Category Archives: Where

Heaton’s Building Society Uncovered

Earlier this year, during building work on their home, some Heaton residents spotted a dusty pile of fragile, browning papers under the floorboards of their boxroom. Luckily for us, they didn’t just bin them because the documents were able to shed considerable light on the economic conditions and social and political networks in Heaton at the time they last saw the light of day.

The find comprised around fifty copies of a leaflet advertising a public meeting and a subsequent ‘subscription night’ to which people could buy shares in ‘Newcastle upon Tyne East End Economic Building Society’. The meetings would take place on Monday 2 and Tuesday 10 February 1891. Considerable detail about how the society would work are given on the leaflet along with the names and addresses of the provisional directors, bankers, solicitor, surveyor and secretary – and the name ‘Joseph Peers FSA’, whose role wasn’t clear, other than that he would fully explain ‘the principles and working of these societies’.

We thought it might be helpful to find out a little about the Heaton people mentioned before investigating a little further the society and others like it – but our first question was:

‘Who was Joseph Peers?’

This took a bit of working out. We had no birthplace, date of birth or address for the man named on the leaflet and, in the 1891 census, many people with that name appear. Some we could dismiss because they were too young and others we thought perhaps unlikely because of their occupation or where they lived. There was a prominent Justice of the Peace in Denbighshire, to whom grateful neighbours had erected a monument, who seemed like a possibility. But eventually, after combing through newspaper articles including the occasional court report, we were able to pin him down to the Joseph Peers who was born in Bury, Lancashire in 1837, the son of a woollen weaver. He apparently started work in a mill aged six, but went on to be an affluent accountant and an influential figure in local politics.

Despite his difficult start in life, Joseph said later that he was alway determined  to be a teacher and somehow he educated himself sufficiently to win a bursary to a teacher training college. After qualifying, he opened his own boarding school, at which he himself taught languages and mathematics. According to Peers himself, after some seventeen years, he gave up teaching due to ill health and trained as an accountant, after which he practised mainly around Clitheroe and Burnley in Lancashire. 

During the 1880s, he began, with great energy, to tour first of all the north-west of England and then the north-east, Scotland and increasingly further south, encouraging the establishment of a series of local building societies. By 1887, he and his wife had moved to the highly desirable Lancashire town of St Anne’s-on-Sea, where he became president of the Liberal Club, choirmaster and deacon of the Baptist church: a stalwart of the local community. 

Joseph Peers died on 18 January 1915. Curiously, the obituary in the local paper which gave so much detail of his early life, didn’t mention his role in building societies for which he was known all over the country. We will try to unpick this a little below. 

But first, the locals.

Directors

There are 6 ‘provisional directors’ listed on the flyer, all referred to as living in Heaton:

Mr J S Nicholson of 8 North View

Mr J Stokes of 26 Tynemouth Road

Mr A C Whitehead of 40 Clive Terrace

Mr H Weighell  of 10 Cardigan Terrace

Mr J Lively of 1 Molyneux Street

Mr C H Smith of Stratford Villas

What sort of men became proposed directors of a new building society in eighteen nineties’ Heaton? Here we were assisted by the fact a census took place only a couple of months after the advertised meetings and that most of the men (and, of course, they were all men) were featured in the press from time to time. 

Joseph Nicholson had been living at 8 North View for over ten years. However, his middle initial was not ‘S’ but ‘I’ for Innes. Joseph was born in Corbridge around 1843 and, aged 18, was a student at Gilesgate Training School in Durham. By 1881, he was living in Heaton, married with a young daughter and a servant. His employment status was recorded as ‘managing director of a glass ????’ (likely to be factory or similar), employing ‘38 men, 38 boys and 10 women’. At the time we are interested in, 1891, he and his wife, Anne, had two children but he had changed tack in his career again. Now, aged 48,  he was a ‘commercial traveller and clerk to the burial board’. By the next census, he described himself as ‘burial board clerk and journalist’.

There is corroborating evidence for some of this sketchy census information in the form of regular mentions in newspapers, especially in connection with his duties for Heaton and Byker Burial Board. It was Joseph who, in 1890, had announced that the new cemetery was open for burials. He was also mentioned as the ‘honorary secretary (pro tem)’ for a public meeting at Leighton Schools calling for Byker Bridge to be made toll-free. And in 1894, he stood unsuccessfully to be Assistant Overseer of St Andrew’s parish. There are also some articles by him including one about the new Royal Victoria Infirmary and a letter commenting on the proposed width of a new bridge over the Ouseburn ‘near the mill’.

Joseph Innes Nicholson died on 3 September 1903, aged about 60. He is buried, not in the Heaton Cemetery he helped run, but in Jesmond Old Cemetery along with his wife, two of their children who died in infancy and two other people whose identity we don’t know. An obituary in the newspaper refers to Joseph’s friendly nature, his work as clerk to the burial board, as a journalist and in teaching but sheds no light on his directorship in the glass industry or his unusual career path. The East End Economic Building Society isn’t mentioned either.

John Stokes was, in 1891, living at 94 Tynemouth Road (not number 26 as the leaflet stated but he may have moved) in what was, at that time, usually described as Byker rather than Heaton, with his wife, Annie, and four children aged between four and fourteen. He worked as a solicitor’s clerk. Twenty years later, the couple were still at the same address and still had four of their total of eight children at home. John continued to work as a solicitor’s clerk.

He had been born in Northampton in 1850. His father, a wheelwright, had died aged 29 less than three months before John was born. Initially, John and his mother, Sarah, lived with Sarah’s sister and family but three years later, Sarah married Richard Christmas who worked as a butler and footman in grand houses in London and the south. By 1871, John was lodging in Stamford, Lincolnshire where he was employed by a solicitor. Within four years, he had married Annie, who, like John, hailed from Northampton and they had moved to Newcastle. By 1881, they had four children. John died in Gateshead in 1932. Annie outlived him. 

Arthur Charles Whitehead was a Brummie, who at the time of the building society launch was 38 years old, living in Clive Street in Byker (although  the leaflet places it in Heaton)  and the ‘secretary of a glass manufactory’. Maybe this is what brought him into contact with Joseph Nicholson. Ten years before he had been a grocer in Aston near Birmingham and, aged 18, he was a clerk in a brewery. 

We also know that Arthur was an active member of the Perseverance Lodge of Good Templars, Byker.  The  Independent Order of Good Templars was an organisation which advocated temperance and had a structure based on freemasonry. It was founded in the USA in the early 1850s but soon became international and a returning British emigré, Joseph Malins, established the first British lodge in Arthur’s native Birmingham in 1866.  The Byker lodge was certainly a place where he could have met some of his fellow directors. Arthur Whitehead died in September 1905, aged c 52.

Henry Weighell was, in 1891, aged 31 and living with his wife, Hannah, three children and a servant at 10 Cardigan Terrace. As a young man, ten years earlier, he was boarding with an uncle of his future wife, a Northallerton grocer, and working as his assistant. But now, the Yorkshireman was described as a ‘commission agent’. We know from newspaper advertisements that he was a rep for ‘McGregor’s Dumfries Home Made Preserves’ and sold ‘Balmoral Crystalline Marmalade (as supplied to Her Majesty)’ and ‘Far-famed gooseberry jam (new season)’. At this time, he was living on Mowbray Street.

Ten years later Henry, Hannah and their five children were at 26 Kingsley Place next door to artist John Wallace, with Henry running his own wholesale confectionery business. 

By 1911, however, the family had left Heaton for the west end of Newcastle and Henry had changed sector. He was, by now, a ‘commercial traveller in cattle food.’ By 1915, 55 year old Henry and 61 year old Hannah had relocated again, this time to Belford in Northumberland, perhaps because in and around Newcastle, houses had increasingly replaced the farms of his erstwhile customers. We know this both from advertisements for the cattle food which Henry was selling and the announcement of Hannah’s death in December 1915. Henry was soon placing an advert in the ‘Wanted’ column for a country house with modern conveniences, a garden and a garage a reasonable distance from a station. He was looking for a new home because he was about to remarry. In July 1917, he married 44 year old Isabella Tindall, whose now deceased father had farmed 504 acres near Chatton in Northumberland.  Henry continued to trade in agricultural products. He died on 10 March 1939, aged 79. 

James Lively was recorded on the leaflet as living at 1 Molyneux Street but, by the time of the census, a couple of months later, he was living at 75 Mowbray Street with his wife Sarah and three young daughters and earning a living as a self employed watchmaker and jeweller. He lived and had  shops at various times on Shields Road, Molyneux Street, Mowbray Street and Warwick Street.

James was born in 1859 in North Yorkshire. His father, also called James Lively, was an Irishman from Sligo, who at the time of the 1851 census lived in ‘hawkers’ lodgings’ in Painters Heugh, All Saints parish and described his occupation as a stationer. Two years later, he married local girl, Mary Watson, who seemed to have been just 15 years old at the time. Mary had at least three children over the next six years, the youngest of whom was James, before her husband disappeared from her life.

In 1861, aged 23, Mary was living in Bishopwearmouth near Sunderland with her three young children and no visible means of support. By 1871, however, things seem to have looked up for the family. They were living on Low Friar Street in Newcastle. Mary had a new partner, Patrick Develin, also from Ireland. Both he and Mary were described as clothiers and the oldest of Mary’s children was an upholsterer. James and his other siblings were at school. All were described as Patrick’s children and were recorded on the census with his surname. However, two years later Patrick had died, aged only 48. 

A couple of years later, Mary was married for a third time to seaman Stephen Easten. She had two more children with him before he too died, at sea. In 1881, the unfortunate Mary, aged 43 and still described as a clothier, had upped sticks again to South Hetton in County Durham. She now had some financial help as 21 year old James was employed as a watchmaker and his younger brother, Michael, was a draper. 

It sounds like a tough start in life for young James but despite the poverty the family must have endured, having three father figures in his life, all only briefly,  and the frequent changes of address, he somehow learned a trade, built up his own business (He placed advertisements in the newspapers for an apprentice) and was nominated as a building society company director. Another indication of James’ status was his mention in the press the following year as being one of a group of friends to have made a presentation to James Peel, Newcastle United’s treasurer, who was leaving the city for a job in London. Most of the other friends listed were either directors of the football club or like James Birkett, who we’ll meet again later, a councillor.

By 1901, James, Sarah and their five children had moved away from Heaton to Ashington in Northumberland. James died in 1905, aged c 44.

Charles Henderson Smith was, at the time of the 1891 census, a 51 year old ship surveyor living with his wife, Mary, at 4 Stratford Villas in Heaton. He had been born in Aberdeen but his father, a blacksmith, and mother relocated to Wallsend with their young children in the 1840s. After serving an apprenticeship at Charles Mitchell and Company in Walker, Charles joined Andrew Leslie of Hebburn as a lofts man and then a ship carpenter in which role he spent several periods at sea.  He married Mary Ann Mein in 1861 and the couple soon had two children, the younger of whom was somewhat confusingly also called Charles Henderson Smith, also had a wife called Mary and worked in the same profession. They don’t make it easy for us historians! 

As Charles senior advanced his career with a number of different companies,  the family lived briefly in both Glasgow and Barrow in Furness before coming to Heaton where, in 1883, Charles set up his own business as a ship surveyor and then went into a partnership, a decision which, he gave as a reason for led his being declared bankrupt in 1889, while living on Falmouth Road, Heaton. This doesn’t seem to have prevented him from becoming the director of a building society less than two years later. However, an otherwise extensive obituary in the ‘Whitley Seaside Chronicle’ doesn’t mention either his financial misfortune or his association with the East End Economic Building Society. It does refer him to being a ‘staunch nonconformist’ and specifically a member of Salem United Methodist Church in Newcastle and then the Congregationalist Church in Whitley. Charles and his wife, Mary had moved to Whitley Bay in 1899. It was there that,  in 1911, first Mary then, six months later, Charles died. He was 71. Notice the name of his house as given on the notice of his death in the obituary.

Six men from diverse occupation but what they seem to have in common is that they were aspirational. Many had endured tough upbringings but had gone on to forge successful careers for themselves. They were the sort of people who might have had a little money to invest and to whom the idea of owning a house might appeal. You can see why they might be attracted to an organisation which could help them achieve their aim, something open only to a small minority in the late nineteenth century. It is striking though that, just as with Joseph Peel, neither of the two directors’ obituaries we have seen mention involvement with the East End Economic Building Society

The Officers

Morris Robinson, who must at some point have put a pile of leftover flyers for the building society under the floorboards of his home of 5 Holmside Place was listed as secretary of the society. (Is it just a coincidence that ‘Holmside’ was the name of Charles Henderson Smith’s residence?) On census night, 5 April 1891, he was aged 24, employed as a solicitor’s clerk and living with his stepmother, three siblings and two lodgers. Morris’s father, a Prussian Jew, also known as Morris, had emigrated to Newcastle and set up in business as a slipper and shoe manufacturer. By 1881, he employed 30 people. Sadly, he had been admitted to Newcastle Lunacy Asylum a year before the 1891 census and would die a matter of a few weeks after it took place.

Morris junior was also a keen athlete and member of Heaton Harriers. He went on to marry and have children but in 1908, just like his father, was admitted to the Lunacy Asylum and died the following month, aged 41.

5 Holmside Place remained in the Robinson family for over fifty years until after the Second World War. It seems likely that Morris Robinson senior, a successful businessman, bought it as a new build but we haven’t seen documentary evidence of this and whether he had a building society loan and, if so, which one.

Andrew Robinson, the society’s solicitor, was Morris’s elder brother, four years his senior and the first-born boy of the large family. In 1891, Morris was his clerk. Andrew lived in Tynemouth at this time with his wife and family.

The North Eastern Banking Company was founded in Newcastle in 1872 but with branches throughout Northumberland. Its Byker branch was at 184/186 Shields Road. It became part of Martins and eventually Barclays.

William Hope, listed as the society’s surveyor, was an architect, particularly well known for his design of theatres, including Byker’s Grand Theatre. In Heaton, he later designed Heaton Methodist Church and large houses on Heaton Road, including Coquet Villa and Craigielea. 

The  Venues

Leighton School Rooms The initial public meeting was to be held at Leighton Schoolrooms. We have already written extensively about William Brogg Leighton and his church, with its attached schoolrooms, which opened in 1877 at the southern end of Heaton Road. The rooms were used extensively for public meetings. 

Leighton Primitive Methodist Chapel c 1910
Leighton Primitive Methodist Chapel c 1910

Moore’s Cocoa Rooms

The subscription meeting was to be held at Moore’s Cocoa Rooms, which were described as the society’s temporary offices. The cocoa rooms  were at 46 Shields Road, opposite where Morrisons is now, between about 1886 and 1894 and often used as a venue for meetings. There were many cocoa rooms in and around Newcastle at this time. John Thomas Moore, the manager, was 39 years old in 1891 and lived in Byker. He had managed cocoa rooms for over ten years but went on to work in insurance. For a while, the Byker rooms also bore the name of his business partner, John Wilson.

The Chair

James Birkett, had, in 1891, been a well respected Liberal councillor in the East End for eight years. He lived at 37 Heaton Park Road. 

James was born on 4 February 1831 in Gatehouse of Fleet in Scotland. He came to Newcastle in 1855 as a young man and began work for a firm of anchor and chain-makers of which he eventually became a managing partner. 

James soon became involved in public life, where he was known as a radical. For example, in January 1867, he was a member of the committee which planned a demonstration in Newcastle in favour of extending male suffrage and, in particular, in support of Gladstone’s Reform Bill, initially shelved when the Tories came to power. 

In 1873 and 1884, he was the mounted marshal at the head of further large protests in favour of greater suffrage and electoral fairness, part of a national campaign which led eventually to the Third Reform Act, which extended the right to vote to about 60% of the male population.

He was also president of the Northern Republican League and a member of the Congregational church.

Locally, Birkett was elected chairman of Byker Liberals in 1874 and he was an active supporter of East End Football Club and other sports in Heaton. He campaigned tirelessly to improve sanitation in the city and for Byker Bridge to be toll-free and he was instrumental in Heaton getting parks and a public library.

He was the first chairman and then vice chairman of the Byker and Heaton Burial Board, in which context he will have known Joseph Nicholson, the clerk, and possibly also Andrew Robinson as can be seen from this plaque, still to be seen at the entrance to the cemetery. Note also the names of champion cyclist George Waller and his brothers.

Like Arthur Whitehead, Birkett was a vociferous and effective temperance campaigner who had a lasting influence on the development of Heaton as a suburb with very few public houses, up until the present day, yet another link between two of the names on the flier. As President of the Byker and Heaton Temperance Council, Birkett chaired a meeting in 1886 ‘to celebrate the success their friends had secured against the granting of certain licences for pubic houses’, and ‘condemned the idea of granting a licence to a public house on the main road to a Board School and on a road which the majority of their workmen traversed to and from their work’.

He had also, as early as 17 December 1889, chaired a meeting just like the one advertised in Heaton for a ‘new and improved Economic Building Society‘ in Newcastle at which Mr J Peers FSA would explain how to ‘Become your own landlord’. The office at which people could enrol was 76 Grey Street.

James Birkett died on 10 February 1898. On 20 July 1899, a clock was unveiled in his memory above the aviary in Heaton Park close to where ‘Mr Birkett’s figure was the most prominent among those who night after night patronised the bowling green in season’.

The James Birkett memorial clock can be seen on the Heaton Park aviary.

So they were the people involved in the proposed building society. But what was the context?

Housing

As late as 1914, only around ten per cent of houses in Britain were owner-occupied. In 1891, there was very little social housing and no council housing, certainly in Newcastle. As elsewhere, the vast majority of people in Heaton, even the more well-to-do, lived in the private rented sector. Indeed some wealthy people bought houses to rent out, while renting from others the property they themselves lived in. 

Renting was the norm and working class people in particular often moved house very frequently. We see this when looking at the census records and electoral registers for Heaton. Sometimes people moved just a few doors down the same street. Many poorer people’s tenancies were weekly, meaning landlords could evict them almost at will. Conversely, tenants could easily trade down if their income was reduced or up if they hit better times or if the size of their family grew or reduced.

However,  that doesn’t mean that some people didn’t aspire to or support the idea of home ownership. 

Building Societies

Building societies were not new in the 1880s and 90s. In fact, the first seems to have been founded in Arthur Whitehead’s birthplace, Birmingham, almost a century earlier in 1795. Their popularity increased throughout the nineteenth century, resulting in an Act of Parliament in 1874 to safeguard the interests of owners, investors and borrowers. From then, new building societies had to become incorporated companies under the act.

The building societies we are familiar with today in Britain (and more so before most became banks in the late twentieth century) are what is known as ‘permanent societies’, that is their rules allow them to exist indefinitely. But in the nineteenth century, many building societies were what were called ‘terminating’ building societies.

Such a society was open to subscribers only until the required number of investors needed to make it viable had been found (and then a new society could be formed). Depositors would be contracted to make a small regular deposit. They did not receive interest. The society invested the deposits in property. When the society had enough funds, a ballot would be held to determine which saver received an interest free loan, typically for 60% of the value of a property. The saver’s investments would usually be expected to cover the other 40%.

A local society might operate for around 10 years before it held any ballots at all. It would only hold ballots when it could afford to and would  suspend them if the economic situation was considered unfavourable. People invested knowing that they wouldn’t own a property in the short term and not even in the expectation of owning one in the medium or long term but with a dream that one day they just might. 

Peers’ Building Societies

The first building society that we have come across associated with Joseph Peers was in Darwen, Lancashire, close to where he lived. A newspaper report in 1985 refers to him as the secretary who had submitted the annual accounts. The society is referred to as the Starr Bowkett Darwen Society ie one based on monthly lotteries. The following year the neighbouring Heywood ‘Economic’ Building Society was described as ‘based upon rules drawn up by Mr Joseph Peers‘, suggesting that he had further developed the Starr Bowkett idea.

For the next ten years or so local newspapers, particularly in the north and Scotland, advertised forthcoming talks or opportunities to subscribe on pretty much a weekly basis. Joseph Peers was the advertised speaker at most of them.

Controversies

There were, however, some brushes with the law.  In 1889, the secretary of Peers’ Padiham Building Society was prosecuted on behalf of the Registrar of Friendly Societies because the society had not been incorporated. He tried to apportion some of the blame to Peers.

In February 1990, a question was put at one subscribers’ meeting concerning the amount mentioned for Peers’ salary. It was requested that Peers left the room while the discussion took place; he refused and a compromise was eventually reached.

Later that year, Jesse Morton Roby of Bury took Peers to court to claim £99.95 for work done, ‘promoting and establishing certain building societies known as Peers Economic Building Societies’. It was claimed in court that Roby visited Newcastle, Sunderland, North Shields, South Shields, Chester le Street, Wallsend, Gateshead, Morpeth and Derby and established societies but had not been paid at the agreed rate. He won his case.

And, just after the Heaton meetings were due to have taken place, a long letter in the Morpeth Herald took issue with the claims made by Peers about the likely growth of his societies’ funds and the amount he was paid by each society. The writer referred to the small likelihood of a member being successful in the ballots.

Nevertheless Peers continued to tour the country, promoting his building society model and seemingly finding queues of willing subscribers. 

Scandal

But the year after the Heaton meetings, a much bigger scandal occurred, which caused nervousness around building societies in general. A group of companies, including the Liberator Building Society (a permanent building society), all associated with someone called Jabez Spencer Balfour, collapsed. Balfour was at that time the Liberal Member of Parliament for Burnley. Facing charges of fraud – his companies were using investors’ capital to buy, at inflated prices, properties owned by Balfour – and the anger of thousands of penniless investors, Balfour fled to Argentina. He was eventually brought back to the UK to face trial and was sentenced to 14 years penal servitude. Despite his being disgraced, there are apparently two roads in the West End of Newcastle named in honour of Jabez Balfour: Croydon Road and Tamworth Road (He hailed from Croydon and also served as MP for Tamworth), both built using funds invested in the Liberator Building Society.

There are a number of connections between Balfour and the East End Economic Building Society:

One is Liberalism. Peers himself was president of St Anne’s on Sea Liberal Association and the chair of the public meeting here in Heaton was James Birkett, a much respected Liberal councillor, and some of the directors such as Joseph Nicholson were also supporters. Balfour was a Liberal MP. Liberals might be expected to support ideas which they thought would further the interests of ordinary people, including tenants. But for the less scrupulous and more cynical, like Jabez Balfour, association with trusted public figures and parties who were seen to be on the side of working people, did businesses aimed at those same sort of people no harm at all. 

Another is nonconformism. Jabez Balfour was a Congregationalist, like James Birkett and Charles Henderson Smith; Joseph Peers was a Baptist. Nonconformists tended to espouse hard work, temperance, frugality, and upward mobility. Late 19th century nonconformists were mostly Liberals politically.

And lastly Burnley. Balfour was MP for Burnley from 1889 to 1893. Joseph  Peers practised accountancy in Burnley and although he had moved to nearby St Annes in around 1887, he still had business interests there as evidenced by the court case involving Padiham Building Society in November 1889. It would be surprising if the two men didn’t know each other. 

In any case, the Liberator scandal led to a rapid decrease in consumer confidence. Investment in building societies fell and led to further legislation in 1894  including a ban on Starr-Bowkett and similar societies ‘based on dubious gambling principles’. Joseph Peers’ societies including the East End Economic would have fallen into this category. Although we have found no evidence of any serious wrongdoing by Peers or his societies,  it is perhaps understandable that neither he nor the East End directors spoke much in later life about their association with a now outlawed type of financial institution. 

We haven’t found evidence that the East End Economic attracted enough subscribers to get off the ground, still less whether any of its subscribers won mortgages in its ballot or which, if any, Heaton properties were financed by it, but the discovery of a pile of undistributed leaflets under the floorboards of its secretary’s former home has allowed some light to be shone on what was until now a hidden aspect of Heaton’s social and economic history.

Can you help?

If you know any more about anyone mentioned in this article or the East End Economic Building Society, or if you come across any reference to the society in property deeds, 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

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group (HHG). A big thank you to Josie, who shared her family’s find with us and to Marty Douglass of HHG, who acted as go-between. Also to Arthur Andrews of HHG for his help, especially for retrieving the article about Charles Henderson Smith from the ‘Whitley Seaside Chronicle’ archive at Discover North Tyneside, North Tyneside Libraries.

Sources

‘Ancestry’

‘British Newspaper Archives’

‘The Building Society Movement’ / by Harold Bellman; Methuen, 1927

‘The Building Society Promise: building societies and home ownership c 1880-1913’ / by Luke Samy; Discussion papers in Economic and Social History no 72; University of Oxford, 2008

‘Housing Landlordism in late nineteenth century Britain’ / by P Kemp; Environment and Planning A, 1982 pp 1437-1447

‘Whitley Seaside Chronicle’ , 14 October 1911

‘Wikipedia’ and other online sources

Escape to Heaton: Mike’s wartime memories

Stories of women and children hurriedly gathering a few belongings together and leaving the home they know to escape the horror of war, only to find themselves once more in the midst of it, have become only too commonplace in 2022. Heaton History Group member, Mike Summersby, arrived in Newcastle as a three year old in 1941 under just those circumstances.

We are delighted to be able to publish some extracts from the memoirs Mike has recently written. Here, he remembers those early days in Heaton, the family’s new home in Mowbray Street and the underground shelter where the family spent many hours:

‘ The wailing siren warned of the attack. Searchlight beams danced across the night sky, seeking out their prey. The dull drone of the planes heightened the sense of fear. Were they ours or theirs?

People hurried from their homes to the row of reinforced concrete air-raid shelters that sat between the Tyneside flats on either side of Mowbray Street. Hurriedly dressed over nightclothes, some carried books, or food, or other comforts. It could be a long night in the shelter. 

It was 1941. Jessie Summersby (Mam) and her two sons – my brother Peter aged twelve and me aged three – had only days earlier arrived in Newcastle. Dad was serving in the army. Mam knew not where, except that it was probably somewhere overseas. 

As a wartime street warden, Mam had witnessed close-up the horrors of the London blitz. Near breaking point, she and her boys had left the capital as evacuees. After a brief stay in the Wiltshire village of Little Somerford, she had moved us to Newcastle, her childhood home, where her father and her twin sister lived. 

From her London home she had watched aerial dogfights between the RAF and the German Luftwaffe. She could tell from the sound of the engines which planes were ours and which were theirs.

Our new home 

Our new home was a single room in a downstairs two-bedroom Tyneside flat at 164 Mowbray Street, Heaton (now, but not then of course, opposite Hotspur Primary School) in which my grandfather, William Newton lived with his ‘housekeeper’, Mrs Montgomery. 

164 Mowbray Street in 2022

Mam, my brother Peter and I were given the front room. I assume all concerned hoped that it would be a temporary measure. But these were uncertain times. No one could know how long the war would last. As it turned out this one room was to be our home for the next four years. 

We also had use of the scullery, including a shelf in the larder, and access to a shared outside lavatory (colloquially the ‘netty’) next to the coalhouse in the small, red-brick-walled back yard. 

So it was that 164 Mowbray Street became the place of some of my earliest recollections and our family home until the end of World War 2. 

Being only three years old when we first arrived in Newcastle, I had no awareness of our previous home in London. Nor could I possibly, at that young age, be aware of the sense of loss and deprivation that my mother must have felt as she came to terms with her new situation. 

The young Mike Summersby

Now, as I reflect on that time and the years that followed, I can only marvel at how brave and resourceful she was, and how magnificently she coped single-handedly during the next four years bringing up her two boys in such strained circumstances. 

Mam (Jessie)

Mam did her best with what she had. Out of necessity she quickly settled us in. Typical of the front room of a Tyneside flat, our room was roughly thirteen feet square with two alcoves, one either side of a chimney breast. The sash windows looking out onto the front street were curtained with blackout material. 

Furniture was basic and second hand or improvised. Much of the floor space was taken up by a three-quarter size bed initially shared by mam, Peter and me, and a square table and two horsehair-covered chairs (rough on the legs of a young boy wearing short trousers). 

Later, Peter slept on a camp bed which was folded away each morning and set up in front of the window each evening. I marvel now that without complaint, and for much of our four years living in that room, he slept so many nights on canvas stretched on a wooden frame. Perhaps it felt like camping out but it could not have been comfortable, particularly for a growing teenager. 

The two alcoves were used for storage of all our worldly goods, including the less perishable items of food. Orange boxes served for shelving. Mam hand-sewed hems on pieces of cretonne curtain which she then suspended on string across the front of the boxes to hide the contents. The wood floor was covered with faded patterned linoleum that had seen better days and was cracked in places where the floorboards were uneven, which made it difficult to keep clean. Heating in our room was an open fireplace with an iron grate. Teasing a fire into flame on a chilly night required the careful layering of paper, sticks of firewood and coal. One of Peter’s regular jobs was to buy and fetch coal from the coal yard next to the nearby railway line. 

Lighting was by gas from a pipe at the centre of the ceiling. When the gas was turned on, a replaceable mantle fixed to the end of the gas fitting glowed when it was lit with a match or a lighted taper. The flow of gas, and thus the brightness, was regulated by the manipulation of pull-chains attached to the light fitting. The mantles were very fragile and frequently needed replacement. The gas mantle would be lit only when the light was intended to be left on – otherwise a candle or a torch would be used as a short-term temporary light – like when someone needed to use the chamber-pot (kept under the bed) for a nocturnal pee. Whatever the form of lighting, it had to be blocked by curtains or screens so that no light could be seen from outside. Stray lights could assist enemy bombers in locating or confirming target areas. The ‘blackout’ was enforced by patrolling Air Raid Precautions (ARP) wardens who would promptly order ‘Put that light out’ if it wasn’t properly screened. 

The netty was a cold, stark, forbidding cupboard of a place housing a wooden platform straddled across its width, with an appropriately shaped opening above the lavatory bowl. Faded whitewash decorated the otherwise bare brick walls. ‘Toilet paper’ was squares cut or torn from newspapers, each square punched in one corner, threaded with string and hung in a swatch on a nail. Mounted precariously above the facility was a rusted metal water cistern from which hung a similarly rusted metal chain. The cubicle was little wider than the wooden entry door with its gaps at top and bottom – presumably for ventilation. Ceiling cobwebs added to the sense of gloom. This was a grim place of necessity in which to spend the least possible time, particularly during the winter months. 

The Culvert 

We had left London to escape the blitz but Mam soon found that the air raid threat, though less intensive than in the capital, was a fact of life here in Newcastle, too.
During our first year living at 164 Mowbray Street we spent many hours in the culvert. After a night spent there, Peter always liked to prolong his stay in order to avoid going to school, or at least to provide him with an excuse for arriving late. Grandad didn’t use the culvert or the street shelters. He preferred to stay in his home, taking refuge in the cupboard underneath the stairs of the flat above. 

About a third of a mile long, the Ouseburn Culvert had two entry points. The preferred access for us was down in the Ouseburn Valley off Stratford Grove West. The other – which we never used – was under Byker Bridge. 

The Culvert was our place of refuge many times during World War 2. At the wail of the air raid siren we would stop whatever we were doing, grab our gas masks and run out into the streets in the direction of sanctuary. There was no street lighting to guide us if it was a night raid and, anyway, moonlit nights were a mixed blessing. If you could see, you could be seen. 

The Culvert today

Once inside the Culvert we felt safe. An elliptical structure 6 metres high and 9 metres wide, with a concrete platform floor, it was dry and had the space for distractions and facilities to make the experience tolerable. A canteen, a first aid post and sick bay, bunk beds, an area for worship, a stage for performance, a library, and tolerable – if basic – toilet facilities. 

One particularly memorable evening the wail of the air raid siren sounded just a couple of minutes after we had returned to our room from a trip to the fish and chip shop on Stratford Road. Fish and chips were a hugely popular takeaway meal, especially as they were not subject to food rationing. As usual we’d had to stand in a queue to wait our turn at the counter. Then, with happy anticipation of the meal ahead, we carried the hot, newspaper-wrapped bundles the short distance back to our room in Mowbray Street. As soon as Mam had unwrapped the feast, off went the siren. We hurriedly dressed, grabbed gas masks and without a second thought Mam loosely gathered up the fish and chips in their newspaper wrappers and we all ran towards the Culvert. Sadly, on our arrival at our safe haven there was very little left of our now barely warm meal. Most of it lay scattered along the pavements between Mowbray Street and our sanctuary. 

Whilst the Culvert offered safety from whatever mayhem might be going on above ground, the overriding but generally unspoken fear was of what would happen if bombs were dropped at either end of the tunnel. Otherwise the occupants were sufficiently protected in their underground location, with its cleverly designed inner blast walls, to offer safety for up to 3,000 residents for as long as it might be needed, until the ‘all clear’ siren was sounded. 

Street shelters fell into disfavour after a number of people were killed or maimed as a result of direct bomb hits, in some cases resulting in the concrete and reinforced steel roofs collapsing on the people inside. It turned out that the Ouseburn Culvert was probably our safest option after all. 

The culvert was originally constructed to cover a section of the Ouseburn, a tributary of the River Tyne, through a valley which then would be infilled to provide improved access between Heaton and the city centre. (You can read much more about its construction and history here.)

Today, much is rightly made of the Victoria Tunnel, an underground waggon-way built in the 1840s to carry coal between Leazes Main Colliery to the waiting ships on the River Tyne. Longer than the Ouseburn Culvert, it was not as spacious in section but, like the Culvert, it was converted for use as an air raid shelter during World War 2. Tours of the Victoria Tunnel give visitors a graphic interpretation of the sounds of war and the conditions under which people sought shelter from the bombing raids of the Luftwaffe. If similar reconstruction of World War 2 facilities and other interpretation work were to be carried out at a section of the Ouseburn Culvert, it would make a very impressive addition to Newcastle’s heritage offer. 

I’ll tell you more about my memories of growing up in Heaton during and after the second world war anon.’

Acknowledgements Thank you to Heaton History Group member, Mike Summersby, for permission to publish this extract from his memoirs. We plan to feature more over the coming months.

Heaton Hall

Christmas Fayre from Heaton Hall

Have you made your cake yet? Sweets to share after the Queen’s speech? Or drinks for guests who might be driving? If not and you like to use traditional, local recipes, then look no further. We present Christmas recipes from Heaton Hall, lovingly collected over almost fifty years between about 1869 and 1915.

Heaton Hall c1907

Heaton Hall, c 1907

The Find

Heaton History Group’s Arthur Andrews acquired a unique, handwritten recipe book, when he called into Keel Row Books in North Shields and fell into conversation with proprietor, Anthony Smithson. The book, which as well as recipes, mainly for desserts and cakes, also contains diets for invalids, remedies, household hints and even advice on how to tame a horse. It had at one time been the property of cookery book collector, Irene Dunn, formerly a library assistant at Newcastle University’s Robinson Library: there is a bookplate to that effect inside the front cover, dated 1988.

The book itself was attributed in the shop’s description to Hannah Beckworth, although her name doesn’t appear in the book. Naturally, Arthur wanted to dig deeper.

Cooks

Heaton Hall was owned for many years by the Potter family and they had a large retinue of domestic servants to enable them to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed. One of the most important roles was that of the cook to keep them ‘fed and watered’. The following are the cooks of Heaton Hall, as listed in the ten yearly census.

1861 – Jane Wright (age 34) born in Carlisle

1871 – Mary A Hervison (age 31) born in Newcastle

1881 – Margaret Halbert (age 20) born in Wrekenton

1891 – Elizabeth N Peel (age 17), born in Blaydon

1901 – Hannah Beckworth (age 30)

There are no cooks specifically mentioned in 1841, 1851 or 1911. Of course, there may have been many others during the ten year intervals between censuses and before and after those listed but it was a start and it immediately became clear that the last of these was the person to whom the book had been attributed.

Further research showed that she wasn’t, in fact,  Hannah Beckworth, but Hannah Beckwith. Hannah was born in 1871 at Pelton, Co Durham to Joseph and Mary Beckwith. In 1881 she was at school and by 1891 she was in domestic service, working as a ‘scullery maid’ at Woolsington Hall, near Newcastle. By 1901 she had moved to Heaton Hall and was employed as the cook with a kitchen maid, Jane Matthewson (23), working under her. She was, at that time, cooking for Addison Potter’s widow, Mary (72) and two of their children, Charles Potter (48) and Francis Potter (31). By 1911 Hannah had moved on to Derwent Hill, Keswick, where she cooked for the Slack family. After this her whereabouts are unknown.

But, although Hannah may have been the final contributor to the recipe book, she couldn’t have been the original writer as it was started at least two years before she was born. And none of the other cooks or domestic staff appear to have been at Heaton Hall for long enough.

Guests

The first page of the book is helpfully dated.

HeatonHallrecipesFirstPage1869

This entry states that on 3rd August 1869, there were seven for dinner, mentioning four Potters, Sir Rolland Errington (sic) and Mr Gibson.

Rowland-Stanley-Errington-11th-Bt-with-his-three-daughters

Sir Rowland Stanley Errington, 11th Bt with his three daughters , early 1860s photographed by John Pattison Gibson (With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery)

Sir Rowland Errington, was a wealthy landowner, whose estate was Sandhoe Hall, near  Hexham. He was High Sheriff of Northumberland in 1855 and became the 11th Errington Baronet in 1863. The photograph above in the National Portrait Gallery was taken by John Pattison Gibson, a notable photographer from Hexham. It is the only portrait by Pattison in the national collection perhaps because Gibson’s main interest for most of his career was landscape, architectural and archaeological photography. Portraits were mainly earlier works. Gibson’s archive is held by Northumberland Archives. We can’t be sure but this photographer may have been the Mr Gibson mentioned as the second guest. Unfortunately, we don’t know who the third was or what was eaten at the dinner party.

The first writer may have been the cook at that time, possibly Mary Hervison. The writing is untidy and a guest’s name is misspelled but Mary wasn’t at Heaton Hall by 1881 and much of the rest of the book is written in the same neat hand. Could this by the handwriting of a member of the Potter family?

The Potters

In 1869, the Potter family comprised:

Addison Potter, aged 48, a cement manufacturer at Willington Quay and Addison Colliery owner near Blaydon. He was Lieutenant Colonel of 1st Northumberland & Durham Artillery Volunteer Corps and was variously Lord Mayor of Newcastle (1873 and 1874), an Alderman and a JP.

Mary Potter, his wife , aged 40 and their children: Addison Molyneux 17, Charles 16, George Stephenson 10, Mary 7, Anna 3, Margaret 2 and baby Frances Sybil.

The only plausible candidate for the cookery book compiler is Mary Potter nee Robson. Mary married Addison Potter in 1859 and in 1861 were living in Chirton House, North Shields. They moved to the Potter family home, Heaton Hall, some time before 1871. The recipe book suggests it was before August 1869.

We do not know for sure but the handwriting and spelling looks like that of somebody well educated. And as the mistress of the house, supervision of the kitchen staff and activities would have been her domain. Mary lived at Heaton Hall until she died on 21 September 1904. After her death, the book may well have passed to Hannah Beckwith, her cook at that time. But the Christmas recipes we bring to you today may well be favourites of Mary Potter herself.

Christmas Recipes

The writer says the first Christmas cake recipe is the best she has tasted.

Heaton HallRecipes4HHXmasCakes1of2

HeatonHallRecipes5HHGXmasCakes2of2

Christmas cake recipe from Heaton Hall

HeatonHallrecipes3HHXmasCakeRecipes

More Christmas cake recipes from Heaton Hall

heatonHallRecipes6HHXmasCandy

Christmas candy recipe from Heaton Hall

HeatonHallRecipes7HHXmasWine

Christmas ‘wine’, a ‘temperance beverage’ from Heaton Hall

The book gives us a small insight into the lives and the preoccupations of the Potter family of Heaton Hall and we’ll feature more from it in the future. In the meantime, Happy Christmas from Heaton History Group  – and be sure to let us know if you try any of the recipes.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, with additional research by Chris Jackson. Thank you to Anthony Smithson of Keel Row Books, North Shields.

Can you help?

If you know more about anybody mentioned in this article, 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

Royal visit to Heaton Sec Schools

Heaton Secondary Schools: the beginning

You may be surprised to learn that Heaton Secondary Schools were officially opened  by the Right Honourable Grey of Fallodon, Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Surprised because a visit some weeks later by the King and Queen is often mistakenly referred to as the opening. Here’s what actually happened!

The schools. which had provision for 500 boys and 500 girls,  were erected at a cost of £140,000 and claimed to be the most up to date and best equipped in the country. The opening ceremony on 18 September 1928 was big news and covered in newspapers from Aberdeen and Belfast to Gloucester and beyond.

Quadrangle

The original plan, agreed before World War One, had been to build the school on 25 acres of land adjacent to Ravenswood Road but this project had to be shelved due to the war. Afterwards, a price could not be agreed with the landowner. Compulsory purchase was set in motion but eventually the council decided that this would mean unacceptably long delays so a site of equal size opposite the housing estate being built on the other side of Newton Road was negotiated.

The original buildings of what became Heaton Manor School

The original buildings of what became Heaton Manor School

The layout of the school was said to be reminiscent of a Cambridge college with the design of open loggias around a quadrangle.

HeatonsecWestGateway

Heaton Secondary Schools West Gateway

The classrooms were ‘of the open air type, with sliding partitions along the sunny side, the north side being used for science laboratories, gymnasiums etc.’

HeatonSecOpenAirClass

Heaton Secondary Schools’ ‘open-air classrooms’

There were two schools each with their own hall, dining room, library, labs, a commercial room, staff room and classrooms but the two halls were adjacent and so could be ‘thrown into one to form a great hall 80 feet long by 90 feet wide’. There was a craft room in the boys school and needlework and domestic science rooms in the girls’.

The first head teacher of Heaton Secondary School for Boys as it was first known was Mr F R Barnes, formerly of Barrow in Furness Secondary School for Boys. He started with a staff of 17 graduates and five specialists.  Miss W M Cooper, formerly of Benwell Secondary School, had 13 graduates and four specialists working for her in the girls’ school, Heaton High School as it became known.

As for pupils, initially there would be 291 boys and 414 girls, 455 of which would be free scholarship holders. The remaining pupils were fee-paying. At the outset, their parents were charged £8 a year. The programme for the opening event announced that ‘Mrs Harrison Bell has very kindly endowed a history prize in memory of her husband, the late My J N Bell, who was elected in 1922 Member of Parliament for the east division of the city. The prize will be awarded in the boys’ and the girls’ school in alternate years.’

Viscount Grey

At the ceremony, there were prayers and songs including ‘Land of Hope and Glory‘ and Northumbrian folk song  ‘The Water of Tyne’ and lots of speeches, not only Viscount Grey’s but also those of numerous local politicians, including the Lord Mayor, and presentations by the  architect, H T Wright,  and the contractor, Stanley Miller.

Viscount Grey is better known as the politician, Sir Edward Grey, who was Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916, the longest tenure ever. He is particularly remembered for the remark he is said to have made as he contemplated the enormity of the imminent World War One: ‘ The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.’

ViscountGrey

Viscount Grey

In his speech in Heaton, Viscount Grey, a Liberal, said ‘The ideal system would be one in which the highest, most advanced and most expensive education was devoted solely to the youthful material of the country who were most capable by their abilities to profit from it. We have not reached that point today. A great deal of the highest and most expensive education in the country is given…. to <those> whose parents are able to pay for it… but… every school like that at Heaton is bringing higher education within the reach of those whose parents cannot pay for it. This is an advance towards a better system’.

And tackling another topic which has resonance today, the former tennis champion and keen fisherman and ornithologist spoke about the variety of entertainment available to young people, reminding the audience that  in his day, there ‘was no electric light, no motor cars, no telephones, no wireless and no moving pictures’. But he reminded his young audience that the things which interested people most through life were those in which they took some active personal part. ‘Take part in games, rather than be mere spectators’ he urged. ‘It will give you more pleasure than all the other entertainments that come to you without trouble.’

Live Radio

For any locals lucky enough to have one, the whole ceremony was actually broadcast on the wireless from 3:00pm until 4:30pm. Radio station 5NO had been broadcasting from Newcastle since 1922 and its signals could reach up to about 20 miles. With broadcasting still in its infancy, many newspaper listings came with detailed technical instructions on what to do if the signal was lost: radio was still far from being a mass medium but it was catching on fast and those early local listings make fascinating reading. You can view them here.

Royal Visit

Just over three weeks later, 23,000 pupils from all over Newcastle were invited to Heaton for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the school before the royal couple went on to open the new Tyne Bridge. And it’s this historic event which many people assume to have been the official opening. It was certainly a momentous occasion – and an excuse for more speeches!

King and Queen open Heaton Secondary Schools, 1928

King and Queen open Heaton Secondary Schools, 1928

‘Their majesties will drive round the school grounds where 23,000 children of the city will be assembled and on entering the school hall, the loyal address from the City of Newcastle will be presented by the Lord Mayor. Numerous public representatives will be presented to their Majesties, who will be asked to receive gifts from scholars.’

There were also displays of physical drills and country dancing by pupils.

HeatonSecRoyalvisit

Every school pupil present was given a commemorative booklet which included a photograph of the new school at the back but which was mainly about the opening of the new bridge.

‘To the boys and girls for whom these words are written, who have just begun their passage on the bridge of life, and who will go to and fro on the bridges of the Tyne, there is the lofty call to carry forward to future generations the progress which has brought them their own proud inheritance.’

A bouquet was said to have been presented to the Queen by the head girl and a book to the King by the head boy.

This made a lifelong impression on pupil Olive Renwick (nee Topping), who was 12 years old at the time, but at the age of 98 recalled;

We were all gathered in the hall and Miss Cooper, the head teacher, told us that the queen would be presented with a “bookie”. What on earth’s a bookie, I wondered. Only later did I realise she meant a bouquet!’

Olive (middle) & friends in Heaton High uniform, late 1920s

Olive (middle) & friends in Heaton High uniform, late 1920s

Again the event was broadcast on the wireless. A full day’s programming began at 10:50am with the ‘Arrival of the royal party at Heaton Secondary Schools’. And the excitement of arrival of the king and queen’s carriage pulled by four white ponies in front of thousands of handkerchief waving school children (along with hair raising footage of workers on the still incomplete Tyne Bridge) was captured on film by Pathe News.   

And it shows a girl presenting a book (rather than ‘a bookie’) to the royal party. A last minute change of plan or an extra for the cameras?

After World War 2, the boys’ schools was renamed Heaton Grammar School and the girls’ Heaton High School. The two schools merged in September 1967 to form Heaton Comprehensive School. In 1983, this school merged with Manor Park School on Benton Road to form Heaton Manor. And in 2004, after the building of the new school on the Jesmond Park site, the Benton Park site closed to make way for housing.

The next instalment of ninety years of school history will have to wait for another day.

Can You Help?

If you have memories or photos of any of the above schools or know more about notable teachers or pupils, 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. Thank you to Brian Hedley for a copy of the official opening programme and the family of Olive Renwick for the souvenir of the royal visit. Thank you also to Muriel La Tour (nee Abernethy) for correcting the subsequent names of the schools.

Sources

British Newspaper Archives

Heaton Secondary Schools: official opening Sept 18th 1928 programme

Visit of their majesties King George V and Queen Mary, October 1928 (souvenir booklet)

Miscellaneous 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.

Library108 RLCres

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.

KingsleyPlacel109 RLCedres

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.

KeoghcatalogueIMG_2810res

KeoghcatalogueentriesIMG_2809res

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.

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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.

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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

 

Heaton Ice Cream Parlour in 1950

Heaton’s Paper Paradise

Keith Fisher has vivid memories of growing up in Heaton in the 1950s and ’60s. Here he recalls an encounter with an old Heaton business that most of us won’t have been aware of – and brings its story up to date:

Travelling south on Heaton Road there’s a final block of houses and shops on your right just before you cross the railway line.  It used to accommodate the Co-op chemist, barber Peter Darling, Gazzilli’s ice-cream parlour, and finally, at the end, a shop that never attracted much attention who sold ball-bearings if I remember correctly: well, I suppose someone had to.

Heaton Ice Cream Parlour in 1950

Just before that unassuming outlet for little steel balls, there remained a couple of houses; at one time, of course, they may all have been houses, with the possible exception of the pharmacy.  One of these houses – until then quite unregistered in our existence – opened its door to us after our gran had treated my sister and myself to ice-cream on an evening in coldest, darkest December.  We were led into a front room lit by a tired gas mantle plus a fire in the range attended by an old lady sitting in a dark corner.

Val and I were about five or six years old, so it was still the 1950s, and Gran must have been about fifty five – which we thought was terribly old; but that lady in that gloomy room must have been eighty five at least, and, just like our great gran: ancient beyond our conception.

However, not all of this was inconceivable to us, considering the majority of Byker was still without electricity; and Shieldfield folk, where our maternal grandparents and assorted family lived, were still comfortably co-existing with those big old black-leaded ranges that were the forerunner to our Agas.  We’d seen ironing done on the kitchen table with a pair of flat irons heated on the range; and eaten Yorkshire Puddings cooked in a big, square, cast-iron dish from the ‘oven bottom‘ (the finest I’ve ever eaten); we’d heard the whistle of the kettle hanging above the coals; and smelt the overwhelming aroma of kippers cooked on a rack over a glowing wood fire; all just part of the life our father’s parents, then our mother, had left behind to live in new-build semi-detached flats on the Heaton Hall Estate.

Aladdin’s cave

So back in that unfamiliar house the air of mystery was not the anachronistic room, nor the presence of the old lady, but the reason for our presence there, which was very quickly established as we looked around walls lined with trestle tables piled high with cheap cardboard boxes; the open ones on the top revealing Christmas decorations of the streamer, paper globe or bells variety, plus assorted novelties associated with Yuletide occasions like the inevitable glinting silver and gold tinsel, and – obviously – brightly coloured glass baubles shining like treasure in the firelight: an Aladdin’s Cave!

Peering up, we wandered along the rows of boxes while gran handed things down for us to examine, suggesting this one or that, some of these or some of those, and all the while accompanied by the old lady deftly pulling out box upon box of festive magic and stacking them on an empty table; until finally, we were done; brief words were exchanged between gran and herself, and away we went… empty-handed, taking none of the treasure with us… it was all left behind!

Recollecting many years later, I asked my grandfather what it was all about, and he told me it was a company he did business with: The Heaton Paper Company, who sold him his paper bags.  The treasure left behind had all been delivered to his shop of course, and would subsequently materialise at our house and gran’s house a few days later; just in time to decorate the freshly arrived Christmas trees, festoon the living rooms with streamers, and hang the paper ornaments from lights and window bays.

HeatonChristmas

Now then, fast forward fifteen years to a fine house in Gosforth where two friends lived: Danny and Mark Jacobson.  Remarkably, it turned-out their father owned The Heaton Paper Company, and I learned that the impromptu wholesale showroom in that house on Heaton Road was set up each December to allow local traders to choose stock for the Christmas season; my grandfather, being a wholesale customer, had access to this facility for his own personal consumption of course.

So, fast forward yet again to the present – or at least to the present present, which is 2018 – and let me tell you what I learned recently from Mark Jacobson, who I am happy to say remains a good friend, even though I see very little of him, and even less of Danny:

Their father (an engineer) got out of Poland before the Germans arrived and was in London when an old acquaintance from Warsaw suggested he to come up to Newcastle where he owned a toilet-paper factory and needed the skills of an engineer.  At some point thereafter, this fellow took off for South Africa; the business went down the toilet; and Mr Jacobson found himself unemployed.

Crossing Shieldfield one day, he saw a workman on a building site making a bonfire out of empty cement bags; knowing a thing or two about paper by then he asked the fellow if he could have the bags.  He returned the following day to consult the gaffer and was told he could have all he could take away.  So, from then on, he commandeered all the empty paper sacks he could, because he knew that they were made up of multiple layers of paper that could be separated from the inner and outer contaminated layers, providing him with good clean paper… free.  Starting off in his lodgings, he cut up the sheets, glued the edges with flour paste and produced paper bags which he then sold to local businesses – my Grandfather’s included.  When Danny and Mark retired recently, they sold what had become an enormously successful company manufacturing and distributing a vast array of products.

A remarkable conclusion to a misty memory; and a wonderful success story.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Keith Fisher, Heaton History Group.

Can you help?

If you know more about The Heaton Paper Company or any historic Heaton business, 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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Sir Vincent Litchfield Raven: railway legend

Even among railway enthusiasts, Sir Vincent Litchfield Raven is one of the less well known names, yet he was hugely influential in shaping the railway system as we know it today. Rising from an apprentice to Chief Mechanical Engineer, he only ever worked for the North Eastern Railway and for a short while, early in his professional career and newly married, he lived on Heaton Road.

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Vincent Litchfield Raven

Early Life

Vincent Litchfield Raven was born on 3 December 1858 in the village of Great Fransham, North Norfolk, the third of 10 children born to Vincent and Anne Raven. His father was the Rector of All Saints church in the village and the family were clearly wealthy middle class, as Vincent and five of his six brothers went to Aldenham Grammar School in Hertfordshire, a small private school, where he would have received a conservative Anglican flavoured education. The 1871 census shows him boarding there as a scholar, aged 12.

He moved straight from school to an engineering apprenticeship with the North Eastern Railway. Such a move may seem odd to our minds, but at the time, with the rapid Victorian growth of industry and commerce, careers in science and engineering were increasingly regarded as acceptable to the middle classes. Clearly, young Vincent’s family supported his move to the North Eastern Railway, as a five year apprenticeship, would typically cost the family around £50 per year, over £4,000 in today’s money.

North Eastern Railway

The NER was established in 1854 from the merger of a number of smaller companies. The early years of the railways had seen numerous companies established, often operating often relatively small routes or branches, each with their own locomotives and rolling stock. The North Eastern Railway was unusual in that it recognised early the benefits of larger scale operations and over the 50 years from its establishment bought numerous smaller companies, so that by the early 1900s, it had a virtual monopoly east of the Pennines from south of Doncaster right up to the Scottish border at Berwick. By the time Raven joined the company, there were around 1,500 miles of track. The NER also owned docks at Hartlepool, Hull, Middlesbrough and Tyne Dock as well as staithes at Blyth and Dunston (still the largest wooden structure in Europe) and hotels in York and Newcastle.

Apprenticeship

In making the long move north, the young Vincent undoubtedly found an employer that was at the leading edge of railway development. Unusually, for someone who was, 35 years later, to take on the post of Chief Mechanical Engineer, he only ever worked for the NER, although it’s obvious that he put considerable effort into furthering his knowledge and education throughout his career, including a number of foreign visits. He retired when legislation forced the merger of railway companies into the big four (LNER, LMS, GWR and Southern) in 1923.

Vincent left school at Easter 1875, taking up his apprenticeship at the North Eastern Railway’s Greenesfield works on the south bank of the Tyne, between the High Level and the modern day Redheugh bridges.

He was apprenticed directly to Edward Fletcher, the Locomotive Supervisor (the most senior engineering position at that time) to whom the apprenticeship fees would have been paid directly.

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NER’s Greenesfield works

As the picture shows, the Greenesfield works were vast and incorporated the original Gateshead station, the northern terminus of the line from London before the building of the High Level Bridge, as well as five turntables and 18 roads of track, as well as massive cranes that could lift a whole locomotive. As an apprentice, Vincent would have gained experience of every aspect of railway engineering, from cleaning, firing, driving and maintaining locomotives, through to making technical drawings of engines, carriages and wagons. He would also have been required to work with the railway’s engineers, labourers and managers at all levels of the organisation, giving him a sound grounding in engineering, before starting work as a junior engineer in 1880.

Throughout his apprenticeship, Vincent seems to have lodged with the Swallow family, George and Isabella and their young daughter Maria in Elswick, which is where the 1881 census shows him living.

The Heaton connection

Having completed his apprenticeship in 1880, Vincent’s first job was as fireman, where he appears to have been based at the Heaton depot. Opened in 1875 to provide extra capacity for the overstretched Greenesfield works, the Heaton Depot was the home base for locomotives and carriages, where they would be stored maintained, serviced and repaired – a role that it still plays today with the modern fleet.

It appears that Vincent was based here in his early working career as it was 30 Heaton Road that Vincent made his first family home on his marriage to Gifford Allan Chrichton on 15 February 1883. Gifford was born on 13 August 1859 and was the eldest daughter of John Taylor Chrichton and his wife Emma of 13 Catherine Terrace, Gateshead. Her father is described as a chemical agent, and Raven’s biographer describes him as working for the Walker Alkali Company. Although the company had closed by the time of the Raven’s marriage, the Walker Ironworks shared the same address and both seem to have been overseen by Isaac Lowthian Bell, a wealthy Ironmaster and Director of the NER. That would no doubt have been a very valuable connection for the young Vincent to make as his career progressed.

The 1884-5 electoral roll for Newcastle shows the family at 30 Heaton Road, a quite substantial terraced house, then relatively newly built. It was there that the couple’s first child Constance Gifford Raven was born later in 1883.  The couple would go on to have a further four children over the next six years, one of whom, Annie, died in infancy.

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30 Heaton Road

Their stay in Heaton though was short-lived, as in 1884, the family moved to Gateshead with Vincent’s first promotion to workshop foreman back at Greenesfield.

Career progression

Vincent’s career progressed rapidly through a number of promotions as he continued his study through the North Eastern Railway’s own Literary Institute, where he quickly became a committee member of the Gateshead branch, as well as attending lectures at the newly established Rutherford College in Arthur’s Hill. It seems likely that this is where he developed his interest in the electrification of railways, which was to become a feature of his career as well as the source of much frustration.

By 1891, Vincent was Assistant Locomotive Superintendent at Greenesfield and the family were employing two resident domestic servants.

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Commemorative plaque near the High Level Bridge, close to the site of the Greenesfield works.

His next promotion was to the post of Chief Assistant Locomotive Superintendant, which saw the family move to Darlington, where the NER’s main locomotive works was sited. The 1901 census shows them employing three resident staff, ‘a hospital sick nurse’, cook and domestic. The nurse was most likely employed for the Raven’s second daughter Guendolin (born 1884), who had suffered from glandular fever and was left with subsequent heart problems. The family stayed in Darlington for the next 30 years, taking on an increasing role in the civic life of the town, even hosting balls in their home.

Vincent’s next promotion was to the post of Assistant Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1902, eventually taking over from his boss, Wilson Worsdell, when he retired in 1910.

Chief Mechanical Engineer

On 1 June 1910, Raven took up his new position, responsible for the design, construction, repair and operation of rolling stock and all outside machinery for the railway. At that time, the railway had 2,000 locomotives, 4,600 coaches and 11,200 wagons as well as the various docks, staithes etc. His salary was £2,500 (about £276,000 in today’s money). In addition, he had his own locomotive and six wheeled carriage, available to take him wherever he wished on the network as well as his own chauffeur driven car. This was a post of the highest status within both the railway and society. He was based, from 1911 in the newly built Palladian style Stoopergate building.

RPMI, Stooperdale Offices, Darlington, Previously the London &amp; N

NER’s Stoopergate, Darlington

Part of a wider new development that included boiler shops and a paint-shop that could accommodate 24 locomotives, the new offices had every modern convenience and were described as draught proof, floored with Terrazzo marble Venetian mosaic and oak panelled. The complex included sidings for the delivery of coal and a garage for his car and were equipped with telephones.

The family business

Railway engineering was obviously in the family blood. Both of Raven’s sons went on to work on the railways. Norman Vincent Chrichton Raven, the eldest, was apprenticed to the Great Northern Railway, which was responsible for the section of the east coast mainline between London and Doncaster and would have worked under Nigel Gresley, who became the first Chief Mechanical Engineer of the LNER after grouping in 1923. Ultimately, he moved on to the steel industry.

Frederick Gifford Raven, the youngest of the four surviving Raven children, did his apprenticeship in the UK before working on the railways in Brazil and India before the start of the First World War. With the onset of war, he joined the Royal Engineers Railway Operating Division as 2nd Lieutenant, where he would have been responsible for the railways that moved troops and equipment to and from the front. Badly injured by shell fire on the Somme, he was evacuated to a military hospital in Le Havre, where he sadly died of infection on 24 March 1917.

Even Guen, the second eldest daughter married into railway royalty. She married Edward Thompson, a protégé of her father in 1913. Thompson would go on to become the LNER’s second Chief Mechanical Engineer. Only Connie, the Raven’s eldest daughter moved out of the business, marrying solicitor George Newby Watson in 1910.

Sir Vincent Raven

The First World War saw Raven’s skills as an engineer and leader put to different uses. On 15 September 1915 he was appointed Chief Superintendent to the Royal Ordnance Works at Woolwich, released from his position at the NER for the duration of the war. Sir Frederick Donaldson, the holder of the position had gone to the US and Canada to work increasing their production of weapons and Raven took over. He very quickly had a positive impact on production, which was falling dangerously behind the army’s needs. Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, reported to the House of commons in December 1915 that he had increased production by 60-80% while staff had only increased by 23%. When Lloyd George became Prime Minister of the wartime coalition government, he rewarded Raven for his efforts with a Knighthood in the 1916 New Year honours.

Civic life

Aside from his professional life, Vincent Raven always played a significant wider role and maintained a particular interest in education. Right from his early days he’d been involved on the committee of the NER Gateshead Literary Institute and remained their honorary president throughout his career. He also became involved in the education committee of Darlington Technical College and was active in both the Institute of Civil Engineers and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, who elected him Honorary Life Member in 1932. In 1915 Raven was elected Councillor in Darlington and quickly co-opted onto the tramways committee and in 1917 he became a Justice of the Peace.

Raven the innovator

What is apparent from his long and successful career is Vincent’s detailed and methodical approach to improving efficiency, problem solving and, in particular, his passion for electrification of the railways. One of his early tasks as assistant CME was to do a detailed analysis of the steam engine fleet, which he did in meticulous detail, identifying numerous improvements. It was this attention to detail that led to his success in the Royal Ordnance Works and to improving efficiency across the NER network. As Chief Mechanical Engineer, he focused his attention on compounding and superheating as means of improving the efficiency of steam locos and his own designs were elegant and efficient, but he always had his eye on the longer term goal of electrification.

As Assistant Chief Mechanical Engineer, he would have been involved in the 1904 electrification of the North Tyneside commuter network, only the second electrified network in the UK outside of London. In 1905, he electrified the Quayside branch from Manors Station, which was notoriously difficult for steam engines, with a steep incline, 90 degree curves and a 2 mile, poorly ventilated tunnel. In 1911, he gained approval for his most ambitious venture in electrification, the 15 mile mineral line from Shildon to Newport, Middlesbrough. When the line opened in 1916, the Newcastle Journal listed the many advantages of electrification in an article on 26 May. These included much greater efficiency and control as well as a more comfortable environment for the crew. The electric locos were designed by Raven, with the electrification of the route done by Newcastle firm Merz & McLellan. This was the first industrial railway line to be electrified in the world and continued operating until the 1930s, when it reverted to steam operation!

Of course the big prize was to electrify the east coast main line and Raven had plans to do so as early as 1910, although he may well have been ahead of his time, as he himself recognised as the real problem was the transport of electricity from power stations. Before the widespread adoption of alternating current, the direct current supply could only be transported a short distance without a drop in voltage, meaning lots of small local power stations close to the track would have been required.

The war prevented him from further pursuing his plans and when he returned in 1919, the financial position of the railways after four years of diverting all resources to the war effort was too poor to consider investment on this scale. With the approaching grouping of the railways in 1923, Raven set out a clear and detailed case for electrification of the LNER main line, but it was rejected.

Whether because of this or the prospect of being based at Kings Cross, Raven decided not to stand for the post of Chief Mechanical Engineer for LNER, which was taken by Nigel Gresley and when NER became LNER he retired, having started at the bottom and reaching the top of his chosen profession while only ever having worked for the North Eastern Railway.

The final years

Leaving NER didn’t mean the end of Raven’s work with the railways, but gave him the opportunity to pursue his passion for electrification as well as applying his knowledge as an independent expert. In 1923 he was appointed to the board of Metropolitan Vickers, who made electric trains for the London Underground and South East Network and also joined the Institution of Electrical Engineers. He took part in Royal Commissions to report on the railways in New South Wales and New Zealand and was frequently consulted as an expert, particularly on electrification. In 1925, he became president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The Ravens moved in 1923 from Darlington, as Grantley, their home in recent years, belonged to LNER. Their new home in Hook, Hampshire was nearer to London, the centre of most of Raven’s work.

While on holiday with Gifford at the Felix Hotel Felixstowe late in 1933, Vincent fell ill, heart problems were suggested and he died there on 14 February 1934.

Probate records show that he left £20,036 14s 6d. His legacy to the railways that were his lifelong passion was incalculable, even if it were to take another 50 years before the east Coast Main Line was finally electrified.

Can you help?

If you know more about Vincent Litchfield Raven, 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

Acknowledgements

Written and researched by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group.

Sources

Everett A (2006) ‘Visionary Pragmatist, Sir Vincent Raven North Eastern Railway Locomotive Engineer’

Ancestry.co.uk

Wikipedia.org

The Stoneys of Heaton: unsung heroes of the Parsons’ story

Most people in Newcastle have heard of Sir Charles Parsons, the eminent engineer whose invention of a multi-stage steam turbine revolutionised marine propulsion and electrical power generation, making him world famous in his lifetime and greatly respected still. Parsons’ Heaton factory was a huge local employer for many decades. It survives today as part of the global firm, Siemens.

But, of course, Charles Parsons did not make his huge strides in engineering alone. He was ably supported by a highly skilled workforce, including brilliant engineers and mathematicians, some of whom were much better known in their life times than they are today.

Two that certainly deserve to be remembered were siblings, Edith Anne Stoney and her brother, George Gerald. Edith worked for Parsons only briefly but her contribution was crucial. Her brother worked for Parsons and lived in Heaton most of his adult life. This is their story.

Family background

Dr George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911), the siblings’ father, was a prominent Irish physicist, who was born near Birr in County Offaly.  He worked as an astronomy assistant to Charles Parsons’ father, William, at nearby Birr Castle and he later taught Charles Parsons at Trinity College, Dublin. Stoney is best known for introducing the term ‘electron’ as the fundamental unit quantity of electricity. He and his wife, Margaret Sophia, had five children whom they home educated. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Stoney children went on to have illustrious careers. Robert Bindon became a doctor in Australia; Gertrude Rose was an artist;  Florence Ada ( awarded the OBE in 1919), the first female radiologist in the UK. But it is George Gerald and Edith Anne who have the Heaton connection.

Edith Anne Stoney

Edith was born on 6 January 1869 and soon showed herself to be a talented mathematician. She won a scholarship to Newham College Cambridge where, in 1893, she achieved a first in the Part 1 Tripos examination. At that time, and for another 50 years afterwards, women were not awarded degrees at Cambridge so she did not officially graduate but she was later awarded both a BA and MA by Trinity College Dublin.

After graduation, Edith came to Newcastle to work for Charles Parsons. There is, in Newcastle University Library, a letter sent by Charles Parson to Edith’s father, George Johnstone Stoney, in 1903. Parsons pays tribute to:

‘your daughter’s great and original ability for applied mathematics… The problems she has attacked and solved have been in relation to the special curvature of our mirrors for obtaining beams of light of particular shapes. These investigations involved difficult and intricate original calculations, so much so that I must confess they were quite beyond my powers now and probably would have been also when I was at Cambridge… Your daughter also made calculations in regard to the gyrostatic forces brought onto the bearings of marine steam turbines…’

It looks like the sort of reference someone might write for a perspective employer except that, a sign of the times, it doesn’t mention Edith by name and is addressed to her father.

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Edith, Florence and George Johnstone Stoney

After working in Heaton, Edith went on to teach mathematics at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and then lecture in physics at the London School of Medicine for Women in London. There she set up a laboratory and designed the physics course.

In 1901, she and her sister, Florence, opened a new x-ray service at London’s Royal Free Hospital and she became actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement as well becoming the first treasurer of the British Federation of University Women, a post she held from 1909-1915.

During WW1, both sisters offered their service to the British Red Cross to provide a state of the art radiological service to the troops in Europe. In the x-ray facilities at a new 250 bed hospital near Troyes in France, planned and operated by her, she used stereoscopy to localise bullets and shrapnel and pioneered the use of x-rays in the diagnosis of gas gangrene, saving many lives.

She was posted to Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and France again, serving in dangerous war zones for the duration of the war. The hospitals in which she worked were repeatedly shelled and evacuated but she continued to do what she considered to be her duty.  Her war service was recognised by several countries. Among her awards were the French Croix de Guerre and Serbia’s Order of St Sava, as well as British Victory Medals.

After the war, Edith returned to England, where she lectured at King’s College for Women. In her retirement, she resumed work with the British Federation for University Women and in 1936, in memory of her father and sister, she established the Johnstone and Florence Stoney Studentship, which is still administered by the British Federation of Women Graduates to support women to carry out research overseas in biological, geological, meteorological or radiological science.

Edith Anne Stoney died on 25 June 1938, aged 69. Her importance is shown by the obituaries which appeared in ‘The Times’, ‘The Lancet’ and ‘Nature’. She will be remembered for her pioneering work in medical physics, her wartime bravery and her support for women’s causes. Although her time in Newcastle was brief, she deserves also to be remembered for her contribution to the work in Heaton for which Charles Parsons is rightly lauded.

George Gerald Stoney

But Edith’s elder brother had a much longer association with Parsons – and with Heaton.

George Gerald Stoney was born in Dublin on 28 November 1863, the first child of Margaret and George Johnstone Stoney. Like his sister, he was educated at home and gained a particularly good grounding in science. For example at a young age, he learnt about the silvering of mirrors which was to become very useful in his working life.

In 1882, when 19 years old, he went to Trinity College, Dublin. After four years he left with a first class honours in mathematics and a gold medal in experimental science. The following year he was awarded an engineering degree.

After working for a year with his uncle in Dublin, he came to England in 1888 to work alongside the more senior Charles Parsons for Clarke, Chapman and Company in Gateshead, earning ten shillings a week as an apprentice draughtsman. Here he first became acquainted with the compound steam turbine and did associated drawings for Parsons.

When, the following year, Parsons left the firm, after a disagreement on the pace at which work was progressing in the turbine field, to set up his own company in Heaton, Stoney was one of a dozen or so Clarke Chapman employees to follow him. He first worked as a fitter, earning £2 10s.

The 1891 Census shows Stoney living as a lodger at 69 Seventh Avenue, Heaton in the home of widow, Jane Beckett and her two working sons, John and William.

Key figure

There is ample evidence of Gerald (as he was known) Stoney’s importance to Parsons even in the early days.

In 1893, an agreement was made whereby Parsons agreed to employ Stoney who, in turn, agreed to work for Parsons for five years in the capacity of electrical engineer, ‘the duties which shall comprise the management of the mirror and testing departments, the carrying out of experiments and other such duties…’

A year later, he was given a share option. He put £200 into the company, which was matched by Parsons. And, in 1895, aged 32, he was named Chief Designer of the steam turbine department and Chief Electrical Engineer for high speed dynamos and alternators.

Stoney’s application, on 28 November 1895, to become a member of The Institution of Civil Engineers (his proposer was C A Parsons) states:

‘…appointed Manager of their Mirror Works for the manufacture of mirrors for search light projectors for English and foreign governments and is also manager for testing all dynamos and engines and technical adviser in the design and manufacture of all the steam turbines and dynamos made by the firm amounting to a yearly output of over 10,000 horsepower. These posts he now holds.’

He was elected Associate Member on 4 February 1896 when his address was given as 118 Meldon Terrace, Heaton.

Turbinia

It was around this time that Parsons was finally successful in his almost obsessive quest to apply the steam turbine to marine engineering. He had conceived and built ‘Turbinia’ which he was determined to make the fastest ship in the world. There were many trials of the ship in the Tyne and off the Northumberland coast at which Parsons and Stoney were always among the small group on board. After each trial modifications and improvements were made and the vessel was put to sea again. At every stage, Stoney was at the forefront.

Finally on 1 April 1897, as ‘Turbinia’, with Charles Parsons on the bridge and Gerald Stoney next to him as usual, made its way back up the Tyne after its latest sea trial , ‘at the modest pace allowed by local regulations‘ it was noted that ‘the river was nearly empty, the tide slack and the water smooth’ so Parsons decided to do a full power run along a measured nautical mile. A mean speed of 31.01 knots and a top speed of 32.6 knots was recorded, a record speed for any vessel. Charles Parsons had achieved his aim of adapting the steam turbine for marine propulsion.

Parsons’ first big opportunity to show his ship to the world was to come a couple of months later on 26 June 1897, when a review of the fleet to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was held at Spithead off Portsmouth. A hundred and fifty vessels were present, in an orderly procession when, with Parsons at the helm and Stoney in his  customary position alongside him, ‘Turbinia’ made the move, which was to secure its place in naval folklore.

As the ‘Times’ put it:

‘At the cost of deliberate disregard of authority, she contrived to give herself an effective advertisement by steaming at astonishing speed between the lines A and B shortly after the royal procession had passed. The patrol boats which attempted to check her adventurous and lawless proceedings were distanced in a twinkling but at last one managed by placing herself athwart her course… Her speed was, as I have said, simply astonishing.’ (27 June 1887).

In fact, Parsons denied deliberate lawlessness. He maintained that the watching Prince Henry of Prussia requested that ‘Turbinia’ be brought alongside his flagship and show a turn of speed. Permission was apparently given by the admiralty but there is no doubt that there were a number of close shaves as ‘Turbinia’ squeezed between other crafts at previously unknown speed.

Turbiniaed_resized

Turbinia with Gerald Stoney below Charles Parsons on the bridge

Growing recognition

Stoney continued to be indispensible to Parsons. For all Parsons’ genius and drive, Stoney seems to have had the better understanding of theory and he could also apply it in practice. In fact, there is evidence that, on occasion, Parson’s intransigence even held Stoney and his own company back when he refused to agree to their suggestions. If a solution to a problem had been found by a competitor, especially a foreign one, rather than adopt it and move on, Parsons more than once insisted that his engineers found a different, original answer. For the most part, Stoney seems to have accepted this trait in his employer and risen to the challenges it posed.

In 19 December 1900, Stoney became a full member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was now General Manager of C A Parsons and living at 7 Roxburgh Place, Heaton. By 1902, according to the Electoral Register, the Stoneys had moved to ‘Oakley’, an imposing,  three storey, semi-detached villa on Heaton Road.

OakleyGGStoneyHeatonRoadres_edited-2

‘Oakley’ on Heaton Road

In 1903 Stoney was involved in the establishment of the ground breaking Neptune and Carrville Power Stations, which were so crucial to the economy of Tyneside. And in 1904, Parsons again rewarded his trusted lieutenant. He opened a bank account for him into which he deposited £5,000. 4.5% interest could be drawn half yearly or yearly. If Stoney stayed at the firm for another ten years, the capital would be his.

Stoney was by now well known in engineering circles. He published many papers and submitted patent applications and he gave lectures throughout Britain and Ireland.

In 1905, George Gerald Stoney and Charles Parsons were joint recipients of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Watt Gold Medal for excellence in engineering and in 1911 Stoney, by now Technical Manager of the entire Heaton works, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) by his peers, evidence that his part in Parsons’ work was recognised outside as well as within the firm.

Temporary departure

But in 1912,  ‘in a moment of extreme vexation’ as he later put it (rows between senior staff at the company seemed common), Gerald Stoney left C A Parsons. At first, he set up as a consultant and he was secretary of one of the Tyneside Irish battalions before, in 1917, being appointed to the Chair of Mechanical Engineering at the Victoria University in Manchester. Stoney’s eminence is shown by a photograph, taken at this time, being in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Stoney GeorgeGerald-Stoney

George Gerald Stoney (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

However, Stoney’s wife Isabella, was by this time an invalid and didn’t make the move from Newcastle. Stoney increasingly had to travel between the two cities and when, in 1926, Charles Parsons became aware of the toll this was taking, he offered his old employee the chance to return to Heaton as Director of Research. Stoney’s career had turned full circle as, in his new role, he found himself once again conducting experimental optical work, this time for the recently acquired Grubb Telescope Company, now called Grubb Parsons. He eventually retired in 1930 following the death of his wife.

George Gerald Stoney died on 15 May 1942 at his home ‘Oakley’ on Heaton Road. He is buried in Corbridge Cemetery alongside his wife.

StoneyGrave

The Stoneys grave in Corbridge

At the time of his death, he was the last surviving member of the original Turbinia crew. Obituaries and tributes show that he was widely appreciated as one of the pioneers in the development of the steam turbine and high-speed dynamo electric machines. We hope that by retelling his story here, Gerald Stoney, like his sister Edith, will be remembered once again in Heaton and beyond.

Can you help?

If you know more about Edith or Gerald Stoney including their connections with Parsons and the Heaton area, 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 Arthur Andrews and Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

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

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

Key Sources

From Galaxies to Turbines: science, technology and the Parsons Family / by W Garrett Scaife; Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000

Scope (December 2013) ‘Edith Stoney MA; the first woman medical physicist’

and a range of online and local archival sources.

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Two Davids: Grubb Parsons’ stellar double act

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

Grubb Parsons 98 inch Isaac Newton telescoperesized

Grubb Parsons 98 inch Isaac Newton telescope, 1967

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

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

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

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

Grubb Parsons

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

Grubb Parsons Factory

Grubb Parsons, Heaton works

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

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

David Scatcherd Brown

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

Grubb Parsons David S Brown - pic

David Scatcherd Brown

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

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

David Sinden

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

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

David Sinden (in the waistcoat) with George Oliver and the 72 inch Helwan mirror

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

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

Polar opposites

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

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

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

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

Many of them are still in situ.

Grubb Parsons 98 in mirror - Ds 1965

Magazine cover featuring Grubb Parsons

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

Decline of Grubb Parsons

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

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

Life after Grubb Parsons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy

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

Can you help?

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

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group.

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

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

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