Category Archives: History

The past is a wonderful place to visit but it’s not a place to permanently stay

DAVID SIMPSON reflects on finding a balance between looking back and looking forward in defining the future of North East England

The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland
The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

I love history and especially northern history and I love nostalgia too. Old Photos and memories are wonderful to share and enjoy but I’m not one of those “everything was so much better in the past” types. The past is simply part of a journey; an eventful journey that brought us where we are today. It teaches us what we may achieve and features important lessons too, but that does not mean we should be limited by our past. In fact for me, the present is everything.

Some may say the “past is not important”. Now, I don’t hold with that view either. Just try going for a job interview or writing a CV without saying anything about your past. It would be pretty hard to do because to some extent your past defines you and what you can do, or at least it defines you as you are now. You will almost certainly fail if you have nothing to say about your past but you will also fail if you have no vision of your future.

The same goes for regions, cities and towns that are marketing and presenting their best attributes to the world. An ability to look back to the past with pride but build with a vision towards the future was one of the most impressive aspects of Sunderland’s recent City of Culture bid. It was one of the great reasons why, despite missing out on that title, it has been such a massive success for the city and for the region too.

That past is simply part of a never ending journey of often surprising events and opportunities. The past is merely the early chapter or chapters in an exiting book that is being continuously written. There will be wonderful twists and turns and new highlights as the story grows with each new event and opportunity.

I still love the past though, and like thousands upon thousands of people up and down the land I love to reminisce and look back, occasionally. Being from Durham I often visit a Facebook group called ‘Old Photographs and Memories of Durham‘ one of many such groups that feature compelling black and white snaps of towns and cities up and down the land that are passionately followed by locals and exiles.

It does frustrate me though sometimes, when I hear people who want everything to stay the way it was, who wish to go back or who wish for things to remain unchanged forever, like Miss Havisham in her wedding gown. Now even if it was possible for everything to stay exactly the same as it always was, where would the joy be in that?

Tyneside Pride : Who is a Geordie?

DAVID SIMPSON explores the origins of the word ‘Geordie’ and the changes in its meaning over two centuries.

The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne
The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne

So who or what is a ‘Geordie’?

‘Geordie’ is the name given to the natives of Tyneside or at least that’s what the term has come to mean today but what is the origin of this word?

Well to put it simply in one sentence: Geordie is a nickname for someone called George. That’s just about the only thing we can say with certainty in regard to its use in North East England.

How Geordie came to be associated with Tyneside has a number of different theories and it’s worth exploring a few of them here. Just don’t expect a definitive answer that’s all.

In the 1700s, just as today, ‘Geordie’ was the prevalent pet form of the name ‘George’ among the Scots and the people of the far north of England and since there was a succession of four ruling kings called George from 1714 to 1830, it was a very familiar name. Its use and adoption may very probably reflected the opinions and feelings of the populace towards their ruling monarch at any given time.

My personal favourite theory for why Newcastle in particular came to be the home of the ‘Geordie’ is linked to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 when the town closed its gates to the Jacobite army that had mustered strong support across Northumberland.

The Jacobites, named from ‘Jacobus’ a Latin form of James, wanted to place James Stuart, the Catholic ‘Old Pretender’ on the throne. Newcastle had other ideas however and declared its support for the reigning King, ‘Geordie’ : King George I, the German Protestant, who couldn’t speak a word of English.

This is a neat and very satisfying explanation perpetuated by writers and historians during the later half of the twentieth century – myself included. Even the late Bill Griffiths in his wonderful thoroughly researched ‘Dictionary of North East Dialect’ (2004) examines the origins for different definitions of ‘Geordie’ but can only point to an article in The Northern Echo newspaper (August 1997) to support the Jacobite theory.

Now, I have to confess straight away and say that I was in fact the enthusiastic young author of that particular newspaper article. I was merely repeating a theory that had more than once been thrown around by late twentieth century writers such as David Bean. In  his book ‘Tyneside : a biography’ Bean admittedly added a cautious element of doubt to his colourful explanation with the phrase: “Or so it is guessed”. He then went on to make the familiar suggestion that it came from the use of Stephenson’s Geordie lamp.

David Bean's explanation of 'Geordie' from Tyneside : A Biography (1971)
David Bean’s explanation of ‘Geordie’ from Tyneside : a biography (1971)

Go back more than half a dozen  decades earlier to the nineteenth century and you will find a legion of writers and researchers who left no stone unturned in their quest to explore and explain every facet of local culture and dialect. Not one of these – as far as I know – makes any mention of a link between George I and ‘Geordie Newcastle’. In fact as a written record it is not until the last decade of the nineteenth century that we get any reliable evidence that ‘Geordie’ was specifically associated with Tyneside. It does seem though that it was a name given by outsiders.

In 1892 Richard Oliver Heslop’s, two-volume tome entitled ‘Northumberland Words’ was published. This work formed the basis for late twentieth century Geordie publications like Cecil Geeson’s ‘Northumberland and Durham Word Book’ (1969) and Frank Graham’s ‘Geordie Dictionary’ (1974 and 1987). In one of the shortest entries in his glossary, Heslop explains that ‘Geordy’ is the name by which Tynesiders are known outside the district.

The use of the word ‘outside’ is curious because it suggests the term was not yet accepted onTyneside itself or at least not accepted by the middle class audience at which Heslop presumably aimed his work. Heslop said that ‘Geordy’ is also the term for a Tyne ship and for George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp. However, it is in Heslop’s accompanying cross reference to the related term ‘Cranky’ that we find a clear indication of the earlier meaning of ‘Geordie’.

Miners' safety lamps showing the inventions of Humphy Davy and George Stephenson
Miners’ safety lamps showing the inventions of Humphry Davy and George Stephenson

Heslop reveals that ‘Cranky’ or ‘Bob Cranky’ was the popular old term for a miner in the region and cites its use in a phrase from a local song dating from 1804. Heslop says the phrase was in later times replaced by ‘Geordy’.

A linguist, Katie Wales, concurred on the association between Geordies and miners and pointed to an early use of ‘Geordie’ as a reference to miners in local ballads and songs from as early as 1793. The use of the term in this respect will have been reinforced by local miners adopting George Stephenson’s safety lamp (invented 1815) which they nicknamed the ‘Geordie’ or ‘Geordy’ if we are to use Heslop’s spelling.

Explanations for 'Geordy' and 'Cranky' in Richard Heslop's 'Northumberland Words' 1892
Explanations for ‘Geordy’ and ‘Cranky’ in Richard Heslop’s ‘Northumberland Words’ 1892

Heslop, who was of course writing for a Northumberland and Tyneside readership gives an early link between the miners of Tyneside and the term ‘Geordie’ as he says “the men who went from the lower Tyneside to work at the pits in South Tynedale were always called ‘Geordies’ by the people there.” The date at which the Tyneside connection to ‘Geordie’ came into being in South Tynedale is not clear.

Almost half a century earlier, in 1847, John Brockett’s two volume ‘Glossary of North Country Words’ published in Newcastle upon Tyne opted for the spelling ‘Geordie’ which he describes “as a very common name among the pitmen” and showed that it was a form of address between them. He further confirmed that “the pitmen have given the name of ‘Geordie’ to Mr. Stephenson’s lamp in contra-diction to the Davy, or Sir Humphrey Davy’s Lamp”. Brockett made no mention of Newcastle or Tyneside in relation to the term Geordie.

From Brockett's Glossary of North Country Words 1847
From Brockett’s Glossary of North Country Words 1847

Most of the evidence from the Victorian era points to ‘Geordie’ being a widely used for term for miners in the region. However, another source, J.P Robson’s ‘Songs of the Bards of the Tyne’ (1849) said that it was used as a word for ‘rustics’.

The first occurrence of the word ‘Geordie’ in ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’ is in 1866 as ‘Jordies’  and is defined as “the sailors belonging to the ports on the north-eastern coast of England”. Of course, this may have been the south country or London understanding of the term. London, remember was constantly visited by sailors from the North East coast as part of the coal trade.

Only three years later, in 1869, John Camden Hotten, a London bibliophile and expert on ‘slang’ contradicted the Oxford Dictionary stating that Geordie was a “general term in Northumberland and Durham for a pitman or coal-miner.” He stated that that the origin was not known and that the term had been in use for more than a century. The degree of certainty in Hotten’s statement is not known but it places the origin of ‘Geordie’ when defined as a ‘miner’ back before 1769.

There is, however, an early reference linking the term ‘Geordie’ specifically to Tyneside in relation to shipping. This occurs in the Sunderland section of William Fordyce’s ‘History of County Durham’ (1857). Here Fordyce mentions that a “recent periodical supplies us with the curious information that mariners term a vessel from the Tyne a Geordie and from the Wear a Jamie.” It’s a tantalising link back to the Jacobite theory but there’s no evidence to suggest that Sunderland had been particularly pro-Jacobite.

On the same page in relation to shipbuilding, Fordyce makes the remark that “it was derisively said that the Sunderland shipbuilders could either make a ship or build one” as the quality of the workmanship was seemingly regulated by price on Wearside. This was possibly an early origin for the term ‘Mac n’ Tac’ (later ‘Mackem’), used by outsiders in reference to Sunderland that perhaps regained prominence around the 1960s but seemingly was not familiar to Wearsiders until around the 1980s when the insult was enthusiastically adopted and became a badge of honour in much the same way that the ‘Geordie’ insult was adopted on Tyneside.

The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland
The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

On further investigation it becomes clear that ‘Geordie’ seems to have originated as an insult for a miner (and perhaps a mariner). At the very least it was a patronising term and seems to have been a byword for a fool. Frank Graham suggested that the word originally literally meant ‘fool’ and linked it to the madness of King George III who reigned from 1760-1820.

Supporting the view that Geordie meant ‘fool’, Graham cited a quote that came from the famed music hall comedian, Billy Purvis in 1823 spoken at the Newcastle Races on the Town Moor that year. Billy slated a pitman who had left his wife and sold his furniture to become a performing clown and rival to Purvis. In the quote Purvis said the pitman was a genuine fool unlike Purvis himself, who was merely acting the clown to earn a living:

“Noo, yor a fair doon reet feul, not an artificial feul like Billy Purvis! Thous a real Geordie!”

Billy Purvis, Newcastle Music Hall Comedian
Billy Purvis, Newcastle Music Hall Comedian

‘Geordie’, as a slightly patronising term for a pitman was still widely used in the late nineteenth century.

From 1887 to 1891, a popular Newcastle-based publication called ‘The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend’ explored the heritage and culture of Northumberland, Newcastle and occasionally County Durham with a middle class readership in mind. Generally this publication is full of wonderful informative articles and illustrations but its pages also include countless features on local ‘North Country Wit and Humour’ usually featuring ‘Geordie’ who is almost always depicted as a generic pitman and a bit of a fool. In these features the pitman or ‘Geordie’ includes miners from as far south as Castle Eden near the Durham coast.

A typical observation of a 'Geordie' miner from the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Legend, this example from March 1887
A typical observation of a ‘Geordie’ miner from the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Legend, this example from March 1887

Frank Graham held the view that the middle classes of Newcastle once feared the miners and patronised them with the term ‘Geordie’ but over time, during the twentieth century it became a more friendly accepted term that was widely adopted across the region.

Graham was himself a rather colourful character. He was the Newcastle-based author and publisher of hundreds of small scholarly books for the general reader mostly featuring Northumberland history. Born in Sunderland, he was a noted Communist who had voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascists.

In addition to his Geordie Dictionary, Graham was perhaps best-known as the publisher in 1969 of the tongue-in cheek ‘Larn Yarsel’ Geordie’ written by the humour writer and art teacher Scott Dobson of Blyth. At around this time Geordie was primarily associated with Tyneside but still often widely used in a broad sense for all people across the region in Northumberland and Durham. It was, it seems only in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps in part due to increasing football rivalry, that ‘Geordie’ became much more exclusively associated with the people of the lower Tyne.

Our online  Geordie Dictionary from our roots and dialect page

Geordie phrases poster print from Tangled Worm

Cathedral’s Treasures are the ‘Tutankhamun of the North-East’

JONATHAN JONES  visits the wonderful relics of St Cuthbert that are finally back on display at Durham Cathedral in a superb new setting that drew audible gasps at the official unveiling.

St Cuthbert's Cross: Treasures of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral
St Cuthbert’s Cross: Treasures of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral

Anglo-Saxon artefacts, dating back more than 1,300 years, and belonging to monk, bishop and hermit, St Cuthbert, have gone back on display in Durham Cathedral.he relics, including the coffin in which St Cuthbert’s body was carried from Lindisfarne, to its final resting place on the site of Durham Cathedral, and the gold cross he wore around his neck, are the centrepiece of The Treasures of St Cuthbert, which opened to the public at the weekend.

The relics were described as the “Tutankhamun” of the North-East, by cultural historian and Anglo-Saxon specialist, Dr Janina Ramirez at the official launch of the exhibition.

Dr Janina Ramirez and an of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett
Dr Janina Ramirez and the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett

She admitted that the excitement of seeing the relics, back in their rightful home, in a purpose-built exhibition inside Durham Cathedral, had made her unable to sleep the previous night.

The ornately carved coffin, featuring runic and Latin inscriptions, is rightfully, the centrepiece of the exhibition, and is regarded as the most important surviving relic from before the time of the Norman Conquest.

Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles and archangels are still visible on the incredibly preserved oak fragments, and brought audible gasps from the clergy, scholars, officials and journalists gathered to witness them for the first time in their new home, in a specially developed exhibition space inside the cathedral.

The coffin of St Cuthbert forms the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition in the cathedral's great kitchen
The coffin of St Cuthbert forms the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition in Durham Cathedral’s Great Kitchen.

Dr Ramirez said: “Some people think that there is a time in the history of Western Europe when the lights went out – when the civilisation and refinement of the Roman Empire was replaced by a Dark Age, visible to us only through a glass darkly; through scraps of archaeology, fragments of enigmatic text, and the bones of early medieval people, who walked a thousand four hundred years before us.

“But the Cuthbert Treasures fly in the face of this theory: from the complex, visual riddles engraved across the oldest surviving example of wood carving on Cuthbert’s coffin, to the gold and garnet splendour of his pectoral cross; from the continental elegance of the ceremonial comb, to the remarkable examples of Opus Anglicanum, recognised at the time as the best embroidery in the known world, the Cuthbert Treasures bring colour, depth and drama to the so-called Dark Ages.”

She continued: “At their very heart lies a unique individual who was both Anglo-Saxon warrior, and early Christian Bishop. His connection to the North East means we can walk in the footsteps of arguably England’s most important saint.”

The exhibits are housed in the Great Kitchen, which has been transformed into a world-class exhibition space, following a year of environmental monitoring, to ensure the relics are kept in the right conditions to ensure their continued longevity.

Comb, thought to have belonged to St Cuthbert
Anglo-Saxon comb, thought to have belonged to St Cuthbert

The project has seen the construction of purpose built exhibition and gallery space in the Cathedral, with access to the treasures themselves being monitored at all times. Indeed, access to the space itself, felt more like entering the Star Ship Enterprise, than the stone walls of the Cathedral.

Visitors were beckoned into a chamber, through which they could see the artefacts beyond another door. Once the environment was stabilised, the inner door opened, granting access to view the fabulous treasures, in glass cases that only enhance their true beauty.

The relics of St Cuthbert, previously on display in the Cathedral’s undercroft, have been in storage for the past six years, during the main phase of the project.

The creation of this space, marks the completion of the Cathedral’s £10.9million investment in the Open Treasure project. The project has been generously supported by a £3.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Speaking at the launch, Jim Cokill, Member of the North-East Committee for the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “A place of worship for thousands and a spectacular attraction drawing visitor from near and far to the city, Durham Cathedral is a heritage treasure in the North East. The Treasures of St Cuthbert and the Open Treasures Exhibition will not only boost the Cathedral’s continuing popularity but will also keep its visitors at the heart of heritage.”

The Conyers flachion, a medieval sword used in a ceremony for newly appointed Bishops of Durham is another highlight of the exhibition.
The Conyers Falchion, a medieval sword, used in a ceremony for newly appointed Bishops of Durham, is another highlight of the exhibition.

But perhaps the final word should go to the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett. He said: “It is very fitting that the final jewel in the crown of Open Treasure is centred on St Cuthbert, in whose honour Durham Cathedral was built.

“The launch of the Treasures of St Cuthbert on permanent display in their new home marks a new phase in the life of Durham Cathedral and its exhibition experience Open Treasure.”

Among the Treasures of St Cuthbert on display are:

  • St Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, widely regarded as the most important example of Pre-Conquest woodwork, and finely engraved with linear images, Latin lettering and Anglo-Saxon runes
  • St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross, a 7th century gold and garnet cross designed to be worn on a chain around his neck.
  • St Cuthbert’s portable altar, used to support his missionary work in the North East. It is believed to be the oldest surviving portable altar, dating from 660AD.
  • The original Sanctuary door knocker, dating from the 12th Century, and one of Durham’s most enduring symbols. Originally attached to the North Door of Durham Cathedral, those who had committed a crime could rap on the door knocker and be given 37 days of sanctuary, during which time they could reconcile with their enemies, or plan their escape.

The Treasures of St Cuthbert are now on permanent display within Open Treasure in the Great Kitchen, one of only two surviving medieval monastic kitchens in the UK. Tickets cost from £2.50 – £7.50, and are available online and from the visitor desk at Durham Cathedral. For more information visit www.durhamcathedral.co.uk, or telephone 0191 386 4266.

Listed Buildings Heritage in North East England

Did you know Newcastle has one of England’s highest concentrations of listed buildings?  Guest blogger, JOHN MURPHY explores the North East’s building heritage and the risks historic buildings face in rural areas.

We join John Murphy and Lycetts, providers of insurance for listed buildings in an exploration of the region’s listed buildings.

sandhill
Sandhill, Newcastle upon Tyne. Photo: David Simpson 

In Britain, Listed Buildings form the backbone of some of our most famous cities – whether found prominently on high streets serving as banks or offices, or tucked away in quiet streets as ornate homes.

Grade I and II listed buildings are beautiful, historical structures that have decades (and sometimes centuries) of character. They are prestigious, eye-catching and come with their own rules for builders and occupiers.

The North East, in particular, has one of the best concentrations of listed buildings in the UK with many in Newcastle upon Tyne. The North East enjoys a far higher concentration of Grade I and II* listed buildings than other regions.

Newcastle, in particular has the following:

  • Grade I – The national average for concentrations of Grade I buildings (which are of exceptional interest) is 2.5% throughout England. In Newcastle upon Tyne, that number is as high as 7%.
  • Grade II* buildings are deemed to be of more than special interest and in England Grade II* accounts for around 5.5% of all list entries. Newcastle, astonishingly, enjoys almost quadruple the national average at 20%.
  • Grade II (without the *) are buildings of special interest that make up the remaining 92% of listed buildings in England and in Newcastle that figure is 73%.

Grainger Town, the historic heart of the city centre, enjoys one of the highest concentrations of listed buildings in the entire country. Of its 450 buildings, 244 are listed – with 29 Grade I and 49 Grade II*.

GreyMonument
Grey’s Monument, Newcastle upon Tyne. Photo: David Simpson

All work on these buildings is protected by the planning authority, with English Heritage involved for any Grade I and II* buildings. Some of the most famous structures in the city fall under this protection. For example, the popular landmark Grey’s Monument is Grade I listed.

Unfortunately, despite this protection, listed buildings are at risk due to a lack of investment and damage from both vandalism and wear and tear. The Heritage at Risk register monitors buildings of historical significance that are at risk and unfortunately, the North East is in crisis – nationally the ratio is 3.8% and the North East has 6.2%.

BlackfriarsNewcastle
Blackfriars, Newcastle upon Tyne. Photo: David Simpson

What is causing this risk? How can the region remedy it?

One of the biggest risks the region encountered was urban decay in Newcastle City Centre during the early 1990s. The area experienced decay as private investor’s moved out of listed buildings, which were being classified as both ‘at risk’ and ‘vulnerable.’

However, a programme of development and enhancement was started by Newcastle City Council and English Heritage. Thanks to both government and private investment through the late 90s and early 2000s, the area was revamped and now stands as one of the best examples of listed buildings in the country.

Now, the more rural areas are by far the most at risk – with 30 buildings in Northumberland listed on the heritage risk list. 24 from County Durham are at risk. Compared to more urban areas, it’s clear buildings in those areas are more vulnerable. Just five buildings in Newcastle upon Tyne and six in Gateshead are on the heritage risk list – clearly illustrating that their more central location has given access to better funding and repair work.

SundQuaysideExchange3
Quayside Exchange, Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

Crime is one of the biggest risks to listed buildings, especially in rural areas where surveillance and protection isn’t readily available. A national survey found that 70,000 buildings were harmed in 2011, mainly due to metal theft.

However, in rural areas in the North East, such as Northumberland, the main threats to buildings seem to be erosion and plant growth. Perhaps the region as a whole needs to turn its attention to the more rural areas, especially as Northumberland grows as a visitor attraction. The historical buildings of the past must be preserved as the future nears.

Sources:

http://www.securitynewsdesk.com/thousands-listed-buildings-damaged-crime-english-heritage/

https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/planning-and-buildings/conservation-heritage-and-urban-design/listed-buildings

https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/sites/default/files/wwwfileroot/planning-and-buildings/conservation_heritage_and_urban_design/listed_building_guide_v.08.pdf

Archaeological passions

JONATHAN JONES meets former Northumberland County Archaeologist, Chris Burgess, and learns something about the passion and obsession that drives him and others in his speciality.

Bamburgh is as solid as a rock but it's 99% nothing: Photo, David Simpson
Northumberland is a county rich in history and archaeology

There can be few places as blessed as Northumberland when it comes to history and archaeology and it’s a place that has long attracted people with a passion in both these fields. Former Northumberland County archaeologist, Chris Burgess must feel special affection for the county with a privileged first hand – and often hands on – insight into the region’s history.

Chris Burgess
Chris Burgess

Interviewed by BBC Radio 4 in 2014 while working on a project to excavate the site of the Battle of Flodden (1513) Chris described how it is always the possibility of the next find that keeps him going.

“Sometimes you find nothing. sometimes you find everything” he explained back then, but found he was always driven on by the possibility of giving a voice to individuals and events from the distant past.

In 2013-14, in conjunction with his role as county archaeologist, Chris had been the manager of the Flodden 500 Project, working with a team of up to 80 people from both sides of the border attempting to uncover the secrets of the famous battle site near Branxton, a couple of miles to the south of the River Tweed.

More recently Chris had been working on a landscape partnership project focused on Holy Island when he experienced a life changing event, suffering a brain haemorrhage, early in 2016.

Chris has learnt a thing or two about obsession, since then. His time on Ward Four, at Walkergate Park Hospital, in Newcastle, gave him many moments to reflect on the workings of the mind of the archaeologist, and the subjects or objects that they often obsess about. It seems that for Chris his particular passions and obsessions take him far beyond the borders of the North East.

“Every heritage professional has one site they obsess about” says Chris “and I am no different. For me it is the mythical ‘Amber Room’ in Tsar Nicholas’ Winter Palace, near St Petersburg, which sadly disappeared into the fog of war in early summer of 1945.

“Often held to be the eighth wonder of the world, the room was decorated with panels of mosaics, formed of Baltic Amber and backed with gold leaf. The entire room was lit only by candles.

“More than eight tonnes of Amber were used in the building of the room, which was constructed in the Charlottenborg Palace in Berlin, by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, before being presented as a gift to his cousin Tsar Nicholas of Russia.”

The Winter Palace, near St Petersburg
The Winter Palace, near St Petersburg in Russia

Not only is the Amber room valued for its constituent amber and gold, but as an unparalleled piece of art. Sadly it was plundered by the Nazis during World War II, when it was stripped from its St Petersburg home by the retreating German army, ahead of rapidly advancing Russian forces.

Chris said: “Eyewitness reports have it packed onto a train, or trucks, and taken to the port of Konigsberg, where it was loaded onto the hospital ship SS Wilhelm Gustaf, which sailed from the port, only to be torpedoed and sank by Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea.”

But Chris’s obsession with this old decorated room, dismantled and lost more than 40 years before he was born, is not simply an “archaeological thing”.

He said: “It wasn’t just an archaeological thing that drove Howard Carter to search relentlessly for the Valley of the Kings, in order to gaze on the face of Tutankhamun in his burial chamber, ignoring warnings and curses, until he eventually found it.

“It’s a matter of personal obsession.

“My Dad, also an archaeologist, was fascinated by Stonehenge, how it was built, and why it was built, to such an extent that he wrote several books on the subject.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

“For Howard Carter, it was an Egyptian boy prince, for my Dad it was Stonehenge, and for me, it is the missing eight tonnes of decorative amber from the Tsar’s Winter Palace.”

He added: “The wish to look upon and understand the unseen, unique and unusual, is what drives most archaeologists, which is why most have a particular artefact or site they become obsessed with.”

“I have looked into the face of Tutankhamun’s Death Mask, seen his other treasures, and think I understand Howard Carter’s obsession, and the passion that drove it.

“I live in hope of one day standing and looking on the rediscovered Amber room, but sadly do not really expect to do so.

“I have been to the Neues Museum in Berlin, and seen Schliemann’s mythical gold from Troy, and read his interesting justification of why he took ownership of it from the Ottoman Empire.

“In the same museum I have gazed in wonderment on the face of Nefertiti.

“The one thing all these artefacts have in common, is that now, following short interruptions for conflict, they are all freely available to people from all countries to enjoy, regardless of race or ideology.”

The same is true of our own region’s artefacts and archaeological finds which are here to be shared with the world at large with each and everyone giving its own insight into humanity’s past and adding ever more knowledge to our human story.

 

Listen to Chris Burgess being interviewed in 2014 on a Radio 4 feature about the Battle of Flodden bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03mj1y4

More about the Battle of Flodden englandsnortheast.co.uk/Flodden.html

Momentum Skills’ North East (Brain Injury Rehabilitation) momentumskills.org.uk/our-services/service/north-east-england-vocational-rehabilitation based in Newcastle, offers vocational rehabilitation services for people with an acquired brain injury and or neurological condition aged 16 years old and over.

Rivers, becks, burns and linns : What’s in a (North East Place-)Name?

In this first blog exploring the curious and fascinating origins of North East place-names DAVID SIMPSON examines our rivers, streams and waterfalls and plots the great beck/burn divide

The River Tees at High Force waterfall. Photo: David Simpson
The River Tees at High Force waterfall. Photo: David Simpson

Alright please don’t ‘Pity Me’, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by place-names and especially those of the North East. I don’t know why precisely, but it’s certainly linked to my interest in history.

Across the region our place-names offer unique insights into our distant past and I find it fun to discover that a familiar place we take for granted is often not quite what it seems. Then of course we have all those strange and peculiar names: Pity Me, Witherwack, Wallish Walls, Snods Edge and Foggy Furze. How about Shiney Row, Seldom Seen, Success, Once Brewed or even No Place? These are the places that arouse much curiosity in our region  but even seemingly mundane place-names also hold unexpected secrets.

The first thing to know when studying place-names is that for a period of a little over a thousand years  – and that’s how old most of our place-names are – our language has changed an awful lot. This means spellings in old records can be notoriously inconsistent. So you can’t just look at a place-name today and guess what it means; you have to go back in time.

The North East has many fascinating and curious place-names
The North East has many fascinating and curious place-names

Place-name experts look for the earliest spellings, scouring ancient documents and interpreting the names according to the language of times past.

The experts are skilled linguists and historians, with an exceptional knowledge of how language evolved. They come with a good grasp of old languages like Latin, Old Welsh, Indo-European, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Middle English and a knowledge of local dialect too. They also need a good understanding of local history and know about the local topography by familiarising themselves with the landscape. It might also help to know a few folk tales connected with the place-names they study. The experts are prepared to do much detective work to reach their final conclusions and even then they may not always be sure. In the end the fruits of their labour are often nothing more than a passing curiosity for most of us.

The fun part for me is exploring and interpreting this work and looking for patterns. I enjoy puzzling over baffling contradictions and being surprised that seemingly obvious explanations are not what I had expected. I also believe, well I’m certain of it in fact, that place-names and their local features have close links to local dialect. You see, place-names and dialect are living history and often a very old part of our heritage that we can easily overlook.

The Tyne at Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
The Tyne at Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Since most place-names have evolved over long periods of time, it’s best to start at the beginning. If we glance at the map we find the  most ancient names are those of the rivers and larger streams. Names like Tyne, Tees, Team, Wear, Aln, Allen, Don, Derwent and Deerness go back thousands of years to the pre-Roman Celtic times or sometimes to the era when the inter-related Indo-European languages across Europe and parts of Asia were beginning to evolve.

The Tyne, for example has one such ancient name. Tyne derives from a root word ‘ti’ meaning ‘to flow’ and could simply be interpreted to mean ‘water’. One of its tributaries, the River Team, now partly culverted through Gateshead’s Team Valley has a similar root, related to river-names like the Thames in London or the Taff in Cardiff. Further east, the Don that joins the Tyne downstream at Jarrow comes from an Indo-European word ‘danu’ simply meaning ‘river’. The Don of Jarrow shares its roots with the Don at Doncaster and the Don in Russia, as well as the Danube of Austrian river fame.

The River Don entering the Tyne at Jarrow. Photo: David Simpson
The River Don entering the Tyne at Jarrow. It shares its name with a river in Russia Photo: David Simpson

The River Tees is thought to have a Celtic river-name though its roots may be earlier. It’s related to an Old Welsh word for ‘heat’ and means ‘boiling, surging river’ perhaps alluding to the waterfalls of upper Teesdale like High Force.

The name of the River Wear is thought to derive from ‘uis’, another Indo-European word for ‘flow’ but Uisiria and Uedra were later forms of the name. This was interpreted by Welsh speaking Celts (the Britons) to ‘Gweir’ which means ‘bending’. Look at a map and compare the whole course of the Wear from source to sea with the course of the Tyne or the Tees and you will see that ‘bending river’ is an apt description.

The River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
The River Wear at Sunderland – ‘the bending river’. Photo: David Simpson

Other river-names with ancient origins include the Derwent which forms part of the border between Northumberland and Durham. One of a number of rivers called Derwent in England, the name comes from Old Welsh and means the ‘oak tree river’. Further south, a smaller County Durham river, the Deerness combines the Welsh element ‘dwfr’ meaning river with an Indo-European element ‘nesta’ meaning , ‘roar, rush’ that is found in names such as Loch Ness and Inverness.

Some river-names came much later in Anglo-Saxon or Viking times, suggesting their earlier names were forgotten or replaced. In County Durham, for example, the little river called the Browney (occasionally called ‘the brune’) has a name dating to Anglo-Saxon times that comes from ‘brun-ea’ meaning ‘brown river’

Two little-known North Eas rivers, the Deerness and Browney merge at Langley Moor near Durham City. Photo: David Simpson
Two little-known North East rivers, the Deerness and Browney merge at Langley Moor near Durham City. Photo: David Simpson

In Northumberland the River Wansbeck at Morpeth and Ashington has a name from the same era and is thought to derive from ‘waegens-spic’, a bridge made from logs (a spic) that was crossed by wagons. The Wansbeck is not a ‘beck’ in the usual sense of the word though. The word ‘beck’ is usually from a Viking word meaning stream but that is not the case here.

For the Germanic Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria who arrived in Britain between 500 and 600 AD from southern Scandinavia and neighbouring areas of what is now the German coast ‘burn’ was one of the terms they used for a stream. As their territory extended north beyond Edinburgh into what is now Scotland the word was introduced there and has had a lasting legacy. Its roots however are Northumbrian rather than Scottish.

North East England or more particularly County Durham is the battleground between the ‘burns’ and their later Viking counterparts the ‘becks’. The Vikings arrived from across Scandinavia from around 866AD and in areas more intensely settled or shared out by the Norsemen the Viking word ‘beck’ replaced the older Anglo-Saxon word ‘burn’ in the names of streams although ‘burn’ often survives in the names of local places associated with those streams.

So we find places like Saltburn (salty stream) on the Cleveland coast and Sherburn (shiny stream) near Durham but the local streams from which they are named are now called becks on the map as well as by the locals too. The Bowburn Beck at Bowburn near Durham, for example, flows in the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) and was originally simply called ‘the Bow Burn’.

Many other places in the region include the word ‘Burn’ and the names of the streams from which they derive can often be self-explanatory. Take Fishburn and Seaburn for example, one would have been noted for its plentiful supply of fish, the other simply flowed into the sea.

Whitburn near Sunderland, named from a barn rather than a burn. Photo: David Simpson
Whitburn near Sunderland, named from a barn rather than a burn. Photo: David Simpson

It’s easy to be fooled though, as we find at Whitburn near Sunderland. Not a burn at all, this was originally the ‘white barn’, a white-painted barn or one built with white stone. Then we have Sockburn near Darlington  which was actually Socca’s burgh rather than a burn. It was the ‘burgh’ (a fortified place) belonging to someone called Socca. Even here further doubt is thrown on the explanation because the River Tees hereabouts quite clearly flows in a massive meander that forms the  very obvious shape of a sock offering a more popular ‘folk explanation’. The fact that Sockburn was for centuries the southernmost point of County Durham and thus at the limit of the ‘soke’ of the BIshops of Durham adds further to the confusion. Both Whitburn and Sockburn by the way have fascinating links to Lewis Carroll and his Jabberwocky poem and you can read about those links here.

So enough of the burns, what about the becks? Well, the word  ‘beck’ comes from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’ – ‘a stream’. It is the usual term for a stream in Viking settled Cumbria and Yorkshire but is missing from Northumberland where burn is used. In County Durham we get both becks and burns with burns in the north and becks in the south and the boundary between the two lies somewhere around Durham City and mid Weardale.

Durham City lies on the dividing line between becks and burns in the naming of streams across England. Photo: David Simpson
Durham City lies on the dividing line between becks and burns in the naming of streams across England. Photo: David Simpson

Streams north of Durham City are called burns all the way up to John O’ Groats in the far north of Scotland while south of the city they’re called becks all the way down to the Viking settled areas of the Norfolk coast. Meanwhile in much of southern England and even in Lancashire they prefer the later Dutch word ‘brook’ though burn in the form ‘bourne’ often occurs in place-names across the whole of England.

In Hamsterley Forest in Weardale we find a stream named from an Anglo-Saxon man called Bede (though probably not the famous Venerable Bede of Jarrow). It is called the Bedburn Beck. It seems superfluous when surely the name Bed Burn would suffice? It’s as if they couldn’t quite make up their mind whether to call it a beck or a burn.

To the south it’s remarkable to discover that every single stream that joins the River Tees directly is called a ‘beck’ while to the north every stream that joins the Tyne directly is a ‘burn’. Along the Wear it varies between beck and burn. In upper Weardale as far east as Wolsingham the word ‘burn’ is the choice but in the mid Wear valley around Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor where the river briefly sways towards the south, the preferred word is ‘beck’.

aucklandcastlebishopa
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland lies on the stretch of the River Wear where streams are called ‘becks’ rather than ‘burns’. Photo: David Simpson

In Durham City it changes again with the Mill Burn beneath the city’s shopping centre on the north side of the town marking the beginning of those burns again and it is the burns that continue to feed the river from Chester-le-Street all the way to the river’s end at Sunderland, or at least they do on the map. Over in East Durham locals use the term ‘beck’ and this may be the choice of word for some people in Sunderland too. It would be interesting to know.

River-names of Viking origin in the North East are not so common but include the River Skerne (it flows from Trimdon to the Tees at Darlington) but its earlier Anglo-Saxon name was something like ‘Sherne’ (the shining river). It became Skerne under Norse influence.

Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne
Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne

Other river names that are pure Viking include the River Greta (griota – its name means stony) that joins the Tees at Greta Bridge downstream from Barnard Castle. Upstream from ‘Barney’ the Tees is joined by the River Balder – Balder is the name of a Norse God.

At Bishop Auckland the Wear is joined by the River Gaunless, yet another Viking name. Gaunless (like gormless) means useless, but why is uncertain. Perhaps it was too short of fish to feed the hungry Vikings or too sluggish to power the workings of a mill.

Waterfalls are a bit like burns and becks in that they change their names according to where in the region you look for them. High Force and Low Force in Teesdale derive from a Viking word ‘foss’ that literally means waterfall. Forces also occur in Cumbria and Yorkshire too.

In Weardale though waterfalls are called ‘Linns’ and they go by this name in Northumberland too where there are many impressive waterfalls to see. Linn was seemingly a word used by the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria but has Celtic roots deriving from ‘Hlynn’ a word for a pool – probably from the plunge pools found at the foot of a fall.

The River Tees, High Force Waterfall
The River Tees, High Force Waterfall

So we can see that ancient people of long ago and sometimes the slightly more recent settlers, the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from Northern Europe have played an important part in the naming of our rivers and water features. It is those later peoples that also played a big part in the naming of our towns, villages, cities and topographical features as we will discover in the next What’s in a (North East Place-)Name?

How do I love beer? Let me count the ways

The Raven, brewed by Sonnet 43 of Coxhoe, County Durham. Photo: Paul White
The Raven, brewed by Sonnet 43 of Coxhoe, County Durham. Photo: Paul White

Beer blogger PAUL White tries out a local beer inspired by a poet.

It’s nice to learn something new, especially if it’s about your own part of the world.

I hadn’t been to the Toronto Lodge, just outside of Bishop Auckland, since a revamp a couple of years back, but decided to drop in for a bite to eat. I’d also heard it was home to some real ales, as well.

It turns out that it offers a range of ales from Sonnet 43, a brewery from nearby Coxhoe, which is where the learning begins.

I hadn’t been aware of this particular brewery, but it has an ale for all tastes. Personally, I decided to go for the bourbon milk stout, The Raven. After all, this last week did feature Stout Day.

Now, the brewery name and that of the beer itself are no coincidence, as I also learned that Coxhoe was home to a rather famous poet – most of you will at least be familiar with one of her lines.

For it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who, in her Sonnet 43, wrote “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”.

Memorial to Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Kelloe church near Coxhoe in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson
Memorial to Elizabeth Barrett Browning at Kelloe church near Coxhoe in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson

I’ve driven past Coxhoe thousands of times, but I had no idea that it was home to Browning, or that she had inspired a brewery.

The beer is likewise poetically-inspired, taking its name from Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic classic.

Likewise, I have driven past the Toronto Lodge countless times since the revamp and it has been remiss of me not to have called in before now. What a great place with reasonably priced, but very good, food and drink.

But what of the beer itself?

Well, it’s a pleasant discovery, with a full flavour that is at once bitter and also smooth; a proper milk stout. It’s not an overly heavy drink, so could easily be one to settle into for an evening, should the opportunity arise.

With a lot of my beer reviews, I’ve highlighted those ales that are a natural progression for a lager drinker coming into the realms of beer. This is not one, but Sonnet 43 have plenty that would fit that bill.

Overall, it was an outing of discovery for the brain and the taste buds and I will be returning to sample more of the food and drink in the very near future.

Blog post originally written for Poets Day Pint.

Happy Halloween : Tales of Witches, Warlocks, Mummies and Severed Heads

As Halloween approaches, ALEX ILES explores some gory and grisly events from the history of Newcastle and North East England

spookynewcastle
A Spooky Night in Newcastle. Photo: Lee Stoneman, Lee Stoneman Photography www.facebook.com/leestonemanphotography/

Well, there’s no getting away from it – Halloween does have a bit of a focus on death. Hallowe’en (All Hallows’ eve) comes from the evening before All Saints Day – a Christian festival on November 1st.  It remembers the saints who are sleeping and waiting to rise with Christ.  Saints often suffered for their faith, many losing their lives in martyrdom and so a macabre connection with death developed during the time of the Black Death.

So, with this in mind, lets look at some depictions of death in Newcastle and what happened after death! The best place to start  is with Bishop Walcher (the Bishop of Durham) who was cut to pieces outside the church of St. Mary in Gateshead in 1080 while much of his entourage burnt inside the building behind him. As it highlighted the need to defend the area with the building of a castle, this was the start of Newcastle’s story and in some ways, was just the very first gory story connected with the city.

The murder of Bishop Walcher at Gateshead played an important role in the establishment of Newcastle
The murder of Bishop Walcher at Gateshead church played an important role in the establishment of Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson

A couple of centuries later, during the Scottish wars the Scots warlord William Wallace – heroically depicted by Mel Gibson in Braveheart – came south to attack the English and met with a brutal end.

Though betrayed as a Scottish hero he had been pillaging against the Scots the year before he started his major attacks on England! Interestingly Wallace may have been of Norman decent because Wallace is a corruption of the word ‘foreigner’ and perhaps less ‘Scottish’ than people think.

When Wallace came down to Newcastle, the town and castle had prepared in advance and he looked upon the defences and realised he would lose far too many men and resources attacking such a well-defended town. He gave up and went to Corbridge instead, sacked it and crossed south towards County Durham and Yorkshire.

Wallace made a great deal of mischief further south before he was captured and taken to London where he was hung, drawn and quartered. This medieval punishment involved the individual being hung to near death and then their limbs were dislocated by pulling. It was then that disembowelling took place while the victim was kept alive and finally they were beheaded and cut into quarters. The film Braveheart missed most of this.

It was a death for traitors of the worst sort and Wallace’s body parts were sent off to the various parts of the county. His head was ‘affixed upon London Bridge’ while his body was divided amongst Berwick, Stirling, Perth and Newcastle, which received his right arm.

It was meant to cause ‘fear and chastisement of all going past and looking upon these things’ as a report on his execution stated. Imagine walking across the swing bridge and looking up to see a rotting arm hanging there. Alongside this, some of the accounts say Newcastle received parts of his ‘organs’ – read this as you will.

It would not be the last time Newcastle was graced with body parts.

blackgatecastle
Newcastle Blackgate and Castle. Photo: David Simpson

Northumberland is a great distance from London and the Lords and landed peoples have at times been a law unto themselves. One noted family were the Lisles who lived at Felton in Northumberland.

The Lisles were infamous for having a bad relationship with the Church, having on several occasions physical altercations with the local priors. In 1526 it came to a boil: William Lisle and Humprhey Lisle came into confrontation with the Prior of Brinkburn and vicar of Felton because they were occupying fields that belonged to the church and had started to harvest the grain for themselves.

When the Prior challenged the Lisles for their behaviour and asked them to leave, Humphrey killed him with a sword. This resulted in William Lisle, John Ogle, William Schafthowe and Thomas Fenwick being taken to Newcastle to be hung, drawn and quartered for treason against the King.

Their body parts were then hung from Newcastle castle and around various parts of the town. It was because of this heritage, that the Wylam Brewery launched a beer in 2015 at Newcastle castle called ‘Hung, Drawn and Quartered’ to commemorate this particularly grim event.

From the accounts of the time, though, outside of their family no one particularly missed the executed men as they were reivers and attacked people on both sides of the borders to supplement their incomes.

The practice of leaving the body parts of executed criminals hanging for all to see was once common. This 'gibbet' in Redesdale, Northumberland recalls a local murderer who was hanged at Newcastle in 1791. The real head of the criminal was, however eventually replaced by the wooden one seen hanging here. Photo: David Simpson
The practice of leaving the body parts of executed criminals hanging as a warning to all was once a common sight. This ‘gibbet’ in Redesdale, Northumberland recalls a local murderer who was hanged at Westgate in Newcastle in 1791. The real head of the criminal was, however, eventually replaced by the wooden one seen hanging here. Photo: David Simpson

When it comes to Man’s inhumanity to Man, one of the great examples I personally think about are the witch trials in England after the English Civil War. This period is famous for being one of great upheaval.

Friends and families were often split in two as they supported the Royalist and Parliamentarian factions. As in all wars, the loss of life affected people’s lives and the economy. Disease was spread by armies and disposed peoples. All in all, people were looking for someone to blame. Witches were a perfect target.

During the middle ages – contrary to modern belief – magic was not believed to be an actual force. Monks, priests and the authorities pointed out the sovereignty of God and ridiculed the idea of magic – much like modern scientists. Most ‘witch trials’ were conducted by secular courts. During times of fear such as the civil war this increased dramatically.

Ralph Gardner, who was a merchant, wrote the book ‘England’s Grievance’ (1655) that reported on the Newcastle Witch trials of 1649/50. Twenty-seven people in the town were accused of being witches and eventually after ‘interrogation’ 18 women – supposed witches, and one man, supposedly a warlock were hung. Ralph writes with disgust:

“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution …. as soon as she was turned off the ladder her blood gushed upon the people to the admiration of the beholders.”

Illustration from ralph Gardner's 'England's Grievances' showing the execution of witches
Illustration from ralph Gardner’s ‘England’s Grievance’ showing the execution of witches

I imagine the crowd being left with a sense of security and peace after this horrific occurrence. These ‘witches’ who had plagued them with disunity, disease and being servants of the devil were now dead. Their bodies were dumped into a mass grave in St. Andrews Churchyard at Gallowgate, without ceremony.

The Scots witch hunter, Cuthbert Nicholson, who had been paid 20 shillings per witch had been using a retractable needle with a long handle so it appeared that the accused did not bleed – a sign they were in league with the devil. He was eventually caught and confessed to the false execution of 220 women throughout the entire North. He was executed by hanging just as his victims had been.

In the Victorian period, the care for the human body after death had still not improved. With the expansion of the British Empire and the interest in the classics there was a fascination about Egyptology. Mummies would be bought on mass and delivered to locations to be unwrapped in front of audiences.

The Mummy Irtyru who can be seen in the Great North Museum (then the Hancock Museum) was brought to Newcastle to be unwrapped. She was unwrapped in two hours.

With 22.5kg of bandages on her body this shows that they were rushing! Her organs which were kept in Coptic jars were rushed to the Royal Victoria infirmary only to be ‘lost’ – one theory is that they ended up in a private collection.

The mummy, Irtyu at the Great North Museum : greatnorthmuseum.org.uk
The mummy, Irtyru at the Great North Museum : greatnorthmuseum.org.uk Photo: Tyne and Wear Museums

When Irtyru was unwrapped, they wished for an easy way to display her and she was stapled to the back board of her sarcophagus and a hook was screwed into her skull. The final insult to her remains was that when they used varnish to seal her body against decay they trapped carpet beetles in her body.

Today Newcastle does not display the body parts of traitors or criminals (no matter how much fans of Newcastle United would likely enjoy this idea) around our city, nor do we have kangaroo courts where the prosecution is paid per person they get convicted.

This having been said, let us not look at the past and brand it as barbaric. Each of the events listed here happened within the context of their day and age – what will our descendants write of us in future Halloweens to prove our darker nature and consider the darker stories of our day and age?

All Saints church in Newcastle dates from the Georgian era. The festival of All Saints is closely connected to Halloween
All Saints church in Newcastle dates from the Georgian era. The festival of All Saints is closely connected to Halloween. Photo: David Simpson

To discover more why not join Iles Tours on our Gory Tour of the city?

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Mary Ann Cotton : Victorian serial-killer

With ITV set to broadcast a two-part drama ‘Dark Angel’, featuring the story of Mary Ann Cotton at Halloween, DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tale of this notorious County Durham serial killer, who claimed the lives of at least 17 people

MARY ANN’S EARLY LIFE

Low Moorsley on the south western outskirts of Hetton-le-Hole was the birthplace on October 31, 1832 of Mary Ann Robson (later Mary Ann Cotton) , one of the most notorious figures in the history of murderous crime.

Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton

During her 40 year life span she was responsible for the deaths, by poisoning, of 17 people, perhaps even more. Many of her victims were members of her own family including her own children. They were poisoned with arsenic though the victims would at first display signs of what was thought to be gastric fever. Her motives, if she really had any, are unknown, but she would often collect insurance money following the deaths of those closest to her.

Mary Ann’s childhood started out ordinarily enough in Low Moorsley. Her parents were staunch Methodists and her father, Michael Robson was a sinker involved in the horrible, itinerant and often dangerous, water-logged job of sinking shafts for new collieries. As an adult Mary too would live an itinerant lifestyle moving from place to place at regular intervals and this probably contributed to her being able to, quite literally, get away with murder.

A view across the countryside from High Moorsley not far from Mary Ann Robson's birthplace. Phot: David Simpson
A view across the countryside from High Moorsley not far from Mary Ann Robson’s birthplace, a little further down the hill. Photo: David Simpson

MARY ANN AT MURTON

Around 1839 when Mary Ann was six years old her family moved from Moorsley to the nearby pit village of Murton. With a population of 98 in 1831 that would rise rapidly into the thousands as the century progressed, Murton was one of many emerging colliery villages that came into being in eastern Durham following the establishment of Hetton Colliery in 1822. The colliery marked the beginning of the deep mining in east Durham and Wearside where the coal lay deep beneath the magnesian limestone escarpment.

Hetton Colliery changed history in East Durham
Hetton Colliery changed history in East Durham

Only a couple of years after the move to Murton, Mary Ann’s father tragically fell to his death down a colliery shaft.  He was only 30 years of age.

Whether this event affected Mary mentally in some profoundly damaging way is impossible to say but deaths in the mine were a common aspect of life that many families had to deal with.  In fact deaths within  families in the mining community were common all round as infant mortality was  particularly high during this period. All of these factors created a climate in which death was common place and death by murder might easily go unnoticed.

Mary Ann’s mother, Margaret, stayed in Murton following the death of her husband and kept lodgers that helped her support her daughter. At the age of 16, Mary Ann left home as it is thought that she did not get along with her mother’s new husband, a miner called George Scott.

Mary Ann went to work as a nurse for a local man at South Hetton and then returned to her mother’s house in Murton after three years, to train as a dressmaker.

THE MOVE TO CORNWALL AND THE DEATH OF HER FIRST CHILDREN

When Mary Ann was 20 years old she fell pregnant and married a colliery labourer called William Mowbray in Newcastle. The couple then moved to Cornwall residing  close to the River Tamar not far from Plymouth in the neighbouring county of Devon.

They resided with Irish navies, with Mowbray working on the railway as a shop steward. The work involved constant uprooting  from place to place as the railway advanced across Cornwall.

19th century map of Cornwall
19th century map of Cornwall

Why Mary ‘s husband had chosen to move to Cornwall for work was not certain. They may have learned of prospects there from one of their neighbouring Murton neighbours back in County Durham. Murton was noted for being home to a very significant number of Cornish miners who had settled there after there were unwittingly brought in to work as strike breakers.

During their time in Cornwall, Mary Ann gave birth to either “four or five children” (Mary Ann was not certain) of which only one, a girl named Margaret, seems to have survived beyond the first few days. Such early deaths in children at that time were not unusual and there is no implication that Mary Ann was involved in their deaths. In fact perhaps it was these events that damaged her psychologically.

Eventually, Mary Ann and William Mowbray were persuaded to return from Cornwall by Mary Ann’s mother where sadly their baby girl, Margaret succumbed to Scarlet Fever in 1860.

SUNDERLAND, SEAHAM AND MARY’S AFFAIR

On return to the North East, Mary Ann’s husband, William Mowbray, found work as a foreman at South Hetton Colliery and then went on to work as a stoker on a steam vessel.

The work brought William and Mary Ann to the rough and tough dockland area of Hendon and the East End in Sunderland, an area noted for its pubs, sailors and houses of ill-repute.

Here Mary and William would have two further children, both girls. The children were named Isabella and Margaret and both survived, for the time being at least. In the meantime with her husband frequently away from home, Mary Ann formed a relationship with a red-headed coal miner called Joseph Nattress of Seaham Harbour.

She fell pregnant – very likely to Nattress – and the infant, named John Mowbray, born at Hendon and baptised at South Hetton died a couple of days after baptism, apparently from ‘gastric fever’ in September, 1864.

It would only be around a year later that William Mowbray, Mary Ann’s first husband died – of Typhus . Interestingly, Mary Ann received insurance of £35 following his death. It was the equivalent to half a year’s wage.

Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour with her two daughters, one of whom, Margaret, died soon after. The remaining daughter, Isabella, went to live with Mary Ann’s mother.

Mary Ann’s relationship with Nattress may have continued for a while but he was engaged to someone else and following his marriage Mary Ann left Seaham and found work as a nurse in Sunderland.

Here, Mary Ann formed a relationship with a patient called George Ward who, like Mowbray, was a stoker. They married in August 1865 at Monkwearmouth. Ward subsequently became ill and died in 1866.

Once again, Mary Ann collected the insurance money.

A certificate gave cholera and typhoid as the cause of George Ward’s death although doctors had been confused by some of the symptoms he had displayed.

The Sunderland port area in the nineteenth century
The Sunderland port area in the nineteenth century

MARY ANN ROBINSON

Next, in December 1866, Mary Ann found work as a housekeeper after replying to a job advertisement posted by a recently widowed shipyard worker in the Pallion area of Sunderland called James Robinson.

Robinson was the father of five children and needed female assistance. Only a day after Mary Ann started working for him his recent baby, by his late wife, died of gastric fever.

During 1867 Mary Ann heard news that her 54 year old mother, who was still the guardian of Mary Ann’s daughter, Isabella, was feeling unwell. Mary Ann went to visit her mother at Seaham.

Her mother started to make a recovery but the recovery was soon accompanied by stomach pains and she lost her life only nine days after Mary Ann had come to visit. When Mary Ann left Seaham, her step-father, George Scott told her to take Isabella with her.

At this time, around February 1867, Mary Ann, was already pregnant by James Robinson when she returned to the Robinson household in Sunderland with Isabella.

Within the space of four days in April 1867, another two children of James Robinson died – the six-year old James and eight year old Elizabeth. Another six days would pass and then on April 30, 1867 Mary Ann’s own daughter, Isabella Mowbray, by then aged around seven years old, would also die.

This must have been an exceptionally difficult time for Robinson but in August, to avoid illegitimacy of their forthcoming child, Mary Ann and James were married at Bishopwearmouth. Their child was born in November 1867 and was named Mary Isabella.

Sadly, little Mary Isabella became ill and died in March of the following year. In June 1869, a second child was born to the couple, a baby boy called George.

Robinson then discovered that Mary Ann was stealing from his bank account and that she was encouraging his surviving children to pawn his belongings to pay off her debts.

It is not known what Mary was spending the money on, as there was no sign that she had purchased anything around the house. It still remains a mystery why she needed the money so desperately and we can only speculate. Perhaps someone with knowledge of her murderous activities, was bribing her.

Robinson threw Mary Ann out of his house which was a very fortunate decision for him to make. He would be the only one of Mary’s husbands to outlive her.

Worryingly, Mary Ann took the baby, George with her, keeping him for a short while. She later handed George over to a friend while she went to ‘post a letter’ but Mary didn’t return. George was returned to his father who maintained in custody of the child.

BIGAMY : FREDERICK COTTON

For a while Mary Ann was destitute and it is not clear what she did with her life at this stage before making contact with an old friend called Margaret Cotton, a spinster in South Hetton.

Margaret told Mary Ann about her brother, Frederick Cotton, a recently widowed miner who lived at Walbottle near Newcastle. Frederick had suffered much tragedy having lost his wife and two of his children.

Mary Ann, presumably sensing that here was another potential victim wanted to meet him. Soon Mary Ann struck up a friendship with Frederick Cotton and after offering him comfort in her usual way moved in with him. Mary Ann then learned that Frederick would receive the sum of £60 upon the death of his sister Margaret – Mary Ann’s friend .

It was only within four weeks of Mary Ann moving in with the Cottons that the spinster Margaret Cotton, who was caring for her brother’s children, was dead.

A few more weeks passed and Mary Ann fell pregnant again this time with Frederick Cotton’s child. In September 1870 the two were married at St. Andrews church in Newcastle.

Of course, Frederick Cotton did not know that Mary Ann was already married.

St Andrew's church, Gallowgate was the venue for Mary Ann's bigamous marriage to Frederick Cotton
St Andrew’s church, Gallowgate was the venue for Mary Ann’s bigamous marriage to Frederick Cotton

THE MOVE TO WEST AUCKLAND

In 1871 the couple left Walbottle with their new baby boy, Robert along with Frederick’s two children – boys named Frederick (Junior) and Charles.

The  couple moved to West Auckland in south Durham which is said to have been Mary Ann’s choice. There they found themselves living in the same street as Mary Ann’s old flame, Joseph Nattress, with whom Mary Ann once again rekindled her affair.

In September 1871, Mary Ann’s husband, Frederick Cotton became ill  and died two weeks later. Did he ever learn that he had been in a bigamous marriage? We will never know.

Mary Ann was left to look after the three boys.

She received relief payment for two of the boys – Frederick Junior and Charles as they were not her children. Further financial help came in the form of a lodger – Joseph Nattress, who moved in with them. During his stay Nattress seemingly became committed in his relationship to Mary Ann as he was persuaded to alter his will in Mary Ann’s favour.

It was around this time that Mary Ann had started working as a nurse for an excise man called Mr Quick-Manning. There is some dispute about his name but he seems to have worked for a local brewery. He was recovering from small pox and she began nursing him back to health.

He was a much wealthier prospect than Joseph Nattress.

poison

FINALLY CAUGHT

In the spring of 1872, seven-year old Frederick Cotton, along with the new baby, Robert Cotton and the lodger Joseph Nattress all died within the space of twenty or so days. Of the three children in her care, only the seven year old boy, Charles Cotton, survived.

Mary had an insurance policy on Charles which she could claim if he died but in the meantime a parish official and local assistant coroner called Thomas Riley asked Mary Ann if she could nurse a woman who was suffering from small pox.

Strangely, Mary Ann complained that she would if Charles could be accommodated in the workhouse so that he was out of the way. It was explained that this would only be possible if she entered the workhouse with Charles. Her response to this was that Charles was sickly and would soon be dead. “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like the rest of the Cottons” she said.

Five days later Charles was dead, it was yet another of the many tragic deaths that followed Mary Ann Cotton like a dark and sinister cloud. This time, however, things would be very different.

Riley was told the news of Charles’ death and immediately became suspicious. It had occurred to him that Charles had not appeared sickly and he alerted the police, persuading the doctor who was about to carry out a post mortem to delay issuing the ’cause of death’ certificate.

An inquest was then held in the Rose and Crown Inn on West Auckland’s Front Street next door to Mary Ann Cotton’s home but proved inconclusive. The Doctor however, had retained samples of Charles Cotton’s stomach after he was buried and upon examination discovered that it contained arsenic.

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THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF MARY ANN COTTON

Mary Ann was arrested on July 18, 1872 for the murder of Charles Cotton. She kept a wall of silence but investigations soon started to unravel some of the events of her life and suspicions rapidly grew regarding the scale of her evil activities.

The bodies of Nattress, and Charles Cotton, Frederick Cotton Junior and the baby Robert were all exhumed and found to contain arsenic.

Mary Ann’s trial was delayed due to her pregnancy and her child was born on January 7, 1873 and named Edith Quick Manning Cotton. This was an embarrassment for Mr Quick-Manning, who appears to have changed his name and fled. The baby itself was taken into care and its name was changed. It was the only one of her children to survive besides George Robinson.

In the meantime the press had covered every sensational aspect of Mary Ann’s life with a little help from the police who leaked many details.

Mary Ann had no chance whatsoever of a fair trial as the jury had no doubt studied all of these details. She was tried only for the murders that had taken place at West Auckland and was found conclusively guilty on the murder of the boy, Charles Cotton.

On March 24, 1873 she was hanged in the open at Durham Prison in front of an assembled crowd. The executioner, William Calcraft had not left a high enough drop and instead of dying instantly Mary Ann was strangled to death over several minutes.

Executioner, William Calcraft
Executioner, William Calcraft

Mary Ann Cotton’s name soon entered the folklore of the region’s history and as the decades past she was best remembered in a children’s skipping rhyme:

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten,
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.
Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s tied up with string.

Where, where? Up in the air.
Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and forgotten,
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string.

Above: a folk version of the Mary Ann Cotton song performed by Peg Powler

  • The first episode of Dark Angel, the new two-art drama about the story of Mary Ann Cotton will air on Monday October 31st at 9pm on  ITV It features Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt in the lead role and North East actor Alun Armstrong

 

Presidents, Prime Ministers, people of power (and their links to North East England)

As Hillary Clinton continues her campaign to become the next President of the United States, DAVID SIMPSON examines her family connections to the North East and our region’s historic links to people of power and influence.

Washington Old Hall has ancestral links to the first President of the United States. Photo: David Simpson
Washington Old Hall has ancestral links to the first President of the United States. Photo: David Simpson

Hillary Clinton’s North East Links

It was not until relatively recent times that Hillary Rodham developed a preference for publicly using her marital surname as she pursued her high-flying political career. Despite her marriage to the man who would one day be President, Hillary would often go by the name Hillary Rodham. Whether she was aware of it or not,  she was preserving a family name that has links to North East England going back perhaps more than a thousand years.

Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1911 but his father, Hugh Simpson Rodham, came from a family of coal miners and was born in the County Durham mining village of Kyo, near Annfield Plain in the year 1879.

Hillary’s grandfather was only a child when he left Durham for the United States along with his mother, Isabella Bell (a name that must surely have posed questions of amusement within the family). The young lad’s coal miner father, Jonathan Rodham originally of Wagtail Cottage, Holmside near Craghead had gone in search of new opportunities in the New World and with work secured there, he invited his spouse and child to join him.

Hillary Rodham’s paternal family tree and its associated branches show many links to coal mining in Durham and the North East, most notably around Tanfield and Chester-le-Street but also with links to Bishop Auckland and Wallsend. They were people of humble origin, although Hillary’s great-great-great grandfather, a Jonathan Rodham, married an Ann Parkinson at the fairly esteemed location of St Mary-le-Bow church, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral.

Hillary Clinton's Great-Great_Great grandparents were married in a church close to Durham Cathedral
Hillary Clinton’s Great-Great-Great grandparents were married in a church close to Durham Cathedral. Photo: David Simpson

Other County Durham family members in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry could well be descendants of Northumberland ‘Border Reiver’ stock with a smattering of Border Reiver surnames in the family tree that include Charltons, Bells and Grahams. There are no Armstrongs in this family, though, or at least as far as we can see. That would have been an interesting link as a descendant of that particular reiver family group have made their mark on American and world history in ways that take us well beyond our skies.

Many generations of the coal mining Rodhams in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry are linked to County Durham but their true roots are just to the north in the neighbouring county of Northumberland. Here, their very name stems from a place called Roddam (its name means ‘at the forest clearings’) and today it is the site of Roddam Hall. The name Roddam is the root of the Rodham surname, despite the slightly different spelling, and Rodhams and Roddams are thought to be the oldest family in Northumberland.

North East links in Hillary Clinton's family tree
North East links in Hillary Clinton’s family tree. Right click to open in new tab of window.

Roddam is near the tiny town of Wooler about eight miles – as the crow flies – from the border with Scotland though you’d have to cross the wild terrain of the Cheviot Hills to reach the border.

According to a Scot called John Major (now I’m sure I’ve heard that name before) writing some time in the 1500s, there was a man called Pole who was granted land at Roddam by King Æthelstan way back in Anglo-Saxon times. This man became the first member of the Roddam family, though over time some members of the family adopted the spelling Rodham.

It’s also interesting to note that among the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are rocks called Roddam and Green, though it’s not clear how or if these might relate to the family name of Roddam or the place near Wooler.

Our region’s connections to George Washington

If Hillary Clinton is successful in her quest to become US president she will find herself in esteemed company in respect to her links to North East England as the distant roots of George Washington himself can be found within our region.

George Washington
George Washington

The historic village of Washington, once in County Durham – we could perhaps call it ‘Washington CD’ – is now surrounded by the modern town of Washington and is a part of the City of Sunderland. It is the place from which the entire Washington family, everywhere in the world, take their name.

The name De Wessyngton (meaning ‘from Washington’) as the family were initially called, reflected the earlier spelling of the place that they acquired and of which they became lords around 1180. The family was originally called De Hartburn as they came from Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees in the south of our region.

They changed their name upon moving location after purchasing Washington (Wessyngton) from Hugh Pudsey (c1125-1195), the powerful Prince Bishop of Durham.

Perhaps coincidentally, their family crest consisted of stars and stripes. In the 1400s one member of their family became a Prior of Durham Cathedral, an important and powerful political post whose influence was felt across the region. Prior Washington was second only in power to the Bishop in the North East.

Pub sign Washington village
Pub sign Washington village

Descendants of the Durham Washingtons held land here in the North East until the 1600s but during the 1300s some members of the family had moved on to Lancashire and then ultimately to Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. Nevertheless, they kept their Washington name and it was from this branch of the family that the very first President of the United States was descended. Ultimately though, it is from Washington in Sunderland that George Washington, Washington DC and the US state of Washington all take their name.

People of Power in Our Region’s Past

Aside from presidential connections, Durham and Northumberland are certainly no strangers to people of power in our history. We lay claim to figures of immense political influence and sometimes radical ones too, going right back to the earliest of times.

In the Anglo-Saxon era North Easterners like King Oswald (604-642AD) and King Oswiu (990-1035AD) became ‘Bretwaldas’ or overkings of all England. In later times, King Cnut, Viking ruler of Britain is said to have established a base on the site of Raby Castle in south Durham.

Bamburgh Castle, where the Kings of Northumbria ruled. Photo David Simpson
Bamburgh Castle, where the Kings of Northumbria ruled. Photo David Simpson

In medieval times the Neville and Percy families along with the Prince Bishops virtually ruled the north as a separate entity from their bases in Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire. Just outside our region at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire was the primary home of both King Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker (1428-1471), a Neville – whose name literally described the immensity of his power.

Our connections with royalty extend into modern times too. The present Queen’s ancestry has firm roots in County Durham through the Bowes family while, the Duchess of Cambridge along with her husband William and their children cement these links further through her family’s humble Durham mining connections that are not unlike those of Hillary Clinton.

PMs and  Political Giants of the North East

We have also had our notable share of Prime Ministers hailing from the region. Most recently, Tony Blair, though born in Scotland, was raised and schooled as a child in Durham and returned to represent the region in parliament. Under his influence the county of Durham became the only place in the UK outside London to be visited by President George W. Bush. The President dropped in on the home of Blair by helicopter before calling in for a meal at a local pub. Bush was the first US president to visit the region since Jimmy Carter came to  visit both Newcastle and our Washington here in the North East back in 1977.

Monument to Earl Grey, Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson
Monument to Earl Grey, Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson

In addition to Blair, earlier Prime Ministers who have have hailed from our region included Anthony Eden (1897-1977) of Windlestone, who came from a well-established Durham family and of course the great Northumberland-born reformer Charles the 2nd Earl Grey of Northumberland (1764-1845). Yes it is he of tea fame, who tops the monument at the very heart of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Much of Grey’s Great Reform Bill that brought about radical changes to British democracy was drafted with the assistance of his son-in-law John George ‘Radical Jack’ Lambton (1792-1840), the First Earl of Durham, a coal owner to whom Sunderland’s Penshaw Monument is dedicated. Lambton, a statesman who forged important international links, first as the Ambassador to Russia, would become Governor General and High Commissioner of British North America. He was the man who instigated the process of Canadian independence from Britain.

 Women of Power and Influence in the Region

The role of women may often be callously written out of  the history books but the influence of powerful females is ever present and no less so than in the North East of England.

There have been many notable female figures of power in the region going right back to Roman times when the first ever Northerner to be mentioned by name was in fact a woman, Cartimandua, who was. a formidable female opponent to the Romans in the North. When the Romans arrived she ruled over much of our region from her fort near Scotch Corner.

Then there was St Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby in Saxon times, in her time one of the region’s most powerful figures, who shaped the religious course of Northern England in those early times and a woman by whom kings were guided.

Some of our region’s most powerful political campaigners have been females, notably Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), the one-time MP for Middlesbrough and MP for Jarrow who was so influential in the famed Jarrow Hunger March for jobs in 1936.

Ellen Wilkinson
Ellen Wilkinson

Then from earlier times we have Josephine Butler. Born Josephine Grey (1828-1906) at Milfield near Wooler not so many miles from the ancestral home of the Roddams, Butler was one of the most determined and influential ladies in Victorian Britain. Her campaigns against human trafficking and her work on behalf of female suffrage helped to change the lives and often appalling situations of women living in the Victorian era and beyond.

Josephine Butler
Josephine Butler

We could also mention Gertude Bell (1868-1926), the Tyne, Wear and Tees industrialist’s daughter born at Sunderland’s Washington ‘New Hall’ only metres away from the ‘Old Hall’ that was the ancestral home of the illustrious Washington family. Bell became a mountaineer, a political administrator, a spy and an archaeologist with a penchant for Middle Eastern culture and politics.

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell

Her extraordinary life included her brave acts of diplomacy; meeting face to face with powerful members of often turbulent Arabian desert tribes in what was very much a male dominated culture and era, even compared to Britain of that time. Bell was of course also noted for her part in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and she was by all accounts a very formidable person.

So it can be seen that whether or not Hillary Clinton comes to be elected as the first President of the United States, North East England is likely to take its links to her family very much in its stride. As a region we are certainly no strangers to people in positions of power.