Tag Archives: Francis Topping

10 Sefton Avenue: a time-line

It seems fitting that the first owner of 10 Sefton Avenue was the daughter and granddaughter of at least two generations of watchmakers who had lived in a place that, in the nineteenth century, was synonymous with monitoring the passage of time. For studying the history of buildings to help us understand those who have inhabited them fascinates the current owner of the house. Conversely the stories of those who have lived and worked in a building over time can breathe life into inanimate bricks and mortar.

The discovery in his loft of a large collection of objects and documents that had belonged to a previous owner aroused Jules Brown’s curiosity.

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10 Sefton Avenue, 2017 (undergoing a loft conversion)

What we came to call the ‘Sefton Hoard’, along with the deeds and other documents relating to the property were the starting point for our investigation. But we’ll begin before the house was built.

Little Broom

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Plan of Heaton which accompanies the deeds of 10 Sefton Avenue

In October 1894 Lord Armstrong had passed on his land in Heaton, including Heaton Town Farm, to his great nephew, William Armstrong Watson-Armstrong. In 1907, the plot which became 10 Sefton Avenue was sold by Watson-Armstrong to a local builder, Peter Grant Tulloh. By comparing the above plan accompanying the house deeds to modern maps, we have calculated this plot to have been part of Heaton Town Farm, somewhere in field 95, formerly pasture known as Little Broom.

Peter Tulloh had been born in Forres in Moray, Scotland in 1859 but had moved south as a young man, first to Bishopwearmouth and, by 1891, to 28 Falmouth Road in Heaton at which time he described himself as a ‘traveller’, which we think means what we later called a ‘commercial traveller‘ or ‘travelling salesman‘. Ten years later, he described himself as a ‘traveller’s manager’ and was living at 48 Heaton Road.

We don’t know when or how he became a builder and property developer but he was soon successful. By 1912, he was living at 330 Heaton Road, a house later demolished for the building of the Coast Road, ending his days at Eastwood on Jesmond Park East. He died on 13 April 1939, leaving almost £30,000 in his will. Peter is buried in Byker and Heaton Cemetery with his wife, Isabella and young daughter, Olivia.

The time traveller’s daughter

In January 1907, Peter Tulloh sold 10 Sefton Avenue to 32 year old Fanny Louise Baker. Fanny had been born in Newcastle in c1874 to parents who had moved from the midlands. Her father, William, had worked as a finisher in the watchmaking industry as did his father before him, at a time when the area around Spon Street, Coventry, where they lived, was one of the oldest and most important centres of the industry in the world. Old watchmakers’ houses still stand in this historic quarter of the city and the Coventry Watch Museum tells the fascinating story of the industry and the people employed in it.

But specialist skills were also in demand in the rapidly expanding cities of the north and so William and his wife, Frances, were assured of a bright future when, around 1867, they set off for Newcastle, three young children in tow. (Fanny herself was born some seven years later.) The family settled in Elswick, where William continued to work as a watchmaker. He eventually died in September 1905 leaving £635 6s 9d in his will, a sum that would secure his family’s future by enabling Fanny to buy the brand new house (10 Sefton Avenue cost her just £575 ) she was to share with her now 72 year old mother and her older sister, Elizabeth, a schoolteacher and the only wage earner in the family. By 1911, they had been joined by a boarder, Reuben Charles Salmon, whose rent would have been a welcome supplement to the household income.

The power of love

So, what brought Reuben to Newcastle? He had been born in Bethnal Green, Middlesex in 1881 and by the age of 20, still at home, he was an apprentice electrical engineer. Ten years later and now in Heaton, he described himself as ‘electrical engineer (electric supply)’.  For an ambitious young man in Reuben’s relatively new line of work, Newcastle, was the place to be.

As early as 1860 Sir Joseph Wilson Swan had developed a primitive electric light bulb. But it took him almost twenty more years to develop the incandescent electric light bulb, which would stand the test of time. He patented it in 1878 and a year later, Mosley Street in Newcastle became the first street in the world to be lit by electricity.

Cragside, the Northumberland home of Lord Armstrong, former owner of the land on which 10 Sefton Avenue was built, was famously the first house in the world to be lit by electricity. The picture gallery was illuminated by arc lamps by 1878. And in 1887, 45 of Swan’s light bulbs were installed to light the whole house, the power generated by hydraulics, Armstrong’s own speciality. But Armstrong was interested in physics more generally and he also worked with Professor Henry Stroud, who lived at 274 Heaton Road, on research into the nature of electricity.

But it was one thing generating the power to serve one wealthy person’s home, another to produce enough to cost-effectively service heavy industry. But once again this area was at the forefront of developments. In 1901 Neptune Bank Power Station was built at nearby Wallsend by the Newcastleu pon Tyne Electric Supply Company. Servicing shipyards and other local industry, it was the first in the world to provide electricity for purposes other than domestic and street lighting. It was also the first in the world to generate electricity using three-phase electrical power distribution at a voltage of 5,500 volts. In 1902, two 1,500-kW Parsons steam turbine driven turbo-alternators, developed and made in Heaton, were added. They were the largest three-phase steam turbine driven alternators in the world, as well as the first of a revolutionary barrel type, rotary design. But they weren’t enough.

In 1904 Carville Power Station was built, again using Parsons’ steam turbine alternators from Heaton. The first electricity produced by the station was provided to the NER for the very early electrification of the railway line that passed through Heaton. Carville was extended in 1907 and, in 1916, with demand for electricity soaring because of the war, a second power station, Carville B, was built. This was the largest power station in the UK at the time and was considered to be the ‘first major generating station in the world’, as well as the largest and most economical in the UK. The power supply industry may have been what brought Reuben north. It was certainly where he made his living. However, he found more than work in Newcastle: in 1913, Reuben Charles Salmon married Fanny Baker, his landlady. They lived on Sefton Avenue for eight more years, before moving to Bristol.

Self-made

In October 1921, the house changed hands for the first time. It was bought by Henry Lowery, aged 35, variously described as a ‘ship breaker’ and an ‘iron and steel merchant’, whose business was based in Gateshead.  Born in Newcastle on 16 June 1886, Henry had grown up locally – in Byker. Aged 4, he was living with his widowed mother, Mary Ann, described as a ‘hawker’, and three elder siblings. Aged 14, Henry was described as a painter. In 1911, he was married and still living in Byker but now working as a clerk in an iron and steel merchants.

His wife, like his mother, was called Mary Ann (nee Wilde). And they had daughter called? You guessed it: Mary Ann! Ten years later, now with his own business, he had done well enough for himself to buy a very nice house in Heaton, initially with the help of two sisters from Berwick, Isabella and Barbara Forbes Atchison, his relationship to whom we don’t yet know.

Henry repaid the sisters a year later and lived at 10 Sefton Avenue for 28 years before retiring to Gateshead. When he died, aged 73, he left over £17,000 in his will, very much a self-made man.

Wanderer

The next owner, George Arrowsmith Barnet, had been born on 8 April 1911 in Bishop Auckland. He married Moira H Ashley in Lambeth, London in 1935 and by 1939 the couple and their three children were living in Portsmouth, where George was a cafe manager. Soon afterwards, however, they returned to Bishop Auckland before, in 1949, buying 10 Sefton Avenue from Henry Lowery. George was now described as a ‘catering manager’. But the Barnet’s didn’t stay in Heaton long. Post-war austerity and rationing won’t have made his job easy and Canada was eager to attract new workers: George and his wife, like another half a million Britons in the thirty years following WW2, made the brave decision to emigrate. After giving Moira Power of Attorney so that she could manage his affairs, including the sale of 10 Sefton Avenue, on 13 May 1953 George sailed from Liverpool to Quebec on SS Franconia.  Four months later, Moira and their four children followed him. George Arrowsmith Barnet died aged 77 in White Rock, British Columbia, thirty six years after leaving Heaton.

Hoarder

The person who Moira Barnet sold the house to was Robert Edward Topping. He and his wife Greta (nee Gerner) moved the short distance from 10 Roxburgh Place to 10 Sefton Avenue in August 1953. And for the first time we have more than archival records to help us tell their story.

But first we need to jump ahead around sixty four years. Thinking of expanding his living accommodation, current owner Jules Brown, ventured up a ladder to survey the available roof space. To his amazement, as he arced his torch in the darkness, objects began to emerge from the shadows: some boxes but also individual items, large and small: once-treasured books, many of which were inscribed: some birthday gifts to a young Robert from his father and others presented to Greta for excellent attendance at Sunday School; photographs and personal letters; journals; home made tools, furniture and electric lamps; a canvas rucksack; toys and games, again some home-made; part of a lantern slide projector with slides and a couple of cine films; even a bike. Many of the items seemed insignificant, but clearly all had had meaning enough to become keepsakes for someone. All now black with the dust and soot of more than half a century.

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Jules Brown examining the contents of his loft

Luckily for us, Jules works for Historic England and North of England Civic Trust as a conservation manager. Naturally, he was intrigued by the finds and what they might tell him about his home and those who had lived there before him. He invited Heaton History Group to help sift through the items and decide what had a historic value and who might appreciate it. He wondered whether it was fanciful to think descendants of the hoard’s owners might be traced.

It soon became apparent that most of the objects in the loft had belonged to a Robert Topping and his wife, Greta. Some items were fit only for the tip. Time hadn’t treated them kindly. But there was a small pile relating to C A Parsons, journals, engineering text books, pencils, a slide rule. They were gladly accepted by Siemens’ Heaton Works historian, Ruth Baldasera. The North East Land Sea & Air Museum said they’d love the old BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) military bike.

Reunited

Another group of items related to Heaton Presbyterian Church – Robert and Greta’s religious conviction was clear: there were books about the church, tales from the New Testament, a prayer book but also sermons, hand-written in pencil. We remembered that the daughters of Olive Renwick, of whom we have written before, were parishioners. Would the church like the items and did they happen to know of a Robert Topping? Of course they did. Robert was only their uncle!

He was Olive’s brother and the son of Isabella and Frank Topping, the railway signalman who featured in another article we’ve published.

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Olive, Robert and Sybil Topping with their mother Isabella c1925

And so, over a cup of tea a few nights later, Robert’s nieces, Margaret and Julia, put flesh on the bones of what we’d already pieced together about ‘Uncle Rob and Auntie Greta’ and were reunited with photos, letters, cine films and other personal effects.

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Julia & Margaret, Robert Topping’s nieces with Arthur Andrews & Chris Jackson of HHG

Robert was born on 5 March 1922. He worked as an engineer at Parsons for many years but he’d also served in the Royal Navy during and after the second world war.  Jules’ next door neighbour, who had known Robert as an elderly man, believed he had been a submariner. Robert had told Margaret and Julia that too. But his nieces also recalled that he had a vivid imagination and told many fantastic stories, many of which they suspected to be made up to entertain and impress them.

Amongst the documents in the attic were letters that showed Robert had been at a naval base in Virginia in the USA, a postcard addressed to him as an Engine Room Artificer (a fitter, turner or boilermaker) on HMS Queen Elizabeth and a telegram addressed to him aboard HMS Hargood at Rosyth naval dockyard, suggesting he served on ships in the Royal Navy rather than submarines.

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Robert Topping in the Royal Navy

But there was also a ship’s diary, hand-written in Spanish, in which the author recounted watching the German Graf Zeppelin in the sky above Reykjavik in 1931, on its way to carry out research into the Arctic. Robert would have been nine years old.  ‘Perhaps some of those fantastic stories of a life of adventure were true!’, joked Margaret. Julia remembered with affection her uncle’s sense of humour: ‘He was the only one who could make Aunt Sybil laugh!’ As we looked at family photos around Jules’ kitchen table, we could feel his jovial, larger than life presence in the room.

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Robert Topping in later years

Some of Robert and Greta’s belongings have now been returned to the family and others donated to specialists who would appreciate them but Jules has kept a few items ‘for the house’. He will restore the home made bird box and put it in the garden. And five books by Ramsay Guthrie will be cleaned up and returned to the now converted loft.

Ramsay Guthrie was the alias of John George Bowran (1869-1946), a Primitive Methodist Minister from Gateshead, who wrote many novels set on Tyneside. They feature miners, ship builders and other working class characters and were concerned with morality and redemption. They were written around the time the house was built and, like the lives of the house’s former inhabitants, help to tell its story.

Post-script

Robert Edward Topping died in 2002, while still living at 10 Sefton Avenue. The house was then home to first the Kemptons and later the Kemps from whom Jules Brown bought it. Their life stories will add another layer to the fascinating history of 10 Sefton Avenue in due course.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Jules for sharing his finds with us and to Julia and Margaret for supplying photographs of their uncle and adding to what the ‘Sefton Hoard’ had told us about him.

Researched and written by Chris Jackson and Arthur Andrews.

Can you help?

If you can add to the story of 10 Sefton Avenue and those who have lived there – or you would like us to look into the history of YOUR house, either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email   chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

The signalman and his daughter

Little did we think, when we published ‘Dead Man’s Handle’, the story of a railway accident that took place almost ninety years ago, that we’d be put in touch with someone who clearly remembered that night – and so much more besides. Olive Renwick was born in September 1916, so she is now approaching her 99th birthday – and she has lived in Heaton all her life.

Olive as a young child

Olive as a young child

The signalman

Olive is the daughter of Isabella and Francis Walter (Frank) Topping. Frank was the signalman who, on 8 August 1926, saw a passenger train coming towards his box at full speed seconds before it crashed into a goods train near Manors Station. Olive was nine years old at the time and reminded us that nobody had phones back then and so when her father didn’t return from work, the family could only sit and wait. ‘My mother didn’t send my sister and me to bed’ she remembered ‘I think she was worried and wanted company’.

The train hit the box in which her father worked, damaging one of its supporting ‘legs‘ but luckily Frank Topping escaped unscathed. He alerted the emergency services and helped rescue passengers before eventually arriving home to his anxious family. ‘But he thought he was a goner’ said Olive. You can read the full story here: Dead Man’s Handle

Olive told us more about her father: he was Heaton born and bred, growing up on Simonside Terrace.

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North View School, 1890s?

On this school photo, he is second from the left on the back row. ‘I think it might be North View School but I’m not sure’. (Does anybody know?) Frank had started his career on the railways in 1900, aged 16, as a learner signal lad.  ‘I was always very proud of him. He was trusted with one of the biggest signal boxes, with four lines to look after.’

But he didn’t remain a signalman. Frank became branch secretary of Newcastle Number 2 NUR branch, senior trustee for the Passenger Signalmen’s Provident Society and was, for almost 20 years from 1931, Secretary of the NER Cottage Homes and Benefit Fund. Locally, in 1911 he was ordained an Elder of Heaton Presbyterian Church, then a session clerk from 1946 until shortly before he died. In WW2, he served in the Home Guard.

Frank Topping, Home Guard, 1942

Frank Topping, Home Guard, 1942

Olive showed us photographs and newspaper cuttings relating to her father including an account, with photographs, of him opening railway cottages in Hartlepool on a street named after him.

Frank Topping officially opening railway cottage in Topping Close, Hartlepool

Frank Topping officially opening a railway cottage in Topping Close, Hartlepool

She had also kept a tribute, published in a railway magazine after his death, in which her father was praised for:

‘ his inimitable character, his understanding and judgement, his forthright speaking, his general cheerfulness and his desire to help his fellow man’

Francis Topping died in 1957.

Olive’s childhood

It was fantastic to find out more about Frank Topping and to hear Olive’s memories of her father but we couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to hear more from someone who has lived in Heaton for almost a century. Imagine the changes she has seen.

Olive was born on Warton Terrace but spent most of her childhood on Ebor Street and then Spencer Street, ‘The railway terraces. In those days, you had to be on the railways to live there’.

Olive with her brother, Rob, outside their house in Ebor Street.

Olive with her brother, Rob, outside their house in Ebor Street.

Olive (right) with her sister Sybil, Ebor St c1923

Olive (right) with her sister Sybil, Ebor St c1923

She remember the street traders, who sold all manner of things on the front street and back lanes. And, like Jack Common, a few years earlier, she recalls itinerant musicians: ‘women, they were usually women, in shawls, women who were poorer than us, who came round door to door, singing and collecting money.’

As a child, Olive was allergic to cow’s milk. She remembers that her mother walked to Meldon Terrace everyday with a jug to collect milk from a woman who kept a goat in her back yard.

One of her earliest memories was climbing on the cannons that used to stand in Heaton Park. She cut her leg badly and, because she feared her parents would be annoyed with her, dashed straight to the outside toilet in the hope of stemming the flow of blood. Naturally though she couldn’t hide the injury for long. ‘I was carried off to hospital for stitches. And my father wrote to the council to complain the cannons were dangerous’ Olive told us, ‘And soon after they were removed!’

Olive on the cannon in Heaton Park

Olive on the cannon in Heaton Park

‘And I remember my mother taking me to the Scala for a treat to see “Tarzan” but I ran up and down the aisle, shouting “Tarzan!” and had to be taken home in disgrace’. (This must have been an older version than the famous Johnny Weismuller films of the 1930s and ’40s, perhaps ‘The Adventures of Tarzan‘ (1921), the silent movie version which starred Elmo Lincoln.)

Scala cinema Chillingham Road

Olive attended Chillingham Road School and later Heaton High:

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

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

The original buildings of what became Heaton Manor School

The original buildings of what became Heaton Manor School

‘I was in my first year when the King and Queen came to officially open the school.

King and Queen open Heaton Secondary Schools, 1928

King and Queen open Heaton Secondary Schools, 1928

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!’

And she remembers, without much fondness, the many rail journeys of her childhood. ‘With my father’s job, the whole family enjoyed subsidised travel.. I say “enjoyed” but I hated it. We went all over, to places like Edinburgh, but trains made me sick: it was the smell. So I wasn’t allowed to sit in the carriage. I was banished to the guard’s van – with a bucket. I can still smell that smell now – and it still makes me feel sick!’

Coincidence

It was as we were leaving that Olive mentioned, in passing, her maternal grandparents: that they were called Wood, came originally from Ayton in Berwickshire, lived in Seventh Avenue and that her mother’s uncle Bob (Walker) grew potatoes on a field near Red Hall Drive. Could they be the same Woods that we’d researched and written about as part of our ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project. Surely they must? And indeed they were.

Isabella and David Wood

Isabella and David Wood

On a return visit, Olive told us more about her grandparents, David and Isabella Wood. She confirmed that they had an allotment on railway land. She told us about visits to her great aunts in Ayton and she recounted family stories about a visit to her Uncle Robert in hospital, where he was to die from wounds received on the battlefield. Best of all, she was able to show us photographs of both grandparents, more of which we will add to the article ‘The Woods of Seventh Avenue’.

It’s been a pleasure to meet Olive,  pictured here with daughters, Julia and Margaret, in 1953:

Olive with daughters, Julia and Margaret in 1953

Olive with daughters, Julia and Margaret in 1953

And here in 2015:

Margaret, Olive and Julia, 2015

Margaret, Olive and Julia, 2015

We hope that we’ll meet again soon and that she’ll be able to add even more to our knowledge of Heaton’s history.

Can you help?

If you have knowledge, memories or photographs of Heaton you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Either contact us via the website by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or email chris.Jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Dead Man’s Handle

It is late evening on a Saturday in early August 1926. The sun set an hour ago, but the sky in the west is still bright. The gaslamps of Heaton railway station dimly illuminate the expanse of the glass canopy above. The two platforms of the station are virtually deserted, and its signal box is closed for the night. The station foreman is in his small wooden office, catching up with the paperwork now that the trains are less frequent. The last of the birds are singing their songs in the trees above the cutting walls before they settle down for the night.

From the east comes a distant whistle, high pitched and short, and then the puffing and wheezing of a steam locomotive. Round the bend from Heaton Yard appears an engine, small and black but kept clean and shiny by its crew, starting up its short train. It is a ‘Special Goods’ for Blaydon made up of 13 wagons from railway companies far and wide. Slowly the engine clanks by, its crew exchanging a wave with the station foreman whose head pokes out from his office door to watch its passing.

A procession of wooden goods wagons goes rumbling and squealing through the platforms, the noise echoing off the walls that surround Heaton station in its cutting. The first wagon has ‘GW’ painted on its side, an indication that it belongs to the mighty Great Western Railway. Then comes one with ‘L&Y’ indicating that until the 1923 ‘Grouping’ of the railway companies it had belonged to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. The next wagon is brand new grain wagon, probably filled with the products of a farm somewhere in Northumberland. It has the letters LNER on the side, a company formed only three years ago, and one which took over the running of Heaton station and its trains from the old North Eastern Railway.

The train clanks its way along the up main line; the driver has no worries about holding up fast express trains at this time of night and has a clear run at least as far as Manors. That’s the next station towards Newcastle to the west, after the cutting in which Heaton station stands opens out for the junction at Riverside, and then the great viaduct over the Ouseburn. The red glow from the tail lamp on the guards van slowly disappears off down the line as the steam, trapped under the huge glass canopy above, slowly starts to drift away through the trees and into the darkening sky.

Ten minutes later a different sound drifts in from the east. This time it’s the swishing and clackety-clack of a much faster train running in on the line from Tynemouth and the coast. It’s one of the old North Eastern Railway’s electric trains, built in 1904 but still performing a sterling service over 20 years later. It’s possible to tell from the roofs that the second two carriages in the train are much newer, built only six years ago to replace the trains lost in the fire at Heaton Car Sheds. Some of the cars are still painted in the old North Eastern Railway crimson lake, but others have already acquired the new drab teak colour favoured by the LNER. The lights from the carriages illuminate the cutting walls as the train speeds into the station, displaying ‘CENTRAL’ on the front.

Experienced driver

At first it appears it’s not going to stop in time, but the driver, William Skinner of Felton Street, Byker, applies the brakes firmly and the train squeals to a halt in the platform. The sliding door of the van section of the first carriage rumbles open and out steps Skinner onto the platform, standing about two feet from his train. The train is made of wood, with matchboard on the lower half, and large windows above. Inside it looks comfortable but functional, and only one young couple can be seen inside the first class compartment of the first vehicle. There is a large parcels compartment in this first coach, one of the motor luggage composite carriages built at the opening of electric services, to carry fish from the coast and the prams of toddlers on their way to the beach.

The type of passenger train William Skinner was driving in 1926

The type of passenger train William Skinner drove through Heaton  in 1926

Skinner is 35 years old and has worked on the railway for 18 years, starting off as a cleaner and being promoted to a driver six years ago. He has been mainly been driving goods trains of late, but passed for driving these electric trains four years ago. This is a nice change for him, running out to the coast on a clean electric service instead of the heat, smoke, and grime of a goods train. He has enjoyed his ride so far, fast out to Monkseaton and then stopping at all stations on the return to Newcastle Central station. After this stop he only has Manors to go before his arrival back at the Central. His wife and five children will be waiting for him at his home, which is only a mile away from where his train currently waits.

Last trip

The station foreman emerges from the gloom and stands on the platform to watch the passengers disembark. They’re mainly day-trippers who’ve enjoyed an evening at the coast, with few people getting on at this time of night. He notices Skinner on the platform, which seems a bit odd to him, and shouts hello. “Is this your last trip?” he asks, to which Skinner replies “Yes!” The train’s guard, George Patterson, closes the metal gates on the old carriages, and the doors on the new ones, and gives a blast on his whistle. Skinner gets back into his van and re-enters his cab, but doesn’t take the time to slide the door closed. The train’s Westinghouse brakes hiss as they’re released and with a whirr and a whine the train accelerates quickly off towards Newcastle, blue flashes of electricity lighting up the station as the current arcs from the conductor rail beside the tracks.

The train now gathers speed, getting up to its full pace as it rattles over the pointwork at Riverside Junction, where the line to the shipyards of Walker and Wallsend peels off to the left. Over the huge iron structure of the Ouseburn viaduct it roars, the lights of the factories and warehouses dimly twinkling in the gloom below. In his van at the rear of the train, Patterson is engaged in making notes for his next trip as the train clickety-clicks its way through the darkness towards Newcastle. Into the cutting it goes, towards Manors station and its complex junction of lines. It rattles past Argyle Street signal box, its signalman hard at work in his little illuminated world, and into the bend at Manors. But as Patterson looks up from his work and out of the window his heart skips a beat; he sees that they’re already pulling into the platforms but still going full speed. He hadn’t noticed, so engaged was he in his work, that Skinner hadn’t tested the brakes at Argyle Street as he should have done. Up he jumps, and makes for the door to the driver’s compartment at the back of the train to apply the Westinghouse brake.

The signalman at Manors, Francis Topping, had it all planned out. The goods train that had passed Heaton fifteen minutes ago had arrived at his signal box ten minutes later. It had stood at his Up Home Main Line signal for a minute or two whilst he let traffic clear the junction but when he was ready for her to move he’d set the signal for the train and with a toot and a hiss it was already underway. His intention was to let it clear the junction whilst, as the rules stated, he brought the passenger train almost to a stop on approach to the platforms before allowing it to pull in. As soon as he’d heard the bell in his box that signalled the entrance of the passenger into his section he’d set the ‘calling-on’ signal to allow it into the station.

But now Topping turns to look out of his window and up the line towards Heaton and his face freezes in terror. He immediately realises that the train is going far too fast to stop at the signal as he’d intended. He watches it race at full speed towards his signal box, which straddles the tracks to the west of the station and affords a grandstand view of the drama playing out below. The passenger train heads inexorably towards the special goods that is now across the junction in front of it and leaving nowhere to go. In the cabin at the back of the train George Patterson is frantically applying the Westinghouse brake to slow the train down, but it’s too late. It ploughs into the third vehicle of the goods train, a loaded grain wagon, with a glancing blow. Splinters of wood and metal fly into the air. The electric train lurches to the left, rips the steps from Topping’s signal cabin, and jams itself against the parapet wall of the railway viaduct, balancing above the street some 60 feet below, bricks and rubble falling down onto the road. The other vehicles are derailed too but stay upright, crashing into the back of the first, and a cloud of dust and smoke fills the air.

Signalman Topping regains his senses, and springs into action. He knows his duty in an emergency like this, and immediately protects all of the lines leading to and from his signalbox and summons ambulances and the police. Thankfully the automatic circuit-breaker for the electrical system has worked as intended and there is no fire amongst the wooden coaches and wagons. He watches as passengers warily make their way out of the carriages, and the driver and fireman of the goods train run back to help them. He looks down on the wreckage below and knows this is going to take some time to sort out. “Just what was that driver doing?” he wonders to himself, almost in disbelief.

Within minutes Inspector Gill from the Northumberland Constabulary is running up the ramp onto the platform at Manors station from the street below with a number of his constables. He clambers down onto the tracks and makes his way towards the half-demolished first carriage of the passenger train. Carefully picking his way through shattered wood planks and broken glass, he reaches what is left of the driver’s cabin. With the help of his men, he begins to clear the wreckage in expectation of finding the driver’s body. He moves aside twisted metal and wood, grains of wheat falling down onto the tracks below from the destroyed wagon which had borne the brunt of the impact. But search as they might, they find no sign of Skinner’s body.

Dead man’s handle

Eventually the inspector reaches the control unit of the electric train. He finds the controller, which limits the power to the train and thus its speed. The handle is in the ‘Full Power’ position, with the reversing key in ‘Forward’. Skinner hadn’t even made any attempt to stop accelerating the train. The controller has an important safety feature, the ‘Dead Man’s Handle’. This is actually a button on the top of the controller which must be pressed down at all times by the driver or the power to the train is automatically cut-out. The dead man’s control on Skinner’s train could never do its job, however, because he’d seen to it himself that it would not work.

Inspector Gill finds the button on the controller cleverly tied down by two handkerchiefs, which together exert enough pressure on the button to ensure it is kept constantly pressed. A red handkerchief is looped around the controller handle and over the control button and knotted in place with a triple-knot. Over this the second hanky, a white one, is tied even tighter around the first adding to the pressure on the button. This is secured with a double knot. The arrangement of the hankies evidently saved Skinner from having to constantly press the dead man’s control, something which became wearisome after a while, and leave the controller with the train still under power.

Inspector Murray arrives at around 12:50am and examines the handkerchiefs. He finds no identifying marks on either, and removes them for safe keeping. For the next two hours a search of the wreckage continues. Thankfully there were only two passengers travelling in the first vehicle of the train, a young couple from Durham, who miraculously only suffered leg injuries and shock. The other 150 or so passengers in the remaining five coaches of the train walked away relatively unscathed. What the constables and inspectors are searching for is Skinner, and he is nowhere to be seen. Some firemen are asked to search the roofs of the houses in the street below in case his body had been catapulted from the train, but to no avail. Eventually Murray calls over Sergeant Sandels and tells him to start walking back up the line towards Heaton to see if he can see any sign of Skinner, or anything untoward.

So Sandels sets off walking, back past the silent and dark carriages of the now-empty 9:47pm Newcastle to Newcastle (via Monkseaton), down the ramp at the end of Manors station platform, and into the cutting towards Argyle Street signal box. The crunch of the ballast is loud beneath his feet as he walks up through the damp cutting, scanning the darkness below with his eyes for the sight of anything strange. He passes the entrance to the Quayside railway, its foreboding tunnel disappearing to his right and down to the river where ships unload their wares into waiting railway wagons. He passes under the short tunnel where New Bridge Street passes overhead, and then under Ingham Place and Stoddart Street. The lights of the signals are all on red as far as he can see along the straight line ahead, their beams glinting off the shiny railtops of the many sidings and running lines. Out across the Ouseburn Viaduct he strides, with the smells of industry and animals drifting up from below, the sky lightening to the east ahead of him. He hears a ship’s hooter echo mournfully from the River Tyne to his right as he presses on past Riverside Junction signal box and the little station at Byker.

Eventually, after walking over a mile, he comes to the bridge carrying Heaton Park Road over the railway. There he sees something on the tracks; a dark shape lying beside the electrified rail on the left-hand side of the lines as he faces east. Sandels runs towards this object and bends down to look more closely; it is Skinner, lying on his back with his feet facing away towards Heaton station, his right arm outstretched below the conductor rail and his eyes staring lifelessly up. Sandels checks for a pulse, not expecting to find one. He doesn’t. Skinner is dead and already quite cold.

Sandels runs to Heaton station and asks them to call for a local doctor. Dr Blench arrives after half an hour, during which Sandels has been standing guard over Skinner, trying to comprehend what has happened that night. The doctor examines the body, and finds that the back of his head is badly injured and his skull fractured. There are also bruises down his neck and back. The two men then get up and walk over to the row of iron columns supporting the road above. On the nearest column to the body they find a patch of blood. Then on the next another patch, higher than the first, and the same on the third column higher still. On the first of the bridge’s columns that Skinner’s train would have reached they find a patch of blood, quite high up, but about the height at which Skinner’s head would have been whilst leaning from the train. Sandels sits down on the rail with a sigh and waits for his inspector to arrive. “The damn fool!” he whispers to himself.

Epilogue

Nobody will ever know what went through Skinner’s mind that night. It was clear that tying down the ‘dead man’s control’ was a common practice for him. But why did he set his train in motion then go to the door of his van to look back along the train? Why did he forget about the bridge, under which he’d passed many times before? That accident at Manors thankfully claimed no further lives, and Skinner was the only victim of his own misfortune. His widow and five children were left to ponder his actions, and given his implication in the accident it is unlikely that the railway company were particularly generous towards them. Whilst there was quite a stir in the area at the time of the accident, it was soon forgotten and the electric trains went back to running their busy service for the next 35 years.

Postscript

Since this article was written, the author and Chris Jackson, Secretary of Heaton History Group, were privileged to meet Olive Renwick, daughter of Francis Topping, the signalman on duty at Manors on the night of the accident. See the article ‘The Signalman and his Daughter’ for more about them both.

Francis Topping (left)had a road in Hartlepool named after him

Francis Topping (left)had a road in Hartlepool named after him

Author

Researched and written by Alistair Ford. Alistair has lived in Heaton for 10 years. He is a researcher into sustainable transport and climate change at Newcastle University with a ‘passing interest in railways’. 

 Sources

Newspaper report of the incident: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=19260809&id=Y51AAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SKUMAAAAIBAJ&pg=2327,4806101&hl=en

Newspaper report of the inquiry: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=19260819&id=bJ1AAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SKUMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6455,6064739&hl=en

Accident report: http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/documents/MoT_ManorsJunction1926.pdf

Can you help?

If you have further information about this incident or any of the people mentioned or have  knowledge, memories or photographs of railways in Heaton more generally that you’d like to share, please either leave a comment on this website by clicking on the link immediately below this article title or email Chris Jackson, Secretary, Heaton History Group (chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org).