Famous people from North East England
Surnames beginning with:
Our American Cousin – Abe Lincoln’s Assassination
A brewery owner’s son, born in Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, Tom Taylor was a popular nineteenth century playwright and the editor of Punch magazine. Educated at Sunderland’s Grange School and at Glasgow and Cambridge Universities, Taylor began his career as a journalist and art critic in London before progressing to writing plays. He wrote around 100 plays and one of the most popular was the farce Our American Cousin of 1858. This play was well-known in its own right but achieved even greater fame – and notoriety – in 1865 as it was the play being watched by American president Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at the Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC by John Wilkes Booth.
Pet Shop Boy
North Shields-born singer, vocalist, keyboard player and songwriter, with the 80s electronic pop duo, The Pet Shop Boys. Raised in Gosforth, Tennant attended St Cuthbert’s Grammar School in Newcastle where his interest in music developed. Moving to London to take a degree in history at North London Polytechnic, Tennant worked in publishing for Marvel Comics, Macdonald Educational Publishing and the pop music magazine Smash Hits where he became Assistant Editor. At around this time he had formed a collaboration with musician Chis Lowe. While in New York, interviewing The Police for Smash Hits Tennant met up with music producer Bobby Orlando who agreed to produce tracks for Tennant and Lowe. As The Pet Shop Boys, the duo became an enormous international success with hits such as West End Girls, Opportunities, Go West, It’s a Sin, What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Always on My Mind.
The Little Waster
Three times married North East pitman-comedian born Penshaw and raised in Fatfield near Washington. As a young lad he worked at the nearby North Biddick Colliery and became an entertainer and harmonica player in the Working Mens’ Clubs. Known as the ‘Little Waster’ from his short stature, his comedy themes were rooted in the working class communities of the North East and the routine often involved rather tall stories that sent up class aspirations. He was known for his cloth cap, drooping cigarette and rather worse for wear stripey jumper as well as phrases such as “the dole is my shepherd I shall not work”. Thompson’s act was delivered in a ‘pitmatic’ Wearside dialect of the Durham coalfield and although he was hugely popular in the region, his humour and dialect were little understood beyond the North East.
See also the Thompson surname
Powerful Newcastle businessman. Wool trader, investor in lead mines and coal. He was the mayor of Newcastle nine times, a Newcastle MP on five occasions and rebuilt Newcastle’s town walls. Although he is sometimes referred to as ‘Newcastle’s Dick Whittington’ he seems to have had relatively affluent beginnings. The figure of Thornton above can be seen incorporated into a shop front in Newcastle’s Northumberland Street.
Square Sheep Artist
Middlesbrough-born artist and former shipyard worker. Upon leaving the yards Thorpe studied at Cleveland College of Art and Design in Middlesbrough and at Byam Shaw College of Art in London. He returned to the north to set up a gallery called Arthaus in Richmond in North Yorkshire. His abstract, yet warm and dream-like paintings often include animals and he is particularly well-known for his ‘square sheep’.
Kathryn Tickell OBE
Internationally recognised Northumbrian piper, fiddler and North East folk musician who was born in Wark in the North Tyne valley of Northumberland. Her father was an accordion player and she learned her craft from some of her home county’s most renowned pipers. She was already an accomplished player by the age of 13. As well as being a captivating live performer and prolific recording artist in her own right Tickell has recorded with Sting on several of his albums, also with Jimmy Nail and with several other notable recording artists including Steeleye Span and The Chieftains.
Olympic Bronze medal gymnast (floor exercise) in the 2016 Rio Olympics at the age of only 16. From Bishop Auckland, she trained at the South Durham Gymnastics ‘Pink Gym’ in Spennymoor. Tinkler was the youngest member of the entire Great Britain team in the 2016 Olympics.
See also the Tinkler surname
Actor born in Stockton-on-Tees, though his family moved to Scarborough when he was aged four and subsequently to Lytham in Lancashire. Acting credits include major roles in Drop the Dead Donkey, Brassed Off, Wild at Heart, DCI Banks and Ballykissangel.
Bill Travers MBE
Born Free Actor and Animal Rights Campaigner
Sunderland-born actor and animal rights campaigner. He served in the British and Indian armies and fought in Burma. After leaving the army he pursued a career in acting, making his movie debut in 1950. A notable early role was as the lead in Geordie (1955) a film about a Scotsman who becomes an athlete and competes in the Olympic Games. Another notable role was as Robert Browning in the 1957 film The Barretts of Wimpole Street (see also Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Virginia McKenna who married Bill Travers later that year played Elizabeth Barrett’s sister, Henrietta. Bill Traver’s best-known role was alongside McKenna in Born Free in which they played wildlife experts George and Joy Adamson who raised a lion cub and released it into the wild. The acting couple were so inspired they became animal rights campaigners highlighting the problem of animal abuse in certain zoos.
- Bill Traver’s sister, Florence Lindon-Travers (1913-2001) who was born in Houghton-le-Spring was also a film star and appeared in over 20 films from 1935, mostly in a supporting role. She played the role of Mrs Todhunter in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Florence was educated at La Sagesse school in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne.
It’s A Wonderful Life
Prudhoe-born stage and movie actor best-known for the role of the Guardian Angel Clarence Odbody in the 1946 Christmas-themed film It’s a Wonderful Life. He was born Travers John Heagerty in Prudhoe before his family moved to Tweedmouth near Berwick upon Tweed when he was around two years old. Travers trained as an architect in Berwick before taking to the stage. His stage acting took in both England and the United States where he made his Broadway debut in 1901 and his prolific movie career began in the 1930s.
Rory Underwood MBE
Rugby Record Breaker
Middlesbrough-born and Barnard Castle School educated, former England international rugby union player and RAF pilot. Underwood scored a record 49 tries in 85 internationals for England. His brother Tony Underwood (born Ipoh, Malaysia 1968, and also educated at Barnard Castle School) served alongside Rory in the England team. The Underwood brothers have Chinese-Malaysian heritage on their mother’s side. Rory’s England team mate Rob Andrew (born Richmond, North Yorkshire, 1963) was later a player and director of Newcastle Falcons rugby union side and educated at Barnard Castle School contemporary with Rory.
Rachel and Becky Unthank
born 1978 and 1985
Ryton-born sister members of the folk-influenced North East group The Unthanks. They are a much-hailed group whose music has several cross-genre influences with strong links to Northumbrian and North East folk music. Originally called Rachel Unthank and the Winterset they became The Unthanks with changes to the line up in 2009. Both sisters are vocalists, older sister Rachel plays cello and kalimba and Becky plays autoharp. They have recorded seven albums, their first as The Unthanks being Here’s the Tender Coming from the Tyneside press gang song of that name.
See also the Unthank surname
Bishop William Van Mildert
The Last Prince Bishop
Founder of Durham University and the last ‘Prince Bishop’ of Durham, though the Prince Bishops’ political powers were much watered down by this period. Donated his castle at Durham to the university.
Lieutenant Colonel Ernest Vaux
Sunderland-born brewer and co-owner with brother Cuthbert of Vaux Breweries. Their grandfather Cuthbert Vaux (1779-1850) had established the brewery. Ernest Vaux was a friend of Robert Baden Powell and together they set up The Vaux Own Scout Group in Sunderland, thought to be the world’s first official scout group.
See also the Vaux surname
Alnwick-born darts commentator known as ‘the Voice of Darts’. A man of creative prose and a countless repertoire of quotable phrases like: “It’s like trying to pin down a kangaroo on a trampoline”. Waddell was the son of a Northumberland miner and was schooled in Morpeth. He studied Modern History at Cambridge University and became for a time a Professor of Politics and Economics at Durham University. A one-time folk singer, Waddell’s career in television included work as the producer of Yorkshire Television’s regional news programme Calendar but he really made his mark as a passionate and entertaining darts commentator with the BBC and Sky television.
‘Diamond Light’ Footballer
Felling-born footballer with Newcastle United and England and a football TV commentator. Having played for Durham amateur side Tow Law Town, Waddle signed for Newcastle United at the age of 19 while working for a frozen food factory at Quebec in County Durham. He would make 170 appearances for the Magpies scoring 46 goals. His later career as a footballer took him to Spurs, Marseille, Sheffield Wednesday and briefly Sunderland as well as a number of other clubs. Waddle made 62 appearances for England. In 1987 Waddle made it into the top 20 music charts as a singer in a duo with fellow England footballer, Glenn Hoddle performing the specially written song Diamond Lights.
See also the Waddell and Waddle surnames
Bishop William Walcher
Murdered at Gateshead
Frenchman appointed by the Normans as the Bishop of Durham in 1071. He was the first non-Englishman to hold the post. He worked in alliance with Waltheof who was the last Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria. The earl, Waltheof had family roots linked to the Bernician house of Northumbria and to Viking nobles so he was an important ally for Walcher in the north. Unfortunately, Waltheof rebelled against King William the Conqueror and was executed in 1076 at Winchester. Walcher was allowed to buy the Earldom of Northumbria and thus effectively gained significant political powers which had been passed down from the earlier kings of Northumbria. Walcher proved a weak leader and two of his retainers became involved in a dispute with an important local noble called Ligulf (said to be the first member of the Lumley family). Ligulf was murdered by the retainers along with members of his household. This caused a rising against the bishop in Northumbria. Walcher called for a meeting with his people at Gateshead in an attempt to make peace. Discovering he was under threat the bishop took refuge in Gateshead church but it was set alight and he was bludgeoned to death by the mob as he tried to escape.
1781 – 1859
Friction Man of the Match
Stockton-on-Tees born inventor of the friction match. Walker owned a chemist and druggist outlet in Stockton High Street and from 1825 regularly sold mixtures of combustible materials to gunsmiths and other customers. In 1826 while experimenting with the materials at home on the Stockton Quayside he scraped the mixing stick against his hearth which caused the stick to catch fire. Walker recognised the potential and handed out bundles of matchsticks dipped in the substance to people in Stockton and perfected the mixture and proportions for selling friction matches from April 1827 with a piece of folded sandpaper for scraping. His first customer, a Stockton solicitor bought 100 in a tin box. Unfortunately, despite being encouraged by Michael Faraday to patent his invention Walker did not act and in 1830 a Londoner, Samuel Johnson patented friction matches which he termed Lucifers.
Ralph Ward Jackson
Founder of West Hartlepool
London-born, Stockton-based solicitor and businessman who founded the town of West Hartlepool. In the 1830s, Christopher Tennant of Yarm built a new railway linking the tiny town and historic fishing port of Old Hartlepool to The Clarence Railway. This railway, named from the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) linked coal mines from as far north as Coxhoe in south east Durham to the River Tees. Tennant died before the completion of the link and Ward Jackson took over. He was soon frustrated by legal restrictions on business and formed the Hartlepool West Harbour Dock Company in 1844. A new dock was built which resulted in the birth and growth of a brand new town called West Hartlepool. In 1868 Ward Jackson would become the Hartlepools’ first MP (a Conservative) and in the 1890s the Hartlepools formed the fourth busiest port in the country behind London, Liverpool and Hull.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, Watson is arguably the greatest English football manager that most people have never heard of and played a very significant role in the story of football on Tyneside, Wearside and Merseyside. In the 1880s he was secretary and manager of Newcastle West End FC and his departure to their local rivals Newcastle East End is seen as a key reason for the West End club’s demise. However it was Watson who secured the use of St James’ Park for West End FC. Later, following Newcastle West End’s collapse Newcastle East End FC would relocate to St James’ Park absorbing staff, players and facilities from the West End club and renaming themselves Newcastle United. However, by this time Watson had since moved on to Sunderland FC in 1889 where he managed what the founder of the English football league described as ‘the team of all talents’ winning the league title in 1891-92, 1892-93 and 1894-1895 as well as being runners up in 1893-94. After six seasons at Sunderland Watson then moved on to Liverpool where he would remain for 19 years and is still Liverpool’s longest serving manager. Watson was the first manager to establish Liverpool as a force in English football, delivering the club its first ever league titles in 1900-01 and 1905-06. Watson thus became the first and one of the few managers to win the title with two different clubs. He also took Liverpool to their first ever FA Cup final, although they lost 1-0 to Burnley.
Wearside Water Hero
Sunderland sailor, diver and hero who saved the lives of at least 36 people from drowning during his lifetime both at home and abroad, though mostly from the River Wear. Watts lived an eventful life that was filled with much personal tragedy and drama. He had been the principal diver involved in the recovery effort for Scotland’s Tay Bridge disaster of 1880 and headed the recovery of bodies in the tragic Victoria Hall theatre disaster in Sunderland in 1883 where two of his young relatives were among the 183 children who died in the crush. A noted temperance campaigner and a born-again Christian, Watts’ life nearly ended in poverty but in 1909 Sunderland was visited by the American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who set up Watts with a pension and declared to the dignitaries of the town “you should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die.”
Geordie Girl Screen Star
Tynemouth-born actress and TV presenter. Schooled in Whitley Bay and La Sagesse Catholic school in Jesmond, her family moved to Ebchester in north west Durham when she was 13. There she was educated at Blackfyne School in Consett and developed a talent and passion for acting which progressed as she furthered her education at the Mountview Academy of Theatre in London. Early TV acting appearances in the 1980s included Byker Grove and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and she has made countless TV acting appearances since including Spender, Soldier Soldier, Waterloo Road and as Natalie Barnes the landlady of The Rovers Return pub in Coronation Street 1997-2000. Welch is a regular presenter-panellist on the ITV show Loose Women. She has been married three times, her second husband being fellow Geordie actor Tim Healy, who was her spouse from 1988-2012.
Easington-born Olympic diver, Charmian represented Britain in the Olympics of 1952 (in Helsinki when she was just 15) and in the Melbourne Olympics of 1956. She competed in the Commonwealth Games in 1954 and 1958. It was in the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff that she won a gold medal in both the 3 metres springboard and 10 metres platform event. She learned to dive at Dawdon Colliery swimming pool (known as the Dawdon Pit Pond) near Seaham. Her first name is correctly Charmian, though it is sometimes misspelled as the more familiar Charmain.
William De Wessington
Late twelfth century
The First Washington
In 1180, William De Hartburn of Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees exchanged his manor of Hartburn for the purchase of Wessington (Washington) also in County Durham (now Tyne and Wear) from the Bishop of Durham, Hugh Pudsey. The family name was changed to De Wessington in recognition of their new land. William was the first member of the Washington family and the direct ancestor of the first President of the United States, George Washington from whom the American state of Washington and the US capital, Washington DC are ultimately named.
See also the Washington surname
First Black Professional Footballer
Born in what is now Ghana to a Grenadian father, Wharton came to England in 1882 and worked as a Methodist Missionary before turning his attention to sport. Playing as a goalkeeper it was Darlington that gave Wharton his big break as an amateur footballer in 1885. He would go on to play for Preston North End and then Rotherham where he became the first black (mixed heritage) professional footballer.
Tyneside Acting Great
Actor, born Humshaugh in the North Tyne valley near Hexham. Educated at Barnard Castle and London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Whately is the son of a Royal Naval Commander whose great grandfather was an Anglican Archbishop of Dublin. In his early performing career Kevin Whately was a folk singer and acted with Newcastle’s Live Theatre during the 1970s. He became a familiar face on British TV from 1983 when he portrayed the role of Geordie brickie Neville Hope in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet alongside Tim Healy and Jimmy Nail. Since then he has appeared in numerous TV dramas, most notably Inspector Morse, Lewis and Peak Practice.
Jarrow Marching MP
Labour politician and MP for Middlesbrough and Jarrow. Noted for her part in the Jarrow March. Wilkinson, the daughter of a cotton worker, was born in Manchester and became a trade unionist and campaigner for women’s suffrage. Joining the Labour Party, she was elected MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924, serving the constituency until 1931. In 1935 she successfully stood as candidate as MP for Jarrow ousting the former Conservative mayor William Pearson. The Palmers’ shipyard in Jarrow which dominated the town had recently closed creating poverty in the town. A march to London to highlight the need for jobs was organised involving 200 Jarrow men with the MP Wilkinson being the only woman to join them. In 1939 Wilkinson portrayed the plight and story of Jarrow in her book The Town That was Murdered.
William of Durham
Oxford’s First College Founder
William of Durham was the founder of University College, Oxford, the oldest college at England’s oldest university. A noted theologian, he is thought to have been born at Sedgefield. He worked as a theologian in Paris and held posts as Archdeacon of Durham and Archdeacon of Caux in Normandy and in 1236 was elected Archbishop of Rouen, a post he turned down after certain objectors petitioned the Pope. Richard Poore, the Bishop of Durham granted William the manors of Sunderland, Ryhope and Wearmouth of which he was also rector and William made a lucrative living from the rent. Doubts were cast over his rights on Wearside by a succeeding Bishop of Durham causing William to return to England via Normandy, but he died during the journey. According to the terms of his will, a college was established at Oxford University that was initially called ‘William of Durham’s College’ but was subsequently called University College.
St Wilfrid was a restless and forthright figure at the forefront of politics and religion in seventh century Northumbria. He seems to have been born in Deira, the southern part of Northumbria (Yorkshire) and was of noble birth. He was educated on Lindisfarne and then at Canterbury. In the 650s he visited Rome along with his friend Benedict Biscop (see) and had a meeting with the Pope. He became interested in Roman traditions of Christianity that differed from the Celtic Christianity in Northumbria particularly in the dating of Easter. Wilfrid became Abbot of Ripon in the 660s and rose to power speaking up for and persuading Northumbria to adopt Roman Christianity at the Syndod of Whitby in 664AD. That year he was made Bishop of York and founded a school there. He persuaded the Northumbrian queen, Æthelthryth to become a nun and she divorced the king, Oswy. She gave land at Hexham to Wifrid where he established a monastery in 673AD. Wilfrid fell out with the king and was banished from Northumbria in 678AD with the encouragement of St Hilda (see). On his return to Northumbria with documents of support from the Pope, Wilfrid was arrested at Dunbar and imprisoned. Wilfrid escaped and took refuge in Sussex where he converted the pagans of that kingdom. Wilfrid returned to Northumbria following the death of King Oswy but was banished again following a quarrel with the new king, Aldfrith. On Aldfrith’s death in 705AD Wilfrid returned once again under the new king Eadwulf and Wilfrid became Bishop of Hexham which he remained up until his death in 709AD.
Sir Frank Williams CBE
The F1 Team
Founder of the Williams Formula One racing team. Born in South Shields, he was brought up by an aunt and uncle in Jarrow and later educated at a boarding school in Dumfries. Away from the region he worked as a mechanic and saved to establish a racing car team in 1966, initially competing in Formula Two and Three. In 1977 he formed Williams Grand Prix Engineering, along with former employee Patrick Head, this later become Williams F1. Williams was confined to a wheelchair after suffering spinal injuries in a car accident in 1986.
Geordie Song Man
Newcastle-born Tyneside concert hall performer and song writer. His work includes the song Keep yor feet still Geordie Hinny. Born in Stowell Street, he started writing songs as a teenager which were published in a book by the printer at which he was then working. A performer in the pubs and music halls around Newcastle, Wilson died in his thirties of tuberculosis and is buried at Jesmond. Other than Keep yor Feet Still, Wilson’s notable works include Come Geordie ha’d the Bairn. The Row upon the Stairs, The Gallowgate Lad and Sally Wheatley.
Although born in Canterbury, TV executive Andrea Wonfor had strong family connections to the region and was a director at Tyne Tees Television from the late 1960s, later becoming head of young people’s television. Married to Geoff Wonfor, she was co-creator with Malcolm Gerrie of The Tube music programme on Channel 4 in the 1980s, an edgy alternative to Top of the Pops, broadcast from Newcastle. Wonfor was creator of children’s drama Byker Grove in 1989 which would launch the careers of Ant and Dec.
Producer and Director
Newcastle-born Grammy award-winning influential director and producer remembered for directing The Beatles Anthology in 1995. He was director of the Sunday for Sammy event from 2014 in memory of actor Sammy Johnson. Wonfor was one of the most influential figures in music on TV with his work including The Tube, the popular Newcastle-based pop show of the 1980s.
Unsung Engineering Hero
Born at Ryton, Nicholas Wood is one of the unsung heroes of North East engineering. A colliery steam engine and locomotive engineer, Wood played a very important part in the development of George Stephenson’s first locomotive Blücher and in the development of Stephenson’s safety lamp. Wood, whose father, had been a colliery engineer at Crawcrook, designed the drawings for the ‘Geordie Lamp’ under Stephenson’s direction and designed the valves and gears and valve system for the Blücher. Wood lived at Hetton Hall, Hetton-le-Hole and was a partner in the ownership of Hetton Colliery where Stephenson built the first ever railway designed for steam locomotives. As Stephenson’s fame increased the two men remained in close contact and Robert Stephenson worked as an apprentice for Wood who proved to be an important mentor for the aspiring engineer.
See also our North East surnames page