Tag Archives: Sir Charles Parsons

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.


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


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.

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:


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 –


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Organ Centenary Concert - Programme

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.


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!


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.


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.


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.

Blackett&HowdenTeretGMylesIMG_2086 (1)

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


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.


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!


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.


The ‘Happy Heatonians’ – Bob Colston’s Variety Entertainment Group

During WWI there were numerous groups of entertainers prepared to give their time freely and perform throughout the country to cheer up and boost the morale of soldiers at their camps and wounded soldiers in hospital.One such group was the ‘Happy Heatonians’ managed by Bob Colston, who lived at 127 Clifford Street, which was a 3 room flat in Byker. In 1917 Bob Colston (36), a postman, was living at home with his father, mother and sister.

It is not known when the ensemble was formed, but the first mention of Bob Colston performing as a comedian, was reported in the Daily Journal, Friday, 26 February 1915. This took place at the Collingwood Restaurant, Newcastle where the first annual dinner of the Scotswood Checkers of the Fuse and Shell Department at  Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd took place. About 80 members attended.

Members of the ‘Happy Heatonians’ mentioned in subsequent newspaper articles were as follows (Not all appeared at each venue and they were not necessarily from Heaton.):

Mr Bob Colston                       –           Organiser, Comedian and Mimic

Mrs G D Tetley                     –           Mandolin Duettist

Miss Cockburn                        –           Mandolin Duettist

Miss Peggy Lowrey                –           Banjo and Mandolin

Mrs T H Booth                      –           Banjo and Mandolin

Little Rita*                                 –           Juvenile Entertainer

Madam Laura Fraser              –         Entertainer at Piano

Miss Gerty Moskow **             –        Mezzo Soprano

Miss Lily Farrell                       –        Comedienne

Corporal Bob Maitland            –     Scotch Comedian

Mr Taylor Scorer                    –         Baritone

Miss Enid Carverhill                –     Comedienne

Miss Bella Angus                    –       Soprano

Mr J B Cavan                       –         Actor, Vocalist

Miss Lily Nicolson                   –     Accompanist

Miss G. Makon

Mr G W. Beautyman

*Rita May Barker of 20 Tenth Avenue, Heaton, the daughter of William, a commercial traveller (flour milling) and Sophia, seem to fit the bill. She would have been aged 13 in 1917.

**At first we thought this must be a stage name but it is her real name as recorded in the 1911 census. The was the daughter of Samuel Moskow, a watchmaker and jewellerand his wife Julia. they lived in Elswick with Gertie’s sister and brother, Lily and Abraham Jacob.In 1917, she would have been 19 years old.

Newspaper Reports and Venues

23 January 1917  –   North Shields YMCA – Variety concert to a crowded audience.

17 May1917  –   Newcastle Naval Hostel – Where 587 men lived

12 October 1917  –   Residents of Greystoke Avenue and Jesmond Vale arranged for a party of wounded soldiers to have tea and supper and be entertained by a programme of music performed by the ‘Happy Heatonians’.

27 October 1917  –   Blyth YMCA Hut – Where a crowded audience of soldiers were given a concert.

4 December 1917  –   Cambridge Hall, Northumberland Road – A fund raising concert for St John Ambulance, under the patronage of the Lord Mayor. Over 200 members of St John Ambulance are on active service.

29 January 1918   –  North Wylam, Holeyn Hall, home of Sir Charles Parsons, the inventor of the Steam Turbine and of Turbinia fame. During WWI his private residence became the 14th Northumberland VAD Hospital, where a variety concert was given for the wounded soldiers.

Charles Parsons

Charles Algernon Pasrons


18 November 1918      Holeyn Hall – A concert, directed by Mr Bob Colston and arranged by Mrs Manning of Wylam, was given for the wounded soldiers.

12 December 1918      Holeyn Hall V.A.D. Hospital Saturday Night Entertainment Committee offered their thanks to friends who have kindly entertained the wounded soldiers during the year. Amongst them was Mr Bob Colston. Others with Heaton associations that maybe of interest were:

Heaton Juveniles Dramatic Entertainment run by Madam Kendall and Mr Alfred Braford;

Addison Wounded Soldiers Entertainment Committee, who on 10 occasions invited the soldiers to half day entertainments at Wylam Institute and also at Ryton and Newcastle;

Addison Branch of St John Ambulance Association;

Addison Male Voice Choir.

The last three would have been associated with the Addison Potter colliery and village, just west of Blaydon and named after Addison Potter, the owner of Heaton Hall and the colliery.

1 August.1919      West Moor – A second ‘welcome home’ was held in the West Moor Council Schools for the soldiers residing in the West Moor and Forest Hall districts, who enlisted from Burradon Colliery.

The above was the last reported performance of the ‘Happy Heatonians’, nine months after the Armistice took place.

It certainly seemed that during WWI (as now!), ‘Heaton had Talent’ in abundance and it was put to good use, entertaining wounded servicemen, munitions workers and helping with fund raising events, all under the direction of Bob Colston.

Note: We cannot find any evidence that Bob Colston was conscripted to fight in WWI. He does not appear in the Newcastle Absent Voters List to indicate that he was away on active service. Whether he was not fit enough to join up is unknown, but his occupation was given as postman in the 1911 Census. Being in his mid thirties he would not have been too old to join up and fight for King and Country.


Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group.

Can you help?

If you have any more information about the Happy Heatonians or any of the members listed here, we’d love to hear them. Please either leave a message on this site by clicking on the link immediately below the title of this article or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Rachel Parsons: queen of the machine

Rachel Parsons (1885–1956) was an engineering trailblazer, but she has disappeared from the pages of history – until now. The daughter and heir of Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine, she was the first woman to study mechanical sciences at Cambridge University and went on to become a director of Heaton Works, her father’s firm.

Rachel Parsons (by Bassano, by permission of National Portrait Gallery)

Rachel Parsons (by Bassano, by permission of National Portrait Gallery)

Rachel and Charles Parsons

Rachel and Charles Parsons in Charles’laboratory at Holeyn Hall, Wylam

During the First World War, she taught hundreds of women to make munitions and later founded the Women’s Engineering Society. In 1956 she met a violent death at the hands of a stableman who was well known to her.

Woman at Parsons' Heaton works engaged in steam turbine manufacture during WW1

Woman at Parsons’ Heaton works engaged in steam turbine manufacture during WW1

Rachel Parsons in a Buick outside her house in London’s Grosvenor Square, 1925

Rachel Parsons in a Buick outside her house in London’s Grosvenor Square, 1925

The remarkable story of Rachel Parsons and the Parsons family will be told by Henrietta Heald, author of William Armstrong, Magician of the North, a highly acclaimed biography of Baron Armstrong of Cragside. The talk will take place at The Corner House, Heaton Road, NE6 5RP on Wednesday 12 August 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. Until Wednesday 10 June, bookings will be accepted from Heaton History Group members only but after that will be open to all-comers.