Gateshead is a town that is arguably growing slowly in confidence and status. Could it one day even challenge the city status of its historic neighbour across the Tyne? DAVID SIMPSON explores Gateshead’s transition from an apparent ‘backwater’ to a major centre of northern culture.
In times past Gateshead was once unflatteringly described in parliament as a ‘dirty lane leading to Newcastle’. It has also been described in more chauvinistic times as ‘Newcastle’s wife’ and then there’s that oft-told story of a stranger asking a native Geordie for directions to Gateshead. The reply is something along the lines of “gan ower the bridge and ye’ will say ‘this canna’ be Gyetsid’, but it is”.
Things are a lot different today of course, at least for those parts of Gateshead that face the Newcastle waterside. Gateshead has been a town and borough in the shadow of Newcastle since medieval times and often willingly or unwillingly under its neighbour’s direct control. Since 1882 Newcastle has held the status of a city, reinforcing Gateshead’s role as a ‘suburb’ despite the two places belonging to two quite different counties for so many centuries.
There is, almost, dare I say it, a sense that modern developments and future plans could, in decades to come, bring about a turnaround in this status. Gateshead, as it grows and develops might well become the sparkling modern city of glass and steel while Newcastle might come to serve the splendid role of ‘the old toon’, a kind of beautiful historic quarter with charming old buildings, streets and bars so typically found in many of the most frequently visited continental cities.
I regularly listen to Radio 2 these days – I’m showing my age here – and I often hear them announce forthcoming tours of prominent performers to major cities. Through the splendid work and fabulous event programme of the wonderful venue that is Sage Gateshead it is often Gateshead that you hear listed amongst those cities, rather than Newcastle. It’s quite an astonishing thing, when you think about it, given the almost ‘backwater’ status that Gateshead once held.
And there’s more. What is the most iconic symbol of the region today? The Tyne Bridge? Well maybe, but if it is so then Gateshead can certainly claim its share of this wonderful eminence of solid steel.
However, arguably the most internationally recognised symbol of the whole region, let alone Tyneside today, is Gateshead’s own Angel of the North. In fact it might even be described as the symbol of the entire North of England and it’s right here in Gateshead. Well, where else?
Even down on the river, the Tyne Bridge is now somewhat challenged in the admiration stakes by the Gateshead Millennium Bridge which tellingly includes Gateshead in its name. Its modern elegant gleaming white arch certainly seems to connect with the companion buildings of Sage and BALTIC on the south shore a little more so than perhaps it does with even the most modern quayside buildings on the Newcastle side.
Being a pedestrian bridge it is also, in human terms, the most effective link between the two ‘toons’ if we are to insist on that humbling dialect term for a community’s civic status. By comparison the magnificent Tyne Bridge, though undoubtedly the greatest symbol of ‘home’ for many a Tynesider, seems designed, despite its symbolism, to carry traffic through and away from the two places as much as it serves in bringing the two communities together.
Of course it is the central business districts or retail centres that are often most identified as the heart of any city. Northumberland Street and Eldon Square, which though both pleasing, could, let’s be honest, be located almost anywhere, as much-loved as they are. They are as seemingly as popular as ever but it is reasonable to ask what they might look like in fifty years time considering the new era of online commerce which we are, in generational terms, still only just entering.
In fairness, retail seems to be one area where central Gateshead is unlikely to challenge Newcastle. The modern Trinity Square in Gateshead town centre is certainly not on a scale intended to do so, although Gateshead’s out-of-town MetroCentre has given Newcastle town centre more than a run for its money for some decades now.
We often hear the two places now described under one name ‘Newcastle-Gateshead’ and the initiative to market and develop the two as one seems to have been broadly accepted, at least for now, but might there come a day when the modern ‘city’ of Gateshead demands recognition and perhaps even a senior status in its own right, distinct from its grand, handsome but ageing partner across the water?
Well, maybe not, but who would have thought thirty years ago that Gateshead could have developed into what it has become today?
SOME FACTS ABOUT GATESHEAD
Gateshead Borough is home to around 200,000 people.
It stretches from Whickham and Blaydon in the west to Pelaw and Felling in the east and south to Birtley.
Sage Gateshead stands close to the site of Gateshead’s medieval streets including Hillgate.
Hillgate or ‘Hellgate’ was where the Great fire of Newcastle and Gateshead began in 1854.
Gateshead Millennium Bridge can tilt to 40 degrees.
BALTIC gallery occupies a former flour mill established in the 1930s but was not opened until the 1950s.
Rank who owned the mill often named mills after foreign seas.
BALTIC stands on the site of the Hawks’Iron works (1858-1890). One Hawks’ employee was Geordie Ridley who wrote ‘Blaydon Races’.
A painting of the Blaydon Races can be seen in Shipley Art Gallery.
Underhill, the first private house in the world to be lit by electricity is now a care home in Kells Lane, Low Fell.
The Land of Oak & Iron is a vast region rich in natural and industrial heritage and is right on the doorstep of some of the most populous parts of the North East. DAVID SIMPSON explores.
Have you ever visited the Land of Oak & Iron? Perhaps you have without realising. This is after all a land covering around 177 km2 of North East England and features a wonderful wealth of ‘heritage, history, heroes and habitats’.
Focused on the beautiful Derwent Valley this land encompasses parts of County Durham, Northumberland and the Borough of Gateshead and is a superb part of the region to relax and explore on foot or bike and all within easy reach of Tyneside and many of the most populous parts of the North East.
Recently we visited the plush new Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Centre and the adjoining independent café Shrub which are very easy to reach just off the A694 at Winlaton Mill between Consett and Gateshead. In the sunny Autumnal sunshine there were plenty of people enjoying good food in the café – much of which is sourced from North East producers, while others were trying their hand at wood-engraved print-making in the heritage centre, courtesy of visiting demonstrator, Shona Branigan of Salmon Jam Press.
The centre and café look out onto the beautiful wooded Derwent Valley with its extensive network of pathways that are popular with cyclists, dog walkers and families out for a stroll. Formed as a landscape partnership, the Land of Oak & Iron is hosted by Groundwork NE & Cumbria and with £3.4 million of secured funding, is undertaking a programme of fourteen interconnected projects to conserve, enhance and encourage accessibility to the area’s unique cultural and natural assets. The developments began in 2016 and will continue all the way into 2020.
The opening of the café and heritage centre in October 2018 has been an important milestone in these developments and the centre is a good starting point to explore the whole area. However it’s about much more than just one place. This is the heart of a region that stretches north west from the wooded valley of Allensford near Consett along the beautiful Derwent to where the little river joins the Tyne at Swalwell. From there the region stretches west along the Tyne to Cherryburn the one time home of famed eighteenth century engraver, Thomas Bewick.
Bewick is just one of the many local heroes associated with the Land of Oak & Iron. Others include the fraternity of seventeenth century German sword makers who settled at Shotley Bridge; the renowned industrialist, Ambrose Crowley; the ‘Unhappy Countess’, Mary Eleanor Bowes of Gibside and the ‘pitman poet’ Tommy Armstrong.
In terms of heritage, the landscape speaks for itself. Extensive woodland includes Chopwell Wood, Milkwellburn Wood and the Thornley Woodlands which are typical landscape features of the district. In fact in the old Brythonic tongue of the Celts, the name Derwent means ‘oak river’ and is testament to the long-established sylvan nature of the district.
Improved access to woodland, encouraged through the work of Access & Woodlands Officer, Peter Downes, works to assist and support local owners of small woodlands and is another successful aspect of the Partnership’s work, bringing owners of adjoining woodlands together. According to Kath Marshall-Ivens, Community Engagement Officer at Groundwork NE and Cumbria, the area covered by the partnership has a 13% woodland cover which is higher than the national and regional average. It includes a number of PAWS (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites), which are sites that were ancient woodland but have been replanted in more recent years. Ancient woodland is that which has existed continuously since 1600 or before.
There are four country parks within the whole area, namely Derwent Walk, Derwenthaugh, Allensford, and Tyne Riverside and there are additional visitor centres at Thornley Woods and The Lodge Heritage Centre at Consett and Blackhill Park.
The numerous landscape features and habitats across this beautiful region include wildflower meadows like Blaydon’s Shibdon Meadow which lies in close proximity to the MetroCentre, adjoining the Shibdon Ponds nature reserve. Further to the west near Prudhoe are the intriguingly named ‘Spetchells’ to the south of the Tyne which in the North East form a unique chalk meadow landscape created from the spoil heaps of a former chemical works that stood on the site. As well as interesting fauna the Spetchells form a special habitat for solitary mining bees.
Industry has certainly played a role in shaping the landscape of the Land of Oak & Iron. The Derwent Walk pathway that forms the primary walking and cycling route through the whole area follows the course of a Victorian railway that linked the former iron town of Consett to Tyneside. Many of the smaller pathways of the network follow the routes of colliery wagonways some of which date back to the 1700s and 1600s.
Major heritage features in the region are often reminders of its important links to the iron industry and include the early eighteenth century remains of Allensford Blast Furnace near Consett and the impressive Derwentcote Steel Furnace of the 1730s near Hamsterley Mill. We also have the rare and curious Whinfield Coke Ovens near Chopwell Wood, built by the owners of the Victoria Garesfield Colliery in the 1860s.
Other heritage features within the Land of Oak & Iron include two major National Trust sites in the form of Thomas Bewick’s cottage at Cherryburn which stands in a splendid rural setting and of course the wonderful parkland of Gibside near Rowlands Gill including the magnificent Palladian chapel and much else besides. Somewhere between the two we have a major English Heritage site in the shape of the twelfth century Prudhoe Castle, reputedly the only castle in the North East never to have been captured by the Scots.
A lesser-known heritage site that forms a lovely independent attraction is the Path Head Water Mill, a restored operational water mill complete with a working water wheel and adjoining mill pond. Parts of the mill were salvaged from mills at Acomb and Guyzance in Northumberland and it forms a super attraction in lovely grounds near the valley of the Blaydon Burn.
Perhaps a more surprising heritage feature of the Partnership area are the remains of the thirteenth century medieval manor house called Old Hollinside Manor near Whickham. It was known as the ‘Giant’s Castle’ because the men folk of the Harding family who once resided here were noted for being so tall in stature.
The River Derwent and Tyne are of course an important aspect of the area’s cultural, industrial and natural heritage. In recent years improvements have been made to the Derwent as a habitat for fish and this has been one of the partnership’s most publicised projects. Salmon and Sea Trout can now migrate much further upstream to lay their eggs after the development of a rock pool fish pass at Lintzford, overseen by the Tyne Rivers Trust.
Opened in November 2016, the new fish pass complements the existing 300 year old weir that had previously blocked the migration of the fish. Another fish pass will be created upstream at Shotley Grove and this will open up the whole river for spawning and have a positive impact on trout and salmon numbers in the valley and even out at sea.
Towns such as Consett, Rowlands Gill, Ryton, Whickham, Blaydon and Prudhoe all lie within the Land of Oak & Iron as well as several smaller villages. The proximity of neighbouring Tyneside make this all the more important as a region of natural and industrial heritage in close proximity to so many thousands of people.
Community involvement has been a major factor in the success of the Land of Oak & Iron Partnership and has included outreach programmes to local schools with sessions aimed at exploring the industrial and natural heritage of the area.
Notable creations associated with links to schools include the composition of a song and also the creation of an orchestral piece both inspired by the landscape of the area. In addition there has been much work in partnership with Gateshead College aimed at engaging with the landscape, with projects including photography and work for building students in the conservation of the industrial heritage sites.
Although the projects will be completed in 2020, the legacy and community involvement will continue far beyond with a ‘legacy group’ ensuring that the wonderful Land of Oak & Iron can be explored, enjoyed, understood and appreciated for many generations to come.
Main Partners Land of Oak & Iron Partnership: County Durham Community Foundation; Durham County Council; Durham Wildlife Trust; English Heritage; Gateshead College; Groundwork NE and Cumbria; New Visions Heritage; Northumberland County Council; Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust; Tyne River Trust; The Woodland Trust. Other partner organisations include: Blaydon Youth and Community Centre; Friends of Chopwell Wood, Heritage Lottery Fund; Industrial Heritage Networks; Newcastle Gateshead Initiative and Visit County Durham.
Have you visited the Land of Oak & Iron?
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DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tragic loss of life in the coal mining history of North East England where literally thousands of men lost their lives simply doing their job.
“Bye mam”, shouted fourteen year-old John Richard Heard, as he set off for work, as he’d done so many times before.
“Bye son”, his mother replied and then, strangely, moments later, another farewell came as he briefly returned, for reasons that we will never know:
“You’ve already said goodbye, son” came the reply, the mother not knowing that this goodbye, would be his last.
The young lad lived in Perkinsville, a little pit village near Pelton just west of Chester-le-Street. He worked at nearby Urpeth Busty Pit, a short walk from his home. How long he worked there, we don’t know. What sort of lad he was, we don’t know.
All we know is that the inquest notes for his death on that day, January 27, 1898, include the boy’s name, the name of the colliery owners, the name of the pit and the cause of death.
The mine owners were Charles Perkins and Partners, the successors to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Mosely Perkins, from whom ‘Perkins’ Ville’ was named. The Perkins family also owned the nearby iron works at Birtley where there is a prominent statue to E.M. Perkins’ memory. The pit was the Urpeth Busty Colliery, ‘busty’ being the name of the coal seam that this particular colliery worked. As for the cause of death, a short matter of fact explanation reads as follows:
“His work consisted in ‘helping-up’ the putter with his empty tubs, after which he should have returned to the siding. On this occasion, however, he did not return to his proper place, and being caught by the full tub, which the putter was bringing out, was crushed between it and the prop.”
The words “he should have” are typical of the comments found in the summaries of mine accidents at that time. Responsibility is firmly placed on the individual worker, even when the deceased worker might be as young as eleven, ten, nine or eight-years-old but this lad was fourteen, so clearly he must be considered an adult. To the modern mind the thought occurs that this is only a boy and he should not be working here at all, but these were very different times when the risk of death in the name of work and progress, even for children, was a simple and unfortunate fact of life.
Five months following John Richard’s death, his mother, Alice Heard, would also pass away. She was 41. Her death was perhaps hastened by her heart-breaking loss. Alice would share the grave with her beloved son in Pelton churchyard. She would, however, live to see the marriage of her daughter from whom my mother’s family descend. Alice was my great-great grandmother and the story of the lad – my grandma’s uncle – who came back to say that one last goodbye, has passed down to us.
In our day and age no one expects to lose their life simply doing a job, simply earning a living for their family. Less do we expect to find children employed in such dangerous work. However, this was once the widely accepted reality in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham and in other coalfields across the land. A century earlier, back in the early 1800s most people had worked as ‘agricultural labourers’. That was no doubt a relentless job and it certainly received very poor pay. It was a life of virtual servility, little better, perhaps, than that of the medieval peasants of old. For such people, mining was a very attractive proposition.
Businessmen, speculators, risk takers, entrepreneurs and men of money like Edward Mosely Perkins brought new opportunities for the impoverished. They opened mines and built new villages from scratch, offering simple home comforts and wages which though modest by the standards of today, would have been more than tempting for farm hands used to working the land.
Alice’s mother and father, were called Apperley and originated in rural Herefordshire where Apperleys had resided for centuries, presumably working the land. Mining brought new opportunities that drew people of modest means from far and wide to the North East seeking work in the coal mines. Another branch of my family came over from Ireland, also to work in the Durham mines. Mining was a comparatively lucrative trade, but of course it was also, as we have seen, potentially deadly.
The massive scale of this danger and the huge loss of life really only hit home to me some years ago when I co-authored a book about the history of Sunderland aimed at young people in that city. The book was filled with quirky facts and fun features but also the occasional poignant event.
This book was fun to do but one thing that really sticks in my mind is discovering that within the modern bounds of what is now the City of Sunderland we can find the names of around 2,700 men and boys who lost their lives working in the mines of that very area. So, that’s 2,700 just within the area covered by the present City of Sunderland. That is to say just one small part of the North East coalfield.
Now you might think there must have been some fairly major colliery disasters in the Sunderland area given that figure, but in truth that part of the region seems to have been reasonably fortunate in terms of mining deaths. The worst disaster in the area now covered by present day Sunderland was of a relatively modest scale. It was also a relatively early disaster, being an explosion at Newbottle Colliery in 1815 that claimed 57 lives.
However, by the time that colliery closed in 1956 it had claimed the lives of 148 men and boys over a period of time, all of whom died simply doing their job. Across the region most deaths in the mines were, sadly, an almost day to day experience. There were no major disasters at Ryhope Colliery, for example, which operated for 109 years (1857- 1966) yet it still claimed the lives of 291 men and boys during its working life. Further north, at Monkwearmouth, 297 lives were taken during that mine’s history. That is of course the colliery that once stood on the site now occupied by Sunderland Football Club’s Stadium of Light.
The intention here is not to be morbid or make a political point of some kind. It’s just important to highlight this rather sad element of our region’s history that should not be forgotten. Most towns and villages around our nation have war memorials recalling the names of those who gave their lives while bravely fighting for their country. Many were young men, of whom we should be rightly proud. In the coalfield of Northumberland and Durham many such war memorials stand in almost every town and village but those towns and villages could equally display monuments to the men and perhaps more significantly, the boys – the children – who gave their lives simply earning a living to support their families.
This is no less a tragedy than the sad losses of war and these are individuals of whom we should be no less proud, especially when we consider the part coal played in powering us towards the modern world and all the comforts we know today.
Mining tragedies weren’t just a nineteenth century phenomenon, however. In May 1951, for example, 83 men lost their lives in one single event in the colliery at Easington in County Durham. And if you find the human cost too unbearable to imagine you might consider that it was not just human lives that could be taken. In September 1880 a single disaster at Seaham Colliery claimed 164 men and boys but also killed 181 pit ponies working below ground. Mining could be a hard and cruel industry in so many respects.
If the plight of the region’s miners and their families, who faced such daily dangers is remembered at all, it is in the memorials to the major disasters. One good example is at Stanley in County Durham which recalls the disaster at the West Stanley Burns Pit in February 1909 where 168 lives were lost. The memorial was unveiled in 1995 by the then Newcastle United football manager Kevin Keegan whose grandfather, a miner at this pit, had survived the event and had helped with the rescue effort.
There are many other memorials across the North East, some new, some old. At Haswell between Durham and Easington for example there stands alongside the 1830s remains of a colliery engine house a sculpture installed in 1996 by Michael Disley depicting the faces of miners trapped between layers of stone. It commemorates a disaster at the Haswell mine in 1844 which claimed 95 lives.
One of the most important memorials and one that is contemporary with the event rather than a modern remembrance can be found in the churchyard at Heworth near Gateshead. Here a memorial to a disaster of special importance commemorates that which took place at Felling Colliery in 1812 in which 92 miners lost their lives. Their names are engraved around four sides of the monument. This disaster was of particular significance because it was the first pit tragedy to really come to the attention of the public conscience and was an event that really spurred on a determination to improve mine safety. It was the Felling disaster that ultimately brought about the development of the miners’ safety lamp.
Coincidentally the churchyard is also the burial place of Thomas Hepburn (c1795-1864), the Pelton-born, union leader who founded The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland. Hepburn, who had worked in mines since the age of eight, fought hard to improve the rights and conditions of his fellow miners. He was a dignified and intelligent man, determined to fight the miners’ cause by peaceful means. He often worked against great adversity and faced much resistance from those who controlled the trade but he was an important part of the story in improving the often brutal conditions in which miners had to live and work.
For me the most moving memorial to a pit tragedy within our region is at the scene of the biggest North East mining tragedy of them all and one that I have only recently visited for the first time. It concerns the Hester Pit at New Hartley near Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. Here a disaster struck on the morning of Thursday, January 16, 1862 after a massive beam engine used for pumping water from the mine gave way, crashing into and destroying the mine shaft below. Deep below the number of miners was especially high as it was time for a shift change with about half the men due to end their shift and the others about to commence work.
The men and boys were able to move to a higher seam to escape the imminent danger of flooding but the destruction of the shaft and cage meant that the only means of ventilation and escape from the build up of noxious gases had been destroyed.
Above ground men worked frantically to reach the entombed miners but the breakthrough would not come until the following Wednesday. Sadly, long before that point, the men below had succumbed to the gas. The last diary entry of one of the deceased occurred on the Friday and this suggests that it may have been on that day that most of the men had met their end.
The bodies sat in two rows, all as if they were simply sleeping. One boy’s head rested on the shoulder of his father, while two brothers embraced in a permanent affectionate slumber.
A miner involved in the attempted rescue effort was the first to encounter this scene. He climbed back to the surface and with great emotion announced the dreadful news to the waiting families and crowds above. There were no survivors below.
Two hundred and four men and boys lost their lives in what was the worst mining disaster ever recorded in the North East of England. Sadly, a third of those who died were under nineteen and included five boys aged ten or eleven years old and more than twenty were from twelve to fourteen years of age.
The dead were buried at Earsdon near Whitley Bay some four miles to the south and a continuous convoy of coffins and mourners is said to have run to there from New Hartley. A monument can still be seen in Earsdon churchyard commemorating the burials but the really moving place for me is the memorial garden at New Hartley itself that is built around the superstructure on the site of the shaft where the terrible events took place. The garden was opened in 1976 and in 2012 a memorial pathway by Russ Coleman was added recalling the names of those who lost their lives
The one positive note that came from this tragedy was a change in the law, in 1865, which made it compulsory for mines to have more than one shaft, though some colliery owners opposed this additional expense. If there had been a second shaft at New Hartley, the miners would have been saved.
Disaster memorials like that at West Hartley are unusual and recollect only the major events. They do not record the names of the thousands of incidental deaths that occurred in North East mines over the decades which were not connected to major disasters.
Deaths such as that of John Richard Heard are perhaps only remembered, if at all, by those whose family histories feature such terrible heartbreaking episodes. There must be many a family throughout the region who share in this unfortunate legacy with their own family tales to tell of men and boys who lost their lives in our North East mines.
The memorials do help us to remember how times can change. They can provoke us to ask questions about humanity itself and how we can make our lives better for future generations.
Let’s not let the miners who gave their lives, miners like fourteen-yea- old John Richard Heard, be forgotten.
To find out more about individual coal mines, mining disasters and pit fatalities in North East England I recommend visiting the fantastic Durham Miners Museum, an amazing online resource featuring vast amounts of information on coal mines, coal owners with extensive lists of names and information and reports about miners who were killed in the pit. The site covers Northumberland as well as Durham and also lead and ironstone mining in places such as Cleveland and Cumberland. You can visit the site at www.dmm.org.uk/
Woodhorn Mining Museum
You can also find out more about the Hartley Colliery disaster and much else about the life of coal miners and coal mining in the region by visiting the fabulous Woodhorn Museum near Ashington