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

DAVID SIMPSON examines the ancient names of 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 like the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from Northern Europe have played an important part in the naming of our rivers and water features. Rivers and streams are unusual though for their ancient names. When it comes to the names  of our towns, villages, cities and topographical features, it is more often than not the Anglo-Saxon who named them.

Northern River Names, Meaning and Origin. Poster Print.

 

Mary Ann Cotton : Victorian serial-killer

DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tale of the notorious County Durham serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, 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 they 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 of 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 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 Gallowgate, 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, perhaps not coincidentally, 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, 2016 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.