Refurbishment of Morpeth Rail Station

contemporary news article by Ian Leech

Tuesday September 8th 2020 marked another momentous day in the long history of one of the stand-out railway buildings along the whole length of the main East Coast line between London’s King’s Cross and Waverley Stations in Edinburgh. The day when the elegant Grade II Listed Morpeth Station which welcomed its first passengers as railway travel was being pioneered across Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria, was given a new lease of life as a modern transport hub at the same time as providing much needed new workspace for budding local businesses.

For the past 18 months work has been underway to restore and conserve the grand old station built in 1846 for the Newcastle & Berwick Railway Company, by retaining so many of its original features designed by the renowned architect Benjamin Green, at the same time as providing 21st Century rail travel facilities and that functional office space for small firms. The result is testament to the team efforts of a partnership brought together over the past seven years by Greater Morpeth Development Trust to raise the £2.3 million needed to carry out the work. The Trust is a community based organisation which has done so much valued and varied work around Morpeth over the past decade ranging from staging popular entertainment events, starting a community cinema in the town, improving access and signage to riverside and woodland walks and publishing the work of local historian authors.

Prior to the station’s restoration GMDT’s most spectacular achievement was to project manage the restoration and conservation of the 300-year-old Morpeth Town Hall, designed by Sir John Vanburgh of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard fame, whilst safeguarding its future as a modern civic building in keeping with its historic past.  When the station restoration and redevelopment was first mooted, the initial hurdle GMDT had to overcome was to convince potential partners that as a small organisation with only one full time and two part-time members of staff plus a board of volunteer directors, it could plan, raise funding for and deliver such an ambitious project. A number of small grants at the feasibility and development stages of the project from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Northumberland County Council, the Homes & Communities Agency, CORE and the Architectural Heritage Fund, helped shape the final delivery plan. Pointing to its successful delivery of the Town Hall restoration, however, the Trust won the backing of the Railway Heritage Trust which supports the preservation, upkeep and future sustainability of buildings and structures which form part of Britain’s historic rail network. At the same time GMDT was able to secure a development grant then a full award of £790,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, to set the project in motion before the two initial funders were joined in the station partnership by Northumberland County Council, the North East Rural Growth Network, and track and train operators Network Rail and Arriva North.

With the funds in place contractors STP Construction were able to move on site in the early months of 2019 to begin what the company’s site manager Carl Neasham-Gilbert likened to being a job midway between a rock and a hard place. What he meant by that was that his team would be working trackside of the busy main line between London and Edinburgh with high-speed trains thundering through Morpeth station at very regular intervals during the working day, while on the other side of the building workspace was severely constrained by a heavily trafficked road leading into the busy Coopies Lane Industrial Estate. Added to that, the construction crew had to consider as paramount, the safety of passengers walking around the station platforms quite literally under their feet!

All this had to be done without disrupting rail traffic with the only exception being when scaffolding had to be erected and dismantled – jobs which had to be undertaken during the dead of night over a couple of weekends when the power to the lines could be safely isolated. To get the work done, a team of 30 scaffolders, 8 glaziers, 12 joiners and labourers had to work through two Saturday and Sunday nights in time to finish by 4am on the Monday morning. On the first occasion the last labourer finished sweeping the platform at 4.01am, so tight was the scheduling!

During the work programme the overriding aim of GMDT and its partners was to preserve the integrity of the station building as it was specified by Benjamin Green who with his father John was also responsible for the design of iconic North East structures such as the Theatre Royal and the landmark Grey’s Monument in Newcastle. Benjamin Green was also responsible for the design of a number of smaller stations along the East Coast line through Northumberland, some of which are still standing, but Morpeth is the only one remaining in use to passengers.

However, years of leaking roofs, generations of pigeons gaining access through holes in the roof, water damp and rot had taken a severe toll on both the external and internal fabric of the station building. All this damage had to be carefully removed, replaced or repaired wherever possible, to maintain the style and manner of Green’s original design. For example, as many as possible of the original timber window frames have been repaired or refurbished by hand, a time-consuming task but one considered to be eminently worthwhile.

An elegant Victorian portico at the front of the building has also been opened up again, to re-instate a classically stylish entrance to the building. Perhaps the most spectacular example of the determination of the partners to restore the building to Green’s specifications, however, has been the reinstatement of the 15 very tall

chimneys which gave the station its distinctive and characterful appearance.

For safety reasons they had been considerably reduced in height a number of years ago. Specialists stone masons Classic Masonry from North Shields undertook the work using ‘Blaxter’ sandstone specified by the station project conservation architect John Curtis from Napper Architects.. A total of 81 stones some weighing nearly half a tonne, were quarried from near Otterburn, and dressed ready to be hauled some 50 feet into the air using the block-and-tackle lifting method.

Now the work is done and the newly refurbished Morpeth Railway Station can start welcoming passengers to its new facilities. A café had been created The changes that have been made are brilliant and have totally transformed the station, along with a modern ticket office, new toilet facilities and a caboose guard’s van-style taxi office has been built in the corner of the station forecourt.

Internally, seven offices have been created for use by small businesses in what was previously unused workspace inside the station building. Already six of those offices are in the process of being let to local businesses while tenants have also been identified to run the café and the taxi office.

“What we see today is the successful outcome of a huge amount of work over the past seven years by our Trust and its partners,” said GMDT Chief Executive Officer David Lodge, “It has been a long – and at times difficult road – to get to where we are today but we have persevered in our determination to not only preserve what it a wonderful example of Victorian railway architecture, but to give travellers to and from Morpeth the very best facilities we could provide for them.

“At the same time, we have been enterprising in using empty office space as much-needed accommodation for small businesses in what surely must be a unique location right next to the main East Coast line

.“Greater Morpeth Development Trust has been at the forefront of giving two such historic buildings in the town a viable and sustainable future and that has been a major achievement for us. However, as a Trust we are not just about safeguarding the town’s heritage because we do so much more as a community organisation to help make Morpeth a better place to live and work.

“The station has been at the heart of life in Morpeth since the middle of the 19th Century and will remain so for many, many years to come. We believe the people of Morpeth will be rightly proud of what we have achieved at Morpeth Railway Station as a partnership team.”

Railways of Morpeth

GMDT completed the refurbishment of Morpeth Rail Station in February this year, and will be bringing the building back into use once #lockdown is over. So – it seems timely to post this article from the SENRUG website by John Earl relating the history of the railways in Morpeth.

If the North East is the cradle of the railways, South East Northumberland could certainly be considered the feeding-bottle, since it was at Killingworth Colliery, the site of which you can see as you travel into Newcastle from Morpeth, that George Stephenson developed the engines that he knew could pull both freight and passengers and make a national railway network possible. The whole area is criss-crossed with the tracks left by that era: from the wagonway at Plessey which is said to date back to the sixteenth century, and of which there is nothing left but a grassy mound across a field – to the remains of the Blyth and Tyne railway which at one time was set to be an alternative route to the North, and which is still in working order as a freight line.

Morpeth was always geographically well placed to be at the centre of this hub of railways, and at one time it was a major junction. The substantial range of stone buildings on the site testifies to a time when there were two major stations here, one the grand “through” station designed in ‘Scottish Baronial’ style, and the other the terminus for the Blyth and Tyne railway, which was the last of the old independent railways to be absorbed into the North Eastern Railway (in 1874). #

A third railway, the North British used to enter the town from the west. The course of this old railway can be traced west from the golf course, and eastwards through the town on old stone abutments that used to carry it into the Blyth and Tyne terminus. The North British wanted their own route through to Scotland rather than sharing with the York, Newcastle and Berwick which went straight through Morpeth up to Edinburgh. The idea of a main line across the moors to Hawick proved to be a bit of wishful thinking when the North British were faced with the actual receipts from passengers and freight, but that did not stop the line from staying open until the mid 1960’s.

Along the same route, until it diverged at Scots Gap, went the “Wannie Line” of local legend, a branch line that was again started as an alternative route to Scotland but which eventually only got as far as Rothbury. The trains on this picturesque route, which ran through one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country used to terminate behind the down platform on the west side of the station. You can still see the lines on this side, and the wider part of the bridge over the road that used to accommodate the branch line.

Morpeth`s station, a grand entrance to the town for visitors – recently refurbished and brought back into use by GMDT –  was built in 1847 by Benjamin Green. Photographs of it in the early days show that it was built some way from the town centre at a time when there was little building in that direction. The famous ‘Morpeth curve’ to the south of the station was also forced on the railway engineers by the geographical position of the town, with a full ninety degree bend, requires an inevitable reduction in speed, much to the chagrin of railway timetablers ever since.  In fact, it was a major bone of contention in the ‘Railway Races to the North’ of the 1890`s, the East Coast route complaining bitterly that they had a major disadvantage with the Morpeth curve on their line! It is certainly the severest curve on any main line in Britain. It has been the cause of three major and fatal accidents, in May 1969, March 1977 and in June 1984. And, in 1994. a mail train overturned on the curve. In the 1969 crash, the leading van of the train damaged part of the overall roof of the northbound platform. This could have been repaired, but instead was removed altogether, which is why only one platform has a canopy now.

So that is Morpeth as we see it today – though SENRUG would like to see the handsome and newly renovated station restored to become a junction serving Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth and Seaton Delaval

When visiting the station, look out especially for:

the North Eastern Railway tile map –  one of the very few that still exist in situ – which shows the vast extent of the North East Railway`s network in the early 1900s;

the iron gates at the end of the subway which are pre-1923,

and the post box from the reign of Queen Victoria.

For more information on this topic, see Morpeth Antiquarian Society’s publication “Morpeth and the Railways” by Peter Carling with full detail and illustrations in its 48 pages, available now via the Society’s website and when shops reopen from Morpeth Chantry TIC.

Explosion on Newgate Street

During the refurbishment of Appleby’s bookshop (2017-19), several framed photographs of old Morpeth were found. Some of them have been scanned by the Antiquarians and added to their Collection.

Four of the photographs were from 1923 and show the dramatic explosion and fire from a lorry carrying cans of paraffin along Newgate Street. The following description has been collated from recent discussion of the event on the Morpeth History Matters Facebook Group – with the main contributors being Stephen Lewin and Kim Bibby-Wilson.

The incident took place on 4th January 1923:  

The wagon was heading up Newgate Street and the paraffin caught alight. The driver stopped and the flames took hold. Realising the damage that could be done the driver risked his life getting back onto the wagon and moving it to the middle of the road just up from the Conservative Club to try and keep the buildings either side safe.

The image shown is from the original photograph, posted on “Morpeth History Matters” Facebook group by Andrew Primrose (and also in the Antiquarian Society collection) and coloured by Stephen Lewin.

Nevertheless, the resulting explosion still sent fuel flying through the air with several shops damaged including Duncan’s Bakery and a cycle and fish shop opposite, and also sent a canister through the window of 47 Newgate St which was then the Shoulder of Mutton pub (two decades later, the property became Marie Tweedie’s woolshop).

However, thanks to the driver’s bravery and quick thinking, the fire did not spread to other surrounding buildings though several suffered considerable smoke damage, including the property which became Appleby’s but was then Bob Hood’s greengrocery and fancy goods shop.

 The total cost for the damage was £7000 – a fair sum in 1923 equivalent to about £450k in 2020 value

Another picture found in Appleby’s and now in the Antiquarian Society collection shows an advert from the late 1890’s for the relocation and expansion of Elliott’s greengrocery, stationery and newsagent’s business (subsequently owned by Bob Hood) to the premises which became Appleby’s. It was later, when Alfie Appleby took over the premises, that it became a newsagent, stationery and bookshop.

Also amongst the photographs are some adverts for shops selling tea and coffee as well as a cafe at 16 Newgate  Street named Jobson’s Cocoa Rooms – “What Morpeth Wanted”

Sewer Gas Lamp, High Stanners

Article written in 2013 by Barry Mead, then Heritage Officer with Greater Morpeth Development Trust

Morpeth’s last remaining sewer gas lamp has been conserved and was re-erected on the High Stanners close to the Skinnery footbridge in June.

Sewer gas lamps were invented in the 1890s by a Birmingham man, Joseph Webb,   primarily to destroy sewer smells and germs.  They were a great success as their rate of extraction is still regarded as fantastic, each lamp capable of ventilating ¾ mile of sewers. Some of these lamps even ventilated the septic tanks and post mortem rooms of large hospitals.  The Morpeth gas lamp was placed to vent sewer gases from the sewer siphon that runs under the river from the Mitford Rd side to the High Stanners. Places such as Sheffield, Hereford, Winchester, Poole, Hampstead and Weymouth all installed Webb sewer gas lamps but one of the last strongholds is nearby  Whitley Bay where the lamps have been converted to run on electricity. A sewer gas lamp in Seaton Sluice is Grade 2 Listed.

The Morpeth lamp isn’t Listed but, as the only remaining sewer gas lamp in Morpeth, it was considered worthy of conserving. Fortunately, the flood defence works proved an excellent catalyst for the project. The lamp was located on the line of one the proposed flood defence banks and therefore had to be moved. Barry Mead from GMDT liaised with the Environment Agency who generously agreed to lift the lamp and put it on a lorry which took the lamp down to a specialist conservator in Oldham. When the lamp was returned, the EA arranged to concrete the lamp into the agreed location (as close as possible to its original position). On top of all this the EA also contributed £1,500 towards the conservation cost.  NCC’s Conservation Team also contributed a similar amount for which we are extremely grateful.

It has not been possible to convert Morpeth’s lamp to run on electricity but at least we have saved a small but significant part of the town’s heritage.

Addendum April 2020: In fact there is a second sewer gas lamp in Morpeth, at the foot of Cottingwood Lane. This was also disconnected and restored – but has recently (within the last three months) suffered destructive “making safe” procedures at the hands of an uninformed utility company.