Tag Archives: railways

Kiddar’s Luck and Edwardian Heaton

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’.

 Physical environment

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!

Economic life

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.

immigration

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.’

 School

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….

Gangs

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 town

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.      

Conclusion

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?

Sources

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

https://libcom.org/blog/common-words-wandering-star-keith-armstrong-06032010

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group. Copyright: the author and Heaton History Group

 

More on this website about Jack Common

‘Jack Commons’ Avenues in Wartime’ https://heatonhistorygroup.org/2015/02/07/jack-commons-avenues/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Vincent Litchfield Raven: railway legend

Even among railway enthusiasts, Sir Vincent Litchfield Raven is one of the less well known names, yet he was hugely influential in shaping the railway system as we know it today. Rising from an apprentice to Chief Mechanical Engineer, he only ever worked for the North Eastern Railway and for a short while, early in his professional career and newly married, he lived on Heaton Road.

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Vincent Litchfield Raven

Early Life

Vincent Litchfield Raven was born on 3 December 1858 in the village of Great Fransham, North Norfolk, the third of 10 children born to Vincent and Anne Raven. His father was the Rector of All Saints church in the village and the family were clearly wealthy middle class, as Vincent and five of his six brothers went to Aldenham Grammar School in Hertfordshire, a small private school, where he would have received a conservative Anglican flavoured education. The 1871 census shows him boarding there as a scholar, aged 12.

He moved straight from school to an engineering apprenticeship with the North Eastern Railway. Such a move may seem odd to our minds, but at the time, with the rapid Victorian growth of industry and commerce, careers in science and engineering were increasingly regarded as acceptable to the middle classes. Clearly, young Vincent’s family supported his move to the North Eastern Railway, as a five year apprenticeship, would typically cost the family around £50 per year, over £4,000 in today’s money.

North Eastern Railway

The NER was established in 1854 from the merger of a number of smaller companies. The early years of the railways had seen numerous companies established, often operating often relatively small routes or branches, each with their own locomotives and rolling stock. The North Eastern Railway was unusual in that it recognised early the benefits of larger scale operations and over the 50 years from its establishment bought numerous smaller companies, so that by the early 1900s, it had a virtual monopoly east of the Pennines from south of Doncaster right up to the Scottish border at Berwick. By the time Raven joined the company, there were around 1,500 miles of track. The NER also owned docks at Hartlepool, Hull, Middlesbrough and Tyne Dock as well as staithes at Blyth and Dunston (still the largest wooden structure in Europe) and hotels in York and Newcastle.

Apprenticeship

In making the long move north, the young Vincent undoubtedly found an employer that was at the leading edge of railway development. Unusually, for someone who was, 35 years later, to take on the post of Chief Mechanical Engineer, he only ever worked for the NER, although it’s obvious that he put considerable effort into furthering his knowledge and education throughout his career, including a number of foreign visits. He retired when legislation forced the merger of railway companies into the big four (LNER, LMS, GWR and Southern) in 1923.

Vincent left school at Easter 1875, taking up his apprenticeship at the North Eastern Railway’s Greenesfield works on the south bank of the Tyne, between the High Level and the modern day Redheugh bridges.

He was apprenticed directly to Edward Fletcher, the Locomotive Supervisor (the most senior engineering position at that time) to whom the apprenticeship fees would have been paid directly.

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NER’s Greenesfield works

As the picture shows, the Greenesfield works were vast and incorporated the original Gateshead station, the northern terminus of the line from London before the building of the High Level Bridge, as well as five turntables and 18 roads of track, as well as massive cranes that could lift a whole locomotive. As an apprentice, Vincent would have gained experience of every aspect of railway engineering, from cleaning, firing, driving and maintaining locomotives, through to making technical drawings of engines, carriages and wagons. He would also have been required to work with the railway’s engineers, labourers and managers at all levels of the organisation, giving him a sound grounding in engineering, before starting work as a junior engineer in 1880.

Throughout his apprenticeship, Vincent seems to have lodged with the Swallow family, George and Isabella and their young daughter Maria in Elswick, which is where the 1881 census shows him living.

The Heaton connection

Having completed his apprenticeship in 1880, Vincent’s first job was as fireman, where he appears to have been based at the Heaton depot. Opened in 1875 to provide extra capacity for the overstretched Greenesfield works, the Heaton Depot was the home base for locomotives and carriages, where they would be stored maintained, serviced and repaired – a role that it still plays today with the modern fleet.

It appears that Vincent was based here in his early working career as it was 30 Heaton Road that Vincent made his first family home on his marriage to Gifford Allan Chrichton on 15 February 1883. Gifford was born on 13 August 1859 and was the eldest daughter of John Taylor Chrichton and his wife Emma of 13 Catherine Terrace, Gateshead. Her father is described as a chemical agent, and Raven’s biographer describes him as working for the Walker Alkali Company. Although the company had closed by the time of the Raven’s marriage, the Walker Ironworks shared the same address and both seem to have been overseen by Isaac Lowthian Bell, a wealthy Ironmaster and Director of the NER. That would no doubt have been a very valuable connection for the young Vincent to make as his career progressed.

The 1884-5 electoral roll for Newcastle shows the family at 30 Heaton Road, a quite substantial terraced house, then relatively newly built. It was there that the couple’s first child Constance Gifford Raven was born later in 1883.  The couple would go on to have a further four children over the next six years, one of whom, Annie, died in infancy.

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30 Heaton Road

Their stay in Heaton though was short-lived, as in 1884, the family moved to Gateshead with Vincent’s first promotion to workshop foreman back at Greenesfield.

Career progression

Vincent’s career progressed rapidly through a number of promotions as he continued his study through the North Eastern Railway’s own Literary Institute, where he quickly became a committee member of the Gateshead branch, as well as attending lectures at the newly established Rutherford College in Arthur’s Hill. It seems likely that this is where he developed his interest in the electrification of railways, which was to become a feature of his career as well as the source of much frustration.

By 1891, Vincent was Assistant Locomotive Superintendent at Greenesfield and the family were employing two resident domestic servants.

RavenBluePlaque

Commemorative plaque near the High Level Bridge, close to the site of the Greenesfield works.

His next promotion was to the post of Chief Assistant Locomotive Superintendant, which saw the family move to Darlington, where the NER’s main locomotive works was sited. The 1901 census shows them employing three resident staff, ‘a hospital sick nurse’, cook and domestic. The nurse was most likely employed for the Raven’s second daughter Guendolin (born 1884), who had suffered from glandular fever and was left with subsequent heart problems. The family stayed in Darlington for the next 30 years, taking on an increasing role in the civic life of the town, even hosting balls in their home.

Vincent’s next promotion was to the post of Assistant Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1902, eventually taking over from his boss, Wilson Worsdell, when he retired in 1910.

Chief Mechanical Engineer

On 1 June 1910, Raven took up his new position, responsible for the design, construction, repair and operation of rolling stock and all outside machinery for the railway. At that time, the railway had 2,000 locomotives, 4,600 coaches and 11,200 wagons as well as the various docks, staithes etc. His salary was £2,500 (about £276,000 in today’s money). In addition, he had his own locomotive and six wheeled carriage, available to take him wherever he wished on the network as well as his own chauffeur driven car. This was a post of the highest status within both the railway and society. He was based, from 1911 in the newly built Palladian style Stoopergate building.

RPMI, Stooperdale Offices, Darlington, Previously the London & N

NER’s Stoopergate, Darlington

 

Part of a wider new development that included boiler shops and a paint-shop that could accommodate 24 locomotives, the new offices had every modern convenience and were described as draught proof, floored with Terrazzo marble Venetian mosaic and oak panelled. The complex included sidings for the delivery of coal and a garage for his car and were equipped with telephones.

The family business

Railway engineering was obviously in the family blood. Both of Raven’s sons went on to work on the railways. Norman Vincent Chrichton Raven, the eldest, was apprenticed to the Great Northern Railway, which was responsible for the section of the east coast mainline between London and Doncaster and would have worked under Nigel Gresley, who became the first Chief Mechanical Engineer of the LNER after grouping in 1923. Ultimately, he moved on to the steel industry.

Frederick Gifford Raven, the youngest of the four surviving Raven children, did his apprenticeship in the UK before working on the railways in Brazil and India before the start of the First World War. With the onset of war, he joined the Royal Engineers Railway Operating Division as 2nd Lieutenant, where he would have been responsible for the railways that moved troops and equipment to and from the front. Badly injured by shell fire on the Somme, he was evacuated to a military hospital in Le Havre, where he sadly died of infection on 24 March 1917.

Even Guen, the second eldest daughter married into railway royalty. She married Edward Thompson, a protégé of her father in 1913. Thompson would go on to become the LNER’s second Chief Mechanical Engineer. Only Connie, the Raven’s eldest daughter moved out of the business, marrying solicitor George Newby Watson in 1910.

Sir Vincent Raven

The First World War saw Raven’s skills as an engineer and leader put to different uses. On 15 September 1915 he was appointed Chief Superintendent to the Royal Ordnance Works at Woolwich, released from his position at the NER for the duration of the war. Sir Frederick Donaldson, the holder of the position had gone to the US and Canada to work increasing their production of weapons and Raven took over. He very quickly had a positive impact on production, which was falling dangerously behind the army’s needs. Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, reported to the House of commons in December 1915 that he had increased production by 60-80% while staff had only increased by 23%. When Lloyd George became Prime Minister of the wartime coalition government, he rewarded Raven for his efforts with a Knighthood in the 1916 New Year honours.

Civic life

Aside from his professional life, Vincent Raven always played a significant wider role and maintained a particular interest in education. Right from his early days he’d been involved on the committee of the NER Gateshead Literary Institute and remained their honorary president throughout his career. He also became involved in the education committee of Darlington Technical College and was active in both the Institute of Civil Engineers and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, who elected him Honorary Life Member in 1932. In 1915 Raven was elected Councillor in Darlington and quickly co-opted onto the tramways committee and in 1917 he became a Justice of the Peace.

Raven the innovator

What is apparent from his long and successful career is Vincent’s detailed and methodical approach to improving efficiency, problem solving and, in particular, his passion for electrification of the railways. One of his early tasks as assistant CME was to do a detailed analysis of the steam engine fleet, which he did in meticulous detail, identifying numerous improvements. It was this attention to detail that led to his success in the Royal Ordnance Works and to improving efficiency across the NER network. As Chief Mechanical Engineer, he focused his attention on compounding and superheating as means of improving the efficiency of steam locos and his own designs were elegant and efficient, but he always had his eye on the longer term goal of electrification.

As Assistant Chief Mechanical Engineer, he would have been involved in the 1904 electrification of the North Tyneside commuter network, only the second electrified network in the UK outside of London. In 1905, he electrified the Quayside branch from Manors Station, which was notoriously difficult for steam engines, with a steep incline, 90 degree curves and a 2 mile, poorly ventilated tunnel. In 1911, he gained approval for his most ambitious venture in electrification, the 15 mile mineral line from Shildon to Newport, Middlesbrough. When the line opened in 1916, the Newcastle Journal listed the many advantages of electrification in an article on 26 May. These included much greater efficiency and control as well as a more comfortable environment for the crew. The electric locos were designed by Raven, with the electrification of the route done by Newcastle firm Merz & McLellan. This was the first industrial railway line to be electrified in the world and continued operating until the 1930s, when it reverted to steam operation!

Of course the big prize was to electrify the east coast main line and Raven had plans to do so as early as 1910, although he may well have been ahead of his time, as he himself recognised as the real problem was the transport of electricity from power stations. Before the widespread adoption of alternating current, the direct current supply could only be transported a short distance without a drop in voltage, meaning lots of small local power stations close to the track would have been required.

The war prevented him from further pursuing his plans and when he returned in 1919, the financial position of the railways after four years of diverting all resources to the war effort was too poor to consider investment on this scale. With the approaching grouping of the railways in 1923, Raven set out a clear and detailed case for electrification of the LNER main line, but it was rejected.

Whether because of this or the prospect of being based at Kings Cross, Raven decided not to stand for the post of Chief Mechanical Engineer for LNER, which was taken by Nigel Gresley and when NER became LNER he retired, having started at the bottom and reaching the top of his chosen profession while only ever having worked for the North Eastern Railway.

The final years

Leaving NER didn’t mean the end of Raven’s work with the railways, but gave him the opportunity to pursue his passion for electrification as well as applying his knowledge as an independent expert. In 1923 he was appointed to the board of Metropolitan Vickers, who made electric trains for the London Underground and South East Network and also joined the Institution of Electrical Engineers. He took part in Royal Commissions to report on the railways in New South Wales and New Zealand and was frequently consulted as an expert, particularly on electrification. In 1925, he became president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

The Ravens moved in 1923 from Darlington, as Grantley, their home in recent years, belonged to LNER. Their new home in Hook, Hampshire was nearer to London, the centre of most of Raven’s work.

While on holiday with Gifford at the Felix Hotel Felixstowe late in 1933, Vincent fell ill, heart problems were suggested and he died there on 14 February 1934.

Probate records show that he left £20,036 14s 6d. His legacy to the railways that were his lifelong passion was incalculable, even if it were to take another 50 years before the east Coast Main Line was finally electrified.

Can you help?

If you know more about Vincent Litchfield Raven, especially his time in Heaton, 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 chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Written and researched by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group.

Sources

Everett A (2006) ‘Visionary Pragmatist, Sir Vincent Raven North Eastern Railway Locomotive Engineer’

Ancestry.co.uk

Wikipedia.org

 

 

10 Sefton Avenue: a time-line

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

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

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10 Sefton Avenue, 2017 (undergoing a loft conversion)

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

Little Broom

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Plan of Heaton which accompanies the deeds of 10 Sefton Avenue

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

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

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

The time traveller’s daughter

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

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

The power of love

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

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

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

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

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

Self-made

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

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

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

Wanderer

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

Hoarder

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

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

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Jules Brown examining the contents of his loft

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

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

Reunited

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

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

Toppingfamily

Olive, Robert and Sybil Topping with their mother Isabella c1925

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

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

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

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

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Robert Topping in the Royal Navy

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

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Robert Topping in later years

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

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

Post-script

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

Acknowledgements

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

Researched and written by Chris Jackson and Arthur Andrews.

Can you help?

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

The Parish Church of St Gabriel Part 3: the war memorials

There is no central monumental public war memorial in the suburb of Heaton but you may be surprised to hear that there were, in fact, around 50 different memorials dedicated locally to the dead and injured of the two world wars. As elsewhere in the country, most were placed in churches, schools (eg Chillingham Road School and Heaton Grammar), work places (eg Parsons, the Post Office and Locomotive Works) and in the cemetery and took the form of plaques, windows, crosses and books of remembrance. But some are quirkier; there’s Heaton Harrier’s cup, still raced for annually and hearing aids, commemorated on a plaque at Heaton Methodist Church.

Heaton History Group member, Robin Long, has been researching the story behind those in (and outside) St Gabriel’s Church:

World War One

There is an entry in the Chronological History of the Parish Church of St Gabriel, Heaton that reads ‘A decision was made to adopt a design by Mr Hicks for a War Memorial to be placed in the North Aisle, recording the names of all those who gave their lives in the war and had belonged to St Gabriel’s.

The above appears in 1919 and in 1920 we read that at the 21st Annual Vestry Meeting held on 8 April it was unanimously agreed to apply for a faculty to erect a war memorial tablet in church.

At evensong on November 27 1921 the new war memorial was dedicated. It had cost £200. ‘The enamelwork with two archangels, St Gabriel and St Michael were exquisitely worked and the alabaster border contains it and the Angel of Peace very well’.

 

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WW1 memorial in St Gabriel’s Church

The memorial was unveiled by Mr Angus who had lost two boys, Andrew and Leslie, in the war. Their names are the first two of the fifty six parishoners listed on the roll of honour. The memorial was then dedicated with prayers by the vicar.

World War Two

We move forward to 1946 where we find a record that George Elliott returned for the forces. As an artist he replaced the typewritten list of the fallen with a more worthy book of remembrance. In it were the names of 75 who belonged to St Gabriel’s before giving their lives for their country.

It was not until 1950 that an application was made for a faculty for the erection of a suitable war memorial to be inscribed with 78 names from World War II, consisting of two parts – one inside church and one outside.

Inside, in front of the existing 1914 – 1918 War Memorial, the lower part of the wall will be panelled, a dais laid down and a lectern placed on top bearing the Book of Remembrance, flanked by two candlesticks – all in oak.

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St Gabriel’s Church WW2 war memorial

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Memorials to the fallen of both world wars in St Gabriel’s Church

‘Outside to the North West a large lawn will be laid out flanked with paths and backed by a shrubbery.’

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ST Gabriel’s Garden of Remembrance

The War Memorial and the Garden of Remembrance were dedicated on 10 February 1951.

More to follow

This article was written by Heaton History Group member, Robin Long, who is now carrying out research into the names on the memorials.

Acknowledgments

Information taken from Chronological History of the Parish Church of St Gabriel, Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne. Researched by Mrs Joan Brusey (1890 – 1992) and Denis Wardle (1992-1999). Typed by Mrs Jennifer Dobson and Miss Valerie Smith. Bound by Mr John Dobson.

North East War Memorials Project 

Can you add to the story?

If you can help with information about those listed on St Gabriel’s memorials or can help us tell the story of other war memorials in Heaton please contact us, either by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or by mailing  chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

The Gallant John Weldon DCM

This Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded to John Weldon, who lived most of his short life in Heaton. The medal is now in the collection of the Northumberland Fusiliers Museum and Archive at Alnwick Castle. John’s name, rank and service number (16/305) is engraved around the curved surface.

 

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John Weldon’s 1916 Distinguished Conduct Medal

 

 

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Reverse of John Weldon’s Distinguished Conduct Medal

 

The Distinguished Conduct Medal had been established by Queen Victoria in 1854 and was awarded to non-commissioned officers for ‘distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field’. It was the second highest award for gallantry in action after the Victoria Cross.

Before the War

John Weldon was born c 1885 in Stannington, Northumberland to parents, Margaret and John, a North Eastern Railways signalman. In 1891, he appears on the census as the fifth of seven children.  By 1901, the family were living at 44 Chillingham Road, Heaton. Both John and his older brother, Thomas, had followed in their father’s footsteps, with responsible jobs as signalmen at the tender ages of 17 and 15 respectively.

The 1911 census shows that John’s mother had given birth to 11 children, seven of who survived. John senior was now working as a railway porter and his wife was a shopkeeper. John junior had a new trade: a joiner and carpenter. The following year, he married a Newcastle girl, Isabella Laidler, and the couple were living at 48 Mowbray Street. The next year, their only child, Margaret Isabella, was born. Sadly she was not to get to know her father very well.

When his daughter was only one year old, World War One was declared and John was  recruited by Northumberland Fusiliers into its 16th Battalion, a so-called ‘Pals’ regiment, known as ‘The Commercials’, formed in August 1914.

Bravery recognised

An ’embarkation roll’ dated 23 November 1915 survives, which shows that John was a member of ‘B Company’. We know that he was awarded the Mons Star medal, available only to veterans of the 1914/15 campaigns in France and Belgium. A history of the regiment confirms that the battalion landed in Boulogne on 22 November 1915.

John had, by now, been promoted to the rank of Company Sergeant Major, which is the senior non-commissioned soldier of a company. He would have been responsible for, amongst other things,  the supply of ammunition, evacuating the wounded and collecting prisoners of war.  Along with his comrades, he was on active duty on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On this day, 1,644 Northumberland Fusiliers were among 19,240 British soldiers who died in just a few hours.

The regimental battle diary, held by the Northumberland Fusiliers Museum, helps bring that terrible day to life. Here are just a few extracts:

Zero time was fixed for 7:30am…A and B Companies moved forward in waves – instantly fired on by machine guns and snipers…The enemy stood on their parapet and waved to our men to come on and picked them off with rifle fire…The enemy’s fire was so intense that the advance was checked and the waves or what was left of them, were forced to lie down. C company moved out to reinforce the front line, losing a great number of men by doing so… At 7:40 the reserve D company were ordered to advance. Getting over the parapet the first platoon lost a great number of men. As a result the remainder of the company was ordered to ‘stand fast’ and hold the line… At 08:20 the 16th Lancashire’s were asked to reinforce 16th NF in front line. At 09:30 message received from Mortar Battery to say they their gun had been unable to fire since 08:15 due to a lack of ammunition, but some had now arrived… The enemy’s artillery continued firing all day. Our artillery fired all day but it was only occasionally that it appeared heavy and effective… It was reported that the men of the attacking companies moved forward like one man until the murderous fire of the enemy’s machine gun forced them to halt… Not a man wavered and after nightfall we found in several places, straight lines of ten or twelve dead or badly wounded as if the Platoons ‘Had just dressed for Parade’… At 09:00pm orders received to withdraw men who lying out as it was dark. At 11:00pm the relief by another regiment was complete and the remnants of the battalion – 8 officers and 279 other ranks got back at 01:30am.

John was among the survivors. A citation in the ‘London Gazette’ some months later, on 13 February 1917, gave further indication of what he had endured:

 ‘For conspicuous gallantry in action.  He led his platoon with great courage and determination, himself accounting for many of the enemy. Later he dressed 13 wounded men under fire.’

And just over a year after that tragic day, John Weldon DCM, was given a ‘Hero’s Reception’ at the Newcastle Commercial Exchange (The Guildhall) on the Quayside, which was reported in the Newcastle Daily Journal, Thursday, July 12, 1917.

The Sheriff  of Newcastle, Arthur A Munro Sutherland (a ship owner, who became Lord Mayor in 1918 and was later to own the Evening Chronicle for a short time)  presided. He reported to the assembled throng that Weldon’s company went over the top at 07:30am and when all the officers were out of action, he took charge of the company. He did not return to the trenches until 10:45pm after lying out in ‘No Mans Land’ under continuous heavy fire. He was known to have killed or wounded 29 Germans. His rifle was twice shot out of his hands. At a later stage in the afternoon he crawled from shell hole to shell hole and was able to collect 15 badly wounded men and get them back to the British trenches. Throughout that terrible day, Sutherland concluded,  the conduct of Weldon was magnificent.

Three cheers were given and Company Sergeant Major Weldon acknowledged the kind things said about him. Colonel Ritson of Northumberland Fusiliers also spoke in high praise of Weldon’s gallantry and said that he would be returning to his battalion at the front.

Death of a Hero

He did. But on 22 September 1917 another article in the Newcastle Daily Journal, reported that CSM John Weldon DCM had been seriously wounded in the shoulder, arm and side but was reported to be ‘doing well’.

Sadly, the following day, Company Sergeant Major John Weldon died as a result of his wounds in the 14th Hospital at Wimereux, aged 32. He is buried in the Communal Cemetery there.

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CSM John Weldon DCM

As mentioned previously, Northumberland Fusiliers Museum and archive now has John Weldon’s Distinguished Conduct Medal in its collection and he is listed in ‘Historical Records of the 16th (Services) Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers’ by Captain C H Cooke MC for the Council of the Newcastle and Gateshead Incorporated Chamber of Commerce, The Guildhall, Newcastle, published in 1923. He is also mentioned on the war memorial of Nedderton Council School, Northumberland where he had been a pupil. Locally, he is among the 950 servicemen listed on the St Mark’s Church, Byker war memorial, situated in what is now Newcastle Climbing Centre on Shields Road.

We did wonder whether Weldon Crescent, built in High Heaton between the wars, might commemorate him but it seems much more likely that, like most of the surrounding streets, it was named after a small settlement on the River Coquet in Northumberland.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written, as part of Heaton History Group’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’ project, by Arthur Andrews with additional input from Chris Jackson. Special thanks to The Northumberland Fusiliers Museum archivists, Alnwick Castle and to Anthea Lang, who found John’s name on St Mark’s war memorial.

Can you help?

If you are related to or know more about John Weldon, have a photograph of him or have found his name on a war memorial, we would love to hear from you. You can post directly to this website by clicking on the link directly below the title of this article or alternatively email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org.

Update

Read here about a ceremony to mark John’s bravery and the centenary of his death.

 

The Night Bombs Rained on Heaton

On Friday 25 – Saturday 26 April 1941, Newcastle endured one of its worst nights of the Second World War, with terrible consequences in Heaton. The area had suffered bomb damage before and would again, as the Germans targeted railways, factories and shipyards – but this was a night like no other.

Earlier in the evening, incendiary bombs had fallen around the Heaton Secondary Schools in High Heaton and damaged properties on Stephenson Road, Horsley Road and Weldon Crescent. Two had fallen onto the eaves of the Corner House Hotel, where civilians scaled a drainpipe and threw them to the ground to be extinguished with sand.

The Lyric Cinema (now the People’s Theatre) was also hit. And on Jesmond Park East, two houses ‘Denehurst‘ and ‘Wyncote’ (which was occupied by the military at the time) suffered fire and water damage. There was other minor damage right across the east of Newcastle. But none of these episodes, as terrifying as they were to those in the vicinity, prepared the people of Heaton for what came next.

Devastation

At 10.20pm a high explosive device seriously damaged numbers 20 and 22 Cheltenham Terrace. Two people were seriously injured at number 20 and were taken to First Aid post Number 6. Another ten people were treated at the scene. Simultaneously, incendiary bombs  hit the nearby Heaton Electric cinema.

Ten minutes later, another high explosive completely demolished numbers 4 and 6 Cheltenham Terrace. Two bodies were recovered before rescuers had to give up for the night due to the threat of the gable end collapsing. There was considered to be no chance of any survivors.

And at the same time, a parachute mine fell on the adjoining Guildford Place, demolishing several houses and causing severe damage to many more. Although water was immediately sprayed over the area, a fractured gas main caught fire.

 

Bomb damage on Guildford Place

Bomb damage on Guildford Place

And still the raid continued. A high explosive device made a huge crater at the junction of Algernon and Shields Roads, with three men injured when another gas main exploded. And nearby a gents’ lavatory at the junction of Shields Road and Union Road was completely destroyed. Yet another bomb fell on the main walk of Heaton Park but here only greenhouse windows were broken.

This  detail from a German map of Tyneside, dating from 1941, illustrates how vulnerable Heaton and, in particular Guildford Place and Cheltenham Terrace were, squeezed as they were between key Nazi targets, marked in red, purple and black.

German map of Heaton, 1941

German map of Heaton, 1941

You can see the full map on the Library of Congress website.

Heaton History Group member, Ian Clough, remembers that his father, who even then kept the sweetshop that still bears the family name, was one of the many overstretched emergency workers and volunteers on duty. He was a volunteer fireman and had to pass his own bomb-damaged shop to help others.

When we asked Ian if he could find out more about that awful night, he interviewed three survivors of the Guildford Place / Cheltenham Terrace tragedy. Here are their accounts:

Muriel’s story

‘I was at home with my parents Arthur and Elizabeth and Uncle George Shaw, Dad’s younger brother, at number 14 Cheltenham Terrace, together with two friends. We were having supper when the air raid siren sounded at approximately 9pm.

Muriel Shaw

Muriel Shaw

For some strange reason this was usually a cue for my mother to see that everything was tidy and that the dishes were washed. Father declared ‘That’s close’ and, after donning his black greatcoat, went upstairs to see if he could get sight of anything from the landing window. There was a whoosh sound initially, then a silence accompanied by a tangible pressure and then the force struck home – literally; father was propelled down the stairs without a button remaining on his coat.

The back of our house had been completely blown off. This was in the direction of the explosion so it was mainly through a vacuum effect. Father had erected stout doors to cover our dining room windows to comply with the blackout regulations and they may have offered protection from any flying debris from outside. I first realised that I was a victim in all that was happening when a wavering door in its frame threatened to fall on me but just missed. It gave way to a shower of bricks falling from upstairs which left lasting scars on my legs. Mother and I were showered with plaster dust and it seemed to take many weeks of hair washes to finally remove all of its traces. Strange things had happened; a teapot that was on the table was now on the mantelshelf in one piece. The piano was no longer an upright one as it had somersaulted over the settee and was now upside down and resting on a completely unharmed china cabinet with contents intact.

Dad’s other brothers also lived with us but were out at the time. Thomas was an air raid warden and William was a lay preacher and had been sick visiting. It wasn’t until the next day that we were told that both of them had been killed. At 4 Cheltenham Terrace, the Robson family of four had perished.

Guildford Place, the one-sided street that was back to back with us and overlooked the railway had taken a direct hit. Most of the occupants of numbers 8 through to 15 were killed. The Luftwaffe was targeting the marshalling yards at Heaton Junction but released their payload prematurely while following the line of the railway.

Our house was now uninhabitable but because the resources of the Council were overstretched we had to find temporary accommodation in Osborne Road, Jesmond. This happened immediately and so, what with that and working, I had little chance to witness the horrors that the authorities had to endure in recovering and identifying bodies and demolishing what was left of the houses.

After a year we moved back into our house (which by now was renumbered as 18). A gas pipe had burst in the blast and we were greeted by a bill for all that had leaked. Initially there was still scaffolding inside the house and as compensation was so inadequate we had to clear the mess and clean everything out ourselves. When we asked for wallpaper, which was in short supply, we were given enough to cover one wall. Our property now had become the gable end of one row of surviving terrace houses as the line of neighbouring homes on either side of us were deemed irreparable and pulled down.

On the night of the air raid my brother, Albert ,was away serving in the Army and brother Arthur was on fire watch for his firm on the Quayside. The devastation and annihilation of his neighbours prompted Arthur to join the R.A.F. and become a pilot but that, as they say, is another story.’

Ian discovered that the two friends who were having supper with Muriel and her family were Nell and her mother.

Nell’s story

Mother and I were sitting at the table after being invited to supper by Muriel and her family when suddenly we found ourselves in this nightmare situation. Both of us were being propelled backwards by the blast of an enormous explosion and then the ceiling came down on top of us. There was nothing we could do but lie there until the wardens came and dug us out. It is funny how strange things stick in your mind but as we were assisted out of the house via the hallway a musical jug was happily giving us a rendition of ‘On Ilkley Moor Ba Tat’.

Nell and her mother

Nell and her mother

Skirting around all of the amassed rubble that was once people’s homes we were taken to an air raid shelter in the cellar of Charlie Young, the butcher, on Heaton Road. When the ‘all clear’ was sounded, we discovered, through her covering of ceiling plaster, that mother’s face was covered in blood. Firstly she was taken to a first aid post at Chillingham Road baths and put on a stretcher. Then we both got into an ambulance and were turned back from many a hospital until mother was eventually admitted to the Eye Infirmary.

We asked a local policeman if he would get a message to my Uncle Jack who was also in the police and lived in the west end. Uncle took me in and the following day I realised that our handbags and other belongings had been left behind at Cheltenham Terrace. Walking along Heaton Road to see if I could retrieve them, I cannot recall how many people approached me with the same words; ‘I thought you were dead!’ Mother had lost the use of her left eye and had to wear a patch for the rest of her life and we had suffered a most traumatic experience. Yet we were the fortunate ones as for 45 members of those neighbouring families that night was to be their last.

Footnote 1 I believe that what Mr Shaw, Muriel and Arthur’s father, saw from his vantage point was something that at first looked like a large balloon which, on reflection, was a land mine on a parachute, floating down.

Footnote 2 I went to Heaton High School in the 1930s and one of my subjects was German so we were invited to meet and socialise with a group of German schoolchildren who were on a school visit hosted by Newcastle Council. They were given a list of Newcastle’s favourite tourist attractions and maps of Newcastle and the transport system to help them to get about. Many of us took up the offer of being pen pals and one girl even went on a visit to the home of one of the students and came back full of what she had been told of how Adolf Hitler was going to be such a wonderful leader of the German nation. When my pen pal remarked that he had heard that Newcastle had a large and important railway station and asked to be sent details, my dad told me not to write to him anymore. It was not long after that that we were at war with Germany. We then wondered if there had been something sinister behind the visit and were the children and their school teachers, innocently or otherwise, sent over on more than just a cultural mission.

Arthur’s story

I was on fire watch for my firm of importers at No14 Wharf on the Quayside when the air raid sirens started wailing and we were on full alert. I heard the noise of bombs exploding, repeatedly exploding, and I thought to myself ‘Somebody’s got it.’ I had a rough idea of the direction of the hits but nothing prepared me for the spectacle of devastation I was to see.

It was 9am, and daylight, as I approached Guildford Place; the one-sided terraced street overlooking the railway. Little was left of the houses nearest to Heaton Road and my heart raced as I hurried up to the corner of my own street Cheltenham Terrace. The first thing that greeted me was a ribbon strung across the road at the entrance to my street with a policeman on duty to prevent any looting. He stopped me going any further and I explained that I lived here. Well, I had lived here!

I was in a state of shock – astounded at what was all around me. I’m still vague as to how I found my family but they certainly weren’t there anymore. Muriel worked as secretary to the manager of Bitulac Ltd and he offered us temporary accommodation in his home on Osborne Road. Dad found us a house to rent on Chillingham Road and he borrowed a van to collect some of what was left of our furniture. When loaded up I got in the cab and father said ‘Have you locked the front door, son?’ He had to smile when I said ‘What’s the use of that, man? We’ve got no wall on the back of our house!’ We lived in Chillingham Road until our house was repaired.

Muriel and I were young and felt that we had to fulfil our duty to the nation. Muriel trained as a nurse and, at one time, she worked in a hospital where wounded soldiers were coming back from France. I had made my mind up that I wanted to be a pilot and joined the RAF.

Arthur Shaw

Arthur Shaw

The initial training procedure would astound anyone now. We were introduced to a de Havilland Tiger Moth and, within eight hours, were flying solo. The instructor would watch us from the ground – take off, fly around and then land. If you couldn’t do it you were no longer a pilot.

Then it was off to Canada to gain our proficiency. Why Canada? Well, most of the British airfields were being used for war operations and could not be spared for pilot training. We were taught navigation and how to read approaching weather conditions and understand the various cloud formations. We would normally then fly twin engine planes – Airspeed Oxfords in particular. One of the most difficult things to master was flying in formation and then banking to left or right. The outer pilots had to increase their speed slightly just to keep in line. It was important to be taught ground recognition and the open spaces of Canada did not challenge us enough and we had to come back home over towns and cities to gain experience in that skill.

I served abroad for a while and was then privileged to be asked to train as a flying instructor and was sent just over the Northumbrian border into Scotland for that. It was then my job to pass on my knowledge to the new recruits – young lads who were then sent out on dangerous missions where the mortality rate was so high.

When the war was over we queued up for our civvies (civilian clothes) it was almost a case of one size fits all and it did feel strange to be out of uniform. But we had done our bit and were thankful that we were the lucky ones – lucky to still be alive.

(You can read about Arthur’s later contribution to Heaton’s history here )

Roll of Honour

Bodies were still being recovered five days later. The final death toll was reported to be 46 with several bodies still unidentified. Those which remained unidentified were buried in a common grave in Heaton Cemetery.

As you can see from the following list, the ages of the known victims ranged from 9 weeks to 77 years and in several houses whole families died together.

William Aiken aged 43

Ethel Mary Airey, aged 23

Amy Angus 17

Edna Jane Angus 28

Hannah Angus 49

Ian Angus 13

Maureen Angus 15

Robert Nixon Angus 29

Mary Elizabeth Glass Balmer 17

William Blenkinsop 38

John McKnight Erskine 20

James Falcus 45

Albert George Fuller 37

Gordon W T Gardner 25

Elizabeth Glass 53

Edith Rosina Hagon 8

Joan Thompson Hagon 30

Joyce Hagon 16

Raymond Hagon 7

Isabella Harrison 77

William Henry Hoggett 39

Mary Jane Moffit 62

Archibold Taylor Munro 29

Ethel Mary Park 60

Francis Park 58

Mavis Park 31

Alice Jane Reed 64

Joseph Dixon Reed 68

Joseph Lancelot Reed 9 weeks

Eliza Margaret Robson 70

Ella Mildred Robson 43

Evelyn Robson 38

James Kenneth Robson 19

William Robson 72

Thomas Shaw 48

William Atkinson Shaw 40

Robert Smith 27

Edwin Snowdon 17

Henry Snowdon 12

Nora Snowdon 46

Victor Snowdon 48

Charles Thomas Thompson 62

David Harkus Venus 27

Alexander Henry White 54

Blanche White 43

Thank you

Roy Ripley and Brian Pears, whose website is an amazing resource for anyone researching the WW2 home front in the north east;

Heaton History Group member, Julia McLaren, who drew our attention to the German map of Tyneside.

Can you help?

if you know more about the night of 25-26 April 1941 or have memories, family stories or photographs of Heaton during WW2 to share, we’d love to hear from you. Either write directly to this website, by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or email the secretary of Heaton History Group,  chris.Jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

 

High Speed Heaton: the impact of railways on Heaton and Newcastle

Sitting alongside the iconic East Coast mainline, Heaton has been closely linked to the railways since the 19th century. It provided a home to some of the earliest electric locomotives in the world as well as record breaking steam and diesel locomotives. The 1970s saw Heaton Depot redeveloped to house the new High Speed Train, a design icon and the fastest diesel train in the world. In our February talk, Andrew McLean, Head Curator of the National Railway Museum, will explore Heaton’s railway history – not just the locomotives small and large but the impact that this railway presence has had on the local area too.

The original Heaton Station

The first Heaton Station (courtesy of Beamish Museum)

North Eastern Railway class S2 and London & North Eastern Railway B15 with an NER J71 tank engine, Heaton c1919

North Eastern Railway class S2 and London & North Eastern Railway B15 with an NER J71 tank engine, Heaton c1919 courtesy of National Railway Museum

The talk will take place at The Corner House, Heaton Road, NE6 5RP on Wednesday 24 February 2016 at 7.30pm and is FREE to Heaton History Group members. Non-members pay £2. The doors open at 7.00pm. You are advised to take your seat by 7.15pm. Please book your place by contacting maria@heatonhistorygroup.org / 07443 594154. FULLY BOOKED.

About our Speaker

Andrew McLean is Head Curator of the National Railway Museum. He was previously a curator with the National Trust in Yorkshire and the North East. Andrew has written articles and books on a diverse range of subjects from architecture to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. He is a member of the Railway Heritage Designation Advisory Board and the Institute of Railways Studies. His book The Flying Scotsman: Speed, Style, Service will be published by Scala in February 2016.

You might also be interested in

Heaton Station: a whistle-stop tour

Dead Man’s Handle

The signalman and his daughter

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

Olive as a young child

Olive as a young child

The signalman

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

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

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

NorthViewSchool? incFrank Topping

North View School, 1890s?

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

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

Frank Topping, Home Guard, 1942

Frank Topping, Home Guard, 1942

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

Frank Topping officially opening railway cottage in Topping Close, Hartlepool

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

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

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

Francis Topping died in 1957.

Olive’s childhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olive on the cannon in Heaton Park

Olive on the cannon in Heaton Park

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

Scala cinema Chillingham Road

Olive attended Chillingham Road School and later Heaton High:

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

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

The original buildings of what became Heaton Manor School

The original buildings of what became Heaton Manor School

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

King and Queen open Heaton Secondary Schools, 1928

King and Queen open Heaton Secondary Schools, 1928

We were all gathered in the hall and Miss Cooper, the head teacher, told us that the queen would be presented with a “bookie”. What on earth’s a bookie, I wondered. Only later did I realise she meant a bouquet!’

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

Coincidence

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

Isabella and David Wood

Isabella and David Wood

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

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

Olive with daughters, Julia and Margaret in 1953

Olive with daughters, Julia and Margaret in 1953

And here in 2015:

Margaret, Olive and Julia, 2015

Margaret, Olive and Julia, 2015

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

Can you help?

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

Dead Man’s Handle

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

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

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

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

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

Experienced driver

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

The type of passenger train William Skinner was driving in 1926

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

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

Last trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead man’s handle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

Postscript

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

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

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

Author

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

 Sources

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

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

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

Can you help?

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

Railways before George Stephenson

Most people believe that railways began with George Stephenson but in fact they had existed for over 200 years in the North East before the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway – and Heaton was right at the centre of their development.

Bigges Main Waggonway excavation July 2013

Bigges Main Waggonway excavation July 2013

On Wednesday 25 June, Les Turnbull will look at the development of the railway before George Stephenson with particular reference to Heaton and the recent excavations at the Neptune Yard, where an eighteenth century wooden waggonway was unearthed in the summer of 2013. This proved to be one of the most exciting discoveries in recent times and is currently being prepared for preservation in the National Railway Museum.

The event will take place at the Corner House Hotel on Heaton Road. Les’s talks are always informative, entertaining – and extremely popular so please book to ensure you’re not disappointed. And be in your seat by 7.15 so that we can offer any unclaimed places to people on the waiting list or who come on spec. To reserve your place, contact Maria Graham: maria@heatonhistorygroup.org / 0191 215 0821 / 07763 985656. FREE to members; £2 to non-members.