Famous people from North East England of the past and present
Surnames beginning with:
Barons (and Scottish kings) of Barney
The Balliols were powerful medieval barons of Teesdale whose family included two Kings of Scotland.
- Frenchman, Guy De Balliol was granted land in Teesdale by King William Rufus in the years following the Norman Conquest and his family would play an important part in defending the northern border.
- Guy was succeeded by his nephew Bernard Balliol (died c1162) who seems to have been an ally of King David I of Scotland. Along with Robert Brus of Guisborough in Cleveland, Bernard negotiated for peace with the Scottish king on behalf of the English. However, Balliol’s lands were under constant threat from Scottish raids and he completed the construction of the Teesdale castle of Barnard Castle which still bears his name around which the town – that also bears his name – developed.
- Bernard’s son Bernard Balliol the 2nd (died 1190) succeeded his father in Teesdale. This Bernard captured the Scottish king, William the Lion in a battle near Alnwick in 1174.
- Bernard was succeeded by a cousin Eustace Balliol and then by Hugh Balliol the son of Eustace.
- Hugh’s son, John Balliol (c1208-1268) married the powerful Dervorguilla of Galloway and is remembered for having a disagreement with Walter Kirkham, the Bishop of Durham. As a penance for the fall out Balliol donated funds for the establishment of a college at Oxford in 1263 that became Balliol College.
- John’s son, John Balliol (1249-1314) inherited Barnard Castle and was King of Scotland from 1292 to 1296. He was succeeded as Scottish King by Robert the Bruce, a descendant of the Brus family of Guisborough and Hartlepool.
- John Balliol’s son Edward Balliol (1283-1367) claimed the Scottish throne and ruled over part of that nation with English support from 1314 to 1356.
Scotsman John Barbour founded the outdoor clothing retailer J Barbour & Sons at number 5 Market Place, South Shields in 1894. The internationally renowned company now trades by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen. The company began with a focus on importing oil cloth for fishermen. Now best known for its wax cotton jackets, the company is operated by the fifth generation of the Barbour family and has its headquarters at Simonside, South Shields.
Pat Barker CBE
Thornaby-on-Tees-born novelist, whose birth name was Patricia Drake. Barker, was the surname of her husband who died in 2009. Her work is inspired by the North East and particularly her native Teesside. Her debut novel Union Street (1982) was later adapted as the Hollywood film Stanley and Iris starring Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda. Other novels include Century’s Daughter and her Regeneration Trilogy set during World War One.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Barrett of Wimpole Street
Famed poet, born Elizabeth Barrett at Coxhoe Hall near Kelloe in County Durham. Elizabeth’s great grand parents were sugar plantation owners in the Caribbean who had moved to the North East to be close to their friend, a wealthy Newcastle merchant George Clark (who would become Elizabeth’s grandfather). Elizabeth was baptised at Kelloe church (where there is a memorial) in 1809 shortly before her family moved to Hertfordshire. Elizabeth started writing poems from the age of six and despite her family background was noted for campaigning against slavery. She met fellow poet Robert Browning in 1845 and married against her father’s wishes. The father’s resistance to their marriage was the subject of the 1930 play The Barretts of Wimpole Street that was later made into movies in 1934 and in 1957.
Hexham-born footballer for Newcastle United and England who scored 119 goals for Newcastle United in 326 appearances.
The Venerable Bede
Man of the Years
Born in Sunderland, this renowned saint resided at the monasteries of Weamouth and Jarrow. He was the writer of the first history of the English people which was entitled Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum – A church History of the English People. This was the first time the concept of the English as one people had been put forward in an age when Britain was a collection of several kingdoms. Other works by Bede included his Life of St Cuthbert and De Temporum Ratione (The Reckoning of Time) in which he successfully popularised the AD system of counting years from Christ’s birth across Christian Europe. Prior to his time years had been counted according to the reign of a particular monarch or pope. The reason our current year has the number it has, is in a large part down to Bede. Bede also had knowledge of science and astronomy, for example he knew that the world wasn’t flat, but spherical with polar ice caps, temperate zones and a hot equatorial region. He also understood the relationship between the tides and the moon. The most famous Englishman of his era, he was renowned throughout Europe. Bede is buried in Durham Cathedral, his remains having been transferred there from Jarrow in the eleventh century.
Bishop Anthony Bek
Hunting and Fighting Bishop
Anthony Bek, who hailed from a family of Lincolnshire knights was appointed Prince Bishop of Durham in 1284 by King Edward I with the important role of defending the North from the Scots. A hunter and battle-hungry bishop, Bek favoured Auckland Palace as his main residence where he could easily utilise the hunting grounds of neighbouring Weardale. In 1300 he would lead his own army into battle against the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk. He was involved in a dispute with the Archbishop of York who excommunicated Bek but Bek used his rank as Prince Bishop to petition the king and the Archbishop backed down. From 1286 Bek acted as guardian of the young Margaret of Norway who was heir to the Scottish throne and a pawn of the English king, Edward I. However, Margaret died and John Balliol (see) was appointed King of Scotland by Edward. Bek assisted with the coronation ceremony at Scone. In his later reign Bek was involved in a bitter dispute with the Prior of Durham Cathedral monastery over lands and rights during which Bek imprisoned the prior, the monks and a royal messenger. He lost favour with the king and had lands seized but found favour with the Pope who appointed Bek as The Patriarch of Jerusalem making him the most powerful churchman in England. Bek conducted the funeral ceremony of Edward I at Westminster Abbey upon the king’s death in 1307. For a time Bek was the owner of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland which he sold to the Percy family in 1309. Bek continued to serve as Bishop and patriarch under Edward II. His tomb can be seen in Durham Cathedral.
Queen of the Desert
Born in Washington, County Durham and raised in Redcar, Gertrude Bell was an industrialist’s daughter, a renowned adventurer, a fearless diplomat, a mountain climber and an explorer. She was born in the Bell family home of Washington New Hall, a short distance from Washington Old Hall (the ancestral home of US President, George Washington’s forebears). Bell was formidable and fearless in her dealings with Arab tribal leaders and was fluent in Arabic and several other languages. She had an exceptional knowledge of the Arabian desert tribes and their history as well as the relationships between the different tribes. Along with T.E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), she drew up the borders of a new country called Iraq from out of Mesopotamia which had previously belonged to the Ottoman Empire. She has sometimes been called ‘The uncrowned Queen of Iraq’ and was even referred to as ‘the most powerful woman in the British Empire’. Bell was the subject of the 2015 movie Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman. The movie chronicles her life as an explorer, traveller, archaeologist and diplomat.
Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne to Thomas Bell who had established the Losh, Wilson and Bell iron and alkali company at Newcastle and nearby Walker on Tyne, Isaac Lowthian Bell was one of the most influential industrialists of the North East with interests in a wide array of industrial concerns. He manufactured iron at Walker, chemicals and aluminium (the first in Britain) at Washington, mined iron in Cleveland, quarried limestone in Weardale and set up the Bell Brothers iron works at Port Clarence on Teesside. He was also a director of the North Eastern Railway and involved in politics as a Liberal MP, representing North Durham and then the Hartlepools. Isaac was was the grandfather of Gertrude Bell.
Billy Elliot Star
Actor and dancer, born in Billingham, Teesside who is noted for playing the lead role in the movie Billy Elliot. Set in County Durham during the miners’ strike of 1984 the movie tells the story of a young boys’ battle to overcome his family’s prejudice and make it in the world of dance.
David Bellamy OBE
London-born TV botanist who has made the North East his home. One of the most respected TV naturalists. In later years Bellamy’s popularity has been challenged by his seemingly non-mainstream views on climate change.
Day Four in the Big Brother House
Actor and voice over artist born in Gateshead and raised in Stockton-on-Tees. Bentley is well-known for his distinctive voice, as the narrator for the Channel 4 and later Channel 5 reality TV shows Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother. Bentley has acted in TV dramas such as The Bill and developed his Geordie accent while acting in a TV adaptation of a Catherine Cookson drama.
Talk of the Tees
Actor, born Guisborough and educated at Stockton and Billingham Technical College. His TV roles include appearances in Early Doors, Northern Lights with Robson Green, Waterloo Road and as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing. He is also the introductory voice for visitors to Beamish Museum.
Bewick and Beilby
Famed naturalist and engraver born Mickley in Northumberland, who worked in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and History of British Land Birds. Bewick’s Swans and Bewick’s Wrens are named from Thomas. The texts for his two great works were drafted by Ralph Beilby (1744-1817) the Durham-born silver and copper engraver who was also based in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Founder of Wearmouth Jarrow
c 628 AD-690 AD
Also known as Benedict Baducing, Biscop was a Northumbrian noble of Anglo-Saxon times who is famed for establishing the joint monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. A friend of St Wilfrid, Biscop made several trips to Rome with an interest in the city’s Christian history and architecture. In 674 AD he persuaded the Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith to grant him land for the establishment of a monastery at Wearmouth and extended the monastery with the grant of further land at Jarrow in 682 AD. The joint monastery was equipped with one of the best libraries in Europe (and certainly in Britain) with volumes that Biscop acquired in Europe. On his return from Rome Biscop brought with him the best stonemasons and glaziers and even a Gregorian chanter to make the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery a leading centre of culture and education and an environment in which the young scholar, Bede, of whom Biscop was mentor, would thrive.
Inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four
Born Eileen O’Shaughnessy in South Shields, Blair was the wife of the author George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair). She was schooled at Sunderland Church High School and in 1935 she wrote a poem to celebrate the school’s fiftieth anniversary in which she looked ahead fifty years to a world dominated by a police state in which mind control was common place. She called the poem End of the Century 1984. It was in 1935 that O’Shaughnessy married George Orwell who in 1949 published his famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which like his late wife’s poem featured themes of a police state and mind control. Eileen Blair had died at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1945 aged 39 and is buried at West Jesmond.
‘New Labour’ PM
Born in Edinburgh but raised in Durham, the former UK Labour Prime Minister and MP for Sedgefield was educated at Durham Chorister School and Oxford University. Blair’s father, Leo, was a lecturer at Durham University and an active member of the Conservative party. While Prime Minister, Blair owned a house in the mining village of Trimdon Colliery near Sedgefield in County Durham which was visited, along with a Sedgefield pub, by the US President George W Bush in 2003. Neighbouring constituencies to Blair’s Sedgefield during his time as Prime Minister included those represented by cabinet members Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool and Alan Milburn in Darlington. The bordering constituency of Richmond, just across the Tees in North Yorkshire was represented by William Hague, the leader of the Conservative Party, making the North East a heartland of British politics during Tony Blair’s era.
The Last King of Northumbria
A Norwegian Viking, Eric Bloodaxe was the last independent king in Northumbria. His kingdom was centred on York and Yorkshire which had formed the Viking settled portion of Northumbria since 866 AD. The son of Harald Finehair, a King of Norway, Bloodaxe succeeded his father as Norwegian king after murdering all but one of his own brothers. Hakon, the surviving brother who was exiled in England ousted Bloodaxe from Norway. Bloodaxe crossed the sea, raided in Britain and became the King of York in 947AD. In 952AD Bloodaxe visited the shrine of St Cuthbert at Conecaster (now Chester-le-Street) probably as a kind of medieval public relations exercise. Bloodaxe was murdered in an ambush in 954AD on the wilds of Stainmore to the south west of Teesdale. Osulf of Bamburgh, a High Reeve who virtually ruled the northern half of Northumbria (Bernicia) had betrayed him. The ancient ‘Rey Cross’, near the A66 and close to the Durham-Cumbria border on Stainmore could be the spot at which Bloodaxe met his end.
James Bolam MBE
Sunderland Likely Lad
Sunderland-born actor, whose father was from Northumberland (Bolam is a Northumbrian name) and mother from County Durham. Bolam’s TV roles include roles include The Likely Lads, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (alongside the Yorkshire-born Rodney Bewes), When the Boat Comes In, The Beiderbecke Trilogy, Only when I Laugh, New Tricks and Grandpa in My Pocket. Bolam was educated at Bede Grammar School in Sunderland.
German-born industrialist and founder of Middlesbrough’s iron industry in partnership with fellow ironmaster, John Vaughan (1799-1868). A city father and easily the most powerful man in Middlesbrough in his time, Bolckow was Middlesbrough’s first mayor and its first MP. From Rostock on Germany’s Baltic coast Bolckow was an accountant who had settled in Newcastle upon Tyne and formed a business partnership with Vaughan who was the manager of an an ironworks at Walker on Tyne. Both men moved to Middlesbrough to develop the iron industry there.
‘Count’ Joseph Boruwlaski
The Little Polish Count
Three feet, three inches tall Polish ‘count’, musician and well-travelled entertainer to the aristocracy of Europe. He settled in Durham City in 1791 where he lived the rest of his days. He resided in a house near the folly that came to be known as the ‘Count’s House’ on Durham’s river bank. One of Boruwlaski’s great friends was the renowned actor, theatre owner and later Durham resident, Stephen Kemble, a huge man who could play Falstaff without padding. Boruwlaski is buried in Durham Cathedral where his grave is marked ‘JB’.
St. John Boste
John Boste (sometimes spelled Bost or Boast) was a martyr born to a noted Catholic family at Dufton in Westmorland. He was born in an era of Catholic repression, where practising Catholics and particularly priests could be punished by death. Boste, who was educated at Oxford University was ordained a Catholic priest at Reims in France in 1581 and sent back to England as a secret missionary. After landing at Hartlepool he actively preached as a Catholic missionary throughout the north. Boste was eventually captured at Waterhouses near Durham after his whereabouts was betrayed to the authorities, He was taken to London for imprisonment before trial at Durham in 1594 and was hanged at Dryburn on the outskirts of the city, reciting a prayer as he climbed the ladder. According to a witness he was then immediately cut down and butchered alive. He was canonised as a saint by the Pope but is not recognised as a saint in England as England had broken away from the Catholic church in Rome by that time.
Little Donkey, Little Whippet
Real name Eric Simpson. Sunderland-born composer and songwriter, principally remembered for writing the children’s Christmas song Little Donkey recorded by Gracie Fields and the Beverley Sisters. He was a prolific composer of humorous ‘Geordie’ and North East-themed songs such as I’ve Got a Little Whippet. In addition Eric was the writer of a musical adaptation of Catherine Cookson’s Katie Mullholland and wrote songs for the North East comedian Bobby Thompson.
Sir George Bowes
Coal Owning Bowes
An MP for County Durham and a powerful coal owner born at Gibside near Whickham. An ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II, Bowes was the son of William Bowes of Streatlam near Barnard Castle (also an MP for County Durham). William came into possession of Gibside following his marriage to George’s mother, Elizabeth Blakiston. Sir George Bowes’ first wife, Eleanor Verney was only fourteen and died a couple of months after their marriage in 1724. With his second wife, Mary Gilbert, George Bowes had one daughter called Mary Eleanor Bowes (see). In 1726 Bowes formally established the Grand Alliance, a cartel of the region’s powerful coal owners who included the Liddells of Ravensworth and Brandlings of Gosforth as well as the Strathmore Bowes family.
A Magnificent Museum
Art collector of Streatlam in County Durham and founder of the magnificent French chateau-style Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle which he established along with his French actress wife, Josephine. Bowes was the grandson of Mary Eleanor Bowes the Countess of Stathmore (see) and John Lyon Bowes. Their son John Lyon Bowes, the 10th Earl of Strathmore was John’s father. John Bowes did not inherit his father’s Scottish title because the 10th Earl was not married at the time of John’s birth though he did inherit the family’s English estates of Gibside and Streatlam.
Mary Eleanor Bowes Countess of Strathmore
The Stoney Broke Scandal
Mary Eleanor Bowes was the very wealthy Countess of Strathmore and an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II. The daughter of the coal owner Sir George Bowes (see) she was born in Mayfair, London but raised at Gibside near Whickham. Aged 18, she married John Lyon, the 9th Earl of Strathmore who was born at Rainton near Houghton-le-Spring. Her new husband adopted the name John Lyon Bowes and their children included John Bowes, the 10th Earl of Strathmore (father of John Bowes of Bowes Museum fame) and the 11th Earl, Thomas Lyon Bowes from whom our present Queen is descended. After Mary Eleanor’s husband died, a scandal ensued in 1777 when she was courted and manipulated by the Anglo-Irish army lieutenant Andrew Stoney Robinson who can only be described as an evil cad. His name is sometimes said to have given rise to the phrase ‘Stoney Broke’ form having often been in debt. He fought a staged duel with a newspaper editor to defend Mary’s honour after a critical story about her appeared in a newspaper which Robinson had in fact written himself. Pretending to be mortally wounded, he tricked the Countess into marrying him. The service took place with Robinson carried into the church on a stretcher. He made a remarkably quick recovery following their marriage and bullied Mary Eleanor into accessing her fortune and subjected her to such mental and physical abuse that she came to be known as the ‘unhappy countess’. Robinson Stoney Bowes as he was now known, became the High Sheriff of Durham and the MP for Newcastle in 1780. Mary was virtually his prisoner and in 1785 she broke free with the help of servant maids and filed for divorce. Robinson’s response was to abduct, gag and threaten to rape her, but the authorities were alerted. Robinson was arrested and although he was able to manipulate elements of public opinion against her, the divorce went ahead and he was found guilty of conspiracy to abduct. He died in prison in 1810.
Roland Boys Bradford VC, MC
Four Hero Brothers
Roland Boys Bradford was a County Durham born military hero who was one of four remarkable brothers, all born at Witton Park, who distinguished themselves in the First World War. Educated at Epsom School, he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) and awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for an act of heroism in 1916 after bravely taking forward a troop into enemy lines when his commander was injured. Roland, who also received the Military Cross (MC) was killed in action the following year.
- Roland’s brother, George Nicholson Bradford VC (born 1887) was educated at Barnard Castle School and died at Zebrugge in 1918. George was a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy who knowingly sacrificed his life to gunfire while securing a ship to a pier during a naval storming campaign. George and Roland were the only brothers to receive a Victoria Cross in the First World War.
- A third brother, James Barker Bradford (1890-1917) who was educated at Darlington Grammar School and worked at Hawthorn Leslie engineering works in Newcastle, served in the Northumberland Hussars as a trooper and then in the DLI as a Second Lieutenant. He fought at the Somme and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery, losing his life in battle.
- The fourth brother, Colonel Sir Thomas Andrews Bradford DSO (1886-1966) who played cricket for Chester-le-Street and cricket and rugby for Durham County served at Ypres and was awarded a Distinguished Service Order medal (DSO) for his bravery. He was the only one of the Bradford brothers to survive the war. He was later a Deputy Lieutenant for County Durham.
Alang the Scotswood Rrooood
A bass opera singer born at Annitsford in Northumberland, Brannigan started out in life as a joiner after moving south to Slough. He joined a local operatic society in Windsor and went on to become a professional singer. He was best known for his roles in comic operas, though in the North East he is perhaps best remembered for his recorded rendition of Geordie Ridley’s Blaydon Races.
Capable Landscape Man
The world-famous landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability Brown’ was born at Kirkharle in Northumberland and acquired his nickname from seeing the ‘capabilities’ of potential landscaping sites. Countless examples of his landscaped work can be seen throughout England including Harewood House, Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, Highclere (better known to many as TV’s Downton Abbey) and Alnwick Castle.
Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown
Rude Boy Roy
Stand up comedian born Grangetown near Middlesbrough. His real name is Royston Vasey. Brown is known for his ‘blue’ or what some might call ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ style of humour and he is not shy of utilising words and subjects that some people may consider offensive. The TV comedy League of Gentleman is set in a fictional town called Royston Vasey that was inspired by Brown’s real name and he made an appearance in the second series.
Tom Brown (Sir Thomas Brown)
Knighted on the Battlefield
Born in Kirkleatham in Cleveland and a resident of Yarm, Brown was a soldier and hero of the Battle of Dettingen that took place in Bavaria in 1743. This was the last battle where troops were personally led by a British monarch (George II). Brown lost fingers recovering his regiment’s standard which he captured from the French and he galloped through their ranks with the flag wedged in his saddle, receiving further wounds to his face and neck. He was the last British soldier to be knighted on a battlefield.
Steam Elephant Engineer
Mining enginneer born at West Kyo near Stanley, County Durham. The son of a colliery viewer and mathematician, Buddle was Viewer at Benwell Colliery and then Manager at Wallsend Colliery where his reputation as a self-taught engineer grew rapidly. He was noted for his interest in mine safety, being one of the chief proponents of safety lamps and monitoring ventilation. In 1815 he developed a steam locomotive at Wallsend Colliery called the Steam Elephant (there is a working replica at Beamish Museum) and built the harbour of Seaham for the Marquess of Londonderry. Buddle was the chairman of the company that built Tyne Dock at South Shields and was the President of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society.
Briggflats and Bloodaxe
Newcastle-born (Scotswood) modernist poet. A Quaker, a conscientious objector and a journalist with The Evening Chronicle, Bunting’s best-known work was the long, autobiographical, beautiful and much-praised poem Briggflats featuring elements of northern dialect and published in 1966. Inspired by northern words and the northern landscape of becks and fells, it includes references to the murder of Eric Bloodaxe and features other figures from Northumrbria’s early history such as St Cuthbert. There are earthy reflections on the shortness of life and the inevitability of death, all set within the context of Bunting’s deep identification with Northumbria’s ancient roots and their continuity into the present day.
The Rising Son of Tyneside
Newcastle-born lead singer with 1960s rock group The Animals who followed this up with a solo career in the 1970s. He was a friend of Jimi Hendrix and of John Lennon who immortalised him as the ‘Egg Man’ in I am the Walrus. The Animals’ most notable hit was the House of the Rising Sun featuring Burdon’s powerful vocals
Born Josephine Grey at Millfield, near Wooler in Northumberland. Her father was a cousin to Earl Grey. A renowned, influential feminist and social reformer, she campaigned against child prostitution (assisted by W.T Stead – see also) and against human trafficking and coverture (where women lost property-owning rights following marriage). Butler was married to the Reverend George Butler who was a Professor at Durham University.