‘Miss Cooper’ was the first headmistress of Heaton Secondary School for Girls and, as she stayed in post for 17 years, until her retirement in 1944, she was a big influence on a generation of Heaton girls, including social campaigner and politician Elsie Tu, who followed her from Benwell School for Girls to Heaton and wrote about her in her autobiography.
Heaton History Group’s Arthur Andrews has already researched the first head of Heaton Secondary School for Boys, Frederic Richard Barnes, and Miss Cooper’s successor at the girls’ school, ‘Doc’ Henstock so he recently set about discovering what he could find out about Miss Cooper and her time at Heaton Secondary School for Girls.
Winifred Muriel Cooper was born in Ipswich on 3 November 1882. Her father, Thomas Embling Cooper, was a career soldier and, at the time of the 188 census, was a sergeant major with the 1st Suffolk Rifles.
By 1891, Thomas was lodging in Derby with a young police constable, John Beckett, and John’s wife, Hannah. We know quite a lot about Thomas because, when he died in 1916, ‘The Derby Evening Telegraph’, published an extensive obituary. He had become a stalwart of the local community while working in Derby for the NSPCC, but his military record was also considered noteworthy. He had fought in Crimea and ‘met Florence Nightingale many times’. Later, he went to Malta where he converted to Catholicism and went on to serve in India at the time of the mutiny.
The whole Cooper family soon moved to the east midlands. By 1901, Thomas and his wife, Emma, had 4 children. Eighteen year old, Winifred Muriel, the second born, was already described as a school teacher. By 1911, she had moved away from the family home and, aged 29, was appointed headmistress of Seafield Convent Grammar School in Crosby near Liverpool.
Winifred remained in post until the summer of 1917 when an opportunity arose in Newcastle: the former Benwell School Girls’ Department had become a school in its own right and the the school logbook entry for 3 September reads:
‘Miss W Cooper M.A. Lond commenced duties here as Head Mistress of the Girls’ Department, which has now become a separate school from the Boys’.’
By the time of the 1921 census, Winifred was boarding on Collingwood Terrace in Jesmond, The head of the household was Caroline Davies, who was described as doing social work and home duties. Also living at the property was Lily Blades, a ‘general domestic servant’. Later, Winifred moved to Tynemouth where her mother joined her up until her death in 1936.
Elsie wrote that, as a child of poor parents, she had encountered a lot of snobbery at West Jesmond Primary School but she found none at Benwell Secondary Girls School, which she graduated to in 1924. This must have been in part, at least, due to the example of the school leadership. And yet, Elsie didn’t speak highly of her head teacher, who she described as ‘a fiery and rather incompetent person, or so it seemed to us’. Elsie described a number of ‘tongue lashings’ she received in the head’s office but ‘perhaps the thing that most turned me from Miss Cooper was the advice she gave me when I was leaving school.
“Your fault” she said “is that you are too quiet…. Why don’t you put all your goods in the shop window” ’.
Whatever she thought of the comment, the timid school girl did eventually learn to be more assertive as many people who knew her in Hong Kong have testified.
Elsie’s memories, written around half a century after the events described, might have been influenced by her teenage emotions and may not be entirely reliable. For example, she claimed that Miss Cooper ‘had very little real knowledge but had concentrated all her studies on the history of the city of Florence (possibly she felt gratified to study about her namesake – her name was Florence)’. But we know this not to be true. Miss Cooper’s first names were ‘Winifred Muriel’. Was Elsie getting her mixed up with Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, who presented a history prize which Elsie won?
Despite her sometimes negative views, nevertheless Elsie wrote how much she still treasured the reference she received from Miss Cooper.
We don’t have a lot more information about Miss Cooper’s time at Benwell but there was some press coverage of her speech at the annual prize giving ceremony in 1926 when she spoke about the dangers of too much pocket money.
‘Pocket money can be an excellent training,’ she said, ‘if a definite amount is given regularly and the girls are required to provide themselves with certain things. But you give them such sums that they gain little experience of the real value of money and you can hardly be surprised if they are somewhat extravagant or foolish when they grow up’.
The Countess of Tankerville, who was presenting the prizes, backed her up: ‘It is necessary for girls to learn how to spend money wisely. Education, among all the other grand subjects, should give us a practical appreciation of the use of money.’
When Benwell school was deemed unfit for purpose, Winifred Cooper was appointed head of the new Heaton Secondary School for Girls and senior girls, including Elsie Hume transferred with her. It must have been a proud moment when, just a few weeks into her new post, she hosted the king and queen.
Again, information about Miss Cooper during her time at Heaton Secondary School is quite scant. We do know, however, that she had a great interest in films and was an advocate for the part they could play in education. A 1939 article in the ‘Evening Chronicle’ refers to her as Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of The Northern Counties Children’s Cinema Council which believed that ‘the influence of picture theatres on the emotional and intellectual development of children, who spend many hours there, is not to be ignored.’ It aimed to encourage the training of film taste and discrimination in children and had set up a conference to get educationalists ‘on board’, with a view to sponsoring a Children’s Film Society.
And we know from surviving copies of the school magazine that Miss Cooper valued cultural input into school life more generally. For example, she arranged for a well known opera singer, Sybil Cropper, to perform at the school and to talk about composition and early music.
There were also a wide range of societies and school trips to widen the girls horizons, perhaps sometimes to Miss Cooper’s regret. The article below was not the only one to appear in the magazine during the 1930s following visits to Germany praising Hitler.
But a few years later, Britain was at war with Germany. Miss Cooper, along with other staff and the majority of the pupils, was evacuated to Kendal. Here she lodged with a retired teacher, Catherine Kitchen. There were two other members of the household, a widow with private means and a young woman who carried out general domestic duties.
Mention is made in the school magazines of two head girls, Mary Graham (1930-31) and Edna Grice (1933-34).It’s interesting to see what some highly rated pupils of Miss Cooper’s era went on to do.
There are several Mary Grahams in the 1939 Register but the most likely candidate is a school science mistress with a BSc, born in 1913 and so an exact contemporary of Elsie Hume. In 1939, she was living with her parents off the West Road. She married Donald G Saunders, Chief Petty Officer, Royal Navy, in 1944 by special licence and she died in 2006, aged 93, near Hastings.
Edna Elizabeth Grice grew up in Byker. Besides becoming head girl, in 1932 she was awarded the Harrison Bell history prize, won by Elsie Hume three years earlier. Edna was presented with it by Dr Ethel Williams, Newcastle’s first female doctor and ‘a sincere friend of the school’.
By 1939, Edna was a school teacher, at that time lodging in Haltwhistle with another teacher, probably having been evacuated there. She may have been a Unitarian, as she appeared in a play, ‘Ladies in Waiting’, performed by the Unity Players at the Durant Hall, Ellison Place, for the Northumberland and Durham War Needs Fund. In 1944, she married William Harding of Cartington Terrace, an accountant and company secretary. For most of their married life, the couple lived at 27 Patterdale Gardens in High Heaton. Edna died in 2004.
Elsie herself gets several mentions in the magazines mainly because of her sporting prowess in netball and lacrosse. She also made humourous poetry contributions.
In summer 1944, before the end of World War 2, Winifred Cooper retired at the age of 61.
There were farewell gatherings where old girls and staff, past and present, offered their good wishes and made presentations ‘to mark their esteem and affection’. The ‘Evening Chronicle’ reported that Miss Cooper would be missed in the educational life of the city and that she had abounding energy and a vital interest in all that is new in the world of education. ‘She leaves behind a tradition of hard work and keen play.’
Winifred Muriel Cooper’s death and funeral in London was reported in the Newcastle press on 17 May 1951. It was said that wreaths had been sent by former members of her staff and the old girls association of the school. It was further stated that charm and human kindliness were part of her character and her outstanding educational work for Newcastle was acknowledged.
Can You Help?
If you know more about Winifred Cooper, Mary Graham or Edna Grice or have photographs to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing email@example.com
Researched and written by Arthur Andrews of Heaton History Group.
British Newspaper Archive
‘Crusade for Justice: an autobiography’ / Elsie Elliott, 1981
Find My Past
‘Heaton Secondary School for Girls School Magazine’ and other resources relating to Miss Cooper held by Tyne and Wear Archives
She was awarded the prestigious pan-Asian honour, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, for ‘Outstanding Contribution in Government Service’ in 1976, one of the very few non-Asians to have been honoured in this way; in 1977, she received a CBE in Britain for her work against corruption; she was voted the most popular politician in Hong Kong in 1994 and, in 1997, was presented with Hong Kong’s highest honour, the Grand Bauhinia Medal in the first year it was awarded.
She campaigned tirelessly against corruption wherever she encountered it and worked with and for the under-privileged for more than five decades. Hong Kong’s three most senior politicians were pall bearers at her funeral and yet, in Newcastle, the city of her birth, and even in Heaton and High Heaton, where she lived and went to school within living memory, hardly anyone recognises her name or her face.
Elsie Hume was the second child of John and Florence Hume. In 1911, John and Florence, both aged 25 and married for just over a year, were living with John’s two brothers and two sisters at 12 Sutton Street, Walkergate (across Shields Road from where Lidl is now). John had been orphaned aged 11 and his older sister, Janet, brought up her siblings. At this time, John described himself as a grocer’s assistant and he and his young wife already had a young baby girl, Ethel.
Elsie was born in the house just over two years later on 2 June 1913 but said she had no memory of it because very shortly afterwards, ‘Auntie Janet’ and the extended family moved to 29 Chillingham Road. ‘All my earliest memories centre on that gloomy flat, where for about seven years we occupied the front room.’ Janet Hume lived in the flat until it was demolished in 1975.
By the time Elsie was born, her father was working as a tram conductor but the following year, he, like so many of his generation, joined the army. Elsie said that, until she was five years old, she knew nothing of him except his name. But John Hume’s experiences during this period, during which he was gassed, had a profound effect upon him and indirectly upon Elsie. He developed an intense dislike of war and a compassion for all humans. Elsie said that, in turn, her left-leaning world-view was influenced by him. She recalled much later that when her father was encouraging her to make the most of her opportunities at school, it was not for the advantages that would give her in terms of her own career but rather he emphasised the many more ways to serve the poor that would be open to her. She enjoyed discussing and arguing about politics with her father and brother from an early age and said that her father’s ambition for her was to become an MP and fight for workers’ rights.
The family moved many times when Elsie was young and she attended several different schools including North View School in Heaton, Walkergate and Welbeck Road and, less happily, West Jesmond. Here she felt she was looked down on by both teachers and other pupils because she lived in the poor neighbourhood of Shieldfield at the time. In future years, she remembered how she had felt and said this influenced her behaviour towards others.
On the whole though, Elsie loved learning and was offered a place at Benwell Secondary School, where she spent three years, before her family became the first tenants of 8 Holystone Crescent on the newly built High Heaton council estate and she transferred to the recently opened Heaton Secondary Schools.
Elsie was able to shine there and was in the first cohort to matriculate, obtaining the best results in the school, along with a special history prize. This was a prize fittingly donated by Heaton social campaigner, Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell.
‘The programme for the school opening ceremony had announced that ‘Mrs Harrison Bell has very kindly endowed a history prize in memory of her husband, the late Mr J N Bell, who was elected in 1922 Member of Parliament for the east division of the city. The prize will be awarded in the boys’ and the girls’ school in alternate years.’
Elsie also loved sport. She won ‘school colours in gymnastics, sports, lacrosse, rounders and netball’ and wrote in her autobiography about how her father, brother and herself were ‘mad about football’, and how all her life she was a passionate supporter of Newcastle United.
In January 1930, however, a shocking event took place in the family home, which was witnessed by 16 year old Elsie. Elsie’s brother in law, Leslie Aynsley, who had been living with the Humes since he married her older sister, Ethel, just a couple of months previously, attacked his young wife with a hammer one breakfast time and when John, her father, tried to intervene, he too was struck. It was Elsie who was next on the scene and summoned help. Aynsley said that he didn’t know what had come over him. Ten days later both Ethel and her father were still in hospital with severe head injuries.
At Aynsley’s trial, much was made in the press of the fact that the trial judge was Mrs Helena Normanton. She was the first women to take advantage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 and join an institution of the legal profession and the second woman to be called to the bar. As such, even in the circumstances in which they came face to face, she might have been another inspiration to young Elsie, who gave evidence to the court that Aynsley looked ‘old and grey’.
Ethel Hume refused to testify against her husband and, under Normanton’s guidance, the jury sentenced him to one year’s imprisonment with the proviso that if he became insane during his time in jail, he could be removed to a lunatic asylum. Most of the press coverage, however, centred upon the judge’s appearance and novelty value, something that is alluded to in a recent biography of her.
The Humes continued to live at 8 Holystone Crescent for at least three years after this traumatic event but then moved to various other addresses in Heaton, including, from 1935-37, 64 Balmoral Terrace; 1938, 20 Cheltenham Terrace and, from 1939, 26 Balmoral Terrace.
But Elsie was now ready to spread her wings,
She left school with a treasured testimonial from Miss Cooper, headmistress of Heaton Secondary Schools’ girls’ school, which read:
‘Elsie Hume was always an exceptionally high-principled and conscientious student and was also a very keen athlete. She was Captain of the First Lacrosse and First Rounders Teams, and School Sports Captain in 1932. Elsie was always most public-spirited and energetic.’
Elsie* wrote later that she was inclined to join the civil service so that she could immediately start to earn money and to repay her family for the sacrifices they had made. Miss Cooper had other ideas and had not only decided she was university material but had persuaded Elsie’s parents too. Elsie went to Durham University’s Armstrong College (later Newcastle University), which she walked to every day from Heaton. She studied English and history and trained to be a teacher not, she later said, because she had a burning ambition to work in education but because she believed it was the only profession open to a girl from a poor background like hers, without the means to pay for further study.
It was at university that Elsie, to the surprise and even disappointment of her family, became a ‘born again Christian’ and then joined the Plymouth Brethren. She became clear about her future: she would teach for a few years to pay back her parents and those who had given her an education, then she would become a missionary and ‘spread my new-found happiness to others’.
Despite having to take a year off her studies when she nearly died following an operation for a gynaecological condition which eventually meant that she couldn’t have children, Elsie graduated in 1937 (and was in 1976 to be awarded an honorary doctorate in Civil Law jointly by the universities of Durham and Newcastle).
She had to look beyond Newcastle for a job teaching English and history and found one in an elementary school in Halifax, taking her away from home for the first time. She returned to Newcastle when war broke out.
Back home in Heaton, Elsie found a job teaching in Prudhoe and, when not working, she volunteered in civil defence. Her autobiography contains an emotional account of 25-26 April 1941 when 46 people were killed when high explosive devices and a parachute bomb exploded in the area of Heaton around Guildford Place and Cheltenham Terrace. The house (20 Cheltenham Terrace) where the Humes had lived only a couple of years before was badly damaged by the first bomb and two people who lived there were seriously injured.
Less than two weeks before, it had been announced in the newspapers that Elsie had successfully completed a certificate in home nursing and on this night, her newly acquired skills were used to the full. She helped a man who has been hurt by flying debris ‘His head had been split open on one side and his eyes were filled with pieces of glass’ and was about to walk him home.
Elsie spoke of meeting two brothers, fellow air raid wardens. They warned her and the injured man to return to an underground shelter as they believed more bombs would fall. The lenses had been blown out of the glasses of one of the brothers and they told her that their home had been hit. She later discovered that both of them were killed by a second bomb. They were almost certainly the Shaw brothers, Thomas and William, whose story has already been written about on this website by Ian Clough. Elsie also recalled the panic at a nearby dance hall (the one above the Co-op?) where her sister was caught in a stampede down the stairs, after the lights had gone out and the premises had been filled with soot and dust.
Elsie said that the impact of that night would never leave her and she spoke scathingly about politicians who approved the bombing of foreign parts and the killing of innocent people when they ‘have never known what it’s like to be on the receiving end’.
Later in the war, Elsie took up a post at Todd’s Nook School and then accompanied Newcastle schoolchildren who had been evacuated to Great Corby in Cumberland, a period of her early life which she remembered with great affection.
During this time, Elsie received a surprise marriage proposal from Bill Elliott, one of the Plymouth Brethren she had known in Halifax. He told her that he intended to go to China as a missionary, something he knew she was interested in. Elsie had grave doubts about his fundamentalist religious beliefs and rejected his offer. Two years later, he repeated it, telling her that he would become more liberal and, this time, Elsie, despite knowing that she was not in love with him, accepted his proposal. The couple were married in 1945, after which they lived and worked in Hull.
She soon realised that she had made a mistake. She found that, simply because she was a woman, she wasn’t allowed to take part in decision making or have an independent life outside work and she was restricted to friendships with those of the same faith and attitudes.
Nevertheless, in December 1947, the couple set off by boat to Shanghai and then travelled on to Nanchang in Jiangxi province where they were to stay for three years. Elsie soon became disillusioned with the racist and colonialist attitudes she believed the Christian groups in China exhibited but she enjoyed learning Mandarin and became interested in the country and its people.
However, when war broke out in Korea, the political situation in China became tense and missionaries were advised to leave. Elsie and Bill travelled to Hong Kong with the intention of moving on to Borneo. They found temporary accommodation in a small village near the airport called Kai Tek New Village, where their closest neighbours were refugees from Swatow (Shantou, China) living in a squatter village. She saw the many privations suffered by the people there, with skilled women working twelve hours a day doing embroidery for a pittance and their sick, ill-fed children packing matches or biscuits to enable their families to survive.
She and Bill set up a home clinic, using Elsie’s smattering of Chinese and the basic first aid she’d learnt as an air raid warden in Heaton. She, Bill and a Chinese colleague, Andrew Tu, also set up a school but Elsie was becoming unhappier still in her marriage and disillusioned with missionary life, which she now described as ‘arrogant racism’. She left the church and, when she returned to Hong Kong after a short break in Britain, her husband did not go back with her.
Elsie rented rooms in another squatter area while running a school for deprived children. At this time, she lived a extremely frugal lifestyle, taking on private teaching to subsidise the school while living in a small hut on the school site, spending and even eating as little as possible to enable the school to survive. It was during this time that she began to encounter corruption among the British police force and government and noted how British residents were treated much more favourably than the Chinese, particularly poor Chinese, and she began to help them in their dealings with the authorities.
In 1963, by which time Elsie and Andrew Tu had opened another three non-profit making schools at a time when there was still no universal free education in Hong Kong, Elsie was approached by the Reform Club, a quasi-political party loosely aligned with the British Liberal party, to stand for election to the Urban Council. It campaigned for a more democratic and just system of colonial government, causes close to her heart. This was a time when only rate-payers, property owners and certain professionals had the right to vote and, even then, they had a vote only for the Urban Council, which had comparatively few powers. The Legislative Council, the law-making body ‘offered no elected seats and was dominated by British officials and rich businessmen’. Elsie was elected to the council, fulfilling at the age of 51 her father’s ambition for her to become a politician.
Although the position on the council did not come with a salary, Elsie gave up her paid teaching. She continued to work at the school she ran with Andrew Tu by organising her timetable around the demands of the council and accepting only the bare minimum salary she needed to survive. It was only in the 1970s when councillors started to receive an allowance and government-subsidised free education was made available to all, that Elsie began to live more comfortably.
After her first term representing the Reform Club, Elsie successfully stood as an independent for 32 years. She fought the widespread corruption by pointing it out wherever she encountered it, to the departments concerned, the governor, the British government or the press. She later recalled how she wrote her first letter to a newspaper on the subject of free trade while still at school in Heaton. Her first letter to the ‘Guardian’, during her early days in Hong Kong, was about the long hours worked by Chinese people in Hong Kong. It was referred to by a British MP in the House of Commons, although he named the writer as Mr Elliott, and led to new employment legislation on the island. Elsie’s campaigning is also credited with the eventual establishment in Hong Kong of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1976.
Elsie held regular surgeries where she tried to help people with their battles against injustice and with all kinds of personal problems. Her brave (particularly because there were close connections between the police and organised crime, the triads) and tireless work on behalf of ordinary people made her increasingly popular. She fought against the exploitation of workers, child labour and for universal suffrage, gay rights, better housing and public transport, along with many other improvements in poor people’s lives.
One of the most famous cases associated with Elsie involved opposition in 1965 to price rises on the Star Ferry on which many working people relied. Via the newspapers, she canvassed public opinion, which was overwhelmingly against the increase both because it broke an agreement between the ferry company and the government and because it came at a time when people were facing particular economic hardship. Protests followed, illegal in Hong Kong at the time, which became known as the ‘Elsie Riots’. A number of young people were arrested for violence and it was alleged that they were acting under Elsie’s instructions, something she vehemently denied. It emerged later in court that the young people had been beaten up by the police and forced to sign statements saying that Elsie had paid them to throw stones. The following year, in the biggest ever turn out ever in the Urban Council elections, Elsie received over 80% of the vote.
Elsie worked with Andrew Tu from her earliest days in Hong Kong. He had arrived there fresh from university in Inner Mongolia, as a young, penniless migrant. They co-founded and ran schools for poor and refugee children and he ran her political campaigns, advised her and taught her Chinese. He also became a Samaritan and a campaigner on green issues and, like Elsie, became well known and respected in Hong Kong.
In 1963, when in London on business with the Samaritans, Andrew travelled to Newcastle to Elsie’s sister’s house to meet the Hume family. Despite the language barrier, they are said to have taken to him immediately and constantly asked why the couple weren’t married. Elsie always replied that they felt no need to but they finally did tie the knot on 13 June 1985, when Elsie was 72 years old.
In her autobiography, Elsie described how, after their marriage, the couple first visited Andrew’s family and friends in Inner Mongolia and then came to Newcastle to stay with her sister, Dorothy, and her husband. She describes visiting Whitley Bay in the fog, eating fish and chips on the prom, walking on the Roman Wall and going to Blanchland and Cragside.
In 1988, aged 76, Elsie was elected by the Urban Council as its representative on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council or parliament. One of the successful battles she fought was for Chinese to be accepted as an official language of Hong Kong: she took on government departments which failed to provide Chinese translations and argued that court cases conducted in English disadvantaged local, Chinese speakers. She became increasingly accused by the establishment of being pro-Chinese and anti-British. However, she always claimed not to be connected to any political party and not to be a communist or for or against any country, but to be pro-democracy, pro-justice and anti-corruption: ‘I’m not for China, I’m not for Britain. I’ve always been for the people of Hong Kong and for justice’.
She wasn’t defeated in an election until 1995, aged 83. Even after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, she continued to hold the government to account. In 2013, aged 99, she criticised the widening income disparity in Hong Kong, referring to ‘rich men who have no conscience’.
Elsie Tu died on 8 December 2015, aged 102. All three men who had held Hong Kong’s highest office, that of Chief Executive, Tung Chee-Hwa (1997-2005), Donald Tsang (2005-2012) and Leung Chun-Ying ( 2012-2017) were pall-bearers at her funeral. The current incumbent, Carrie Lam, recalls taking part in actions led by Elsie from her university days. She described her as an exemplary champion of social justice, who commanded respect for her valiant words and deeds.
Perhaps the last word on Elsie should come from her obituary writer in the ‘Daily Telegraph’, not a paper known for its empathy with people who threaten the British establishment: ‘In truth, her politics were less coherent, and far less significant, than her burning concern for the poor and her fearlessness in challenging those she accused of exploiting them.’
Not only would her father, John, and old headteacher, Miss Cooper, have been proud, but so too would Helena Normanton, the ground-breaking judge before whom Elsie had given evidence as a teenager, and especially that other renowned Heaton campaigner and social reformer, Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, whose history prize Elsie had been presented with over eighty years before. Like her, Elsie didn’t only study history, she made it.
*We have referred to Elsie by her first name throughout this article to avoid any confusion caused by the three surnames she used at different stages of her life.
Researched and written by Peter Sagar, Arthur Andrews and Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group. Thank you to Tracey Cross, Elsie’s first cousin once removed, for bringing the achievements of Elsie Tu and her connection with Heaton to our attention; to Heidi Schultz, Executive Office Team Leader, Newcastle University for supplying Elsie’s honorary degree citation; to Ruth Sutherland, Northumbria University, for supplying newspaper articles about her.
‘Colonial Hong Kong in the Eyes of Elsie Tu’ / Elsie Tu; Hong Kong Press, 2003
‘Crusade for Justice’ / Elsie Elliott; Henemann Asia, 1981
‘Elsie Elliot Tu, Doctor of Social Sciences honoris causa’, the University of Hong Kong, 1988
‘Elsie Tu, activist – obituary; social campaigner in Hong Kong regarded as a potential troublemaker by the colonial authorities’ in ‘Daily Telegraph’, 15 December 2015
‘Elsie Tu Doctor in Civil Law honorary degree citation’ / Newcastle University, 1996
‘Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Bar to Women’ / Judith Bourne; Waterside Press, 2017
‘Shouting at the Mountain: a Hong Kong story of love and commitment’ / Andrew and Elsie Tu, 2004
If you know more about Elsie Tu, particularly her Heaton connections, or have photographs to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
You may be surprised to learn that Heaton Secondary Schools were officially opened by the Right Honourable Grey of Fallodon, Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Surprised because a visit some weeks later by the King and Queen is often mistakenly referred to as the opening. Here’s what actually happened!
The schools. which had provision for 500 boys and 500 girls, were erected at a cost of £140,000 and claimed to be the most up to date and best equipped in the country. The opening ceremony on 18 September 1928 was big news and covered in newspapers from Aberdeen and Belfast to Gloucester and beyond.
The original plan, agreed before World War One, had been to build the school on 25 acres of land adjacent to Ravenswood Road but this project had to be shelved due to the war. Afterwards, a price could not be agreed with the landowner. Compulsory purchase was set in motion but eventually the council decided that this would mean unacceptably long delays so a site of equal size opposite the housing estate being built on the other side of Newton Road was negotiated.
The original buildings of what became Heaton Manor School
The layout of the school was said to be reminiscent of a Cambridge college with the design of open loggias around a quadrangle.
Heaton Secondary Schools West Gateway
The classrooms were ‘of the open air type, with sliding partitions along the sunny side, the north side being used for science laboratories, gymnasiums etc.’
Heaton Secondary Schools’ ‘open-air classrooms’
There were two schools each with their own hall, dining room, library, labs, a commercial room, staff room and classrooms but the two halls were adjacent and so could be ‘thrown into one to form a great hall 80 feet long by 90 feet wide’. There was a craft room in the boys school and needlework and domestic science rooms in the girls’.
The first head teacher of Heaton Secondary School for Boys as it was first known was Mr F R Barnes, formerly of Barrow in Furness Secondary School for Boys. He started with a staff of 17 graduates and five specialists. Miss W M Cooper, formerly of Benwell Secondary School, had 13 graduates and four specialists working for her in the girls’ school, Heaton High School as it became known.
As for pupils, initially there would be 291 boys and 414 girls, 455 of which would be free scholarship holders. The remaining pupils were fee-paying. At the outset, their parents were charged £8 a year. The programme for the opening event announced that ‘Mrs Harrison Bell has very kindly endowed a history prize in memory of her husband, the late My J N Bell, who was elected in 1922 Member of Parliament for the east division of the city. The prize will be awarded in the boys’ and the girls’ school in alternate years.’
At the ceremony, there were prayers and songs including ‘Land of Hope and Glory‘ and Northumbrian folk song ‘The Water of Tyne’ and lots of speeches, not only Viscount Grey’s but also those of numerous local politicians, including the Lord Mayor, and presentations by the architect, H T Wright, and the contractor, Stanley Miller.
Viscount Grey is better known as the politician, Sir Edward Grey, who was Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916, the longest tenure ever. He is particularly remembered for the remark he is said to have made as he contemplated the enormity of the imminent World War One: ‘ The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.’
In his speech in Heaton, Viscount Grey, a Liberal, said ‘The ideal system would be one in which the highest, most advanced and most expensive education was devoted solely to the youthful material of the country who were most capable by their abilities to profit from it. We have not reached that point today. A great deal of the highest and most expensive education in the country is given…. to <those> whose parents are able to pay for it… but… every school like that at Heaton is bringing higher education within the reach of those whose parents cannot pay for it. This is an advance towards a better system’.
And tackling another topic which has resonance today, the former tennis champion and keen fisherman and ornithologist spoke about the variety of entertainment available to young people, reminding the audience that in his day, there ‘was no electric light, no motor cars, no telephones, no wireless and no moving pictures’. But he reminded his young audience that the things which interested people most through life were those in which they took some active personal part. ‘Take part in games, rather than be mere spectators’ he urged. ‘It will give you more pleasure than all the other entertainments that come to you without trouble.’
For any locals lucky enough to have one, the whole ceremony was actually broadcast on the wireless from 3:00pm until 4:30pm. Radio station 5NO had been broadcasting from Newcastle since 1922 and its signals could reach up to about 20 miles. With broadcasting still in its infancy, many newspaper listings came with detailed technical instructions on what to do if the signal was lost: radio was still far from being a mass medium but it was catching on fast and those early local listings make fascinating reading. You can view them here.
Just over three weeks later, 23,000 pupils from all over Newcastle were invited to Heaton for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to the school before the royal couple went on to open the new Tyne Bridge. And it’s this historic event which many people assume to have been the official opening. It was certainly a momentous occasion – and an excuse for more speeches!
King and Queen open Heaton Secondary Schools, 1928
‘Their majesties will drive round the school grounds where 23,000 children of the city will be assembled and on entering the school hall, the loyal address from the City of Newcastle will be presented by the Lord Mayor. Numerous public representatives will be presented to their Majesties, who will be asked to receive gifts from scholars.’
There were also displays of physical drills and country dancing by pupils.
Every school pupil present was given a commemorative booklet which included a photograph of the new school at the back but which was mainly about the opening of the new bridge.
‘To the boys and girls for whom these words are written, who have just begun their passage on the bridge of life, and who will go to and fro on the bridges of the Tyne, there is the lofty call to carry forward to future generations the progress which has brought them their own proud inheritance.’
A bouquet was said to have been presented to the Queen by the head girl and a book to the King by the head boy.
This made a lifelong impression on pupil Olive Renwick (nee Topping), who was 12 years old at the time, but at the age of 98 recalled;
We were all gathered in the hall and Miss Cooper, the head teacher, told us that the queen would be presented with a “bookie”. What on earth’s a bookie, I wondered. Only later did I realise she meant a bouquet!’
Olive (middle) & friends in Heaton High uniform, late 1920s
Again the event was broadcast on the wireless. A full day’s programming began at 10:50am with the ‘Arrival of the royal party at Heaton Secondary Schools’. And the excitement of arrival of the king and queen’s carriage pulled by four white ponies in front of thousands of handkerchief waving school children (along with hair raising footage of workers on the still incomplete Tyne Bridge) was captured on film by Pathe News.
And it shows a girl presenting a book (rather than ‘a bookie’) to the royal party. A last minute change of plan or an extra for the cameras?
After World War 2, the boys’ schools was renamed Heaton Grammar School and the girls’ Heaton High School. The two schools merged in September 1967 to form Heaton Comprehensive School. In 1983, this school merged with Manor Park School on Benton Road to form Heaton Manor. And in 2004, after the building of the new school on the Jesmond Park site, the Benton Park site closed to make way for housing.
The next instalment of ninety years of school history will have to wait for another day.
Can You Help?
If you have memories or photos of any of the above schools or know more about notable teachers or pupils, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email email@example.com
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Brian Hedley for a copy of the official opening programme and the family of Olive Renwick for the souvenir of the royal visit. Thank you also to Muriel La Tour (nee Abernethy) for correcting the subsequent names of the schools.
British Newspaper Archives
Heaton Secondary Schools: official opening Sept 18th 1928 programme
Visit of their majesties King George V and Queen Mary, October 1928 (souvenir booklet)
One of Heaton’s most recognisable buildings and one which contributed to the education and entertainment of generations of Heatonians is 120 years old this autumn. The Victoria Branch Library was opened by Earl Grey on 6 October 1898.
The library was gifted to the city by Alderman William Haswell Stephenson who, two years earlier, had financed a library for the west end of the city in Elswick. When nobody else responded to the council’s appeal for another local benefactor to ensure that the people of the east end also had access to books, Stephenson put his hand in his pocket a second time, stipulating only that the council should undertake the equipment, management and maintenance of the building.
The position chosen for the library was controversial. Many people had concerns which resonate today about the encroachment of buildings, even a library, onto a public green space, Heaton Park:
‘It might seem a small thing to take 450 yards out of a park but they did not quite know where this nibbling process would end’ reported the ‘Daily Journal’.
Local residents also wanted the Corporation to approve both the site and the design of the building rather than all decisions being made by Alderman Stephenson, again a contemporary concern as private enterprise becomes increasingly involved in what have previously been public sector concerns. However, the site on Heaton Park View and the design by Newcastle architect, John William Dyson, were eventually approved.
Inside, on the ground floor there was a large reading room and a newsroom (where people had access to newspapers), a smoking room and a ladies reading room. Upstairs was the library itself, which measured 70 feet by 36 feet and would be able to house around 25,000 books; a committee room and the janitor’s room. External features included a turret on the roof, the dome of which was covered in copper. Carved panels depicted the royal arms, the city arms and Alderman Stephenson’s arms.
At the opening, over 200 of the great and the good enjoyed breakfast and speeches. Apart from benefactor Alderman Stephenson, guest of honour Earl Grey, and the architect, they included the mayors of Newcastle, Gateshead, Tynemouth and South Shields; the Bishop of Newcastle; the Sheriff of Newcastle; most of the council; industrialists such as shipbuilder, John Wigham Richardson and many many more.
Alderman Stephenson reminded the audience that it was 44 years to the day since the ‘Great Fire of Gateshead’, which he remembered well as a young boy serving his apprenticeship on the Quayside. He regretted the absence of Heaton Councillor James Birkett, a great supporter of the project, who had recently died. And he spoke about the success of the Elswick branch library, including how few books had been lost.
The library was officially opened by the Right Honourable Earl Grey. In his speech, Lord Grey praised Alderman Stephenson’s generosity at a time when ratepayers’ money wasn’t forthcoming and also his modesty in not requiring the library to be named after him (although this may have been because he’d already ensured that the Elswick Library carried his name!), preferring instead to honour the queen. He urged others to follow the alderman’s example perhaps by gifting ‘more pleasure grounds, great and small, bright with flowers; drinking fountains of artistic design; clocks with chimes, for bells are the best music a crowded city could enjoy; nursing homes in every ward; halls in every ward with the best organs money could buy..’
The Bishop of Newcastle gave a vote of thanks, in which he said:
‘Even fiction, if it were rightly chosen, would aid in the development of character and if that aid was found in fiction, it would certainly be found in other books as well.’
Lord Grey was presented with a copy of the library’s initial catalogue of 7,000 volumes. This was a significant document as contemporary newspaper accounts state that the shared catalogue with Elswick Library (To save money, they both carried the same stock) was ‘ the first catalogue published in the Dewey Decimal System in the British Isles’. The newspaper praised Andrew Keogh, Assistant Librarian at the Central Free Library ‘ who had earned the gratitude of all who have need to consult the catalogues’.
We are used to Heaton being at the forefront of developments in the various branches of engineering, science and mathematics and Heatonians excelling in arts, music, literature and sport but should we also be trumpeting our place in the history of librarianship? And does the library and its innovative catalogue partly explain why Heaton was at the forefront of so much. We carried out a little more research.
Amazingly, copies of that first catalogue survive eg in the Lit and Phil and so we can see exactly what was on the shelves of Heaton’s Victoria Library when it opened. There was a broad selection, catering for all interests and some written in foreign languages, as you can see from the first page of the author listing below.
To mention just a few, artist John Wallace will have watched the library being built at the end of his street, Kingsley Place, and was surely delighted with the selection of books on painting and other arts as, a little later, would Alfred Kingsley Lawrence of Heaton Road. And suffragist and social campaigner Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, who married in 1896 and went to live on nearby Hotspur Street, suddenly had access to a wide range of books on politics and sociology including Engels’ ‘Condition of the Working Class in England’ as well as a surprising number of books on the emancipation of women and ‘The Woman’s Manual of Parliamentary Law’. Gerald Stoney of Meldon Terrace then Roxburgh Place, who had helped Sir Charles Parsons develop the record breaking Turbinia the previous year, had many books on engineering and physics from which to choose.
There were plenty of books for ‘juveniles’ too, marked with a J in the main catalogue, as well as having their own separate listing. The musical Beers children, living on Kingsley Place just yards from the library when it opened, had access to a vast array of fiction, including many classics still enjoyed today, but also books on music – and photography, a hobby which led to their wrongful arrest years later.
The library was an incredible resource for the people of Heaton, even if the books weren’t on open access. As was normal practice at the time, you made a choice from the catalogue and asked the librarian to bring you the book if it wasn’t on loan. A bit like Argos today. This made the catalogue extra important.
And the catalogue of the Victoria Library in Heaton was groundbreaking. Although the Dewey system had been copyrighted in the USA over 20 years earlier by Melvil Dewey, in the eighteen nineties almost all British libraries, if they were classified at all, used very broad classes, such as ‘Theology and Philosophy’ or ‘ Arts, Sciences, Law, Politics, Commerce’. Readers would have to peruse lists of accessions arranged chronologically under each heading. No further breakdown was considered necessary in Victorian public libraries, although by 1908, the absence of a detailed classification system was described as a weakness by the Library Association. Yet, ten years ahead of his time, the year in which our library opened, an Andrew Keogh (whose name you might remember from the newspaper report mentioned earlier) had written in ‘Library World’ that it was highly desirable that a uniform, detailed classification system be adopted across the country.
Andrew Keogh was born on 14 November 1869 the son of recent Irish immigrants, Bridget and James Keogh, a shoemaker. In 1871, aged 11, Andrew was living with his parents, older sister, May and younger siblings, Bridget, Elizabeth and Edward at ’14 Trafalgar Street (or, as the census form gives as an alternative, 8 1/2 Back Trafalgar Street, All Saints, off New Bridge Street). Did this young man of such humble origins really produce the first published Dewey catalogue in Britain? Luckily we have enough further sources of information to draw on in order to flesh out Andrew’s career and confirm his pioneering work for the people of Elswick and Heaton.
His biography would grace any library shelf.
While Andrew was a student, Newcastle’s first public library opened at the end of his street. It is said that he was never away. The staff got to know this ‘modest, serious, polite young boy’ and, if a staff member was ill or away, they called on him. Two years into his college course, the library offered him a full time job.
His parents were divided and he too was unsure about giving up his education but he accepted the post. He clearly took his work very seriously and researched developments which he could bring to Newcastle.
Keogh became an advocate for Melvil Dewey’s Decimal Classification System and was allowed to try it out on the stock for Stephenson’s new branch libraries. So the people of Heaton were able to easily see in detail what books they could take home on ornithology, plumbing, physics, horticulture, world religions, baking, poetry or whatever else interested them when most of those few libraries in Britain that already used Dewey used it only in their reference libraries. It seems that, at this time, not only was it a first for Britain but no library in Europe had published a catalogue arranged and indexed by Dewey.
In July 1897, when Keogh was 27 years old, a big international librarians’ conference was held in London. It was attended by 641 librarians and influencers from all over the world – from Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as from right across Europe and the United Kingdom. Newcastle Public Library’s head librarian, Basil Anderton; Councillor Robert Flowers, Vice Chairman of the Books Committee of Newcastle Public Library; Councillor Henry Newton, Chairman of Newcastle Public Library Committee and Robert Peddie of the Lit and Phil were among the many British delegates. But by far the largest foreign delegation was from the United States, including Melvil Dewey himself, who delivered a paper on the relation of the state to the public library.
Afterwards many of the American delegates took a tour of important English libraries, including on Friday 6 August, those in Newcastle. We haven’t been able to discover whether Dewey was among them.
Andrew Keogh was put in charge of their reception and arranged an evening river trip, followed by dinner at the Grand Assembly Rooms and ‘conversazioni’ at the Lit and Phil. One of the delegates was Jessica Sherman Van Vliet, a librarian from the Armour Institute in Chicago. Keogh immediately fell in love and it is said ‘took her home that evening’. He saw her and the rest of the delegates off the following day and the pair started to correspond. His letters often contained poetry, ‘some original, some quoted, always meticulously referenced’. Soon he proposed by letter and, his proposal having been accepted, Keogh set about finding a job in the USA.
Eventually he secured a post in a Chicago bookshop which was looking for someone who knew the Dewey system (the manager no doubt impressed by Keogh’s pioneering catalogue for the Elswick and Heaton libraries) and in January 1899, he sailed for America, reaching Chicago in February. But with his aim a position in a library, Keogh soon made the arduous 720 mile journey to the next annual meeting of the American Library Association in Atlanta, where he reacquainted himself with some of the delegates he had met in Newcastle. He was offered posts in several public libraries but, with his heart set on an academic position, turned them down, a brave move for a foreigner of humble origins and no university education. Eventually though, his persistence paid off with the offer of a post in Yale University library. He began work on 1 August 1900 and on 6th, he married Jessica Sherman Van Vliet.
By 1902, Keogh was teaching bibliography at Yale and he quickly progressed up his chosen career ladder, also becoming a lecturer and professor of bibliography. In 1909, he successfully applied for an American passport, from which we have a description of him as 5 feet 8 inches tall with an oval face, hazel eyes, dark brown hair and a moustache.
On 1 July 1916, despite ‘certain limitations of a middle class Englishman which he will probably never overcome’, he was appointed Librarian of the University of Yale.
Keogh wrote many papers and books and one of his many career highlights was a term as President of the American Library Association in 1929-30.
On his retirement in 1938, Andrew Keogh was named Librarian Emeritus of Yale University. He and Jessica were together for over 50 years until her death in 1952 aged 84. Andrew died a few months later on 13 February 1953 at the same age. Not a bad shelf life for the working class Geordie who cut his teeth cataloguing the collections of Elswick and Heaton branch libraries and whose life was shaped by love at first sight – and an equally strong passion for books.
Heaton’s Victoria Library, loved and appreciated by generations, closed in 2000. The nearest public libraries are now in High Heaton and Byker.
Can You Help?
If you have memories or photos of Heaton Library or know more about Andrew Keogh, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.
Andrew Keogh: his contribution to Yale / James T Babb; The Yale University Gazette Vol 29 No 2, October 1954
Classification in British Public Libraries: a historical perspective / J H Bowman; Library History Vol 21, November 2005
Heaton: from farms to foundries / Alan Morgan; Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2012
Transactions and Proceedings of the Second International Library Conference held in London July 13-16 1897
You may have noticed that, in July, the People’s Theatre is putting on a play called ‘Heaton!’ It’s been written by Heaton History Group’s very own Peter Dillon and will feature some of the figures from Heaton’s history that you may have read about on this website, alongside some new characters you don’t yet know. Over the coming months, we’ll be inviting some of them to tell us more about themselves and the show.
‘Welcome one and all – For many years now I’ve petitioned Newcastle Council for a licence to run a theatre in this fine city, and with a persistence matching rain they’ve regularly turned me down. Well, the days of petitions, the pleading letters, chaining myself to the Town Hall railings are over. No more begging. Instead –
Now or never, I’ll be showcasing my ingenuity, my refusal to take no for an answer, my stagecraft, my indefatigable personality, my thespian artistry……..all of these virtues and more will be on show in July, yes JULY! July 17 – July 21st to be precise – and the Box Office is open!
I’ve teamed up with those very good folks from the People’s Theatre to put on an all dancing, all singing entertainment to delight and inform the burghers of Heaton, and indeed far beyond.
I’m entitling the said theatrical extravangza, HEATON!
The show will feature some of the finest citizens of the borough that have ever lived, walked, and breathed in the Tyne’s fresh air. Sir Charles Parsons himself and the Turbinia from the Heaton Works on the Fossway, the good Lady Parsons, an engineer in her own right, the redoubtable Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell, Hotspur Street’s intrepid reformer, Ove Arup, born on Jesmond Vale Terrace, who built Sydney Opera House, a domestic servant, and Colin Veitch, Captain Supremo of Newcastle Utd and co-founder of the People’s Theatre.
They’ll all be there, so why not you…………..Oh, and not forgetting, someone who might be called the juvenile lead, name of Freddie. A dubious character, whose blog it’ll be my displeasure to introduce next time –
The dates of this not to be missed epic, once again, are Tuesday, JULY 17 – Saturday, JULY 21
And if this superior example of the performing arts fails to persuade the Council to grant me a theatre licence, I’ll have to settle for a One-Man Show at The Hoppings. Now we wouldn’t want that, would we…….
A must for all Heaton History Group members, family, neighbours, friends and hangers on, we’re sure you’ll agree. Find out more and book tickets here.
Not only that: the show will be accompanied by an exhibition called ‘Brains, Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton’, brought to you by the schoolchildren of Chillingham Road, Cragside, Hotspur and Ravenswood Primary Schools and Sir Charles Parsons School, Heaton History Group’s research team and Shoe Tree Arts, who put on the ‘Under the Fields of Heaton’, mining heritage arts events a couple of years ago. This is thanks to another award from Heritage Lottery Fund. Oh, and there will be music and song in the foyer too!
For our April talk, we will welcome back an old friend, Anthea Lang. Anthea will look at womens’ desire to get the vote in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the steps they took, peacable as well as violent, to achieve their goal. The title of Anthea’s talk derives from the tactic of avoiding being counted in the 1911 census. Newcastle was a hotbed of suffrage activity and Heaton’s own Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell was one of the movement’s leaders.
Anthea, formerly Local History and Heritage Manager for Gateshead Council, is now a local history adult education tutor, Newcastle City Guide and a local history author. Her new book ‘Visitors to Newcastle’ is due for publication in summer 2018.
The talk will take place on Wednesday 25 April 2018 at The Corner House, Heaton Road NE6 5RP at 7.30pm (Doors open at 7.00pm. You are advised to take your seat by 7.15pm). Please book your place by contacting email@example.com / 07443 594154. Until 25 January booking will be open to Heaton History Group members only.
On Monday 28 November Chillingham Road Primary School and Hotspur Primary School put on a wonderful performance for family and friends to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and to celebrate some of the many outstanding people who have lived in the Heaton streets named in Shakespeare’s honour – and who they have been learning about in class.
Hotspur pupils performed Richard II, in which many of the characters we are familiar with from our streetscape (such as Bolingbroke, Mowbray and Hotspur) feature; Chillingham Road performed a new play about the people of ‘Our Shakespeare Streets’. The play was based on research by Heaton History Group and friends and the project was funded by Historic England. Here are a few images taken on the night:
Chillingham Road pupils as historical figures of Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’
Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell
Hotspur’s pupils perform Richard II
To find out more
about some of the historical figures who lived on Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’ and how the streets came to be named, click on the links below:
This photograph of Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, who was born and bred in Newcastle and lived on Hotspur Street in Heaton for over 20 years, is held by the National Portrait Gallery.
Mrs F N Harrison Bell by Lafayette, 25 May 1929 courtesy of National Portrait Gallery
The gallery’s aim is ‘ to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture’. What then was Mrs Harrison Bell’s contribution to our national life?
Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell was one of the country’s leading socialist and feminist reformers in the early part of the 20th Century. She was a member of the Independent Labour Party from its inception in 1893; the ILP’s first Federal Secretary; and the first woman member of the party’s National Administrative Council, replaced in 1908 by the much better remembered Emmeline Pankhurst. She was the first socialist candidate of the Newcastle Board of Guardians in 1893 and a Director of the Newcastle Co-operative Society from 1902.
She was secretary of the Newcastle branch of the Women’s Labour League and member of the National League’s Executive Committee from 1913. She was an elected member of the Labour Party National Executive from 1918-25; represented Labour on the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations; was part of the British Labour delegation to the Congress of 2nd Internationale in Geneva in 1920, representing the TUC, Labour Party & the Fabian Society; and from 1921 was Treasurer of the International Federation of Working Women.
Yet none of that impressive CV even begins to describe the huge impact that she made on British social and political life throughout her life. She regularly spoke at local meetings and national conferences the length and breadth of the country, from Dundee to Truro, and was a tireless campaigner on issues including universal suffrage, women’s and child health, housing, unemployment and inequality.
She was born in Newcastle and until 1922 lived at 6 Hotspur Street, Heaton, yet today, despite the lasting impact of some of the changes she was instrumental in achieving and the currency of some of the issues she championed, she remains virtually unknown, without even a Wikipedia entry to her name!
Florence Nightingale Harrison, named after Florence Nightingale, who was at the height of her fame, was born in Newcastle in 1865. One biography lists her father as a Dr Thomas Harrison, of whom we’ve been able to find no trace. However he seems to have died young, as by 1881 a 14 year old Florence is identified as the step-daughter of Thomas Thompson, an engine fitter of 87 Walker Rd, Longbenton. She lived with him, his wife Isabella and their two year old son, Alfred.
Florence studied English History & Economics at Armstrong College and in 1891 was still living with her mother and step-father at 30 Belvedere Street, Byker, where she is recorded as being an elementary school teacher.
On 28 July 1896, Florence married Joseph Nicholas Bell at St Augustine’s Church Newcastle, becoming Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell, widely referred to as Mrs Harrison Bell.
Joseph was born in London, but brought up, along with his older sister, May, by his grand-parents on a farm near Brampton in Cumbria, where his grandfather was a shepherd. As an adult, he moved to Newcastle, boarding in Elswick and working at North Eastern Railway’s Forth Banks Goods Yard, where he helped to organise the workforce into the National Amalgamated Union of Labour, of which he became General Secretary in 1896.
Although never as prominent in the life of the city as his wife became, Joseph was very politically active, chairing the Labour Party Conference in 1903 and unsuccessfully contesting a by election in Leith for Labour in 1914. In a rare interview for the Journal in April 1917, he expressed his grave concern about the potential impact that the number of women entering the workforce during the war would have on wages when the war was over. His solution was to ensure that the unskilled workforce would be properly represented, by bringing together the many disparate unions representing them and allowing wage negotiations to take place at a national level. This he achieved in July of that year, when he was elected vice chair of the Federation of General Workers, with a total membership of 500,000.
It’s difficult to say whether it was Joseph’s political activism that inspired Florence, or whether her own aspirations brought them into the same circle. However we do know that Florence was politically active before their marriage, becoming a member of the Independent Labour Party from its establishment in 1893 and the first socialist candidate for the Newcastle Board of Guardians. Responsible for the administration of the Poor law, Guardians were subject to annual elections.
The 1901 Census shows the Bells living at 6 Hotspur Street, where their son Edward Percy was born in 1902. Being a mother did not seem to slow Florence down. That same year, she became a Director of the Newcastle Co-operative Society and shortly afterwards her name began to appear regularly in the press as a speaker, first at local events – the Women’s Suffrage Committee at Bedlington; a meeting of Socialists at North Seaton Colliery; the Blyth Independent Labour Party, but soon spreading further to places as far flung as Portsmouth and Coventry. The main focus of her early speeches was female emancipation. Under the auspices of the Newcastle and District Women’s Suffrage Committee, she set up regular meetings in Fenwicks’ Drawing Room Cafe, where women would meet to hear speakers and discuss political issues. Among her fellow group leaders was Ethel Bentham, a local doctor who would become one of the first women Labour MPs.
Below is the 1915-16 programme of Heaton’s Bainbridge Memorial Church Ladies Literary Society. which shows Mrs Harrison Bell speaking on ‘The Women’s Movement: its Moral Aspect’.
However, women’s suffrage was far from her only interest. She spoke movingly about the importance of a home life, contending that neither those living in slums nor the aristocracy had a proper home life and that ‘the only party that showed any desire to deal with the emancipation of women was the Labour Party’. She also showed a keen interest in unemployment, speaking at a right to work rally in Portsmouth in 1908. Unemployment and the right to work were to become a more significant theme in her work during the depression of the 20s and 30s.
What is interesting, in reading the huge amount of press coverage of Mrs Harrison Bell’s political life, is that none of the articles feel the need to explain who she was, suggesting that her name was already well known in an age before today’s mass media. However, her appearance on the national stage, including membership of Labour’s National Executive Committee, Executive Committee member of the Women’s Labour league and membership of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations, didn’t mean that she neglected local social issues. The Journal reported on 12 December 1916 that a meeting of the Newcastle Sanitary Committee received a deputation from the Women’s Helpers’ League, led by Mrs Harrison Bell. They urged the establishment of a municipal clinic for the treatment of infants. In 1917, she was co-opted to the Newcastle Food Control Committee Food Distribution Sub Committee, a wartime Committee established to manage the chronic problem of food shortages caused by the war. In 1918, the Coventry Evening Telegraph listed her among a list of women intimating their intention to stand for parliament, how far her bid progressed is unclear, but it was not successful.
Her husband Joseph, however, was more successful in his bid to become an MP, although his tenure was tragically short-lived. In 1922, the Bells moved to 90, Friern Park Road, North Finchley, London, in anticipation of Joseph becoming an MP. In the General Election on 15 November, he gained the seat of Newcastle East with a majority of 3,085. Tragically, he died a little over a month later on 17 December, aged 58, at Finchley Cottage Hospital, following two unsuccessful operations for Lymphadenoma, a tumour of the lymph nodes. His obituary noted that he had served on several Home Office committees of inquiry and on the panel of arbitration in industrial disputes and had been predicted to become the first Labour Home Secretary.
The Dundee Evening Telegraph reported several days later that ‘If Mrs Harrison Bell accepts the invitation of Newcastle East Labour to contest the seat so briefly held by her husband, she will stand an excellent chance of election.’ Going on to note that ‘so well known has she been indeed that it became the fashion in Labour circles to speak of the late J.N. Bell as husband of Mrs Harrison Bell.’ Florence clearly chose not to stand, as the seat was successfully contested by Arthur Henderson, General Secretary of the Labour Party.
Ahead of her Time
One might have thought that at the age of 57, having just lost her husband and having achieved her goal of women’s emancipation (women over 30 meeting a minimum requirement for property ownership gained the vote in 1918), Florence may have taken a lower public profile. Not so the redoubtable Mrs Harrison Bell. In fact the 1920s seem to have been the most productive time in her political career.
Just four days after Joseph’s death, the Ministry of Labour announced a ‘committee to inquire into the present conditions as to the supply of female domestic servants’ of which Florence was to be a member and by March 1923, she was back on the public speaking trail. In 1923 alone she was a delegate at the International Federation of Working Women Congress is Vienna; became Chairman of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations and its subcommittee on birth control; represented the Standing Joint Committee on the Overseas Committee and a deputation on housing to the Minister of Health and presided over the Annual Parliament of Labour Women in York, where the Burnley Evening news described her as a ‘lady who combines a unique degree of womanly homeliness with a penetrating insight into the larger affairs of local and national government.’
Amongst the resolutions carried at the Parliament were:
– One condemning London County Council’s decision to dismiss women teachers on marriage as being ‘inimical to the cause of education’;
– A proposal of one person one vote at the age of 21, which came to be in 1929;
– A proposal that elections should take place on Saturday rather than Thursday and that municipal elections should take place in May not October.
The only one of these resolutions that did not come to be was the call for elections to be held on Saturdays. Remarkably, this pattern is followed in many of Mrs Harrison Bell’s other political and social crusades, where she was clearly far ahead of her time and the things she called for ultimately came to be, as the NHS and the welfare state developed over the coming decades. Sadly she did not live to see all of these changes.
The focus of her public speeches during this period was often the home – ‘we stand for a home in which family life can be lived; a home which is fit for children to be born in’ she said at a speech in Truro in March 1923. In that same speech she also called for provision of sickness benefit and nursery school provision for all children. So far ahead of her time was she that she was accused, in calling for universal nursery school provision, of breaking up the home!
Increasingly though, her focus was on unemployment, which became a growing problem throughout the 20s as the Great Depression started to build. In that same speech at Truro, she said ‘If women ran the home on the same lines as the Government was running the nation, there would be no home at all. An economical Government was paying one million pounds in unemployment benefit to the men in the building trade and had not a single house to show for it.’ She returned to that same theme the following year, when following a snap election, Labour was in power with a minority administration. Supporting calls for a Capital Levy, she said ‘I never realised the vulgarity of wealth until I went to London and saw little shops selling ladies’ handkerchiefs at £20 a dozen…. Those shop owners and the people who buy their goods are the people who will have to pay’. How little has changed!
In 1924, with Labour in power, albeit briefly, Florence was drawn into two major government inquiries.
The first was an inquiry into child settlement in Canada. In what we’d now regard as a barbaric practice, Dr Barnardos, the Salvation Army and other charities routinely sent child orphans to Canada to live, effectively as slave labour on farms. She sailed to Canada on the Empress of Scotland in September 1924 along with Miss Margaret Bondfield, one of the first female MPs and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. They found that while the children were undoubtedly better fed than their counterparts at home, the farmers would prefer to have adults. As a result of their inquiry unaccompanied children being sent to Canada was stopped, although it appears that the practice continued elsewhere as in a speech in Portsmouth in 1930, she spoke of the continuing scheme for emigrating girls to the dominions for domestic work.
The second was a Royal Commission established to inquire into the National Health Insurance Scheme. This was a major piece of work which took two years to take evidence and make recommendations. The conclusion of the Commission, published in 1926, was that with a few minor changes the scheme, which was based heavily on the 19th Century Poor Law, worked satisfactorily.
However, that was not the conclusion of all of the Commission’s members. A minority report was produced by four of the members, including Mrs Harrison Bell. This report called for, amongst other things:
– The abolition of approved societies – insurance companies that managed the scheme, with local authorities taking on their role;
– Recognition that investment in health care would repay itself through improved health of the workforce, rather than simply attempting to contain the scheme within the prescribed resources;
– The provision of a complete remedial and treatment service including access to consultant and specialist care;
– Dental, optical and maternity care;
– Medical benefit for the dependents of injured people;
– An increase in sickness benefit and a new benefit for disabled people;
– Maternity benefit;
– Co-ordination of maternity and child welfare services with local authorities; and
– Re-arrangement and extension of maternity care, in particular, addressing the high maternal death rate.
It would be another 20 years before this vision was realised in the birth of the welfare state
Florence would return repeatedly to the issue of maternal health over the coming years. In 1924, she called, at the National Conference of Labour Women for public health authorities to provide information and advice on birth control, despite being heckled by a mother of 11 who declared that she was against the general teaching of birth control to working women.
In 1928 she spoke at a meeting to discuss maternal mortality at Central Hall Westminster. The resolution, which was carried was – ‘To work in all ways for the reduction in continued high death rates of mothers in childbirth. Steps to include:
– Medical enquiry into each maternal death
– Training of medical students & GPs in midwifery
– Committee on training and employment of midwives
– Provisions of National Health insurance Act adjusted so that medical and midwifery services should be available for mothers ante-natal and after confinement.’
All of which ultimately came to be.
It’s not clear whether Florence continued to work as a teacher alongside her highly public campaigning and political work, but it seems unlikely that she would have had an independent source of income. Although she started her career as an elementary school teacher, she did at some point work in adult education and as a lecturer for the Co-op movement. While living in London, she was the Secretary of the Central London Branch of the Teachers Labour League, so it is possible that she was still in the profession.
A brief biography notes her hobbies as reading, walking and motorcycling.
Florence continued to be a prominent public figure throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s, continuing to campaign on the issues of inequality, unemployment and maternal and child welfare. In 1927 as Director of London Labour Party’s Summer School for Women at Guildford, she said ‘They don’t send the fool of the family into the diplomatic service, for high qualifications are needed. The great fault with this service is that the upbringing of those in it prevents them from being in touch with the class whom they were sent to serve. They have no knowledge of working class conditions.’ In the early thirties, she also started to call for nationalisation of key industries, pointing out, in particular, the high death rates in coal mining as justification.
In 1929, at the age of 64, she stood unsuccessfully for parliament, in the first election where Labour formed a majority government. Standing for Labour in Luton, she came a poor third behind the Liberals and Unionists. Her son Percy also stood for Parliament in 1929 and again in 1931 for the seat of Wood Green. Both attempts were unsuccessful and he continued as a school teacher. However, in 1964, he become the Labour party member for Newham and later Newham South in the Greater London Council, a seat he held until the age of 79 in 1981, carrying on the family tradition. He died in 1987.
Florence herself seems to have taken a lower public profile beyond the mid 1930s, or at least was less reported in the press. That doesn’t mean though that she didn’t continue to take an active interest in politics. In 1946, at the National Conference of Labour Women in Hastings, a gathering she had initiated, there was a call for equal pay for women amongst other things. The Western Daily News reported ‘As the conference ended the oldest delegate, 81 year old Mrs Harrison Bell said: “We get a good deal more space in the press nowadays. We are very grateful for the work they have done’.
Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell died two years later on 8 September 1948 at Whipps Cross Hospital London, having left a huge, and now largely forgotten, legacy to the causes of feminism, inequality, healthcare and her much loved Labour party. She left a total of £190 6s to her son Percy.
Amazingly, given her prominence during her lifetime, we have not, as yet, been able to find a newspaper obituary let alone any permanent local or national memorial. Perhaps now is the time for Heaton History Group to help put that right? We call on the National Portrait Gallery to set the ball rolling by giving her photograph the prominent position on its walls we believe she deserves.
Can you help?
If you have information, anecdotes or photographs of Florence Nightingale Harrison Bell or Joseph or Percy Bell, that you are willing to share or have any comments on this article we’d love to hear from you. Please either write direct to this page by clicking on the link immediately below the article title, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Researched and written by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group, as part of our Historic England funded ‘Shakespeare Streets’ project.
The 1911 census has four members of the Lumley family living at number 37 Sixth Avenue. Joseph Smith Lumley, aged 55 was born in Gateshead and was an industrial insurance agent. He married Margaret Rudd from Shiny Row in 1883 in Newcastle and the couple lived in Tanfield and Elswick, before moving to Heaton some time after 1901. The couple had three children, one of whom did not survive infancy. In 1911, their two unmarried children: a daughter, Rosanna, aged 23, working as a telegraphist, and a son William, aged 20, working as a clerk/book-keeper with an electrical manufacturer, lived with them. The family were Methodists and members of the congregation at the Bainbridge Memorial Wesleyan Methodist Church, which formerly stood on the site of Southfields House sheltered accommodation on the corner of Heaton Road and Tynemouth Road.
Cuthbert Bainbridge Memorial Methodist Chapel, c1905
Following their move to Heaton, William completed his education at Chillingham Road School. It is likely that Rosanna had already left school before the family relocated.
At the start of the war, William, known to friends as Will, joined the 1st/6th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, which was a Territorial Force formed at St George’s Drill Hall Newcastle in August 1914 and stationed on Northumberland Road, opposite the City Hall. Along with the 1st/4th stationed at Hexham and the 1st/5th stationed in Walker, the Battalion were engaged in Tyne defences over the autumn and winter of 1914 and were mobilised for war in April 1915, landing in France to become part of the 149th Brigade of the 50th Division, which were engaged in action on the Western Front.
Will’s army career was, like many others, tragically short lived as he died on 26th April 1915 aged 23 during the Battle of St Julien, part of the second Battle of Ypres. This was an important point in the war as it was the first time that the German Army had successfully used poison gas, to devastating effect, although they failed to fully exploit this as German troops had been re-deployed to the Eastern Front, leaving too few men to fill the gaps that opened in allied lines. Chlorine gas was first deployed in the Battle of Gravenstafel at around 5pm on 22 April near the hamlet of Gravenstafel in Belgium. German troops carried 5,730 gas cylinders weighing 90lb each to the front. These were then opened and lit by hand, relying on the prevailing wind to carry the gas towards allied trenches. The aerial photograph below shows the eerie spectacle.
Yellow-green clouds drifted towards the Allied trenches. The gas had a distinctive smell, like pineapple and pepper. At first the French officers assumed that the German infantry were advancing behind a smoke screen and the troops were alerted. When the gas arrived at the Allied front trenches soldiers began to complain about pains in the chest and a burning sensation in their throats. The French troops in the path of the gas cloud suffered 6,000 casualties, with many dying within 10 minutes and others being left blind or with permanent lung damage. Many more ran for their lives. A four mile gap opened up in the front, which the German troops advanced upon, but the effect of the gas on their own troops and the lack of men meant that advance was contained by Canadian troops.
Dusk was falling when from the German trenches in front of the French line rose that strange green cloud of death. The light north-easterly breeze wafted it toward them, and in a moment death had them by the throat. One cannot blame them that they broke and fled. In the gathering dark of that awful night they fought with the terror, running blindly in the gas-cloud, and dropping with breasts heaving in agony and the slow poison of suffocation mantling their dark faces. Hundreds of them fell and died; others lay helpless, froth upon their agonized lips and their racked bodies powerfully sick, with tearing nausea at short intervals. They too would die later – a slow and lingering death of agony unspeakable. The whole air was tainted with the acrid smell of chlorine that caught at the back of men’s throats and filled their mouths with its metallic taste. The village of St Julien, where Will was posted, had been comfortably behind the Canadian defences until the poison gas attack of 22 April, when it became the front line.
On the morning of 24 April the Germans released another cloud of chlorine, towards the re-formed Canadian line just west of St. Julien. Word was passed among the Canadian troops to urinate on their handkerchiefs and place these over their noses and mouths. The countermeasures were insufficient and German troops took the village. However, the use of urine soaked pads continued to be the only counter-measure against the gas until respirators were provided in July 1915. The ammonia in the urine partly neutralised the chlorine. The picture shows British troops wearing the primitive protection.
Next day the York and Durham Brigade units of the Northumberland Division counter-attacked, failed to secure their objectives but established a new line closer to the village. On 26 April the Northumberland Brigade attacked again and gained a foothold in the village but were forced back with the loss of more than 1,940 casualties, among them Sergeant William Lumley, who died in heavy shelling. Field Marshall Sir John French, Commander in Chief of the British Army, reports in his 8th Despatch that ‘the Northumberland Infantry Brigade advanced against St Julien and actually succeeded in entering, and for a time occupying, the southern portion of that village.’ They were, however, eventually driven back, largely owing to gas, and finally occupied a line a short way to the south. Will was reported missing in the ‘Journal’ on 15 May 1915 and his death was confirmed on 18 June in the ‘Evening Chronicle’, where a letter from a friend who had witnessed it praised his heroic actions:
Heroism in an Attack
Sergeant W. Lumley of the 6th Northumberland Fusiliers was killed in action on April 26, and his father, Mr J. Lumley of 37 Sixth Avenue, Heaton, has received from a fellow sergeant the following letter:
I have had a letter from my chum in which he states you are very anxious for any detail of poor Will of whose sad end you have received official intimation from the War Office, I understand. Being an office colleague of mine, we chummed in together out here and went into action together on that fated Monday afternoon, April 26. Unfortunately we were separated in the final rush, but another chum of his was near him when he fell. This is his story. When we were making the final attack on St Julien, he was wounded in the arm and, after having had it bound up hurriedly, insisted on going on. Had he been but that brave fellow he proved himself to be, he would have gone back to dressing station there and then, as nearly every man would have done. He insisted on going on however and shortly afterwards was killed outright by the bursting of a shell. He would be buried where he fell, either by the Seaforths or the Warwicks, who were in the trenches at the time and would send burial parties out after the affair. I have lost many chums in this ***** affair, but I have felt Will’s loss more than any, as he had been associated with me so closely. At any rate you have consolation, however small, that your son died a hero. Had he been any other, he would have probably been alive today.
Transcript of article from Evening Chronicle 18 June 1915
Will’s death is marked on plaques on the Menin Gate in Ypres, his body having been hastily buried and never recovered due to the retreat of the allied forces from St Julien.
He is also remembered on war memorials in Chillingham Road School and in the former Bainbridge Memorial Methodist Church where stained glass windows were commissioned to commemorate the loss of members of the congregation. William was awarded three medals: The British War Medal; the Victory Medal; and the 1914-15 star. The three medals were almost always awarded together and were known as Pip (the 1914-15 Star), Squeak (the British War Medal) and Wilfred (the Victory Medal). Entries in the register of soldiers effects show that a War Gratuity of £6 and the sum of £2 7s 7d, cash in his possession when he died were paid to Will’s sister, Miss Rosanna Lumley, on 7 July 1919.
On Wednesday 22 March 1916, Will’s bereaved mother, Margaret Lumley, is noted in ‘The Newcastle Daily Journal’ amongst a list of other donors as having donated a muffler, games, two pairs of socks, bedsocks, magazines and stationery to the Northumberland War Hospital on behalf of the North Heaton Branch of the British Women’s Temperance Association.
In the Victorian period, alcohol consumption was massive. It was a way of life. Beer was cheaper than bread; spirits were deemed to have ‘medicinal’ benefits. It was one of the few pastimes that transcended the class structure. Nor was it just men who drank. To many, alcohol offered a temporary escape from their hard lives. Others thrived on the sensory pleasure it seemed to afford. However, it was the women who usually had to suffer and manage the consequences of excessive drinking by their menfolk. It was the women who struggled to keep enough money back from their husbands’ pay to feed the family before it was spent at the pub. It was they who had to shelter the children from aggressive drunken fathers, often taking a beating themselves in the process. And it was they who had to watch as sons grew up to regard beer as the staple drink.
It was against this background that the temperance movement started to grow, almost inevitably led by men, until the BWTA came along. Margaret Bright Lucas was a member of a well known Quaker family and in 1872 joined the Independent Order of the Good Templars, rising by 1875 to the level of ‘grand worthy vice templar, the highest position afforded to a British woman. The IOGT afforded much greater equality for its women members, encouraging them to speak in public.
Along with Margaret Parker from Dundee, she had visited America and been heavily influenced by the thinking of the US women’s temperance leader Eliza Stewart. On their return, they issued a call to arms, bringing together over 150 women from across the country to a meeting as part of a conference of the International Order of Good Templars in April 1876. The British Women’s Temperance Association was born, with Margaret Parker becoming the first president. Margaret Bright Lucas took over the presidency in 1878 until her death in 1890 and oversaw a massive growth of the association. Many organisations with similar goals became affiliated to the movement and in 1884, an organising agent was appointed to add 100 additional branches. It produced its own journal and a non-alcoholic cookery Book. Margaret Bright Lucas also recognised that women’s voice for reform would be stronger if women had the vote and advocated means of influencing men to use their votes in support of women’s issues, thus tying temperance and women’s suffrage issues together very strongly. A tie that would ultimately in 1893 split the organisation into the National British Women’s Temperance Association, then led by Lady Henry Somerset, with a mandate for a full reforming agenda and the Women’s Total Abstinence Union, with a much narrower remit.
The newly reformed NBWTA involved itself in a much wider social reform agenda, including child protection, suffrage and prison and court work. It is this organisation that Margaret Lumley would have been active in. The newspaper article identifies her address as the address for the North Heaton Branch of the association, so she must have played a leading role in the local organisation, possibly branch secretary, which was obviously big enough to warrant its own North Heaton branch. As a member, Margaret would have had to sign a membership pledge and would have worn the organisations white ribbon brooch.
What is significant is what Margaret’s role as branch secretary tells us about the changing role of women in society at the time. The early leaders of the BWTA were very much from the upper class philanthropist mould. Ladies who could play no official role in the society of the day, but were able to use their status and connections to exert a growing influence on matters of concern to society, like temperance. But during World War One, Margaret Lumley a lower middle class wife and mother, was leading a local branch of a national organisation with some significant influence nationally.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the 1915-16 programme of the Ladies Literary Society at the Bainbridge Memorial Church, which the family attended, as well as having needlework and cookery competitions and considering a paper on the ‘potentialities of a handkerchief’ also held debates and had a talk from Mrs Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell, a leading local figure in the women’s suffrage movement.
An article in 14 August 1914’s edition of ‘The Newcastle Daily Journal’ reports that the BWTA was one of a number of local women’s organisations that had met with the Lord Mayor of Newcastle to discuss how they could help the war effort by organising women volunteers. The article notes that a committee had been established under the Lord Mayor’s direction, which would allow the various organisations to coordinate women volunteers to meet various needs as and when they were identified. The article goes on to note that the only immediate requirements were for women qualified to investigate cases of distress and help with sewing. It is possible that a continuation of this work that led to the donations to the Northumberland War Hospital noted in the original article. Nationally, the association funded reading, writing and refreshment rooms for the troops as well as funding the provision of mobile canteens to feed the troops at the front and the North Heaton branch would have been active in raising money for the national effort as well as supporting local initiatives.
Heaton Avenues in Wartime
This article was researched and written by Michael Proctor, with additional input by Caroline Stringer, as part of Heaton History Group’s ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. We would like to hear your views on anything relating to the article. You can leave them on the website by clicking on the link immediately below the title or email email@example.com
That afternoon’s local derby at Roker Park, and how it would be affected by the gales which had disrupted shipping all week, were no doubt among the big topics of conversation in Heaton on Saturday 8 March 1913. But by the next day all that had changed. It was an incident in Heaton Park itself which was on everyone’s lips and was front page news across the country and even beyond.
According to the newspaper reports, at half past midnight Constable John Smith, who lived with his wife and two young children in Trewhitt Road, had noticed smoke while on his beat along Jesmond Vale Road, which separates Heaton from Armstrong Park. He alerted the park superintendent who lived on site and together they investigated. A large shelter and ‘bowls house’ was ablaze, the flames fanned by the strong winds. Although Red Barns Fire Brigade was quickly on the scene, the shelter was soon a charred ruin. (A photograph of the building taken from Alan Morgan’s book: Heaton: from farms to foundries can be seen below this article)
What made the incident so newsworthy was the policeman’s apparent discovery between the railings around the bowling green of a piece of card which bore words along the lines of ‘No peace until votes for women’. Women’s footprints were also said to be visible in the soft ground. Newspaper accounts of the wording, the size of the card and even the names of the park superintendent, Robert or Richard Brown, and the name of the bowling club, variously Heaton and Armstrong, vary so historians need to treat the detail with some scepticism but it seems to have been agreed that hundreds of pounds worth of damage was done. Besides the building, highly prized bowls valued at two to five guineas a pair, many won in competitions, along with canvas shoes and ‘goloshes’ (as they were spelt in 1913) were reportedly destroyed. Many people were said to have visited the site of the ‘outrage’ later that day.
Women had campaigned for the vote since the mid 19th century but the term ‘suffragette’ was apparently first used in the Daily Mail in 1908 to describe militant ‘suffragists’. The suffragettes, under the leadership of the Pankhursts and others, had increasingly resorted to violence, at first mainly stone throwing, to get their message across. In November 1912, they began to target post boxes, apparently burning 2,000 letters in Newcastle alone.
In January 1913, after a proposal to give women the right to vote was defeated in parliament for the 20th time, the suffragettes further upped the ante. Some women went on hunger strike and they also began to target sporting clubs and venues. The Heaton Park incident was one of the first arson attacks in a campaign which culminated in Emily Davison being killed by the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby. The suffragettes’ activity was only suspended on the outbreak of WW1. Following the war, in July 1918, women over 30 were given the vote; the same September they were allowed to stand for parliament and finally in 1928 women over the age of 21 were, like men, eligible to vote.
From a local history perspective, it’s interesting to speculate about who might have been among the large crowd that gathered in the park that Sunday:
Jack Common, the writer, was nine years old and lived at 44 Third Avenue. In his autobiographical novel, Kiddar’s Luck, he wrote about his solitary Sunday walks through the park to Jesmond Dene: ‘two bowling greens… watched by a terrace on which stood a huge aviary holding up the dial of a southward facing clock, flower beds of painfully formal calceolaria, scarlet geranium, lobelia’ The excitement must surely have drawn a crowd of street-wise boys there that day.
John Thomas Gilroy was 14 years old and lived with his mother, father and seven brothers and sisters at 25 Kingsley Place, only yards from the park. He had already won a scholarship to study at Armstrong College Art School and by the following year was a cartoonist for the Evening Chronicle. He went on to a hugely successful career as a commercial artists and was most famous for the ‘Guinness is good for you’ advertising campaign. Did he or his father, also an artist, sketch the scene?
Newcastle United footballer, Colin Veitch lived on the other side of the park at 1 Stratford Villas. He had played in the 0-0 cup draw at Sunderland and, according to the local press, the next day the players visited North Shields for ‘brine baths’. He may well have walked through the park to catch a bus or tram and, as both a political activist and sportsman, he will surely have expressed his views about both women’s suffrage and the plight of the bowlers.
Finally what role, if any, did the evocatively-named Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell play? She was the first woman member of the Independent Labour party’s national administrative council (replaced in 1898 by Emmeline Pankhurst). In the early 1900s she was a key member of Newcastle and District Women’s Suffrage Society. In January 1911 at the Women’s Labour league Conference at which she was the delegate for Newcastle, she moved a resolution in favour of adult suffrage. She lived at 6 Hotspur Street, with her husband, Joseph Bell, later to be elected MP for Newcastle East. If she wasn’t involved, who was? We will probably never know.
Heaton History group has been invited by Beamish Museum and Northumberland Archives -Woodhorn to take part in a project on the suffragette movement. If you’d like to help us find out more about the incident or about the suffragettes of the area and disseminate the information to a wider audience, please get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org