No. 92 Spring 2022
Editor: Mark Benjamin
Welcome to the Spring newsletter and the first of the society’s 56th year. As I had expected, the 2022 series of talks has got off to a strong start and that looks set to continue as I glance ahead to the programme Andrea has put together for us all. If for any reason you have missed either of the talks from Greg Finch and Barbara Crosbie, they and three other talks from last year are accessible via the Members Area of our website. If you haven’t yet checked out the February Test Your Hexham Building Rubble Knowledge I would definitely recommend it. I found it a particularly tough one, thank you Pete.
March sees the first “in-person” talk since before the Pandemic. However, following the Members’ Survey, we have decided to include one or two remote speakers each year. This will allow us to look further afield for speakers to maintain a varied programme. These talks will be via Zoom and we will schedule them between October and February when the nights are dark and the weather isn’t so good.
As I am sure some of you will have spotted, there is a new map cabinet in the newly refurbished reference library. The society contributed substantially to the acquisition to facilitate better access and storage to a number of great resources, including a complete set of the Goad Marketing Plans of the town. The HSHAZ, High Street Heritage Action Zone, recently completed the collection at the Society’s request, building on the collection to which we had previously donated.
Speaking of the HSHAZ, that just trips of the tongue doesn’t it, there is a new exhibition of JP Gibson images at the Queen’s Hall until 4th March which I can strongly recommend and that is not just because our own Mark Benjamin provided his invaluable support. The exhibition features dozens of images from the collection held by Northumberland Archives, many of which I had never seen before. Getting the chance to see the interior of the Old Grammar School back in 1876 was a particular treat for me.
I would like to conclude just to say thank you to all our members. All the hard work that many of the people put in on behalf of the society might have gone under the radar a little over the past couple of years and this is a great opportunity for me to once again thank them for their work and to thank you all for sticking with us and of course to welcome the new members that have joined our ranks.
One of the Society’s aims is to encourage the research into topics of local interest and the last few editions of Hexham Historian have contained a majority of articles written by the Society’s members. It would be great to keep this going, so if you something you would like to share with a wider audience, please get in touch with Liz Sobell at firstname.lastname@example.org
The subject is entirely up to you – be it the history of your house, a local notable, your local pub or long-established commercial operation – or whatever takes your fancy, just so long as it has a connection to the area! Editorial advice is on hand.
Following on from the survey of members, we are proposing to dedicate one talks session per year to members’ presentations. This would be made up of a combination of 20 or 30 minute talks totalling about 1hr and would allow members to present their own research on areas they are interested in. Topics mentioned in the survey included St Giles Hospital, Workhouse, Trades & Industry, Market, Living conditions and life in Hexham through time, Archaeology, Forensic Techniques, Rural Life and House & Church Histories but anything is possible!
Anyone interested in presenting their own historical research in the 2023 programme should contact me at email@example.com with details on the subject and length of their talk by the end of September 2022.
HLHS has been working with the High Street Heritage Action Zone team on several projects, one of which is this exhibition of some rarely-seen images from the JP Gibson archive held at Northumberland Archives. (However, we take no responsibility for the inaccurate captioning of some of the images!) Also showing at the Queen’s Hall is a display of the Goad Plans showing the changing retail offer in Hexham from 1971 to 2014. Originally purchased by the library service, this collection has been supplemented by both HLHS and the HSHAZ team to give an almost complete run of 2-yearly snapshots of the shops in the town. We have also advised on the HAZ-created TrailTale app walking tour of the town “Historic Hexham” – available from your usual app store. Personally, I’d still recommend the VisitHexham app to visitors to the town as that has several different walks, but this one’s not a bad all-in-one tour.
HLHS has also contributed substantially to the purchase of an appropriate cabinet to store both these and the library’s collection of maps, following the recent refurbishment of the library. Although the cabinet was purchased last year, a combination of Covid and election-purdah meant that it was only officially-launched in January this year! The cabinet is situated in the library’s reference collection on the balcony. Here Society Members Mark Benjamin, Mark Runnacles Goodridge and Christine Hanley, together with Cllr Jeff Watson and librarian Kate St Clair-Gibson display both the cabinet and one of the Goad Plans.
Members interested in the retail history of the town can find further information in the Hexham Shops page in the Members’ Library; a spreadsheet extracted from the Goad Plans and updated regularly by the Society. Further work is currently underway in compiling a database showing the history of individual shop premises.
HLHS sponsored a film in the first TVFF, long ago in 2019 when, unfortunately, technical difficulties prevented the film from actually being shown – although the accompanying talk on the history of cinema in Hexham was presented later in the festival.
Ever optimistic, we have agreed to sponsor an evening of film for this year’s festival. Entitled Hexham on Film, the evening consists of a collection of short films featuring Hexham and the Tyne Valley down the years. There will be two screenings on Saturday 26th March, at 13.30 and 19.30. Tickets bookable through the Forum Cinema www.forumcinema.com or (01434) 601144. Do come, and bring your friends.
Experience a visual journey through time of Tynedale on film in this unmissable selection of films and clips from the vaults of the North East Film Archive.
Presented by the archive team, this fascinating presentation features familiar places – and maybe even faces – from a century of local film history. The selection features footage of Hexham market in the 1960s, excerpts from Flora Robson’s travelogue exploring the River Tyne and a 1970s promotional film that follows a family making the big move from the South of England to Hexham.
Two free tickets to this event are available to members. If you would like to take advantage of this offer, please call Mark on 07879263848. One ticket per application – strictly first-come-first-served!
Enclosed with this newsletter you will have found the booking forms for this year’s outings. Places are, as usual, limited and so will be allocated on a first come, first served basis. Please note that all bookings must be made by post, even if you receive this Newsletter in email form.
Tuesday March 8th: A sword’s tale: reconstructing Bronze Age fighting styles through experiments and use/wear analysis. A talk by Dr Andrea Dolfini. Trinity Methodist Church, 7.30pm. Entry £2 or Free to Members. Please note that this will not be available on Zoom on the night although we hope to be able to upload a recording onto the website following the talk. Members attending are asked to take a LFT on the day, and may wish to wear a mask during the talk.
Monday 21st & Tuesday 22nd March: Newcastle University Family Histories Forum. The event can be attended in person on the University’s campus, Devonshire Bldg, G21/G22, or virtually via video streaming. 10am – 4pm. For further details, see: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/hca/events/item/family-history-forum/
Saturday March 26th: Hexham on Film. Forum Cinema, 1.30pm & 7.30pm
Monday March 28th : Wor Bella. The incredible Northumberland story about the women who not only saved the WW1 war effort but also found time to play football. Dozens of women’s teams were formed throughout the North East, and Bella Reay – “the Alan Shearer of her day” – was the undoubted star. Queen’s Hall, 7.30pm
Tuesday April 12th: The Bole Hole Cemetery. A talk by Graeme Young. Trinity Methodist Church, 7.30pm Entry £2 or Free to Members
Tuesday May 10th: Safe sanctuaries: the defensible churches of Northern England. A talk by Dr Richard Pears. Trinity Methodist Church, 7.30pm Entry £2 or Free to Members
Wednesday May 18th: Talk & guided tour of Blyth Battery. 2pm at Blyth Battery. Booking essential
Wednesday June 22nd: Guided tour of the Windows of Hexham Abbey, 7.15pm. Booking essential
Wednesday July 20th: Guided tour on the History of Hexham Park, led by Nick Owen. 5.30pm at the Bandstand. Booking essential. Now fully booked, waiting list in operation
Philip Smith has asked us via Facebook:
I research both military and civil aircraft crashes in County Durham or anywhere south of the River Tyne including glider and hot air balloon forced landings. I am asking if anyone recalls or took photographs of an Aircoupe light aircraft which made a forced landing with damage on Hexham racecourse in 1961.This incident was briefly mentioned in the local newspapers. Any memories of wartime aircraft crashes in south Northumberland or if you have any photographs of aircraft incidents along with if you were an eyewitness please post.
David Hall also asks through Facebook:
I am currently researching the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers in WW1, with a view to, hopefully, publishing a battalion history, I have the various war diaries for the battalion, the official histories of the war etc, what I’m really after are the personal accounts, anecdotes, photographs, letters home etc by the men who served as it is those that will really bring my project to life.
The 8th Northumberland Fusiliers were one of, if not the, first battalions raised following Lord Kitchener’s initial appeal for men in August 1914, they served in Gallipoli between August and December 1915 before moving to the Western Front in mid-1916 where they remained for the rest of the war.
I’m hoping to hear from anyone who had a relative who served in that battalion during the First World War.
If anyone can help either Philip or David, please reply direct through Facebook or contact the Editor.
Those railway buffs amongst us may be interested in this board that has been erected at the site of the old bridge across the Tyne, to be found along the footpath leading west from Tyne Green; the work of one very enthusiastic individual, it has some flaws but, nevertheless marks an important, and often missed, crossing of the river. Do have a closer look, next time you go for a walk along the path!
Members may be aware of the listing of the town’s pubs & hotels held in the Members’ Library. Based on work undertaken by the old Tynedale Council Museum’s Service and later added to by Society members, this includes a few rumoured but, as yet, unidentified drinking establishments. One of these has been The Highlander; the site of which has been thought to have been on the eastern corner of West Road and Eilansgate (now 15/16 Quatre Bras) but, until now, no documentary evidence has been found to prove that the un-named “new-built inn” offered for sale in 1826 operated under this name. Now Gillian Wilson has provided some news clippings from 1925 which shed some light on the pub’s history. Confusingly, apparently it was also known as The Waggon Inn, possibly because one of the last tenants, James Tilly/Tillie, also a haulier, used to store his waggon in front of the inn! James Tillie, a haulier, was declared bankrupt around 1850 so it may be that the Highlander never prospered, which might explain its absence from the trades directories of the time.
Also within the Society’s website sits a page entitled “Hexham in Fiction”, listing any novels set in or around the town. We always keep our eyes open for any new authors to add to the list and a recent addition prompted the following rumination.
History buffs (and I count myself as one) are notorious for grumbling about historical inaccuracies in films. (My own favourite is the opening scene of the film Troy, set in “The Port of Sparta”; a famously inland city-state!) On film, these can be jarring but one is swept along by the action and few people consider feature films as historical documents. Written fiction, however, is often accorded more respect – indeed, I once attended an evening class for an Ancient History A-level run by a tutor who used the novels of Jack Lindsay as source material – needless to say, she had a poor pass rate and I found myself another tutor!
As the historian cum novelist, G M Baker, writes “As someone who trained to be an historian, I know that historical novels are a terrible way to learn history. As a novelist, I feel that defending the purpose of a novel as a way to learn any factual subject is to devalue fiction.”1 Historical novels are, by definition, fiction so how should the need for historical accuracy constrain artistic licence? Some authors obviously know the town well and simply tweak the facts to suit their narrative or are simply careless. For instance,Elizabeth Palmer, in Old Money, Hexham’s own contribution to the Aga Saga genre, has her characters turn right when they would have turned right. Sara Conway, on the other hand, in her Medieval whodunit series, posits both a fortified keep roughly where the Tap & Spile now stands,2 and that the town had a Jewish Quarter! Interestingly, the supposed keep would tie into the late John Chapman’s contentious theory of Hexham being a fortified town2 but, with the notable exception of the ‘False Jew of Hexham’3 – I have long contended, possibly inaccurately, that I am the Jewish Quarter of Hexham! However, I feel that both instances can be put down to artistic licence. Zoe Bramley, however, in her recently published novella, The Night Stair: a Tudor ghost story, is both careless and wrong. It is set at the time of the Dissolution and my alarm bells started to ring when a character arrives in the Market Place and asks a local where he can find the abbey. Having managed to find the abbey, he enters and is impressed by the spacious nave. It certainly would have been spacious in the 16th century, having been destroyed by the Scots under William Wallace some 200 years earlier and not rebuilt for another 300! This much could be attributed to artistic licence, albeit a somewhat pointless application of such, were it not for the author’s historical note stating that “Prior Edward Jay, and his brothers was pensioned off.” Whilst it is true that the canons were dispersed, some with pensions, Jay himself was famously hanged from the gateway for his resistance to the King’s Commissioners! I don’t know whether the author has ever visited Hexham – somehow, I doubt it.
All that apart, if you know of any novels featuring Hexham – accurately or not – that are not in the list, do let me know.
1 Baker, G M No, you can’t learn history from historical fiction. www.bit.ly/34vNByX
2 Chapman, John Was Hexham fortified?: the Watch Tower and town walls. Hexham Historian 19(2009)
3 Yeo, Alan Towards a history of Protestant dissent in Hexham. Hexham Historian 20(2010)
Extracted from A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies, Vol 3. 6th edn. 1762, London
West from Newcastle lies the Bailiwick town of Hexham (the Axelodunum of the Romans*), a Pass upon the Tyne, famous, or rather infamous, for having the first Blood drawn near it in the Civil War; and where a Detachment of English, though advantageously posted, were scandalously defeated by the Scots, who gained the Pass, fought through the River, and killed about 4000 men, the rest safely running away; after which, the Town of Newcastle was as easily seized upon, without striking a Stroke.**
The country about this Town is vulgarly called Hexhamshire. It was formerly the Seat of a Bishop, now annexed to that of Durham. Its Cathedral was stately, before the Scots ruined the greatest Part of it in one of their Incursions. On the other Side of the Tyne from Hexhamshire, you see an House very Beautifully situated, called Bifront, and within two Miles of Hexham is a fine House built by the late unfortunate Earl of Derwentwater, called Dilston.
*Defoe was writing A tour between 1724 and 1727. However, as early as 1732, a year after Defoe’s death, Horsley was suggesting that Axelodunum should be identified as being Burgh in Cumberland and not Hexham. It would seem that later editors failed to notice!
** This almost certainly refers to the Battle of Newburn. Defoe would appear to have known that there was a battle connected to the town – he just picked the wrong one!
Born in Newcastle in 1766, George Wilson became famous for his long walks. Following his father’s death, his family were left with a large debt, and his mother turned to pawn-broking to pay what was owed. Throughout George’s life, he was employed in various jobs, serving as a clerk at his mother’s business, as an apprentice cobbler, even starting his own business. While working as a hosier and draper, business often called for him to travel to London, a distance of more than 500 miles, which he’d travel on foot. During this time he was also employed as a tax collector which would often see him regularly walk 50-60 miles a day.
Following a small period of work in London he returned to Newcastle and began looking for wagers on walking long distances. It is thought his first wager was to walk the length of Hadrian’s Wall – 84 miles, within twenty four hours. This he completed.
Due to small debts however, he ended up in debtor’s prison on more than one occasion, but even then he continued wagering on distances he could cross in a set time. As George’s reputation grew, so did the challenges placed before him, with perhaps the biggest offered, being £100 to walk 1,000 miles around Blackheath Common, then in Surrey, within twenty days, excluding the Sabbath, in 1815. This he set about completing, averaging about 50 miles a day, at a pace of 4mph. At first this wager did not attract much attention, but by his ninth day, following reports in the local press, a crowd of more than 7,000 had gathered to watch him walk. Sadly dust kicked up by the many feet began to impair his breathing. George’s determination to complete the challenge disgruntled a number of those who had bets on him, and attempts were made to stop him. The local authorities had become annoyed as the crowds had attracted drinking, circus acts and prostitution, and fears were growing of riots starting. Before George could complete the challenge he was arrested for disturbing the peace, and although he was acquitted this disruption caused him to fail the challenge. The event earned him the title – ‘the Blackheath Pedestrian.’
A year later in 1816, he completed 1,000 miles of walking, within 24 hrs of his target time in Hull, finally fulfilling his goal. George continued his walking challenges and, on the 21st/22nd of June 1822, he walked 90 miles around Tyne Green, completing the course in 23hrs 52mins – 8 minutes short of his Required Time of 24 hours!
(Taken from Christine’s Facebook page Secrets of Northumberland, Newcastle City & The Scottish Borders)
The Blackett family have left an indelible legacy in the North East, and further afield. They built Wallington Hall, ran successful businesses, and influenced the political agenda, both locally and nationally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first Sir William Blackett was a sheriff of Newcastle, served as mayor, and in 1673 was elected as MP for Newcastle in the ‘Cavalier Parliament’. He was one of the most influential merchants in Newcastle in the late seventeenth century. His son also served as an MP and Newcastle mayor. Their story is a multi-layered saga of rags to riches, with some skulduggery and rivalry thrown in for good measure.
This fine book, based upon extensive new research by the Society’s own Dr Greg Finch, is a meticulous history of the lives and influence of the first three William Blacketts who created a family business, and generated vast wealth, based on the exploitation of the lead and coal resources of the North East. (The Blackett family were not very imaginative in their naming but fortunately the author provides several family trees to assist in keeping up with the relationships within the text.)
It is difficult in a short review to do justice to the many layers of the Blackett story. The book opens with an account of the funeral, in 1728, of Sir William Blackett and segues into a picturesque description of Newcastle and Northumberland in the early eighteenth century to set the scene. It ends with a review of what has been left as a Blackett legacy. This book is packed with detail from primary sources. However, the depth and volume of the research is worn lightly, and it is pacy and the story is a compelling read.
Through examination of previously untouched letters and original documents, Finch weaves a colourful history of the family and their business and political empires. The narrative explains and illuminates the motivations and actions of succeeding generations of Blacketts as they rose through society from humble beginnings in County Durham to riches, dealing with, on the way, several setbacks and crises.
There is much in the book for those interested in the development of the North East, and for Hexham historians. (The Blacketts owned the Dukesfield estate in Hexham shire). Finch analyses the Blackett mining interests and property acquisitions. He paints a vivid picture rooted in the business history of one family but offering a wider perspective as he throws light into dark corners untouched by earlier research and threads the tale of the Blackett dynasty into the economic, social and political background of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. There are maps, diagrams, a comprehensive bibliography and colour pictures to add to the richness of the account. This is a book for every historian’s bookshelf.
This is a book with real heft, the culmination of thirteen years of single-hearted research. Now with respected publisher Pen and Sword, this is a revised edition of Ian Johnson’s earlier, impressive hardback (Newcastle Battalion of World War One) published in 1914 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.
Mr Johnson openly admits to having ‘no academic qualifications’, but his admiration and respect for the soldiers about whom he writes, as well as for the city in which he has lived and worked all his life, make an excellent foundation for this book, which is in part a history of the Commercials, in part a memorial to its men.
Johnson begins by relating the story of the raising of the battalion, with a succinct reminder of the industrial pre-war character of the North East. Many of the volunteers were part of the coal mining and ship building work force; they lived in terrible houses, damp and cold, with no bathrooms and shared outside lavatories. Children went barefoot, as a photograph on p.10 depicts. You might say that this sets the tone for the whole book, which is nearly as much about the personal as it is about the historical. Letters to and from soldiers at the front and their families are given as much respect as telegrams from General Haig to his generals and their men. The 16th Battalion’s battle history lies alongside the domestic concerns of its soldiers. Together, these documents offer as full a picture of life in the Great War as you’re likely to find.
The book is exceptionally well illustrated with contemporary images, some of a familiar nature (Ypres in ruins, Thiepval memorial, scenes of battle and so on), but there are also some wonderfully arresting photographs unique to the Battalion, such as that of new recruits demonstrating the ‘War Dance of the Commercials’ during exercises on the Town Moor. The grinning faces of these young men as they lark about – wearing waistcoats and ties – was taken for the Illustrated Chronicle in October 1914 … before they knew the horror of battle.
Notwithstanding the enthusiastic response of volunteers to Kitchener’s call to arms in 1914, followed by conscription in 1916, the relentless toll of injury and death exacted by the enemy resulted in a severe shortage of soldiers by 1918, especially of those with any experience. The British army was forced to reduce brigade strength from four battalions to three, and it was with total disbelief and desolation that the men of the 16th, Newcastle’s home town ‘Pals’ battalion, found out that they were to be disbanded in this cull. Johnson describes the final days of the Commercials as a fighting force in Chapter 11 of his book; the sorrow of the men and their officers is related in their own words. There were tears as the remaining soldiers of the 16th were sent off to serve for the final, terrible year of the war with ‘foster parent battalions’.
But this is not quite the end of the story. In June 2015, my husband and I were invited to the unveiling of a newly-commissioned plaque to the Commercials, sited on a wall of the village church at Authuille, an event described in Chapter 14 of the book. The lack of any dedicated memorial on the Somme to the Newcastle Battalion was a matter of huge regret and importance to Ian Johnson, and was a primary motivation for the timely writing of the first edition of this book, the profits of which all went towards the memorial, as did other funds he raised using extraordinary energy and resolution. In 1920, surviving veterans had tried to raise money for such a memorial, but it had never been realised. Such was the success of Johnson’s fund-raising that there was enough remaining for an oak memorial bench, carved with the Northumberland Fusiliers’ crest, which was placed on the green near the church in Authuille, as well as four further benches that offer rest to those walking on Newcastle Quayside.
This weighty book is another valuable memorial.
Michael Barke, Brian Robson & Anthony Champion, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Mapping the City, (Birlinn, 2021) xv + 256pp, ISBN 978 1 78027 726 4, £30.
This latest volume in Birlinn’s ‘Mapping the City’ series reproduces high quality colour maps of Newcastle and its surroundings in a ‘coffee table’ format. But it serves much more than a decorative purpose. Many of the maps reproduced here are rarities, some being published in book form for the first time and they have been skilfully woven into a mainly chronological sequence by the authors, all geographers. Tyneside’s development is documented here in maps from the thirteenth to the early twenty-first centuries with a great deal of accompanying commentary and related non-cartographic images. The book therefore contains brief summaries of major aspects of Newcastle’s history, highlights key themes in its industrial past, and documents important developments in public health, transport and urban regeneration from the Victorian period onwards. Of great interest and relevance is the commentary provided by the authors on the surveyors, cartographers and engravers responsible for many of the maps reproduced here, and what is known of the circumstances which gave rise to the works included. The book contains a particularly fine sequence of town centre maps from James Corbridge’s first properly surveyed plan of Newcastle in 1723, and its unattributed and slightly simplified incorporation into Henry Bourne’s History of Newcastle published thirteen years later. Isaac Thompson’s newly surveyed plan of 1746 is mentioned, and a smaller image of it included, but only in connection with John Speed’s much earlier town plan of 1610 rather than as a feature in its own right. However, much can be seen of the evolving Georgian townscape from the maps of Armstrong, Hutton & Fryer, and Beilby which date from 1769, 1770 and 1788 respectively, and later of the creation of ‘Grainger town’ from Wood’s 1827 map and Oliver’s from 1830 onwards. Newcastle is at the centre of the work, of course, but there is much on its vital connection to the sea via the lower reaches of the Tyne, and the difficulties posed by shifting sandbars and abuse of ballast dumping by colliers arriving for their cargoes. Related to this some fine plans show changes at North and South Shields since early-modern times, even including a map of the route of the Great North Run. The book will appeal to all map-lovers and those with an interest in how Tyneside’s layout has developed through centuries of change.
Haslam, Rebecca et al. From healing waters to a font of knowledge: the story of Queen Elizabeth High School and the ‘Hexham Hydro’ told through social history and built heritage survey (Pre-Construct Archaeology, 2021) ISBN 9781739879907
A 58pp, lavishly-illustrated booklet produced to mark the rebuilding of QEHS that traces the history of the site from its beginnings as the grand mid-Victorian mansion known as Westfield House through the years as a hydropathic hotel and its various incarnations as educational establishments to the current massive and somewhat contentious rebuild.
The author casts an eye over Northumberland, County Durham, Tyne & Wear, and Cleveland/Teesside, looking for interesting historical bits and bobs … and in no particular order. Chapters for this inaugural volume feature the ‘Borderlands’, the Tees, North-East ‘firsts’, eccentrics, oddities, murder, death, industry, adventurers, the Roman frontier, the world of the Angles, place names, sport, US connections, and film. Totally random, and in no way comprehensive …
All profits from this book are being donated to the Great North Children’s Hospital.
1942. The war at sea is being lost. One per cent of all naval personnel are being referred as psychiatric casualties. The British Admiralty introduces the Stone Frigate approach: a shore-based facility. Three men fight for their country in the Arctic convoys of World War II, then for their sanity and dignity. Labelled cowards and subjected to experimental psychiatry at an isolated facility set up in Kielder Forest by the British Admiralty to recycle men back into battle. To the Navy they are faulty parts, not constitutionally suited to operate at sea. To the public they are poltroons, malingerers and psychiatric cases. The places in this story are real, but everyone who played a part in what happened is now dead. It is safe to tell what really happened. What was important then, nobody cares about now. True courage is facing danger when you are afraid, surviving in the circus of war.