On 28 April 1842, the first report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment was presented to parliament. The commission had been established by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, an aristocratic social reformer who became known as the ‘Poor Man’s Earl’ after he campaigned for better working conditions, reform to lunacy laws and a limitation on child labour.
The report was compiled by Richard Henry Horne, a poet, critic and friend of Charles Dickens. It concentrated on the lives of children who worked in mines. Hundreds of young workers (and some older people) were interviewed, including miners from Heaton Colliery. Their words and the rest of the report give an invaluable insight into the lives they led.
This report and a second one into conditions in factories and other workplaces shocked many in Victorian Britain and inspired writers and campaigners for reform such as Dickens himself (for example in ‘A Christmas Carol’), Elizabeth Gaskell (‘Mary Barton’) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (‘The Cry of the Children’).
The 53 Heaton Colliery interviews had taken place at Bigges Main a year earlier on 1 May 1841. The youngest boys were eight or nine years old. Joshua Stephenson, thought to be about eight years old, said he had been down the pit for two years or more. He was entered in the colliery returns as seven years old and at the pit for two months but the heap-keeper corroborated the boy’s account. Joshua, who was 3 feet 8 3/4 inches tall and ‘far from robust and healthy’ told the interviewer that he got up at 3 o’clock in the morning, went down the pit at four o’clock and got home about five in the afternoon. He ate mainly bread and cheese for ‘bait’ and meat and potatoes for dinner. He had never been to any kind of school.
The oldest interviewee was Thomas Batty ’Aged 93 according to his own account and that of the agents’. He had gone down the pit at the age of six or seven and had worked in or around the mines of Northumberland until aged 85, although above ground, as an overman, from his 50s onwards. He talked about the hard times miners endured in the old days, which must have been from the mid 1750s.
Many of the young miners spoke about their health and well-being. Nine year old Joseph Taylor said he was frightened of the dark when he started and that, when driving a rolley (the horse-drawn conveyance on which coal was transported underground), he fell off perhaps once a day. Once, he said, the rolley went over him ‘but luckily not the wheels’. He lay in between them and was unhurt. Robert Harrison was slightly burnt ‘by a shot being fired too near him’.
Joseph Mackenzie thought ‘the smoke in the furnace in going down and up’ did not agree with him. He was often sick in the morning before leaving home but never stayed off work. 14 year old Joseph Beaney reported similar symptoms and blamed the air in the pit. He reported that he often felt drowsy and short of breath. Others had similar experiences and many spoke of leg, back and shoulder pain. Nevertheless, a number of the boys said that they didn’t want to leave the pit because, in winter, it was warmer down there than above ground. Parents also often wanted their children to work underground because the pay was relatively good (although perhaps only a fifth of the adult wage, which was, of course, a big attraction for employers) and many feared that they wouldn’t be able to feed their families without the extra, young breadwinners.
Many of the boys reported getting up at 3:00am for a 4:00am start. Twelve year old George Beresford rose at half past two every morning because, he said, he ‘lives a good way off at Ouseburn’. He arrived home about 5:30pm, had his dinner and a wash then went straight to bed at 7 or 8 o’clock. ‘Never has any time for play’.
Some occasionally worked double shifts and 15 year old George Foster said he once worked a treble shift, 36 hours underground with a couple of hours rest in total. Joseph Peel, aged 14, said that he he had often worked three shifts without coming to the surface and, on one occasion four – 48 consecutive hours underground.
Most of the boys had never been to school but some attended Sunday school. Nine year old Joseph Taylor, for example, said that he went to the Methodist school on Sunday. ‘Learnt the Bible and ciphering. Can read (pretty well). Cannot write at all.’ 15 year old George Foster could ‘read an easy book, cannot write.’ Edward Wright, an 18 year old, said he taught at the Sunday school. In his class were 11 boys from the pits. ‘These 11 boys are the active boys but in general the pit boys are stupid and dull.’
One of the fuller accounts was that of 17 year old Surtees Blackburn. He explained that he had been ‘down pits about 10 years’, starting with ‘two years down the middle pit at Heaton’. We know that the pithead of Middle Pit was approximately where Rokeby Terrace is now.
He described the various jobs he had done: ‘Kept a door for about two years. Next drove rolleys for four years. Hoisted the corves (hazel baskets in which coal was carried to the surface) by cranes for two years. Has been putting (moving corves of coal from the working area to the cranes to be lifted onto the rolley) and such-like the other two years… Is now putting the stones away from the sinking pit. This is not hard work.’ In fact he ‘Never found anything worse from his work than being tired sometimes’ and he was ‘Laid off work never more than a day now and then’.
Surtees might not have considered the work difficult but, in common with the majority of the boys he said that he: ‘Gets up at about 3 o’clock a.m. Goes down the pit about 4 o’clock,’ and he ‘Once worked 3 shifts, i.e. 36 hours, without coming up, 3 or 4 years since’. He made little of the fact ‘the overman hits the boys a few bats, not to hurt them much.’
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Surtees seemed to value education. The interviewer noted that he ‘Can read (well). Can write his name. Goes to a night-school in winter. Goes to Sunday-school regularly to teach and to chapel afterwards.’
We wondered whether it was possible to find out more about Surtees. Who were his parents and brothers and sisters? Where did they call home? Did he marry and have children of his own? Did he spend his whole working life as a miner? And how for long did he live?
We chose Surtees, in part because we expected that identifying him in the records to be more straightforward than trying to track fellow colliers with more common names such as Joseph Taylor, Thomas Todd and Robert Harrison. Surely there would be only one Surtees Blackburn.
Luckily for us, the ten yearly census took place just a few weeks after the Children’s Employment Commission interviews at Heaton Colliery. A quick check there would reveal who Surtees was living with and hopefully reveal a lot about his family. Except that, in the 1841 census, there were no less than four Surtees Blackburns all living in this area.
The first one can quickly be discounted. He was reported to be a 44 year old collier living at Killingworth Colliery with his wife, Jane, and eight year old daughter, Elizabeth.
We can track his life from the day his mother, Dorothy Crow, and father, John Blackburn, had him baptised on 21 May 1797. His comparatively long but hard life is apparent from subsequent censuses in which he’s described as a ‘pauper / coal miner’ (1851) still with Jane and Elizabeth at West Cramlington Colliery; a coal miner again (1861) when Elizabeth’s two young children had joined the household; to 1871 when he is described as an inmate in Tynemouth Union Workhouse and finally his burial just 12 weeks later on 26 June 1871, aged 74.
Incidentally, this Surtees Blackburn was preceded in the baptismal records by two other Surtees, one the son of Ann Blackburn (father unknown) , baptised on 19 April 1789 in Longbenton and the other the son of Katharine and William Blackburn, baptised on 13 July 1754 in Lanchester, Co Durham.
The second Surtees (or ‘Surtis’) Blackburn known to be alive in 1841 was aged 10 at the time of the census and living at Bigges Main, which was part of Heaton Colliery, with his mother, Ann, and father, Luke; two brothers, 15 year old Matthew and five year old, Luke junior; and eight year old sister, Elizabeth.
This Surtees’ brother, Matthew, was interviewed by the commission and had concerns about his health and working conditions:
‘Has been down pits about 5 years. Has felt shortness of breath. Helps up sometimes but is bound to drive. Cannot help up sometimes for shortness of breath. His legs often work; his shoulders work sometimes. Has been working in a wet place at the lately for a fortnight.’
Later censuses show that Matthew did not stay down the pit. He became a labourer on the railways.
It seems likely that Matthew’s ten year old brother, Surtees, may have been the ‘Saunders’ Blackburn also interviewed by the commission. Saunders does not appear in any other records and Surtees is the right age. Perhaps he was known by this name to avoid confusion or alternatively there may have been a transcription error or perhaps the interviewer, John Roby Leifchild (a 26 year old Londoner who had been a pupil of William ‘Strata’ Smith and who later was to become notorious for his devastating, anonymous review of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ ) misunderstood the Geordie accent.
The interview with ‘Saunders’ was reported thus:
‘Nearly 10. Has been down pits more than a year. Drives now. Was well in his breath before he went down the pit. Is now very short of breath and is bad about the breast. Never feels any other pain. The doctor puts a blister on. Has been off work 6 weeks. Is near the shaft in the pit. His work is not very hard. The air of the pit does not agree with him. Feels his breath short soon after he goes down the pit. Feels it nearly all day, not after he comes up. No one strikes him.’
Despite his health concerns and, unlike that of Matthew, who we think was his older brother, this ‘Saunders’ / Surtees remained a miner all his working life but died, aged only 45, in 1875.
On 6 June 1841 (census day), another Surtees, this one 17 years old, which is the age of the Surtees we wanted to track, was living at Bigges Main with his mother, Mary; father, John, a miner, older sister, Eleanor and three younger brothers, George, John and Robert.
As we have heard, he had already been working for around 10 years. His position as the oldest boy and, therefore, first child to be able to contribute to the family income may well have been a factor in his mature, hard working disposition. He told Leifchild that he ‘Gives his money to his parents.’
In fact, there is some confusion surrounding Surtees’ parentage. Although he called John and Mary ‘father and mother’ and they were certainly the parents of his older sister and younger siblings, the records of the baptism which appears to be his on 12 February 1824 at Brunswick Place Chapel state that his mother and father were Elizabeth and James Blackburn, a pitman, of Byker Hill, All Saints Parish. Perhaps John and Mary were an aunt and uncle who adopted the young Surtees? (Either that or there was yet another Surtees Blackburn of the same age!)
Surtees took some finding in 1851, as his name has been transcribed on ‘Ancestry’ as ‘Burtess’ but he was living with his mother Mary, his widowed older sister, Helen (who appears to be the Eleanor from 10 years earlier), brothers John and Robert and nephews John and Thomas at Low Row, Little Benton. All the brothers were described as ‘coal miners’.
In 1861, he was still living with his widowed mother, at Bigges Main along with brothers George, John and Robert plus two younger children, John and Mary. But on 4 August 1868, aged 43, he married Alexandria McLeod, a Scot. But by the time of the next census in 1871, he and Alexandria were living at 11 Old Shops, which judging by the census enumerator’s round, was close to Gosforth Pit Cottages. He was still a miner.
By 1881, however, aged 63, he was described as a ‘railway servant.’ He and Alexandria were living at 23 Byker Hill, which being so close to both Heaton Junction and Heaton Station, would have been very convenient for jobs in the growing railway industry which was transforming Heaton. Surtees Blackburn died on 3 January 1890, aged 66. Probate, dated 25 January 1890, describes him as a ‘railway wagon greaser’. The executor of his will was his brother, John, still a miner.
The evidence of Surtees and the other Heaton miners played a small part in improving the lives of the children who grew up after them, although change was gradual. The Mines and Collieries Act, which prohibited all underground work for women and girls (There is no evidence for women or girls having been employed in mining in Heaton) and for boys under ten, was passed almost immediately on 14 July 1842. The Coal Mines Inspection Act of 1850 tried to reduce the number of accidents in mines by introducing inspectors under the supervision of the Home Office. And, in 1860, a Coal Mines Regulation Act raised the age limit further from ten to twelve.
By this time, there was very little coal mining in Heaton. Heaton Main Colliery closed in 1852 and the last mine, a small landsale colliery (that is a tenanted pit, which sold its coal locally, duty free) in Low Heaton, closed in the 1860s. It is commemorated by a Heaton History Group red plaque on the boundary wall of Heaton Park Court on Heaton Park Road.
During his life span of 65 years, Surtees Blackburn saw Heaton change from an agricultural area, the landscape of which was dotted with the evidence of the coal mining taking place beneath its fields, to a fast growing residential township supported by a wide range of businesses. We don’t know very much about Surtees Blackburn but he was one of many who adapted to Heaton’s evolving economy by changing career from mining to the railways. He might have been one of several Surtees Blackburns but his story is unique and he played a significant part not only in Heaton’s history but in that of Victorian Britain.
Can You Help?
If you know more about any of the Heaton Colliery miners interviewed, 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
Researched and written by Chris Jackson of Heaton History Group.
‘A Celebration of our Mining Heritage: a souvenir publication to commemorate the bicentenary of the disaster at Heaton Main Colliery in 1815‘ / Les Turnbull; Chapman Research in conjunction with the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers and Heaton History Group, 2015
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 email@example.com
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
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.
Over the years, Heaton has been the home of many photographers, a number of whom we’ve already written about here: portrait photographer Edward Brewis, whose familiar half-timbered house on Heaton Park Road was built to house his studio and darkrooms; Gladstone Adams, official photographer to Newcastle United, as well as the inventor of the windscreen wiper, and once of Lesbury Road; Thomas Maitland Laws, one of a dynasty of photographers, who photographed the Prince and Princess of Wales’ visit to Newcastle in 1884 and was later a resident of Addycombe Terrace; Hungarian Laszlo Torday who lived in High Heaton and who has left us with thousands of photographs of Newcastle, and especially Heaton, in the 1960s and ‘70s.
We can now add three more names to the list, brothers-in-law who were the subject of a recent book ‘Photographers Three: three brothers-in-law, one love for Northumberland’ but who were also, to one degree or other, drawn to Heaton.
The oldest and first of the three to take up photography was Harry Ord Thompson. He was born on 16 February 1871 in Gateshead, the eldest son of Elizabeth and George Thompson, a barrister’s clerk. To help make ends meet, Elizabeth went into business first selling knitting wool and later photographs at the premises of Durham photographer, Frederick William Morgan, where, at the age of 14, her son, Harry, began an apprenticeship. On qualification, Harry went to work for Tynemouth photographer, Matthew Auty. It was while working for Auty that he was sent to the premises of a photographic materials’ supplier, where he met Beatrice Isabel Dudley Collier, who was to become his wife.
The couple married in 1899. In 1901, they had a baby daughter and Harry was described as an ‘under-manager for a photographic view company’. By 1902, the Thompson family were living at 74 Bolingbroke Street and, soon after, Harry had started his own business as a studio portrait photographer and photographer of artistic views, which could be turned into picture postcards. By 1908, he was described as a ‘technical, outdoor and publishing photographer’. He had now moved to a larger house in Portland Terrace, which had room for his business premises, and which was to remain his business base and the Thompson family home for the rest of his working life.
By 1912, however, Harry had changed the emphasis of his business again. The trade directories now described him as a ‘commercial and industrial photographer.’
Harry had also been a long-time member of the Volunteer Force, a fore-runner of the Territorial Army so, on 12 September 1914, aged 43, he enlisted in the Army Service Corps, with which he served in France. He was posted to a section that processed aerial photographs of the front and made them into maps.
In 1918, Harry returned home to his business in commercial photography, taking pictures for company brochures, journals and magazines. Customers included Heaton’s C A Parsons and Grubb Parsons. But he also continued to take photographs of Newcastle streets and buildings, including war memorials and churches, many of which were produced as postcards.
Another sideline was developing and printing amateur snaps for Boots the Chemists. He was a member of the Institute of British Photographers and exhibited several times.
Harry was also a keen local historian and an active member of Newcastle’s Society of Antiquaries. He had a particular interest in Hadrian’s Wall. The negatives of the many photographs he took of excavations were donated to Newcastle University after his death. Somehow, he still found time to sing in church choirs, be vice-chairman of the Newcastle branch of the British Legion and restore grandfather clocks.
For his busy retirement, Harry and Beatrice returned to Heaton, to 15 Stratford Grove, where Harry died on 18 December 1950 aged 79.
Walter Percy Collier was the younger brother of Harry Ord Thompson’s wife, Beatrice. He was born on 20 July 1875 in Elswick, the son of draper, Walter Dudley Collier and his wife, Isabella. When Walter was just 16 years old and an apprentice draper, his father died and his mother left England to become a lady’s companion to a wealthy American, leaving the family in his sister, Beatrice’s care. By 1901, with Beatrice now married to Harry Thompson, Walter was working as a hosier’s assistant in Manchester, where he was living with his younger sister, Flora. Alfred, the youngest member of the family had been with them until, in 1900, he emigrated to New York. Soon afterwards, now in Bootle on Merseyside, Flora married John Samuel Hart with whom Walter went into business as a tailor and draper.
Soon afterwards, however, no doubt influenced by the success of brother-in-law Harry, the two men exchanged tailoring for photography. In 1905, Walter married Bootle girl, Catherine Florence Poynor and, by 1908, it was arranged that the two families (Walter and Catherine by now had two children) should move to Newcastle to join Harry in his business.
The Collier family circumstances around the time of the move were tragic. First of all, Catherine’s father became very ill so Walter left her and their two children on Merseyside to take up residence in Newcastle alone, firstly in Sandyford and then at 106 Chillingham Road. Not only did Catherine’s father die but her mother developed a condition which required constant nursing so Catherine was still on Merseyside when she gave birth to the couple’s third child at the home of her brother and his wife on 15 September 1910. Just a few weeks later she, the baby and the older children travelled to Heaton to join Walter but on 20 December, Catherine died of heart failure in the RVI. She is buried in Heaton Cemetery.
Walter continued to work. On the day of the 1911 census, 2 April, he was at a hotel in Whalton, Northumberland while his sister-in-law, Flora Hart, was at 106 Chillingham Road, Walter’s four room downstairs flat, looking after her and John’s two children and Walter’s three. This situation could only be temporary and it was not long before the Collier children were taken back to Lancashire to be looked after by his wife’s relatives. Walter later conceded that he may have put work before his family.
Soon afterwards, with the professional and financial support of Harry, Walter left Heaton and Harry’s business to become an independent photographer, based in Bellingham, Northumberland. He set up as a general dealer but took photographs of rural Northumberland for sale in his and other village shops and post offices in the county. He may well also have done tailoring and drapery work, especially over the winter, when their were few tourists to buy cards or use his shop. Certainly when he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, he gave his occupation as ‘draper’s assistant (temporary)’.
After war service as an aerial photographer, Walter returned to Bellingham, where his daughter, Edith, also a talented photographer, joined him in the business several years later. Walter died on 7 September 1937 in the RVI, as his wife had done 27 years before. He is buried in Bellingham. His professional legacy is a superb collection of photographic plates which show rural Northumberland between the wars. You can visit a mock-up of Walter’s Bellingham shop and see his photographic archive at the Heritage Centre, Bellingham.
Sadly, postcards of his prints do not bear his name so, like many of those of Harry Ord Thompson and their other brother in law, John Hart, can be hard to identify. But Walter’s beautifully handwritten titles do often offer a clue.
John Hart, the youngest of the three photographers, was born in South Otterington, Yorkshire on 19 July 1881, the son of coachman, Samuel Hart and his wife, Annie. John joined the army in 1900 and, in 1902, was posted as a gunner to the Royal Garrison Artillery at Seaforth Barracks in Lancashire. One of his duties was to man the coastal artillery battery at Bootle, which stood at the end of the street where Flora May Collier, Walter’s sister was living at the time (possibly with Walter). John and Flora soon met.
Incidentally, there’s a connection between Heaton and Bootle in that Flora was living in Shakespeare Street in a group of terraces named after poets. (And a little over a mile away in South Bootle, there is now a group of newer roads named after Shakespeare characters – Macbeth, Othello, Beatrice, Benedict and many more.) At the same time, Harry, her soon to be brother-in-law, was living in Bolingbroke Street in Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’ and he would retire to Stratford Grove, another one.)
John and Flora married later that year and, in 1903, helped by a gift from Harry Thompson, John returned to civilian life. The following year he joined Walter Collier in business, firstly in drapery and tailoring and then in photography. Within a couple of years, the brothers-in-law had gone their separate ways, with Walter, as we have seen, concentrating on scenic photography and John, it seems, on studio and portrait work.
By 1908, however, as we have seen, both brothers-in-law and their families moved north to Newcastle to work first of all with Harry and then in their own businesses. At this time, John and Flora were living at 95 Rothbury Terrace.
Their stay in Heaton was short, however. By 1913, the Hart family had moved to Norfolk, where John continued to work as a photographer. That changed when war broke out. John enlisted with the Royal Field Artillery and served until he was medically discharged in 1917.
He did not find it easy to readjust to civilian life and did not return to photography or stay in Norfolk for long. He relocated to Kent but Flora and their two younger children did not follow him. They returned to Merseyside from where they sailed to the USA, where eventually Flora was reunited with her mother in Florida.
John remarried and had a series of jobs in building and driving. He died aged 69 on 21 November 1950, one of many people who survived the war but whose life was profoundly changed by it.
So, three brother-in-law photographers who were all living and working in our neighbourhood at one point. They all left behind a valuable archive of photographs. One of them in particular, Harry Ord Thompson, spent most of his adult life in or near Heaton and made a huge contribution to Newcastle and Northumberland life in photography and many other fields.
Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group with additional material from Chris Jackson, also Heaton History Group. With thanks to fellow HHG member, Brian Hedley, who drew Arthur’s attention to an article in ‘The Journal’ which mentioned that Walter Collier had lived on Chillingham Road; the staff of Bellingham Heritage Centre who showed Arthur Collier’s photographic archive and the W C Collier exhibition; S F Owen for permission to use his books for reference and illustrations.
Can You Help?
If you know more about any of the photographers featured in this article 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
‘Photographers Three: three brothers-in-law, one love for Northumberland’ / S F Owen; The Heritage Centre, Bellingham, 2017
‘Postcards from Bellingham’ / S F Owen; The Heritage Centre, Bellingham, 2012
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
How did a Newcastle greenhouse come to be mentioned in the same breath as the Summer Palace in St Petersburg? And how was Heaton, as so often, at the centre of the story? To find out, we need to wind back to the early eighteenth century and news of a development in faraway Devon that caused huge excitement here in the north-east.
It was in 1712 that a young ironmonger called Thomas Newcomen, combining the ideas of fellow Devonian, Thomas Savory, and the French physicist, Denis Papin, first demonstrated his ‘atmospheric engine’, created to pump water from Cornish tin mines in which flooding had long been a major problem. News of the invention spread quickly, with mine owners around the country immediately recognising the potential for their own industry. The first commercial model of the steam engine was built by Newcomen and his business partner, John Calley, at Conygree Coalworks in Dudley in the West Midlands.
Ridleys of Heaton
Among those who set about acquiring the so-called ‘fire machine’ for themselves were the Ridley family, who had interests in mines at such places as Byker and Jesmond as well as owning an estate in Heaton, although here they did not own the rights to mine and profit from the coal that lay underground.
Nicholas Ridley senior (Be warned: the same few names, principally Richard, Matthew and Nicholas constantly recur in the Ridley family tree), who in 1692 had bought part of Heaton Manor including the manor house itself from the then owner, Robert Mitford, had died just a few years earlier. His eldest surviving son, Richard inherited and, in 1713, rebuilt Heaton Hall and, with his younger brother, another Nicholas, continued to manage the family’s many interests, including the extensive coalfields beyond Heaton.
But getting hold of the new engine wasn’t easy for the brothers. Demand was high and Newcomen and Calley were busy fulfilling existing orders. (Sound familiar?) Despite being prepared to pay an annual licence of £400, the building and operation of the engine was to be overseen by Calley’s sixteen year old son, Samuel, something the Ridleys weren’t at all happy about, as Marten Triewald later explained.
‘This Calley though he was, one might almost say, reared in the fire-machine was, however, rather young and did not, with all his practice, possess the very least of theory’.
But a meeting in London led to a significant upgrade.
Mårten Triewald had been born in Stockholm in 1691, the son of a farrier and anchorsmith. By this time he was a merchant, engineer and amateur physicist and, in 1717, was in London on business and to study. There he met Nicholas Ridley, ‘who had known me from early childhood, and moreover was aware with what diligence and zest I had been studying natural science and mechanics in London’. According to Triewald, the Ridleys were ‘perturbed because of the youthfulness of his engineer‘ but also feared that his competitors and other mine owners in the neighbourhood ‘would get an opportunity to corrupt this youth, so that he would not serve him faithfully’.
The result was a job for Triewald, which was beneficial to both parties. Ridley promised ‘to promote me to the knowledge of how to construct fire-machines, and I, for my part, promised to serve him loyally against a fair reward.’
According to Triewald, just a few days later, he arrived in Newcastle where ‘construction of the first fire-machine in this district was in full swing.’ He said that for over a year he didn’t allow anybody else to gain commercial advantage by learning anything at all about how the machine worked while he acquired a better understanding than even the inventors themselves.
Soon Ridley wanted an engine larger than the biggest Newcomen and Calley had built – and larger than the developers themselves believed to be possible. Triewald, however, with his greater understanding of the physics behind the technology, was able to work out improvements which would allow a scaling up to the required size. Ridley persuaded the inventors to allow Triewald to form a partnership with the younger Calley so that production could go ahead. A copy of this agreement is held by Northumberland Archives.
Although Triewald wrote of being recruited by Nicholas Ridley, who, being the second son, had not inherited the Heaton estate on his father’s death (We haven’t yet been able to ascertain where he lived at this time. Later his Northumberland residence was near Blyth), he also referred to being employed by ‘Messrs Ridley’ suggesting Richard Ridley of Heaton Hall was also involved. And we know that the very first ‘fire-engine’ in Northumberland, so the one Triewald first oversaw, was at the Ridley’s Byker Colliery, just north of Shields Road. (At that time what became Tynemouth Road was the boundary between the Byker and Heaton royalties.) A few years later, in 1724, Sir John Clerk noted three such engines on his visit to Byker.
Within a few years, Triewald had built more for the Ridleys (We aren’t sure of their whereabouts) and at least another three were built locally by Ridley’s great rival, William Cotesworth, on what are now the Ouseburn Road allotments immediately west of Heaton Park, land owned by the Ridleys but for which Cotesworth held the mineral rights. There was another just a short distance away on the Jesmond side of the Ouseburn. Heaton History Group’s Les Turnbull has written that Heaton, Byker and Jesmond had ‘the greatest concentration of steam power in the world at this time’.
In 1726, Triewald returned to Sweden, where his understanding of the new technology ensured he was in great demand. He is still well known in his home country as the builder, in 1728, of the first steam engine in Sweden at Dannemora iron mines in Uppsala. Soon after that he set up a diving company and wrote about the use of diving bells and other equipment under water. He also took up and wrote about bee keeping.
But perhaps Triewald’s greatest contribution to Swedish scientific and cultural life was the part he played in the founding of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1739. He had been a great admirer of the British Royal Society and a member since 1731 (his letter to Sir John Sloane canvassing to be admitted is in the British Museum) and was determined to set up something similar in his home country. He persuaded the great Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, and others to support him in his endeavour with the result that the society opened its doors in 1739 and is now known worldwide as the body which awards the Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry.
But what of this entry in Wikipedia?
‘Early hot water systems were used in Russia for central heating of the Summer Palace (1710–1714) of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg. Slightly later, in 1716, came the first use of water in Sweden to distribute heating in buildings. Marten Triewald, a Swedish engineer, used this method for a greenhouse at Newcastle upon Tyne.’
Naturally, knowing that Triewald worked for the Ridleys,whose family seat was Heaton Hall, we wondered if Heaton could have been the location of one of the first buildings in the modern world to be heated by hot water pipes. Were the Ridleys growing, not only the oats, wheat, barley and turnips that we know was cultivated in the eighteenth century on the farms of their Heaton estate, but also pineapples or other exotic fruit and vegetables in a heated greenhouse?
But Google ‘Triewald’ and ‘greenhouse’ or similar, and while there are plenty of results, they all use almost identical wording to the Wikipedia entry and there are no references to primary sources.
A search of the British Newspaper Archive yielded no results either. Surely something as significant would have been reported in the local or even national papers at the time. A trawl of the Ridley collection in Northumberland Archives proved equally fruitless. There are lots of entries in the index for glasshouses but they all appear to refer to glass making establishments in the Ouseburn in which the Ridleys had a financial interest.
An email to Blagdon Hall went unanswered. Correspondence with the Newcomen Society led to an English translation of a work by Triewald which refers to his time in England working for the Ridleys but no mention there of a greenhouse.
An authoritative history of the greenhouse dates the first use of hot water to heat greenhouses much later. It refers to steam heat being invented by a Mr Wakefield of Liverpool in 1788 and accredits hot water heating to Frenchman, M Bonnemain in 1777 (Apparently he used it to keep his hens’ eggs warm). There is a reference to St Petersburg : ‘Prince Potemkin’s greenhouse near St Petersburg was said to have been heated by a mixture of flues in walls and pillars and “earth leaden pipes… incessantly filled with boiling water”’. The quote is from ‘The Encyclopedia of Gardening’, 1822 but the greenhouse was apparently built around 1780. Potemkin lived from 1739-1791, well after Triewald worked for the Ridleys and the dates given in Wikipedia.
So was the whole story a modern mistake or even a hoax?
A glimmer of hope came in the definitive (and luckily well-indexed!) English tome on the history of building services engineering ( No stone rests safe from disturbance by Heaton History Group researchers). The authors, Neville S Billington and Brian M Roberts refer to Bonnemain and his eggs in 1777 and go on to say ‘Despite Triewald’s experiment, it was not until 1816 that hot water heating was introduced into Great Britain, by the Marquis of Chabannes, who had, four years earlier, used it to heat a house in St Petersburg’. If hot water pipes really were used by the Ridleys in or around 1716, the technology was still considered innovative a hundred years later.
But the key passage in their book is ‘The first successful use of hot water as a medium for conveying heat is recorded by Tomlinson to be Sir Martin (sic) Triewald’s application to a greenhouse in 1716’. So who was Tomlinson, when was he writing and what source material was he using?
Charles Tomlinson (1808-1897) was an eminent scientist and academic, a Fellow of the Royal Society and one of the founders of the Physical Society of London (later merged into the Institute of Physics). But his ‘Rudimentary Treatise on Warming and Ventilation’ was published in 1850, so well after Triewald‘s time and he does not give a source for the assertion about Triewald, quoted by Billington and Roberts.
But there is one more important indication that the story has some basis in reality: the house in which Triewald lived, ‘Triewald’s malmgard’, still stands on the outskirts of Stockholm and is open to the public. A plaque on the wall includes the legend: ‘steam heated greenhouses and central heating were other inventions’. But it doesn’t mention Newcastle.
There, unlike a heated greenhouse, the trail goes cold at least for now. We cannot, as yet, prove one way or another whether Triewald heated a Newcastle, let alone a Heaton, greenhouse with hot water or whether the Ridleys grew pineapples. But what we can say is that Marten Triewald, one of the greatest engineers that Sweden ever produced found himself working for the Ridleys of Heaton Hall in the early 18th century and helped ensure our area possessed the ‘greatest concentration of steam power in the world at this time’. Even if no more information comes to light, that’s pretty amazing.
Can you help?
If you know more about Marten Triewald, especially his time working for the Ridleys or his work on heating or greenhouses, 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
British Newspaper Archive
‘Building Services Engineering: a review of its development‘ Neville S Billington and Brian M Roberts; Pergamon, 1982
‘A Celebration of our Mining Heritage: a souvenir publication to commemorate the bicentenary of the disaster at Heaton main Colliery in 1815′ Les Turnbull; Chapman Research, 2015
‘Coals from Newcastle; an introduction to the Northumberland and Durham coalfield’ Les Turnbull; Chapman Research, 2009
‘Glass houses: a history of greenhouses, orangeries and conservatories’ Mary Woods and Arete Warren; Aurum, 1988
‘Rudimentary Treatise on Warming and Ventilation: being a concise exposition of the general principles of the art of warming and ventilating domestic and public buildings, mines, lighthouses, ships etc’ Charles Tomlinson, 1850
‘Short Description of the Fire- and Air-Machine at the Dannemora Mines‘ Marten Triewald, 1734; Newcomen Society, 1928
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Copyright Chris Jackson and Heaton History Group except images for which permission to reproduce must be sought from individual copyright holders.
William George Armstrong was born on 26th November 1810, just as the Industrial Revolution on Tyneside was really getting into full swing. The Northumberland and Durham coalfield was expanding, William Hedley, Jonathan Forster and Timothy Hackworth would soon be working on their famous ‘Puffing Billy’ locomotive at Wylam and soon after George Stephenson would be working on his own ‘Rocket‘ locomotive. With the Literary and Philosophical Society established in 1793, Tyneside was in terms of both scientific achievements and progressive ideas about society, becoming a world leader. Armstrong would add to this in a number of ways – but also leave a darker legacy.
Lord Armstrong, 1890, with permission of the National Portrait Gallery
As an inventor, Armstrong is perhaps most famous for his development of a hydraulic system enabling the famous Swing Bridge on Newcastle’s Quayside to open – and the Tower Bridge in London too. Armstrong’s hydraulic machinery was dependent upon water mains or reservoirs for power and so in 1850 he invented a hydraulic accumulator. It is noted that, ‘it comprised a large water-filled cylinder with a piston that could raise water pressure within the cylinder and in supply pipes to 600 pounds per square inch (42 kg per square cm)…..thus machinery such as hoists, capstans, turntables, and dock gates could be worked in almost any situation.’
Armstrong’s Swing Bridge opened in 1876
Armstrong invented this because he had to use high water towers for the use of his cranes, on building sites where no water was available. However he hit a major problem when trying to use cranes at New Holland on the Humber Estuary, as the towers would have to be built in sand, which would not provide steady enough foundations. Accordingly, as is often the case, a problem brought forth a solution, which was in the form of a new invention, the weighted accumulator.
It is also claimed that Armstrong was an early environmentalist. Despite the huge importance of coal-mining to the local economy, Armstrong was one of the very first advocates of moving away from fossil fuels to water and solar power. Indeed Cragside, his large home near Rothbury in Northumberland, was the first house in the world to be lit by electric light – powered by hydroelectricity! So keen and visionary was Armstrong when it came to renewable energy that he claimed that coal, ‘was used wastefully and extravagantly in all its applications’, while he also predicted in 1863 that Britain would stop producing coal within two centuries. Armstrong did not only advocate hydroelectricity; he was also a great supporter of solar power, claiming that the solar energy received by 1-acre (4,000 m2) in tropical areas would ‘exert the amazing power of 4,000 horses acting for nearly nine hours every day’.
The light bulbs at Armstrong’s Cragside House were provided by his friend Joseph Swan, who demonstrated the first electric light bulb in the world at the Lit and Phil Society building near to Newcastle’s Central Station. Nearby Mosely Street was of course, the first street in the world to be lit by electric lights…
Sadly, Armstrong also had his downside. He was the inventor of modern artillery and had many weapons built in his Tyneside factory. He was also arguably the world’s first major arms dealer selling deadly weapons to governments around the world. Perhaps the only mitigation we can claim for Armstrong is that in his day, the weapons would have been used almost exclusively against other combatants and he operated before the wake-up call that was the First World War, really brought home to people just how deadly a business war is.
Armstrong and Heaton
The most obvious link between Lord Armstrong and Heaton comes with the parks, next to Heaton Road, one of which bears his name (originally Heaton Park was part of Armstrong Park) , and the nearby Armstrong Allotments. During Victorian times the area around the Ouseburn Valley, was home to many rich and influential people. These included Sir Andrew Noble, Armorer Donkin and of course Lord and Lady Armstrong. Andrew Noble, was Armstrong’s right hand man and had the house which is now Jesmond Dene House Hotel built for him, it being designed by John Dobson.
The park forms part of a continuous area of land by the sides of the Ouseburn river, from South Gosforth to Warwick Street, which is not built upon. Armstrong acquired this land at various times throughout the 1850s and enclosed it, before planting exotic plants and shrubs and laying paths and building bridges.
Heaton Park, originally part of Armstrong Park, on land donated to the city by Lord Armstrong
Armstrong and his wife, Margaret Ramshaw, lived in a house called Jesmond Dean, which he had had built in 1835 in preparation for his marriage. As he got wealthier, so Armstrong was able to acquire most of today’s Jesmond Dene, enclosing the land and transforming it into his own private garden. Together with his wife, he created a garden with rapids, waterfalls and a mysterious ghetto, while they also organised the laying of miles of paths and the planting of hundreds of trees and shrubs. Lady Armstrong, described as a ‘lover of nature’, supervised much of this work, with trees and shrubs, ‘culled from the gardens of the world’. Meanwhile, Armstrong’s banqueting house, completed in 1862, was used as a venue for entertaining both his employees from the Elswick Works and later a number of foreign clients. With reference to his employees, it is argued that, despite the business he was in, Armstrong was regarded as an enlightened employer. He built good quality housing for his workers and provided schools for their children.
The banqueting hall, is of course a significant feature of Jesmond Dene. It was built so that he could entertain the aforementioned high value clients as his own house, on the other side of Jesmond Dene Road was too small. The hall remained in regular use until the 1970s when it was damaged by fire. The remaining sections of the building are now home to a thriving artists community. Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust have plans for a full restoration of the site, subject to being able to raise the funds.
For thirty years, Armstrong used Jesmond Dene as his own private park, but he did allow the public in twice a week – on payment of a small sum of money! Eventually he decided that he could be a little more generous with this valuable environmental asset and in 1883, the main part of Jesmond Dene was presented to the people of Newcastle as a gift from Lord Armstrong, with the park being officially opened the following year. Armstrong essentially retreated to his home at Cragside, after the death of his wife Margaret in 1893.
When Lord Armstrong died on 27th November 1900, he also left us with the bridge bearing his name. The bridge was given as a gift to the citizens of Newcastle by Armstrong and opened on 30th April 1878.
Armstrong Bridge from Benton Bank
It is reported that, ‘the contractors for the masonry were Messrs W E and F Jackson. It is a lattice girder bridge, 550 feet in length with a 25 foot carriageway. Varying in height from 30 to 65 feet, it is supported on seven columns 70 feet apart – each end of the bridge rested on massive masonry abutments and, despite its solid construction, presents a light and ornamental appearance.’ The bridge was also notable as the first bridge in the world specially mounted to move in the heat…
Unfortunately, it is hard to deny that part of the legacy of Lord Armstrong’s life and work is that Britain has been for many years , one of the five biggest arms manufacturing and dealing nations in the world, often second only to the United States. However carefully the business of selling weapons is done, there has too often been too little scrutiny and monitoring on ways in which arms have been sold on again and whose hands they have ended up in. Consequently, it is impossible to tell just how many innocent children and adults have been maimed or killed by weapons made in this country and indeed by the other nations who are major manufacturers and dealers of arms. Armstrong himself felt no guilt about his role in world history, choosing to not believe that arms manufacturing might inevitably lead to war. It is reported that he once said: ‘If I thought that war would be fomented, or the interests of humanity suffer, by what I have done, I would greatly regret it. I have no such apprehension.’ Subsequent history has taught us otherwise. As arguably the world’s first major arms dealer, we should not hide from the fact that this is sadly part of the legacy of the life and work of Lord Armstrong.
Arms in Armstrong Park
Happily, however, there are many other more positive aspects to the legacy Armstrong has left us. It was said of Christopher Wren, the architect behind the famous dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, ‘if you seek his monument, look around you’. In some respects, the same could be said for Armstrong. We can see his legacy, in the bridge, which spans the Ouseburn Valley and in the parks next to Heaton and at Jesmond Dene itself. We can also see Armstrong’s legacy in every crane we can see rising over the skyline of Newcastle, as yet another student accommodation building is constructed…
Can you help?
If you know more about Lord Armstrong, including his connections with the Heaton area, or any of the people or places mentioned in the article, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Researched and written by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group.
This article is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Heaton History Group and the Joicey Trust
Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.
If you’re a stickler for cleanliness (or a local historian), you might well know that Domestos originated in Newcastle. You might even remember the factory in the Ouseburn, where it was bottled until the then owners, Lever Brothers, moved production to Warrington in 1973. But perhaps you don’t know that its story began in a Heaton garden shed.
Wilfred (sometimes spelt Wilfrid) Augustine Handley was actually born in Essex in 1901 but his parents were both from co Durham and his older sister, Catherine, had been born in Heaton in 1893. By the time his younger sister, Doris Ruby, came along in 1905, the family (father George William, an insurance agent, mother, Dorothy Ann Elizabeth Jane, and older siblings, Robert William, Ruth Primrose , George Ingram Pope and Catherine Violet Beatrice, as well as young Wilfred) had returned to the north east. By 1911, they were living in Gateshead. Father, George, was no longer in insurance. He now worked as a ship’s blacksmith.
It’s something of a surprise then to move forward a decade or so and find trade directories listing both Wilfred and his father as dentists. This was around the time (1922) when the right to call yourself a dentist became regulated for the first time in the UK. Certainly there are sources which give Wilfred’s profession as ‘dental mechanic’ rather than ‘dentist‘. At the moment we can’t be sure but Wilfred’s younger brother, Cecil, followed in their footsteps and, like them, practised from the family home at 309 Chillingham Road for many years.
An article in the Evening Chronicle on 1 November 1945 states that ‘the Joint War Committee of Dental Associations announces that Captain C Handley, having been released from service of the Army Dental Corps is resuming practice at 309 Chillingham Road, Heaton on 5 November 1945’.
Directories list him as a graduate of Kings College University of Durham School of Dental Sciences, which was based in Newcastle. Some local people may remember him: his practice was at the same address on Chillingham Road until the late 1960s. He died at Heddon on the Wall in 1989.
Electoral registers show that Wilfred himself resided at 309 Chillingham Road from at least 1922 to 1934 (with the exception of 1932, when they show him living with his sister Catherine and her husband in nearby Portland Road, then part of Heaton ward). In 1935, he was at 152 Simonside Terrace.
Eau de Heaton
But it was while living at 309 Chillingham Road that the entrepreneurial Wilfred had his big idea. According to Unilever, which still produces it, Wilfred was a 25 year old dental mechanic when he started to dilute and bottle sodium hypochlorite, a waste product bought from the chemical works, ICI Billingham, in the family’s garden shed. We can only guess that originally he was using the compound to whiten dentures (or even teeth?) but saw its wider potential.
In fact, bleach had been around since the eighteenth century when Claude Louis Berthollet produced potassium hypochlorite in his laboratory on the Quai de Javel in Paris. Hence it became known as ‘Eau de Javel‘. A hundred or so years later, in the late nineteenth century, an E S Smith patented the chloralkali process of producing sodium hypochlorite, which then started to be sold as a bleach under a number of brand names.
So Wilfred didn’t invent bleach but what he seems to have got right from the beginning was the marketing and distribution of his product. He set up the Hygiene Disinfectant Company and, according to Unilever, in 1929, chose the brand name ‘Domestos’, from the Latin ‘domus’ meaning house and the Greek ‘osteon’ meaning bone, suggesting ‘backbone of the home’.
The Handley family tells it a little differently: Wilfred asked his mother what his product should be called. When she enquired what it was for and he replied, ‘Domestic use,‘ the name ‘Domestos’ suggested itself.
At first, Domestos was marketed to local housewives and sold in large brown earthenware jars.
Domestos jar (Copyright: William Morris)
Perhaps inspired by the success of Ringtons Tea, established in Heaton in 1907, Handley set up a system of home delivery. (Interestingly, the 1939 Register shows Robert E Sturdy, Sam Smith’s trusted sales manager at Ringtons, who we have written about previously, living next door to Cecil in the Handley family home on Chillingham Road). The jars were refilled by door to door salesmen pushing hand carts or riding bicycle carts. The photograph below was supplied by descendants but we don’t know whether it’s Wilfred himself in the picture. It’s certainly a very early picture of door to door Domestos sales, when the Hygiene Disinfectant Company would have been very small.
Sales were buoyant enough for production to move to a small factory on the Quayside in 1932 and to expand into a wide range of polishes, disinfectants, shampoos and detergents. By 1933, goods were being shipped south to Hull by sea and, within two years, supply depots had opened in both Hull and Middlesbrough.
In 1936, Wilfred married Ivy Isabella Cissie Halliday, the daughter of a Gateshead publican, who was herself born in Walker. She was a typist with the Post Office in Newcastle. The same year the company was renamed ‘Domestos’ after its original and most successful line. Records show the subscribers or directors as both Wilfred and Ivy.
In 1938, the company acquired larger premises, the College Works, a former toffee factory on Albion Row, Byker. By now, Domestos was sold in brown glass bottles with specially designed caps that allowed gas to escape. The cost of a bottle in 1938 was 6d with a 1d returnable deposit on the bottle.
After the war, the company was unable to acquire enough delivery vehicles so, again like Ringtons before them, it bought the St Ann’s Works at Heaton Junction and set up its own coach building division. This was soon renamed Modern Coachcraft Limited and by 1965 had a van sales force of over 150 salesmen.
An advertisement from 1951 (Copyright: John Moreels, Photo Memories Organisation)
The bleach wasn’t only promoted as a cleaning agent and to ‘sweeten’ drains. It was also used as a cure for sore feet and, during the war, a treatment for burns. By 1952 there was national distribution with offices in London, Manchester, Cardiff, York and Glasgow and a national research laboratory.
Stergene (launched in 1948 and specially designed for washing woollens) and Sqezy (launched in 1957, the first washing up liquid to come in a squeezable plastic bottle) were other well known products developed by Handley and his staff. But there were specialist brands too – a variant of Stergene, called Hytox was used in hospitals and garages. And it was now that the slogan ‘Domestos kills all known germs’ was first coined.
A window display from 1950. (Copyright: John Moreels, Photo Memories organisation)
In 1961, Wilfred sold the brand to Lever Brothers Ltd. The 33 years of success and eventual sale of the company meant that Wilfred found himself a wealthy man. In 1963, he established a charitable foundation, the W A Handley Charity Trust, with a large donation. The charity is still in existence today and gives money to good causes throughout the North East and Cumbria. The charity says that it tries to follow the wishes of its founder and support those who are disadvantaged, young, elderly or disabled; maritime and service causes; education, training and employment; communities; historic and religious buildings, the environment, music and the arts.
In the financial year 2015-16, the 100 plus beneficiaries included: Percy Hedley Association, St Oswald’s Hospice, the Lit and Phil, Northern Sinfonia, Shelter, Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Bede’s World and Newcastle Cathedral. Whatever your interests, if you live in the north east, you have good reason to be grateful to Wilfred Handley.
After the sale
After the sale to Lever Brothers (now Unilever), Newcastle at first continued to be the centre of production. There were by now 800 workers on the College Works site and a £100,000 four storey office building was commissioned. Nevertheless a number of production lines, though not those of Domestos itself, were soon moved to Port Sunlight and Warrington.
In the 1970s, the bleach itself went from strength to strength (so to speak). It became thicker, the familiar blue plastic bottle was introduced and perfume was added for the first time. But in 1973, production was moved from Newcastle to Warrington ending Domestos’s long association with Newcastle. This must have greatly saddened Wilfred, who died in Low Fell on 8 May 1975.
Domestos Factory, Albion Row in the 1970s (Thank you to Ouseburn Trust for permission to use)
However, the product first developed in a Heaton garden shed by the young dental mechanic, Wilfred Handley, lives on. It is now sold in 35 countries right across the world. Think about that, as well as the many local good causes it has supported, while you’re whitening your dentures!
This article was researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.
Thank you to Jacob Corbin, Archivist and Records Manager, Unilever; Arthur Andrews, Michael Byrne and Allen Mulliss, Heaton History Group; John Moreels, Photo Memories Organisation; Michael Patten and William Morris, descendants of Wilfred Handley; Lesley Turner, Ouseburn Trust for their help. It’s much appreciated.
‘The Development of Domestos: a product of the Ouseburn valley’ / Michael Byrne in ‘Tyne and Tweed’ no 58, 2004 (Association of Northumberland Local History Societies)
Can you help?
If you know more about Wilfred Handley and the early history of Domestos or anybody mentioned in this article or if you have any photos you are willing to share, please get in touch, either by clicking on the link immediately below this article title or by emailing email@example.com
And if you have any memories or photos of work in the Domestos factory in Ouseburn please contact Lesley Turner at the Ouseburn Trust on 0191 261 6596 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
We are always interested to receive information, memories and photos relevant to Heaton’s history.
Our July walk, led by well-known local historian writer, Alan Morgan, will take us on a journey around the lower Ouseburn valley. We will look at many interesting sites in a place synonymous with the development of Tyneside. We’ll visit old bridges, the culvert, the site of the cattle sanatorium, the entrance to the Victoria Tunnel and a former burial ground, as well as learn more about the importance of industries such as glass, lead and pottery. We’ll also see for ourselves how recent developments are transforming this former industrial area.
The walk will take place on Wednesday 26 July 2017, starting at 7.30pm at the Ship Inn at the foot of Stepney Bank. Please book your place by contacting email@example.com / 07443 594154. Until 25 May, booking is open only to members of Heaton History Group.
Thank you to Hilary Bray (nee Bates) who gave Heaton History Group permission to digitise and use photographs below of the Ouseburn valley from her postcard collection.
A hundred years ago today (ie 22 December 1916), Newcastle Corporation announced that it would be making land available across the city for individuals to cultivate in order to grow food. Seed, manure and implements would be provided at cost price. The intention was that the council-ownedland would only be made available for the duration of the war. The Corporation was also negotiating with private landowners to make more plots available in the future.
In Heaton, the sites to be made available by the Corporation included: between Heaton and Armstrong Parks and Ouseburn; between Ouseburn and Armstrong Park; Jesmond Park; Stephenson Road; North end of Chillingham Road; Biddlestone Road; Warton Terrace; after no 134 Heaton Road; north end of Heaton Road. A few of these sites still exist today, of course. (If you have any old photos or information about any of those mentioned, please get in touch).
The first applications on Christmas Day would have preference. And so, it seems appropriate for Heaton History Group to commemorate the centenary ofallotments in Heaton – and at the same time wish everyone ‘A Very Merry Christmas’. Enjoy your parsnips, Brussels sprouts and other veg, especially if they’re allotment grown!