Heritage Blog

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”

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!

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.

150 years of the Chamber of Trade?

In 2018, the Morpeth & District Chamber of Trade “chose” to celebrate their 150th anniversary. This article by Chamber Chairman Ken Brown explains why:

Until a couple of years ago, it was believed that the Chamber of Trade has only been in existence since the 1950s. However, after research by Chamber members, it has been discovered that a predecessor of the Chamber was already active way back in 1868, as evidenced by a Morpeth Herald article referring  to the “Chamber of Commerce” holding their “usual meeting” in the Black Bull. So, Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade chose to celebrate their “150th anniversary” in 2018.

The Organisation has changed its name a few times in its 150 years. In 1903 it changed from “Morpeth Chamber of Commerce” to the “Morpeth Tradesmen’s Association”. This lasted until 1943 when the then Chairman, Malcolm Wood, became despondent at the apathy of local traders in responding to the threat of the German Luftwaffe,  despite having established a mutual aid scheme to provide aid to traders whose property was damaged by enemy action.  In the hope of broadening its appeal, the Association changed its name back to the Morpeth and District Chamber of Commerce. Since the 1960’s it has been known as the Morpeth Chamber of Trade.

Many of the issues dealt with by the Chamber over the years continue to return…  For example, in 1906 there was an angry response to the “foolish proposal” of not permitting horses and carts to stand in Bridge Street for unloading as they were continually being moved on by the police.

In 1949, there was a plea to remove parking charges (only the Terrace Car Park was free at the time). There was also outcry when it was claimed that cars were being forced off the main street by police as the proposed bypass wasn’t likely to happen for a number of years. Sounds familiar doesn’t it!

In the late 1960s, the Chamber launched “The Morpeth Rant” a free publication for the people of the town. This carried news, in particular news relating to businesses and the development of the town and much more besides.

At that time, the town’s Christmas Lights were hand-made and erected by members of the Chamber of Trade – probably something that would scare the pants off Health and Safety experts in the current era. It was very labour intensive and became more and more expensive – so Fair Day was created primarily to provide funds for the Christmas Lights.

On Easter Eggs

Here’s something on Northumbrian Easter traditions in an extract from the blog Scranshums – see the full article at https://scranshums.com/2015/04/04/on-easter-eggs/

In the UK, decorating hard-boiled eggs was mainly popular in the North of England and south of Scotland, where they were called “pace-eggs” (or “peace-eggs”, “pash-eggs” and “paste-eggs”). This definitely existed by 1579, when the author of the Beehive of the Romish Church wrote that they were a silly superstition that should be discarded. They weren’t, and this still continues today, thanks in part to the Victorians who encouraged children to decorate eggs and helped the tradition spread across the whole country (their equivalent of something going viral, perhaps?). Traditionally, boiling the eggs with onion skins turned the eggs brown, and different design effects could be created by winding wool around an egg, or wrapping it in leaves. Nowadays I’ve been known to use felt-tip pens and Doctor Who stickers.

The fun didn’t/doesn’t end with decorating eggs, however. They’d then be used by children in various games, such as “jaapin” where you hold the egg in your fist, the pointy bit sticking out between your second and middle fingers, and then you smash it into your opponent’s pointy end. Winner is the one whose egg remains intact. “Boolin” is another custom which is still popularly practised, for example in my home town of Morpeth: lots of people gather in the park and bowl their eggs down a hill to see whose goes furthest and doesn’t break. One 1909 antiquarian article from Northumberland, quoted by Roud, mentions rolling the eggs up a hill, which is unusual to say the least. I am rubbish at this game, and try as I might I can’t find any decent strategies for winning.

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.

The Mystery of the Medal!

Alison Byard writes:

Amongst the many treasures in the Town Hall, there is a wooden case containing a medal, a logbook and WWII RAF insignia on the wall of the Council Chamber. The label says:
This Distinguished Flying Medal was awarded to Flight Sergeant Charles Fairbairn on 8th May 1945 by King George VI. Presented to Castle Morpeth Borough Council on 20th February 1984 by his widow Mrs Violet Fairbairn“.

When entertaining visiting groups, someone will occasionally ask about the medal but we have never been able to give them say more information than is stated on the label. So, in the spirit of ‘we will remember them‘, I decided to find out more about the history of this Morpeth serviceman.

As a member of local history pages on Facebook, I had often been fascinated by biographies and photographs of long dead servicemen, researched from the starting point of the inscriptions on their gravestones, by amateur historian Peter Hastie. I asked Peter to find out more about Charles Fairbairn and he didn’t disappoint!

Charles, known as Charlie, Fairbairn was born on 20th July 1917, the son of John Robert and Julia Fairbairn (nee Littledyke) of Hollon Street in Morpeth. Charlie was a joiner in 1939. He joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1940 and was a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, No. 1078762.

Originally posted to 12 Squadron, No.1 Group, RAF Bomber Command at RAF Wickenby, he flew in Wellington Bombers until the creation of 626 Squadron in November 1943 formed with two flights of eight aircraft. Its first operation was to bomb the Western entrance to the Montcenis Tunnel in the French Alps on the 10th of November 1943.

During his service Charlie served predominantly with the same crew, Sergeant, later Pilot Officer Jack Currie (pilot); Navigator P/O Jim Cassidy; Sergeant Walker (flight engineer); Flight Sergeant Larry Myring (bomb aimer); Sergeant Protheroe (mid upper gunner) and Sergeant Charlie Lanham (rear gunner). Cassidy, Myring and Lanham were Australian and the others were British.

After completing his tour, 30 missions, with 12 and 626 Squadrons, he was posted to 83 Operational Training Unit, RAF Peplow (Childs Ercall) on 17th February 1944, probably as an instructor. He received his Distinguished Flying Medal from King George VI on Tuesday 8th May 1945 (Victory in Europe Day).

Bomber Command aircrews suffered a high casualty rate: of a total of 125,000 aircrew, 57,205 were killed (a 46 percent death rate), a further 8,403 were wounded in action and 9,838 became prisoners of war. Therefore, a total of 75,446 airmen (60 percent of all operational airmen) were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. A memorial in Green Park in London was unveiled by the Queen on 28 June 2012 to highlight the heavy casualties suffered by the aircrews during the war.

After the war Charlie worked for the Morpeth Corporation and married Violet Short in 1952. They had no children. They lived at 25 Olympia Gardens, Morpeth. Charlie died in 1983 and Violet in 2003.

The medal and medal ribbons are: Distinguished Flying Medal, 1939-45 Star, Air Crew Europe Star (with rosette which signifies award of bar, either Atlantic, or most likely, France and Germany) and Defence Medal (probably eligible through his Operational Training Unit post).

“S” on aircrew badge signifies Signaller/Wireless Operator.

After taking advice from Woodhorn Museums and receiving permission from Charlie Fairbairn’s nephew, Gordon, we opened the case so that Peter could read the logbook. Hidden inside we also found a newspaper cutting about his award of the Distinguished Flying Medal, his RAF Flying Clothing Card and his invitation to Buckingham Palace!

The old, wooden medal case has now be replaced with a smart, new and airtight case and returned to display in the council chamber.

It happened in ’20

Morpeth Centenaries falling in the year 2020 extracted from the writings of Alec Tweddle by Peter Fuller

1120  Ranulph de Merlay, eldest son of William, Baron Morpeth, married Juliana, daughter of Cospatrick III Earl of Dunbar and March, and a claimant to the title Earl of Northumbria through descent from Cospatrick I, the last Viking Earl. She was possibly his cousin as his mother was also a Cospatrick.

1220 King Henry III commanded Roger de Merlay, Baron Morpeth, to besiege and destroy Cockermouth Castle, which was in rebellion. It belonged to William de Forz, 3rd Earl of Albemarle. In 1219 he had been declared a rebel and excommunicated for attending a forbidden tournament. In 1220 matters came to a crisis when he refused to surrender the two royal castles of Rockingham and Sauvey of which he had been made constable in 1216. Henry III marched against them in person, the garrisons fled, and they fell without a blow. His other castles at Cockermouth, Skipton, Holderness and elsewhere were also besieged. His rebellion died out the following year. [Incidently, de Forz was also descended from Cospatrick I, the last Viking Earl, and was therefore distantly related to de Merlay.]

1320 A year of temporary respite from war with Scotland after the Scots had seized Berwick back from the English.

1420 A deed plan shows that development had taken place on the west side of Newgate Street which had previously been undeveloped.

1520 Lord Dacre, Baron Morpeth, attended upon the King (Henry VIII) at ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ in France with numerous others. Afterwards six French ambassadors to Scotland arrived in Morpeth to see Lord Dacre that he might inform them fully of the situation in Scotland as Dacre “has great influence with the Scotch Lords.” The French delegation continued to Scotland but upon their arrival they were arrested.

Dacre reported to Wolsey that he had personally escorted further French envoys from Morpeth to Edinburgh in September with instructions to conclude a truce between England and Scotland for a period of 12 months. There he witnessed a riot between the supporters of rival Scotch Lords Albany and Angus in the streets. Two of Dacre’s men were slain in the melee. Nevertheless an extension of the truce between England and Scotland was signed and Dacre returned satisfied that he had done his duty.

1620 Robert Brandling became MP for Morpeth.

1720 it was reported that the windmill at Cottingwood was intended only for use when the river Wansbeck was too low to power the town’s water mills, but Lord Carlisle complained that it had been used to avoid paying dues at the Town Mill. He required 53 burgesses to sign an undertaking that they would henceforth use only the town mill. It was also reported that there was a brick kiln and several clay pits at Cottingwood, the source of bricks for many new buildings in the town. [The windmill and brick kilns were sited where the High School now stands.]

1820 Local builder Thos. King constructed an enclosed reservoir on Allery Banks, fed erratically by several small streams, which provided water to a number of public sites and some houses in the town. The water supplied was light-heartedly known as The King’s Water. Beyond the Market Place water still had to be drawn from the public well in Wellway, although many commercial establishments and some of the wealthier citizens had private wells on their properties. At this time a large part of Allery Banks was in use as a fruit orchard though some part remained as common grazing.

Newcastle architect John Dobson designed a new county gaol at Goosehill in the form of two half-octagonal courtyards with a governor’s house and administrative block at the centre. To get the building stone to the site from Quarry Woods, local builder and stonemason Thos. King demolished the house of correction and built a temporary wooden bridge across the Wansbeck (downstream of the later Telford Bridge).

1920 The Corporation sued the Northumberland Farmers’ Auction Mart at Stobhill under the town charter of 1199 which had awarded the burghers exclusive rights to hold a market on Wednesdays. The Corporation won their case and the court ordered the Northumberland Farmers to cease holding markets on Wednesdays.

Mr Waters, joint-owner of Robson and Waters Mineral Company, moved into the larger eastern half of Orde House – his partner Mr Robson already owned the adjoining smaller northern wing.

The landlord of the Sun Inn by St Mary’s resurrected the Morpeth Olympics after a break for the Great War. The event was held in the Boundary Playing field at Stobhill.

A council housing estate was built on the former Victorian Pleasure Garden at High Stanners as ‘homes fit for heroes’ and the area became known as Garden City (not to be confused with the later private ‘garden city’ development off Loansdean). These were the first semi-detached rather than terraced council properties, and the first with inside WCs and bathrooms. The only road access to the area was through the ford at the end of Oldgate, and, although there were footbridges at the end of Oldgate and up to Dogger Bank, the main access was over the Bakehouse Steps.

Swinney’s acquired Winston House Field and laid out tennis courts for the firm’s social club.

The County Council founded the Morpeth Commercial College at 53 Newgate.

A row of stables in Corporation Square (behind Corporation Yard) was converted by the Morpeth Branch of Toc H into a social centre which was a ‘replica of Talbot House in Poperinghe, Belgium’ to ‘provide milk and eggs to the needy’.

The Singer Sewing Machine Company acquired the prominent shop at the corner of Oldgate and the Market Square, together with workshop premises behind, for the sale and repair of sewing machines. This spot became widely known as ‘Singer’s Corner’.

A new gated-entrance was created into the Newmarket from the Market Place next to the Town Hall by the demolition of the former Scotch Inn (ex YMCA) and adjoining derelict Gentleman’s Club building. The Morpeth Social Club relocated to the old post office building in the northeast corner of the Market Place.

The barracks and ammunition store of the Scottish Horse Brigade at the Grammar School were converted to provide additional classrooms.

The Rev. A.H. Drysdale retired as Minister at the Presbyterian Church and published a history of the Presbyterian movement.