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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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’.
So they were the people involved in the proposed building society. But what was the context?
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 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.
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.
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 email@example.com
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.
‘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