As soon as the train from Carlisle pulled into Newcastle Central Station, concerned travelling companions carried one of their number to a horse drawn cab which sped to his temporary accommodation less than a mile and a half away in Heaton.
The unfortunate man was George ‘Osmond’ Tearle, a very well known actor of the time. George was born in Plymouth on 8 March 1852, the son of Susan Tearle (née Treneman) and her husband, George, a Royal Marine. But he grew up in Liverpool, to where his father had retired and where, from childhood, young George developed an interest in the theatre and, particularly, Shakespeare.
Tearle’s professional debut was in 1869 at the Adelphi Theatre in his home city. He soon established himself on the London stage and in March 1878, made an acclaimed debut at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre as Hamlet, a role he is said to have played an incredible 800 times.
In September 1880, now under the name ‘Osmond Tearle’, he performed in New York for the first time, as Jacques in ‘As You Like It’. He went on to tour America to critical acclaim.
Tearle’s return to Newcastle in 1885 was billed ‘first appearance in England, after his great American success, of the eminent tragedian’ and he was ‘supported by Miss Minnie Conway from the Union Square Theatre, New York’. ‘Minnie’, whose real name was Marianne Levy, was, by now, Tearle’s second wife. She was from a well-known American theatrical family, whose Shakespearian connections went back at least as far as her grandfather, Englishman, William Augustus Conway (1789-1828), who travelled to the United States in 1823 and appeared as Hamlet and in other tragic roles in New York and other American cities. Back in Britain, there were more rave reviews for Osmond on Tyneside.
Tearle further endeared himself to north easterners with his generosity. For example, he made a donation to a fund for the restoration of Blyth’s theatre after it had been destroyed by fire, along with an offer of his theatre company’s services to perform at the reopening at which he would forego his share of the receipts. And when touring, he often captained a company cricket team in charity matches including in Hebburn and Whitley Bay.
In 1888, Tearle established his own Shakespearean touring company and, in 1890 and 1891, he was honoured by being selected to direct the annual festival performances at Stratford-upon-Avon, producing in his first year Julius Caesar and Henry VI part 1 and in the second year King John and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In between these two events, he played Newcastle’s Theatre Royal with productions of Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, King John, Macbeth and Merchant of Venice. In Hamlet, Minnie played Gertrude and Osmond, of course, Hamlet.
Tearle’s connections with the area were strengthened in August 1896 when Minnie died and was interred in St Paul’s churchyard, Whitley Bay to be with her sister who was already buried there. When he returned to the Tyne Theatre in July 1898 after an absence of two years, it was noted that he had been seriously ill that spring. Audiences flocked back to see him and the reviews were more glowing than ever. He appeared ‘reinvigorated’. Nevertheless, a few months later, it was reported that he had been ordered to rest by his doctors and that he would sail to South Africa to aid his recovery.
Although he had appeared on stage in Carlisle the week before, this was the context in which, on Sunday 1 September 1901, aged 49, Osmond Tearle arrived in Newcastle.
The cab took the sick actor to number 93, the end property on South View West. The house, like all the others on the street, faced the railway line. It stood at South View West’s junction with Newington Road but, along with all of the properties west of Stratford Road, has since been demolished.
Today there are trees where its front door would have been and its back yard would have been in what is now a corner of Hotspur Primary School’s playing fields. The boarding house was just a few hundred metres away via a still well used pedestrian tunnel under the railway, from Byker’s Grand Theatre, where Osmond Tearle’s company had been booked to perform the following week. The Grand had been opened just five years earlier with a Shakespeare festival.
Living at 93 South View West in 1901 were 39 year old Robert Bell, a wood carver, his wife, Bella, and their four children Herbert, Frederick, Robert and Harry. The Bells took in boarders, specifically those from the theatre. We are sure of this because, apart from Osmond, we know the identity of three actors who were there on census night earlier that year: Clifford Mohan, Walter Cranch and Hubert Clarke. And by 1911, the family had moved to the west end, where they lived even closer to the Tyne Theatre. On the night of that year’s census, they were hosting well known opera singers: Graham Marr, ‘America’s foremost operatic baritone’ whose house on Staten Island has been designated a New York City LGBT Historic Site, and Henry Brindle, a successful English performer.
The newspapers tell us that soon after Tearle’s arrival at 93 South View West, Dr Russell of Heaton was summoned to attend to him.
Dr Frank Russell, aged 28, ran a medical practice and lived with his wife, Annie, and young children William and Jessie at 41 Heaton Road. Even on foot, it would have taken under ten minutes to reach a patient on South View West. It was reported that Tearle insisted that he would be well enough to go on stage at the Grand that week, as billed, but Dr Russell insisted that he rest.
By Friday, a further doctor’s visit was deemed necessary. This time Dr Oliver (presumably Thomas Oliver of 7 Ellison Place) attended but could do no more. Osmond Tearle died at his lodgings the following morning. In keeping with theatrical tradition, the show went on. The company performed ‘Richard III’ at the Grand ‘ but it was obvious that the men and women on stage were labouring under the shadow of an irreparable loss, the influence of which also extended to the audience, as was evidenced by its sympathetic demeanour’. It was noted that ‘two members of Mr Tearle’s family are connected with the company and his youngest son, a youth of very tender years, after having spent the holidays with his father, returned to school at Bournemouth so recently as last Wednesday’.
News of Tearle’s death and extensive obituaries were carried not only by all the national and local papers in the UK but in many across the world, including the USA.
The following Wednesday, after a brief service at the Bells’ home, conducted by the Vicar of St Silas, Rev J H Ison, Tearle’s funeral cortège travelled to Whitley Bay. Along with family and friends and members of the company, Robert and Bella Bell, in whose home he died, travelled in one of the ‘mourning coaches’. At St Paul’s churchyard they were met by representatives of theatres from throughout the north east and further afield, including Weldon Watts of Newcastle’s Grand Theatre, where the company had been playing the previous week, F Sutcliffe of the Tyne Theatre and T D Rowe of the Palace Theatre.
On Osmond’s memorial stone there is an appropriate line from Shakespeare that the actor must have spoken many times: ‘After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well’ (‘Macbeth‘, Act 3 Scene 2).
And on Minnie’s ‘Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’ (‘Hamlet’, Act 5 Scene 2).
It is fitting too that on the gable end of the final house on South View West in Heaton, a huge, brick mural of William Shakespeare now looks down on the spot, just a few metres away, where George Osmond Tearle breathed his last.
Out out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. ‘
‘Macbeth’, Act 5 Scene 5
But Osmond Tearle’s short life has not been forgotten. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography states ‘As a Shakespearean actor, Tearle combined the incisive elocution of the old school and the naturalness of the new. A man of commanding physique and dignified presence, he was well equipped for heroic parts. In later life, he subdued his declamatory vigour and played Othello and King Lear with power and restraint’.
Tearle’s most important legacy was that all three of his sons became actors, the most well-known being Godfrey, 16 year old ‘youth of very tender years’ at the time of his father’s death. He too was predominantly a Shakespearean but he also appeared in some prominent screen roles including that of Professor Jordan in Hitchcock’s ’39 Steps’. Godfrey Tearle was knighted for services to drama in 1951.
And Osmond Tearle now takes his place in our growing Shakespeare Hall of Fame, which also includes:
If you know more about anyone mentioned in this article 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 chris.jackson@oldheaton
Denise Waxman wrote from Brooklyn, New York with the following interesting extra piece of information:
I found your interesting article about Osmond Tearle today and was happily surprised to find a detailed article like this.I was Googling him because his name appears in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I have been reading and delving into for several years. I just wanted to know who he was, in an effort to understand why he was an “exemplar” to Leopold Bloom.
I don’t know whether this is the sort of detail you would be interested in adding to your post, and you may already be aware of it…I just thought you would be interested, and also wanted to thank you for the article and the site, which is a great exemplar of what the positive side of the internet.
He’s conducted painstaking research into many topics of local interest but, in a quiet moment during lockdown, Heaton History Group’s Ian Clough decided to get to grips at last with a mystery that had literally been staring him in the face, a trophy on his own sideboard:
‘It is probably something that magpie, Uncle Jimmy Irwin, paid a few coppers for at a jumble sale long before charity shops appeared. It’s a bit battered and lost its wooden mount. I don’t even know how I ended up with it but I have always liked the penny farthing bicycles. If I took it to the Antiques Roadshow they would probably say it was worth a few coppers – “but if you could prove provenance …“‘
The scroll on the richly decorated trophy gave Ian his first clue: ‘Science and Art School Amateur Cycling Club’; a shield at the bottom is inscribed ‘Ellis Challenge Shield’ and, on two further shields at the top the name, ‘Robert Bolam’, alongside the dates, 1889 and 1890 respectively.”
To put the dates in context, local cycling hero, George Waller, who twice won the World Six Day Championship on a penny farthing, was nearing retirement and living in Heaton. In 1885, the Rover safety bicycle had been invented and three years later John Dunlop introduced the pneumatic tyre. Penny farthings were still ridden but their days were numbered. Incidentally in April 1889, a new cycle track was opened in the Bull Park on the Town Moor, where Exhibition Park is now. George Waller did a test run on it and pronounced it to be ‘one of the finest in the kingdom’. More than 140 years later, Newcastle no longer has a cycling track. The Olympic and Paralympic medallists all come from elsewhere. But we digress!
Ian first set about finding out more about the school. It was founded in 1877 by Dr John Hunter Rutherford, a Scottish Congregationalist preacher, who qualified as a medical doctor at the age of 41. As well as running a medical practice, Rutherford campaigned for better sanitation, But he is best known as a pioneering educationalist. He founded Bath Lane School in 1870 and the School of Science and Art in 1877. A number of branch schools soon followed, in Gateshead, Shieldfield, Byker – and two on Heaton Road.
The first branch to open in Heaton was on 24 May 1880 in the Leighton Primitive Methodist Church Sunday School buildings, which, as has already been described here, stood on the site of the modern shops at the bottom of Heaton Road, just before you reach Shields Road.
In 1885, a further branch was opened at Ashfield Villa, Heaton Road to meet the local demand not just for elementary but also higher education. Ashfield Villa stood directly opposite the Leighton Primitive Methodist School, where Heaton Buffs Club is now.
Dr Rutherford died suddenly at the age of 64 on 21 March 1890. Amongst the extensive press coverage, the following appeared:
‘The announcement of the death of Dr. Rutherford has caused wide-spread regret…Yesterday the Bath Lane Schools, the Camden Street School, the Heaton Road School and the Science and Art School, Heaton were closed as a tribute of respect to the deceased gentleman.’
So we know something about the schools. But the Ellis Challenge Shield? A clue came in the British Newspaper Archive. On Saturday 13 September 1890, ‘The Newcastle Courant’ carried a report of the Newcastle Science and Art School sports day, which took place on the Constabulary Ground in Jesmond (now the home ground of Newcastle Cricket Club, the Royal Grammar School Newcastle and Northumberland County Cricket Club).
The article named one of the judges as Mr A M Ellis. Andrew Murray Ellis, another Scot, was headmaster of the Newcastle Science and Art School. On his retirement in 1905, it was stated that he had served the school for 28 years, which meant he must have been on the staff since the school’s foundation. The cycling shield surely bears his name.
The article went on to list the first three in every race at the sports day. There, under the hoop race, the egg and spoon race and the dribbling race ‘open to members of the football club’ was:
‘Ellis Challenge Shield. Bicycle Race, one mile (open to members of the Science and Art School ACC). Carries Championship of the club. Holder, R Bolam. Robert Bolam, 1; Robt. Redpath, 2 ; Alf. Bell, 3. Won by 12 lengths.’
But how could this Robert Bolam be identified? It’s quite a common name. Luckily, there was a further clue to the identity of the winner:
‘Challenge Cup (presented by Councillor Cooke). Holder, Robert Bolam. Bicycle Race (mile).- [Result] Robert Bolam, 1; George T Easten, 2; Joe Bolam, 3. J Bolam and Easten made the running until the last lap, when Robert Bolam went to the front and won easily by ten yards. Easten finished second six yards in front of J Bolam.’
A further search revealed an announcement for the previous year’s sports day, due to take place on 31 August 1889. Again the Ellis Challenge Shield is specifically mentioned. And on 17 June 1890, in the ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’, there was a description of the trophy and more information about the club:
‘One of the most unqualified successes among local cycling clubs has been the Science and Art School ACC, which, now in its third year, may claim to be one of the largest in the city.’
‘The Ellis Challenge Shield, a beautiful silver trophy, is competed for each year, in a one mile race, carrying with it the championship of the club – the present holder of the title being Mr R A Bolam.’
So now Ian knew Robert’s middle initial and that he perhaps had a brother called Joseph. He could look for census records.
Robert Alfred Bolam was born on 11 November 1871. In the 1881 census he is shown as a 9 year old scholar, the oldest son of John Bolam, a dispensing chemist, of 46 Northumberland Street and his wife, Isabella. He had three sisters and a brother. Yes, Joseph.
Seven years later on 31 July 1888, ‘The Evening Chronicle’ gave extensive coverage of the ‘Local Science and Art examinations’ and there, under the practical organic chemistry results advanced stage for Ashfield Villa, Heaton, is the name Robert A Bolam, ‘First Class and Queen’s Prize.’ Our champion cyclist had studied in Heaton and was 17 years old at the time of his first victory in the Ellis Challenge Shield.
A few weeks before his second victory, ‘The Evening Chronicle’ of 31 July 1890 gives the results of ‘Science and Art Examinations’ and among the entries:
’Framwellgate Moor Science Class examination. Hygiene – Advanced Stage, 1st Class and Queen’s Prize – Robert A Bolam.’ Still on track!
And, so not to leave him out entirely, at ‘School of Arts and Science, Corporation St, Newcastle – Practical Organic Chemistry, 2nd Class – J H Bolam’ his younger brother.
By the time of the next census in 1891, Robert, now 19, was described as a ‘student in medicine’. He studied at Newcastle College of Medicine and Kings College London. In 1896, he won the Gold Medal at Newcastle College of Medicine, awarded to the best student in his year. By 1901, he was a ‘physician surgeon’, married with a baby and living on Saville Place.
The next mention of Dr Robert A Bolam which is relevant to Heaton came on 5 July 1910 in the extensive coverage of the trial of John Alexander Dickman, then of Jesmond but previously of Heaton ( eg, in 1901 at 11 Rothbury Terrace), accused of the murder of John Innes Nisbet of 180 Heaton Road on a train between Newcastle and Alnmouth on 18 March that year. An expert witness was Dr Robert A Bolam, MRCP, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence in the College of Medicine at Newcastle. He had been asked to examine three items of Dickman’s clothing: ‘a pair of Suede gloves, a pair of trousers and what was known as a Burberry overcoat.’
Bolam told the court that he had tested the garments ‘as regards solubility, chemically, microscopically and with a micro spectroscope’. He said that there were recent blood stains on the gloves and trousers and that attempts had been made to clean an unidentified stain on the coat with paraffin. Dickman was eventually hanged for murder. The case was controversial at the time and it continues to be the subject of books, articles and television programmes even today. (Unfortunately, a number of them refer to Robert Boland rather than Bolam.)
In 1911, now 39 years old, Robert Bolam lived in Queens Square and was married with 3 children and 3 servants, coincidentally one called ‘Margaret Isabella Rutherford’ . He described himself as a ‘consulting physician’. In fact, by this time Robert was already the first honorary physician in charge of the skin department at the RVI. Robert, our cycling champion, was in the fast lane.
During the WW1, Bolam served as major and acting lieutenant-colonel in the First Northern General Hospital. He was mentioned for distinguished service and awarded the rank of brevet lieutenant-colonel and the OBE (Military). He was commanding officer of the Wingrove Hospital, which specialised in venereal diseases and, a speech by him in 1916 to the BMA is credited with doing more to secure the passage of the Venereal Diseases Act of 1917 ‘than any other pronouncement’. The act prevented the treatment of the disease or the advertising of remedies by unqualified persons. After the war, when the Ministry of Health merged the clinic with the skin department at the RVI, Bolam was put in charge of both, a position he held until his retirement in 1931.
At Durham University, he was lecturer in dermatology, professor of medical jurisprudence, president of the University College of Medicine, a member of the senate and in 1936-7, vice chancellor.
But Robert Bolam wasn’t just a major figure locally or regionally, he served as chair of council of the British Medical Association from 1920 to 1927 (‘which involved night journeys between Newcastle and London two or three times each week’). He oversaw the erection of the BMA’s headquarters in Tavistock Square, London and it was to him who fell the honour of welcoming King George V and Queen Mary in 1925, a year in which he was also awarded the association’s coveted gold medal.
He was a member of the General Medical Council from 1928 until his death, and elected President of the British Association of Dermatologists 1933-34. Robert Alfred Bolam was Knighted in 1926.
Sir Robert Bolam died in Newcastle on 28 April 1939 but not before, in February of that year, he had overseen the move of the King’s College Medical School to its new building opposite the RVI and received King George VI and the Queen on its official opening. Sir Robert was survived by his wife, Sarah, son, Robert, and daughters, Dorothy and Grace.
On his death, the above oil painting, which is currently in store at Newcastle University, was commissioned by friends and colleagues.
Bolam’s obituary writer for the British Association of Dermatologists stated that the distinguished medical practitioner was also an authority on the Roman Wall, a first class rifle shot who regularly competed at Bisley and once shot for England, and had ‘a large collection of prizes as a cyclist and swimmer’, which is where we came in.
When we first encountered Robert Bolam he was already in a lofty position atop his penny farthing and so it continued throughout his distinguished life. He certainly did ‘get on his bike’.
But that’s not quite the end of the story. During the course of his research, Ian found the Bolam family tree on Ancestry. He contacted the owner, Wendy Cox, who turned out to be the granddaughter of Sir Robert Bolam and a proud, exiled Geordie. She told Ian that she hadn’t known her grandfather as he had died when she was just weeks old. Neither had she heard of the Ellis Challenge Shield or her grandfather’s cycling achievements. But when Ian told her that, much as he’d enjoyed owning it, the shield rightfully belonged with her and the Bolam family, Wendy was delighted. She says it’s already sitting on her mantlepiece next to a photograph of her grandfather and plans are afoot to display it in a frame with a fabric background. The pedalling future knight is home.
Acknowledgements Researched and written by Ian Clough, Heaton History Group with additional material by Chris Jackson. Thank you to Wendy Cox for photographs of herself and her grandfather. And to Uncle Jimmy Irwin for his crucial rôle in this story.
British Newspaper Archive
Obituaries of Sir Robert Bolam in the British Journal of Dermatology, British Medical Journal, Nature, The Times
Can You Help?
If you know more about Sir Robert Alfred Bolam 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
It’s late June 2021 and Team GB for the 2020 Summer Olympics has just been announced. Such are the strange times we’re living through. But amidst ongoing uncertainty about the next games, let’s celebrate Heaton’s distinguished past Olympians.
No 1 Harry Askew
Harry represented Great Britain in the long jump at the 1948 London Summer Olympics.
Born in Barrow-in-Furness on 31 December 1917, he excelled in sports at school, particularly as a sprinter, only moving to long jump while at Cambridge University. Pre-war, he won the 1937 Oxbridge Sports long jump and 2 years later the UAU title and was second in the AAA Championships. The war interrupted Harry’s career. He spent six years in the army with the Royal Corps of Signals, achieving the rank of captain. After the war, he moved to Jersey to teach.
The Olympic champion and world record holder in the long jump was famously the great Jesse Owens, who had won 4 gold medals in Berlin in 1936. Because of World War 2, it was to be 12 years before the next games and so the American didn’t get to defend his title. Harry was one of 21 competitors to take part in the qualifying round on 31 July 1948 and comfortably made the final in 6th place with a jump of 7.14. He was 9th in the final with a jump of 6.935m. The medal winners were all from the USA, the winner, Willie Steele, achieving 7.825.
Harry’s son, Roger, told us that Harry stayed in Hammersmith during the games and travelled to White City, where the athletics took place, by bus, even on the day he was competing.
Askew went on to teach and coach in Essex. He improved his personal best to 7.29m in 1949 and in 1950 won the AAA title, the British championship, aged 32. In 1958, the Askew family moved north in order that Harry could take up a position as head of Heaton Grammar School, which is what makes his name so familiar to many older Heatonians. Despite being a vociferous opponent of comprehensive education, he was appointed head of Heaton School, Heaton’s new coeducational comprehensive in 1967.
Askew achieved more national and even international fame than for his Olympic achievements in 1976 when his controversial response to the newly enacted Equal Opportunities Act was to announce that, henceforward, girls would be subject to corporal punishment on the same basis as boys ie liable to receive it. Parents and pupils organised a protest and alerted the media. There was damage to the school, assaults, expulsions, court cases.
The dust settled, however, and Harry Askew eventually retired in 1979 after 21 years in post. On his retirement he told the ‘Journal’. ‘Do you know, I still have my jumping shoes, my England vest and tracksuit? I couldn’t bear to part with them, although today I can hardly get my feet off the ground unless it’s to put them up in front of the television set!’
Harry Askew and his wife moved south on his retirement to be closer to family. He was looking forward to having more time for his passion for jazz music – he was a talented pianist – and for gardening. He died on 31 October 1986, aged 68.
No 2 Alan Lillington
Alan represented Great Britain in the 100m at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki.
Born in South Shields on 4 September 1932, Alan grew up in Heaton and attended Heaton Grammar. His mother and father were steward and stewardess of Heaton Liberal Club at 25 Heaton Road, the building with the stone lion above the bay window. He continued to live there until he married local girl, Eileen Murray, in 1955. After their marriage, the couple lived with Eileen’s family at 14 Cloverdale Gardens, High Heaton.
Alan was an all round sportsman and is reported to have played for Newcastle United as a junior as well as rugby for Northern. The first mention we have found of him in the local press, however, was in August 1949 when the ‘Evening Chronicle’ reported that the 16 year old Elswick Harrier, already the champion at 100 yards, had been set to miss competing for the Northumberland and Durham 220 yards title at Cowgate because of plans for a holiday in Portsmouth. He and a friend had seats booked on the night bus departing at 7.15 until his father stepped in with a more costly rail ticket, which left three hours later, allowing him to race earlier in the evening. In the article, Lillington was described as a ‘young sprint star’. The following July he won the All England Schools’ Silver Jubilee Intercounty AA championships in a time of 10 seconds dead and was in the victorious 440 yards relay team too. And in August he won the junior 100 yards at White City, London.
By 1952, Olympic year, Lillington, now a medical student at Durham University, was second only to Trinidad-born Emmanuel McDonald Bailey, the joint 100m world record holder, in the senior AAA Championship and so was deservedly selected for Helsinki, aged 19, as the ‘baby’ of the team.
Helsinki had originally been chosen to replace Tokyo in 1940 after Japan announced two years before that it would be unable to host the games because of the ongoing Second Sino-Japanese War. In the event, of course, the 1940 games were cancelled because of World War 2. London, which had been selected for the also cancelled 1944 event, was awarded the first games after the war with Helsinki getting its turn four years later.
None of the medallists from 1948 were competing in the 100m this time round and so McDonald Bailey, who finished 6th in London was favourite along with American, Art Bragg, and Jamaica’s Herb McKenley.
Young Alan Lillington was drawn in the first heat on 20 July, from which he qualified in second place behind Australia’s John Treloar, but in the quarter finals, he finished in 6th and last place to Lindy Remigino of the USA and so failed to qualify for the semi final or final. It was nevertheless a magnificent feat for a teenager.
The final on 21 July was one of the closest races imaginable with all six runners separated by only 0.12 seconds, hand-timed. A photograph showed Lindy Remigino to have finished first, Herb McKenley second with GB’s McDonald Bailey in bronze medal position.
Much later, Alan said the games brought back fond memories but that he was sorry that Great Britain recorded its lowest medal total with ‘its only gold medal winner a horse!’ (In fact, three horses and their riders in the team show jumping).
After the Olympics, Lillington continued to perform at a high level. He represented England in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.
He remembered celebrating his 21st birthday at an event in Stockholm where he was carried around the room on the stroke of midnight by his mentor, Harold Abrahams (1924 Olympic Champion, whose story was told in ‘Chariots of Fire’) and Chris Chataway (5,000m finalist in Helsinki, pacer for Roger Bannister’s 4 minute mile and, later, minister in the Heath government).
But soon, Alan Lillington’s mentions in the press were mainly in connection with his work as a doctor and for charity. He worked at Newcastle’s RVI and General before becoming a consultant paediatrician in Sunderland. He was also a director of St Benedict’s Hospice in Sunderland, as well as a committed Freemason, and he helped set up Sunderland Sports Council.
Lillington was appointed a Deputy Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear and, in 1995, Sheriff. He was awarded the MBE for services to the community in Wearside in 2006.
Alan and Eileen’s son, Peter, played club rugby for Harlequins and toured New Zealand with Scotland in 1981.
No 3 Maurice Benn
Maurice represented Great Britain in the 1500m at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
Born in Wallsend on 9 November 1946, Maurice was a member of Heaton Harriers. The first mention of him we have found in the press so far was on 7 January 1966 when the ‘Evening Chronicle’ reported:
‘Heaton’s boys proved their worth by finishing second team on Boxing Day and with Dick Balding, Joe Hawes and Maurice Benn in their senior line up, the ‘East Enders’ if they can find a couple of useful youths, must be among the medals again on Saturday.’
A month later, the future Olympian was referred to as having the best time for a youth over a Team Valley cross-country course and was expected to take his place in Heaton Harriers’ senior team in the race for the Royal Corps of Signals (coincidentally Harry Askew’s old regiment) Trophy over the same course.
But it wasn’t until 3 June 1968 that Maurice came to national attention during the inter-county finals at London’s White City. The Birmingham Post summed up the media’s surprise:
‘Perhaps the biggest shock of all was the entry of 21 year old Maurice Benn into the ranks of Britain’s sub-four-minute milers. An “unknown” from the north east, Benn had a previous best of 04:04.8 and he beat the established international, John Whetton of Nottinghamshire into third place.’
Benn’s time was 03:59.9. He was the first north-east athlete to achieve this feat. It transpired that he had recently teamed up with north-east based national coach, Peter Harper, after being coached for the previous two years by letter by the AAA’s travelling coach, who was based in Glasgow. No Zoom back then!
And so on 5 August 1968, Maurice Benn of Heaton Harriers, received a letter signed by Prince Philip inviting him to compete in the games. With the times he had achieved that summer, Benn’s selection was certainly merited but Maurice himself later said that he had really gone to Mexico for the experience. The Birmingham Post called his selection ‘controversial’.
Maurice struggled in the altitude of Mexico City. As he later recalled ‘I shouldn’t have gone to Mexico. I had a history of anaemia and didn’t acclimatise well… I trained with Ron Hill and I was panting like an old bloke’.
The reigning champion was New Zealander, Peter Snell, who had won in Tokyo four years earlier with a time of 3:38.1, but he wasn’t competing in Mexico. Here, the favourite was the USA’s Jim Ryun, the world record holder. Maurice was drawn in the first heat on 18 October along with Ryun and, although the Heaton Harrier achieved a time of 3:56.43, a personal best, it was well behind the qualifiers. Ryun went onto win his semifinal ahead of Kenyan, Kip Keino, but in the final Keino, who was paced by his compatriot, Ben Jipcho, won gold in an Olympic record time. John Whetton, beaten by Maurice at sea level, just a few months earlier, was a creditable 5th.
After the games, Benn went to study in the USA where, representing the University of Nevada, he won the USA National Collegiate cross-country championship. The university won the team prize as well and they were welcomed home in style with banners, a motor-cavalcade and television interview. It was said to be the first national victory by any Nevada team at any time in any sport – and led by a former Heaton Harrier. But anaemia continued to dog him in the states – Nevada is at altitude too.
By 1970, Benn was back in Britain but had moved away from the north-east. He continued running for Cambridge Harriers. The following year he ‘surprisingly won the Southern Counties 10,000m’ in cold and blustery conditions with a ‘staggering time of 28:53:08, which is top international standard’ but by the time of the 1972 games his training had become spasmodic, his form had dipped and he was out of contention for Olympic selection.
Maurice went on to work as a finance worker for British Rail in London, where he represented Woodford Green athletics club for many years. He has a permanent place in the pantheon of Heaton sport.
No 4 Derek Talbot
Derek Talbot represented Great Britain at badminton at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
Born in Newcastle in 1947, Derek grew up on Etherstone Avenue in High Heaton and attended Heaton Grammar, where he first played badminton. He went on to study metallurgy at Newcastle University, where, after doing well with the British Universities’ badminton team, he was spotted by the England selectors. He then moved to London for five years to establish himself in the sport.
Talbot’s first major title was Commonwealth Games mixed doubles gold with Margaret Boxall in Edinburgh in 1970 and in April 1972, he again won mixed gold with Gillian Gilks and bronze with fellow Heatonian, Elliot Stuart, at the European Badminton Championships in Sweden.
Badminton had been chosen as a demonstration sport for the 1972 Olympics so medals did not count in official tables. The intention was to promote to a global audience a sport which was, and is, very big in some parts of the world but unknown, at least as a spectator sport, in others. Some years later, Talbot summed up the different levels of fame top players enjoyed in different countries:
‘In many parts of the far east, we were recognised in the streets and invited to meet presidents in their palaces. But I could always come back to Newcastle and be inconspicuous, which I prefer. So I got the best of both worlds’.
The demonstration sports rules allowed for doubles partners of mixed nationality and the medals awarded were slightly smaller replicas of the official ones. The entire tournament took place on a single day, 4 September.
Derek competed in the men’s doubles, partnered again by fellow Heaton Grammar old boy, Elliot Stuart. They beat a German / Canadian pairing in the1st round before losing to the eventual winners, Indonesians Ade Chandra and Christian Hadanata, in the semi-finals. Thus they were bronze medallists.
In the mixed doubles, he again partnered fellow Britain, Gillian Gilks, one of the most decorated British badminton players of all time. The pair beat Japanese, West German and Danish opponents to win gold.
The Munich Olympics are remembered, of course, for the events of 5-6 September. Eight members of a Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, took nine members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, killing two of them. Five terrorists and a German police officer were also killed during a rescue attempt.
Speaking some years later, Talbot said that he witnessed the start of the incident first hand:
‘I went out on the town celebrating and came back at 4.00am to what seemed like fireworks just 20 yards away. I walked right past and thought how inconsiderate it was of people to let off fireworks that time of night when many others had important events the next day. It was only later that I realised that I had almost stumbled across the terrorist attack.’
He went on to represent his country 83 times and won a total of four Commonwealth golds, one silver and two bronzes; three European golds, three silvers and two bronzes medals. He also won three All England Open golds and three silvers; a gold with Elliott Stuart in the Indian Open; a silver in the World Championships and a bronze in the World Cup.
Derek retired from international badminton in 1981 and became a successful businessman, running a sports shop and having his own brand of badminton racquets, alongside coaching, commentating and property development. He continued to serve his sport as a selector and an administrator.
He didn’t always speak well of Heaton, however. Having bought a £95,000 house in Jesmond Park East in 1986, he reportedly sold it a matter of months later, allegedly because ‘couldn’t make a right turn at the end of the street.’
‘It was impossible. If I wanted to drive to Newcastle I had to take a two mile detour to get on my way. I also found the neighbourhood lacking in facilities like shops, open space, a library, cinema and swimming pool’.
Perhaps Brian Johnson of AC/DC fame, who is said to have bought the house, found a quicker route west and also realised that High Heaton Library, Biddlestone Road baths and the shops of Heaton and Chillingham Road were just a twelve minute walk away and the open spaces of Jesmond Dene barely six.
After a spell in Jesmond, Talbot, who had had a longstanding interest in alternative medicine, moved to Ibiza in the early 1990s where he practised homeopathy. He later returned to Tyneside. In 2013, he received an MBE for services to badminton.
No 5 Elliot Stuart
Elliot represented Great Britain at badminton at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
Like Derek Talbot, Elliot attended Heaton Grammar. He lived with his parents on Kingsley Place and, after leaving school, also like Talbot, he studied metallurgy at Newcastle University because, he said,’dad worked in Vickers and Armstrong shipyards on the Tyne, and he thought it would be interesting – he was wrong.’
Stuart joined Barclays as a computer operator, later becoming a programmer, systems analyst and project manager. He said that he moved to London because he was on the verge of playing international badminton and ‘because it was easier to fly from Heathrow (regional airports barely existed then) to the many badminton tournaments throughout Europe and the world.’ In 1969, after he had been at Barclays for just a year, the company gave him ‘six months a year paid leave, without contractual obligations, except to spread the name of Barclays, whenever appropriate at events across the globe’.
In April 1972, Stuart won bronze with fellow Heatonian, Derek Talbot, at the European Badminton Championships in Sweden before representing Great Britain in the Olympic Games in Munich some four and a half months later. Although, the bronze medal the pair won doesn’t count officially, it was nevertheless a great honour to be chosen to represent their sport in the biggest event on earth.
The Heatonian went on to win gold at the 1973 Indian Open with Derek Talbot, 1974 Commonwealth gold, again with Talbot, and bronze with Susan Whetnall. In 1975, he won the All England mixed doubles title with Nora Gardner. But he says that his biggest badminton success was marrying Swedish World Singles Champion, Eva Twedberg!
In 1996, aged 50, Elliot took early retirement so that he could help top level badminton transition from an amateur to a professional sport. He continued to coach and mentor and became Performance Director for English Badminton. After retirement. he went to live in Portugal.
No 6 Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan represented Great Britain in the triple jump at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Born in London on 10 May 1966, Jonathan was the son of Jill Edwards and her husband, Andy a clergyman. He was brought up to have a strong Christian faith which included preserving Sundays as a special day. The family didn’t watch television, work or study on the Sabbath. Jonathan remembers watching his mother prepare the vegetables for Sunday lunch on Saturday evenings.
Jonathan went to school in Devon, before coming north to study Physics at Durham University. While a student, he began to be coached by Gateshead-based, Carl Johnson, and, after graduation, decided to remain in the north east so that they could continue to work together.
It was the faith that Jonathan had inherited from his parents that brought him to Heaton. He began to worship at Heaton Baptist Church and took advantage of a book held at the back of the church listing local people with property available for rent.
His biographer writes of Edward’s first impressions of Heaton when a prospective landlord took him to view the King John Street property that became his first Heaton home:
‘Edwards confesses that as the car drove into Heaton his heart missed a beat. As rain drilled against the windows, all he could see was street after street of dreary-looking terraced houses. For a young man spoiled by the wild, rural beauty of the north Devon coast and the quaintness of Durham, this urban landscape was a culture shock. Still, Edwards needed a roof over his head and the accommodation was clean and affordable. He was to discover that his first impressions did not necessarily provide a fair reflection of the area. He found a friendliness and warmth in Heaton and, with his wife Alison, later established their first marital home in the street that had provided him with such an unflattering view of the suburb on the day he came flat-hunting’. They went on to live at several other Heaton addresses including on Heaton Park View.
Edwards recalls his early days, newly unemployed and alone, in Heaton: ‘I cried my eyes out’.
‘I’d never experienced life, real life, like this. After I’d moved into the flat in Heaton, my first attempt at cooking involved making an omelette and putting it on a lettuce leaf. Grotesque.’
Soon, however, Edwards got a job as a maternity cover scientific officer in the cytogenetics laboratory at the RVI. After work, he would go to Gateshead to train and then catch a Metro back into town. From there, he’d catch the Number 1 bus back to Heaton or walk if one didn’t arrive. We’ve all been there!
But soon Heaton and particularly Heaton Baptist Church became the focus of a national media storm. Improving performances meant that Edwards was selected for the 1988 British Olympic trials. The first two in the trials were guaranteed selection for the games and there would be a third wild-card place. Unfortunately for Edwards, the triple jump event was scheduled for a Sunday and so the young, unknown Edwards declared that he could not compete. The media had already besieged the RVI and on the day of the event itself, television crews turned up at the church on Heaton Road hoping to film Edwards going in to worship. However, Edwards’ gamble paid off: he was selected for Seoul anyway. It was never expected that he would achieve a high place but he would gain valuable experience. In fact he finished 23rd in qualifying with a best jump of 15.88. Bulgaria’s Khristo Markov won the final with a new Olympic record of 17.61.
By the time of the Barcelona games, 4 years later, Jonathan Edwards had married Alison Briggs, a physiotherapist at the RVI, at Heaton Baptist Church. Expectations, including his own, were high. His father was in the stadium to watch him qualify and his mother and Alison would be there for the final. Except, for Jonathan, there was to be no final. He fouled his first jump and messed up his next two as well. His position of 35th was worse than Seoul. His best distance of 15.76 almost two metres shorter than that of the eventual winner, USA’s Mike Conley, who achieved a new Olympic record of 17.73. Edwards was distraught.
By the time of the next summer games in Atlanta in 1996, Edwards was a full-time athlete, having been able to give up work at the RVI thanks to a grant from the Great North Run Trust. He had also changed his coach and adopted the jumping style of the Barcelona gold medallist, Mike Conley. And there were new names in the Edwards’ family, Alison having given birth to two sons, Sam and Nathan, in 1993 and 1995 respectively. Most importantly from an athletics point of view, he was now world record holder.
In the European Cup Final in Lille on 25 June 1995, he had jumped a huge but slightly wind-assisted 18.43. A legitimate world record of 17.98 in Salamanca followed, and then on 7 August two more massive world record breaking jumps of 18.16 and 18.29 metres during the World Championships in Gothenburg while his wife Alison was back in Heaton, trying to take her mind off things by gardening. When the media converged on our area again, a home made banner outside the Edwards’ flat read ‘Simply the Best’. That Edwards was now a sporting superstar was confirmed when he won the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He went into the 1996 Olympics as hot favourite.
The triple jump event in Atlanta took place on 26 July. In qualifying, Edwards struggled, as he had previously, while reigning champion Mike Conley and former world champion, Kenny Harrison, both on home soil, along with Cuban Queseda, Bermudan Wellman, and Bulgarian Georgiev, all reached the automatic qualifying distance on their first jump. Edwards eventually qualified for the final in sixth place.
In the final, Harrison set a new Olympic record with his first jump and bettered it with his fourth. Edwards struggled with two red flags before managing a legal jump which put him in third place and entitled him to a further three attempts. His fourth effort was the longest jump ever not to win gold but the Briton had to settle for silver. (This was Heaton’s first official Olympic medal!)
Four year’s later in Sydney, the now Gosforth-based Edwards was determined to better that. Harrison wasn’t competing and so when qualifying began on 23 September 2000, the British athlete was favourite again. This time he achieved the required distance with his second jump, although his British team mates, Onochie ‘Larry’ Achike and Phillips Idowu, were in first and second place, both with personal bests, and Edwards in fourth going into the final two days later.
In the final, Achike led after the first round and Russia’s Denis Kapustin after the second but in the third round Edwards jumped 17.71m and took gold (Heaton’s first!) He was awarded a CBE.
Following his Olympic success, Edwards won gold at the 2001 World Championships. At one point he was the reigning champion in the Olympics, World, Commonwealth and European Championships. At the time of writing, he still holds the World Record with his jump of 18.29m on 7 August 1995 in Gothenburg and his wind-assisted 18.43m on 25 June the same year, while not counting in the record books, also remains unsurpassed. He is also Heaton’s most successful Olympian.
No 7 Freya Ross née Murray
Freya represented Great Britain in the marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Born on 20 September 1983, Freya grew up in Temple, Midlothian and was a successful runner as a schoolgirl, winning the Scottish Schools 3,000m title in 1999 and 2000 and Scottish Cross-Country Champion in 2001.
Her progress continued into senior athletics and she won the Scottish 10,000m in 2009 and the 5,000 national title in 2010. She represented Scotland in both the 5,000m and 10,000m the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, finishing 7th and 5th respectively.
In 2006, after studying structural engineering at Heriot-Watt University, Freya moved to the north east, initially to Sunderland where she ran for Chester le Street. She joined international engineering consultancy Cundall and able to work part time for them, while pursuing her athletics career. She describes how she often ran to and from their Regents Centre office from her home in Tosson Terrace. She has also described how she used to like running at Rising Sun Country Park and along the wagonways. The flexibility of her employer also meant she could train for part of the year in California.
Freya didn’t originally originally make the London Olympics squad. She had been pipped to the final marathon place by Claire Hallissey who had beaten her in that April’s London Marathon and she was picked only when injury forced the withdrawal of Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder and one of the favourites. On 29 July, only a week before the event, Freya was at home in Heaton doing table plans for her wedding when she got the call to pack her bags. Nevertheless, the following day, she went into work as she ‘had a few bits to finish off’. It wasn’t until the Thursday that she flew down to London.
The London Olympics women’s marathon on 5 August 2012 began and finished on the Mall and took in iconic sights such as Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. Unfortunately for both athletes and spectators, the race began in heavy rain and so Paula Radcliffe’s world record was never in jeopardy. It was nevertheless a dramatic contest. The eventual winner, Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana, fell at around halfway, trying to negotiate a water station but fought back to power past the bronze medallist, Russian Tatyana Arkhipova and silver medallist, Kenyan Priscah Jeptoo. Freya was the best placed Briton in 44th place from 118 starters in a personal best of 2 hours 28 minutes 12 seconds.
Following the Olympics, Freya got married as planned, became a full time athlete for a while and moved back to Scotland. She continued to compete, winning the Scottish National Championships 5,000m in 2016. She now has two young children, works as an events coordinator, has written a recipe book ‘Food on the Run’ and coaches at her local running club.
She has a permanent place in Heaton’s history as our first female Olympian.
No 8 Brazil, Spain and Gabon Football Teams, 2012 Summer Olympics in London
The previous athletes all were either born in, lived in, worked in or represented Heaton. But we must also reserve a place for the footballers who trained here before and during the 2012 games.
It was announced a good year before the event that the Brazil and Spain football squads had been allocated training facilities at the Newcastle University sports complex at Cochrane Park. The facilities underwent a half a million pound revamp in preparation for their illustrious visitors, the most famous of whom was to be Neymar, who at that time still played for Santos in his home country but was the hottest property in South American football. There was disappointment as a high fence appeared around the sports ground but excitement as it was discovered that good views of the pitches could be obtained from the first floor café of the High Heaton Sainsbury store across the road. The Geordie public had a chance to watch him properly in the quarter final v Honduras where he scored a penalty and registered an assist in Brazil’s thrilling 3-2 win v Honduras.
On 17 July 2012, Gabon became the first team to train on the university facilities but it was their warm-up match five days later that has gone down in local folklore. Former Newcastle United star Nobby Solano’s agent was drafted in to help the African underdogs find opponents to play in a friendly. He’d tried the Magpie’s Under 21s to no avail so he got in touch with the Heaton Stannington manager requesting a game the very next day. It was July. Some of the squad were on holiday, none were in training but it felt like too good an opportunity to miss, especially as Gabon boasted another of the most promising players in the world, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, then of St Étienne in France but soon to sign for Dortmund and later Arsenal. A team of part-timers was scrambled together, word was put out on social media and the game was on.
But not before the Stan assistant manager had made two mercy dashes to the African team’s base at the Gateshead Hilton, firstly to reunite Aubameyang with the boots he’d left behind and then to pop back for the sort of match balls they’d be playing with in the tournament. Aubameyang was marked by captain Joe Wear who had run the Great North 10K that morning ‘so I was a bit tired’. He scored two first half goals in Gabon’s 4-0 win before being substituted at half time.
The Africans turned down the Stan’s offer of a pie and a pint after the game but hung around to chat and pose for photographs. Their signed shirt still hangs in the clubhouse. Four days later they stepped out against Switzerland at St James Park with Aubameyang scoring their only goal of the tournament in a 1-1 draw. Their next opponents Mexico beat them 2-0 and went on to win the tournament, beating Neymar’s Brazil in the final.
Can you help?
So they’re the Heaton Olympians we have discovered so far. They all deserve a commemorative postbox! Please let us know if you know more about the Heaton connections of any of them. And we hope you can help us discover more Olympians or connections between Heaton and the Olympic Games more generally. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing email@example.com
Updated on 15 July 2021 with details of a recently rediscovered Heaton Olympian, Alan Lillington. Thank you to Arthur Andrews of Heaton History Group. Updated on 20 July 2021 to include Heaton Park View as a Heaton address for Jonathan Edwards. Thank you, David Faulkner.
British Newspaper Archive
‘The Eastenders: Heaton Harriers 1890-1990’ by William Allen; Heaton Harriers, 1990
‘A Time to Jump: the authorised biography of Jonathan Edwards’ by Malcolm Folley; Harper Collins, 2000
Other online sources
Researched and written by Chris Jackson with additional material supplied by Arthur Andrews. Thank you to Roger Askew for personal information and photos of his father and to Freya Ross and Jonathan Edwards for confirming their Heaton addresses.
The grandly titled City Stadium is a well-used green space at the south end of Heaton. In all weathers, you’ll find runners, cyclists, walkers, outdoor gymnasts, playing children, allotmenteers and many others enjoying the fresh air and perhaps a coffee.
But it’s not always been like this. We asked Heaton History Group’s Keith Fisher to delve into the archives and his memory bank to tell its story:
‘Having friends and associates on both sides of the water, I’ve always been rather impressed with the degree of separation caused by the River Tyne. Despite the arrival of the tunnel in 1967 and now that I live in North Shields, getting to friends’ homes in South Shields still requires at least thirty minutes of driving (plus tolls) to cover no more than a mile as the crow flies.
What has this got to do with Heaton, you may well ask; well, even today, the Ouseburn valley presents a somewhat similar – albeit less severe – impediment. And 100 years ago it was a distinctly difficult obstacle during journeys east to west and vice versa. Between the city centre and Heaton there were few options that didn’t require labouring first down and then up a very steep bank.
A typical symptom of the enthusiasm to avoid Byker Bank for example can be seen by the number of people paying the pedestrian toll to cross the Byker Railway Viaduct (yes, folk paid to walk over) which was approximately 72,000 per year. So the first option was the building of the Byker Road Bridge in 1878 – you had to pay to use that as well, of course. Admittedly the toll was withdrawn in 1895 when the city corporation bought the bridge and it soon had to be widened because of increased traffic: a very familiar modern-day story.
The City Road route was relatively level, so you could bypass Byker Bank by crossing over Glasshouse Bridge and cutting across the western edge of Byker and Heaton with only the slope of Albion Row to contend with. OK, maybe we can consider that as an option, but if you needed to deliver anything by handcart from the town centre to Craigielea on Heaton Road then that was a long way out of your way on a cold and windy day.
I mention pushing heavy laden handcarts because my maternal grandfather, having retired as a lion-tamer in the circus, took to the variety theatre boards and would transport his props on a handcart. His sons, my uncles, were commandeered to labour on his behalf and they complained to me about it until they died.
Fortunately for the waggoneers, in the same year as Byker Road Bridge opened, another improvement arrived, as did so many, from Lord Armstrong: I never stop waxing lyrical regarding his unstinting benevolence, despite his motives being held to doubt in certain quarters. He had apparently bowed to the demands of Lady Armstrong – who was horrified by the sight of poor old horses dragging carts of coal up Benton Bank – and built Armstrong Bridge at his own expense, before giving it to the city council, insisting it remain toll-free.
Back in 1900, as far as the council were concerned, a more central route to all the new industries and residencies in Heaton from the town was desirable, but the best that was going to be achieved would still involve a steep bank.
Shieldfield, like the city centre, is far lower down than the centre of Heaton, and if we think that Warwick Street is steep today, imagine what it must have been like a century ago with a 30 metre deep Ouseburn Valley across its way. In mitigation, the new route would only be an uphill struggle in one direction; it would create new land for housing development; plus, it would provide a waste disposal facility in the centre of the city for 40 years.
During my youth in the ’50s and ’60s, everyone referred to the City Stadium as ‘The Tip’ because for the previous 40 years it had been the destination of both domestic and commercial refuse while the 100 foot deep valley was brought up to Shieldfield’s level. We didn’t generate much waste back then, did we? Couldn’t afford to!
The council’s plan to develop the infilled valley with houses never came to fruition because building regulations stiffened and residential development on infilled land was forbidden.
But first, culvert the Ouseburn. And to do that city engineer F J Edge decided that François Hennebique’s system was the method of choice: what we know today as reinforced concrete. The French Hennebique system was pioneered in this country by L G Mouchel with offices in Jesmond; work was initially executed by engineering firm W T Weir and Co of Howdon.
Actually, my mention of Craigielea on Heaton Road was not without significance. Its first resident, Joseph Lish, was an early pioneer of reinforced concrete and has many buildings to his name: up here, the best known being the Dove Marine Laboratory in Cullercoats. As early as 1874, he had exhibited his own invention: ‘Tilo-Concrete’. Lish was prominent in his profession both regionally and nationally. At one stage he was the President of the Society of Architects, whose Gold Medal he was awarded. He died in 1922 at the age of 80.
The Corporation might have saved themselves a great degree of trouble if they had awarded the contract to Lish, and we shall see why as we move on; although I suspect that the real problem was city councillors expecting the impossible by yesterday for no more than the price of a pint of beer and a bag of pork scratchings.
Looking at the above plan it can be seen that filling up the narrowest portion of the valley came first (‘WORK No.1’). This allowed an extension of Newington Road to link with Starbeck Avenue in Sandyford. It is also apparent that the burn had travelled a good way west before turning towards the Tyne in the south, slowly eroding away the bank and creating the large loop that the engineers by-passed by hugging the steep bank at the end of Stratford Grove. The shading and black bars are mine. The following picture shows the original river course in the foreground running left to right. Also apparent is the height of Newington Road above the valley floor, and it is at the foot of Warwick Street: hard going, even for horses.
The tunnel is 2,150 feet long. Construction used 850 tons of steel and 17,000 cubic yards of concrete. It is 30 feet wide and 20 feet high; at its apex it is only 8 inches thick, supporting 90 feet – or 2·5 million cubic yards – of compacted waste material. Started in 1906, it was interrupted by flooding and old colliery workings and became a huge financial embarrassment to the corporation, resulting in a stoppage of work and a change of contractors very early on… sound familiar?
What did they do with the water in the meantime?
There were two pre-existing facilities: one was a large bore sewage pipe heading for the Tyne. Yes! Who remembers the smell of the Tyne on hot days before the interceptor sewer was built? Or what was worse, the smell of the Ouseburn which itself was an open sewer until the middle of the 1970s when a big pipe was buried running from one end of the valley to the other. It is not always 100% sealed, as many folk will probably be aware when walking past various manholes at certain times, but I still vividly recall, from my early years, the large, open, vertical grills of the outlet pipes choked with unmentionable material that was the norm back then.
The second was a weir and sluice gate in Jesmond Vale – as it happens, mere yards from the beginning of the future culvert – which diverted full-flow water into a mill-race that more or less paralleled the burn, passing alongside the original large lead works, then under the railway bridge where it powered a flint-mill. That mill does not look big enough to warrant construction of a 3,000 foot long race, so who contributed to the cost? Early maps show nothing definite, even though the race is in existence by 1859. It’s curious: why take a mill-race all that distance to power a rather insignificant flint-mill that is only yards from the burn itself? There are many references in old newspaper accounts of ‘washing tubs’ and I suspect they are referring to the mill-race heading for the original lead works before it moved under the railway bridge and straddled the burn itself. Maps are full of interesting activity around the burn; there are all sorts of mysterious doings – both old and new; and also up the hill a-ways, where we find a huge brick-works I never realised had been there. The red rectangle on the OS map below indicates the point where the Ouseburn absorbs the Sandyford Burn, coming down the back of Portland Road from Lambert’s Leap on Sandyford Road. It is now culverted under Grantham Road.
The above picture shows us the sewage pipe (bottom left) carrying its share of the burn while in the distance, top right, can be seen the original route of the burn and mill-race. All of the property visible was compulsorily purchased and demolished; much more, it would turn out, than had been initially anticipated.
The following pictures give us a good idea of the construction process. Reinforcing poured concrete with iron bars is a fairly common sight nowadays but back then it was relatively novel and the entire endeavour was officially photographed for posterity.
The next photo shows tipping activity; and the inset shows ‘scrannin on the tip’ (as it was known) by folks foraging for usable material. In the background can be seen the slowly submerging parabola of the culvert roof. Many people will remember the smell of the tip; I can certainly remember the smell of similar activity as they began to widen Lansdowne Gardens at the other end of Jesmond Vale; I believe that was still going on through the ’70s: dreadful!
All things considered, it was a relatively unsatisfactory project: original cost estimates spiralled out of control; work was halted; suggestions it be abandoned were voiced. The council had been anxious to get cross-roads established as soon as possible: that was achieved in the first six years; and having rapidly built heavily above the Jesmond Vale section, repairs soon became necessary in order to strengthen the walls.
If you look closely at this aerial photo from 1938 you can see how the extension to Warwick Street was accomplished; it is also apparent why getting an extension from Newington Avenue up to Starbeck Avenue was achieved so quickly as the valley is comparatively narrow at that point.
The white border on this 1945 photo shows the extent of the area being filled; these two aerial shots indicate the lack of progress during the war years, as it seems it remained untouched; so where was all the rubbish going?
Speaking of war: during my youth, many folk told me that the culvert had been an air-raid shelter during the war, as many of them used it – but most of us are completely unaware of the extent of the facilities provided.
Marian Jones describes what must have been the finest public air -raid shelter in existence: a concrete floor was laid across the tunnel sealing off the burn below and thick concrete blast-walls were installed across the entrances. Gangways accessed a space big enough to accommodate up to 3,000 people. As well as lighting, there were benches, bunk-beds, a canteen/shop and a well equipped and manned hospital room.
Susan Bright tells of an office for air raid wardens, a youth club, a religious space, and a staging area for musical performances. And, in 1943, a library and reading room were added. Entrances were under the railway bridge and at the foot of Warwick Street, with gangways giving access to the shelter.
Many people didn’t even wait for the sirens and simply headed down there every night – with blankets, pillows, flasks of tea and cocoa etc – when the bombings were at their worst. In 1941 this unplanned and intense activity unfortunately led to a crack 100 feet long appearing in the wall of the tunnel and that section had to be cordoned off. Even so, this was as luxurious an accommodation as was possible during such fearful times; a lot better than those in Anderson Shelters in back gardens or even the Victoria Tunnel. Better again than the London Underground tunnels, as the culvert shelter was purpose built and exclusive… hence the extraordinary facilities.
Today’s evidence of the culvert’s existence is decidedly removed from the original construction. When I was a nipper exploring my vast dominion, the entrance to the culvert was mostly unchanged, except for the metal railings preventing access at the Sandyford entrance. You could see the construction but that was all. The exit under Byker Bridge, however looked like this in the early 1960s.
We little lads can find adventure wherever, along with wet shoes, muddy knees and diphtheria.
Now the picture is very different, most evidence of the entrance and exit has been obliterated, except what you see in my 2021 photos.
The first is the Vale.
The south exit is even more inaccessible, which has a lot to do with raves held there around 2017. Ubiquitous graffiti provides further disguise.
With the war over and housebuilding on the tip forbidden, what could be done with the land created by the culverting and levelled by infill? How about a sports stadium? Here’s an ‘Evening Chronicle’ sketch from the 1950s of the plans.
Seating for 86,000 people (Yes, eighty six thousand!) was augmented by a further space for 8,500 standing. Car parking was to be on three floors below the stands. Indoor sports, ice rinks (yes, plural), and badminton courts were also planned. T Dan Smith proposed spending £500,000 to prepare such a stadium for the British Empire Games. (Renamed the British Commonwealth Games by the time 1966, the year he was targeting, came round). ‘The best intentions’ right? We got a wooden hut and a cinder track, plus the grand name.
Build by Numbers
I passed our – so called – City Stadium on an almost daily basis riding the Number 1 or 2 bus to and from town during the ’60s and early ’70s, and remained mystified by the enormous forest of stone blocks, all numbered in white figures, scattered over the near corner of the unrealised City Stadium. It turned out they were the Royal Arcade waiting to be resurrected at some future time and place. I was equally mystified by their disappearance sometime during the ’70s; at least I assume it was then because I was in and out of Newcastle throughout that decade and was gone almost for good by the ’80s: just like the Royal Arcade, the prestigious City Stadium and our Empire!
Now, if you drop by ‘the tip’ you’ll see the unmistakeable signs of gentrification, the most recent phase of the rich history of this patch of Heaton. What went before has almost, but not quite, been forgotten. But should we be making more of our heritage? The Victoria Tunnel has become a tourist attraction. Perhaps I’m biased but I reckon the City Stadium and Ouseburn Culvert has an even more exciting history. Conducted tours anyone?’
Researched and written by Keith Fisher, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Carlton Reid for information about the washing tubs.’ Photograph of the Victoria Tunnel courtesy of ‘The Evening Chronicle’.
Can You Help?
If you know more this part of Heaton or have memories or photos 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
The author’s personal archives
‘The Ouseburn Culvert and the City Stadium’ by Marian Jones; ‘The Newsletter of the Ouseburn Trust Heritage Group’, Spring 2008.
‘Bridging the Ouseburn’ by Sue Bright; Ancestors Publishing, 2013
Over fifty years ago a Heaton High School pupil sat on the number 11 bus to school when a teenage boy got talking to her. The pair later started going out together. That teenage boy is now a member of Heaton History Group and he has finally got round to researching an interesting member of his one time girlfriend’s family: Reverend Herbert Barnes, who was a well known non-conformist minister in Newcastle and one time Heaton resident.
In the 1901 census, Herbert was a 15 year old schoolboy, still living near Greyabbey. On leaving school, he entered into business in the art trade but by 1911, 25 year old Herbert was a theological student and boarding with a family in Belfast, some twenty miles from home. From there, he soon moved to Unitarian College Manchester, which has been ‘preparing students for ministry and lay leadership positions in the Unitarian and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches since 1854′. It is still going strong. Herbert was ordained in 1915.
His first ministry was at the Oldham Road Unitarian Church in Manchester. We know from newspaper records that he also preached at other churches in the vicinity.
But just four years later, he transferred to Newcastle to take up a new post at the Unitarian church on New Bridge Street said to be the first non-conformist place of worship in Newcastle with a congregation dating from 1662, which worshipped initially in private homes. The first purpose built meeting house was built c1680 outside the Close Gate, roughly where the Copthorne Hotel is now. In 1726, the church moved to Hanover Square, behind what is now the Central Station before moving to the John Dobson designed New Bridge St church in 1854.
On 25 August 1920, in Cheshire, Herbert married (Lizzie) Beatrice Watterson who hailed from the Isle of Man. She had been a maths teacher firstly at Burnley High School and then in Manchester.
For at least the first five years of their marriage the couple lived at 12 Cheltenham Terrace in Heaton. They had three children, Henry Greenfield, Herbert Abner and Mary, at least two of whom continued to have connections with Heaton even after the family moved to the west end of the city. Henry Greenfield, who became a general practitioner, used to play rugby for the Medics, whose ground is, of course, on Heaton Road. Herbert Abner became a lawyer and, in 1949, the recipient of the Law Society’s ‘Newcastle upon Tyne Prize’. Mary became a hospital almoner (a pre-NHS forerunner of a hospital social worker). After marriage, she and her family lived for a time at 35 Lesbury Road.
Sadly, Beatrice, Herbert’s wife, died in 1939 aged only 51. Her funeral was attended by many Newcastle dignatories, including Sir Arthur Lambert (Northern Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence) and his wife, councillors and the Reverend E Drukker of the Jesmond Synagogue. The chancel furnishings in the new church were gifted in her memory.
The Reverend Barnes seems to have been very popular with his congregation. It is said that the church was so full at the services he led that that extra seats had to be crammed into the aisles.
In 1929, when he announced from the pulpit that he had declined a call to the ministry of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester, there was said to have been a round of applause in the church. Barnes said that to be invited to the ministry of the most historic and outstanding pulpit in the church’s general assembly was an honour that comes only once in a man’s lifetime but that he had decided to remain in Newcastle.
One of Herbert Barnes’s challenges during his ministry was the dangerous state of repair of John Dobson’s church. The cost of repairs eventually became prohibitive and after serious subsidence was discovered, it was decided to build a new church in its place. A public building appeal fund was set up in 1938. The last service in the old church was on Sunday 26 March 1939 and the first in the new one in nearby Ellison Place, on the site of another demolished John Dobson church, St Peter’s, was on Sunday 21 January 1940.
The new church was also known as the Church of the Divine Unity. All of this was overseen by Reverend Herbert Barnes.
Arthur Andrews takes up the story:
‘In the 1970s, I used to work at Newcastle Polytechnic and every day would see the church and wonder what it was like inside. However, it was only when I noticed that not only was it open for Heritage Open Day and there was the link with Herbert Barnes but also I read that it might soon be sold and closed to the public, that I visited.’
The art deco building was designed by the architects Cacket, Burns Dick and McKellar, who had been responsible for many familiar landmarks including the Tyne Bridge towers and Pilgrim Street Police Station.
The new church could accommodate 500 people and the church hall, where there was a stage, could hold 250 people and was used for meetings, as a theatre and for badminton. Rev Herbert Barnes’s Ministry celebrated his silver jubilee in the ministry three years after the new church opened.
Rev Barnes is said to have taken a vigorous stand against anti-Semitism. On 8 January 1934, it was reported that, later that week, ‘in appreciation of his personality and public works and services rendered to the Jewish People’ and in commemoration of the 15th anniversary of his ministry, he was to be honoured by an inscription in The Jewish National Fund’s ‘Golden Book’ and a certificate marking this was to be presented to him.
The public works referred to included serving on both Newcastle Public Libraries Committee and Education Committee. This inscription in the ‘Golden Book’, given on the recommendation of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, was said to be the highest form of tribute the Jews can pay to those whom they wish to honour. Speeches would be made by Rabbi J Kyanski and Reverend Emmanuel Drukker from the Jesmond Synagogue. Members of Mr Barnes’s church were to be individually invited to the presentation. It was reported in Reverend Barnes’ obituary in ‘The Daily Journal’, that Herbert Barnes was ‘one of the few gentiles to have had their names inscribed in the Golden Book’
Herbert Barnes wrote a weekly piece for the Evening Chronicle from 1929 until 1941. It was called ‘The Weekly Epilogue’ and published under the pen name of ‘Unitas’. It dealt with aspects of daily life in relation to the bible and philosophy.
In April 1941 he started a new weekly piece called ‘A Saturday Postscript’, for the ‘Evening Chronicle’, which he wrote under his real name until the month before his death.
And he also wrote a column for ‘The Journal’ from 1936 until 1954, called ‘Weekend Thought’ under another pen name ‘Ignotus’.
His final column was entitled ‘They Ought to have Statues’, where he made a case for more statues dedicated to women and their unsung role in society. He cited the recently unveiled statue of Thomas Hardy, observing that the doctor who delivered Hardy was sure that he was stillborn and discarded his young body, only for a woman present at the birth to check the discarded child and found him to be breathing. Herbert Barnes thought that this woman deserved a statue in her honour for saving the life of the future, great author. Although, he could perhaps have mentioned female achievements in addition to saving the life of a famous man, he was certainly ahead of his time, given that this is a more widely understood issue 67 years later.
Rev Herbert Barnesretired from the ministry on 19 July 1951. He died at his home in Wylam on 29 October 1954
On 1 October 1961, two commemoration services were held at the Church of Divine Unity to honour the memory of Reverend Hebert Barnes. The morning service was attended by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Dr H Russell and members of the City Council, at the end of which the ‘Herbert Barnes Memorial Stone’ was unveiled.
Someone who knew Herbert Barnes well said that, through his preaching and his newspaper articles, he brought his views before almost every thinking person in the north-east. It was also said that perhaps the greatest tribute to his personality was the fact that more than half of the £35,000 needed to build the Church of Divine Unity, was subscribed by people outside of his own congregation.
Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group. The drawing by Byron Dawson has been reproduced with the permission of Newcastle City Library. Thank you to Maurice Large, Church of the Divine Unity leader. Herbert Barnes’s grandchildren: Lesley, Jonathan and Paul, with fond memories.
British Newspaper Archive
Can You Help?
If you know more Herbert Barnes or have memories or photos 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
Funny, isn’t it, how once something becomes generally accepted it gets, well, accepted? Take Armstrong Park’s ‘cattle run’: according to an interpretation panel in the park, this distinctive feature was sunk for bovine use by Victorian industrialist Lord Armstrong.
The livestock, goes the story, were herded through this costly railway-style cutting because the route had long been used for leading cows to pasture.
‘When [Lord] Armstrong was given the land’ the panel explains, ‘he had this deeper channel dug so that cattle could follow the old track and be kept apart from visitors and their carriages.’
Using archive materials, period maps, and copious illustrations, local resident Carlton Reid explains why the lottery-funded interpretation panel is, in all likelihood, wrong:
‘For centuries, cattle had been driven down to pasture by the River Ouseburn from the fields above the valley,’ states the interpretation panel. The moss-covered panel is situated to the side of the upper of two bridges which span the 200-metre-long sunken feature in Armstrong Park. In the 19th Century this lozenge of land which now sports the ‘Shoe Tree’ was known as Bulman’s Wood.
Even though I argue here that the feature wasn’t designed for cows, I refer to it throughout this piece as the ‘cattle run’. Another descriptive convenience is the interchangeable use of Armstrong Park and Bulman’s Wood for roughly the same 29-acre plot of land.
There’s a linear east-west feature marked on the large-scale map attached to the Deed of Gift of September 1879 in which Armstrong gave this woodland in perpetuity to the people of Newcastle, but it’s not labelled as a ‘cattle run‘.
The feature was constructed not in the 1850s, which the interpretation panel seems to suggest, but in 1880 when the council — then known as Newcastle Corporation — owned the land.
Armstrong may have handed Bulman’s Wood to the people of Newcastle via the council’s stewardship but, ever the canny speculator, he inserted a clause in the deed allowing him to continue draining the parts of Heaton which he wished to later develop for housing.
I also speculate that, with the Victorian equivalent of a nod-and-a-wink, the Corporation incorporated Armstrong’s pre-designed linear feature into their plans for what they named Armstrong Park.
Remarks on a cutting
The cutting today known as the ‘cattle run’ starts on Ouseburn Road, rising and curving to finish unceremoniously in a quagmire forming the southern boundary of the plots administered by the 103-year-old Armstrong Allotments Association. Waterlogged and overgrown, this patch of land is understandably little-visited today. (Wear wellies.)
As the interpretation panel rightly points out, the cutting’s high-quality sandstone blockwork is reminiscent of Victorian railway infrastructure.
Some of the sandstone blocks and their coping stones have fallen to the ground — or, more likely, were pushed — and they lie scattered on the feature’s floor, an ankle-twisting deterrent to those wishing to walk along the ‘cattle run’.
There are two pillars at the Ouseburn Road entrance of the ‘cattle run’, eight courses high and capped with flat coping stones.
If you brush fallen leaves to one side, you’ll uncover rusted remains of iron railings where, within living memory, a gate once closed off the sunken feature at the roadside pillars, one of which is decoratively triangular.
At the opposite end of the ‘cattle run’ the sandstone blocks fade almost to ground level. This entrance is marked by stumpy, ivy-covered pillars, only one of which is now easily visible. This pillar, only a couple of courses high, is capped with a pyramid-shaped coping stone.
‘The quality of the stone work was intended to be seen,’ an archaeologist told me, ‘but not by agricultural labourers and cows.’
Hanna Steyne specialises in 19th Century landscapes. I sent her a great many photographs of the ‘cattle run’ and surroundings, including drone shots, and she also accessed period mapping to get the contemporary lay of the land.
‘I would not expect decorative column features on a structure only to be used for agricultural purposes,’ she pointed out.
On several period Ordnance Survey maps, Armstrong Park’s elongated feature is marked with a finger-shaped 100ft contour line. It’s likely that the masonry of the ‘cattle run’ shored up what was once a natural feature in Bulman’s Wood, a feature that the ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ in 1884 called a ‘deep gully’.
As shown on the map from Armstrong’s 1879 Deed of Gift, this gully contained a linear feature prior to the following year’s construction of the ‘cattle run’.
Hydraulics innovator and arms manufacturer Lord Armstrong was, of course, a noted philanthropist. Five years after handing Bulman’s Wood to the people of Newcastle he gifted the larger Jesmond Dene to the city. This provision of an amenity for his fellow citizens was generous but, back in 1878 when he first discussed the gift, would he really have commissioned a channel in a deep gully to keep cows away from people in a park he was soon to give away? It’s far more likely that when he charged his agents with designing the cutting, he and they had something else in mind.
By the time the cutting was built in 1880 the land was owned by the Newcastle Corporation. The council had no need for such a feature so it was likely to have been built on Armstrong’s orders, and with his cash, on the undocumented understanding that he had a commercial use for it.
According to a Historic Environment Record, the ‘cattle run’ is a ‘stone-lined animal kraal which took Armstrong’s cattle from grazing land to the east to the lower pasture land to the west, without disturbing visitors to the park. What was the historical source for this citation? ‘Pers. Comm. Jesmond Dene Rangers, 2004,’ says the record. There’s nothing wrong with using such local knowledge — especially when such ‘personal communications’ were gleaned from folks out there in all weathers looking after our parks and who, in the course of their work, probably hear their fair share of handed-down history — but it’s odd that the entry only cites unnamed 21st century rangers rather than providing 19th century sources.
For Lord Armstrong to go to the considerable expense of sinking a bovine passageway, it would, you might think, have to be a feature in regular use and therefore would have been of at least passing interest to the local press. Yet not in any of the long and detailed descriptions of Armstrong Park in contemporary newspapers have I found mentions of a ‘cattle run’, a ‘kraal’ or any other bovine-related use for the feature.
Nor have I found any period maps, not even those of the largest scale, that mark the feature as a ‘cattle run.’ The only maps to do so are modern and crowdsourced such as OpenStreetMap, a volunteer-edited online resource founded, coincidentally, in 2004..
Don’t have a cow, man
Might there have been a time-out-of-mind cattle track through the deep gully of Bulman’s Wood? Maybe. According to an 18th Century field-name map, there were two large fields to the west of what became Heaton Road: North Cow Close and South Cow Close, both of which belonged to Low Heaton Farm. On the other side of Heaton Road there was a P-shaped field called ‘Cow Loan’ belonging to Heaton Town Farm.
There was also Benton Bridge Farm, which according to the censuses between 1891 and 1911 was a dairy farm. The farmhouse was at the junction of Ouseburn Road and the Newcastle to Benton turnpike, today’s Coast Road. It is now a house called Woodburn, that, in exterior design, is little changed from the 1890s.
Bingo, you might think, cows. However, the existence of these three field names and dairy farms in the vicinity does not necessarily mean that cows would be taken to pasture on fields beside the Ouseburn.
Might cows have been taken down to the Ouseburn not for pasture but to drink? Thomas Oliver’s 1844 map of Newcastle shows Heaton Road, Heaton Hall’s garden that would become Heaton Park’s bowling green, and Ouseburn Road and, close to where the cattle run would be later built, there’s a field boundary.
There’s no path marked at this point, for cows or otherwise, and it’s possible that cows might have been herded along the edge of this field and down to the river.
But as there were several water sources in or near the cow-themed fields was there any real need to lead cattle to a stream? Archaeologist Hanna Steyne thinks not:
‘From the topography identifiable from mapping, it seems highly unlikely that cows would be heading for pasture down by the river — there seems to have been plentiful farm land on which to graze cows.’
The three large fields may have corralled cows in the 18th century but, by the mid-19th century, only one of them — Cow Loan — was still being used for that purpose, and this only fractionally. According to an 1868 document mapping Armstrong-owned land in Heaton, only about an eighth of the fields worked by Heaton Town Farm and East Heaton Farm were devoted to pasture. (Today, these fields are mostly in the area around Ravenswood Primary School and the Northumberland Hussar pub on Sackville Road.)
As has been discussed previously on this website, Heaton Town Farm was an arable and dairy farm, owned through the 18th and most of the 19th Centuries by the aristocratic Ridley family once of Heaton Hall.
Sir Matthew White Ridley, the fourth Baronet, was the farmer of the family. He had a ‘thorough liking for agricultural pursuits, and took a deep interest in all matters relating to the farm’, reported an 1877 obituary ‘As a breeder of cattle, he was known throughout the whole of the North of England.’
Ridley sold Heaton Town Farm’s land and buildings in 1865. All were either then or soon after that owned by Sir William Armstrong. From the 1840s to the 1860s, the farm was leased by the 4th Baron Ridley to George Cairns. In the 1861 census, Cairns (who also features in records as ‘Carins’) was listed as working 145 acres of mixed farmland, employing ‘4 men, a boy and women labourers.’ Cairns lived with a housekeeper, a ploughman, a 19-year-old Irish dairymaid and a 14-year-old ‘cow keeper’. By 1881, it was still a dairy farm but was now just 27 acres.
Clearly, there were cows in this part of Heaton when Armstrong or his agents commissioned the feature which became known as the ‘cattle run’, but by the 1870s there would have been just a small number of them rather than herds so large and potentially disruptive that they required a cow cutting.
In the 19th Century, ‘dairy farming was seen as a fairly abhorrent activity,’ said Steyne, ‘and one which should be hidden from the delicate middle classes.’
Armstrong himself owned several Newcastle farms, at least two of which had cows on them. He kept small herds at Castles Farm (near to today’s David Lloyd fitness club) and at Benton Place (underneath today’s HM Revenues and Customs building off Benton Road). However, it’s unlikely these herds would have ventured as far as Bulman’s Wood, so we’re left with the small number of cows at Heaton Town Farm and Benton Bridge Farm. (By 1916, Benton Bridge Farm housed just three cows, said to be ‘shockingly emaciated’.)
‘The idea that cattle would be walked through a formal Victorian park is fairly strange,’ suggests Steyne.
‘The whole point about Victorian parks was that they were controlled “natural” environments — nature made beautiful — but deliberately separated from the reality of the [actual] natural environment.’
Even if the much-reduced number of cows in the locality during the 1870s and 1880s still used a ‘traditional’ route through the steep-sided gully in Bulman’s Wood, why would Armstrong care to preserve this? Cows are not eels, and the Ouseburn is not the Sargasso Sea. For a practical man like Armstrong, and probably for countless others before him, the sensible herding route would have been down the long-existing Jesmond Vale Lane.
If the ‘cattle run’ wasn’t for cattle, what was it for? An 1880 newspaper report about the opening of Armstrong Park explains that it was for pedestrian use. The ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ was clear: it was a ‘sunken footpath’.
The ‘new park is rapidly progressing towards completion’, began the report.
‘The ivy-covered mill on the eminence immediately above [the bank] has for many years been a conspicuous object of interest from the vale beneath’, explained the period writer, meaning the old windmill in Armstrong Park.
‘Beyond this ground, the boundaries of the park terminate at a hedge growing on the border of a fine grass field [where] it is intended … to erect villa residences, and in order to render these accessible from the Ouseburn road, a sunken footpath, which will be finished from plans suggested by Sir William, is at present being made.’
(That’s it: the ‘cattle run’ was a sunken footpath for villa owners; quest over. True, but let’s carry on anyway, there’s plenty more to parse.)
The 1880 writer continued:
‘This path runs immediately through and underneath the park, but is in no way connected with the public pleasure ground.’
According to this contemporary description, a ‘wooden bridge forms a portion of the carriage drive over the path, which is also crossed in the middle path by a neat rustic bridge.’
Today, these two bridges are the large upper one over the ‘cattle run’ at the carriage road and the smaller one down the path from the Shoe Tree. Both bridges now have metal railings, and both are made from stone not wood. The bridges have been rebuilt some time after 1880, but let’s continue with the contemporary description.
‘An elegant waterfall will be seen from both structures,’ wrote the correspondent.
Wait, what, a waterfall? Where? It ran parallel to the ‘cattle run’. To confirm its existence I pulled back some of the overgrown foliage to unveil the vertical rock face over which the cascade once ran.
Just like the well-known waterfall in Jesmond Dene — the subject of countless paintings and photographs — the hitherto unknown one in Armstrong Park was built rather than being wholly natural.
Given similar landscape shaping in Jesmond Dene, it’s possible that the cascade was Armstrong’s idea, or perhaps that of his friend, the naturalist John Hancock, co-founder with his brother Albany of the museum which until recently bore their name. Some of the Dene’s naturalistic features, such as its ornamental rockeries, were either designed in whole by Hancock or in association with Armstrong.
The 1880 newspaper report has a vivid description:
‘The water, which is obtained from the fields beyond, will flow through a 15-inch pipe, placed for a distance beneath the sunken footpath, and then securing an outlet between the carriage drive and the rustic bridge, will dash merrily onwards over an ingenious arrangement of rocks, falls and ferns, until it at length mingles the purity of its stream with that of the singing burn beneath.’
(The original rocks remain, and there’s still a pipe in situ, although it’s a modern one, concreted into place.)
The waterfall pre-dated Newcastle Corporation’s ownership of Bulman Wood. According to a report in the ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ of October 1878, the waterfall — described as a ‘small cascade’ — was fed by a spring that ‘runs evenly the whole year through’.
Armstrong Park has several perennial springs. Heavy rain landing on year-round saturated ground is now channeled by numerous drains but, before these were constructed, Bulman’s Wood would have been almost permanently boggy, and, during high rainfall events, there would have been a rapid runoff of stormwater down the deep gully.
Water on the brain
Bulman’s Wood, according to the ‘Chronicle’ report, was owned by a Mr. Potter. (Actually, it was owned by Armstrong, who had inherited the land in 1851.) The Mr. Potter in question was Colonel Addison Potter, who lived with his large family and many servants at Heaton Hall, once the seat of the White-Ridley family but bought in 1840 by Colonel Potter’s father, the coal owner and industrialist Addison Langhorn Potter, Armstrong’s uncle.
Armstrong bought land in Jesmond and Heaton as it became available, adding to the land he inherited from his father’s close friend Armorer Donkin, a rich Tyneside solicitor.
Armstrong Senior and Donkin were town councillors, and thick as thieves. In the 1820s and 1830s, the Armstrong family would spend holidays at Donkin’s country retreat in Rothbury. Young William developed a taste for open water fishing in the Coquet River during these holidays and loved the area’s hills, weirs, and waterfalls, a landscape he would later go on to recreate in Jesmond Dene before doing similar at Cragside.
Armstrong Junior had a lifelong fascination with water’s potential for motive power. From a young age, he was afflicted with ‘water on the brain’, joked his family.
After leaving school, Armstrong was articled with Donkin, a bachelor who treated the bright youngster as his adoptive son, heir to his fortune and his land in Heaton. Armstrong worked for some time as a solicitor in Donkin’s firm but his real vocation was as an inventor and engineer with an abiding interest in the growing science of hydraulics.
Donkin lived in Jesmond Park, a grand house in Sandyford with gardens and woodlands sloping down to the Ouseburn. Jesmond Park was famous among Tyneside’s elite for ‘Donkin’s ordinary’, a weekly Saturday luncheon where the great and good — and the rich and influential — would meet to exchange ideas as well as contacts and contracts.
Armstrong, eager to ditch his legal work and forge a living as an engineer, was a habitual attendee at these dinners, no doubt enthused after talking with visiting Victorian luminaries including Isambard Kingdom Brunel. For the young Armstrong, it would have been a short stroll down the slope from Jesmond Park to the deep gully that later became the ‘cattle run’.
There’s a linear feature in the gully shown on the 1864 Ordnance Survey map. The 200-metre-long feature is drawn like a road, with parallel lines. But it’s too narrow to be a road and isn’t dotted, so it’s not a footpath, either. Nor is it a field boundary. The nearest equivalent, on this particular map, would be a mill race.
While there’s a mill race in Jesmond Vale, opposite the gully and one of several mill races in the Ouseburn valley, there’s no known water mill in Bulman’s Wood.
The linear feature on the map was too straight to be natural and, if you were looking down from the lower bridge, it curved to the right as it neared Ouseburn Road. This “J”-shaped tail — which can still be seen on the ground today — curved in the opposite direction to the later ‘cattle run’.
There are footpaths marked on the 1864 map that follow and cross over the linear feature and its J-shaped tail. Many later maps plot both the tail and the ‘cattle run’.
The feature shown on the 1864 map is narrow, about the width of the mill race opposite. It’s probably an open-to-the-elements storm drain, yet large enough to be plotted on a map.
‘[The] little stream which runs through [Bulman Wood’s] dell is sunk deep in a stone-lined channel,’ reported ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’ in 1884, adding that it had been built because it had been ‘difficult to prevent the rivulet when flooded from breaking the banks away.’
The ‘Chronicle’ didn’t give a date for the stone-lined channel’s construction but as it’s marked on the 1864 map, it must have been built sometime before 1858 when the OS map had been surveyed.
Could the channel on Donkin’s land have been used by Armstrong — or constructed, even — for experiments in hydraulics? Maybe. Armstrong certainly cited the Ouseburn as a stream that could power machinery.
‘The transient produce of useless floods’ Armstrong told an 1845 meeting at Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society ‘could become available as a permanent source of mechanical power.’
He wanted to harness the ‘vast quantities of water which pour down brooks and watercourses … in time of rain.’
A newspaper report of the meeting said Armstrong ‘proceeded to point out the advantages which would result from the principles of impounding surplus water and causing it to act as a column, by referring to … the Ouseburn.’
‘Suppose,’ posited Armstrong to the august audience, ‘that instead of having a succession of six mill races and six falls, as was the case on the Ouseburn, the first mill race were continued along the banks of the stream gradually getting higher and higher above the natural channel of the brook, to within a short distance of the Tyne where a single fall of upwards of 100 feet might be obtained.’
There’s no documentary evidence to connect Armstrong’s 1845 desire for a high mill race to the probable storm drain down the gully in Bulman’s Wood, but he would have been well aware of the water feature’s existence.
The run-off from the storm drain was later employed for the scenic waterfall introduced above.
‘The stream of water,’ continued the 1880 newspaper report, ‘has been diverted along a channel of masonry almost at its highest point after entering the grounds, and it is brought along its artificial bed until opposite the larger of the two rustic bridges, where it is thrown over a rocky ledge in a high fall.’
While undoubtedly scenic, the waterfall also had a practical purpose. The storm drain which created it was said to also drain the upper field, which today is the waterlogged patch of ground between the end of the ‘cattle run’ and the multi-coloured plots belonging to the Armstrong Allotments Association.
‘Ingenious drainage [in Armstrong Park] has in several instances converted marshy, sodden land into pleasant places,’ reported the ‘Chronicle’
If this ‘ingenious drainage’ dates back to the 1840s or 1850s that’s only a decade or two after the introduction of the transformative Deanston method of agricultural field drainage. The work of James Smith of Deanston in Perthshire used drain tiles and narrow pipes beneath fields. Smith created the technique in 1823, but its use only became widespread after a journal published details in 1831.
‘Smith o’ Deanston’s the man!’ exclaimed a character in ‘Hillingdon Hall’, a now-forgotten but popular-in-the-1840s novel by Robert Smith Surtees of Hamsterley Hall, Rowlands Gill. ‘Who ever ‘heard o’ drainin’ afore Smith o’Deanston inwented it?’ continued John Jorrocks, an upwardly-mobile, country-sports-loving businessman who, wrote Surtees, couldn’t pronounce the ‘v’ sound.
The new method of drainage led to a revolution in British farming, financially boosted in 1846 by the Public Money Drainage Act. This largesse enacted by parliament extended generous farm improvement loans to landowners. (Many parliamentarians owned large estates at this time.) Previously soggy and unproductive land became highly profitable arable fields which, for 15 or so years, made the rich even richer.
The ‘now common accompaniment of a country gentleman,’ pointed out Surtees in ‘Hawbuck Grange’ (1847) was a ‘draining-pipe.’
After going ‘boldly at the Government loan’ another Surtees character was said to have transformed a ‘sour, rush-grown, poachy, snipe-shooting looking place’ into land ‘sound enough to carry a horse.’
Deanston’s method of introducing smaller-bore, more frequently placed drains was an improvement on former methods, wrote the landed Surtees, who described ‘gulf-like drains as would have carried off a river … but there was no making head against wet land with stone drains, the bit you cured only showing the wetness of the rest.’
The stone-lined watercourse in Bulman’s Wood was more likely to have been a storm channel than one that could drain a field, but contemporary descriptions are divided on the subject.
Even though, according to the 1864 map, it looked like one, the watercourse wasn’t a mill race, Duncan Hutt, a local watermill expert told me. ‘There is no clear evidence for any feature nearby being a conduit for water to feed a mill.’
He added: ‘The [cattle run] is far too steep to be a watercourse for a mill, [it’s] more likely something to help provide some surface drainage in times of heavy downpours in the past.’
Archaeologist Steyne agreed:
‘The identification of a drainage watercourse and a decorative waterfall to the north of the line of the cattle run, would correlate with the information in the mapping indicating earlier drainage from the land to the east, and then a later stone-built feature running alongside.’
An 1894/95 OS map shows the ‘cattle run’ to be a full-on watercourse, printed blue. This was probably a mistake by the map makers. (Mistakes were common — on the same map, Hadrian’s Wall is marked not as the Roman Wall but as the Romam Wall.)
‘It is very possible that the earlier drainage feature became less visible and was confused in the mapping with the later cattle run,’ suggested Steyne.
‘Land was not completely resurveyed for each new map, only changes added. The fact that both were perhaps unused, or fell into disrepair shortly after construction might explain [the anomaly on the 1894/95 OS map],’ she said.
‘Land for housing’
During the first 75 years of the 19th Century, the British landed aristocracy were the wealthiest class in the world’s richest country. For the last 25 of those years this wealth had at least partly come from the huge profits enabled by government-sponsored field drainage. But the good times for many of these landed elites did not last. A dramatic fall in grain prices following the opening up of the American prairies to cultivation led to a steep decline in British agriculture. This agrarian depression started in the 1870s and continued until the mid-1890s resulting in British fields that had previously been money-spinners losing much of their value.
Between 1809 and 1879, 88 percent of British millionaires had been landowners; from 1880 to 1914 this figure dropped to 33 percent.
‘Land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure,’ complained Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.
For the elites, it became prudent to sell land rather than farm it.
Urban farmland, in particular, could generate huge one-hit profits, with expanding cities such as Newcastle in desperate need of space for housing.
Heaton landowners Colonel Addison Potter, Sir Matthew White Ridley, and Lord Armstrong and others could — and did — make handsome profits by selling off their fields for building plots. These three in particular were voracious sellers of land, especially Armstrong who employed agents that developed housing estates on his behalf.
Armstrong, of course, also gave away land to the people of Newcastle, but the gift of his extensive Jesmond Dene ‘garden’ wasn’t perhaps as purely philanthropic as it is usually portrayed — creating an attractive country park from a steeply sided valley that might have proved too deep to fill and flatten was a savvy move for a housing developer.
‘The more he bestows, the richer [Lord Armstrong] becomes’ , a magazine calculated in 1889.
Creating the amenity of Jesmond Dene as a sweetener to help sell the plots on his extensive housing developments in Jesmond and Heaton made perfect business sense. Likewise, Armstrong Bridge wasn’t commissioned by its namesake to ease the burdens of packhorses climbing Benton Bank — a backstory usually attributed to the kindness of Lady Armstrong — but as a high-level road approach for the prestigious properties Armstrong planned to develop on both sides of the Ouseburn valley.
On the plus side, his shrewd philanthropy prevented any infilling of Jesmond Dene. Many of Newcastle’s other denes disappeared under landfill — a third-of-a-mile segment of the Ouseburn valley near Warwick Street was culverted in the early 1900s and crammed with rubble and other rubbish. However, the land created on top of the Ouseburn Tip — which is now the ‘City Stadium’ — proved too unstable for housing.
Similarly, today’s plots owned by the Armstrong Allotments Association only exist because the land they were carved from proved unsuitable for building use.
Armstrong originally planned to develop this land to create Heaton Park Estate, an exclusive neighbourhood of mansions overlooking the Dene.
In 1878, Armstrong instructed his architect Frank W Rich to ‘lay out villa residences upon the land to the eastward of the park,’ Rich had ‘already marked off into building plots the whole of the land which lives above Bulman’s Wood,’ reported the ‘Newcastle Courant’. but, as has already been discussed on this site, these villas would not be built.
Problem: ‘the ground here forms a natural basin, and a spring rises just above it, and runs evenly the whole year through,’ revealed the ‘Courant’, adding that the land was ‘soft and swampy.’
Solution: ‘The water … is now carried away to form a small cascade,’ reported the ‘Newcastle Daily Chronicle’
This cascade was the waterfall parallel to the ‘cattle run’. The waterfall, and the rivulet that formed it, were carried through one of the two arches beneath the lower of the two Armstrong Park bridges. The second arch spans the ‘cattle run’.
Except, remember, it’s not a ‘cattle run’, it was a sunken footpath, reported the period newspaper mentioned earlier. A sunken footpath from Ouseburn Road to Armstrong’s putative posh villas; a sunken footpath for use by the villa owners, or perhaps to be used as a hidden-from-view passageway for servants or tradespeople.
‘The quality and style of the stone work would support [the] suggestion [that this was a] pedestrian route to link the road to proposed housing,’ concluded Steyne.
The sunken footpath was built by Newcastle Corporation in 1880, working to plans drawn up by Armstrong or, more likely, his agents. Although decorative and with its own sylvan cascade, the expensive railway-style cutting didn’t help sell the plots — the thirteen posh villas never got built.
By 1884, Rich had modified the plan, dividing the development into 41 plots. However, after fresh surveys revealed the land to be unsuitable for housing, this plan, too, fell by the wayside.
The sunken footpath was itself sunk, with no longer any reason to exist.
Armstrong died in 1900. His will stipulated that part of what would have been the Heaton Park Estate should become allotments. Other parts of the would-be development lay fallow until the 1920s when almost 100 houses were erected on the land that had been deemed unsuitable forty years previously.
Heaton Park Estate never made the jump from Rich’s drawing board, but a similar development to the north of Armstrong Bridge proved more successful. In 1894, Rich (probably acting for Armstrong) was advertising ‘Villa SITES for Sale on Jesmond Park Estate.’ Significantly, the adverts stressed that on these plots the ‘drainage [was] perfect,’ which suggests that the drainage for the plots on Heaton Park Estate had not been perfect.
Jesmond Park Estate was a commercial success, and some of the large houses that stand back from the roads Jesmond Park East and Jesmond Park West are among the most expensive properties in Newcastle.
The ‘cattle run’ was built in advance of the prestigious housing it was designed to service, perhaps constructed early to act as a sales tool to attract rich house hunters. It had been built on land owned by the city council by railway engineers who were working to plans commissioned by Lord Armstrong via his jobbing architect Frank W. Rich.
It’s possible that work on the cattle run was done by Rich’s assistant, H.G. Badenoch.
‘When Lord Armstrong presented the beautiful Jesmond Dene to Newcastle, the erection of the lodges, making of footpaths, and building of bridges was … in Mr. Rich’s hands, and I superintended most of the work,’ remembered Badenoch later in life.
Badenoch also reported that he had conducted ‘all the surveying, levelling, and setting out of streets’ for Lord Armstrong’s housing developments in Jesmond and Heaton.
The unsung Badenoch might have also been responsible for converting what had been a pre-1860s storm drain in Bulman’s Wood into Armstrong Park’s scenic waterfall.
There has never been a ‘cattle run’ in Heaton. The linear feature now known by that name was built as a sunken footpath next to a tumbling cascade. The cascade may have tumbled for some years, but it failed to drain the sodden field above it, and as the sunken footpath ended in a quagmire and not, as was planned, at the foot of thirteen posh villas, it too was a flop.
Knowledge of the ‘cattle run’’s true purpose was lost soon after its use became moot. Ordnance Survey maps didn’t label what was — and remains — a distinctive ground feature. A large-scale OS map of 1907 managed to pinpoint small items such as urinals but didn’t state the use of the feature that ninety or so years later became known, wrongly, as the ‘cattle run.’ A 1942 OS map got the closest, labelling the feature a ‘subway.’
Other Armstrong-commissioned subways exist, including the fully-covered one from his Banqueting House to St. Mary’s chapel, and another in Jesmond Dene to Blackberry crags.
Sorry, Newcastle City Council, but the lottery-funded interpretation board you installed in 2010 is incorrect — the ‘cattle run’ was built for people, not cows. But let’s look on the bright side: while Armstrong Park loses a bovine superhighway, it gains a long-lost waterfall.
Researched and written by Carlton Reid. Photographs by Carlton Reid. With thanks to Marek Bidwell, Sarah Capes, Ann Denton, Keith Fisher, Henrietta Heald, Duncan Hutt, Chris Jackson, Alan Morgan, John Penn, Yvonne Shannon, Hanna Steyne, Les Turnbull, and Will Watson-Armstrong.
He’s also a historian – his recent books include ‘Roads Were Not Built for Cars‘ and ‘Bike Boom’ both published by Island Press, Washington, D.C. The ‘cattle run’ isn’t the first infrastructure he has shown to be wrongly labelled: in 2017 he discovered the existence of hundreds of miles of 1930s-era Dutch-style cycleways paid for by Britain’s Ministry of Transport but which fell out of use so quickly that they became buried under grass or were misidentified as service roads.
On 17 March 1911, Mary ‘Molly’ Wharton Parkinson of Heaton stood on the deck of RMS ‘Victorian’ in Princess Dock, Liverpool and waved at the cheering, flag-waving two thousand-strong crowd below. Moments earlier she had joined in a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘God Save the King’ and, if she had shed a tear as the ship left the port, she would have been in good company.
Molly, aged 32, was a teacher, vocalist and music teacher. Born in Penshaw, Co Durham, she had lived in Heaton with her family for many years, first of all at 32 Kingsley Place and then 19 Holmside Place. She was the eldest of 16 children, nine of whom had survived beyond infancy. In later life, Molly recalled that at about the age of nine she could ‘simultaneously read a book propped on the mantle, knit a stocking and rock the baby’s cradle with my foot’.
Molly was better placed than most on the ship to have known that the ‘Victorian’ was the first large civilian ship to be powered by steam turbines and that those turbines had been made by the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company. Not only had marine steam turbines been developed by Sir Charles Parsons and his team less than a mile away from where she lived but she had recently got to know (and like very much) a young marine engineer, Fred Christian, who had lodged nearby while studying and working in Newcastle but who had recently returned home to New Zealand. Perhaps his absence and the possibility of a brief reunion had motivated her to put her name down for the trip.
When the crowds were no longer in view and Molly had retired to her cabin, she was joined by a familiar face: Florrie Hamilton was nine years younger than Molly but they had got to know each other. Not only did Florrie live in the next street at 27 Eversley Place but they also sang in the same choir, the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union, which rehearsed every Tuesday night at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil. Molly sang contralto and Florrie soprano.
And singing was what brought them together now. They were about to embark on a hugely ambitious and exciting six month long world tour with a 225 strong choir.
The idea for the tour had been that of Dr Charles Harriss, a London-born composer, choral conductor, organist of Ottawa Cathedral and founder of the McGill Conservatorium of Music. He was described as a ‘staunch British imperialist who sought to bring British cultural “standards” to the crown’s dominions abroad’ . He was certainly keen to build bridges, initially between Canada and ‘the motherland’. This led to the Sheffield Union Choir travelling to Canada in 1908 and, following the success of that visit, he was determined to foster similar ‘reciprocity’ between Britain and a British Empire recently bruised by events such as the Second Boer War – or at least with those regions where white settlers formed a majority of the population.
A very wealthy and well connected man, he garnered support for his ideas in the highest political echelons including the British government at home and the 4th Earl Grey, former MP for Tyneside and at that time both Governor General of Canada and a great patron of the arts.
He was also able to underwrite the tour financially to the tune of £60,000 (some £7,000,000 today). And crucially, he was a great organiser. In the 12 months before the tour began, he visited every country personally ensuring that the arrangements in place were ‘second to none’.
The conductor of the touring choir was Henry Coward, later to become Sir Henry. Coward was born in Liverpool in 1849, the son of a publican. Henry’s father had died when he was a small boy and his mother relocated to her home city of Sheffield, where the young boy could become an apprentice cutler to her brother, a pen-knife maker. Henry had shown an aptitude for music at an early age and had played the banjo but in Sheffield he taught himself how to read music and soon became a great advocate of the tonic sol-fah method of teaching others. He went on to achieve a first degree and doctorate in music from the University of Oxford.
Coward was a man of great energy and passion for singing, especially choral singing, not only from a musical point of view but also for its social, psychological and health benefits. He became a renown singing teacher and choral conductor, especially known for the huge choirs he could manage. He founded the Sheffield Tonic Sol-fa Association, later renamed the Sheffield Music Union and conducted over 50,000 voices in front of Queen Victoria at the opening of Sheffield Town Hall. Coward was a natural choice as lead conductor for Harriss’s tours.
Although based in Sheffield, Coward travelled hundreds of miles every week to conduct choirs in Leeds, Huddersfield, Southport, Glasgow and, of course, Newcastle at a time before motorways or even private cars. His Newcastle choir was the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union, of which Molly, Florrie and all the other Heaton singers were a part.
Coward selected the tourists, mostly from the choirs he regularly conducted, on the basis of their singing, sight reading and temperament.
The Newcastle Journal of 18 July 1910 published a list of ‘Local Singers who have passed the musical test and qualified to take part in the world tour of the Sheffield Musical Union next year’
Apart from Molly and Florrie, there were 5 other Heatonians:
Herbert Alderson. Born on 26 December 1877 in Bishop Auckland, so on tour Herbert, a joiner, was 33 years old. He lived with his parents and younger siblings at 147 Bolingbroke Street. He sang tenor.
Margaret Howson, born on 21 February 1888, and so aged 23 at the time of the tour, was living with her family at 8 Heaton Road, although by the time of the 1911 census, they had relocated to Stocksfield. She was a music teacher and sang contralto.
Jean Finlay Terry, born on 25 August 1865 in SE Northumberland, she was aged 45 at the start of the tour and, like Molly and Margaret, a teacher. She had lived at various addresses in Northumberland but, at the time of the test, was at 16 Stratford Grove. She was a contralto. On the ‘Victorian’, she shared a cabin with Margaret Howson. We also know that she kept a tour diary (but, alas, so far haven’t tracked it down).
John Charles Hamilton was aged 50 at the start of the tour and sang bass. Originally from Crook in Co Durham, he worked as a school board attendance officer and was Florrie’s father.
Miss M Atkinson of 64 Cartington Terrace is also listed as having passed the singing test but her name doesn’t appear on later lists of the tourists so presumably, she either withdrew or was on the tour’s reserve list.
The successful candidates would, in most cases, have needed permission from their employers to take six months unpaid leave and they would not be paid to participate, although their expenses would be covered and some ‘pocket money’ was distributed.
They also had to sign up to a gruelling programme of private study and rehearsals in order to learn and be able to sing no less than 160 different pieces, from composers such as Handel, Verdi, Bach, Berlioz and Elgar, as well as Harriss himself, along with arrangements of English folk music and ‘empire music’. Every month between July and March, the whole choir convened in Sheffield for five hours of rehearsal and ‘team bonding teas’.
On tour, the travelling was alternately gruelling and thrilling. Starting with a storm off the south coast of Ireland, there were numerous ‘weather events’ to contend with. Intense cold, a storm and icebergs slowed the progress of the ‘Victorian’ as it approached St Johns in Canada; in Montreal the singers had to walk through a narrow passage through snow piled ‘higher than our heads’; a train ride through the Rockies was described as ‘fifty Switzerlands rolled into one’; In the Pacific it was so hot that one of the crew went ‘insane with the heat’ and between Australia and New Zealand, the captain told the passengers to ‘put on a lifebelt and try to go to sleep’ before a ferocious cyclone flooded every cabin, the water so deep that everyone was trapped where they were. The boat deck and bridge deck were washed away, ‘ironwork twisted as though it were paper’. Many of the choir were injured, some of the crew badly hurt.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine the excitement the choir members, very few of whom had travelled much if at all, felt when they saw their first icebergs, walked behind the Niagara Falls, saw the Northern Lights in all their glory, watched flying fish, albatrosses and whales and sailed through coral reefs, all before the days of television and Sir David Attenborough.
In Honolulu and Suva, they saw coconuts, dates, mangoes, ‘bananas growing in the streets’ and sampled many foods you’d be hard-pressed to buy in Heaton (even today!):
‘papaya … was like pink melon to look at but was soft and ripe and tasted of strawberries and cream’.
May Midgley, a singer from Bradford, was particularly impressed by the desserts in Canada:
‘..such ices! The ladies said “We make our own always!” They have a refrigerator in every house almost and they don’t make them in little slices like we do in England but like puddings and you can help yourself to as much as you like.’
Unlike many of the singers, Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb was well-travelled but even she was impressed by one of the American hotels ‘it has all the latest gadgets, two telephones in each bedroom, one to servants and one to the office, electric lights at the bedside…’
Activities put on for the party included a chance to speed round the Indianapolis motor racing track ‘at seventy or eighty miles an hour’;‘bathing in a steaming bath in a snowstorm’ in Banff; visits to diamond and gold mines in South Africa (‘Except that the dust was white instead of dark, it looked greatly like going by Middlesbro’’ – Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb).
There were large, enthusiastic crowds everywhere: in Canada, apparently ’an old native of Sheffield travelled two days by dog-sleigh and snowshoes and 400 miles by train’ and another music lover ‘two days and nights on horseback’; elsewhere ‘ a large crowd of cowboys [unable to gain admittance] climbed onto the [concert venue and] showed their appreciation by thumping on the roof and sides of the building’. The audiences frequently numbered in the thousands: in Sydney there were 5,000 inside and an ‘immense crowd’ outside for a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and, following that, the choir performed outdoors in front of almost 40,000 people for George V’s coronation celebrations and there were at least half that number at the tour’s farewell and thanksgiving service in Capetown.
In Toronto, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St Paul and Chicago, the choir was conducted in ‘Dream of Gerontius’, a work then only ten years old, by Sir Edward Elgar himself. Elgar travelled with the party across North America, much to the excitement of some of the younger choir members.
In Cincinnati they were directed by a young Leopold Stokowski, best remembered now for his involvement (and appearance) in the Disney film ‘Fantasia’ some 30 years later.
In Ottawa, they met Earl Grey who expressed his pleasure at hearing the ‘north country burr’ again and in Chicago they met the brother and wife of President Taft. In Honolulu, they sang before Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and its annexation by the USA, and in South Africa, they met the Governor General, Lord Gladstone, the former British Home Secretary and the son of William Gladstone.
The tour was well-documented. Many of the choir, including our own Jean Terry and Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb wrote diaries, others kept scrapbooks and Henry Coward later wrote a published account. Letters home have been preserved and ‘there were forty cameras in our party’. They were even filmed:
‘We were invited to the Bijou Theatre Co to see ourselves on the cinematograph and it was funny… what a laugh we had!’
Reading the first hand accounts now, we cannot help be struck by some of the attitudes expressed and language used.
The aim of the tour was certainly to foster good will and promote peace. This can be summed up by Henry Coward’s words on reaching South Africa less than ten years after the Second Boer War had ended:
‘two hundred and twenty invaders entered Pretoria, not in the panoply of hateful war but holding the olive leaf of peace, good will and reciprocity, by means of song’.
In Durban, Eliza Vinycomb showed an awareness of apartheid ‘The rickshas had on them “For Europeans only” and at the post office a place partitioned off “For Asiatics and Natives” and in the trains were separate carriages for blacks and whites’. ‘The people say the Boers will never rise again, they felt their beating so thoroughly but they think the blacks may rise sometime.’ But she didn’t comment on the rights and wrongs.
Elsewhere Coward expressed his distaste for slavery and reported that the party was shocked by the poverty and inequality in Chicago. The choir sang for the patients at a leper station ‘where we saw some sorrowful sights but felt we had done a little to cheer their hopeless lot.’
But reading his and other accounts through the prism of 2020, some of the language and assumptions are nevertheless shocking.
In Buffalo, USA, the choir had ‘the new experience of being waited upon by negro attendants’; train staff were complimented by being referred to as ‘our dusky friends’; In Suva, Coward thought ‘the natives showed a strong indisposition to work’. About being taken to the spot where Captain Cook first landed in Australia and ‘captured it for England’, he later wrote, ‘Well done, Whitby!’
Descriptions of visits to a Sioux encampment at Portage la Prairie in Manitoba where the ‘Indians were very shy’ and ‘the occupants declined to thaw from their reserve’ and a Sursee reservation in Calgary where ‘the moderns [tried] to coax the occupants to show themselves but they gave no sign of obliging us’ make uncomfortable reading in the 21st century. Coward wrote that he was sorry that the tribe was dying out because of ill health and what he saw as ‘the fixed inferiority complex in their minds’.
Coward also reported an incident in Honolulu when a man trying to board their ship was apprehended by police officers, apparently having reached for a gun. ‘One of the two detectives settled the argument by giving the “wanted man” a tremendous bang on the head with the butt of his revolver…I was pleased to see this bit of summary, wild west justice. It impressed me very much.’
Such an amazing experience, good and bad, must have affected the choir members for the rest of their lives. Coward reports that ‘about a score of happy marriages resulted from the tour’. Were many of the choir politicised and did they continue to make music and travel? We are lucky to know at least a little about the subsequent lives of our Heaton singers:
Herbert continued to sing. We have a record of him as a soloist in 1913 at a ‘Grand Evening Concert’ in aid of Gateshead Independent Labour Party, alongside another well-known Heatonian, Colin Veitch, who lived just five minutes walk away on Stratford Villas. The following year, he performed with Gerald Veitch in a Newcastle Operatic Society performance of ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’ and soon after Colin conducted Herbert in Newcastle Amateur Operatic Society’s ‘Merrie England’.
In 1916, Herbert married shorthand typist, Edith Jane Ord of 54 Rothbury Terrace. Edith was also a keen singer. The couple lived in Jesmond when they were first married but soon returned to Heaton to 22 Crompton Road, where they lived for almost 20 years. That is where they were living at the outbreak of WW2, when Herbert was still listed as a joiner. Later they spent time at 211 Benton Road and then 12 Ravenswood Road, where Herbert died in 1961, aged 83.
We know that, after the tour, Margaret spent some time in South Africa because on 12 October 1919, she set sail from Cape Town to Southampton and was listed as a recent resident of that country and a music teacher. She returned to the north east where in 1923 in Hexham, she married Sidney Wilfred Lewis, a travelling sales rep for concrete and quarry plant, who had two children from a previous marriage. The couple lived in Stocksfield where their daughter, Dorothy, was born two years later. But by the outbreak of WW2, Mary had separated from Sidney and was living in London, where she described herself as a retired violin tutor. She died in Northampton in 1971, aged 82.
Jean Finlay Terry
In 1913, a book‘Northumberland Yesterday and Today’ by Jean F Terry LLA (St Andrews) 1913 was published. LLA stands for ‘Lady Literate in Arts’ and was offered by the University of St Andrews from 1877, fifteen years before women were admitted to Scottish universities. It became popular as a kind of external degree for women who had studied through correspondence or by attendance at non-university classes and continued until the 1930s. You can still find Terry’s fascinating local history book online and in second hand shops. We haven’t yet been able to prove that it was written by our Jean but there don’t seem to be any other likely contenders. If more evidence is required, not only does the author mention Heaton and Armstrong Parks in the text, she also included many poems and, particularly, folk-songs.
In 1914, Jean was elected to the committee of the Newcastle branch of the Victoria League at its AGM held at Armstrong College. The Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship was founded in 1901 to connect people from Commonwealth countries and promotes cooperation and peace. It was noteworthy in that, during the early years, it was predominantly a women’s organisation at a time when women still didn’t have the vote. At that time, ’through philanthropy to war victims, hospitality to colonial visitors, empire education and the promotion of social reform as an imperial issue, it aimed to promote imperial sentiment at home and promote colonial loyalty to the mother country’, all aims which Henry Coward and Charles Harriss would heartily endorse (in fact Coward pays tribute to the league in his account of the tour). It is still active today.
In 1926, there is a record of her travelling back from Marseilles to her home in Jesmond.
At the outbreak of WW2, Jean was described as a retired teacher, living with her younger brother Arthur, a retired civil servant, and their housekeeper in Stocksfield, where she lived until she died in 1951, aged 86.
Florrie continued to sing with the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union and in April 1912 was billed as ‘soprano of the famous Sheffield choir’ when she sang at two East Cramlington Primitive Methodist Church services. There is a record of her singing another solo the following year at the annual Wesley Guild and Christian Endeavour rally in Seaton Burn alongside Walter Gardner of Heaton Road Wesleyan Guild. Less than two and a half years later, she married Walter, a shipbrokers’ clerk, who in 1911 was living with his family in Falmouth Road, just three minutes walk away from Florrie and her family. The couple went on to live at 92 Cartington Terrace. In 1919, Florrie gave birth to their daughter, Muriel.
Florrie continued to perform. In 1923, she ‘acquitted [herself] with refinement and expression’ as an accompanist at a recital at Bainbridge Memorial Wesleyan Church.
Parenthood didn’t signal the end of travel for Florrie either. We know that in July 1926, she and young daughter, Muriel, were in the USA. They travelled back from New York to Southampton on the RMS ‘Homeric’. By this time, the family was living in Whitley Bay. Sadly, Florrie died in 1936, aged only 49.
John Charles Hamilton
John returned to Heaton where his wife, Rachel, and son, Walter, had been continuing to live while John and Florrie were on tour but the family was soon separated again when Walter joined the Northumberland Fusiliers to serve in WW1. In 1917, Rachel and John received the news that he had suffered slight gunshot wounds.
John died at Florrie’s home in Whitley Bay on 30 August 1925, aged 64.
As for Mary Wharton Parkinson, she and Fred continued to write to each other and, only two years after the world tour, she set sail once again, this time straight to New Zealand. The couple married on 11 December 1913 in Wellington.
By this time, Fred had set up an engineering and plumbing business in Tauranga in Bay of Plenty on North Island. Music played a big part in the couple’s life together. The month after their wedding, Molly and Fred performed in a local Methodist church concert: they played a piano duet together and both sang solo. We know that Molly also played the organ. And later in the year, Molly gave a talk about the world tour. If only we could know what she said!
But, important as it was, there was much more to Molly’s life than music. She and Frederick had four children. In 1916, she was elected president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and, when her children were older, she also became a ’leading light’ in the Country Women’s Institute, Maori Women’s Welfare League, the Girl Guides and other community organisations, often providing hospitality and accommodation to these groups in the extensive property, she and Fred had bought when they were first married. Fred died in 1957 age 73.
Mary Wharton Christian was awarded the MBE in 1975 and died one month short of her hundredth birthday in 1979.
Although it has only been possible to give a flavour of the tour and the lives of the Heaton singers who experienced it, none of it would have been possible without the help received on a virtual round the world journey reminiscent of that undertaken by Molly and our Heaton tourists 109 years ago, albeit this time online.
After reading about those who had passed the audition in the ‘Newcastle Journal’, just as for the successful singers, my first stop was Sheffield, where Chris Wiltshire, composer, choral conductor and the author of a book about the letters home of choir member, May Midgley, told me that he too used to do Henry Coward’s regular commute between Sheffield and Newcastle, as for many years he had conducted the Felling Male Voice Choir as well as the Sheffield Chamber Orchestra. Going the extra mile to help us find out more about our local singers, Chris put me in touch with Caroline Roberts of Durham University, who he said was also researching the north east representatives.
Meanwhile, via North America (well, Google) came the exciting discovery of an article on a local history website much like our own. This told the story of how Molly had got to know Fred Christian and their subsequent life together in Tauranga. It mentioned that one of Molly’s daughters had been a generous benefactor of the local history society. A couple of emails later and we had learnt that the piece had been written by Julie Green, the wife of Molly’s step grandson, and that all Molly and Fred’s photos, diaries and letters were in her loft!
And there was more! It turned out that not only had Caroline Roberts done a huge amount of research into the tour and, in particular, the Tyneside contingent, over many years and was very generously willing to share everything she knew about our Heaton singers – and more – but incredibly she was the daughter of Heaton History Group members, Joyce and Paul Craggs. Paul’s great grandfather, Fred Knowles, was a member of the touring choir and it was fellow HHG member Paul who, browsing in a Corbridge antique shop, had found the framed photograph from which the individual images of the singers you see above have been taken. All roads truly lead to Heaton!
Researched and written by Heaton History Group’s Chris Jackson with huge help from Julie Green, Caroline Roberts and Chris Wiltshire. A big thank you to all of them.
The Diary of Eliza Bustin Vinycomb (unpublished); Christchurch Archives, New Zealand
Round the World on Wings of Song: reciprocity / by Sir Henry Coward; Northend, 1933
12 Oak Avenue: the letters of Henrietta May Midgley 1911 / by Christopher Wiltshire; Wiltsmusic, 2018
To Walk Upon the Grass: the impact of the University of St Andrews’ Lady Literate in Arts, 1877-1892 / by Elisabeth Margaret Smith; University of St Andrews PhD Thesis, 2014
Women, Gender and the Promotion of Empire: the Victoria League 1901-1914 / by Eliza Riedi; The Historical Journal 45.3 (2002) pp 569-599
Ancestry, British Newspaper Archives and other online sources.
Can You Help?
If you know more about any of the Heaton singers or have photographs (or diaries!) 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
Earlier this year it was announced that the TSB at 217 Chillingham Road would close its doors on 29 September 2020.
Within the memory of many locals, Heaton boasted five banks and that’s not counting those on Shields Road other than the two on the Heaton Road corner. Let’s take a walk past them from South to North (and so, conveniently, more or less in chronological order of their opening).
But first, we must go back to 1893 and cross Shields Road to the first bank to include Heaton in its name: the Byker and Heaton branch of the Hodgkin, Barnett, Pease and Spence Bank, which, in 1859, in the immediate aftermath of a banking crisis, had been established in Newcastle by a group of Quakers. The ‘joint-stock’ (ie owned by shareholders) Northumberland and Durham District Bank had collapsed a couple of years earlier so there was an appetite for private banks owned by their partners. Londoner Thomas Hodgkin is worth a special mention: he was also a very respected historian, an important member of the Society of Antiquaries, and a philanthropist. He gifted Hodgkin Park and Benwell Dene to the city.
We know that in 1897, the branch manager at 168 Shields Road was J B Wilson. Hodgkin, Barnett, Pease and Spence became part of Lloyds Bank in 1902.
Two years later, a branch of the Newcastle Savings Bank opened across the road at 171 Shields Road on the south east corner of Heaton Road. This bank had been founded in Newcastle in 1818 and operated successfully for over 150 years until, in 1971, it merged with South Shields Savings Bank to become Northumberland and Durham Trustee Savings Bank. Following an Act of Parliament reforming banks in 1976, it became part of Trustee Savings Bank North East, which later became known as TSB. In December 1995, TSB merged with Lloyds.
As you can see, building is very handsome. We know that a caretaker lived on the top floor and that, in 1910, the manager was G A Thompson. It is still a busy bank.
Eagle-eyed Heatonians will know that there was already a Lloyds Bank at this junction. In 1908, the old 168 Shields Road branch had moved into an attractive new building across the road at number 167. In 1910, the manager was A W Burn. You can still see the bank’s name on the rain water hopper.
Although the two Lloyds TSB branches remained open for some years after their 1990s merger,in 2013, it was eventually the TSB building at 171 that was rebranded as Lloyds: the original Lloyds at 167 closed.
The building has recently been renovated and now contains 22 one and two bedroom apartments. Its name, as well as the pipework, a reminder of it its history.
And so to the branch which has been in the news recently. Before being converted into a bank, the premises at 217 Chillingham Road were occupied by a draper’s shop. It was on 29 March 1909 that it became a bank, a sub branch of the already mentioned Byker and Heaton branch of Lloyds on the corner of Heaton and Shields Road. It was to remain a sub branch until 1946 when it became a full branch in its own right.
The bank can just be seen at the end of the block in the above picture. The two nearest shops are D Flatman and Economy Enterprises but the name of the third is not clear. Note the vending machines on the door frames. Can anyone say when it was taken? It looks like a Laszlo Torday photograph.
In 1982, the bank had a ‘through-the-wall cashpoint’ installed. Following the merger of Lloyds and TSB, only a handful of branches displayed the new Lloyds TSB livery. But overnight, on 28 June, the remaining 2,380, including our sub-branch, were rebranded in a ‘military-style operation’. All branches were rebadged internally and externally – this involved nine miles of fascia signs, 18 miles of neon tube and 66,000 new merchandising units. Despite a fire at the warehouse where the new signs were stored, the operation was a success.
But as part of reforms which followed the 2008 banking crisis, on 9 September 2013 Lloyds and TSB once more became two separate banks.
With libraries and archives closed at the time we were researching this article, we haven’t been able to pin down exactly when the bank that used to stand at 112 Heaton Road opened. Using online resources, we know that in 1890, only numbers 2-40 had been built on the east side. It was probably around five years later that the block on which the bank stood opened. Certainly by 1910, 112 Heaton Road was a branch of London City and Midland Bank. In 1916, we know that the manager was Thomas Hartley Pugh.
The final branch to open met a growing need as house building spread north towards and over what we now call the Coast Road. The branch of Barclays which stood on Stephenson Road was built in 1927 at the same time as the High Heaton estate immediately to its north. The date is still clearly visible above the door. Can anybody remember when it closed?
Banks aren’t all about bricks and mortar, paper and coins though so we have also taken a snapshop of the Heaton residents known to have been working in banking at the time of the 1911 census.
Arthur William Burn, already mentioned, was the manager of the Lloyds Bank at 167 Shields Road. Morpeth born and bred, he was aged 41 at the time and lived in Byker. When he died in 1937, he was living in Benton.
And Boltonian, Thomas Hartley Pugh, aged just 22 and manager of the Midland branch on Heaton Road, was lodging at 14 Warton Terrace. By 1916, he had moved to 17 Armstrong Avenue so retained his short walk to work.
Edward Allison, aged 47, from Gateshead, lived at 16 Warwick Street with his wife Edith and young children, Arnold and Phyllis.
Henry Mason, aged 34, and from Longhorsley, lived at 100 Cartington Terrace but we don’t know where they worked. Quite possibly one of them was at Chillingham Road.
And there were many bank clerks, among them William Nattress. At the outbreak of WW1, he still lived where he was brought up, one of at least eight children of Jessie, a Scot, and Durham born Ralph, at 110 Addison Terrace. During the war, he was a corporal in the 5th battalion Northumberland Fusiliers but he was killed in action, aged 22, on 24 May 1915. His name appears on the Menin Gate, St Silas’s, Byker and St Andrews Church of Scotland, Sandyford Road war memorials and the memorial to the Northumberland Fusiliers 5th battalion in St Oswald’s, Walkergate. We remember him here too.
But from September, there will only be the one branch bank at the corner of Heaton and Shields Road and most people in Heaton working in banking are likely to be based in the city centre or in an out of town call centre.
Many of us use online banking and the many cash points around Heaton but how long before they too disappear given that the current pandemic has accelerated the demise of cash? Now could be the time to photograph them before they are lost.
Researched and written by Robin Long with additional material by Chris Jackson, both of Heaton History group. Thanks to Peter Judge, Archivist at Lloyds Bank and Pam at TSB, Chillingham Road.
Jack Common’s famous semi-autobiographical novel ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ gives us some great insights into life in early 20th century Heaton in the years between the dawn of the 20th century and World War One. In the novel, Common writes as the narrator and as an imaginary character named ‘Kiddar’. It is, however, generally considered that Kiddar is Common himself and the novel is really about his childhood in pre-first world war Heaton. So what can we learn? Heaton History Group’s Peter Sagar has been rereading the novel.There are a number of different categories into which we can place this learning from reading ‘Kiddar’s Luck’.
The north-east born playwright, Alan Plater, once described the way Jack Common described his birth in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ as part of a ‘bobby-dazzling opening chapter’ in which Common bemoans his genes missing out on much more genteel places of birth, such as lush Sussex, many a solid Yorkshire village, affluent Mayfair and Surrey soft spots to instead be born into the relative poverty of a railwayman’s family near the East Coast mainline in Heaton.
On page 5 of ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, Common relates how he ‘came upon the frost-rimmed roofs of a working-class suburb in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and in the upstairs flat in a street parallel with the railway line, on which a halted engine whistled to be let through the junction…’ This gives us a clear image of the Avenues around South Heaton at the start of the 20th century.
As the avenues haven’t changed that much in the intervening 100 years or so, it is possible to imagine those frost-rimmed roofs, although with the continuing and dangerous progress of global heating, the winter of 2019/20 has been remarkably short of frosts.
Common, of course, was also describing a Heaton without cars. On page 19, Common states that he, ‘belonged to that street by the same right that I had to belong to one particular family on it….often the lamplighter was on his rounds before all the small fry were safely back in their boxes’. How often do you see children playing on the streets of Heaton today?
Common described trips to nearby Jesmond Dene. On page 26, he says that, ‘we’d walk the hot, red paths of Jesmond Dene, brick-red gravel dust throwing that heat up into my inclined face and the tiresome rich green of full summer seeming to shout at one to look, look up, look around.’ Jesmond Dene is still a beautiful community resource for people in Heaton – sometimes we see that some things haven’t changed much in the last 120 years!
The streets might not have been packed with cars, but Heaton’s streets were still busy. Common, on page 17, notes that the ‘street was usually lively enough. These were the days of private enterprise: a mad economic maelstrom drew down every thoroughfare debris of competitive endeavour, such a procession of horse-drawn vans, man-pushed barrows, milk-chariots, coal carts and steam wagons as could have been achieved only by a separate deadly seriousness on the part of each participant blinding him to the comic glory he was collectively included in. Practically any moment of the day, one or another of these strange craft, ark or pinnace, would come upon our horizon’. It certainly seems that the streets of Heaton in the early 20th century were a very interesting place!
Not only did local tradesmen fill the streets of Edwardian Heaton but, on page 18, Common tells us that, ‘behind our houses, as was general in that district, ran the back lane. It was narrower of course, with the same granite cobbles, smaller sidewalks and monotonous brick walls pierced evenly along the whole length with two back-doors, two square openings into the coal-houses, with two back doors and so on. Though milk and bread were front-door deliveries, greengrocery and fish and coal came to the back-door. Sometimes for days on end children would spend all their time in the back lane, in and out of each other’s yards, sitting on the steps or swinging on the lamp posts’. A different world to today! How often do you see children in and out of each other’s yards? What would you do if you did see children going in somebody else’s yards?
With car ownership either tiny or non-existent, there was at least a variety of public transport to help people get around. For people living in Heaton this included one form of transport which has recently been revived in a number of cities across Britain, including Manchester, Sheffield and Edinburgh. On page 25, Common tells of how after a trip to Newcastle City Centre, ‘we came home happily in the shaky old trams which sparked over the wind-clutched Byker Bridge’.
There have been many plans from the likes of NEXUS in recent years looking into the feasibility of bringing back trams to the streets of Tyneside. There was one particularly bold plan hatched back in 2003, by the name of Project Orpheus, which would have seen an ambitious integrated transport system for the north-east, including a new tram line from Walbottle to the East End of Newcastle. These plans look great on paper, but we are still waiting for politicians with enough vision and political will for this kind of project to be made real. This is a pity as, given the ever worsening climate crisis, it would seem sensible to consider bringing trams back as a way of augmenting the Metro system, but I am not sure that I would be keen to travel on a shaky tram over a wind-clutched bridge! Thankfully we have higher standards of health and safety today…
The Edwardian era is often seen as a time of great social serenity before the terrible shock of the first world war, but a deeper study of history reveals the era as one of considerable social conflict as the trade union movement began to really flex its collective muscles in response to harsh working conditions and low wages. Common’s father was a railwayman and so it is no wonder that he recollects a railway strike on page 51. Rather than write about the effects on his family, Common describes what the effect of the strike was on the atmosphere in Heaton. He notes that it was, ‘true, of course, had I noted it, there was a curious stillness over the Avenues. Normally, at any hour of the twenty-four, if you looked along our street, you were bound to see at least one railwayman in work-clothes, his bait-tin under his arm going to or from the junction. They were always about, hurrying along clean-faced towards the sharp dawn paling the signal lamps over the lines, drifting wearily back on an afternoon sun; in groups jolly and joking in the Chillingham Hotel or outside the social club, in pairs coming out of the light of the blue arc lamps at the end of the shift and ready for their bed. Now that traffic was stopped. So was lot of other kinds. The electric trains were silent in the cutting, the sudden blue rainbow they made ceased to flicker on the houses above; there were no puffs of steam or harsh mechanical panting behind the junction wall, no shunting noises like the slow collapse of huge iron playing cards against the buffers.’ It must have made a real difference to the life of Heaton for a young boy to notice it in the way that Common describes. Of course the railway was arguably more important then, at a time when people didn’t own cars.
Listening to some of the ‘debates’ around the issue of Brexit, it would appear that immigration from Europe began with our accession to what was then the EEC in 1973. Common’s ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ reminds us of what nonsense that is when, on page 21, he mentions ‘…the German pork butcher from Heaton Road…’ (See a previous article to see who he might be referring to). It would be interesting to know more about how he fared as xenophobia and jingoism swept the country?
Certainly racism was unfortunately part of the life of some young people growing up in Heaton at the same time as Common. On page 56, Common talks about the trials that a man from China had to go through due to appalling behaviour from some young people in Heaton. In the middle of a piece about the gang warfare in Heaton at the time. Common relates how Fong Lee, ‘had plenty reason to be annoyed. Oriental patience might withstand the loud chanting of ”Ching, Ching, Chinaman, choppy, choppy, chop” by a choir of twerps around his door, but when that door was frequently flung open, its bell jangling, to enable one of that choir to fling in a couple of damp horse-turds that might land among the parcels of finished washing, then the love of cleanliness, natural to a laundryman, must have been offended beyond the immediate consolation of Chinese philosophy’
I would like to think that even in the darker days we are going through at the present, this type of racist behaviour would not be expected in the Heaton of 2020. As for Chinese philosophy, Confucius did of course preach the importance of patience, when he said, ‘ it does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop’, although another of Confucius’ famous sayings might be more relevant here: ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance’.
It is actually quite surprising that Heaton had a Chinese inhabitant at this time, given the small number of Chinese-born people living in north-east England at the time. Dave Renton (see sources below)has noted that, ‘as late as 1945, the numbers of Chinese-born people living in the region were maybe as few as three dozen. There were several Chinese laundries in the region, including three in Newcastle, as well as one in each of Whitley Bay, Gateshead, Sunderland, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.’ It is often noted that right up to the present day, the most racist areas in England tend to coincide with those which have the least immigration into them as racism is largely born out of ignorance and a lack of contact with people perceived as ‘different’. Perhaps this was why poor Fong Lee had to endure such appalling behaviour towards him.
To put all this in context, while the north-east was prone to racism at the beginning of the 20th century, just as anywhere else in the country was, it has traditionally been seen as less racist than many other regions. A few decades after the time about which Common was writing in ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, Oswald Mosely, leader of the British Union of Fascists stated that the north-east with its high unemployment in the 1930’s should become a ‘storm centre’ for his new fascist movement. It didn’t. Indeed it has been noted that Tyneside’s notions of working-class solidarity were an anathema to the bullying tendencies of the racists. Common’s own antipathy towards racist attitudes is hardly surprising given his upbringing. Dave Renton notes that, ‘Common’s mother lit candles for a Jewish family on the Sabbath’ and that Common recorded his mother saying, ‘when I hear how the poor Indians live I’m sorry for them, cos I know what it is.’
We have seen that in some respects little has changed in Heaton since the Edwardian era and this is brought home to us on page 30-1, when Common describes his journey from home to school: ‘The school was only a few streets away, within the Avenues. There were ten of these, of which ours was Third, all built in one plan though not by any civic authority. The First and Third ran parallel to the railway lines, sharing a common back lane; these short ones and back lanes, were set at right angles to the rest, but extended only from Third to Seventh; Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth were parallel too; and the long Second ran at right-angles to the railway from it as far as Tenth, though where it was not keeping the short avenues company, it was all corner-ends owing to the interruption of the lanes and front streets that ran into it. To make room for the school buildings, half of the north side of Ninth and the south side of Tenth was missing. Our route that fine morning then was across Third into Fifth, down Seventh as far as the back lane to Chillingham Road (that being the fourth side of the square); along the lane past end of Eighth and into Ninth. Well, there we were.’
Other things about school life have changed. Common describes the different entrances for different aged pupils at Chillingham Road School during his time there. On page 31, Common talks of the ‘sign over the door which said “Infants”… [and]… the Tenth Avenue entrance which said “Boys“..’ I don’t think we would have gendered school entrances in Heaton today!
Chillingham Road Primary School is one of a number of primary schools in the Heaton area with a well-deserved good reputation today, but while the building may have changed little since the early 20th century, it does appear that it the teaching methods today are a little more enlightened.
On pages 31-2, Common describes how, ‘we were given brushes and little porcelain dishes containing water-colour, or else coloured straws which we were supposed to plait – babyish stuff, but not too bad. Then there’d be a lesson. A cracked yellow scroll was unrolled and hung on the blackboard. It showed three-letter words and very fat black letters they were, spaced out and then put together. Teacher took a long pointer, touched each letter in turn and said, “Kuh, Aah,Tuh spells Cat”. The class intoned cheerlessly, “Kuh, Aah, Tuh, spells Cat”‘. From what Common says about this lesson, it appears that this method was not only rather uninspiring, but also on occasions unsuccessful. Common relates that once the class had mastered the spelling of the word ‘cat’, ‘then the teacher got clever.”Ruh, Ahh, Tuh “; she stopped. “What does Ruh, Aah, Tuh spell, Freddy?” Freddy got to his feet and threw a hapless glance down at the girl next to him. “Please, teacher, Ah divn’t knaa”‘. Poor Freddy. Haven’t we all been there at some time of our life, either at a school or in adult life?
A few pages later on Common tells us of how you had to work through a social hierarchy in Heaton, even as a child. On page 36, he relates how, ‘out of school, I was beginning to graduate to a corner-lad. I was my baby sister now who was the pride and anxious delight of the girls.……According to the incidence of boy-population, about half the corners had their own gangs. I drifted for a time between two of these, Third Avenue, which had its customary headquarters round Daddy Hilton’s grocery at the bottom and Sixth Avenue who congregated at the barber’s window right opposite our house. Second could never call a corner its own; Fifth was too short of boys; Fourth had a gang, but they were weak and swamped with their own girls; Seventh were a numerous and lot of thugs; and the rest were too far away to be my concern yet awhile’. Which brings us neatly to the issue of gang warfare in Edwardian Heaton….
Heaton in the years immediately prior to the First World War, could be a dangerous place for a young lad like Jack Common to be growing up in. On page 54, Common wrote about the start of a period of gang warfare: ‘Then a bigger matter blew up one evening. I was on Daddy Hilton’s corner, hanging about hoping to get into a game of Kick-the-Block, when sounds of battle drifted down from the Fourth Avenue entrance. Sticks and stones were flying; war-cries chanted. From nowhere the words “Chapman Street gang” got uttered on the anonymous air. Chapman Street, now, ran from Chillingham Road, but on the other side of the railway bridge, down to Parsons’ Works. The lads from its corners and those on the streets next to it had a long-standing feud with our lot in the Avenues. At long intervals it would boil over into a regular battle. Then they invaded us, or we invaded them; the signal that such an attempt was on being the appearance of large bodies in battle array on the bridge.’ As we shall see this was not an isolated incident…
Indeed Common tells us how the rivals were usually dealt with effectively. Not on this occasion however: On page 54-5, Common states that, ‘often enough the invaders were met and turned back on the bridge itself; this time however, we were caught napping. The invaders seemed to be already overwhelming the weak Fourth Avenue forces. They would soon be in command of the bend going in to Third back lane, which was a strategic point of high value to us since it allowed us a choice of charging over in mid-battle to an attack on the rear of any force which advanced beyond that entry without first capturing it. Too late to get up there, though. We’d be lucky to halt the Chapman mob at Fifth’. It was looking bad for Jack and his mates…
It was time to get better prepared for the coming attack, On page 55, Common relates that, ‘our corner and Sixth rushed off to get hold of weapons. The five Robson brothers could be trusted to hold their own Fifth for a bit. Meanwhile Wilf and I, being young, but not absurdly so, must race off to arouse Seventh and Eighth, if we could.’ Heaton was clearly made up of a myriad of allied groups!
Seventh Avenue were easy to get involved. Common relates that, ‘by luck, we found the surly Seventh in just the right mood. They were all assembled on one corner and talking together gloomily. They’d just had the police after them over a matter of a large parcel of cigarettes knocked off that very afternoon from their own corner shop at the bottom of their street. And none of them had done it! They didn’t know who had. So the air about Seventh was knit up with rankling injustice, heavy with frustrated vengeance and melancholy, because of the mirage of smokes they might have had if they hadn’t been so uselessly honest. Now Wilf and I were rather in the position of a couple of Cherokees appearing unarmed before the war-painted Choctaw tribe. We had to rattle off our message before we were scragged – we did all of that twice over. It was just the news to suit present moods round these parts: Seventh started up as one man – yes, they’d be in any trouble that was going.‘ So far, so good. Would Jack and Wilf fare so well as recruiting sergeants at the Eighth Avenue?
The simple answer to that is, no. Jack and Wilf ended up having a somewhat difficult encounter with members of the opposite gender. Jack Common takes up the story thus: ‘Wilf and I ran on to Eighth. ….A little way down the street their girls were skipping with a big rope, two turning, the rest running in, pair after pair, while all chanted, “Never mind the weather girls,; in and out the fire girls” We asked the girls who were waiting, where the lads were. They at once rushed on us, grabbed our caps and chucked them into the gardens.” Hadaway to your own street,” they yelled.’
Things looked bleak for Jack and Wilf, but deliverance was at hand, with some useful news. Common states that, ‘;….In one doorway sat wee Alfie Bell, his leg in plaster and a pile of comics by him. He told us. “They’re all down at the Chink’s —- that’s where they are. What d’ye want them for?”He wanted to keep us talking, but we only yelled the news over our shoulders as we pelted on, “Big fight on in Third —Chapman Street out.”‘ As we have already noted these were days when casual racism was more prevalent in Heaton than today.
The mayhem continued through the avenues. On page 55-6, Common relates how, on their mission for support, ‘at the bottom we almost collided with the Eighth Avenue lot who were scattering away before the charge of an infuriated Chinaman brandishing a knife — at least that’s how they would have described it. Really, old Fong Lee was never infuriated. There, he was shuffling back towards the laundry now, his blue shirt tail flapping on his thin behind. He turned at the door to shake a skinny fist, grinned at a couple of passing railwaymen and popped inside.’
Inevitably all this childhood ‘fun’ had to come to an end once local adults had got wind of what was happening. We are told on pages 56-7 that. ‘the battles came to an end usually when a sufficient number of adults round about had realised the unusual scale of the tumult and began to gather for its suppression… That is how this one finished. Chapman Street army could get no further now that the forces engaged were more nearly equal and were beginning to retreat. They would have to, in any case, because Third Avenue parents were now at their doors and a lot of our lads were being ordered to lay down their arms. It was recognised as not fair to keep on engaging an enemy who had half the fight knocked out of him by having to listen to his mother’s shouts….’ Perhaps the Heaton warriors weren’t quite as hard as they liked to think they were!
To finish on a more peaceful note, we can also learn about ways in which Common was familiar with paths into ‘town’ at a time when there were few if any cars or buses – and of course the alternative of a shaky tram across a wind-clutched bridge! The narrator tells us on page 11 how he, ‘lay in a go-cart and travelled along the paths of Heaton Park…’
Meanwhile, on page130, Common tells us about a path, ‘that was probably the oldest path to town. Other nights I took the newest, through the clean air of the parks and crossing the Ouseburn by Armstrong Bridge, that is over the tops of cherry-trees and a cackling of geese at a farmhouse below. Or to avoid people altogether, I dipped down into the darkness of the Vale, over a bridge so small and low it bent to the muttering intimacy of little waters’. So we end with a beautiful description of the Ouseburn valley, which although describing a scene over 100 years old, reminds us of what a lovely part of the city of Newcastle it is.
There is clearly much we can learn about Heaton in the years immediately after the turn of the 20th century from an examination of ‘Kiddar’s Luck’. We can learn that, while some of the physical environment of Heaton has changed since the 1900s, much of it it seemingly remains the same. We have seen that there were immigrants living in Heaton and we have seen how inappropriately they were sometimes treated by some of the younger people in the area. We have also discovered some more about school life at Chillingham Road and of the tribalism between young lads from different avenues when they were out of school, at at time when the street was also the local playground.
All in all it is hard to disagree with Keith Armstrong, when he says of ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, that Common’s earlier writing was, ‘followed by imaginatively twisted tales of childhood and teenage in Kiddar’s Luck (1951) and The Ampersand (1954), which surely rank among the very best descriptions of growing up working-class ever committed to paper.’ It also begs one more question: who is writing about Heaton today with such compassion, understanding and real insights?
Geordies / B Lancaster and R Colls; Edinburgh University Press, 1992
Kiddar’s Luck / J Common; Turnstile Press, 1951
Colour Blind? Race and Migration in Northeast England since 1945 / D Renton; University of Sunderland Press, 2007
A few years ago, we published a short article about William Brogg Leighton and his legacy in Heaton and beyond. Recently Heaton History Group’s Michael Proctor has been looking in more detail at his life and achievements, which went far beyond his involvement with the chapel that bore his name:
William Brogg Leighton was born on 27 July 1810 to Thomas and Isabelle Leighton. He was to play a significant role in the civic and religious life of Newcastle throughout his life, not least in Heaton, where the Leighton Memorial Primitive Methodist Chapel on Heaton Road, was named in honour of his extensive contribution to the Primitive Methodist movement.
The Primitive Methodist movement was characterised by the relatively plain design of their chapels and their worship, compared to the Wesleyan Methodist Church from which they had split in 1811. Its social base was among the poorer members of society, who appreciated both its content (damnation, salvation, sinners and saints) and its style (direct, spontaneous, and passionate). It was democratic and locally controlled and offered an alternative to the more middle-class Wesleyan Methodists and the establishment-controlled Church of England which were not at all democratic in governance. In Newcastle, John Branfoot was the first Primitive Methodist missionary to preach. On 1 August 1821, he preached at Sandhill, followed later in the year by William Clowes, one of the movement’s founders, who preached in the home of John Wood in Quality Row. That may be significant in the young William Leighton’s involvement in the movement. As the earliest census is 1841, we don’t know where Leighton lived at this time, but his mother, Isabelle, is shown in the 1841 census as a shopkeeper in Quality Row.
A commemorative booklet, marking the 50th anniversary of the Leighton Primitive Methodist Chapel in 1927 describes how the Primitive Methodist movement developed in Newcastle. In the east end, the Ballast Hills Society was established as early as 1822, although it had no home, with public services held in hired rooms on a Sunday evening. It was in August 1829 that a 19 year old William Leighton and some colleagues, after canvassing the neighbourhood, commenced a Sunday School in a single room in Quality Row. There were 74 scholars and 9 teachers when it opened, quickly rising to 250, requiring the addition of a second room. As there was no education and very young children were working 12 hour shifts in the flax mill and potteries of the Ouseburn area, it’s perhaps not surprising that it was so popular.
The church also grew and by 1841 a chapel was built on Byker Bank. The young William continued to be involved in both Sunday Schools and a Mutual Improvement Association, which provided an opportunity for younger men to come together and acted as an incubator for future Sunday School teachers and lay preachers. William appears to have been active in recruiting young men, many of whom became major players in the church as it developed.
Of course the church, whilst undoubtedly a major part of Leighton’s life from an early age, never provided him with an income. On 23 January 1833, William married the 20 year old Mary Singleton. (There is some dispute about this as Norman Moore and Geoff Dickinson in their earlier article on WB Leighton have him marrying Mary Hedley. However, she was 10 years older than him and every census has his wife as being 4-5 years younger than him.)
The 1841 census has William and Mary living at Garth Heads and William working as a printer. This was to be his main employment throughout his working life, although by no means his only one. At the age of 30, he was already employing a domestic servant.
The printing business was obviously a success, as the 1851 census shows the Leightons living at no 7 Grainger Street, in the block between Neville Street and Westgate Road, directly opposite the Central Station. At the time, the newly built Grainger town would have been one of the most prestigious addresses in Newcastle, so business was obviously good, indeed the family continued to live in Grainger Street, moving two doors along to no 11 around the end of the 1850s, where they stayed for most of William’s working life. It seems likely that the building included both the print shop on the ground floor and the family’s accommodation above. The census describes him as a letterpress printer employing three apprentices and a provisions merchant. Unusually, subsequent censuses also show Mary as being a provisions merchant. The couple by now had three daughters, with the eldest, Elizabeth aged 13, shown as home schooled. William’s mother, Isabelle, was also living with them, having presumably retired from her shopkeeping role.
By 1861 the Leighton’s middle daughter, Isabelle was described as working as an assistant in the butter and eggs trade, which may well have been part of the family provisions business.
By now well established in his printing business, William began to diversify. A newspaper advert in 1858 for the Tyneside Benefit Building Society shows him as the principal trustee. The advert was for a first subscription meeting of the society, to be held at the Gray’s Adelphi Temperance Hotel in Clayton Street. At the time, building societies were relatively new. The earliest had been established in Birmingham in the late 1700s, with members paying a monthly subscription to finance the building of houses for members. The early societies were wound up once all of the members had built a house, although this changed in the 1840s when Permanent Building Societies developed. The concept would have appealed greatly to the Primitive Methodist ethos and the location of the first meeting in a temperance hotel rather than a tavern, which is where the early societies tended to meet, suggests that connection.
This is the only reference to this particular society that I’ve found, but a search of the British Newspaper Archive turns up hundreds of references to William Leighton’s involvement with the Northern Counties Permanent Building Society, where he became a trustee and continued in that role throughout most of his life. The Northern Counties was one of the earliest established and largest building societies in Newcastle and continued to exist until 1965, when it merged with the Rock Building Society to form Northern Rock. Sadly, we all know how that story ended.
He was also an active member of the Newcastle Temperance Society and papers record his contributions to various meetings. Although it’s not recorded in the papers, his wife Mary was also known to be active in the Temperance Movement. Sadly Mary died in 1866 at the tragically young age of 51.
By the time of the 1871 census, William was still living and working at 11 Grainger Street, with his youngest daughter, Mary Jane, and her husband Alexander Morton, a railway clerk, and their son William as well as a nurse and a housemaid. Alexander would also go on to play a leading role in the life of the Primitive Methodist movement.
1871 was also the year that William went on to become a member of the Newcastle School Board. The Education Act of 1870 had made provisions for compulsory free education for all children aged 5-12. Local Authorities were charged with establishing School Boards to oversee the provision and, in Newcastle, the elections took place on 25 January. The Newcastle Daily Journal of the previous day has half a page of statements from prospective candidates, effectively setting out their manifestos. Many of the candidates were selected by the churches and put forward. Interestingly William Leighton put himself forward as an independent. His statement reads:
‘Mr W.B.Leighton desires to thank his friends and the electors generally for the liberal support they have promised him, and to inform them that he still continues his canvass as a Liberal and independent candidate, favourable to the reading of the Bible, with only that explanation that will make it intelligible to the young, but opposed to all sectarian teaching, and also favourable to compulsion where seen to be necessary.‘
Interestingly, there is another statement from Leighton on the same page, which reads:
CAUTION TO THE ELECTORS
‘I wish to caution you against being misled by the statements of certain unprincipled persons, who, to secure their own, or the friends election, are trying to persuade you, either that I have retired from the contest, or that I have no need of your support. Do not be deceived; but show your abhorrence of such trickery, and also your independence by plumping for me as soon after noon as possible on Wednesday first.‘
Whatever skulduggery took place, William was duly elected, continuing his lifelong interest in education. The papers report that after the elections, he took some 60 of his supporters to a private dinner at the Temperance Hall, once again demonstrating that he was a man of some means in the town.
He was also a man of some influence within the Primitive Methodist Church in Newcastle. The Newcastle Daily Journal of 5‘ March 1868 records the laying of the foundation stone for a new chapel and school in St Anthony’s, with William Brogg Leighton laying the foundation stone. He was presented with a commemorative silver trowel, plumb and mallet and a time capsule was laid in the stone containing copies of the local papers, a plan of the circuit, the names of the trustees, the number of local preachers and Sunday school teachers in the district and the name of the foundation stone layer.
This was to be the first foundation stone that he laid, but by no means the last. On 5‘ May 1869 he laid the foundation stone for a new chapel in Scotswood Road and on 27 August 1874 he laid the stone for a new chapel in Choppington Northumberland. He must have amassed quite a collection of silver trowels! So it’s not at all surprising that when thoughts turned to the need for a chapel in the Heaton area, William would play a major role. The commemorative leaflet for the 50th anniversary of the Leighton Memorial Chapel states: ‘In the early seventies Heaton presented all the appearances of a rural neighbourhood. Soon the scene was to suffer a transformation at the hands of architect and builder. Country lanes have given place to avenues of streets and the green fields are now suburbs.’
By 1871, the need for a new church was recognised and a meeting was called to consider a site. The preference was for a site on Shields Road and WB Leighton along with Peter Kidman and Thomas Corby were sent to inspect it. The price was prohibitive and in Leighton’s view the site was too small to accommodate a church and schoolrooms, so a site on Heaton Road was selected instead. The site chosen was the first plot on the west side of Heaton Road, very close to the junction with Shields Road and came with a 75 year lease from the local authority.
The Board of Trustees was appointed in 1876, both to raise funds and to oversee the building work. As an experienced valuer and inspector of materials, William Leighton played a major role in the building, as did Thomas Parker, a fellow trustee who was the architect. The church cost £5,174 to build, of which William Leighton contributed £1000. At the opening, £3630 was still owed. By 1892, the debt still stood at £1600. The commemorative booklet from the 50th anniversary describes how in the early years it was a ‘heroic struggle to stave off disaster’ and in particular how it was a great tribute to the women of the church in organising bazaars and fund raising events that the debt was finally paid off.
The church opened on Tuesday 23 October 1877. The Newcastle Courant describes it as follows:
The site, which is on Heaton Road, near to its junction with Shields Road, has a frontage of about 76 feet and extends back 131 feet. On the front portion of the site is erected the chapel, which measures 64 feet by 41 feet affording accommodation for 600 people; and in the rear are four class-rooms and two schools rooms, each measuring 50 feet by 33 feet and accommodating about 600 scholars. The style of architecture is classic, freely treated.
The plans show an elegant and understated building, very much in the Primitive Methodist style. This would have been, when it was built, one of the first buildings on Heaton Road, but other developments followed rapidly. And by 1879, Wards Directory shows William, still accompanied by his daughter and son in law and their growing family living in Rose Villa, Heaton. So far, it’s not been possible to locate this building precisely, but it was certainly on the block of Heaton Road between Shields Road and Tynemouth Road. The Wesleyan Bainbridge Memorial Church was later built on the corner of Heaton Road and Tynemouth Road and maps from the turn of the 20th Century show six large semi detached villas next to it. Nothing now remains of these houses, but they must have been large as Tyne and Wear Archives have planning applications for no 29 and 31 to build stables and coach houses at the rear. It seems likely that Rose Villa was no 31, with James Coltman, a fellow trustee, living next door at no 29.
On the above early 20th century picture postcard, we believe that Rose Villa is immediately to the left of the Bainbridge Memorial Chapel. At the time William lived there, there were no buildings between Rose Villa and Heaton Station.
It was here that William Brogg Leighton died on 25April 1884. Interestingly, despite his obvious wealth and position in society, the probate records show that he had assets totalling £172/19/11 and that administration of his will was granted to John Wallace of 1 Second Street, Wallsend, a creditor.
To quote the words of Rev H B Kendall, who knew William well ‘Every organised form of local Christian philanthropy had Mr Leighton’s countenance and co-operation, so that his life was of manifold activity. He was not eloquent by nature, or a skilful debater, but just a constant cheerful worker on behalf of deserving causes’. The 50th anniversary commemorative booklet goes on to say ‘He gave out great love and devotion, without ostentation, but with a passion that the church on which he had set his heart should be a glorious success’.
The church that was to be his memorial stood until 1965, when a rapprochement between the Primitive and Wesleyan Methodist traditions led to a merger with the Bainbridge Memorial Church a short distance down the road. It took some five years to sell the site, not because of lack of interest, but due to the council’s refusal to allow planning permission for retail and office developments. However, when the site was finally sold in 1970, for £9000, that is exactly what was built!
Can you help?
If you know more about William Brogg Leighton or anything mentioned in this article or have photographs you’d like 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 Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group.
British Newspaper Archive
Newcastle City Library: Newcastle trade directories:
Tyne & Wear Archives: building plans
Leighton Primitive Methodist Church Jubilee Souvenir 1927