Category Archives: Politics and Protest

Heaton Divided: the 1740 Corn Riots

Manchester’s infamous Peterloo massacre is rightly being remembered ahead of its bicentenary. But political protests weren’t unique to Manchester nor was Peterloo the earliest modern example of the military breaking up such a demonstration, leading to loss of life.  Almost 80 years before Peterloo, Heaton miners were at the forefront of a less well known incident in Newcastle in which a Heaton landowner was also a key figure.

It has been argued by A W Purdue that the 18th century was a time in England when there was: “a social order which demonstrated considerable cohesion in that, despite acute social tensions, ‘acceptable compromises could be negotiated, compromises which safeguarded the social fabric'”. 

There was indeed a strict social hierarchy, with the power in the land concentrated in the hands of a small number of men.  In return for the compliance of the vast majority of the population with this arrangement, there was an expectation that there would be enough food for the general public. But what would happen, if there wasn’t enough food or the people couldn’t afford it?  How would the population react and how would the authorities respond to that reaction?  Events in Newcastle in 1740 give us some clues.

Background

There was heavy rain in August and September 1739, leading to a bad harvest, causing the price of oats and rye to double by June 1740.  The winter of 1739-40 was also very severe. The Newcastle Courant carried reports of unemployment and shortages of food, coal and even water. Alderman Matthew Ridley of Heaton Hall is reported to have allowed the poor to collect small amounts of coals from his colliery in Byker. This was a heartening sign of compassion from a member of the Newcastle elite, but it was not  a foretaste of what was to happen the following summer.

It has been reported that by March 1740, local food supplies were running short and there developed the widespread belief that speculators were hoarding grain to sell abroad at an inflated price. With less grain being available, so the market value went up drastically, to the point where miners in Heaton and keelmen on the River Tyne could no longer afford to feed themselves and their families.

There were riots in many parts of the country during May 1740, although at first those in Newcastle seemed insignificant: a small group of women, led by ‘General’ or Jane Bogey, apparently rang bells and impeded the passage of horses carrying grain through the town. Five women were committed for trial but discharged at Newcastle sessions a few days later and a regiment of dragoons on standby was withdrawn.

But disturbances continued elsewhere and, on 17 June, orders were sent for three companies of troops to march from Berwick to suppress troubles south of the Tyne.

Heaton miners’ dispute

On 19 June 1740, miners on the night shift at Heaton Bank pit went on strike in a dispute about their coal allowance, which may have been recently reduced by the owners.

HeatonRoyalty1745

Map of Heaton in 1745 showing Bank pit just south of High Heaton Farm towards the north west (courtesy of the Mining Institute)

By 3.00am, the men had garnered support from other pits and 60-100 of them marched into Newcastle, demanding a settlement of the price of grain, higher wages and better food.

Les Turnbull has noted that, ‘the affidavits record that the overman, George Laverick, “saw about 60 in Number of Workmen belonging to Heaton Colliery go past about 6 o’clock on Thursday morning”. Later, several hundred men, women and children joined the throng in Sandhill near the quayside.’

The following day, the miners were joined by keelmen and iron joiners from North and South Shields, with a crowd of several hundred descending on SandgateThe authorities were alarmed by this and the Riot Act was read.  The protest at this stage was mainly peaceful. A group of women and children did force their way into a granary with the help of some of the Heaton pitmen but in the main the protesters were just trying to put their case. Miners and the keelmen  petitioned the city corporation and at first there seemed to be some sort of agreement to reduce the price of grain but when, the following morning, many grain stores failed to open, the mood of the protesters changed.

It wasn’t only miners who were involved. Keelmen were usually the protesters in those far-off days – they went on strike in both 1661 and 1731, arguably two of the first industrial strikes anywhere in the world.

It is instructive to see what happened in another north east town. Something similar happened in Stockton, but there the magistrates and aldermen sent letters to London, putting pressure on the government.  Consequently, they averted major violence in Stockton. The magistrates in Newcastle decided on another path.

Magistrates’ response

The crowd of protesters soon grew to around 1,000 and they launched a full-scale attack on the granaries, with women and children again playing a prominent part, although even now they were peaceful and often persuaded to leave empty handed.

Many gathered outside the Guildhall, which was situated on its present site by the banks of the Tyne in the Sandhill area and at the northern end of the old Tyne Bridge, where the Swing Bridge is today.

Guildhallold

Guildhall as it would have looked in 1740

Attack on the Guildhall 

The violence escalated and the crowd, by now numbering at least 1,500, attacked the Guildhall, which was described at the time as a ‘very beautiful and sumptuous‘ building. (The building was not that with which we are so familiar with today. It had been built from 1655-60 by Robert Trollope, a mason from York, replacing an earlier building which had been damaged by fire in 1629.) It is recorded that the crowd of keelmen, iron workers and townspeople, ‘smashed the woodwork and windows, tore the paintings, and ransacked the archives and treasury.’   At least £1,300 was removed from the vaults but weapons that were captured were smashed and thrown in the river rather than used on the magistrates, all of whom escaped unharmed.

The actions that took place included the blocking of the movement of grain through the town, the seizure of grain and bread and unsuccessful negotiations with magistrates and merchants in an effort to reduce prices on a range of food items.  There was also an attempt to commandeer a ship-load of rye. Interestingly, it has been noted that women and children were again prominent in the disturbances, but they were joined by contingents of pitmen, keelmen and iron-workers, as the food protest merged with discontent over wages and labour conditions.

Much of the anger was connected to the fact that corn and rye were being exported from the Tyne, from the towns of Newcastle and Gateshead, where people needed it.  This was seen as going against the idea of a moral economy – more of which later.  It has been noted that, ‘the transportation of grain from the Tyne and the Tees occasioned food riots there in May 1740.  At Newcastle, women led protests against high prices and then attempted to unload a ship at the quayside.  When an alderman, supported by a private army confronted them and fired upon the crowd, major disturbances followed.’

The private army of 60 horsemen and over 300 men on foot, all of them bearing oak cudgels, was led by Heaton Hall’s Matthew Ridley. At first it enforced an uneasy calm but the Grand Allies, who owned Heaton colliery, refused to cooperate, perhaps because it would mean coming into conflict with their own workforce but more likely because  they could not bring themselves to work with Matthew Ridley, with whom they were often involved in bitter industrial and land disputes. There were other divisions among the authorities, too particularly between Alderman Fenwick, the mayor, and Ridley.

Over the following days, more and more people came into town to take advantage of the lower prices, which had been agreed earlier, but little grain was on sale. Eventually on 26 June, Ridley led a group of 20-30 armed freemen through the demonstrators. In the scuffling that followed, shots were fired. We know that at least one demonstrator was killed, possibly more, and others were wounded.

Understandably,  the violence escalated. Ridley was so concerned that his home would be attacked that he bricked all his valuables away in a vault but, in the event, Heaton Hall escaped unharmed.

HeatonHall1793

Heaton Hall in 1793

Mayor Fenwick had to appeal to the border garrison at Berwick to send more troops down through Northumberland before the protests were finally quelled.

Aftermath

The following day Matthew Ridley wrote a letter to the ‘Newcastle Courant’:

As it hath been maliciously reported that I was the first person that fired in the unhappy tumult yesterday, I think myself obliged to declare in this publick manner that I had neither gun or pistol in my hand nor did I give orders to any person to fire; but when the gentelmen were attacked in so violent a manner and several of them knocked down, they defended their lives in the best manner they could. Our intention at that time was to guard the delivery of the ship lying in the key laden with rye at the low price and to protect the poor upon the terms promised last Saturday’

Ninety one ringleaders’ names were collected for their part in the disturbances on 19 and 20 June, 41 of which were pitmen, seven waggonmen, seven keelmen, six women, five tradesman, one labourer and 24 of unknown occupation.

Eventually twenty pitmen, predominantly from Heaton, were indicted. Most escaped punishment as the authorities chose to respond with moderation, although there were two convictions for felony, with sentences of seven years transportation, and one of riot, with a sentence of six months in prison and a further twelve months ‘on securities’.

Among the Heaton miners were William Dunn of Gateshead, who worked under Ralph Laverick, Thomas Clough of Gateshead, who worked under George Claughton and Robert Clewett of Sidgate, who worked under John Taylor.  There was also George Clewett of Gateshead, who worked under George Claughton, John Todd, who worked under Henry Laverick and William Richardson, who worked under Ralph Weatherburn.  This suggests that men came from quite long distances to work in Heaton.

A further 213 men were identified as being involved in the disturbances on 26 June, 112 of whom were prosecuted, but again the punishments were relatively lenient, perhaps influenced by the fact that most local collieries had gone on strike while awaiting the verdicts.

The Guildhall was not, in fact, completely destroyed but, following further damage by fire, the frontage was rebuilt in 1794 to designs by William Newton and David Stephenson. In 1809, the south side was redesigned again in a classical style by John and William Stokoe. John Dobson’s east extension was completed in 1823.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Matthew Ridley failed in his bid to be elected to Parliament as a Member for Newcastle in 1741 but he was elected unopposed in 1747. He was also mayor of Newcastle in 1745, 51 and 59. Interestingly in May 1768 he spoke in Parliament in defence of Newcastle men involved in London riots and against the use of the militia in riots.

Reflections

It has been noted that two distinct views of the riot prevailed afterwards; ‘The outbreak of popular violence confirmed some people’s suspicions that “respectable” grievances served only as a pretext for the mob’s brutish desire to loot and plunder: to others it vindicated the traditional argument that it was not only unjust but also unwise “to provoke the necessitous, in times of scarcity, into extremities, that must involve themselves, and all the neighbourhood in ruin”’.

When E.P. Thompson wrote in 1971 about the Newcastle Corn Riots of 1740 in his famous paper The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century, he talked of how the moral economy had been disturbed. Here is a definition of moral economy from the Oxford Dictionary online:  ‘The regulation of moral or ethical behaviour;  an economic system in which moral issues, such as social justice, influence fiscal policy or money matters.’

Thompson argued that the merchants and magistrates had disrupted the idea of the moral economy by not listening to the arguments of the working people that they could no longer afford rye and bread at market prices. Here was a sign of the beginning of the modern capitalist economy where items would be sold at the market value and the idea that there should still be a moral economy – which, it has been argued, in one interpretation, ‘is an economy based on goodness, fairness, and justice. Such an economy is generally only stable in small, closely knit communities, where the principles of mutuality — i.e. “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” — operate to avoid the free rider problem’ – was being lost.

As the economy of the north east grew during the 18th century, so society was moving further and further away from the older ideas that those at the top of the social hierarchy should be paternalistic towards those lower down the pecking order. As the market value of commodities became more important to those in positions of power than a sense of responsibility to those who would have been called the ‘lower orders‘, so it is argued, working people increasingly protested, especially when faced with starvation.

It is perhaps, then no wonder that the coming years would see the hierarchy itself being increasingly challenged but we shouldn’t forget the Newcastle corn riots of 1740 or the parts played by Heaton miners – and the local landowner.

Acknowledgements Researched and written by Peter Sagar with additional material by Chris Jackson.

Sources

‘A Celebration of Our Mining Heritage ‘ / Les Turnbull; Chapman, 2015

‘The Guildhall’, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1952

‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ / E P Thompson;  Past and Present, No. 50. (Feb, 1971), pp76-136

Newcastle in the Long Eighteenth Century’ / A W Purdue; Northern History, September 2013

‘The Politics of Provisions: Food Riots, Moral Economy, and Market Transition’ by John Bohstedt; Routledge, 2010

‘Popular Cultures in England 1550-1750’ / Barry Reay; Routledge, 1988

‘Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England’ / Adrian Randall; OUP, 2006.

‘Urban Conflict and Popular Violence: the Guildhall riots of 1740 in Newcastle upon Tyne’ / Joyce Ellis; International Review of Social History, Vol 25 Part 3, 1980.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/moral_economy

https://everipedia.org/wiki/Moral_economy/

http://englandsnortheast.co.uk/Georgian.html

https://co-curate.ncl.ac.uk/guildhall/

 

 

 

 

Peggy Murray: Lord Mayor and adopted Heatonian

Members of Heaton History Group’s  research team are always on the look-out for stories relating to our area, so when Arthur Andrews read a book called ‘Women on the March’ about early women MPs of the North East, the following paragraph, that a lesser researcher might have let pass, caught his attention:

When Grace Colman [Tynemouth MP 1945-50] died on 7 July, 1971, aged 79, she was mourned by many members of the North Labour Party, not to say the women of Tyneside and Northumberland. After cremation at Tynemouth crematorium, it was Peggy Murray who carried out her last request to scatter her ashes on a moor near Wooler.’

Arthur wondered who it was who had scattered her friend’s ashes and, in the hope that she would turn out to be a Heatonian with a story to tell, he set about finding out:

Scot

Margaret’s father James Malloch was born in Govan, Lanarkshire and was a marine engine fitter. In the 1901 census he was a ‘boarder’ living with a family in Benwell. By the time of the 1911 census, he was married to Alice from Longbenton, and they were living in Byker with 3 children. The eldest was Margaret (Peggy), who had been born in 1903 in Govan and she had two younger brothers, Thomas and Ronald, both born in Newcastle.

By 1931 the family had moved to Walker with just mother Alice, Margaret (Peggy), Ronald and, presumably another son, James. Father John and brother Thomas are not there.

In 1932 Peggy married Alexander Easson Murray (1907-1965) of 110 Cartington Terrace, Heaton. They had a son, Alan, born in 1937. For many years after that, the Murray family lived at 3 Marleen Avenue, which overlooks Heaton Junction rail yards (though later they moved to the West End before returning to Heaton). Arthur had his story!

Politics

Peggy became a Newcastle Councillor, representing the Moorside ward for Labour for almost 30 years, from 1952 to 1982. Tony Flynn, one time Moorside councillor and Leader of Newcastle upon Tyne City Council, described his former colleague:

“I knew Peggy Murray very well as I was a fellow Ward Councillor with her in Moorside from 1980.

When I was Chair of the Moorside Ward in 1979, we managed to get Peggy elected to the Moorside Ward so that she could become Lord Mayor in the City’s 900th anniversary year, after she had lost her seat the previous year.

I then stood for the Council in 1980 and was elected taking the seat from the Tories in the first year when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

Peggy and I used to share weekly surgeries together, at what was then the old Snow Street School, when we used to chat for an hour in between seeing ‘punters’.

Peggy was unlike many other councillors as she never hid her personal political opinions from others, who seemed to her to be personally ambitious and had forgotten why they were on the council.

She talked extensively about her past in the women’s labour movement and in particular the history of the suffragettes.

She refused to accept councillors’ allowances saying money was not her motivation for being a councillor. She was a doughty fighter for what she believed in and upset many of her fellow Labour councillors who she thought were “In it for themselves”.

Peggy was blunt with electors. She used to bring a marked electoral role to surgeries and after agreeing to help people with their problems, confronted them with the fact that they had not voted at the previous election, when women had fought for their vote. (Or worse that they had not bothered to register to vote.)

She would say, I will help you if you promise to vote in future, preferably for her as she could only help them if she was a councillor. (Peggy continued to hold surgeries the year she was not a councillor, and therefore spoke from hard experience.)

Peggy was an avid reader and believed in self education. Even when she was Lord Mayor she still managed to walk into the Central Library every week to borrow books. 

Jeremy Beecham, who was Leader of the Council at the time, would not allow Peggy to dispense with the Lord Mayor’s car during her term of office, as she did not want the trappings of office!

I suppose Peggy for a long time was my ‘mentor’and in turn would nominate me for office at the annual Labour Group meetings even though I was a novice.

When I was elected to the group executive in my first year on the council, older members disapproved of my quick elevation. Peggy would reply that they had been there all their lives and ‘had done nothing’ ‘better to give a younger person an opportunity’ before they ‘sold out’ and ‘lost their values’.

So, Peggy was a character and a ‘one off’ who had a ‘cutting-edge’ and did not mind ‘telling it’ as she saw things.”

Lord Mayor

It must have been a great privilege for Peggy Murray to be elected as Mayor by the Labour group during the Newcastle’s 900th anniversary celebrations. Her daughter-in-law, Mrs Jean Murray, was the Lady Mayoress.

MurrayPeggyandQueenMother

Lord Mayor Peggy Murray with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

Councillor Margaret Collins, who nominated Peggy, said that it was ‘a triumphant return’, after Peggy won back her seat in the Moorside ward.

She received an Honorary Doctor of Civil Law from Newcastle University for her ‘outstanding contribution to the wellbeing of Newcastle’ by serving on social services, residential and day care, education, workshops for the adult blind, health services advisory and St Mary Magdalen Trust committees as well as the Moorside Priority Team. She had been in her time Chairman of the Healthcare Committee,Welfare Committee and Libraries Committee. She was a former alderman.

The atlas below was produced by the School of Geography and Environmental Studies of Newcastle Polytechnic as a contribution to the 900th Anniversary of the city’s foundation. It contains many interesting facts, figures, maps and diagrams of the city’s development over the centuries. The atlas was printed as a limited, edition of 1000 copies, the one illustrated being number 495. This book is mentioned because the foreword was written by the Lord Mayor, Councillor, Mrs M S Murray (Peggy).

HistoricalAtlasofNewcastle1res

She writes that this was a daunting task for her, in trying to encapsulate ‘the many changes through the centuries, to what is now Newcastle upon Tyne’. Also noted by her is that industrial recession at the start of the 20th Century was changed to prosperity by the Great War, with women working long hours and even night shift in the factories along Scotswood Road. The women also organized a strike. She then mentions the decline in heavy industry etc and mentions Newcastle people being resilient in hard times. She finished her foreword with:

‘May we leave a pleasant city to our children in which they may live, learn, work and play in peace’.

Mayoral Year

During her year in office, Peggy:

Played host to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother;

Stitched the first stitch in a tapestry to mark Newcastle’s 900th Anniversary, now in Newcastle Civic Centre;

Welcomed home the round the world yachtsman, David Scott Cowper, with receptions on the Quayside and the Mansion House;

Attended the opening of Odeon 4 in Pilgrim Street with the launch of the film, ‘Rocky II’. A commentator said that she declared that she was not particularly fond of fight films but nevertheless performed her civic duty perfectly, without ‘throwing the towel in’;

Murraypeggy900Aleres

Pressed the button on the Scottish and Newcastle bottling line for the first batch of a total of 900,000 half pint bottles of the special edition ‘Newcastle 900 Anniversary Ale’, selling for 30p. The teetotal’ mayor said that she hoped people on Tyneside would enjoy the ale ‘but not too frequently’.

Obituary

Peggy Murray died in August 1987, in the Freeman Hospital, aged 84. Her home at the time of her death was Stannington Place, Heaton. Her obituary noted that she refused the £1000 gold medallion for her year in office because the council could not afford it, saying: ‘I have the memories of the kindness of the people of Newcastle which no one can replace’.

Find Out More

Our talk ‘800 Years of Newcastle Mayors’ by David Faulkner on Wednesday 23 January 2019 at the Corner House will be about the renowned individuals who have held the office down the centuries. Find out more, including how to book, here.

Can you help?

If you know more about Peggy Murray, we’d love to hear from you.  Please get in touch either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Tony Flynn for his time and for his memories of Peggy Murray.

Sources

‘The March of the Women’ by Tony Sleight;

Newcastle City Library;

Online sources including FindMyPast, Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive.

Alexander Wilkie: Scotland’s first Labour MP

Alexander Wilkie was born in 1850 in Leven in Fife, Scotland, where he became an apprentice to a firm of shipbuilders in Alloa. Although he spent his formative years and early adulthood in Scotland, it was on Tyneside, while living in Heaton, that he was to make his name, after he became the first General Secretary of the Associated Society of Shipwrights in 1882. This was an early national shipbuilders’ trade union and was based initially on the shipyards of Glasgow and Tyneside, reflecting the large number of ships being built on the Rivers Clyde and Tyne in the later years of the nineteenth century.

WilkieAlexanderresized

By 1897, Wilkie was also the Chairman of the Trades Unions Parliamentary Commitee and one of the founders and trustees of the General Federation of Trade Unions. He was a member of the Council of Federated Trades. He was also politically active in the nascent Labour Party and contested Sunderland for Labour (unsuccessfully) in 1900.

According to the census, Wilkie lived at 56 Cardigan Terrace, Heaton in 1891, before living at 84 Third Avenue in 1901 and then at 36 Lesbury Road (below) in 1911.

WilkieALevenHouse

Leven House on Lesbury Road, home of Alexander Wilkie

He named this last address ‘Leven House’ in recognition of his birthplace. In his personal life, Wilkie married Mary Smillie, daughter of James Smillie in 1872.

Wilkie was always involved in local affairs, wherever he lived. He was a delegate to the Trades Council in Glasgow when he worked there for the Glasgow Shipwrights. When he moved to Newcastle, Wilkie served for a number of years on the School Board and then on the Education Committee which replaced it. His interest in education was further developed, after he became a councillor in Newcastle in 1904.

MP

Wilkie was finally elected to parliament in 1906 as an MP for Dundee. He has the distinction of being the first Labour M.P. in Scotland. Hansard records his first speech to parliament being on 28 February that year, in an intervention during a debate about the Poor Law Commission. He spoke, he said as Scotland’s first Labour MP ‘to voice the keen disappointment of the Scottish workers that so far their claims to representation on this Commission had been disregarded.’

Labour then won 40 seats across Britain in the January 1910 general election including Wilkie himself, who was elected again in Dundee and was becoming something of a national political figure. He represented Dundee, in a two-seat constituency, alongside the victorious Liberal candidate, a certain Winston Churchill. Wilkie retained his seat in December 1910 as Labour won a further two seats nationally. He was to remain as an MP for Dundee until 1922.

However Wilkie retained close links with the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1910, he was made a magistrate here, while in 1917 he became a Companion of Honour. When he retired from national politics in 1922, Alexander Wilkie returned to his Heaton home and became an alderman.

It was surely very appropriate that on Mayday, 1 May 1914, the ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ reported that Alexander Wilkie had been the honoured guest at a large gathering at the Cooperative Hall, Darn Crook. It was further reported that Wilkie was presented with a gold watch and a cheque, whilst his wife was given a silver salver. All this was in recognition of what the ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ described as his ‘thirty three years service as Secretary of the Ship Constructors and Shipwrights Association, and in acknowledgement also of his work on behalf of trade unions generally’.

The Lord Mayor paid a special tribute to Wilkie saying that he had come back specially from London for the ceremony and that he had come not only as Lord Mayor, but as a personal friend of Wilkie. The ‘Newcastle Daily Journal’ went on to report that, ‘the gathering had been arranged in order that they might show that they recognised the services which Mr Wilkie had rendered to the community and to the labour world, particularly the shipwrights. They deserved also to show their affections to Mr Wilkie as a man of the world.’

Wilkie was a very active member of the House Commons and spoke on many issues. Despite these interventions including a wide range of topics, he never forgot his commitment to the shipyard workers in places like the east end of Newcastle and Wallsend. In 1918 for example, Wilkie spoke about naval shipwrights pay and skilled labour in shipyards, while the following year he spoke about increases to dockyard workers’ pensions and national shipyards.

Wilkie died on 2nd September 1928, at his home, 36, Lesbury Road, Heaton, and was subsequently laid to rest at Heaton Cemetery 5 days later His effects were valued at £11 302, which today would be about £675 000. From this Wilkie left his housekeeper £104 a year for life.

WilkieGraveHeatonCemeteryresized

Alexander Wilkie’s grave, Heaton Cemetery

The Fife Free Press reported on 8 September 1928 that, ‘the universal esteem in which he was held was evidenced by the large attendance (at Wilkie’s funeral)’ and that, ‘the hearse was proceeded by two open landaus heaped high with beautiful wreaths – tributes of esteem and affection from all sections of the community.’ The last rites were then performed as the band played ‘Abide With Me’.

Legacy

Wilkie left a huge legacy of trade unionism on Tyneside, with the shipyards at the forefront of this movement. Indeed by the end of the 19th century, north east England was the most unionised region of England, having already had unions formed in the mining and engineering industries, before the Associated Society of Shipwrights was formed in 1882. Wilkie’s work helped to build this tradition further. His political legacy can be seen in Labour’s dominance for many years in Scotland, particularly from the 1960’s onwards, until the landslide by the Scottish National Party in 2015.

Can you help?

If you know more about Alexander Wilkie, especially his time in Heaton, 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

Sources

Jamieson, Northumberland at Opening of XXth Century, Pike, 1905

Newcastle-upon-Tyne Official Blue Book 1920

Newcastle Daily Journal 1 May 1914

The Fife Free Press, Saturday 8th September 1928

 

Acknowledgements

Written and researched by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group, with assistance from Arthur Andrews.

 

 

 

The Redoubtable Mrs Harrison Bell: campaigner and social reformer

This photograph of Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, who was born and bred in Newcastle and lived on Hotspur Street in Heaton for over 20 years, is held by the National Portrait Gallery.

NPG x47718; Mrs F.N. Harrison Bell by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd)
Mrs F N Harrison Bell  by Lafayette,  25 May 1929 courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
The gallery’s aim is ‘ to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture’. What then was Mrs Harrison Bell’s contribution to our national life?

Tireless

Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell was one of the country’s leading socialist and feminist reformers in the early part of the 20th Century. She was a member of the Independent Labour Party from its inception in 1893; the ILP’s first Federal Secretary; and the first woman member of the party’s National Administrative Council, replaced in 1908 by the much better remembered Emmeline Pankhurst. She was the first socialist candidate of the Newcastle Board of Guardians in 1893 and a Director of the Newcastle Co-operative Society from 1902.

She was secretary of the Newcastle branch of the Women’s Labour League and member of the National League’s Executive Committee from 1913. She was an elected member of the Labour Party National Executive from 1918-25; represented Labour on the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations; was part of the British Labour delegation to the Congress of 2nd Internationale in Geneva in 1920, representing the TUC, Labour Party & the Fabian Society; and from 1921 was Treasurer of the International Federation of Working Women.

Yet none of that impressive CV even begins to describe the huge impact that she made on British social and political life throughout her life. She regularly spoke at local meetings and national conferences the length and breadth of the country, from Dundee to Truro, and was a tireless campaigner on issues including universal suffrage, women’s and child health, housing, unemployment and inequality.

She was born in Newcastle and until 1922 lived at 6 Hotspur Street, Heaton, yet today, despite the lasting impact of some of the changes she was instrumental in achieving and the currency of some of the issues she championed, she remains virtually unknown, without even a Wikipedia entry to her name!

Teacher

Florence Nightingale Harrison, named after Florence Nightingale, who was at the height of her fame, was born in Newcastle in 1865. One biography lists her father as a Dr Thomas Harrison, of whom we’ve been able to find no trace. However he seems to have died young, as by 1881 a 14 year old Florence is identified as the step-daughter of Thomas Thompson, an engine fitter of 87 Walker Rd, Longbenton. She lived with him, his wife Isabella and their two year old son, Alfred.

Florence studied English History & Economics at Armstrong College and in 1891 was still living with her mother and step-father at 30 Belvedere Street, Byker, where she is recorded as being an elementary school teacher.

On 28 July 1896, Florence married Joseph Nicholas Bell at St Augustine’s Church Newcastle, becoming Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, widely referred to as Mrs Harrison Bell.

Joseph was born in London, but brought up, along with his older sister, May, by his grand-parents on a farm near Brampton in Cumbria, where his grandfather was a shepherd. As an adult, he moved to Newcastle, boarding in Elswick and working at North Eastern Railway’s Forth Banks Goods Yard, where he helped to organise the workforce into the National Amalgamated Union of Labour, of which he became General Secretary in 1896.

Although never as prominent in the life of the city as his wife became, Joseph was very politically active, chairing the Labour Party Conference in 1903 and unsuccessfully contesting a by election in Leith for Labour in 1914. In a rare interview for the Journal in April 1917, he expressed his grave concern about the potential impact that the number of women entering the workforce during the war would have on wages when the war was over. His solution was to ensure that the unskilled workforce would be properly represented, by bringing together the many disparate unions representing them and allowing wage negotiations to take place at a national level. This he achieved in July of that year, when he was elected vice chair of the Federation of General Workers, with a total membership of 500,000.

Activist

It’s difficult to say whether it was Joseph’s political activism that inspired Florence, or whether her own aspirations brought them into the same circle. However we do know that Florence was politically active before their marriage, becoming a member of the Independent Labour Party from its establishment in 1893 and the first socialist candidate for the Newcastle Board of Guardians. Responsible for the administration of the Poor law, Guardians were subject to annual elections.

The 1901 Census shows the Bells living at 6 Hotspur Street, where their son Edward Percy was born in 1902. Being a mother did not seem to slow Florence down. That same year, she became a Director of the Newcastle Co-operative Society and shortly afterwards her name began to appear regularly in the press as a speaker, first at local events – the Women’s Suffrage Committee at Bedlington; a meeting of Socialists at North Seaton Colliery; the Blyth Independent Labour Party, but soon spreading further to places as far flung as Portsmouth and Coventry. The main focus of her early speeches was female emancipation. Under the auspices of the Newcastle and District Women’s Suffrage Committee, she set up regular meetings in Fenwicks’ Drawing Room Cafe, where women would meet to hear speakers and discuss political issues. Among her fellow group leaders was Ethel Bentham, a local doctor who would become one of the first women Labour MPs.

Below is the 1915-16 programme of Heaton’s Bainbridge Memorial Church Ladies Literary Society. which shows Mrs Harrison Bell speaking on ‘The Women’s Movement: its Moral Aspect’.

 

Bainbridge Chapel Programme

Does she appear on this 1909 film of a suffragette demonstration in Newcastle, held by the BFI? We think we may have found her but can’t be sure. Let us know what you think.

However, women’s suffrage was far from her only interest. She spoke movingly about the importance of a home life, contending that neither those living in slums nor the aristocracy had a proper home life and that ‘the only party that showed any desire to deal with the emancipation of women was the Labour Party’. She also showed a keen interest in unemployment, speaking at a right to work rally in Portsmouth in 1908. Unemployment and the right to work were to become a more significant theme in her work during the depression of the 20s and 30s.

What is interesting, in reading the huge amount of press coverage of Mrs Harrison Bell’s political life, is that none of the articles feel the need to explain who she was, suggesting that her name was already well known in an age before today’s mass media. However, her appearance on the national stage, including membership of Labour’s National Executive Committee, Executive Committee member of the Women’s Labour league and membership of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations, didn’t mean that she neglected local social issues. The Journal reported on 12 December 1916 that a meeting of the Newcastle Sanitary Committee received a deputation from the Women’s Helpers’ League, led by Mrs Harrison Bell. They urged the establishment of a municipal clinic for the treatment of infants. In 1917, she was co-opted to the Newcastle Food Control Committee Food Distribution Sub Committee, a wartime Committee established to manage the chronic problem of food shortages caused by the war. In 1918, the Coventry Evening Telegraph listed her among a list of women intimating their intention to stand for parliament, how far her bid progressed is unclear, but it was not successful.

Her husband Joseph, however, was more successful in his bid to become an MP, although his tenure was tragically short-lived.  In 1922, the Bells moved to 90, Friern Park Road, North Finchley, London, in anticipation of Joseph becoming an MP. In the General Election on 15 November, he gained the seat of Newcastle East with a majority of 3,085. Tragically, he died a little over a month later on 17 December, aged 58, at Finchley Cottage Hospital, following two unsuccessful operations for Lymphadenoma, a tumour of the lymph nodes. His obituary noted that he had served on several Home Office committees of inquiry and on the panel of arbitration in industrial disputes and had been predicted to become the first Labour Home Secretary.

The Dundee Evening Telegraph reported several days later that ‘If Mrs Harrison Bell accepts the invitation of Newcastle East Labour to contest the seat so briefly held by her husband, she will stand an excellent chance of election.’ Going on to note that ‘so well known has she been indeed that it became the fashion in Labour circles to speak of the late J.N. Bell as husband of Mrs Harrison Bell.’ Florence clearly chose not to stand, as the seat was successfully contested by Arthur Henderson, General Secretary of the Labour Party.

Ahead of her Time

One might have thought that at the age of 57, having just lost her husband and having achieved her goal of women’s emancipation (women over 30 meeting a minimum requirement for property ownership gained the vote in 1918), Florence may have taken a lower public profile. Not so the redoubtable Mrs Harrison Bell. In fact the 1920s seem to have been the most productive time in her political career.

Just four days after Joseph’s death, the Ministry of Labour announced a ‘committee to inquire into the present conditions as to the supply of female domestic servants’ of which Florence was to be a member and by March 1923, she was back on the public speaking trail. In 1923 alone she was a delegate at the International Federation of Working Women Congress is Vienna; became Chairman of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations and its subcommittee on birth control; represented the Standing Joint Committee on the Overseas Committee and a deputation on housing to the Minister of Health and presided over the Annual Parliament of Labour Women in York, where the Burnley Evening news described her as a ‘lady who combines a unique degree of womanly homeliness with a penetrating insight into the larger affairs of local and national government.’

Amongst the resolutions carried at the Parliament were:

– One condemning London County Council’s decision to dismiss women teachers on marriage as being ‘inimical to the cause of education’;

– A proposal of one person one vote at the age of 21, which came to be in 1929;

– A proposal that elections should take place on Saturday rather than Thursday and that municipal elections should take place in May not October.

The only one of these resolutions that did not come to be was the call for elections to be held on Saturdays. Remarkably, this pattern is followed in many of Mrs Harrison Bell’s other political and social crusades, where she was clearly far ahead of her time and the things she called for ultimately came to be, as the NHS and the welfare state developed over the coming decades. Sadly she did not live to see all of these changes.

The focus of her public speeches during this period was often the home – ‘we stand for a home in which family life can be lived; a home which is fit for children to be born in’ she said at a speech in Truro in March 1923. In that same speech she also called for provision of sickness benefit and nursery school provision for all children. So far ahead of her time was she that she was accused, in calling for universal nursery school provision, of breaking up the home!

Increasingly though, her focus was on unemployment, which became a growing problem throughout the 20s as the Great Depression started to build.  In that same speech at Truro, she said ‘If women ran the home on the same lines as the Government was running the nation, there would be no home at all. An economical Government was paying one million pounds in unemployment benefit to the men in the building trade and had not a single house to show for it.’ She returned to that same theme the following year, when following a snap election, Labour was in power with a minority administration. Supporting calls for a Capital Levy, she said ‘I never realised the vulgarity of wealth until I went to London and saw little shops selling ladies’ handkerchiefs at £20 a dozen…. Those shop owners and the people who buy their goods are the people who will have to pay’. How little has changed!

Royal Commission

In 1924, with Labour in power, albeit briefly, Florence was drawn into two major government inquiries.

The first was an inquiry into child settlement in Canada. In what we’d now regard as a barbaric practice, Dr Barnardos, the Salvation Army and other charities routinely sent child orphans to Canada to live, effectively as slave labour on farms. She sailed to Canada on the Empress of Scotland in September 1924 along with Miss Margaret Bondfield, one of the first female MPs and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. They found that while the children were undoubtedly better fed than their counterparts at home, the farmers would prefer to have adults. As a result of their inquiry unaccompanied children being sent to Canada was stopped, although it appears that the practice continued elsewhere as in a speech in Portsmouth in 1930, she spoke of the continuing scheme for emigrating girls to the dominions for domestic work.

The second was a Royal Commission established to inquire into the National Health Insurance Scheme. This was a major piece of work which took two years to take evidence and make recommendations. The conclusion of the Commission, published in 1926, was that with a few minor changes the scheme, which was based heavily on the 19th Century Poor Law, worked satisfactorily.

However, that was not the conclusion of all of the Commission’s members. A minority report was produced by four of the members, including Mrs Harrison Bell. This report called for, amongst other things:

– The abolition of approved societies – insurance companies that managed the scheme, with local authorities taking on their role;

– Recognition that investment in health care would repay itself through improved health of the workforce, rather than simply attempting to contain the scheme within the prescribed resources;

– The provision of a complete remedial and treatment service including access to consultant and specialist care;

– Dental, optical and maternity care;

– Medical benefit for the dependents of injured people;

– An increase in sickness benefit and a new benefit for disabled people;

– Maternity benefit;

– Co-ordination of maternity and child welfare services with local authorities; and

– Re-arrangement and extension of maternity care, in particular, addressing the high maternal death rate.

It would be another 20 years before this vision was realised in the birth of the welfare state

Florence would return repeatedly to the issue of maternal health over the coming years. In 1924, she called, at the National Conference of Labour Women for public health authorities to provide information and advice on birth control, despite being heckled by a mother of 11 who declared that she was against the general teaching of birth control to working women.

In 1928 she spoke at a meeting to discuss maternal mortality at Central Hall Westminster. The resolution, which was carried was – ‘To work in all ways for the reduction in continued high death rates of mothers in childbirth. Steps to include:

– Medical enquiry into each maternal death

– Training of medical students & GPs in midwifery

– Committee on training and employment of midwives

– Provisions of National Health insurance Act adjusted so that medical and midwifery services should be available for mothers ante-natal and after confinement.’

All of which ultimately came to be.

It’s not clear whether Florence continued to work as a teacher alongside her highly public campaigning and political work, but it seems unlikely that she would have had an independent source of income. Although she started her career as an elementary school teacher, she did at some point work in adult education and as a lecturer for the Co-op movement. While living in London, she was the Secretary of the Central London Branch of the Teachers Labour League, so it is possible that she was still in the profession.

A brief biography notes her hobbies as reading, walking and motorcycling.

Public Figure

Florence continued to be a prominent public figure throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, continuing to campaign on the issues of inequality, unemployment and maternal and child welfare. In 1927 as Director of London Labour Party’s Summer School for Women at Guildford, she said ‘They don’t send the fool of the family into the diplomatic service, for high qualifications are needed. The great fault with this service is that the upbringing of those in it prevents them from being in touch with the class whom they were sent to serve. They have no knowledge of working class conditions.’ In the early thirties, she also started to call for nationalisation of key industries, pointing out, in particular, the high death rates in coal mining as justification.

In 1929, at the age of 64, she stood unsuccessfully for parliament, in the first election where Labour formed a majority government. Standing for Labour in Luton, she came a poor third behind the Liberals and Unionists. Her son Percy also stood for Parliament in 1929 and again in 1931 for the seat of Wood Green. Both attempts were unsuccessful and he continued as a school teacher. However, in 1964, he become the Labour party member for Newham and later Newham South in the Greater London Council, a seat he held until the age of 79 in 1981, carrying on the family tradition. He died in 1987.

Legacy

Florence herself seems to have taken a lower public profile beyond the mid 1930s, or at least was less reported in the press. That doesn’t mean though that she didn’t continue to take an active interest in politics. In 1946, at the National Conference of Labour Women in Hastings, a gathering she had initiated, there was a call for equal pay for women amongst other things. The Western Daily News reported ‘As the conference ended the oldest delegate, 81 year old Mrs Harrison Bell said: “We get a good deal more space in the press nowadays. We are very grateful for the work they have done’.

Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell died two years later on 8 September 1948 at Whipps Cross Hospital London, having left a huge, and now largely forgotten, legacy to the causes of feminism, inequality, healthcare and her much loved Labour party. She left a total of £190 6s to her son Percy.

Amazingly, given her prominence during her lifetime, we have not, as yet, been able to find a newspaper obituary let alone any permanent local or national memorial. Perhaps now is the time for Heaton History Group to help put that right? We call on the National Portrait Gallery to set the ball rolling by giving her photograph the prominent position on its walls we believe she deserves.

Can you help?

If you have information, anecdotes or photographs of Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell or Joseph or Percy Bell, that you are willing to share or have any comments on this article we’d love to hear from you. Please either write direct to this page by clicking on the link immediately below the article title, or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group, as part of our Historic England funded ‘Shakespeare Streets’ project.

 

Inflammatory Incident in Heaton Park

That afternoon’s local derby at Roker Park, and how it would be affected by the gales which had disrupted shipping all week, were no doubt among the big topics of conversation in Heaton on Saturday 8 March 1913. But by the next day all that had changed. It was an incident in Heaton Park itself which was on everyone’s lips and was front page news across the country and even beyond.

According to the newspaper reports, at half past midnight Constable John Smith, who lived with his wife and two young children in Trewhitt Road, had noticed smoke while on his beat along Jesmond Vale Road, which separates Heaton from Armstrong Park. He alerted the park superintendent who lived on site and together they investigated. A large shelter and ‘bowls house’ was ablaze, the flames fanned by the strong winds. Although Red Barns Fire Brigade was quickly on the scene, the shelter was soon a charred ruin. (A photograph of the building taken from Alan Morgan’s book: Heaton: from farms to foundries can be seen below this article)

News reports

What made the incident so newsworthy was the policeman’s apparent discovery between the railings around the bowling green of a piece of card which bore words along the lines of ‘No peace until votes for women’. Women’s footprints were also said to be visible in the soft ground. Newspaper accounts of the wording, the  size of the card and even the names of the park superintendent, Robert or Richard Brown, and the name of the bowling club, variously Heaton and Armstrong, vary so historians need to treat the detail with some scepticism but it seems to have been agreed that hundreds of pounds worth of damage was done. Besides the building, highly prized bowls valued at two to five guineas a pair, many won in competitions, along with canvas shoes and ‘goloshes’ (as they were spelt in 1913) were reportedly destroyed. Many people were said to have visited the site of the ‘outrage’ later that day.

Context

Women had campaigned for the vote since the mid 19th century but the term ‘suffragette’ was apparently first used in the Daily Mail in 1908 to describe militant ‘suffragists’. The suffragettes, under the leadership of the Pankhursts and others, had increasingly resorted to violence, at first mainly stone throwing, to get their message across. In November 1912, they began to target post boxes, apparently burning 2,000 letters in Newcastle alone.

In January 1913, after a proposal to give women the right to vote was defeated in parliament for the 20th time, the suffragettes further upped the ante. Some women went on hunger strike and they also began to target sporting clubs and venues. The Heaton Park incident was one of the first arson attacks in a campaign which culminated in Emily Davison being killed by the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby. The suffragettes’ activity was only suspended on the outbreak of WW1. Following the war, in July 1918, women over 30 were given the vote; the same September they were allowed to stand for parliament and finally in 1928 women over the age of 21 were, like men, eligible to vote.

Possible witnesses

From a local history perspective, it’s interesting to speculate about who might have been among the large crowd that gathered in the park that Sunday:

Jack Common, the writer, was nine years old and lived at 44 Third Avenue. In his autobiographical novel, Kiddar’s Luck, he wrote about his solitary Sunday walks through the park to Jesmond Dene: ‘two bowling greenswatched by a terrace on which stood a huge aviary holding up the dial of a southward facing clock, flower beds of painfully formal calceolaria, scarlet geranium, lobelia’ The excitement must surely have drawn a crowd of street-wise boys there that day.

John Thomas Gilroy was 14 years old and lived with his mother, father and seven brothers and sisters at 25 Kingsley Place, only yards from the park. He had already won a scholarship to study at Armstrong College Art School and by the following year was a cartoonist for the Evening Chronicle. He went on to a hugely successful career as a commercial artists and was most famous for the ‘Guinness is good for you’ advertising campaign. Did he or his father, also an artist, sketch the scene?

Newcastle United footballer, Colin Veitch lived on the other side of the park at 1 Stratford Villas. He had played in the 0-0 cup draw at Sunderland and, according to the local press, the next day the players visited North Shields for ‘brine baths’. He may well have walked through the park to catch a bus or tram and, as both a political activist and sportsman, he will surely have expressed his views about both women’s suffrage and the plight of the bowlers.

Finally what role, if any, did the evocatively-named Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell play? She was the first woman member of the Independent Labour party’s national administrative council (replaced in 1898 by Emmeline Pankhurst). In the early 1900s she was a key member of Newcastle and District Women’s Suffrage Society. In January 1911 at the Women’s Labour league Conference at which she was the delegate for Newcastle, she moved a resolution in favour of adult suffrage. She lived at 6 Hotspur Street, with her husband, Joseph Bell, later to be elected MP for Newcastle East. If she wasn’t involved, who was? We will probably never know.

Further Research

Heaton History group has been invited by Beamish Museum and Northumberland Archives -Woodhorn to take part in a project on the suffragette movement. If you’d like to help us find out more about the incident or about the suffragettes of the area and disseminate the information to a wider audience, please get in touch. chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org