When, on 18 September 1901, HMS Cobra sank on its maiden voyage on route from Newcastle to Portsmouth, it was a huge shock for the country and a particular tragedy for the north-east, but nowhere was the loss felt more keenly than in Heaton.
Only four years earlier, Charles Parsons had amazed onlookers by gatecrashing Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review and racing his yacht,Turbinia, between the lines of the officially invited vessels at speeds of up to 34 knots.
Turbinia was powered by marine steam turbines invented at C A Parsons and Co in Heaton by Parsons himself alongside other great engineers such as Gerard Stoney, whose home, as well as his office, was in Heaton and Robert Barnard, who worshipped at Heaton Congregational Church.
Turbinia’s spectacular demonstration of speed prompted local armaments and shipping firm Armstrong Whitworth to build a torpedo destroyer to be fitted with a turbine engine, confident that a buyer would quickly be found. The ship’s design was based on those of two other vessels built at Elswick and it was launched on 28 June 1899. Six months later the ship was offered to the Admiralty. However, the turbine machinery on board was much heavier than the machinery on the earlier ships (183 v 110 tons) and 30 tons more than expected. Despite the assurances of the designer, Philip Watts, who was head of the Elswick shipyard and the firm’s chief naval architect, that the weight was within tolerance limits, the prospective purchaser expressed a number of concerns including about the strength of the upper deck.
While what was to become HMS Cobra was being modified on the quay at Elswick, a collier ship accidentally collided with her, delaying completion by another seven months. This misfortune allowed a sister ship, HMS Viper, ordered by the Admiralty from another Charles Parsons company, Parsons Marine (who subcontracted the building of the hull to a third local firm, Hawthorn Leslie) to become the world’s first turbine-driven warship. Sadly on 3 August 1901, HMS Viper was grounded on rocks during naval exercises in fog off Alderney in the Channel Islands. The crew were forced to abandon ship as she sank.
Less than seven weeks later, at 5.00pm on 17 September 1901, HMS Cobra was deemed ready to leave Newcastle for Portsmouth, where she was to be armed and commissioned. On board were 79 men, 24 of whom were from the north-east, mainly employees of Armstrong Whitworth, the shipbuilders, and Parsons, the turbine builders.
As the weather deteriorated and the ship began to roll, the thoughts of many of those on board must have turned to the recent demise of the Viper, a ship well-known to the Parsons contingent in particular. Conditions, however, began to improve at first light until a sudden shock was felt throughout the Cobra. Within seconds, the ship had broken in two. There wasn’t time to launch any of Its five lifeboats but twelve men, including the ship’s chief engineer, John J G G Percy, were able to scramble into a small dinghy. They were the only survivors. Sixty seven men lost their lives, twenty three of them from ‘contractors’, mainly Parsons.
Among those known to have Heaton connections were:
John originated in Brighton, Sussex and, aged 28, worked for Parsons as a ‘steam engine maker and fitter’. His daughter had been born in Portsea, Hampshire in December 1899 so it’s possible that the family hadn’t been in Newcastle long. At the time of the 1901 census, they were living at 12 Morley Street but by the time John lost his life on the Cobra, they were at 44 Denmark Street.
The Essex born marine engineer was the senior Parsons Turbine representative aboard the Cobra. He was manager of Parsons Turbine Works, Newcastle and Wallsend. He had assisted in the design of Turbinia and superintended its construction. During its trials, he usually acted as steersman alongside Gerard Stoney and Parsons himself.
Barnard had also superintended the erection of the works at Wallsend and supervised the building and engineering of the Viper and the King Edward as well as the Cobra. Aged 38, he had been ‘associated with the development of the modern steam turbine from the very first. No one next to Mr Parsons believed more in the possibilities’. He was also, until shortly before his death, treasurer of Heaton Congregational Church. He is buried in Preston Cemetery, North Shields with his wife, Mary.
Alfred’s was one of the first six bodies to be found and it was formally identified in Grimsby Hospital mortuary by the coroner’s jury three days after the disaster. An envelope addressed to him at his home address of 25 Meldon Terrace, Heaton was found on him. Alfred was born and raised in Co Durham but in 1901, aged 25, was living in Heaton with his widowed mother. He described himself as a ‘steam engine maker and fitter’. ‘Regarded as an exceedingly promising and capable young man’, he had worked as an electrical engineer at Parsons for five years and was previously on board the Viper ‘superintending work in connection with the dynamos’ when it sank.
He had then been sent to Stockport to be in charge of the dynamos of the new electric car system there and had just returned to Tyneside to travel to Portsmouth aboard the Cobra ‘in the same capacity as he had worked on the Viper’. He had three brothers, one of whom was a doctor at the Middlesbrough hospital where some of the survivors of the Cobra disaster were taken. His older brothers were also engineers, one in London, and the other on a railway in South America. Alfred was among the first to be buried. His funeral took place at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. Among the mourners at his funeral were Gerard Stoney, John Barker, manager of Parsons Turbine, and Sir Richard Williams who, in 1889, had moved from Clarke and Chapman with Parsons to help him set up his own company.
Edward was a foreman fitter from C A Parsons and Co. He lived at 21 Morley Street.
Aged only 17, George was the youngest of the Heaton victims. He lived with his widowed mother, younger brother and two sisters at 69 Molyneux Street and was an apprentice fitter at Parsons. His older married brother, David McGregor, aged 29, who lived nearby at 33 Algernon Road was also a fitter at the firm.
John W Webb
John, a 32 year old Parsons fitter, lived at 9 Fifth Avenue with his wife, said to be ‘of delicate health’ and his sister in law. He was reported to be ‘well known and highly respected in the eastern part of the town’, a member of Bainbridge Memorial Wesleyan Church and superintendent of the Sunday school.
Among the first announcements after the disaster was one the following day from the Admiralty declaring that they would ‘cease naming vessels after the snake tribe – first the Serpent, next the Viper and now the Cobra’ (HMS Serpent had run aground and sank in a storm off Galicia in Spain in November 1890, less than two years after going into service. 173 of her 176 crew lost their lives).
Locally, Charles Parsons headed to London immediately and the whole Parsons workforce was given the rest of the week off. There were reports of ’the horrors of scalding steam’ adding to the other dangers experienced by those on board. ‘The Evening Chronicle’ reported that Charles Parsons had foreseen this risk and insisted that the steam pipes on the Viper (on which no escape of steam was reported) were fixed as flexibly as possible. However, on the Cobra, the Parsons Company, as engine builders ‘were bound to follow specifications and these provided that the steam pipes should be as rigidly fixed as possible.’ The war of words between the various interested parties had begun.
The Admiralty immediately absolved the ship’s captain of any blame or navigational error, reporting that the ship was in deep, clear water when it sank. It conceded that it could have struck a wreck or some floating obstruction. A Captain Smith of a Yarmouth herring drifter which was the first vessel on the scene said that he might have seen a shark’s tail but it was impossible to know. A wounded whale, seen in the area, was also implicated until it was discovered that it had been landed a week earlier. The inquest jury expressed ‘an informal opinion that the Cobra was too lightly built and hoped the government would build stronger destroyers’.
Meanwhile a special memorial service was held at Heaton Congregational Church on Sunday 22nd, led by the Reverend William Glover.
And on Saturday 21st, a public meeting was announced by Councillor Thomas Cairns, to be held at the Victoria Hotel on Heaton Road ‘with a view to forming a committee to give assistance where necessary to the families deprived of their bread-winners by the loss of HMS Cobra’. The meeting was said to be crowded. Letters of support had been received from the Mayor, the Sheriff, MP Mr Crawford Smith, eminent trades unionist and Heaton resident Alexander Wilkie and the Reverend J Robertson of St Gabriel’s Church among others. Councillor Cairns made a stirring speech which concluded by assuring listeners that the organisers wished to alleviate distress only where it existed and so prompt enquiries into the circumstances of every case would be made. It was stated that the appeal would only be on behalf of the bereaved of the ‘Tyneside district’. A committee was elected and a further meeting convened.
However, a few days later it was announced that a national relief fund had been opened in Portsmouth. When Councillor Cairns contacted the mayor to ask that the Heaton committee be left to support its own bereaved as they better understood individual needs and appealed for the national fund not to appeal for donations for Parsons’ families, he was told the 600 letters had already been sent to national and local newspapers and that the fund would be for the widows and orphans of all those lost, not just the naval men. Cairns responded that Newcastle wouldn’t have dreamt of setting up a national fund. ‘If it had been set up in London, that would be different’. An agreement was soon made for the Heaton executive committee to be broadened to include the mayors of all the Tyneside boroughs. Mr Alfred Howson of 8 Heaton Road was appointed secretary and local councillor Thomas Cairns, treasurer.
Armstrong Whitworth contributed £1,000 to the Tyneside fund.
On 10 October 1901, the naval enquiry or court martial opened at Portsmouth. The Hon Charles Parsons was in court to hear his company absolved of any blame for the accident but Philip Watts, the designer of the ship for Armstrong Whitworth, endured lengthy questioning about the strength of the vessel and what might have caused it to sink. Watts said that he believed that wave action alone could not have sunk the Cobra because of where the ship broke and he maintained that the disaster could not have been caused by striking a rock as the shock felt by those on board would have been greater still. His best guess was that the destroyer had struck some drifting wreckage perhaps with an iron mast attached. He believed that if the aft half of the boat, which was still missing, were to be found, the likely damage would show this to be the case.
Parsons then gave evidence to the court. Perhaps undiplomatically, he said that he believed destroyers like the Cobra were intended to be ‘fine weather vessels but that gradually, having been found to survive heavy seas , they were not taken the same care of as they were originally.’ He clarified that he meant that they were designed to shelter in bad weather. When pressed on the fact that heavy seas were to be expected around the British Isles, he confirmed it ‘would become a necessity to ensure that the strength of these vessels is sufficient to stand any stress they may be likely to come across.’
He confirmed that the turbine machinery installed exceeded the original estimate of 155-160 tons, being 183 tons.
The enquiry concluded that Cobra didn’t meet with any obstruction and that there was no navigation error but ‘the loss was attributable to the structural weakness of the ship’. The court also found that the ‘Cobra was weaker than other destroyers and, in view of that fact, it is to be regretted that she was purchased into his Majesty’s service.’
Armstrong Whitworth immediately contested the court martial’s findings. The company pointed out that similar boats had sailed to Australia and Japan without incident.
Asked about Parsons’ comments the following day, an Armstrong Whitworth representative said that Parsons had meant that destroyers fitted with the turbine system of propulsion were constructed essentially for their high speed and this high speed could only be obtained in smooth water.
The company authorised Philip Watts, the ship’s designer, to conduct a search operation to try to restore its and his damaged reputations. However, the missing aft section, which could have provided evidence of a collision and exonerated both Watts and the firm, wasn’t found.
However, Armstrong Whitworth was invited to submit an article to a literary and current affairs magazine ‘The Monthly Review’. It commissioned John Meade Falkner, the English novelist best known for ‘Moonfleet’, the classic children’s story of shipwrecks and smuggling, written just a few years earlier, to write the piece.
Why him? Well, soon after the Wiltshire born, Marlborough educated Falkner had graduated in history with a third class degree from Hertford College Oxford in 1882, he was introduced to an Eton schoolboy who was struggling to prepare for his Oxford University entrance examination. The boy was John Noble, son of Sir Andrew Noble, physicist, ballistics expert and partner of Sir William Armstrong.
Falkner came to Newcastle to be a tutor both to John and to Sir Andrew Noble’s other children. You can see the 32 year old listed among the large extended household living in Jesmond Dene House on the 1891 census, even though by this time the youngest of the Noble children at home was 20 year old Philip who was recorded as being at Balliol College.
Falkner’s occupation then appears to read ‘MA Oxon Secretary’. There is a second census entry for him as a lodger in Elswick and ‘secretary to engineering company’. He had become company secretary to Armstrong Mitchell in 1888. ‘Moonfleet’ was published in 1896.
By the time of the Cobra disaster in 1901, Falkner was living in Divinity House, Palace Green, Durham and described as a ‘mechanical engineer’ and an ‘employer’. At some point during that year, he became a director of what was now Armstrong Whitworth. His persuasive writing skills were undoubtedly a reason for him being chosen to pen the piece.
Like the naval enquiry, Falkner, in his article, quickly exonerated Parsons and the turbines but questioned the credibility of the court by drawing readers’ attentions to its members’ lack of knowledge of marine engineering. He went on to cast doubt on the competence of the naval divers who had dragged the wreck into deeper waters, searched in poor visibility and, in one case, ‘a foreigner, and his evidence, which seemed naturally vague, was rendered still more obscure by difficulties of interpretation.’
Falkner called for a ‘properly qualified tribunal’ … ‘which will command respect, and the country will accept nothing less’. The truth would then be uncovered ‘on better authority than the verdict of a casual court-martial.’
His words fell on deaf ears but Armstrong Whitworth survived the blow to its reputation and, like Parsons’ turbine business, went from strength to strength in the following decades. Falkner succeeded Sir Andrew Noble as Chairman of Armstrong Vickers in 1915. He later became Honorary Reader in Paleography at the University of Durham and Honorary Librarian to the Dean and Chapter Library of Durham Cathedral.
Sixty seven men, including twenty four from Parsons and at least six who lived in Heaton, weren’t so fortunate.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.
Can You Help?
If you know any more about the people named in this article or the sinking of HMS Cobra, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
British Newspaper Archive
‘The Cobra Trail’ / George Robson and Kenneth Hillier in ‘The John Meade Falkner Society Journal’ no 9, July 2008
‘Down Elswick Slipways: Armstrong’s Ships and People 1884-1918’/ Dick Keys and Ken Smith; Newcastle City Libraries, 1996
‘From Galaxies to Turbines: science, technology and the Parsons family’ / W Garrett Scaife; Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000
If, like so many other people, you’ve been enjoying exercising in the green haven that is Jesmond Dene this spring, perhaps you’ve wondered about those in whose footsteps you’re walking: people like William and Margaret (later Lord and Lady) Armstrong, of course, who, in 1835, were given 16 acres of land in the Dene by Margaret’s parents as a wedding present and, who, in turn, later gifted the landscaped park he developed there to us, the people of Newcastle; but also Jane and Isabella, artist daughters of engraver Thomas Bewick, who loved to walk there as elderly ladies (They both lived into their 90s); eminent naturalists John and Albany Hancock, who lived nearby, and the family of Armstrong’s trusted lieutenant, ballistics expert Sir Andrew Noble, lucky enough to live in the Dene itself, first of all in Deep Dene House on the High Heaton side of the Ouseburn, now sadly a semi ruin but most recently known as Fisherman’s Lodge, and latterly in Jesmond Dene House, now a boutique hotel. What all of these people have in common (and also in common with, reportedly, a growing number of us today) is that they took a great interest in the natural world, especially that of their own locality.
It is Andrew and Margery Noble’s son, George, who we have to thank for a fascinating book called ‘Birds of Jesmond Dene’ published in 1931. In it, he lists and comments on ‘merely those birds which I and one or two relatives and intimate friends have observed. My memory, alas! goes back over sixty years so I have taken that period roughly as a time limit.’
Thus the book is a valuable document which gives us a feel of how the bird life of the Dene has changed over a long period, from the late 1860s to 2020, as well as giving us little glimpses into life in the Dene during the period Noble writes about. This article is not a scientific study but, just as Noble did, we have enlisted the help of a small number of fellow Heatonians and local birdwatchers to get a better understanding of the range of birds that have been seen in recent years and allow rough comparisons with the period Noble covered. And we have the added advantage of being able to scour Twitter for those birds thought worthy of special mention by today’s 140 character chroniclers. It’s certainly not an exhaustive or official list though. We have also expanded the area covered to the whole of Heaton, although most of the birds listed have been seen in Heaton’s various parks.
Jesmond Dene is, of course, essentially a wooded valley and so many of the birds seen there could be described as ‘woodland birds’. Apologies to ornithologists as it’s certainly not a scientific classification and many of the birds listed will often be seen in other habitats too but most build their nests, and are often seen, in and around trees. Many of our common garden birds would fit into that category.
Here are the woodland birds of Jesmond Dene as mentioned by Noble in 1930 in approximate order of how common he considered them to be, along with some contemporary observations:
Robin (or ‘Redbreast’, as Noble calls it) ‘Very common and breeds’ It’s perhaps surprising that he says no more about this perennial favourite, which has such a close relationship with man. Nowadays: Still resident in and beyond the Ouseburn parks. in In 2011 Peter Candler, Managing Director of Jesmond Dene House, Noble’s old home, posted a photograph on Twitter of one in the garden there. Lovely to be able to start with that direct link with the past.
Dunnock (‘Hedge Sparrow’, as Noble calls it) ‘Very common and breeds regularly.’ Nowadays: Still a common, if often overlooked bird, in the Dene and elsewhere in Heaton. Mike Cook says it’s ‘best seen having a free lunch in Pets’ Corner’.
Song Thrush ‘Very common and breeds’ . Noble includes his own painting of one in the book. Nowadays: Although according to the RSPB ‘in serious decline’, we’re lucky to still have them in and around the Dene. In January 2020, James Common tweeted that he’d seen good numbers in Heaton Park.
Chaffinch ‘Very common and breeds.’ Nowadays: Still resident in the Dene and other Heaton parks and gardens, but, again, is said to be in decline, possibly because of disease.
House Sparrow ‘Very common. A pair of pure white sparrows, which had evidently just left the nest, once appeared on the lawn of Jesmond Dene House. The family was away at the time, but one of our maids, in some mysterious way, managed to capture them. She amused us afterwards by saying they looked like angels amongst their darker brethren. Poor little things! They paid the penalty of their beauty by dying a martyr’s death.’ Nowadays: While still a common sight in the author’s north Heaton garden, Mike Cook reports that, although a common resident until 2005, they are now only occasionally recorded on the periphery of the Ouseburn parks.
Starling ‘Very common and increasing species. Nests every year. It is curious to think that sixty years ago it was, comparatively speaking rare.’ Nowadays: More common in the streets and gardens of Heaton than in the Ouseburn parks themselves.
Blackbird ‘Common and breeds. I have found many nests of this species placed on the ground on the banks of the burn in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House.’ Nowadays: Very common, of course, in the Dene and in other parks and gardens.
Blue Tit ‘Common and breeds’. Nowadays: A beautiful bird but such a common sight at feeders and in nest boxes that only artist, Sophie Foster, has mentioned them on Twitter in the context of Jesmond Dene. She found an abandoned nest, which she took home to photograph and study to understand how it was constructed and the materials used.
Great Tit ‘Common and breeds’. Nowadays: Again very common but neither the majority of our birders nor the Twitter community thought it notable enough to mention specifically.
Wren ‘Common and breeds’. Nowadays: It’s a secretive bird which tends to lurk in the undergrowth and so perhaps more common in and around the Dene than many people realise.
Rook ‘Common resident. There was a rookery near the Banqueting Hall till quite lately but I fancy this has been deserted. A small one was started some years ago in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House but as it was just above the chicken pen it was discouraged.’ Nowadays: Only recorded very occasionally flying over.
Redwing ‘Arrives in large numbers in the autumn.’ Nowadays: Still seen in winter. In March 2017, Gareth Kane tweeted ‘Flock of redwing in a beautifully sunlit Heaton Park this morning.’ Mike Cook suggests checking out yew trees with berries in autumn.
Fieldfare ‘As above.’ Nowadays: Another winter visitor to be seen in and around Heaton occasionally, especially during harsh weather. Marek Bidwell photographed one on a crab apple tree during Beast from the East in March 2018. Mike Cook says they’re most likely to be seen around the edges of Paddy Freeman’s playing fields.
Hooded Crow ‘Regular winter visitant.’ Nowadays: Not recorded by our birders – in the UK, breeding birds are confined to the far north and west, although apparently migratory birds can occasionally be spotted on the east coast of England. Interesting that they were once more common.
Coal Tit: ‘Quite common, though I don’t think we have seen a nest’. Nowadays: Still resident in the Dene and the wider area, although only visiting birder, Sam Porter, thought to mention a sighting on Twitter last October.
Jackdaw ‘Still fairly common’. Nowadays: Resident in the Ouseburn parks and seen regularly around Heaton.
Cuckoo ‘Regularly heard each year. In 1915 they appeared to be very plentiful, being heard and seen almost daily during the season. One was caught in the nets set to protect the gooseberries…’ Nowadays: No reported sightings in and around the Dene but the author heard one this May in Rising Sun Country Park, which isn’t too far away so listen carefully while there’s less traffic noise.
Spotted Flycatcher ‘Regular summer visitant. EC: I was walking along a path by the burn when I saw in an oak tree a shabby old blackbird’s nest… when I went to examine it, a flycatcher flew off and I found a neat new nest had been built inside the blackbird’s, like the lining of an entrée dish.’ 2020: Bred in the Dene up to about 2003 but not recorded since then.
Linnet ‘Common. Much commoner in past years when the Dene was less formally laid out and there were more patches of gorse and bramble.’ Nowadays: No recent reports even though the RSPB says, ‘There are concentrations along the east coast from Kent to Aberdeen’ including in parks and gardens. The linnet is, however, another bird in long term decline.
Greenfinch ‘Common though not quite so much as formerly when it used to breed very plentifully.’ Nowadays: Perhaps the same could be said today. They are seen in Heaton’s parks and gardens but they’re another species which has declined, partly because of disease.
Goldcrest (‘Golden Crested Wren’, as Noble calls it) ‘Seen every winter as recently as January 1928.’ Nowadays: Although tiny and difficult to spot, resident in and around the Dene. James Common posted a photograph on Twitter during snowy weather in March 2018: ‘This Goldcrest spent a good quarter-hour feeding in the lower branches of Holly in Heaton Park this afternoon. One of the species hardest hit by bad weather, it was promising to see it nab a few morsels’.
Willow Warbler (‘Willow Wren’, Noble calls it) ‘Still nests regularly. Miss Adamson: I saw such a pretty sight the other day. I was watering my begonias with a hosepipe… when a little willow wren came and bathed in the spray. It flew onto the apple tree nearby and sang its thanks and then came back and finished its bath.‘ Nowadays: A summer migrant which bred in the Dene until the turn of the century but now just recorded on migration. James Common reported one in Heaton Park on 10 April 2020.
Garden Warbler ‘Not uncommon. We found a nest of this species many years ago.’ Nowadays: No recent records although, as they sound like blackcaps and are difficult to spot, they may go unreported.
Woodpigeon ‘Fairly common’ is all Noble had to say. Nowadays: Most of our contemporary birders didn’t think to mention it at all and nobody has excitedly posted a sighting on Twitter but if they had they may have simply said ‘ubiquitous’. The woodpigeon has increased in numbers by some 87% in the last thirty years or so. In the countryside, it’s said to have benefited from the cultivation of oil seed rape but here in Heaton, it’s one of the birds that has gained most from our increasing provision of food on bird tables.
Bullfinch ‘ Not uncommon. Nested within the last few years and seen in 1917.’ Nowadays: A few resident pairs in the Dene. James Common photographed one in Heaton Park during the harsh early spring of 2018 ‘Bullfinch from Heaton Park this afternoon – appeared grateful for the sunflower seeds placed out by a kind local. Who wouldn’t be in this weather?’ They also love the plum trees in Iris Brickfield, especially in early spring.
Tawny Owl ‘This bird is, I think, more plentiful in the Dene than formerly. From the fact it can be heard all year round, I fancy it may still be considered a breeding species… When I was a boy, this bird always came under the disgusting denomination of vermin and was ruthlessly destroyed. [It] does occasionally take birds but makes up for this by the enormous quantity of rats and mice it destroys.’ Nowadays: More often heard than seen but Gareth Kane reported seeing one by the Ouseburn in November 2012 and Marek Bidwell has had one in his Heaton backyard, although he says they’re more often to be seen or heard in the tall trees at the bottom of Jesmond Vale Lane.
Woodcock ‘There are generally one or two seen every year on autumn migration. Some years ago, I saw one quite unconcernedly feeding on the lawn of Jesmond Dene House’. Nowadays: A rare winter visitor but Anthea James reports seeing one in her North Heaton garden and Gavin Dudley has seen one on Shields Road!
Wood Warbler (‘Wood wren’j ‘Occasionally seen.’ Nowadays: Rarely recorded on migration. Mike Cook saw one in May 2002.
Kestrel ‘Still occasionally seen. Some years ago we had high hopes that it might breed in the quarry of Jesmond Dene House.’ Nowadays: Mike Cook says that they bred in a ruin at Castles Farm until 1996 but now only occasionally sighted. In November 2015, birdwatcher ‘Lophophanes’ tweeted that he’d seen a kestrel with a rat in the Dene, his first sighting of one there ‘for ages’.
Redstart ‘We used to see the redstart every year and a pair nested in our garden more than once’. Nowadays: Gavin Dudley saw one in his High Heaton garden in the 1990s.
Sedge Warbler ‘Some thirty five years ago I remember finding no less than three nests in one afternoon.’ Nowadays: No recent reports.
Chiffchaff ‘Have not heard or seen it for some years but I heard its note constantly in the sixties.’ Nowadays: It appears that chiffchaff is a success story over recent years as the distinctive onomatopoeic call of this summer visitor is regularly heard in all of Heaton’s parks from March onwards. Tom Middleton photographed one in Iris Brickfield in April 2015 and they have been heard by all our correspondents in and around the Dene this spring.
Grasshopper Warbler ‘I remember this bird’s curious note as one of my earliest recollections. It must have bred regularly during the sixties as we heard it year after year.’ Nowadays: Mike Cook recorded one in Jesmond Vale in July 2007.
Whitethroat ‘Used to nest fairly frequently in the Dene but I have not myself seen a nest or bird here for some years.’ Nowadays: The last one recorded by Mike Cook was in June 1996.
Magpie ‘Often seen in the late sixties. I remember a nest in a clump of high trees at a spot not far from the east end of Armstrong Bridge.’ Nowadays: Amazing to think it was still uncommon in Heaton even thirty to forty years ago but a success story over the last few decades and one of the easiest to spot birds in the Dene and throughout Heaton.
Brambling (‘Mountain Finch‘ as Noble referred to it) ‘One roosted regularly all through the winter in a shrub outside the library window of Jesmond Dene House.’ Nowadays: A sporadic winter visitor. Gavin Dudley recalls seeing a flock in Heaton Park in the 1990s.
Nightjar ‘This bird was not uncommon years ago, I remember that my father shot one within yards of the fence on the east side of the Dene.’ Nowadays : A nocturnal summer visitor to Britain not reported in Heaton in recent years. They are normally found on heathlands, moorlands, in open woodland with clearings and in recently felled conifer plantations.
Treecreeper (Simply ‘Creeper’ Noble calls it) ‘Not very common.’ Nowadays: Resident in the Dene and Heaton and Armstrong Parks. Dick Gilhespy posted a photograph on Twitter in March 2017.
Goldfinch ‘Seen in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House a few years ago. Nested two years in succession in a pear tree at Craghall, 1911 and 1912. The nest… was given by me to the Hancock Museum’. Nowadays: Now commonly seen and heard in the parks and gardens of Heaton, they are a bird that has done well in towns and cities during recent years, spotted at just 8% of feeders in 1972 but by 2012 were seen at 87% of them.
Marsh Tit ‘Somewhat rare. Seen in the quarry of Jesmond Dene House in 1916’. Nowadays: A one off sighting for Noble and in recent years neither marsh nor willow tits, which look very similar, have been seen locally by our birders. Despite their name, marsh tits are most often found in broad leaf woodland, and also copses, parks and gardens so, in theory, the Dene would suit them, although they are said to be more common in southern England.
Sparrowhawk ‘I have not seen this bird for some years’. Nowadays: Another 21st century success story! Resident in the Ouseburn parks and often seen around Heaton. In January 2013, Gareth Kane tweeted ‘Saw female sparrowhawk hunting long tailed tits in Heaton Park this morning.’ And in October 2017, James Common noted ‘ Sparrowhawk twisting and turning through the chimney pots of central Heaton just now in pursuit of a pigeon. Awesome to see!’
Tree Pipit ‘I have not seen this bird for many years. In 1869, I found a nest with 5 eggs in it above the Flint Mill.’ Nowadays: Not reported by our present day ornithologists but, as the RSPB describes its habitat as newly planted conifers or open heath in western UK, that’s perhaps not surprising. Again, Armstrong’s young plantations may have briefly suited it in the 1860s.
Blackcap ‘This bird was pointed out to me by John Hancock when I was a very small boy. Nest seen by LA and EC for several years.’ Nowadays: Although, blackcap is historically a summer visitor, increasing numbers overwinter in Britain. In January 2015, Marek Bidwell noted: ‘Female #blackcap on my feeders in #heaton #newcastle; last sighting on 12th Jan 2014 almost exactly a year ago’ but also in April 2016, ‘Lophophanes’ tweeted ‘ Male blackcap singing Jesmond Dene, first of the spring.’
Hawfinch ‘Seen by me two or three times and always when the yew berries were ripe.’ Nowadays: Hawfinch are now among Britain’s rarest / most difficult to spot resident birds and haven’t been reported in Jesmond Dene since the 1980s.
Icterine Warbler ‘Shot in the garden of Crag Hall about twenty five years ago by the gardener. This specimen… [was] presented to the Hancock Museum.’ Nowadays: No recent reports but clearly rare back in the day too – and made rarer by the shooting!
But there are also woodland birds seen nowadays that George Noble and friends didn’t mention seeing at all between the 1860s and 1930:
Collared Dove: Even if you don’t know what they look like, you’ll be familiar with their call which sounds like ‘U-NIIII-TED’! Not recorded as breeding in Britain until the 1950s, they are now common throughout Heaton but have declined in the parks, now being more likely to be spotted on roofs and in gardens.
Long-tailed Tit: Numbers have risen nationally since the 1980s and that certainly seems to be the case in Heaton, where acrobatic flocks are a fairly common sight in our parks and increasingly gardens.
Jay: Rare before 2003 but now breeding. All our present day birders and many Twitter users report seeing jays in the Dene and local parks.
Nuthatch: Resident in the Ouseburn parks. Marek Bidwell says they especially like pecking at the old walls on Jesmond Vale Lane.
Great Spotted Woodpecker: Its distinctive drumming is often heard, particularly in Armstrong Park. Geoff Forrester managed to photograph this bird at its nest near Pets’ Corner.
Ring-necked Parakeet: Britain’s only naturalised parrot, despite many having escaped from private collections, only began to breed in the UK in the late 1960s. They spread north from the south east and, having been first recorded in 2014, they have probably been breeding in Heaton Park for the last couple of years.
Waxwings: These beautiful winter visitors tend to be seen in larger numbers in Britain, especially the east side, when harsh winter weather affects their native Scandinavia. Marek Bidwell says they are occasionally seen around the bowling green near Heaton Road. They’re also quite often seen around the Coast Road around the junction with Benfield Road. A large flock settled on telephone wires on Huntcliffe Gardens a few years ago.
Siskin: Gavin Dudley reports them being fairly regularly winter visitors to his High Heaton garden bird feeders in the 1990s. Mike Cook saw one in the Ouseburn parks in January 2019.
Red Kite: Introduced successfully to Gateshead in the early years of the twenty first century, they are occasionally seen over Heaton. Birder, Jack Bucknall, reported seeing one circling over Shields Road in June 2018.
Redpoll: A rare visitor, Mike Cook saw one in March 1997 and visiting birder, Sam Porter, tweeted about seeing one fly over Heaton and Armstrong parks in October 2019.
Harris Hawk: an escapee from captivity of this American species was first spotted in Jesmond Dene in late 2014 and often in 2015. Since then a number of escapees have been spotted, most recently in April this year.
Lesser Whitethroat: A single migrating bird seen by Mike Cook over Paddy Freeman’s lake in May 2002.
Peacock: Marek Bidwell was astonished when walking along Park Head Road a few years ago to hear ‘ the most unusual call high in a tree that made me think of a jungle. I looked up and saw a peacock.’ It turns out it had escaped from Pets’ Corner!
Buzzard: A number of our birdwatchers have reported seeng their first buzzards flying high over Heaton during 2020’s lockdown, whether that is a coincidence or a result of increased prey or birdwatchers enjoying more time staring at the sky from their yards and gardens, it’s difficult to know.
What about birds associated with the Ouseburn itself? Here are the ‘water birds’ Noble mentions, again roughly in order of how common they were.
Moorhen (‘Water Hen‘, as Noble called it) ‘Common and breeds. Although we constantly had two or three nests on stumps or stones in the burn… they seemed hardly ever to get more than one young away… I have no doubt they were taken by pike, of which there were a good many in the water or possibly rats may have been the culprits.’ Nowadays: Still common and easy to spot in and around the Ouseburn and in recent years at Iris Brickfield in North Heaton.
Pied Wagtail ‘Still quite common. Old and young birds seen together every year about the burnside.’ Nowadays: Although included in the ‘water birds’ section, they are perhaps more commonly spotted in Heaton’s streets. Gareth Kane tweeted about one on Stratford Road in snowy weather in March 2018, the ‘Beast from the East’. There’s often one around Chillingham Road and the author saw one in May 2020 on Rothbury Terrace.
Grey Wagtail ‘Fairly common. Still seen about the burnside. Used to breed regularly above the Flint Mill’. Nowadays: Often seen along the Ouseburn. Gareth Kane reported seeing one while out running in March 2013. Marek Bidwell recommends the burn near Pets’ Corner as a good place to spot one. The author saw one on the Ouseburn in May 2020 near the newish metal footbridge by the flyover.
Common Sandpiper ‘A tolerably regular summer visitant. Has bred within the last few years’. Nowadays: Gavin Dudley has seen one under the bridge by the flyover ‘but it was a long time ago’. Let us know if you’ve seen one.
Sand Martin ‘Up to about eight or ten years ago, this bird bred above the sandstone quarry at Crag Hall.’ Nowadays: Rare but Mike Cook has two records of sightings from 2003 and 2004.
Mallard (‘Wild Duck’ is the name Noble uses) ‘Used to be seen fairly frequently in hard weather, being no doubt attracted by the food for the tame ducks that my father kept’. Nowadays: Mallards are so common on and around the Ouseburn and in Paddy Freeman’s pond, that it’s hardly ever mentioned by local birders. Has definitely done well over the last century or so.
Kingfisher ‘We once saw five of these birds, three young and two old ones. Still occasionally seen… one seen at Crag Hall on 22nd November 1927. Also seen in 1929 and 1930.’ Nowadays: Regularly seen but possibly no longer breeding. In December 2019, Gareth Kane tweeted ‘Nothing like watching a kingfisher fly along the Ouseburn to lift my spirits on a Monday morning!’ and they lifted many a spirit during this year’s lockdown too. Perhaps more surprisingly, in winter 2015/16, one spent several weeks around the pond in Iris Brickfield.
Dipper ‘ I fear that this bird is perhaps not as often seen owing to the pollution of the stream from Gosforth village and the consequent destruction of the larvae upon which it fed… although ‘Miss Adamson informs me that it certainly did breed here. The nest was under the waterfall, and when she was little, her old nurse used to take her there daily to watch the birds flying out and in…’ Nowadays: There have been regular sightings since 2006. In July 2019. Marek Bidwell wrote on Twitter: ‘I spotted a #Dipper at the top of @JesmondDeneOrg this morning – it had retreated into a rocky crevice to escape the torrent of steaming water cascading down the Ouseburn, creating humidity that I would more typically associate with a tropical rain forest rather than #Newcastle.’ Earlier, in 2016, he managed to photograph a nesting pair ‘under the bridge at Cradlewell’. He has not seen them there since and says there may have been a problem with rats or vandalism.
Grey Heron ‘Seen flying so low that it can said to have been seen actually in the Dene’(Ethel Cochrane, Noble’s sister)‘ Nowadays: The occasional, mainly young, heron can still be seen in Jesmond Dene in an around the burn. Gareth Kane photographed one in November 2018. Marek Bidwell has seen one fishing near Castle Farm Road. There are also occasional sightings on Iris Brickfield.
(Red breasted) Merganser ‘Mr Alfred Cochrane tells me that in February 1929, during the very hard weather, he saw a merganser in the burn, most of which was frozen over at the time. The stream has not been frozen over more than twice in the last 40 years, at least solid enough for people to walk on the ice. The other occasion was in January 1895.’ Nowadays: More recently, Gavin Dudley has seen a pair in the Dene.
Water Rail ‘Seen in the burn at Craghall in 1910 or 1911’ (Colonel Adamson). Nowadays: A rarity just as in Noble’s time but in February 2013, a ranger posted ‘First ever film of a Water Rail in Jesmond Dene! I was really lucky to see this (only 4th ever record in the Dene) and even luckier to catch some nice feeding behaviour on film.’
Snipe ‘In February 1929 Mr Alfred Cochrane saw a snipe near the bridge in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House. Doubtless it was driven to the burnside by the extremely cold weather.’ Nowadays: A single record in August 1995.
Green Sandpiper ‘I have included this bird… although the two occurrences come somewhat outside my time limit. John Hancock in “Birds of Northumberland and Durham” stated a specimen… was killed in Jesmond Dene on the 26th July 1843 and adds … a fine specimen… found dead [at Craghall] in August 1855.’ Nowadays: No recent reports.
Little Grebe ‘Seen in the burn just above the bridge at Crag Hall in late summer of 1910 or 1911’ (Colonel Adamson). Nowadays: Still a very rare visitor but Mike Cook recorded one in December 2008.
But there are also so called ‘water birds’ that George Noble and friends didn’t see at all between the 1860s and 1930 but which have been recorded in more recent years:
Mute Swan: Occasionally sighted but this year, for the first time anyone can remember, they built a nest on Paddy Freeman’s pond, perhaps partly because council cuts and lockdown have meant more debris than usual to use for nesting material. They even made an appearance with ranger, Sarah Capes, on ‘Look North’!
Common Gull: Occasionally spotted among flocks of black-headed gulls, Mike Cook’s last record was in January this year.
Reed Bunting: They were a common sight on the reeds of the Iris Brickfield pond, certainly up to a few years ago and one year, a pair were regular visitor to garden bird feeders in the North Heaton bungalows, including the author’s.
Canada Goose: The author photographed and tweeted about seeing one in the Iris Brickfield in March 2015. It was facing down a pair of magpies. They are also occasionally seen in Paddy Freeman’s.
Coot: The author saw a coot on the pond on Iris Brickfield a few years ago. Mike Cook last saw one in the Ouseburn parks in April 2012.
Cormorant: Gareth Kane’s report in January 2020 was the latest of a number of sightings of this coastal bird.
Goosander: Marek Bidwell has seen a female at the top of the Dene near Castles Farm Road. Mike Cook’s most recent record was in January 2020.
Tufted Duck: Also seen from time to time in Paddy Freeman’s, most recently by Mike Cook this March.
Goldeneye: Gavin Dudley has seen them in Paddy Freeman’s pond. Mike Cook has recorded two in November 1991 and December 2011.
Mandarin Duck: Mike Cook reports regular sightings between November 2002 and September 2003 and sporadically until 2013.
Wood Duck: Mike Cook reports that one was a regular in the winter of 1995 and another from April 2002 to 2003.
Teal: a single report from Mike Cook in September 2011.
Curlew: Gareth Kane saw two among the beech trees in Heaton Park in the winter of 2010.
Redshank: Recorded by Mike Cook close to the stepping stones on the Ouseburn in November 2004.
Great Crested Grebe: Gavin Dudley reports seeing one in recent years.
Common Tern: A single sighting over Paddy Freeman’s lake by Mike Cook in July 2007.
Farmland (and cliff)
Noble lists a number of birds as being common on the fields on the east side of the Dene ie inHigh Heaton. From the Coast Road to Castles Farm Road, even in 1930, the only buildings shown on a map are a couple of farm houses and High Heaton Cottages on what we now call The Spinney.
Mistle (‘Missel’) Thrush ‘This bird bred year after year in the grounds of Jesmond Dene House in a tree close to the road and in full view of passers-by’. Nowadays: Still commonly found in the Dene and around Heaton, it is more a bird of open spaces than its cousin, the song thrush. In May 2020, Gareth Kane photographed a parent and young in a nest in a tree on the banks of the Ouseburn.
Swallow ‘Common and breeds’. Nowadays: The most recent records from Paddy Freeman’s are September 2015 and around that time they also used to sometimes be seen flying low over Iris Brickfield field and pond.
House Martin ‘Used to breed every year at Crag Hall.’ Nowadays: Good numbers nest in some of Heaton’s terraces and at Heaton Community Centre. They can occasionally be seen hunting insects over the trees in the parks.
Swift ‘Occasionally seen. I fancy these have become much more common over the Dene since St George’s Tower was built.’ Nowadays: Although the numbers are much smaller than even a few years ago, small numbers of swifts still return to Heaton skies and roof spaces every May.
Skylark ‘This bird was very common in all the fields on the east side of the Dene. I found a nest with three eggs on 3 May 1870. These eggs are still in my collection… the ground where they used to breed so plentifully is now covered with villas and tennis courts’ (Presumably Jesmond Park East and West and Melbury Road. Ed). Nowadays: You’d have to go to the Town Moor or Rising Sun to hear skylarks today.
Partridge ‘My father had the shooting of the fields on the east of the Dene and occasionally he got quite a good bag’. 2020: Again, you might spot them at Rising Sun or the Town Moor.
Corncrake ‘I have not heard its note for some time but it was common and bred regularly in the fields east of the Dene. I remember being told that six nests were found in one field alone when it was being mown’. Nowadays: Sadly now confined to Western Scotland and Ireland, except perhaps on migration.
Lapwing (‘Green Plover’) ‘Used to breed regularly in the fields east of the Dene. I had some eggs in my collection taken in April 1877 and marked with the words ‘taken within 10 minutes walk of Jesmond Dene House’. Nowadays: The nearest lapwing to Heaton the author has seen is by the pond behind the Wills Building, visible through a fence just before the Newcastle United training ground.
Yellowhammer ‘I found a nest on the east side of the Dene containing two eggs, many years ago but it was a very common bird in the sixties.’ Nowadays: Not reported by any of our birders in the Dene or Heaton.
Pheasant ‘Occasionally seen in former years, no doubt having strayed down from Gosforth Park, where they used to be reared in large quantities. One seen early in 1930.‘ Nowadays: Anthea James reports seeing one once in her North Heaton garden. Mike Cook has recorded two, in April 1994 and June 2015.
Quail ‘My father shot one in the sixties, the skin of which I had for a long time in my possession. This bird was killed within a few yards of the Dene fence.’ Nowadays: No reports.
Black-headed Gull; Herring Gull; Lesser Black-backed Gull. Noble lists these three birds together and comments ‘I do not know how far these birds may be considered as birds of the Dene. They are seen in great quantities every winter flying close over the Dene and I think they occasionally alight in the field opposite the old Flint Mill. When the Dene was in the country, they often pitched in the surrounding fields’. Nowadays: Gulls are a common sight all year round throughout Heaton. Large flocks of black-headed gulls can be seen on Paddy Freeman’s playing fields and Iris Brickfield in winter; herring gulls can be seen year round in both parks and around Heaton roof tops; lesser black-backed is now a summer visitor and becoming more common.
However, there are also ‘farmland’ (and ‘cliff’) birds that George Noble and friends didn’t see at all between the 1860s and 1930:
Feral Pigeon: Descended from the rock dove, a farmland bird, which have been bred in captivity for many years and been very successful in their return to the wild, creating a new habitat in city streets as well as parks and gardens. The white ones are descendants of the occupants of a dovecote that used to be in Pets’ Corner. Did George Noble really not see any up until 1930 or did he not think they really counted?
Stock Dove: Distinguished from feral pigeons in flight by their lack of a white rump and from wood pigeons by their lack of a white patch on the side of their neck and white band on their wings. Their songs differ too. Resident throughout the Ouseburn parks.
Carrion Crow Only fairly recently separated as a species from the closely related Hooded Crow, which Noble did see, but, unlike its cousin, now ubiquitous all year round.
Greylag Goose: Mike Cook recorded one in January 2000.
Peregrine Falcon: Local naturalist, James Common, has reported several sightings from his home in Heaton’s terraces, including via this tweet in December 2018: ‘Peregrine silhouetted overhead at first light, Herring Gulls going beserk. My second record this Winter on my street in Heaton…’
Sir George Noble and friends recorded 74 different species in the almost 60 years between the 1860s and 1930, 58 of which were reported by our local birders in the 30 or so years between 1990 and 2020. Of those species not recorded in more recent times, 11 were considered by Noble to be common at some point during his recording period.
In addition, our birders recorded some 35 species that Noble and friends didn’t see, around 10 of which we could classify as very or relatively common and 25 rare.
So somewhat surprisingly, the final score is Noble 76 Nowadays 93. We have a number of advantages, not least of high speed communications to report sightings and social media on which those sightings can be permanently recorded. We also stretched the geographical area covered a little more than Noble did. But on the other hand, Noble and his friends and relatives had the advantage of actually living in the Dene itself.
We can argue all day about the numbers but what is clear is that Jesmond Dene and the other parks of Heaton are a precious historic and environmental resource, which we should both enjoy and do our very best to conserve for future generations.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group with huge and much appreciated input from our local birders, Marek Bidwell, Michael Burnie, Mike Cook, Gavin Dudley, Geoff Forrester, Anthea James and Gareth Kane, along with additional assistance from David Noble-Rollin and Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club and the many Twitter users mentioned in the text.
Can You Help?
Please fee free to add your sightings and other observations to the Comments section by clicking on the link below the title of this article.
This October marks the centenary of the Russian revolution, so it feels like an appropriate time to explore the two-way links between Russia and Heaton that predate that landmark in world history.
Heaton is much changed over the last 150 years, of course, and has experienced two world wars but the account below gives just a hint of how much Eastern Europe has changed and endured during the same period, with many of Heaton’s ‘Russian’ links being with what we now know as Ukraine, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania and the Soviet Union having come and gone.
From Russia for Love
In 1911, just three years before the outbreak of WW1 and the subsequent overthrow of the Russian royal family and civil war, there were at least fifteen people in Heaton who were recorded on the census as having been born in what was then Russia. We have already written about Joseph Rose, a Jewish slipper maker, born in what is now Latvia. In 1911, he had already been here for over 30 years, and like many of our other Russian Heatonians, he seems to have integrated quickly: he married Margaret, a local woman, brought up children, at least one of which fought for Britain in WW1, and succeeded in business here. Their children having grown up, the Roses had, by 1911, downsized from their family home on Stratford Grove to a smaller property on Warwick Street. Read more here.
There were other Russian Jews in Heaton who had similar backgrounds and trades to Joseph, such as Cyril Finn ( Many Jewish immigrants to the UK anglicised their names), a widower, who lived with his daughter Golda and son, Israel (known as Frederick), a travelling draper. In 1911, they all lived at 17 First Avenue.
And tailor, Harry Freeman, aged 39, by now a naturalised Briton, living at 19 Eversley Place with his Leeds born wife and Newcastle born children. Henry Beyer, another Russian-born tailor, lived at 4 Mowbray Street. As now, many migrants were prepared to travel great distances to flee persecution or at least the severe economic hardship caused by prejudice and distrust.
In wartime, in particular, foreigners here too were often the object of suspicion and on 29 February 1916, it was reported in the press that another tailor, Henry Ninian (aged 53) and Esther, his wife, of 86 Meldon Terrace, had pleaded guilty to having, as aliens, resided in a prohibited area of Newcastle and failed to furnish the Chief Constable with particulars of their registration. In his defence, Henry claimed that until three weeks previously, he had believed he had been born in Leeds, at which time a brother in Sunderland told him he originated from Plotkis in Russia. He said his wife had been born in Britain but had acquired his nationality on marriage. He was remanded on bail for a week but stayed in Newcastle until his death ten years later.
Extract from 1901 census
Over a century later, we have access to evidence not available to the Chief Constable or the press and can reveal that the accused was actually Henry Niman of 86 Meldon Terrace. While in 1911, he wrote on his census form that he’d been born in Leeds, back in 1901 he’d told the enumerator that he was a Russian from Poland. Unless, he’d forgotten this in the intervening decade, we can now proclaim him to be ‘guilty as charged‘!
Some migrants didn’t stay long in Heaton. Perhaps the most successful of Heaton Russian Jews was Joseph Cohen, who with his wife, Henrietta, also born in ‘Russian Poland’ (now Lithuania) was living at Denehurst on Jesmond Park East. The fact that their two elder children were born in Dublin suggests a circuitous route to the North East and the family soon moved on again to London. Joseph was a furniture dealer while in Newcastle and he later founded the Cavendish Woodhouse chain of furniture stores that some readers may remember.
One of the Cohens’ five children, Sybil Elsie, aged five in 1911, went on to become Lady Janner and to have a prominent role in the Jewish community and in British public life generally. Her younger sister, Edith Vera, also had a successful career, as one of Britain’s first female barristers and was also, it seems, a talented sports all-rounder. Read more here but note that her place of birth is recorded in the census as Newcastle not London. Let’s take some credit now for her formative years!
One of the earliest Russians known to have lived in Heaton was Theosophillus Horchover, born in Odessa but living here just two years later in 1881. He was a son of Bernard, a commerce agent from Constantinople, Turkey, and Evelina, his Plymouth-born wife. Theo had an older brother born in Constantinople and a younger one born in Newcastle. We can only speculate about what caused the family to travel so far away from home to rest for a while at 101 Addison Road. But Theo and his family’s journey had still not ended. By 1891, they were in Leith in Scotland and by 1910, had emigrated to the USA where they eventually settled, in Washington.
And even before Theosophillus, came Emma Laube, who was born in Kulm in Russia. In 1871, aged 37, she was living at the house known as Heaton Dean, which was actually in what we’d now call Jesmond but we’ll count it because of its name. She was working as a governess to the children of Sir Andrew Noble, the physicist who became Sir William Armstrong’s ballistics expert, and his wife, Marjorie. So Emma is the earliest Russian connection with Heaton we have found – imagine her journey here in the mid nineteenth century. We don’t know what happened to her. Perhaps someone can help?
East of Heaton
But there was another type of Russian-born Heatonian evident in the 1911 records, children of British citizens, who happened to be born while their parents were living in Russia. It wasn’t unusual during the nineteenth century and even before that for Tynesiders to be sent abroad by their employers to help with mining, engineering or building projects.
A good example is the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, a formidable engineering challenge. A track had been built across Russia and by 1895 the only problem was how to navigate the huge expanse of Lake Baikal in Siberia. The original solution was an icebreaker ferry onto which trains, goods and passengers could be all loaded to meet up with the track on the other side of the lake. Where were the engineering skills to build such a mighty vessel? Why, Newcastle, of course.
The Russian government ordered a steel ship, to be known as SS Baikal, to be built in Walker by Sir W G Armstrong, Mitchell & Company, then to be disassembled and transported to and across Russia in thousands of pieces and rebuilt on the lake shore. Then, of course, they needed Geordie expertise to help put it back together again. In August 1897, Armstrong’s Chief Constructor, Andrew Douie, travelled by train to Krasnoyarsk and then made the final 700 mile trek by horse-drawn carriage. More Tyneside men followed. You can read more here The photograph below shows Andrew Moore of Walkergate, a supervisor, but surely there were Heaton men among them too.
Andrew Moore who travelled to Lake Baikal in Siberia in 1898
Certainly there were many other examples of international travel between Heaton and Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Although of British parentage, Alfred Yates and sister, Beatrice, were both born in Ekaterinburg, which is across the Urals, over a thousand miles East of Moscow. But by 1911, aged 17 and eight, they were living with their uncle, William Glover, a Congregational minister, and his wife, Annie at 48 Rothbury Terrace.
Ekaterinburg is now known as Yekaterinburg. It is the city to which, following the October Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra and their children were exiled and, on 17 July 1918, executed. At the moment, we can only speculate about what took Alfred and Beatrice’s father, Walter, there and what happened to him and his wife but Yekaterinburg is an industrial city with a heavy engineering base and another important junction on the Trans-Siberian Railway. So maybe therein lies a clue.
Jane Seivwright was the daughter of John Ingram, a Scottish stone dresser and his wife, Margaret, who were briefly in Ukraine around the time of his daughter’s birth in about 1881. The family soon returned to Scotland but, by 1911, Jane, now married, was living at Trewhitt Road, with her 3 young children. Jane’s mother too was by this time living in Heaton – on Eighth Avenue, But on 30 March the following year, Jane and the children boarded the SS Columbia from Glasgow to New York. We know from the ship’s records that Jane was bound for Schenectady in New York State. It’s likely that her husband had gone out before her and had found a job and place for the family to live. Certainly, In 1930, Jane and her husband, Alexander, a plasterer, were still living there.
One Way Ticket
But perhaps the most remarkable link between Heaton and Russia was Elrington Reed Lax. He was born in March 1840, the son of Annie and her husband William Lax, a middle class tenant farmer, then farming at ‘Bird’s Nest‘ in Byker. By 1861, the Laxes were farming at East Heaton and, aged 21, Elrington was living at home with his parents and four sisters, Anne, Isabella, Fanny and Henrietta. The farmhouse was situated across the railway line from Rothbury Terrace, where Walkergate Hospital, Allotments and Benfield Business Park are now but the farm itself straddled the railway line into the area we now know as North Heaton bungalows and Iris Brickfield park. You can see it, as it looked then, on the right hand side of the map below. Fields 24-40A were part of East Heaton Farm.
East Heaton and Heaton Town farms, 1861
Ten years later, Elrington had left home to board in Jesmond while working as an iron trader and within a few years was to make a life-changing decision which took him much further from Heaton, never to return.
An opportunity arose to take part in the expansion of a small settlement called Alexandrovka in the Crimea which still celebrates the role of the original settlers, led by Welshman, John Hughes, a Merthyr Tydfil born engineer and entrepreneur, who were instrumental in turning it into a thriving city. In 1869, Hughes was a director of the Millwall Engineering and Shipbuilding Company when it won an order from the Tsar of Russia for the plating of a naval fortress at Kronstadt on the Black Sea. So Hughes set sail with eight shiploads of equipment and specialist workers, mainly from South Wales. They built a metallurgical and rail factory and soon needed more skilled workers, one of whom was Elrington Lax. Hughes made sure his migrant workers felt at home: he built a hospital, schools, bathhouses, tea rooms and a church dedicated to St George and St David.
Elrington, like many of the British migrant workers, stayed. His four children were born there between 1877 and 1889. And the settlement went from strength to strength. It was soon named Yuzovska (or Hughesovska) after its founder. Elrington spent the rest of his life in Crimea, dying in Yalta in 1903. Yuzovska continued to grow, being awarded city status in 1917.
We are lucky to know a little about Elrington’s eldest son, also called Elrington Reed Lax, This obituary in the 1938 Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers gives us just a flavour of his eventful life. After being educated in St Petersburg and England, he returned to Russia and then came back to England to gain more work experience in Manchester before returning to Crimea, where he set up his own business. When his property was confiscated following the revolution, he acted as an interpreter and intelligence officer with the rank of Acting Sergeant (Middlesex Regiment) to the North Russian Expeditionary Force in Arctic Russia before returning to Britain. Like most other British settlers and their descendants, his siblings also returned home around this time.
The name of the settlement first known as Alexandrovka and then, as it expanded, Hughesovska / Yuzovka, has changed a number of times since, reflecting the complex and difficult history of the region. It was possibly called Trotsk briefly in 1923, changed to Stalin in 1924 and then became Stalino in 1930-31. The city was almost completely destroyed by the Germans in WW2 and rebuilt afterwards by what we might now call slave labour from Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia before, in 1961, being renamed Donetsk and in 1991 becoming part of the newly independent Ukraine. Today we often hear about the city being the centre of bitter and violent struggles between Ukrainian and Russian factions as well, more happily, for the exploits of its famous football team, Shaktar Donetsk, who currently have to play far from home in Kharkiv.
Despite its troubled past and present, a statue to John Hughes can still be seen in the city. Here we also remember the role of a Heaton farmer’s son in its development, one of many intrepid voyagers from our neighbourhood to have made epic journeys from east to west or vice versa.
Other Russians known to have lived in Heaton pre WW1
Esther born c1875 and Rebecca GLASS born c 1851 – 162 Mowbray Street (1911 census)
Margaret D HERON born c1868 – 38 Bolingbroke Street (1901 census)
Alexander A JOHNSON, Consulting Marine Engineer born c1860 – 194 Heaton Road (1901 census)
Nicholas MARKIEWICH (?), Fitter born c1888 – 68 Falmouth Road (1911 census)
Norman MARKSON, Tailor born c1861 – 23 Cheltenham Terrace (1901 census)
Alexander SLIUFKO Draper born c1875 – 46 Chillingham Road (1901 census)
Alfred SMITH, Boiler Plater, born c1873 – 98 Addison Road (1891 census)
Valdemar A TARNKE, Electrical Engineer born c1890 – 82 Rothbury Terrace (1911 census)
George (Painter, born c1846), Jane (born c 1846), Levi (Painter, born c1879) and Annie (born c 1889) TREGON – 10 Stratford Road (1901 census)
John (Steam Engine Fitter born c 1873) and Vera TULIP (born c1897), 24 Charles Street (1901 census)
Nathan (Draper born c1880) and Leah (born c 1881) WILSON – 34 Eighth Avenue (1901 census)
Can you help?
If you know more about any of the people or events mentioned in this article or have photos to share, we’d love to hear from you. We’d also like to hear about more recent migrants who have travelled in either direction between Heaton and Russia and Eastern Europe. Please get in touch either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by emailing email@example.com
This article was written and researched by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Brian Moore for the information about SS Baikal and the photograph of Andrew Moore.y