Belmont Community Centre,
Sunderland Road,

Meetings on 3rd Wednesday in the month at 1.00 pm (no meeting in August – Summer Break)

Visitors are always welcome

Each meeting has a talk by an invited speaker followed by discussion and help


Date Subject of Talk Speaker
20th December 2023**Date TBC Members Forum
17th January 2024 Finchale’s Golden Mile Dave Shotten
21st February 2024 Dive in Durham Gary Bankhead
20th March 2024 Seaham Harbour -pre Londonderry’s to the present day Alan Smith
17th April 2024 The North East Coast Exhibition John North
15th May 2024 How to Write Your Family History Jane Guilliford Lowes

Reports of meetings

November 2023

The meeting Wednesday 15 November 2023 attended by 14 members and 4 guests.

Our guest speaker was George Nairn, a “deltiologist” (collector of postcards). He selected from his extensive collection a series of views which took members on a journey down the River Wear from its beginning near Wearhead, the confluence of the Killhope & Burnhope burns, to its outfall at Wearmouth, Sunderland. His talk covered many of the industrial and social changes that had occurred in the region, including lost or repurposed railway stations, long gone houses and pubs. It also included two WWI POW camps and the Lambton Park training grounds for troops awaiting deployment to the British Expeditionary Force. He acknowledged the enthusiasts who documented their region and the specialist firms who produced the images. As many of the images were of family groups, he explained that people would commission the photographs to send to relatives celebrating important family events. In essence, postcards were equivalent of today’s “selfies” and emails. The talk induced many reminiscences and was thoroughly enjoyed by members.

The Chairman reported that the search for new premises for the Society had narrowed down to two possibilities and that negotiations were underway with the preferred candidate. The Society had a new publicity officer who was keen to increase the Society’s profile particularly using social media. Several members had brough in items including books, maps and research materials. These were enthusiastically acquired by the other members. The Chairman reported that he had received a close Y-DNA match with a distant cousin sharing the same surname, confirming that two branches of the family were indeed related

October 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 18 October 2023 at Belmont Community Centre
The meeting was attended by 7 members and 4 guests.

Our guest speaker was Alan Ribchester, a member of the City of Durham’s Mayor’s Bodyguard who came in his full regalia and carrying his halberd. He outlined the origins of the bodyguard which can be traced back to Bishop Pudsey in 1179. After the king refused the Prince Bishop permission to form a bodyguard, he travelled to Rome and obtained a charter from the Pope. There are only five official bodyguards in the UK including two for the King and the Lord Mayor of London. After the appointment of the first mayor or Durham in 1604 the bodyguard became his tax collectors. Today they fulfil a ceremonial role for the mayor at major engagements and whenever the sovereign visits Durham. As well as sword and mace bearers the bodyguards all carry a halberd. Several halberds, including the one that Alan brought, were made by Scottish prisoners of war who were held in Durham Cathedral during the civil war.

The Chairman reported on the ongoing search for new premises following the necessity to leave Mea House. Following site visits, a shortlist of potential premises was under consideration

September 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 20 Sep 2023 at Belmont Community Centre which was attended by 11 members and 6 guests.

Our guest speaker was Graham Soult who gave a talk on “Wor Woolies” Graham is a North East Retail Consultant who often appears on local TV. Following the demise of Woolworths in 2008 he had developed an interest in the buildings formerly occupied by the company and had visited and photographed many of them. He outlined the history of the company from its beginnings in the USA in 1879, the first UK store opening in Liverpool in 1909 and the first in the North East in Middlesborough in 1911. There are over 1,400 sites which have housed a Woolies since then. Originally, they occupied existing buildings, but the company then developed their own buildings which had a characteristic style. He was often able to identify former sites by the remaining building characteristics. He showed photos of former stores in their new roles. They had taken on many roles including a council office but the greatest number now housed similar “value” stores such as B&M, Poundland and Wilko, with grocery stores next most common. He pointed out that the history of the buildings provided a social history with snapshot of changes that had taken place on the high street. The talk was thoroughly enjoyed by members and provoked much discussion and nostalgia.

The Chairman reported that following the Society and other charities unexpectedly being given notice to vacate Mea House, a location committee had been established and a new search for premises was underway. The Speaker Coordinator outlined a programme of talks for the first six months of 2024.

July 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 19th July which was attended by 15 members and 5 guests.

The branch welcomed back David Butler who gave a talk on “The Building of the Durham Viaduct” a structure with which all members are very familiar. Originally the main railway line didn’t pass through Durham City and branch line was planned which would then go on to Bishop Auckland. The main driving force was not for passenger traffic but to facilitate the coal trade passing by collieries on the route.. The plan involved the building of three viaducts, one of which was over North Road in Durham City, as well as a cutting near the city. David detailed the design and outlined the political and technical problems faced by the plan. Construction began in 1853, with a workforce of Irish navvies, notorious for their drinking and occasional fights with locals and the police. The line opened in April 1857 with a special train bearing dignitaries to Bishop Auckland. David pointed out that after over 160 years the viaduct in still in use today carrying the main line from London to Newcastle.

The Chairman informed members that the Trustees of Mea House had unexpectedly sold the building to Northumbria University and had given all current tenants notice that their leases would not be renewed. The Society would now have to find new premises by summer 2024. A location committee had been established and a new search for premises was underway.

In discussion of family history one member told members of research he had been doing using the British Newspaper Archive. He had discovered that a relative became manager of West Auckland football club and led the club when they famously beat Italian club Juventus in the first “World Cup” final.

June 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 21 Juneat Belmont Community Centre. The meeting was attended by 10 members and 5 guests.

The branch welcomed back as guest speaker, Anthony Atkinson who gave a talk “Ellen Wilkinson ‘Red Ellen”, the noted Labour politician and government minister. He reminded members that she was the first woman MP to represent a North East constituency. She had been born in Manchester in1891 and became involved in politics after leaving university. As well as supporting women’s suffrage she was a member of both the Communist and Labour parties until this was forbidden by Labour. She was elected as Labour MP for Middlesbrough in 1924, one of only four women in parliament. After losing her seat she was elected as MP for Jarrow in 1935 where she achieved national prominence when supporting the marchers on the Jarrow Crusade.

She served in government under Ramsay McDonald, was opposed to Chamberlain’s appeasement policy but supported Churchill and was appointed to his National Government where she had responsibility for civil defence and supervised the production and use of the “Morrison” air raid shelters. After the war she was appointed as Minister of Education, becoming only the second woman cabinet minister, and so implemented the 1944 Education Act. As well as raising the school leaving age from 14 to 15, she was responsible for the introduction of free school milk. However, she had suffered from ill health for many years and after contracting pneumonia, she died in 1947. Although her name was well known to members, they were intrigued to hear the details of her life as a pioneer of women’s rights and the Labour movement.

The chairman reminded members that the first part of the talk by our member on boyhood memories in January was now in the summer edition of the Society Journal. The second part would be published in the autumn edition.

May 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 17th May at Belmont Community Centre

The meeting was attended by 10 members and 4 guests. The guest speaker was Ben Young who gave an interesting talk on Durham Cathedral from a geologist’s point of view. The cathedral was built by the Normans, not only as a religious symbol but also as a demonstration of their power. The building was largely composed of sandstone and until recently its source was unknown. Recent work suggests it can from close by, in an area now occupied by council allotments. He pointed out that the building would fail modern building regulations as it has no deep foundations, being built on the existing sandstone base. The mortar used came locally from Sherburn.

He then discussed other features of the cathedral and how the stones with differing properties had come from far and wide: Frosterley marble from Co. Durham, which has been used in churches around the world, Purbeck marble from Dorset and even lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. An interesting alternative view of the cathedral which most members know well.

The chairman reported that talk by our member in January was to be published as an article in the summer edition of the society Journal. He also reported that the Society accounts for 2022 had been approved. The Society was is a sound financial position.

April 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 19 April 2023 at Belmont Community Centre

The meeting was attended by 12 members and 3 guests. The branch welcomed back Ben Haddon who gave a talk “Geordie Doon the Pit”. He began his talk with a history of the development of coal mining in the North East beginning with the early “Bell Pits” to “King Coal” which fuelled the industrial revolution. Early mining had provided fuel for local salt pans but then exports to London and further afield Initially mine owners used horse drawn waggon ways to transport coal to local ports. On the Tyne the renowned keelmen transported coal from the upper reaches to the waiting ships lower down. The development of steam engines both for railways and for powering machinery produced a huge increase in the demand for coal. Britain produced two thirds of world coal and Newcastle became the biggest coal exporting port in the world.

Ben described the various roles carried out in the pits and how initially whole families worked underground, including women and children, until legislation was introduced to prohibit this in 1842. Hewing coal was a dangerous occupation and the toll on human life was high, including tragedies involving the loss of many lives. Nevertheless, the miners had a strong community spirit and many regretted the loss of the jobs when the coalfield began its contraction in more recent years. The talk included a challenge to the audience for their knowledge of “pit language” and a film of working conditions down a mine. An interesting and entertaining talk, recommended for those with an interest in life in the North East coalfield.

The Chairman reported on a possible new Society branch in Consett. A working group had been formed and discussions were ongoing on the practicalities needed to establish the group and arrange meetings. The Speaker Coordinator gave details of her plans for speakers for the remainder of the year.

March 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 15 March 2023 at Belmont Community Centre
The meeting was attended by 13 members and 6 guests. At the request of members, following her previous talk, the branch welcomed back Jane Guilliford Lowes who gave a fascinating talk based on her book “Above Us the Stars”. She told the story of her great uncle who joined the RAF in WWII and was assigned to bomber command. She highlighted the physiological stress of the crews not only because of the risks they were taking and the loss of colleagues on every mission but also the effects of tasks they were called to carry out. She also contrasted the lack of public appreciation compared with fighter pilots. She told the story of Jack and his crew mates and how they survived despite the huge losses suffered by bomber command. She also contrasted the lack of public knowledge and appreciation compared with that for fighter pilots. An excellent talk from a highly recommended speaker.

The Chairman highlighted items from the recent Trustees meeting, particularly that the New Durham History centre was due to open later in the year but might be delayed due to ongoing issues with the listed building. Also, that establishment of a new Society branch in Consett had been proposed.
The Speaker Coordinator gave details of her plans for speakers for the remainder of the year.

February 2023

The meeting on the 15th February was attended by 10 members and 7 guests.

The branch welcomed back Bernard Hope who gave a fascinating talk on Eddie Chapman who had spied for both sides during WWII. He had been born in Burnopfield in 1914 and became a professional criminal specialising in safe cracking. He lived the life of a wealthy playboy in London but was forced to flee to Jersey where he was subsequently jailed for robbery, and where he remained when the Germans invaded the island. On being released he volunteered his services to the Germans and was parachuted back to England with orders to carry out sabotage. However, he turned himself in to MI5 and they faked an attack on an aircraft factory which he reported back to Germany. On returning to Germany he was awarded the Iron Cross for his work. He then returned to England where he fed the Germans false information about the success of the V2 rocket attacks.

After the war he continued his criminal associations and eventually wrote his autobiographies, two other biographies were written about him and his life was portrayed in a film Triple Cross in which he was played by Christopher Plummer. Bernard also discussed his complicated love life which included being engaged to two women at the same time in different war zones. In his later years he and his wife ran a health farm in the South of England.

The chairman thanked the last meeting’s speaker for the hard copy of the talk he gave at the January meeting and suggested that it would be suitable for publication in the Society Journal. The chairman reiterated the need for a volunteer to come forward to act as Minutes Secretary.
The Speaker Coordinator confirmed her programme of talks up to the summer break and discussed potential speakers for the autumn programme.

January 2023

The meeting on 19th January was attended by 11 members and 3 guests which began with the 2023 AGM. No nominations had been received for the position of any of the branch officers. As a result, John Heckels continued as Chairman & Trustee Representative and agreed to continue temporarily acting as Secretary. David Hook continued as Treasurer & Deputy Chairman, and Barbara Buddle as Speaker Coordinator. The Chairman encouraged members to assist in running the branch, particularly with help for the roles of Minutes Secretary and an assistant to the Speaker Coordinator. As a result, Frank Davison agreed to become assistant Speaker Coordinator

Talk by Branch member Alan Scott. Who gave an informative and entertaining talk on his memories of growing up in Chopwell. The village had essentially been built by the Consett Iron Company who opened the colliery there in 1894 and which operated until 1966. It became known as the second largest mining village (after Ashington) and also as “Little Moscow” due to the caucus of communists in the miners’ lodge, who even operated a “Communist Sunday School”. Alan had many stories of his youth; he particularly remembered the day his four-year-old brother was run down and killed in a car accident. He recounted tales of being in hospital at age four, scavenging coal from the village pit heaps, practicing wearing gasmasks before WWII, evacuees being placed with the family, and assisting his father in his business ventures selling paraffin and carbide, as a shopkeeper and a bookies runner. The only culture available was the colliery band. The members thoroughly enjoyed his stories and had many questions and memories of their own and demonstrated their appreciation at the end.

Future meetings. The Speaker Coordinator presented her programme of talks up to the summer break. There was also discussion of potential speakers for the autumn.

December 2022

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 13 December 2022 which was attended by 8 members and 1 guest.

The main business of the meeting was a members’ forum. Members had been asked to be prepared to give a brief account of something they had discovered that would be of interest to members. The range of topics was wide ranging, from discovered family connections and more general research with interesting stories. Members’ enthusiasm was so great that the Chairman had to call a halt as we came to the end of our 2 hour room booking.

The new speaker coordinator presented a full programme of talks for the branch meetings up to the summer August break. The Chairman reminded members that the January meeting would include the AGM and of the need for nominations for the positions of Branch Officers, particularly the vacant Secretary’s position.

Last updated 5th December 2023