Tag Archives: Sir Charles Parsons

Heaton Voices Tour the World

On 17 March 1911, Mary ‘Molly’ Wharton Parkinson of Heaton stood on the deck of RMS ‘Victorian’ in Princess Dock, Liverpool and waved at the cheering, flag-waving two thousand-strong crowd below. Moments earlier she had joined in a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘God Save the King’ and, if she had shed a tear as the ship left the port, she would have been in good company.

Mary ‘Molly’ Wharton Parkinson

Molly, aged 32, was a teacher, vocalist and music teacher. Born in Penshaw, Co Durham, she had lived in Heaton with her family for many years, first of all at 32 Kingsley Place and then 19 Holmside Place. She was the eldest of 16 children, nine of whom had survived beyond infancy. In later life, Molly recalled that at about the age of nine she could ‘simultaneously read a book propped on the mantle, knit a stocking and rock the baby’s cradle with my foot’.

Molly was better placed than most on the ship to have known that the ‘Victorian’ was the first large civilian ship to be powered by steam turbines and that those turbines had been made by the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company. Not only had marine steam turbines been developed by Sir Charles Parsons and his team less than a mile away from where she lived but she had recently got to know (and like very much) a young marine engineer, Fred Christian, who had lodged nearby while studying and working in Newcastle but who had recently returned home to New Zealand. Perhaps his absence and the possibility of a brief reunion had motivated her to put her name down for the trip.

When the crowds were no longer in view and Molly had retired to her cabin, she was joined by a familiar face: Florrie Hamilton was nine years younger than Molly but they had got to know each other. Not only did Florrie live in the next street at 27 Eversley Place but they also sang in the same choir, the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union, which rehearsed every Tuesday night at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil. Molly sang contralto and Florrie soprano. 

Florrie Hamilton

And singing was what brought them together now. They were about to embark on a hugely ambitious and exciting six month long world tour with a 225 strong choir.

Organiser

The idea for the tour had been that of Dr Charles Harriss, a London-born composer, choral conductor, organist of Ottawa Cathedral and founder of the McGill Conservatorium of Music. He was described as a ‘staunch British imperialist who sought to bring British cultural “standards” to the crown’s dominions abroad’ . He was certainly keen to build bridges, initially between Canada and ‘the motherland’. This led to the Sheffield Union Choir travelling to Canada in 1908 and, following the success of that visit, he was determined to foster similar ‘reciprocity’ between Britain and a British Empire recently bruised by events such as the Second Boer War – or at least with those regions where white settlers formed a majority of the population.

A very wealthy and well connected man, he garnered support for his ideas in the highest political echelons including the British government at home and the 4th Earl Grey, former MP for Tyneside and at that time both Governor General of Canada and a great patron of the arts.

He was also able to underwrite the tour financially to the tune of £60,000 (some £7,000,000 today). And crucially, he was a great organiser. In the 12 months before the tour began, he visited every country personally ensuring that the arrangements in place were ‘second to none’. 

Conductor

The conductor of the touring choir was Henry Coward, later to become Sir Henry. Coward was born in Liverpool in 1849, the son of a publican. Henry’s father had died when he was a small boy and his mother relocated to her home city of Sheffield, where the young boy could become an apprentice cutler to her brother, a pen-knife maker. Henry had shown an aptitude for music at an early age and had played the banjo but in Sheffield he taught himself how to read music and soon became a great advocate of the tonic sol-fah method of teaching others. He went on to achieve a first degree and doctorate in music from the University of Oxford.

Coward was a man of great energy and passion for singing, especially choral singing, not only from a musical point of view but also for its social, psychological and health benefits. He became a renown singing teacher and choral conductor, especially known for the huge choirs he could manage. He founded the Sheffield Tonic Sol-fa Association, later renamed the Sheffield Music Union and conducted over 50,000 voices in front of Queen Victoria at the opening of Sheffield Town Hall. Coward was a natural choice as lead conductor for Harriss’s tours.

Although based in Sheffield, Coward travelled hundreds of miles every week to conduct choirs in Leeds, Huddersfield, Southport, Glasgow and, of course, Newcastle at a time before motorways or even private cars. His Newcastle choir was the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union, of which Molly, Florrie and all the other Heaton singers were a part.

Heaton Voices

Coward selected the tourists, mostly from the choirs he regularly conducted, on the basis of their singing, sight reading and temperament.

The Newcastle Journal of 18 July 1910 published a list of  ‘Local Singers who have passed the musical test and qualified to take part in the world tour of the Sheffield Musical Union next year’

Apart from Molly and Florrie, there were 5 other Heatonians:

Herbert Alderson. Born on 26 December 1877 in Bishop Auckland, so on tour Herbert, a joiner, was 33 years old. He lived with his parents and younger siblings at 147 Bolingbroke Street. He sang tenor.

Herbert Alderson

Margaret Howson, born on 21 February 1888, and so aged 23 at the time of the tour, was living with her family at 8 Heaton Road, although by the time of the 1911 census, they had relocated to Stocksfield. She was a music teacher and sang contralto.

Margaret Howson

Jean Finlay Terry, born on 25 August 1865 in SE Northumberland, she was aged 45 at the start of the tour and, like Molly and Margaret, a teacher. She had lived at various addresses in Northumberland but, at the time of the test, was at 16 Stratford Grove. She was a contralto. On the ‘Victorian’, she shared a cabin with Margaret Howson. We also know that she kept a tour diary (but, alas, so far haven’t tracked it down). 

Jean Finlay Terry

John Charles Hamilton was aged 50 at the start of the tour and sang bass. Originally from Crook in Co Durham, he worked as a school board attendance officer and was Florrie’s father.

John Charles Hamilton

Miss M Atkinson of 64 Cartington Terrace is also listed as having passed the singing test but her name doesn’t appear on later lists of the tourists so presumably, she either withdrew or was on the tour’s reserve list.

The successful candidates would, in most cases, have needed permission from their employers to take six months unpaid leave and they would not be paid to participate, although their expenses would be covered and some ‘pocket money’ was distributed.

They also had to sign up to a gruelling programme of private study and rehearsals in order to learn and be able to sing no less than 160 different pieces, from composers such as Handel, Verdi, Bach, Berlioz and Elgar, as well as Harriss himself, along with arrangements of English folk music and ‘empire music’. Every month between July and March, the whole choir convened in Sheffield for five hours of rehearsal and ‘team bonding teas’.

Experiences

On tour, the travelling was alternately gruelling and thrilling. Starting with a storm off the south coast of Ireland, there were numerous ‘weather events’ to contend with. Intense cold, a storm and icebergs slowed the progress of the ‘Victorian’ as it approached St Johns in Canada; in Montreal the singers had to walk through a narrow passage through snow piled ‘higher than our heads’; a train ride through the Rockies was described as ‘fifty Switzerlands rolled into one’; In the Pacific it was so hot that one of the crew went ‘insane with the heat’ and between Australia and New Zealand, the captain told the passengers to ‘put on a lifebelt and try to go to sleep’ before a ferocious cyclone flooded every cabin, the water so deep that everyone was trapped where they were. The boat deck and bridge deck were washed away, ‘ironwork twisted as though it were paper’. Many of the choir were injured, some of the crew badly hurt.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine the excitement the choir members, very few of whom had travelled much if at all, felt when they saw their first icebergs, walked behind the Niagara Falls, saw the Northern Lights in all their glory, watched flying fish, albatrosses and whales and sailed through coral reefs, all before the days of television and Sir David Attenborough. 

In Honolulu and Suva, they saw coconuts, dates, mangoes, ‘bananas growing in the streets’ and sampled many foods you’d be hard-pressed to buy in Heaton (even today!):

papaya … was like pink melon to look at but was soft and ripe and tasted of strawberries and cream’.

May Midgley, a singer from Bradford, was particularly impressed by the desserts in Canada:

‘..such ices! The ladies said “We make our own always!” They have a refrigerator in every house almost and they don’t make them in little slices like we do in England but like puddings and you can help yourself to as much as you like.’

Unlike many of the singers, Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb was well-travelled but even she was impressed by one of the American hotels ‘it has all the latest gadgets, two telephones in each bedroom, one to servants and one to the office, electric lights at the bedside…’

Activities put on for the party included a chance to speed round the Indianapolis motor racing track ‘at seventy or eighty miles an hour’; ‘bathing in a steaming bath in a snowstorm’ in Banff; visits to diamond and gold mines in South Africa (‘Except that the dust was white instead of dark, it looked greatly like going by Middlesbro’’ – Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb).

Members of the choir bathing in the sea in Durban: Florrie Hamilton is near the centre of the front row on the left of the man kneeling on one knee; Herbert Alderson is third from the left on the second row.

There were large, enthusiastic crowds everywhere: in Canada, apparently ’an old native of Sheffield travelled two days by dog-sleigh and snowshoes and 400 miles by train’ and another music lover ‘two days and nights on horseback’; elsewhere ‘ a large crowd of cowboys [unable to gain admittance] climbed onto the [concert venue and] showed their appreciation by thumping on the roof and sides of the building’. The audiences frequently numbered in the thousands: in Sydney there were 5,000 inside and an ‘immense crowd’ outside for a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and, following that, the choir performed outdoors in front of almost 40,000 people for George V’s coronation celebrations and there were at least half that number at the tour’s farewell and thanksgiving service in Capetown.

In Toronto, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, St Paul and Chicago, the choir was conducted in ‘Dream of Gerontius’, a work then only ten years old, by Sir Edward Elgar himself. Elgar travelled with the party across North America, much to the excitement of some of the younger choir members.

In Cincinnati they were directed by a young Leopold Stokowski, best remembered now for his involvement (and appearance) in the Disney film ‘Fantasia’ some 30 years later.

In Ottawa, they met Earl Grey who expressed his pleasure at hearing the ‘north country burr’ again and in Chicago they met the brother and wife of President Taft. In Honolulu, they sang before Queen Liliuokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and its annexation by the USA, and in South Africa, they met the Governor General, Lord Gladstone, the former British Home Secretary and the son of William Gladstone.

Attitudes

The tour was well-documented. Many of the choir, including our own Jean Terry and Jesmond’s Eliza Vinycomb wrote diaries, others kept scrapbooks and Henry Coward later wrote a published account. Letters home have been preserved and ‘there were forty cameras in our party’. They were even filmed:

‘We were invited to the Bijou Theatre Co to see ourselves on the cinematograph and it was funny… what a laugh we had!’ 

Reading the first hand accounts now, we cannot help be struck by some of the attitudes expressed and language used.

The aim of the tour was certainly to foster good will and promote peace. This can be summed up by Henry Coward’s words on reaching South Africa less than ten years after the Second Boer War had ended:

‘two hundred and twenty invaders entered Pretoria, not in the panoply of hateful war but holding the olive leaf of peace, good will and reciprocity, by means of song’.

In Durban, Eliza Vinycomb showed an awareness of apartheid ‘The rickshas had on them “For Europeans only” and at the post office a place partitioned off “For Asiatics and Natives” and in the trains were separate carriages for blacks and whites’. ‘The people say the Boers will never rise again, they felt their beating so thoroughly but they think the blacks may rise sometime.’ But she didn’t comment on the rights and wrongs.

Elsewhere Coward expressed his distaste for slavery and reported that the party was shocked by the poverty and inequality in Chicago. The choir sang for the patients at a leper station ‘where we saw some sorrowful sights but felt we had done a little to cheer their hopeless lot.’

But reading his and other accounts through the prism of 2020, some of the language and assumptions are nevertheless shocking.

In Buffalo, USA, the choir had  ‘the new experience of being waited upon by negro attendants’; train staff were complimented by being referred to as ‘our dusky friends’; In Suva, Coward thought ‘the natives showed a strong indisposition to work’. About being taken to the spot where Captain Cook first landed in Australia and ‘captured it for England’, he later wrote, ‘Well done, Whitby!’

Descriptions of visits to a Sioux encampment at Portage la Prairie in Manitoba where the ‘Indians were very shy’ and ‘the occupants declined to thaw from their reserve’ and a Sursee reservation in Calgary where ‘the moderns [tried] to coax the occupants to show themselves but they gave no sign of obliging us’ make uncomfortable reading in the 21st century. Coward wrote that he was sorry that the tribe was dying out because of ill health and what he saw as ‘the fixed inferiority complex in their minds’.

Coward also reported an incident in Honolulu when a man trying to board their ship was apprehended by police officers, apparently having reached for a gun. ‘One of the two detectives settled the argument by giving the “wanted man” a tremendous bang on the head with the butt of his revolver…I was pleased to see this bit of summary, wild west justice. It impressed me very much.’

Afterwards

Such an amazing experience, good and bad, must have affected the choir members for the rest of their lives. Coward reports that ‘about a score of happy marriages resulted from the tour’. Were many of the choir politicised and did they continue to make music and travel? We are lucky to know at least a little about the subsequent lives of our Heaton singers:

Herbert Alderson 

Herbert continued to sing. We have a record of him as a soloist in 1913 at a ‘Grand Evening Concert’ in aid of Gateshead Independent Labour Party, alongside another well-known Heatonian, Colin Veitch, who lived just five minutes walk away on Stratford Villas. The following year, he performed with Gerald Veitch in a Newcastle Operatic Society performance of ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’  and soon after Colin conducted Herbert in Newcastle Amateur Operatic Society’s ‘Merrie England’.

In 1916, Herbert married shorthand typist, Edith Jane Ord of 54 Rothbury Terrace. Edith was also a keen singer. The couple lived in Jesmond when they were first married but soon returned to Heaton to 22 Crompton Road, where they lived for almost 20 years. That is where they were living at the outbreak of WW2, when Herbert was still listed as a joiner. Later they spent time at 211 Benton Road and then 12 Ravenswood Road, where Herbert died in 1961, aged 83.

Margaret Howson

We know that, after the tour, Margaret spent some time in South Africa because on 12 October 1919, she set sail from Cape Town to Southampton and was listed as a recent resident of that country and a music teacher. She returned to the north east where in 1923 in Hexham, she married Sidney Wilfred Lewis, a travelling sales rep for concrete and quarry plant, who had two children from a previous marriage. The couple lived in Stocksfield where their daughter, Dorothy, was born two years later. But by the outbreak of WW2, Mary had separated from Sidney and was living in London, where she described herself as a retired violin tutor. She died in Northampton in 1971, aged 82.

Jean Finlay Terry 

In 1913, a book ‘Northumberland Yesterday and Today’ by Jean F Terry LLA (St Andrews) 1913  was published. LLA stands for ‘Lady Literate in Arts’ and was offered by the University of St Andrews from 1877, fifteen years before women were admitted to Scottish universities. It became popular as a kind of external degree for women who had studied through correspondence or by attendance at non-university classes and continued until the 1930s. You can still find Terry’s fascinating local history book online and in second hand shops. We haven’t yet been able to prove that it was written by our Jean but there don’t seem to be any other likely contenders. If more evidence is required, not only does the author mention Heaton and Armstrong Parks in the text, she also included many poems and, particularly, folk-songs.

In 1914, Jean was elected to the committee of the Newcastle branch of the Victoria League at its AGM held at Armstrong College. The Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship was founded in 1901 to connect people from Commonwealth countries and promotes cooperation and peace. It was noteworthy in that, during the early years, it was predominantly a women’s organisation at a time when women still didn’t have the vote. At that time, ’through philanthropy to war victims, hospitality to colonial visitors, empire education and the promotion of social reform as an imperial issue, it aimed to promote imperial sentiment at home and promote colonial loyalty to the mother country’, all aims which Henry Coward and Charles Harriss would heartily endorse (in fact Coward pays tribute to the league in his account of the tour). It is still active today.

In 1926, there is a record of her travelling back from Marseilles to her home in Jesmond.

At the outbreak of WW2, Jean was described as a retired teacher, living with her younger brother Arthur, a retired civil servant, and their housekeeper in Stocksfield, where she lived until she died in 1951, aged 86.

Florrie Hamilton

Florrie continued to sing with the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union and in April 1912 was billed as ‘soprano of the famous Sheffield choir’ when she sang at two East Cramlington Primitive Methodist Church services. There is a record of her singing another solo the following year at the annual Wesley Guild and Christian Endeavour rally in Seaton Burn alongside Walter Gardner of Heaton Road Wesleyan Guild. Less than two and a half years later, she married Walter, a shipbrokers’ clerk, who in 1911 was living with his family in Falmouth Road, just three minutes walk away from Florrie and her family. The couple went on to live at 92 Cartington Terrace. In 1919, Florrie gave birth to their daughter, Muriel.

Florrie continued to perform. In 1923, she ‘acquitted [herself] with refinement and expression’ as an accompanist at a recital at Bainbridge Memorial Wesleyan Church.

Parenthood didn’t signal the end of travel for Florrie either. We know that in July 1926, she and young daughter, Muriel, were in the USA. They travelled back from New York to Southampton on the RMS ‘Homeric’. By this time, the family was living in Whitley Bay. Sadly, Florrie died in 1936, aged only 49.

John Charles Hamilton 

John returned to Heaton where his wife, Rachel, and son, Walter, had been continuing to live while John and Florrie were on tour but the family was soon separated again when Walter joined the Northumberland Fusiliers to serve in WW1. In 1917, Rachel and John received the news that he had suffered slight gunshot wounds.

 John died at Florrie’s home in Whitley Bay on 30 August 1925, aged 64.

Molly’s Story

As for Mary Wharton Parkinson, she and Fred continued to write to each other and, only two years after the world tour, she set sail once again, this time straight to New Zealand. The couple married on 11 December 1913 in Wellington. 

By this time, Fred had set up an engineering and plumbing business in Tauranga in Bay of Plenty on North Island. Music played a big part in the couple’s life together. The month after their wedding, Molly and Fred performed in a local Methodist church concert: they played a piano duet together and both sang solo. We know that Molly also played the organ. And later in the year, Molly gave a talk about the world tour. If only we could know what she said!

But, important as it was, there was much more to Molly’s life than music. She and Frederick had four children. In 1916, she was elected president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Movement and, when her children were older, she also became a ’leading light’ in the Country Women’s Institute, Maori Women’s Welfare League, the Girl Guides and other community organisations, often providing hospitality and accommodation to these groups in the extensive property, she and Fred had bought when they were first married. Fred died in 1957 age 73.

Mary Wharton Christian was awarded the MBE in 1975 and died one month short of her hundredth birthday in 1979.

Full Circle

Although it has only been possible to give a flavour of the tour and the lives of the Heaton singers who experienced it, none of it would have been possible without the help received on a virtual round the world journey reminiscent of that undertaken by Molly and our Heaton tourists 109 years ago, albeit this time online. 

After reading about those who had passed the audition in the ‘Newcastle Journal’, just as for the successful singers, my first stop was Sheffield, where Chris Wiltshire, composer, choral conductor and the author of a book about the letters home of choir member, May Midgley, told me that he too used to do Henry Coward’s regular commute between Sheffield and Newcastle, as for many years he had conducted the Felling Male Voice Choir as well as the Sheffield Chamber Orchestra. Going the extra mile to help us find out more about our local singers, Chris put me in touch with Caroline Roberts of Durham University, who he said was also researching the north east representatives.

Meanwhile, via North America (well, Google) came the exciting discovery of an article on a local history website much like our own. This told the story of how Molly had got to know Fred Christian and their subsequent life together in Tauranga. It mentioned that one of Molly’s daughters had been a generous benefactor of the local history society. A couple of emails later and we had learnt that the piece had been written by Julie Green, the wife of Molly’s step grandson, and that all Molly and Fred’s photos, diaries and letters were in her loft!

And there was more! It turned out that not only had Caroline Roberts done a huge amount of research into the tour and, in particular, the Tyneside contingent, over many years and was very generously willing to share everything she knew about our Heaton singers – and more – but incredibly she was the daughter of Heaton History Group members, Joyce and Paul Craggs. Paul’s great grandfather, Fred Knowles, was a member of the touring choir and it was fellow HHG member Paul who, browsing in a Corbridge antique shop, had found the framed photograph from which the individual images of the singers you see above have been taken. All roads truly lead to Heaton!

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Heaton History Group’s Chris Jackson with huge help from Julie Green, Caroline Roberts and Chris Wiltshire. A big thank you to all of them.

Other Sources

The Diary of Eliza Bustin Vinycomb (unpublished); Christchurch Archives, New Zealand

Round the World on Wings of Song: reciprocity / by Sir Henry Coward; Northend, 1933

Tauranga Historical Society Blog: Mary Wharton Christian (nee Parkinson) / by Julie Green, 2019

12 Oak Avenue: the letters of Henrietta May Midgley 1911 / by Christopher Wiltshire; Wiltsmusic, 2018

To Walk Upon the Grass: the impact of the University of St Andrews’ Lady Literate in Arts, 1877-1892 / by Elisabeth Margaret Smith; University of St Andrews PhD Thesis, 2014

Women, Gender and the Promotion of Empire: the Victoria League 1901-1914 / by Eliza Riedi; The Historical Journal 45.3 (2002) pp 569-599

Ancestry, British Newspaper Archives and other online sources.

Can You Help?

If you know more about any of the Heaton singers or have photographs (or diaries!) to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Parsons Memorabilia and Memories

You may have seen an appeal on BBC’s ‘Look North’ recently and from Peter Dillon at our last talk for anyone with Parsons’ works connections to look out objects from any of the Heaton works as well as photos and stories or memories.

Turbiniaed_resized

Turbinia, designed by Sir Charles Parsons and staff

Charles Parsons

Sir Charles Parsons

 

An exhibition is being planned in Birr, Ireland (where Charles Parsons was born and grew up) to commemorate 130 years since the Heaton works were opened and the organisers are looking for help from Heaton. Ruth Baldasera from Siemens says:

Did you, or one of your relatives work at C A Parsons or Parsons Marine or Grubb Parsons? Do you know anyone who knew a member of the Parsons family and do you have any anecdotes? Do you have any photographs, documents, brochures, newspaper cuttings or letters? Were you awarded with any objects at retirement perhaps which you are now happy to part with? Was there anything you made for an ornament, a bespoke item perhaps that contains part of a Parsons machine?

For example –

Pressure gauges from the test house which we know people took home and made into clocks etc

C A Parsons identification plates which people made into signs and coffee tables etc

100 year commemoration plates and booklets

Old bits of blades / blade roots used for example to make desk ornaments

Anything about the restoration of Turbinia

In particular we are desperately seeking a photo of Sir Charles son Algernon George, and the icing on the cake would be to find his war medals.

And we’d like your photos and stories.

Please email Parsonsheritageproject@gmail.com

Heaton! the movies

If you saw ‘Heaton!‘ the show at the People’s Theatre, you’ll remember the opening film sequence and would probably love to see it again. If so or if you missed the play, you’re in luck: it is presented here alongside three short films made as part of Shoe Tree Arts’ and Heaton History Group’s ‘Brains, Steam and Speed’ project.

The films give insight into the lives and psychological make-up of three of the characters from ‘Heaton!‘, all engineers associated with our area who children from local schools studied and were inspired by to produce the artwork featured in the project’s exhibition at the People’s:

ArmstrongWilliam-George-Armstrong-Baron-ArmstrongNPG

Lord Armstrong (1810-1900), world-renowned hydraulics and ballistics engineer and also local benefactor, whose gifts to the city of Heaton and Armstrong Park and Jesmond Dene we still enjoy today.

ArupBrandenbergBust

Ove Arup (1895-1988), Heaton-born structural engineer, most famous for Sydney Opera House and Kingsgate Bridge in Durham, as well as for his huge and still successful international company.

Charles Parsons

 

Sir Charles Parsons (1854-1931), world-changing inventor of the steam turbine-generator and founder of Heaton company, CA Parsons Ltd. The film also pays tribute to Katharine, his wife, and Rachel, his daughter, who co-founded the Women’s Engineering Society.

The other inspirational mathematicians, scientists and engineers were: Charles Hutton and David’s Sinden and Brown of Grubb Parsons.

The schools involved in the project were: Chillingham Road Primary School, Cragside Primary School, Hotspur Primary School, Ravenswood Primary School, Sir Charles Parsons School.

The ‘Brains, Steam and Speed’ project was funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, the Joicey Trust, Heaton History Group.

The films were made by Peter Dillon, Tessa Green (members of Heaton History Group) with students from University of Northumbria. See full credits on each film.

Watch all the films herehttps://vimeo.com/album/5310574

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Heaton! the writer’s update

With the world premiere of his play ‘Heaton!’ at the People’s Theatre now little over three months away, things are hotting up for the writer, Heaton History Group member, Peter Dillon. The show is a multimedia production and Peter has been filming scenes that you’ll see on a big screen behind the stage. He takes up the story:

‘Film making takes you to some interesting places, and I don’t necessarily mean the upper reaches of the Amazon, or somewhere in distant Nepal, but rather in our own back yard.  Unless I was making films (for  ‘Heaton!‘ and the ‘Brains, Steam and Speed’ exhibition at the People’s Theatre in July) I’d never get to see the engineering splendour inside the Siemens heavy machinery shop on the Fossway or even on a smaller scale the dusty cave like interior of the upholsterers on Cardigan Terrace.  Not a big one for gyms, I doubt I’d have been shinning up the stairs of Gold Star (courtesy of Raj and Wendy) on Heaton Road. Off to the Morpeth Gathering, where we captured the exhilarating Heaton based Tynebridge Morris Dancers giving their all in the procession down Newgate Street.  Luckily we caught the best of the weather: as the dancers approached Bridge Street, the rain began.

Another recent highlight, thanks to the present owner Ann Brough, a visit/recce to Holeyn Hall, Wylam,  the mansion where Charles Parsons and family lived during arguably the engineer’s most productive years at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  It was a thrill to enter the impressively large hallway and looking up the grand stairway to see a framed photograph of the Turbinia on the high seas.  Arrangements were made to film in the hall’s grounds and at what’s locally known as Parsons’ Pond for a short film featuring Charles Parsons and his daughter, Rachel, which will play in the exhibition.

Onto Neville Hall, the Mining Institute on Westgate Road to shoot filmed scenes for ‘Heaton!’ and also Lord Armstrong, in the form of People’s Theatre actor Andrew De’ath, for a film about the Shieldfield born entrepreneur, another one for ‘Brains, Steam and Speed’.

Heaton Production - Armstrong at Cragsidecj

The grand Gothic library was the site of one of Armstrong’s speeches and doubles perfectly for both a Cragside interior and a gentleman’s club, where a couple of architects and an engineer discuss Ove Arup’s involvement in the construction of Sydney Opera House. They say the camera doesn’t lie – it lies (on behalf a greater truth, we hope) all the time.

Another exciting development of ‘Heaton!’ (July 17 – July 21: the box office is open. Book your tickets now!) are the number of the show’s principle characters’ relatives, who have emerged – members of theatrical entrepreneur, George Stanley and structural engineer, Ove Arup’s families – and who hopefully will be attending.  Not forgetting the intrepid work of Ruth Baldasera from Siemens, who is raising money to restore Charles and Lady Parsons’ grave at Kirkwhelpington – not too late to contribute.

Ruth has now tracked down Lily Callender, a female employee who worked at the Cremona Toffee Factory  and in the Parsons coreplate and insulating shops: in the latter it was so hot they had to work barefoot.

Here’s hoping the show and the exhibition help unearth even more fascinating events and characters from Heaton’s history.’

 

The Stoneys of Heaton: unsung heroes of the Parsons’ story

Most people in Newcastle have heard of Sir Charles Parsons, the eminent engineer whose invention of a multi-stage steam turbine revolutionised marine propulsion and electrical power generation, making him world famous in his lifetime and greatly respected still. Parsons’ Heaton factory was a huge local employer for many decades. It survives today as part of the global firm, Siemens.

But, of course, Charles Parsons did not make his huge strides in engineering alone. He was ably supported by a highly skilled workforce, including brilliant engineers and mathematicians, some of whom were much better known in their life times than they are today.

Two that certainly deserve to be remembered were siblings, Edith Anne Stoney and her brother, George Gerald. Edith worked for Parsons only briefly but her contribution was crucial. Her brother worked for Parsons and lived in Heaton most of his adult life. This is their story.

Family background

Dr George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911), the siblings’ father, was a prominent Irish physicist, who was born near Birr in County Offaly.  He worked as an astronomy assistant to Charles Parsons’ father, William, at nearby Birr Castle and he later taught Charles Parsons at Trinity College, Dublin. Stoney is best known for introducing the term ‘electron’ as the fundamental unit quantity of electricity. He and his wife, Margaret Sophia, had five children whom they home educated. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Stoney children went on to have illustrious careers. Robert Bindon became a doctor in Australia; Gertrude Rose was an artist;  Florence Ada ( awarded the OBE in 1919), the first female radiologist in the UK. But it is George Gerald and Edith Anne who have the Heaton connection.

Edith Anne Stoney

Edith was born on 6 January 1869 and soon showed herself to be a talented mathematician. She won a scholarship to Newham College Cambridge where, in 1893, she achieved a first in the Part 1 Tripos examination. At that time, and for another 50 years afterwards, women were not awarded degrees at Cambridge so she did not officially graduate but she was later awarded both a BA and MA by Trinity College Dublin.

After graduation, Edith came to Newcastle to work for Charles Parsons. There is, in Newcastle University Library, a letter sent by Charles Parson to Edith’s father, George Johnstone Stoney, in 1903. Parsons pays tribute to:

‘your daughter’s great and original ability for applied mathematics… The problems she has attacked and solved have been in relation to the special curvature of our mirrors for obtaining beams of light of particular shapes. These investigations involved difficult and intricate original calculations, so much so that I must confess they were quite beyond my powers now and probably would have been also when I was at Cambridge… Your daughter also made calculations in regard to the gyrostatic forces brought onto the bearings of marine steam turbines…’

It looks like the sort of reference someone might write for a perspective employer except that, a sign of the times, it doesn’t mention Edith by name and is addressed to her father.

Stoney Edith,_Florence,_Johnstone_Stoney

Edith, Florence and George Johnstone Stoney

After working in Heaton, Edith went on to teach mathematics at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and then lecture in physics at the London School of Medicine for Women in London. There she set up a laboratory and designed the physics course.

In 1901, she and her sister, Florence, opened a new x-ray service at London’s Royal Free Hospital and she became actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement as well becoming the first treasurer of the British Federation of University Women, a post she held from 1909-1915.

During WW1, both sisters offered their service to the British Red Cross to provide a state of the art radiological service to the troops in Europe. In the x-ray facilities at a new 250 bed hospital near Troyes in France, planned and operated by her, she used stereoscopy to localise bullets and shrapnel and pioneered the use of x-rays in the diagnosis of gas gangrene, saving many lives.

She was posted to Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and France again, serving in dangerous war zones for the duration of the war. The hospitals in which she worked were repeatedly shelled and evacuated but she continued to do what she considered to be her duty.  Her war service was recognised by several countries. Among her awards were the French Croix de Guerre and Serbia’s Order of St Sava, as well as British Victory Medals.

After the war, Edith returned to England, where she lectured at King’s College for Women. In her retirement, she resumed work with the British Federation for University Women and in 1936, in memory of her father and sister, she established the Johnstone and Florence Stoney Studentship, which is still administered by the British Federation of Women Graduates to support women to carry out research overseas in biological, geological, meteorological or radiological science.

Edith Anne Stoney died on 25 June 1938, aged 69. Her importance is shown by the obituaries which appeared in ‘The Times’, ‘The Lancet’ and ‘Nature’. She will be remembered for her pioneering work in medical physics, her wartime bravery and her support for women’s causes. Although her time in Newcastle was brief, she deserves also to be remembered for her contribution to the work in Heaton for which Charles Parsons is rightly lauded.

George Gerald Stoney

But Edith’s elder brother had a much longer association with Parsons – and with Heaton.

George Gerald Stoney was born in Dublin on 28 November 1863, the first child of Margaret and George Johnstone Stoney. Like his sister, he was educated at home and gained a particularly good grounding in science. For example at a young age, he learnt about the silvering of mirrors which was to become very useful in his working life.

In 1882, when 19 years old, he went to Trinity College, Dublin. After four years he left with a first class honours in mathematics and a gold medal in experimental science. The following year he was awarded an engineering degree.

After working for a year with his uncle in Dublin, he came to England in 1888 to work alongside the more senior Charles Parsons for Clarke, Chapman and Company in Gateshead, earning ten shillings a week as an apprentice draughtsman. Here he first became acquainted with the compound steam turbine and did associated drawings for Parsons.

When, the following year, Parsons left the firm, after a disagreement on the pace at which work was progressing in the turbine field, to set up his own company in Heaton, Stoney was one of a dozen or so Clarke Chapman employees to follow him. He first worked as a fitter, earning £2 10s.

The 1891 Census shows Stoney living as a lodger at 69 Seventh Avenue, Heaton in the home of widow, Jane Beckett and her two working sons, John and William.

Key figure

There is ample evidence of Gerald (as he was known) Stoney’s importance to Parsons even in the early days.

In 1893, an agreement was made whereby Parsons agreed to employ Stoney who, in turn, agreed to work for Parsons for five years in the capacity of electrical engineer, ‘the duties which shall comprise the management of the mirror and testing departments, the carrying out of experiments and other such duties…’

A year later, he was given a share option. He put £200 into the company, which was matched by Parsons. And, in 1895, aged 32, he was named Chief Designer of the steam turbine department and Chief Electrical Engineer for high speed dynamos and alternators.

Stoney’s application, on 28 November 1895, to become a member of The Institution of Civil Engineers (his proposer was C A Parsons) states:

‘…appointed Manager of their Mirror Works for the manufacture of mirrors for search light projectors for English and foreign governments and is also manager for testing all dynamos and engines and technical adviser in the design and manufacture of all the steam turbines and dynamos made by the firm amounting to a yearly output of over 10,000 horsepower. These posts he now holds.’

He was elected Associate Member on 4 February 1896 when his address was given as 118 Meldon Terrace, Heaton.

Turbinia

It was around this time that Parsons was finally successful in his almost obsessive quest to apply the steam turbine to marine engineering. He had conceived and built ‘Turbinia’ which he was determined to make the fastest ship in the world. There were many trials of the ship in the Tyne and off the Northumberland coast at which Parsons and Stoney were always among the small group on board. After each trial modifications and improvements were made and the vessel was put to sea again. At every stage, Stoney was at the forefront.

Finally on 1 April 1897, as ‘Turbinia’, with Charles Parsons on the bridge and Gerald Stoney next to him as usual, made its way back up the Tyne after its latest sea trial , ‘at the modest pace allowed by local regulations‘ it was noted that ‘the river was nearly empty, the tide slack and the water smooth’ so Parsons decided to do a full power run along a measured nautical mile. A mean speed of 31.01 knots and a top speed of 32.6 knots was recorded, a record speed for any vessel. Charles Parsons had achieved his aim of adapting the steam turbine for marine propulsion.

Parsons’ first big opportunity to show his ship to the world was to come a couple of months later on 26 June 1897, when a review of the fleet to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was held at Spithead off Portsmouth. A hundred and fifty vessels were present, in an orderly procession when, with Parsons at the helm and Stoney in his  customary position alongside him, ‘Turbinia’ made the move, which was to secure its place in naval folklore.

As the ‘Times’ put it:

‘At the cost of deliberate disregard of authority, she contrived to give herself an effective advertisement by steaming at astonishing speed between the lines A and B shortly after the royal procession had passed. The patrol boats which attempted to check her adventurous and lawless proceedings were distanced in a twinkling but at last one managed by placing herself athwart her course… Her speed was, as I have said, simply astonishing.’ (27 June 1887).

In fact, Parsons denied deliberate lawlessness. He maintained that the watching Prince Henry of Prussia requested that ‘Turbinia’ be brought alongside his flagship and show a turn of speed. Permission was apparently given by the admiralty but there is no doubt that there were a number of close shaves as ‘Turbinia’ squeezed between other crafts at previously unknown speed.

Turbiniaed_resized

Turbinia with Gerald Stoney below Charles Parsons on the bridge

Growing recognition

Stoney continued to be indispensible to Parsons. For all Parsons’ genius and drive, Stoney seems to have had the better understanding of theory and he could also apply it in practice. In fact, there is evidence that, on occasion, Parson’s intransigence even held Stoney and his own company back when he refused to agree to their suggestions. If a solution to a problem had been found by a competitor, especially a foreign one, rather than adopt it and move on, Parsons more than once insisted that his engineers found a different, original answer. For the most part, Stoney seems to have accepted this trait in his employer and risen to the challenges it posed.

In 19 December 1900, Stoney became a full member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was now General Manager of C A Parsons and living at 7 Roxburgh Place, Heaton. By 1902, according to the Electoral Register, the Stoneys had moved to ‘Oakley’, an imposing,  three storey, semi-detached villa on Heaton Road.

OakleyGGStoneyHeatonRoadres_edited-2

‘Oakley’ on Heaton Road

In 1903 Stoney was involved in the establishment of the ground breaking Neptune and Carrville Power Stations, which were so crucial to the economy of Tyneside. And in 1904, Parsons again rewarded his trusted lieutenant. He opened a bank account for him into which he deposited £5,000. 4.5% interest could be drawn half yearly or yearly. If Stoney stayed at the firm for another ten years, the capital would be his.

Stoney was by now well known in engineering circles. He published many papers and submitted patent applications and he gave lectures throughout Britain and Ireland.

In 1905, George Gerald Stoney and Charles Parsons were joint recipients of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Watt Gold Medal for excellence in engineering and in 1911 Stoney, by now Technical Manager of the entire Heaton works, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) by his peers, evidence that his part in Parsons’ work was recognised outside as well as within the firm.

Temporary departure

But in 1912,  ‘in a moment of extreme vexation’ as he later put it (rows between senior staff at the company seemed common), Gerald Stoney left C A Parsons. At first, he set up as a consultant and he was secretary of one of the Tyneside Irish battalions before, in 1917, being appointed to the Chair of Mechanical Engineering at the Victoria University in Manchester. Stoney’s eminence is shown by a photograph, taken at this time, being in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Stoney GeorgeGerald-Stoney

George Gerald Stoney (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

However, Stoney’s wife Isabella, was by this time an invalid and didn’t make the move from Newcastle. Stoney increasingly had to travel between the two cities and when, in 1926, Charles Parsons became aware of the toll this was taking, he offered his old employee the chance to return to Heaton as Director of Research. Stoney’s career had turned full circle as, in his new role, he found himself once again conducting experimental optical work, this time for the recently acquired Grubb Telescope Company, now called Grubb Parsons. He eventually retired in 1930 following the death of his wife.

George Gerald Stoney died on 15 May 1942 at his home ‘Oakley’ on Heaton Road. He is buried in Corbridge Cemetery alongside his wife.

StoneyGrave

The Stoneys grave in Corbridge

At the time of his death, he was the last surviving member of the original Turbinia crew. Obituaries and tributes show that he was widely appreciated as one of the pioneers in the development of the steam turbine and high-speed dynamo electric machines. We hope that by retelling his story here, Gerald Stoney, like his sister Edith, will be remembered once again in Heaton and beyond.

Can you help?

If you know more about Edith or Gerald Stoney including their connections with Parsons and the Heaton area, 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

Researched and written by Arthur Andrews and Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

This article is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains, Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Heaton History Group and the Joicey Trust

Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.

Key Sources

From Galaxies to Turbines: science, technology and the Parsons Family / by W Garrett Scaife; Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000

Scope (December 2013) ‘Edith Stoney MA; the first woman medical physicist’

and a range of online and local archival sources.

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Heaton! The Show

Heaton History member, Peter Dillon, has written a play that’ll be a must see for anyone interested in Heaton and its history. Luckily for those of us still living in the neighbourhood, we won’t have to catch a train to London’s West End or even traipse into town. It’ll be performed at Heaton’s own People’s Theatre. But if you don’t live locally, now’s the time to start calling in favours and bagging the spare rooms and sofas of your Heaton friends and relations.

And if you encounter a film crew over then next few weeks, it might not be another episode of ‘Vera”. It’ll probably be Peter, the writer, on location.  He explains:

‘Once a script is ready for the actors to rehearse it’s usually a sign for the writer to take a back seat.    Of course the text will change & develop– all the way to ‘curtain up.  Meanwhile…… the Heaton! draft delivered there’s time enough to put my feet up and  ponder the sights of the allotments from my office window.

No, not a bit of it.  With my film head on, I could strangle the writer.  He’s gone and written a number of film extracts both dramatic and documentary.  So the tasks continue: crews to contact, facilities and locations to visit, actors to wrangle and the whole machinery of film making kicks in.  Anyone know a penny farthing rider, who’d impersonate George Waller on film?  Thankfully, the answer’s yes, Michael Stout from Durham.  A motor cycle, circa 1910, anyone?  Thank you, Jon Hill.

George Waller on Penny farthing

George Waller will appear in Heaton! at the Peoples

Then I’m reminded of the famous film producer, coming to the end of his career, who was asked what he considered the most important element essential in the production of a film, replied, “After a good script, the catering.  Like an army a film crew marches on its stomach.”  So what about a caterer?  Yes, again.

Up early one morning to catch Mark Armstrong, the Factory Manager at Siemens, who is taking me on a tour of the Heaton Works – C.A. Parsons in its day.  We stand on some cobbles, the only  remains from Sir Charles’s day.  Problem is the view’s less than inspiring, and we head off to the Heavy Machinery Shop.  Bingo! This massive shed houses an impressive number of lathes, turbines and industrial hardware that on film will give a sense of muscularity to the scene in which Parsons returns to the Fossway factory.  

Siemens in the form of Mark, Ruth Baldasera, who has made a study of the Parsons’ family and is behind the drive to repair Charles and Lady Katharine’s grave at Kirkwhelpington, and Geoff Horseman have been extremely supportive of Heaton! and a great help.

Next, the Mining Institute and their fabulous library, a grocer on Chillingham Rd,  and, if the rain and snow ever relent, Grounsell  Park for Heaton Stannington vs Darlington etc……

Lyric cinema 1936

Heaton! will be performed in the People’s Theatre, itself a historic local landmark

Come and see the show at the People’s Theatre; July 17 – 21, and all will be revealed.’  

Book here

 

 

 

Two Davids: Grubb Parsons’ stellar double act

 

Heaton’s Grubb Parsons led the world in the design and building of high quality large astronomical telescopes for almost 60 years until the company’s untimely demise in 1985.

Grubb Parsons 98 inch Isaac Newton telescoperesized

Grubb Parsons 98 inch Isaac Newton telescope, 1967

For almost 30 years, from the late 1950s until the company closed, that success was driven by two very different men, both named David, whose skill and expertise complemented one another, driving the company’s success and world renown.

David Scatcherd Brown was an academic, with extensive mathematical insight, an expert on designing and testing telescopes, whose understanding and interpretation of test results was such that the quality and consistency of the firm’s products rapidly grew.

David Sinden on the other hand came from a working class background and learnt through doing. He became an expert in working with glass, producing the optically perfect mirrors essential to the large telescopes produced by Grubb Parsons.

Together they made a formidable team, both very different characters and backgrounds, but with a shared passion for astronomy. Although there’s no evidence that either David ever lived in Heaton, their work at Grubb Parsons certainly put it on the map.

Grubb Parsons

The firm of Sir Howard Grubb Parsons and Company was established in Heaton in 1925, although the roots of the firm in astronomy and telescope making go back to Dublin in the early 19th Century, with the establishment of a telescope manufacturing company by Thomas Grubb. The firm quickly developed a reputation for the quality of its astronomical telescopes. When Thomas retired in 1868, his son Howard took over, moving the business to St Albans in 1918. The business struggled under Howard’s leadership and some seven years later was bought out by Sir Charles Parsons and the new firm re-located to Newcastle, where C.A. Parsons and Company already had its headquarters.

Grubb Parsons Factory

Grubb Parsons, Heaton works

That Charles Algernon Parsons should have taken an interest in telescope making when he already had a well established business making power generating equipment and steam turbines may seem unusual. However, his father William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, was a famous astronomer. Charles, along with his two older brothers, was privately educated at the family seat of Birr Castle, County Offaly, Ireland, where one of his tutors, Sir Robert Ball, was later to become Astronomer Royal for Ireland. So it’s hardly surprising that Charles had an interest in astronomy. Furthermore, the Irish connection almost certainly would have meant that he was familiar with the Thomas Grubb Company and would have wanted to continue its tradition.

Grubb Parsons was already well established and had a reputation for its large astronomical telescopes by the time the two Davids joined the company in the 1950s, but they would go on to achieve world renown over the next 20 years.

David Scatcherd Brown

David Scatcherd Brown was born in Coventry on 25 August 1927. The family were from Yorkshire, where his father was a headmaster. He attended Oldbury County School before securing a place at Queen’s College Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, specialising in physics and maths. The 2nd World War interrupted his studies while he served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, gaining valuable engineering experience and skills, before returning to complete his studies.

Grubb Parsons David S Brown - pic

David Scatcherd Brown

By that time, Brown was already interested in telescopes and astronomy, so it must have been a natural fit for him to take up post at Grubb Parsons straight from University in 1950. He was put to work with the optical team, under the leadership of George Manville, working specifically on the testing and manufacturing methods for the large mirrors and lenses needed for large telescopes. At the time the business was just picking up after the war and David was quick to adopt and adapt the latest testing technologies, making the whole process more objective and improving the quality of the finished product. It was on his advice that a testing tower was built allowing mirrors to be tested lying on their back, which greatly improved the process and perhaps explains the unusual shape of the Grubb Parsons building.

In 1950, David married Margaret Stephens, whom he’d met at Cambridge, when she was studying Natural Sciences at Girton. The couple would go on to have two children.

David Sinden

David Sinden was born on 31 July 1932 in Hartlepool and was a keen astronomer from an early age. At the age of 16 he built his first telescope, with the help of his father, Fred, causing a stir among the neighbours in Hood Street, Haverton Hill. By the age of 22, now living in a council house in Billingham, a story appeared in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer when David, already a member of the British Astronomical Association, applied for planning permission to build an observatory in his parents’ back garden. The observatory was to be made of galvanised steel sheets on a wooden frame with an 8’ diameter dome. The council, approving the plan, admitted that they didn’t have any precedents for planning applications for such buildings on a council estate! In the article, David admitted that he had to wait for the street lights to go out and that the heat from Teesside’s factories sometimes made the stars appear square, although he did say that they may just be flying snuff boxes!

Grubb Parsons D Sindon L with George Oliver and 72 in Helwan mirror

David Sinden (extreme right) with George Oliver and the 72 inch Helwan mirror

Having been apprenticed as a fitter at ICI, the young David found that the work wasn’t to his liking and moved to work for a local optician, becoming an expert in optical instruments. It was while working there that he made a mirror, which he sent to Grubb Parsons on spec. So impressed were they that they offered him a job. So it was that David Sinden joined the firm in 1957, working for David Brown.

 

David subsequently married Helen, although we’ve been unable to confirm the date, and the couple were recorded in the 1980s as living at the Poplars, Coley Hill Farm, North Walbottle, far enough out of town to avoid the worst of the light pollution.

Polar opposites

In 1961, David Brown was appointed Optical Manager focusing exclusively on telescopes and a year later he appointed David Sinden as Glass Shops’ Manager, with control over scientific instruments as well as telescopes. As David Brown’s obituary notes ‘There could not have been two more different types working together, the one with a deep mathematical insight and ability to interpret obscure testing problems, the other with the instinctive feel for working glass, the hardness of the pitch, the construction of the polisher and methods of working.’

It seems that the two men were also polar opposites in terms of personality. David Brown was described as a quiet, good natured and unassuming man, whereas David Sinden was much more outgoing. Many of his friends and former colleagues posted tributes after his death, all speaking warmly of a friendly, generous, passionate man with an improbable number of outside interests which included, but were not limited to, photography, sculpture, motorbikes, steam engines, archaeology, marathon running and pistol shooting. An exceptional public speaker with a passion and enthusiasm for science, astronomy and anything even vaguely telescope-shaped, who could hold an audience entranced for hours and hours.

Their time working together at Grubb Parsons saw the company produce some of its finest work and arguably some of the best large optical telescopes ever produced. The list is extensive and includes:

  • 48-inch reflector, Victoria, Canada, 1961
  • 40-inch reflector, Pic du Midi, France. Optics only, 1962
  • The 40 inch Elizabeth telescope, South Africa,1963
  • 74-inch reflector, Helwan (Kottamia), Egypt, 1963
  • 30-inch reflector, Jungfraujoch, Switzerland, 1966
  • 16/24-inch Schmidt, Castel Gandolfo, 1967
  • The 98 inch Issac Newton Telescope, Hestmonceaux, England, 1967
  • 72 inch (182cm) Mirror for Padua, Italy, 1973
  • 48/72-inch Schmidt, Siding Spring, Australia, 1973
  • 154 inch Reflector, Siding Spring, Australia, 1974
  • 48-inch reflector, Athens University, Greece, 1975
  • 150-in mirror, UKIRT, Hawaii, 1976
  • 60 inch Reflector, La Silla, Chile, 1976.

Many of them are still in situ.

Grubb Parsons 98 in mirror - Ds 1965

Magazine cover featuring Grubb Parsons

Grubb Parsons, during their time there, was a curious mixture of the latest techniques and processes that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the dark satanic mills of old. In one room David Brown might be working on the very latest in computerised testing and design processes, while in another a vast cauldron of pitch was being boiled. David Sinden always spoke of his work as dirty, grubby, grimy, filthy and gritty, although the results were world renowned.

Decline of Grubb Parsons

By the late 1970s, despite the obvious success of a series of large scale telescopes, Grubb Parsons was in difficulty. The scientific instrument side of the business, which had always supported the more impressive work on large telescopes, started to decline and being part of a much larger group of companies with different priorities saw a lack of new investment.

David Sinden was the first to leave, in 1976, to set up his own business, the Sinden Optical Company. David Brown, having been promoted to Technical Director in 1975, stayed on with the company, taking control of all of the optics work and completing a number of major projects, including the 4.2m Herschel telescope even as the works were pulled down around the glass shops.

Life after Grubb Parsons

In 1981, David Brown was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Durham University and when Grubb Parsons finally closed in 1985 joined the Physics Department as the Grubb Parsons Research Fellow. As well as working on a number of major projects, he travelled extensively around the world to advise on the construction of large telescopes. He also lectured at both Durham and Edinburgh Universities, where his lectures were said to be stimulating, with many practical demonstrations. He maintained his lifelong interest in Astronomy, with his own observatory and active membership of the Newcastle Astronomical Society.

He died at the young age of 59 on 17 July 1987 after what is described as a short illness. Probate records show his address at that time as 17, Douglas Avenue, Gosforth and that he left an estate of £97,063.

In 1979, David Sinden established his own optical company in Raby Cross, Byker, although the firm eventually moved to Ryton after being plagued by repeated problems with vandalism. The company dealt with all types of optical work, including building quite a reputation for Camera Obscuras. Loved by the Victorians, the Camera Obscura projects images of the locality onto a large circular table in a darkened room. SOC’s first commission was to build one for the Gateshead Garden Festival, where it was set up in a large tent. They then went on to build others for places as far flung as Portugal, Spain and Cuba. After the garden festival the Camera Obscura was moved to the Foredown Tower in a Country Park in Hove, where it remains the only example of SOC’s work in the UK.

In addition to Camera Obscuras, the company began to specialise in restoring historic telescopes and even in building new large mirrors, the largest being 48”, using equipment bought from Grubb Parsons when it closed down.

In 1993, David Sinden was awarded an Honorary masters Degree from Newcastle University. Perhaps the greatest accolade for his lifetime’s work though was the naming of a minor planet in his honour. In June 2005, Asteroid 10369 Sinden was named in his honour, with a team from Armagh University visiting his workshop to present him with documentation about his own star.

Grubb Parsons Presentation from Armagh Uni re asteroid 10369 Sinden June 2005 (1)

Sadly, he died just two months later on 29 August 2005, at the age of 73 after being diagnosed with lung cancer some 18 months earlier.

Legacy

The Sinden Optical Company closed in 2005 after David’s death. Although Grubb Parsons has been closed for almost 40 years, the old telescope testing tower can still be seen behind Siemens on land owned by a company called Houghton International;. But the real legacy of Grubb Parsons and their two optical geniuses, David Brown and David Sinden lives on in the great optical telescopes they built, many of which are still in regular use in all five continents of the world.

Can you help?

If you know more about Grubb Parsons, including the work of Davids Brown and Sinden, 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

Researched and written by Michael Proctor, Heaton History Group.

This article is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Heaton History Group and the Joicey Trust

Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.

Print

George Stanley introduces ‘Heaton!’

You may have noticed that, in July, the People’s Theatre is putting on a play called ‘Heaton!’ It’s been written by Heaton History Group’s very own Peter Dillon and will feature some of the figures from Heaton’s history that you may have read about on this website, alongside some new characters you don’t yet know. Over the coming months, we’ll be inviting some of them to tell us more about themselves and the show.

First up is George Stanley, the tragedian and impresario who you may remember founded the Tyne Theatre and who, we believe, played a big part in the naming of Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’ . Over to George:

GeorgeStanley

Welcome one and all – For many years now I’ve petitioned Newcastle Council for a licence to run a theatre in this fine city, and with a persistence matching rain they’ve regularly turned me down.  Well, the days of petitions, the pleading letters, chaining myself to the Town Hall railings are over. No more begging.  Instead –

SHOWTIME!

Now or never, I’ll be showcasing my ingenuity, my refusal to take no for an answer, my stagecraft, my indefatigable personality, my thespian artistry……..all of these virtues and more will be on show in July, yes JULY!  July 17 – July 21st to be precise – and the Box Office is open!

I’ve teamed up with those very good folks from the People’s Theatre to put on an all dancing, all singing entertainment to delight and inform the burghers of Heaton, and indeed far beyond.  

 I’m entitling the said theatrical extravangza, HEATON!

The show will feature some of the finest citizens of the borough that have ever lived, walked, and breathed in the Tyne’s fresh air.  Sir Charles Parsons himself and the Turbinia  from the Heaton Works on the Fossway, the good Lady Parsons, an engineer in her own right, the redoubtable Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell, Hotspur Street’s intrepid reformer, Ove Arup, born on Jesmond Vale Terrace, who built Sydney Opera House, a domestic servant, and Colin Veitch, Captain Supremo of Newcastle Utd and co-founder of the People’s Theatre. 

They’ll all be there, so why not you…………..Oh, and not forgetting, someone who might be called the juvenile lead, name of Freddie.  A dubious character, whose blog it’ll be my displeasure to introduce next time –

The dates of this not to be missed epic, once again, are Tuesday, JULY 17 – Saturday, JULY 21

And if this superior example of the performing arts fails to persuade the Council to grant me a theatre licence, I’ll have to settle for a One-Man Show at The Hoppings.  Now we wouldn’t want that, would we…….

A must for all Heaton History Group members, family, neighbours, friends and hangers on, we’re sure you’ll agree. Find out more and book tickets here.

Not only that: the show will be accompanied by an exhibition called ‘Brains, Steam and Speed: 250 years of  science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton’, brought to you by the schoolchildren of Chillingham Road, Cragside, Hotspur and Ravenswood Primary Schools and Sir Charles Parsons School, Heaton History Group’s research team and Shoe Tree Arts, who put on the ‘Under the Fields of Heaton’, mining heritage arts events a couple of years ago. This is thanks to another award from Heritage Lottery Fund. Oh, and there will be music and song in the foyer too!

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Forgotten Music Makers of Heaton

If you were asked about Heaton’s most important exports, you might well mention great feats of engineering, such as Sir Charles Parsons’ ground-breaking steam turbines, or Grubb Parsons’ telescopes, both of which are still to be found throughout the world. Or perhaps you’d suggest music, with local boy Chas Chandler, inducted into Rock and Roll’s Hall of Fame with ‘The Animals’ in 1994 – the band’s 60s’ songs still played and performed all over the world half a century after they were written. We rightly commemorate such achievements with plaques, books and museum displays.

But hands up if you’ve ever stopped on Grafton Street and given even a passing thought to the local men who married both of the great Heaton industries of engineering and music?  In truth, you might never have had cause to go to Grafton Street at all: since redevelopment of the area, it’s perhaps the shortest street in Heaton (or is it Byker?) comprising little more than four parking bays (usually full) facing Shields Road and a single yellow line. There’s a pawnbroker’s shop on one corner and a council customer service centre on the other.

GraftonSt_IMG_3807resized

Grafton Street

But there’s also a nearby bench on which you can sit and listen. There may still be music in the air.

So let’s rewind.

Apprentice

Charles William Howden was born in All Saints parish, of which Heaton was a part, in 1865 and baptised in St Nicholas’s Cathedral on 28 May of that year. He was the eldest child of Ryton born, Margaret Isabella, and John Howden, a shipping clerk from Wakefield in Yorkshire.

By 1881 at the age of 16 and still living with his parents and now four younger siblings in the west end of Newcastle, Charles was described as an ‘organ builder’s apprentice’. Ten years later, still living in the parental home, he is described on the census as an ’employer’ and ‘organ builder’.

We don’t yet know to whom young Charles Howden was apprenticed but we can trace the development of the organ building firm that bears his name from its foundation c1893  via Forth Street  and Snowdon Street in Newcastle to 65 Grafton Street, Heaton. Howden had joined forces with one William Charlton Blackett, the Bensham-born son of a coal agent, to set up the firm of Blackett and Howden Ltd.

Inventors

Like other more famous engineers operating around Heaton at this time, Blackett and Howden weren’t content to copy what had gone before. They wanted their organs to be better than everyone else’s. We can trace several patent applications: for ‘pallets‘ (1891). ‘pneumatic action’ (1895) and ‘blowing‘ (1904).

According to organ historian, James Ingall Wedgewood, they may have invented what is known as a ‘diaphone‘, the noise-making device best known for its use as a foghorn. While the invention of the diaphone is commonly attributed to Robert Hope-Jones,  it was apparently Blackett and Howden who first experimented with it as early as 1888:

‘It frequently happens in organ building, when the requisite conditions are fortuitously complied with, that a pallet will commence to vibrate rapidly, and it is often within the province of an organist’s or organ builder’s observation that such a “fluttering pallet,” or a Tremulant in a state of rapid vibration, when provided with a resonator in the form of a soundboard or wind trunk, generates tones of considerable power. The safety valves of steamboats constantly act similarly. … The idea must doubtless have occurred to many builders … that such phenomena might systematically be adapted to tonal use.

An experimental attempt at such adaptation was made in 1888 by Messrs. Blackett & Howden, of Newcastle [England]. The bulk of the apparatus employed was enclosed in a box (15 ins. square for the 16 ft. note). Wind passed into a chamber containing a vibrator in the form of a circular disc fixed on to the loose end of a spring, and so arranged as to beat against a hole in the under side of the resonator, being regulated in pitch and intensity by a sliding bridge and set-screw.’

Whether because they were louder or simply because they were of superb quality, Blackett and Howden organs were sold not only across the north east but soon throughout the UK and even overseas.

Some of the earliest church organs for which records exist are in Scotland; the one in the Braid Church in Edinburgh was built in 1898 and there were other early instruments in Glasgow, West Kilbride and Montrose. At one point the firm did so much business in Scotland that it ran a second workshop in Glasgow. Another one followed in Cardiff.

Close to home

According to the British Pipe Organ Register, locally, the firm built the organ for St Gabriel’s (date unknown), Heaton Methodist Church (1910) and Heaton Congregational Church (1920).

The transport costs to Heaton Congregational Church must have been among the lowest for any Blackett and Howden organ: the church (now Heaton Bingo) was only a few hundred yards from the factory. Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to this organ: it doesn’t appear on the current National Pipe Organ Register.

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Heaton Congregational Church’s Blackett and Howden organ was installed in 1920

 

There is some confusion regarding the St Gabriel’s organ. According to the British Pipe Organ Register, organ N04082 was surveyed in St Gabriel’s in 1944 and described as ‘built by Blackett and Howden (date unknown)’. According to the opening sentence of a report written in 1994 by Paul Ritchie: ‘The builders of St Gabriel’s organ would appear to be modest as there is no name plate on the console, nor do the bellow weights carry their initial letters’. Ritchie goes on to say: ‘Somewhere in the back of my memory is a little voice saying Abbott and Smith’. And indeed there is another entry in the register for St Gabriel’s: organ N12464 ‘built by Abbott and Smith in 1905; surveyed in 1980′. Another unsigned and undated report states that Blackett and Howden installed an exhaust-pneumatic action around 1920 and that, at the same time, tuba and pedal trombone were added ‘and the Great Organ gained a large Open Diapason with leathered upper lips. This latter stop was placed on a separate unit chest and was reported to be rather poor; it was removed by Willis in 1963′.

But there are no such doubts about the instrument in Heaton Methodist Church. It was inaugurated on Wednesday 4 May 1910: ‘there were recitals from 2.30pm, followed by a public tea. Special services took place on the next three Sundays and a concert took place on Monday 23rd May.’ And it’s is still going strong.

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Heaton Methodist Church organ

A celebratory concert was held in 2010 to celebrate the centenary of its installation and the programme included a short history of both the organ and of Blackett and Howden itself.

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Heaton Methodist Church organ centenary programme

 

Military march

But perhaps the most famous Blackett and Howden organ still played today is in the Royal Memorial Chapel of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which was built in 1924. The instrument is described in the history of the organ as ‘for its time, fairly cutting edge technology’ with ‘pioneering use of tubular pneumatic action’. After the war, the architect Sir Hugh Casson designed a new organ case for the instrument above the chapel’s main war memorial. At this point the organ was rebuilt and enlarged but using a lot of the original pipework.

 Rescue

Sadly many Blackett and Howden organs have been destroyed over the years but that originally built for the Prince’s Theatre in North Shields was fortuitously rescued by an Australian enthusiast. Apparently this was the only unit theatre organ ever built by the firm (in 1929) and its console was displayed at the North East Trade Fair Exhibition.

Records show that the flue pipes were ‘voiced’ by Syd Goldsmith and the reeds and strings by Frank ‘Hubbert‘ (although we believe this to be Frank Hubbard who in 1911 was living on Tosson Terrace, Heaton). The skill of manipulating an organ pipe to make it sound is known as voicing: ‘Each pipe must be made to play with the proper onset of sound (known as speech), sustained tone, and volume. When the voicing process is complete, each individual pipe in the organ forms a beautiful musical instrument.’

According to locals, the Prince’s Theatre organ had ‘a beautiful tone with sweet voicing and ample power for the large house.’ Although its console was destroyed in 1969, its chamber contents were bought for £75 by the Organ Society of Australia.  They even obtained the original receipt!

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Blackett and Howden document

In 1975, it was installed in Cinema North in Reservoir, Victoria. In 1999, it was moved to Coburg Town Hall, also in Victoria. You can read the full story of  this wonderful instrument here:

Eastward ho

We have found a record showing that, on 16 January 1917, William Blackett sailed from London to Hong Kong on the Japanese ship, SS Fushimi Maru. It was a dangerous time to be at sea: over 200 allied ships were lost during January 1917 alone. But it shows that Blackett and Howden’s reputation was worldwide. As you can see below, most of Blackett’s fellow British passengers were missionaries or nurses.

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Fushima Maru passenger list including William Blackett

The organ of St John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong was built by William Blackett ‘an elderly, bearded gentleman’ who ‘had come to the colony to install one of their organs in a church in the colony. Finding the climate congenial, he decided to stay and set up a small organ factory in the city. He recruited a group of Chinese and taught them the trade’.

Full renewal of the existing organ was priced at $14,000 but fundraising was suspended because of what was called ‘troublous times’ in 1925: a strike and anti-British boycott ignited by a deadly shooting during a strike in Shanghai, fuelled to fever pitch by British and French guards killing demonstrators in Canton. Nevetheless the organ was complete by 1927 and services, in which the organ could be heard, broadcast on the radio the same year.

Sale

Meanwhile back home, Blackett and Howden was sold to the London firm of Hill, Norman and Beard in 1924. At this time, John Christie of Glyndebourne became the major shareholder and Charles Howden became general manager with Ralph Walton Blackett, William’s son, sub-manager.

But on 25 September 1927, with William Blackett still in Hong Kong, Charles Howden died at the age of 62 at his home, 35 Rothbury Terrace. He left £1873 3s 3d in his will, a modest sum considering the success of the company he had co-founded more than thirty years earlier.

Blackett and Howden’s name continued to be used, however. It traded from its Grafton Street premises for another half century. The Heaton factory finally closed in 1974, when the remaining part of the business was purchased by N Church & Co.

Team effort

William Blackett and Charles Howden did not, of course, build their organs alone.

Hopefully this article will enable us to trace people employed in the factory in later years. In the meantime, it seems appropriate to pay tribute here to some of the workers listed in the 1911 census whose reputation and, in some cases, expertly crafted musical instruments live on more than a hundred years after they were made.

One of these was Terrot G Myles who, in 1911, was 30 years old. He lived at 149 Molyneux Street.

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Terrot G Myles

Terrot is described in the census as an ‘organ builder‘. Thanks to his granddaughter, Grace, we have  photographs of him and know quite a lot about his life. Terrot was born in Glasgow but moved to Edinburgh as a young boy. After leaving school, he was apprenticed to Ingram & Co, a firm of organ builders, in their Edinburgh factory and progressed to become a journeyman. The firm described him as ‘smart, willing and punctual’ and recommended him to future employers. In 1908, Scovell and Company called him ‘a most conscientious and painstaking worker, perfectly steady and reliable and a good all round man’. His reference made it clear that he was leaving the company only due to ‘depression of trade’ and they expressed a hope that he would return at some future date.

By this time though Terrot had already married Isabella Younger, a bookbinder from Sunderland. Their elder son, Richard, was born in Hampshire in 1908 but by 1911, they were in Newcastle, where, a year later, their younger son, John was born. We can only guess that while in Heaton and working as an organ builder, Terrot was employed by Blackett and Howden but it seems a fair assumption to make.

However, in 1923, the family set sail from Liverpool to New York in search of a better life. Terrot spent the next eight years working for Henry Pilcher’s Sons, an organ builder, in Louisville, Kentucky. He became a naturalised American the following year and spent his career building and installing organs all over the USA. He received and treasured many glowing references, which Grace still has. Terrot and Isabella eventually moved to White Lake, Michigan, where Isabella died in 1954 and Terrot a year later, aged 73 years.

Others listed in the 1911 census include:

William Blackett, aged 52, 13 Brough Street, Heaton Joiner in Organ Factory (We don’t know whether he was related in any way to the firm’s co-founder, William Blackett, who lived in Whitley Bay at this time)

Charles Brassington, aged 31, 26 Heaton Park Road, organ builder

John Wastle Craig, aged 14, 15 Tynemouth Rd, organ builder assistance

William Gill, aged 54, 13 Addison Street, organ builder, voicer, tuner

Thomas Miller Hendry, aged 23, 39 Langhorn St, organ builder

Frank Hubbard, 83 Tosson Terrace, organ voicer (*Almost certainly the Frank ‘Hubbert’ who voiced the North Shields organ. See above.)

James William Jobson, aged 50, 10 North View, organ builder

John Jobson, aged 16, 10 North View, apprentice organ builder

John George Millington, aged 34, 188 Warton Terrace, organ builder (Later lived in King John Terrace until his death in 1962)

John Matthew Mitchell, aged 63, 72 Addycombe Terrace, organ builder

John Henry Reed, aged 22, 80 Eighth Avenue, organ builder

Ernest Routledge, aged 22, 57 Malcolm Street,  organ pipe maker (Ernest died in 1918 aged 29 as did his 2 year old son, Roland)

Whenever you listen to organ music this Christmas, spare a thought for these Heaton master-craftsmen and the lasting joy they have brought to the world.

Can you help?

If you know more about any of the people or organs mentioned in this article or of anyone who worked at Blackett and Howden’s, we’d love to hear from you. We’d also be interested to hear and see photographs of any other Blackett and Howden organs you see on your travels. 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

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to HHG member, Joyce Lovell, and to George Cottrell for information about Heaton Methodist Church organ; to Pauline Giles for information about St Gabriel’s organ;  to Grace Myles for photos and information on Terrot Myles.

Sources

Biographical Dictionary of the Organ

Laurence Elvin ‘Family Enterprise: the story of some north country organ builders‘ 1986

Norman F Moore and W Kirby Robinson ‘From Byker to Heaton: the origins and history of Heaton Methodist Church’ Pattinson, 2000

 National Pipe Organ Register list of Blackett and Howden organs 

James Ingall Wedgwood ‘A Comprehensive Dictionary of Organ Stops English and Foreign, Ancient and Modern’ The Vincent Music company, 1905 (via Wikipedia entry for Diaphone)

Stuart Wolfendale ‘Imperial to International: a history of St John’s Cathedral Hong Kong’ Hong Kong University Press, 2013

and online sources eg Ancestry

The Really Incredible Heaton Telescope

Our October talk, ‘A Gift of Stars’, will tell the story of how Grubb Parsons came to be in Newcastle and will, in particular, focus on (no pun intended!) the firm’s first big reflector,  the 74 inch David Dunlap telescope. This was used by astronomer Helen Sawyer Hogg to discover thousands of variable stars, allowing the distance of galaxies to be measured accurately thus enabling the true scale of the universe to be established for the first time. We’ve always said Heaton’s at the centre of the universe. After this, there can be no doubt!

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Judith 3

Our speaker

Our speaker is David Kidd, a retired maths teacher and amateur astronomer.  David first came across Grubb Parsons in the 1960s when, as a member of South Shields Astronomical Society, he visited the works.

David spent the last part of his working life in Africa and started researching the history of Grubbs when he was contacted by a group of local historians in South Africa interested in the telescopes in Pretoria and Johannesburg built by the company.

To book

The talk will take place at The Corner House, Heaton Road, NE6 5RP on Wednesday 26 October 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. Booking is open to Heaton History Group members only until Wednesday 24 August.