Wearside and the Secret Earl of Perth
South Biddick near Fatfield on Wearside, now part of the town of Washington seems to have played a small part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. This was a Scottish plot to place Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne of Great Britain.
It wasn’t the first Jacobite rebellion, the earlier rebellion of 1715 had attempted to place Prince Charlie’s father, James Stuart, on the throne but it had failed despite strong support accross Northumberland where only Newcastle closed its gates to the rebels and declared for King ‘Geordie’ – George I.
Thirty years later after the 1715 rising, the region’s support for the 1745 rebellion seems to have been less openly supportive, though there were certainly Jacobite sympathisers throughout the North East of England at that time even in Newcastle. Unfortunately for the Jacobites this rebellion also failed with brutal repercussions at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Many of the leading Jacobites were put to the sword at the hands of the British army led by the brutal ‘butcher’ Duke of Cumberland who was the brother of King George. Some prominent Jacobites are known to have escaped, including one James Drummond, the 6th Earl of Perth who had commanded the left flank of the Jacobite army at the battle. Though he wasn’t captured, Drummond was stripped of his lands.
Following the battle, the Earl hid for a time in a secret location close to Drummond Castle, his now confiscated home, before fleeing south on a ship from which he disembarked at South Shields. From there he headed south and resided for a short time at a place called Girdle Cake Cottage in the Hylton area of Sunderland.
He was then smuggled up river to South Biddick, which as we have seen was a tight-lipped community where fugitives were probably welcomed without question. Here he could be protected. The large number of coal mines in the neighbourhood are thought to have been another factor in his choice of refuge as they provided potential hiding places. Drummond moved in with a mining family at South Biddick called Armstrong (a Scottish Border Reiver surname) but the family were not aware of his true identity.
Drummond found work selling shoes at South Biddick but kept a low profile. He was in regular correspondence with his brother, Lord John Drummond who had had escaped to France on board a ship called La Belone after Culloden. The authorities believed that Earl Drummond had been on board and a rumour was spread that he had drowned.
Drummond’s first letter from his brother arrived in April 1747 and read:
“I think you had better come to France and you would be better out of danger as I find you are living in obscurity in Houghton-le-Spring.”
The parish of Houghton-le-Spring then included South Biddick.
Drummond had taken a shine to the Armstrong’s beautiful daughter, Elizabeth and with Drummond being an educated man Mr. Armstrong requested that he taught Elizabeth to read and write. Drummond soon won Elizabeth’s affections and they were married at Houghton-le-Spring church in 1749. The Armstrongs were still unaware of Drummond’s true identity and it was only when their first son started work in a coal mine as a young boy, that Drummond, who hoped for better things for his family, revealed his true identity.
A number of local people were by this time aware of Drummond’s presence including two prominent members of the Lambton family. A General Lambton of Lambton Hall encountered Drummond on one occasion and remarked “ah, you are the rebel Drummond I’ll have you beheaded” but the comments were seemingly made in jest and no action was taken.
It may just be possible that the Lambtons played a part in bringing him to Biddick as it lay close their estates. Certainly, one of Lambton’s kinsmen, Nicholas Lambton of Biddick Hall took interest in Drummond’s welfare and found him work as a ferryman on the river providing Drummond with a boathouse in which he could reside with his wife and six children. It is thought that by this time the authorities had forgotten all about Drummond believing him to have drowned or escaped to France.
Drummond still had hopes of retaining his land and title some day and on at least one occasion is said to have headed back to visit his old castle in Scotland in disguise. On one visit he persuaded a servant to give him a tour. The servant is thought to have recognised him and whistled The Duke of Perth’s Lament throughout the tour. He is said to have become very emotional when seeing his old bed chamber.
Drummond kept papers that proved his true identity in the boathouse at South Biddick. They were kept inside a tanned leather bag safely locked away within a chest but unfortunately the great flood of 1771 which caused much devastation on the Wear, Tyne and Tees took with it many of Drummond’s possessions including the precious papers.
He would spend much of the remaining part of life searching for the papers. Sadly, he died in June 1782, leaving behind six children and was buried at Penshaw church. Two days later, an act of attainder restored confiscated Jacobite lands throughout Scotland.
Unfortunately with the papers that proved Drummond’s identity now lost, the South Biddick family’s claim to the estate would not be easy. Drummond’s eldest son, also called James, had no finances and was described as a timid sort of individual who had no inclination to pursue the claim to the Scottish lands. He died in 1823 leaving behind an eldest son, Thomas, (born 1792) who seemed more determined.
Thomas Drummond enlisted the support of John George Lambton in his attempts to claim the Drummond lands and on June 21, 1831 the Scottish court in Edinburgh declared in his favour. However, the final decision rested with the House of Lords.
The day before the inquest was to be held in London, Drummond who had been provided with a brand new suit by Lambton went out on the town in his new attire and got very drunk. He was apparently led astray by locals who were amused by this northern miner in a swanky suit claiming to be an earl, they severely despoiled his new suit.
The day before the hearing Drummond was presented to Lambton in a drunken state – it has been said that he was plied with drink by Lambton’s butler. Lambton was extremely disappointed and withdrew his support for Drummond who appeared before the Lords as a rather ragged-looking pitman.
The Lords overturned the Scottish court’s decision and Thomas Drummond returned to Biddick, still a pitman. Eventually in 1853, the Drummond estate was awarded to a Count Melforth who was a more distantly related heir than Drummond had been. Today there are still many members of the Drummond family living throughout Wearside and the North East who are descendants of the 6th Earl of Perth.