Town Treasures

Although Morpeth sorely lacks a social history museum, much of its civic history can be traced through the “Town Treasures” kept in the Town Hall under the auspices of the Town Council.

The Town Council took over responsibility for the Morpeth civic regalia and mayoralty[1] in 2009 when Castle Morpeth Borough Council was abolished, but the Borough Council had in turn inherited or otherwise annexed the treasures and heritage of previous councils back to and including the old Corporation. It had also been the repository of many miscellaneous donations and longterm loans. In 1987, under one of the multiple mayoralties of Isobel Smail, the Council produced a “Civic Regalia” booklet. Then in 2014, the tercentenary year of the Town Hall, the Town Council commissioned an updated and expanded “Town Treasures” booklet, co-published by the Town Council and the Morpeth Antiquarian Society. This booklet, sponsored by Pharma Nord, edited by Kim Bibby Wilson and with new photography by Trevor Walker, gives both descriptions and brief histories of most of the “Town Treasures” and also a short history of the Town Hall itself.

The most spectacular of the “Town Treasures” are on display in the Council Chamber and the Mayor’s Parlour – and are open to the public with guided tours during the Gathering just after Easter and as part of the regular Morpeth Heritage Open Days programme in September. The public may also view the Council Chamber by attending the Town Council committee meetings which are open to the public. However, access to the Mayor’s Parlour is at the Mayor’s discretion – but if you write nicely to the Town Council, the Mayor does frequently entertain visiting organisations ranging from Brownies to the U3A in the Parlour.

We hope to include, with appropriate permissions, brief extracts from the 2014 “Town Treasures” booklet in future articles of this blog – but copies may be bought from the Antiquarian Society or the Town Council, cost £5 (ISBN 0 9533818 5 4)

[1] Most of the civic regalia from the old Castle Ward went to Ponteland Town Council

The oldest view of Morpeth?

As part of the Heritage Open Days 2016 programme – a couple of recently restored Town Treasures were placed back on display in the Council Chamber.

The first is an 18th century oil painting said to be the oldest picture in existence of the main part of the town. The recently updated Town Treasures [1] guide says:

 “It had been on exhibition in the Laing Gallery, Newcastle, where it was seen by the late Colonel J.J. Gillespie.  He recommended the Town Council of the day to purchase it for its historic and artistic merit.  The Curator of the Laing though it might have been painted by Paul Sandby (born 1728) and certainly, as the 1738 part of the Chantry is clearly discernible, this would give weight to this suggestion.  It was considered to be a very early and rare example of a landscape done in oils.  Though it was expected to realise £250, the Corporation bought it for £60.  It was then exhibited in G.B. Grey’s shop in Bridge Street before it was hung in the Town Hall“.

The painting was very dirty, with areas of flaking painting and sagging in its frame.  It has now been cleaned and the flaking areas stabilised using a reversible process (to make future restoration easier). The conservator also chose to remove some areas which had been heavily overpainted at a later date, such as the river weir and some of the town buildings and retouch them to restore their original appearance.

Some interesting little details have emerged from the grime, such as a little red fox on the top of Ha’ Hill and various 18th century Morpethians walking and riding on the road in the foreground! 

The second item is a framed silk poster, entitled ‘Programme of Rejoicings at Morpeth’, and listing the events taking place in the town to celebrate the Marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Victoria, the Princess Royal, to Prince Frederick William of Prussia on 25th January 1858.

The marriage was unpopular due to Prussia’s neutrality in the recent Crimean War, but this is not apparent from the planned ‘rejoicings’ which included three separate dinners, one of which was for the inmates of the Union Workhouse and the County Gaol who were regaled with a substantial dinner of roast beef and plum pudding. Indeed, it must have been a noisy day in Morpeth as the bells were rung all day and guns were fired at frequent intervals.

At 6.30pm the town was illuminated with ‘Greek fire’ (a flammable substance which burns on water) after which there was a grand display of fireworks and a ‘monster’ bonfire in the market place.

This was followed by ‘the Capture and total destruction of Nena Sahib!” – presumably a theatrical re-enactment of the defeat in 1857 of Nana Sahib, an Indian aristocrat who rebelled against British rule and captured the city of Cawnpore.

The celebrations ended with a public ball at 9pm. A busy day for the Mayor!

A skilled restorer specialising in textiles had to take great care to remove an old ‘repair’ to the poster, done very inappropriately using sellotape!  While some marks can still be seen, the poster has now been stabilised, cleaned and reframed, and looks much better.

Why a poster on silk?  We can only guess that since silk lasts much longer than paper and was expensive, the poster was intended to be kept as a royal souvenir.


[1] The “Town Treasures” guide referred to is a revised edition produced in 2014 available from both the Town Council and the Antiquarian Society. The Guide itself probably merits a blog article so watch this space!

The Oliver Family

Alison Byard writes about the family who gave their name to Olivers Mill:

A few months ago, I was reminded that two portraits used to hang over the staircase at the Old Cottage Hospital, which trustees of the Hollon Trust thought might have been Richard and Mary Hollon.

We decided to ask Northumbria Healthcare Trust what became of these portraits after the Cottage Hospital closed. We got a response fairly quickly, including photos of the paintings, which turned out to be not Richard and Mary Hollon, but Robert Oliver, and his wife Margaret Scott Oliver, of Messrs Oliver Ltd, bakers and confectioners in Bridge Street and the Market Place and owners of Wansbeck Flour Mills, now known as Olivers Mill. The Olivers were generous donors to the early Cottage Hospital in Bullers Green.

The paintings were originally a gift to the Olivers from their three sons (John, Robert and William) on the occasion of their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1894. They were presented to the Cottage Hospital when the 1939 extension was opened by their grandson Mr C G Hudson, in memory of the great contribution made by his grandparents. The Olivers’ son John had also bequeathed a large part of his estate to the hospital.

The artist is Thomas Bowman Garvie (1859 – 1944), also a Morpeth man, who lived at Bow Villa in Newgate Street. He was a fine painter and some of whose other work can be seen in the Town Hall – including his painting ‘Man feeding his Cat’ [1] in the Council Chamber, and the portraits of George Barron Grey and George Young in his mayoral robes on the staircase. Garvie subsequently moved to Rothbury where he was much employed by Lord Armstrong in painting portraits of his family, which can be seen at Cragside.

[1] We now think the portrait of the old bearded man with his cat, in the Council Chamber, may be of the artist’s father, Edmund Garvie.