remembers

Surprisingly it seems that until 1864 (the year in which, you may remember, George Stanley our ‘tragedian‘ had served on the Newcastle Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, made an impassioned plea to be allowed to practice his own art in his own building and put on his own tribute to the bard) there was little interest in putting on Shakespeare’s plays in the town of his birth. Stratford did, however, put on a successful festival that year, promoted and bankrolled by Edward Flower of the brewing family, who happened to be mayor at the time. The success of the commemoration gave momentum to attempts to raise money to build a theatre in the town specifically to put on the plays of its famous son, an appeal that was scoffed at by influential commentators in London, but officially supported by many in Newcastle including the council itself.

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford upon Avon opened its doors and launched its first Shakespeare Festival on 23rd April 1879, the year, you may remember, in which the plans for Heaton’s own memorial to Shakespeare, our ‘Shakespeare streets’ were first submitted.

In 1886, Frank Benson became the director of the Stratford Festival, which was effectively the forerunner of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Nevertheless he continued with a gruelling touring schedule.

Early in 1893, Benson played Richard III at the Theatre Royal with a temperature of 104 and what turned out to be typhoid. After the show, he collapsed on the train back to Stratford and was seriously ill for several weeks, missing that year’s Stratford Festival.

Grand opening

The Grand Theatre, where Benson laid the foundation stone, was, by the time of its opening, recognised by the press as being in Byker, although, on the north side of Wilfred Street (just west of where Morrison’s is today), it was only a couple of hundred yards away from the boundary with Heaton. It was designed by William Hope of North Shields and built by the firm of Samuel Ferguson Davidson. Both men were Freemasons, who specialised in theatre work, often in partnership, not only in the north east but much further afield.

Samuel Ferguson Davidson was from Heaton. We know that, in 1895, he was living at 53 Falmouth Road. Samuel was a Temperance campaigner as well as a Freemason. He worked on theatres as far away as Birmingham and Margate and, locally, perhaps most notably on Spanish City in Whitley Bay. He died on 12 February 1964, aged 97.

image

The Grand Theatre, Byker, was described as a very fine building, which could seat 2,500 people. The principal entrance was surmounted by an imposing turret, which you can see above. Inside the main entrance was a spacious vestibule. There was a large handsome marble staircase to the circle. The tip-up chairs were upholstered in ‘terracotta plush’.

The stage was large and could accommodate the largest shows, hence its suitability for Benson’s Shakespearean productions. It also had ‘a commodious suite of dressing rooms on each side fitted with every convenience for the comfort of the artistes’ which would no doubt also appeal.

The Grand was established, owned and managed by Weldon Watts, an Irishman who had previously managed the Theatre Royal in Sheffield and the Queens Theatre in Gateshead

Seven months after laying the foundation stone of the Grand, Fred Benson, brought his production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ to its opening night, which took place on 27 July 1896. Below is a silk VIP programme for that performance for which we are indebted to John Moreels of Photo Memories Organisation.

image

Programme from the Grand Theatre, Byker’s opening performance

Local critics were rather sniffy about the liberties Benson took with the text but conceded that the comedy had been well received by the audience, which must have comprised many people from Heaton, including from our Shakespeare streets, from which it was only a couple of hundred yards or so via the Elizabeth Street underpass below the railway.

The performance was just the first of Byker’s own Shakespearian festival that week. Benson’s company also put on ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘As You Like It‘, with ‘Richard III‘ played al fresco at the Sandyford Park home of a Dr Gibb (See the Comments to this article for more on the interesting Dr Gibb).

Benson was back at the Grand in December 1899. His company had been at the Theatre Royal performing ‘Macbeth‘, the play famously considered by actors to be unlucky, when a disastrous fire destroyed the interior of the theatre and with it most of the company’s costumes, props and scenery as well as personal effects. They say in the theatre that the show must go on. So Frank Benson dashed to London to source replacements and the management of the Grand Theatre, Byker offered it as an alternative venue, not the last time Newcastle’s East End was to help out the Stratford company.

Services to Shakespeare

Benson’s contribution to the cause of Shakespeare can hardly be overestimated and was formally recognised a hundred years ago during the commemorations for the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. He was playing Julius Caesar in front of an audience of nearly three thousand people, which included King George V and Queen Mary, when a telegram finally reached Benson informing him that he was to be honoured with a knighthood. A royal aid was informed that the message had just been received, a sword was sent for and Frank Benson was knighted on stage still wearing the blood-stained robes and ashen make-up of the dead Caesar.

Postscript

The Royal Shakespeare Company evolved out of the Shakespeare Festival that Benson ran in Stratford between 1888 and 1916. The debt that the company owes to him is acknowledged by a set of stained glass windows in the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

The Grand, after struggling for many years to be profitable as either as a theatre or a cinema, finally closed its doors on August 1954. But Heaton got its own theatre in 1960, when The People’s moved here.

In 1961, the RSC itself was formed. The story of Shakespeare at the People’s and its ongoing links with the RSC is another story!

Can you help?

If you have memories of the Grand or can provide further information about anything mentioned in this piece, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Shakespeare 400

This article was written by Chris Jackson and researched by Chris Jackson, and Peter Walker, as part of Heaton History Group’s project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

We are interested in connections between Heaton and Shakespeare through its theatres, past and present; writers, actors – and of course, the famous brick Shakespeare on South View West.

We are also researching and writing about some of the people who have lived in the ‘Shakespeare Streets’: initially, we are looking at Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm, Mowbray and Warwick Streets plus Stratford Grove, Stratford Grove Terrace, Stratford Grove West, Stratford Road, and Stratford Villas.

If you would like to join our small friendly research group or have information, photos or memories to share, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

A Road by Any Other Name

On 20th June 2016 in Stratford upon Avon, amateur actors from The People’s Theatre, Heaton will appear in a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ alongside professionals from the Royal Shakespeare Company. That performance, a reprise the following night and five nights at Northern Stage in March, will form part of the national commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and is a great honour for our local and much loved theatre company.

The People’s Theatre has links with the RSC going back many years. The Stratford company made Newcastle its third home back in the 1970s and the People’s has come to the rescue three times (1987, 1988 and 2004) when an extra venue was needed for one reason or another. But these are far from Heaton’s earliest connections with the ‘immortal bard’ and we’ve decided to explore some of them as part of our own contribution to ‘Shakespeare 400’.

 The Name of the Roads

The most obvious references to Shakespeare in the locality are a group of streets in the extreme south and west of Heaton: Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm and Mowbray are all Shakespeare characters, as well as historical figures. And immediately north of them are Warwick Street and the Stratfords (Road, Grove, Grove Terrace, Grove West, Villas). But could the literary references be coincidental? Perhaps it was the real life, mainly northern, noblemen that were immortalised? Why would a housing estate, built from the early 1880s for Newcastle workers and their families, pay homage to a long-dead playwright. It’s fair to say our research team was surprised and delighted at what we found.

Two documents, one in Tyne and Wear Archives (V273) and one in the City Library, provided the key. Firstly, in the archives, we found a planning application from Alderman Addison Potter of Heaton Hall and his architect, F W Rich (who later designed St Gabriel’s Church). Their plans show Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm and Mowbray Streets, pretty much as they look now, but bordering them to the south is Shakespeare Road! No doubt now about the references. (Thank you to Tyne and Wear Archives for permission to use the images below.)

Shakespeareroadplan4ed

Plan of roads near Bolingbroke Street showing Shakespeare Road

Not only that but Lennox, Siward, and Umfreville Terraces also appear. You’d be forgiven for not immediately getting the Shakespearian references there but Siward is the leader of the English army in Macbeth; Lennox, a Scottish nobleman in the same play and Umfreville, we’ve discovered, has a line which appears only in the first edition of Henry IV Part II but, like many of the others, the real person on which he was based has strong north east connections. Clearly the inspiration for the street names came from one or more people who knew their literature and their history.

Shakespeareroadplan3ed

But two sets of plans were rejected by the council for reasons that aren’t clear and, within a year, Addison Potter seems to have sold at least the leasehold of the land to a builder and local councillor called William Temple. Temple submitted new, if broadly similar, proposals. Building work soon started on the side streets but the previous year, Lord Armstrong had gifted Heaton Park to the people of Newcastle and the road to the new public space took its name. And nobody lives on Lennox, Siward or Umfreville Terraces either: they became Heaton Park View, Wandsworth Terrace and Cardigan Terrace.

IMG_5817

Bricks stamped with Temple’s name can still be found in the area. This one is displayed in his former brickyard on the banks of the Ouseburn.

But why Shakespeare? Whose idea was it? A newspaper article, dated 21 May 1898, in Newcastle City Library provided our next clue. A former councillor, James Birkett, was interviewed: ‘Mr Birkett himself occupied a cottage on the land which is now known as South View. There were another cottage or two near his, but they had nearly the whole of the district to themselves’. It continues ‘In front of them was the railway line, and behind was the farmhouse of a Mr Robinson. This house stood on the site now forming the corner of Heaton Park Road and Bolingbroke Street, and one of its occupants was Mr Stanley, who for many years was the lessee of the Tyne Theatre’.

The Tragedian

Further research showed that George William Stanley had a deep love not only of drama but of William Shakespeare in particular.  He was born c 1824 in Marylebone, London. By 1851, Stanley described himself as a ‘tragedian‘ (ie an actor who specialised in tragic roles).

By 1860, he was in the north east. The first mention we have found of him dates from 28 July of that year, when he is reported to have obtained a licence to open a temporary theatre in East Street, Gateshead. A similar licence in South Shields soon followed. Later, we know that he opened theatres in Tynemouth and Blyth.

In 1861, he was staying in a ‘temperance hotel’ in Co Durham with his wife (Emily nee Bache) and four children: George S who is 8, Alfred W, 4, Emily F, 3, and Rose Edith Anderson, 1. He now called himself a ‘tragedian / theatre manager’.  And he had turned his attention to Newcastle, where attempts to obtain theatre licences were anything but straightforward.

In June 1861, Stanley applied for a six month licence for theatrical performances in the Circus in Neville Street. He argued that one theatre (the Theatre Royal) in Newcastle to serve 109,000 people was inadequate; he promised that the type of performances (‘operatic and amphitheatre’) he would put on would not directly compete with existing provision; he produced testimonials and support from local rate payers; he gave guarantees that alcohol would not be served or prostitutes be on the premises. But all to no avail. The Theatre Royal strongly objected; an editorial in the ‘Newcastle Guardian’ supported the refusal. Appeal after appeal was unsuccessful. Stanley continued to use the wooden building as a concert hall and appealed against the decision almost monthly.

In October 1863,  George Stanley made another impassioned speech, in which he begged to be allowed to practice his own art in his own building. He concluded: ‘I will not trouble your worships with any further remarks in support of my application, but trust that the year that witnesses the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, will also witness the removal of any limitation against the performances of the plays of that greatest of Englishmen in Newcastle’.  The Bench retired for thirty five minutes but finally returned with the same verdict as before.

GeorgeStanley

George Stanley, tragedian and theatre manager

Tercentenary

Despite his latest setback, George Stanley started 1864 determined to mark Shakespeare’s big anniversary. In the first week of January, he played Iago alongside another actor’s Othello in his own concert hall. ‘Both gentlemen have nightly been called before the curtain’.

The following week, a preliminary public meeting was held to hear a dramatic oration ‘On the Tercentenary of Shakespeare’ by G Linnaeus Banks of London, Honorary Secretary to the National Shakespeare Committee, and to appoint a local committee to arrange the celebrations in Newcastle. Joseph Cowen took the chair and George Stanley was, of course, on the platform. And it was he who moved the vote of thanks to Mr Banks for his eloquent address.

Unfortunately the festivities were somewhat muted and overshadowed by Garibaldi’s visit to England. (He had been expected to visit Newcastle that week, although in the event he left the country somewhat abruptly just beforehand). There was a half day holiday in Newcastle on Monday 25 April ‘but the day was raw and cold and the holiday was not so much enjoyed as it might otherwise have been’ and  a celebration dinner in the Assembly Rooms, ‘attended by about 210 gentlemen’, was the main event. A toast ‘In Memory of Shakespeare’ was proposed, followed by one to ‘The Dramatic Profession’. George Stanley gave thanks on behalf of the acting profession.

Stanley continued to pay his own respects to the playwright. He engaged the ‘celebrated tragedian, Mr John Pritchard’ to perform some celebrated Shakespearian roles, with he himself playing Othello and Jago on alternate nights.

Tyne Theatre

In October 1865, Stanley’s wooden concert hall was damaged and narrowly escaped destruction in a huge fire that started in a neighbouring building. His determination to open a permanent theatre intensified and he had found powerful allies. On 19 January 1866, it was announced that an anonymous ‘party of capitalists’ had purchased land on ‘the Westgate’ for the erection of a ‘theatre on a very large scale’. They had gone to London to study the layout and facilities of theatres there. It was said that George Stanley would be the new manager.

In May of that year, in a sign that relations between Stanley and the Theatre Royal had at last thawed, Stanley performed there ‘for the first time in years’. And soon details of the new Tyne Theatre and Opera House began to emerge.  Joseph Cowen, with whom Stanley had served on the Shakespeare Tercentenary Committee, was among the ‘capitalists’.

Cowen was a great supporter of the arts and an advocate for opportunities for ordinary working people to access them. He was incensed at the council’s continued blocking of Stanley’s various theatrical ventures and offered to fund the building of a theatre in which Stanley’s ‘stock‘ ( ie repertory) company could be based.

The opening been set for September 1867 but a licence was still required. Stanley applied again on 31 August. The hearing was held on Friday 13 September before a panel of magistrates which included Alderman Addison Potter of Heaton Hall – and this time Stanley and his influential backers were in luck. Just as well as it was due to open ten days later. And it did, with an inaugural address by George Stanley himself.

Despite his earlier claims that the Tyne Theatre wouldn’t compete with the Theatre Royal, Shakespeare was very much part of the programme in the early years: ‘As you Like It’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, ‘King Lear’… But it was soon acknowledged that there was room for two theatres in Newcastle. Stanley soon found the time and the good will to play the role of Petruchio  (‘The Taming of the Shrew’ ) at the Theatre Royal. He continued to manage the Tyne Theatre until 1881.

Heaton House

It was while still manager of the Tyne Theatre that Stanley moved to Heaton. His first wife had died in the early ’60s. He had remarried and with his second wife, Fanny, still had young children.

Heaton House, as we have heard, stood on what is now the corner of Heaton Park Road and Bolingbroke Street and the Stanley family were living there from about 1878.

The map below is from some years earlier (Sorry it’s such a low resolution. We will replace it with a better version asap) but gives a good impression of the rural character of Heaton at this time. In the top right hand corner of the map, is Heaton Hall, home of Alderman Addison Potter, one of Stanley’s few neighbours and the owner of the farmland on which Stanley’s house stood. Remember too that Potter had been a member of the panel that finally approved Stanley’s theatre in Newcastle.

 os3

Memorial

Potter and Stanley would surely have discussed matters of mutual interest. So while we might not know exactly how the naming of the streets on the east bank of the Ouseburn came about, we can surely assume that George William Stanley, actor, tragedian, Shakespearean, passionate promoter of theatre and neighbour of Potter at the time, played a part. It might have taken almost another twenty years and the name ‘Shakespeare Road’ didn’t make the final cut but Newcastle finally had the long-lasting tribute that George Stanley had wanted for the Shakespeare’s tercentenary.

By the early 1880s the area looked very different. William Temple had developed the fields to the south and west of Heaton Hall;  Heaton House had been demolished and Bolingbroke Street and Heaton Park Road stood in its place; George Stanley had moved back to London.

Stanley would probably be surprised to know that his Tyne Theatre is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary; proud of the People’s Theatre‘s participation in the national commemorations a hundred and fifty two years after his own involvement and delighted that Shakespeare lives on in Heaton.

Can you help?

If you can provide further information about anything mentioned in this article please,contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Shakespeare 400

This article was written by Chris Jackson and  researched by Chris Jackson, Caroline Stringer and Ruth Sutherland, as part of Heaton History Group’s project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

We are interested in connections between Heaton and Shakespeare through its theatres, past and present; writers, actors – and of course, the famous brick Shakespeare on South View West.

We are also researching and writing about some of the people who have lived in the ‘Shakespeare Streets’: initially, we are looking at Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm, Mowbray and Warwick Streets plus Stratford Grove, Stratford Grove Terrace, Stratford Grove West, Stratford Road,  and Stratford Villas.

If you would like to join our small friendly research group or have information, photos or memories to share, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

 

Photography in the blood

This rare photograph, of the visit to Newcastle in August 1884 of the Prince and Princess of Wales, was taken by Thomas Maitland Laws. This was the visit on which, after passing down Shields Road, North View and Heaton Park Road then through Heaton Park, they officially opened Armstrong Park and Jesmond Dene.

Almost all the images you will see of this famous event are drawings and engravings because to take documentary photographs of moving subjects was still a big challenge at that time. Thomas clearly understood the photograph’s commercial value because within a week of taking it, he had registered the copyright. It is, as a result, held in the National Archives,  where we found it.

LawsPrinceandPrincessWales Keith

Prince and Princess of Wales, Newcastle August 1884. Perhaps you can help us identify where it was taken.

Although Thomas was living in the centre of Newcastle at this time, he later lived in Heaton. During this period, he owned a photography business based on Shields Road West.

Early life

Thomas was born in Paddington on 2 July 1855 to Isabella and Peter Maitland Laws. Although both Thomas’s parents were northerners (Peter, Durham born, and Isabella from Cumberland), at this time they were living in London where Peter worked as a carpenter.

However by 1861, the Laws had moved back north with children Henry, Thomas, Sarah and Peter. The family lived in Grainger Street in the centre of Newcastle and Peter was now earning his living as a photographer.

Thomas was thus exposed (forgive the pun) to photography from a very early age at a time when some of his neighbours and indeed his own father were at the forefront of the development and popularisation of a still new medium.

The first mention we have found of Thomas in the press is in July 1867 when, aged 12, he was announced as the winner of the not inconsiderable sum of five shillings, having achieved second place in the ‘Triple Kites’ category of a kite-flying contest on the Town Moor. The previous year a photograph to be taken by his father had been announced as the prize for the various winners.

Pioneering father

Thomas’s father, Peter Maitland Laws, had been a professional photographer for at least eight years at this point. He was listed in the trade directories of 1859-60 as a ‘photographic artist’, living in Pilgrim St and operating from Northumberland Court (which still exists between Waterstones and Jamie’s Italian on Blackett Street), at a time when, although there were a number of ‘photographic artists’ practising in Newcastle, the occupation did not yet appear as a category in the classified listings. (1839 is generally considered the year in which commercial photography was born and it was the year the term ‘photography’ was coined by ‘father of photography’, the astronomer and chemist, John Herschel. But the medium took off slowly at first due to significant technical constraints.)

It was two years later after Laws’ first listing in the trade directories, in  1861, that the Newcastle and North of England Photographic Society was formed. Peter was a member of its original ‘council’ and later became treasurer. At the society’s first meeting, he presented ‘two proofs of his very beautiful views of the ruins of Tynemouth Priory’.

Important technical developments to the art form were still to take place: here in Newcastle in 1864, Joseph Wilson Swan, who owned a ‘chemical and photographic establishment’ on Mosley Street with his brother in law, John Mawson, perfected and patented the carbon process, an early method of producing permanently fixed photographs. It wasn’t for another 13 years, in 1877, that the same inventor perfected dry gelatine-bromide plates which made enlargements possible.

But in the meantime, photography was booming, with small photographic visiting cards becoming hugely popular.  Laws’ business, by now based in Blackett Street, must have been doing well because, by 1871, Peter and Isabella’s elder son, Henry, had followed his father into the firm, while 16 year old Thomas worked as a lithographer. This photograph of Thomas Laws’ grandparents, William (born in Wolsingham, Co Durham in 1793) and Sarah (born in Paisley, Scotland in 1790) dates from this time.

William and Sarah Laws c 1871F76

William and Sarah Laws, grandparents of Thomas Maitland Laws, 1871

Peter Maitland Laws didn’t rest on his laurels. He was said to be one of the first photographers to take portraits using artificial light when he introduced gas lighting into his studio.  In 1879, he advertised ‘Portraits in Dull Weather and at NIGHT with Laws’ “light irradiator”‘ and ‘Portraits in winter equal to summer: gas nights, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday 6-8’. And in February 1880, he made history when he used gaslight to take the first ever photograph of a performance at the Theatre Royal.

He was experimenting with ‘colour photographs’ at around the same time.

LawsphotocolourCCI27016_0001ed

Hand colouring, late 1870s

Peter’s ability to innovate as well as his photographic skill meant that, not only did his business continue to thrive, but he continued to be awarded personal accolades and prizes. In 1887 two of his award-winning photographs were included in the Newcastle Royal Jubilee Exhibition.

Peter Maitland Laws died in 1906.

Lawsphotos

Peter Maitland Laws

Developing talent

By 1881, aged 26, Thomas had followed his father into photography.  He was by now married and living in St Thomas Square with his wife Elizabeth, who hailed from the Isle of Bute. The couple were well enough off to employ a live-in servant.

It was around this time of his photograph of the royal visit that Thomas formally became a partner in the family business, which was retitled ‘P M Laws and Son’. In 1887, P M Laws and Son claimed to be ‘the largest and oldest established gallery of photography in the North’.

LawsphotocardCCI27016_0004ed

Reverse of a P M Laws and Son photograph

However, whether because Thomas wanted to move out of his father’s shadow or for some other reason, Thomas and Elizabeth didn’t stay in Newcastle. By 1891, they were living in Staffordshire with their young family: Amelia, aged 9; Maitland, 7, and Angus, 3. Thomas’s business was in Darlington Street, Wolverhampton. A number of his photographs from this time are in the National Archives, notably two of Wolverhampton Wanderers 1893 cup winning team.

Return to Heaton

The family returned north, however, first to Cumberland, where Thomas ran a photographic and art supplies shop, and then, perhaps because Thomas’s father, Peter, had died in 1906, to 24 Addycombe Terrace in Heaton, where Thomas was a self-employed photographer once more, with a studio at 42 Shields Road West. One of his neighbours at no 55 Addycombe Terrace was his younger half-brother, Albert Heath Laws, also a photographer.

By 1911 Thomas and Elizabeth’s 23 year old son, Angus Ferguson Laws, worked as his assistant, the third generation of the family to become a photographer. But sadly Angus, a Private in the Grenadier Guards, was killed in France on 27 September 1918, aged 30, just weeks before the end of WW1. He is remembered at the Grand Ravine British  Cemetery, Havrincourt.

Thomas had moved from Addycombe Terrace to 7 Warwick Street a few years earlier but by 1921 the Shields Road West business had closed and Thomas had moved back to the midlands. He died in  1928 in Warwickshire.

Postscript

June Howard, a great great granddaughter of Peter Maitland Laws, who now lives in Australia, kindly sent us some family photographs, including those seen here, and told us that photography ran in her family: ‘My understanding is a few of PM Laws children took up photography. My grandfather, Percy Maitland Laws, certainly did all his own developing. I remember we couldn’t use the bath room as it was his dark room.’

Sources

‘One Hundred Years of Photography in the North’, J Arnold Little, 1960

‘Sun Pictures: the Lit and Phil and the history of British photography’,Anthony Flowers and Alison Gunning; Lit and Phil, 2014

Catalogue of the Newcastle Jubilee exhibition (at the Lit and Phil)

Ancestry, British Newspaper Archives and other online resources

Shakespeare Streets

This article was researched and written by Chris Jackson as part of Heaton History Group’s project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.

There are a number of streets in the west of Heaton which have names associated with Shakespeare: Bolingbroke, Hotspur, Malcolm, Mowbray and Warwick Streets plus Stratford Grove, Stratford Road, Stratford Grove Terrace, Stratford Grove West and Stratford Villas. We would love to discover why they were so named and we will research and write about some of the people who, like Thomas Maitland Laws, have lived or worked there.

We are also interested in other connections between Heaton and Shakespeare through its theatres, past and present; writers, actors – and of course, the famous brick Shakespeare on South View West.

Shakespeare

If you would like to get involved or have any information or memories that you think might be of interest, please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

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