BRANCH Newcastle2
Room 3, Brunswick Chapel,
Northumberland Court,

Meetings on 1st Wednesday in the month at 2.00 pm (No meetings in August and December)
All visitors are welcome


Date Subject of Talk Speaker
3rd July 2024 AGM and Members’ forum: what made me explore family history?
7th August 2024 No Meeting
4th September 2024 Joe the Quilter’s Cottage Seb Littlewood
2nd October 2024 Those Capable Collinsons Anthea Lang
6th November 2024 The Newbiggin Genealogy Project Hilton Dawson

Reports of meetings

June 2024

Meeting held on 5 June 2024 Present: 16

This month’s talk was ‘The Horsekeeper’s Daughter’ given by Jane Gulliford Lowes, based on her published true story about the migration of a young woman from County Durham to Australia. Inspiration for the story came from letters and photographs in a box left by a family friend. A huge amount of research, culminating in a visit to Australia by the speaker, solved the mystery of the letter writers’ identity and their connection to a young woman from Seaham.

The young woman was Sarah Marshall, born in West Rainton in 1863, and by 1881 a servant in Seaton Village, near Seaham, a mining area with a reputation for explosions, accidents and difficult working and living conditions, sometimes leading to serious unrest. In 1886 Sarah sailed to Brisbane on the SS Duke of Sutherland, leaving behind her widowed mother and younger sisters. Her one-way passage was made possible by the Single Female Migrant Recruitment Scheme, which enabled the newly created State of Queensland to recruit domestic servants, who had fulfilled stringent acceptance criteria. In Brisbane Sarah married William Campbell, but the later financial crash there, caused the couple to leave for work on sheep stations until, eventually, they were able to buy a few acres of still uncleared rainforest in Tamborine Mountain, Queensland. Sarah died there in 1911.

Jane Gulliford Lowes’ passion for her subject and her wish to experience Sarah’s life, led her to retrace, where possible, Sarah’s footsteps in Queensland. Her fascinating account was an example of the rewards that can come from painstaking and persistent enquiry.

May 2024

Meeting held on 1 May 2024 Present: 23

The title of this month’s talk, given by Theresa Brolly, was ‘The Parsons – a family of Engineers

Most people of a certain age in the North East will have heard of Charles Parsons, may have had family members employed at C A Parsons Heaton Works or at Parsons Marine [Steam Turbine Company] in Wallsend and will know of his ground-breaking vessel, Turbinia. Theresa Brolly, by placing Charles’ family in a historical and social context, revealed the family to have been exceptional.

Charles Parsons (1854-1931) was the son of the Earl of Rosse, a member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. His father, an astronomer, engineer, mathematician, President of the Royal Society (1848-54), built a telescope which, until 1917, was the world’s largest. His mother had similar abilities as astronomer, blacksmith and photographer. Thus, Charles grew up in a learning environment in which he experienced the practical application of mathematics and engineering skills, influencing his future career. After studying mathematics in Dublin and at Cambridge, he became a premium apprentice at W G Armstrong’s engineering works. In the 1880s at Clarke, Chapman & Co Charles developed the compound steam turbine which revolutionised the propulsion of ships and the generation of electricity. He established his own engineering works.

Charles and his wife, Katherine, had a son, who was killed in action in 1918, and a daughter, Rachel Mary, born in 1885. Charles replicated his own upbringing, sharing his knowledge with his children, participating in mechanical projects at home with them and Katherine. Rachel, with a passion for engineering, was one of the first women to study engineering at Cambridge. During World War I, Rachel took her brother’s place as a director on the board of C A Parsons & Co. She had a role in supporting the training of women working in industry to replace men. The Pre-War Practices Act, 1919, meant that the employment of women who had not worked in industry before World War I, was terminated. Charles Parsons’ refusal to allow Rachel to continue as a director led to a permanent breach between them.

Rachel responded to this: founding, with Katherine, the Women’s Engineering Society, which still exists today, establishing her own engineering company, Atalanta, which operated for eight years in difficult economic times, becoming involved in politics. She was one of the first women to be admitted to the Royal Institute of Naval Architects. However, her inherited wealth led to a socialite lifestyle. She became a stud farm owner. Shockingly, in 1956, an isolated and eccentric figure, she was murdered by an employee, who was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation.

During his life Charles Parsons received several awards and honours. His wife, Katharine, who actively opposed the 1919 Act, and campaigned for women’s rights, and his daughter, Rachel, are now virtually unknown. Theresa Brolly’s most interesting and well-researched talk confirmed the social restrictions placed on women’s careers, but also hinted that Rachel’s character and her apparent inability to co-operate and compromise, may have prevented her from realising her true potential.

April 2024

Meeting held on 3 April 2024 Present: 20 plus 3 apologies

Freda Thompson, this month’s speaker, gave an appreciative and engaged audience a nostalgic view of life and times in 1960s Newcastle, when full employment and a consumer boom gave greater freedom of choice to the city’s inhabitants. Freda’s talk ranged from the wacky to the serious and informative. Tinned mascara softened by indispensable spit, the effect of calf-encasing go-go boots and early forms of convenience food were amusing examples, as was the winter zoo in the former town hall. There was nostalgia in identifying former shops and street scenes and astonishment at seeing cars parked on each side of Northumberland Street, when still an important route for vehicles.

More serious was the proposed 1960s re-development of the city as envisaged by T Dan Smith including concrete walkways “in the sky” to separate pedestrians from traffic, this only partially achieved. For example, two doorways, one in a first-floor Barclays Bank and the second directly opposite near the top of Northumberland Street, became windows when the intended suspended walkway was not built. However, Freda wanted us to understand the planners’ intentions. In drawing our attention to the Civic Centre and its sculptures and art works, she was asking us to take pride in the building.

Some information was thought-provoking: that the accidental fire at Callers in Northumberland Street, which engulfed the store and neighbouring businesses, could have led to the destruction of part of the city centre had the flames spread to properties opposite; that the development of shops selling ready-made clothes for young men in Newcastle was the result of the final ending of national service in 1963. The 1960s, Freda proposed, was the best era.

March 2024

Meeting held on 6 March 2024 Present: 22 Apologies: 2

This month’s talk about Fenham Hall was given by Mike Greatbatch. Fenham Hall is almost unique in the west of Newcastle, having from the start of its construction in 1744, survived changes in ownership and use, a serious internal fire, and surrounding urban development. Built on an earlier structure, it has three facades: all by different architects, of whom David Garrett and William Newton are well respected.

The Hall was originally part of an estate bought by the Ord family in 1695. The family increased the size of its landholdings, owning not only Fenham, Benwell and Cowgate, but land across Northumberland, producing a huge rental income. It enabled them to pay for Fenham Hall, its staff and maintenance, as extracts from Fenham estate papers showed.

In 1750 William Ord bought Whitfield Hall for its timber and Fenham Hall ceased to be the family’s principal residence. It was leased, then sold during the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1905 it was sold to the Society of the Sacred Heart for use as a Catholic teacher training college. Extensions and additional building followed, including a Grammar School. After the closure of the college in 1984, the Hall was used by Newcastle University as student accommodation for a time, then was unoccupied. It has reverted to student accommodation, securing its immediate future. In the 1920s the last of the Fenham estate was sold. An earlier sale of land to the Fenham Estates Company had already resulted in the development of the Wingrove Road area.

It is impossible in a short summary to do justice to the content of Mike’s talk. As ever, his audience was presented with a detailed, well organised, and fascinating account.

February 2024

The meeting held on 7 February 2024: Present: 20 Apologies: 1

This month’s presentation was given by Liz Cowans of the Ouseburn Trust. It was an account of a journey down Stepney Street and Stepney Bank in the context of the Ouseburn Valley, from the recent discovery of Roman remains to contemporary developments.

A series of maps showed the industrial development of the Ouseburn Valley and its decline, contrasted with a Google earth view of the area today. The importance of the area was revealed by the many industries that were located there in the 19th century and before: glass works, potteries, slaughter houses and tanneries, lead works, saw mills, iron works, a corn mill. These industries adversely affected the health of those employed, as did the poor, insanitary and over-crowded housing, and air pollution in the Valley.

The decline of the industries, or their relocation because of the bridging of the Ouseburn, resulted in the Valley becoming a place of industrial dereliction. Slum clearance depopulated it. Since the latter years of the 20th century, new developments have improved the environment. New businesses and services have been set up in former industrial buildings that survived demolition. New housing is making the Valley a desirable place to live.

The presentation was brought to life by many photographs and information slides, by some ‘vis aids’, and by the enthusiasm and knowledge of the speaker.

January 2024

Meeting held on 3 January 2024. Present: 18 members plus 1 apology. The Chairman reported the death, at the age of 94, of Iris Edwards, a former member,

This month’s well-illustrated presentation ‘Who were the Birtley Belgians’ was given by Val Greaves and Jean Armstrong, highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic members of the Birtley Heritage Group.

The establishment of the Belgian community in Birtley was a consequence of the First World War, when Belgium was overrun by German forces resulting in the flight of 250,000 refugees to Britain, and of the acute shortage of artillery shells in a Britain unprepared for war. The government arranged for factories, known as National Projectile Factories, to be built in conjunction with private business. Armstrong Whitworth built two in Birtley. An agreement between the British and Belgian governments arranged for Belgian citizens to work at, and manage, one of the Birtley factories. The workforce consisted of wounded and disabled Belgian servicemen, with sufficient skilled men to start and manage production. By October 1917 a million shells had been produced.

A village, named Elisabethville, funded by the British government but under Belgian jurisdiction, was built to house the workers and their families, which eventually numbered 6,000 people. It was surrounded by an iron fence. A formerly classified plan showed the layout. Photographs revealed the extent of the amenities that daily life required: houses, known as huts, shops, hairdresser, tailor, shoemaker, a hospital, school, and church, for example, and a photographer’s studio whose proprietor was the originator of many of the photographs.

At the end of the war, with few exceptions, the Belgians returned home. During the 1930s Elisabethville was demolished, with only the former food store building and a short stretch of fence remaining today. But the story has not ended. The presentation included interesting human stories that are continuing to the present day, from the reconstruction of individual lives, to visits from Belgian descendants.

November 2023

Meeting held on 1 November 2023: Present 14 members plus 1 apology.

This month’s talk was Rhubarb and Mustard given by Monica Goldfinch. Monica began by showing a recent photograph of Gosforth Central Park, established in 1923, and its location. An earlier plan and documents showed that the park was on the site of a nursery and that the crop with the highest value had been rhubarb. Rhubarb was also once grown on a large scale at Quarry House near Coxlodge Colliery. The photograph of the now demolished Rhubarb Terrace in Gateshead was further indication of rhubarb’s popularity at that time.

Rhubarb has a fascinating history. Cultivated in China and Russia, it was imported into Europe in the fourteenth century. The cost of transport made it expensive, placing it with silks, satins, rubies and pearls as a luxury product. It was valued for its medicinal use. Growing rhubarb successfully in England was difficult until, in 1817, a process of forcing rhubarb was discovered at Chelsea Physic Garden. Rhubarb began to be displayed in agricultural shows. The falling price of sugar made it more accessible to the public for culinary use. By using the process of growing rhubarb in the dark in sheds, a large-scale industry developed. From about 1847 an area in West Yorkshire, known as the Rhubarb Triangle and having the right growing conditions, became the main area of production. A transport industry was established to get the rhubarb quickly to Covent Garden Market. In the 20th century, especially after World War II, rhubarb’s popularity declined. Producers have, however, diversified, developing products such as ice-ream and gin, which incorporate rhubarb.

Durham was once synonymous with mustard. In 1720 a Mrs Clements discovered that grinding mustard seeds like flour produced a stronger flavour than crushing them. The mustard’s popularity grew as Mrs Clements toured the country taking orders. Her daughter inherited the business which was continued by her husband, Joseph Ainsley and his family. It proved impossible to keep the recipe secret and Durham eventually lost its monopoly. Colman’s began to make mustard in 1814, though its trademark, the head of the Durham Ox, is an acknowledgment of mustard’s Durham origin. Other rival firms started in business during the 19th century including some in Newcastle. Mrs Clements’ method could, however, encourage its misuse. Henry Thomas Scrivener, a Newcastle mustard manufacturer and coffee roaster, was found guilty of adulterating coffee and pepper with mustard and fined £300, leading to his bankruptcy.

Monica’s presentation with its wealth of detail and illustration, offered something of interest for everyone: local, national and family history, and nostalgia for all who remembered the stewed rhubarb and custard (not mustard) of their childhood.

October 2023

Meeting held on 4 October 2023: Present: 12 members plus 5 apologies.

The Branch Representative reported on the September Trustees meeting, the main point being volunteers are urgently needed to help in MEA House with scanning, transcribing and checking parish records or helping visitors. Even an hour per month would be welcome.

This month’s presentation was Wooden Boats and Iron Men: a history of the RNLI given by David Hastings. In almost a century since the founding of the RNLI, 143,000 lives have been saved, 800 boat crew members’ lives have been lost. David’s presentation covered three main themes: the origin and purpose of the RNLI; developments in lifeboat construction; the human contribution and, sometimes, cost involved in saving lives.

In 1824 Sir William Hillary founded the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, as a charity funded on a voluntary basis. The frequency of ships and lives lost off the North Sea coast inspired efforts to find better designed and built boats to save the lives of those shipwrecked and their rescuers. John Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland, commissioned Lionel Lukin in 1786 to construct an “unimmergible boat”, which was stationed at Bamburgh. Henry Greathead, a South Shields boat builder, used the winning designs from a competition, to construct the first purpose-built lifeboat in 1790. It remained in use for forty years. Technological improvement continued. In 2014 the first operational all-weather self-righting lifeboat was introduced.

David’s presentation covered acts of heroism such as Grace Darling and the much-decorated Henry Blogg of the Cromer Lifeboat Station, A video produced for the 50th anniversary of the Longhope Lifeboat disaster in 1969, when the entire crew lost their lives, showed how the Orkney islanders survived, were strengthened, and continued, without hesitation, to volunteer to be lifeboat crew, undeterred by the sea’s harsh environment. David’s view is that this sense of community sums up the essence of the RNLI.

A natural communicator, David’s presentation left us full of admiration for the dedication of lifeboat crews. It showed how much can be achieved by the participation and efforts of volunteers of whom David, a celebrated fundraiser who owes his life to lifeboat crews, is a prime example.

September 2023

The meeting held on 6 September 2023 was attended by 15 members and 3 apologies. Members were reminded of the Society’s AGM on 9 September

This month’s speaker was City Guide, Pat Lowery, who gave a most interesting and enlightening talk about retail businesses in Newcastle. Her talk ranged from the street markets of medieval times to a very modern business model, where a recently opened shop in Grainger Street displays luxury trainers singly in ‘see-through’ packaging and offers world-wide sourcing of products.

Newcastle became an important place for shopping, formerly only second to London. Pat’s talk described the origin of some Newcastle businesses, many of which were known to members. She showed that commercial success depended on a variety of factors. Her talk was enlivened by photographs and by many lesser-known facts relating to some of these businesses, of which a few are mentioned here.

Location: By the end of the 18th century the most important shopping streets were Mosley Street and Grainger Street. The redevelopment of the town centre in the 1830s necessitated the demolition of the Butcher Market. The Grainger Market, opened by 1835, included 157 butcher’s shops.

Innovation: The change from small shops where the customer could not browse and did not ask the price to department stores such as Isaac Walton, Bainbridge, Fenwick and Binns, each having a different origin, but where personal service was important. Bainbridge’s was one of the first stores to offer ready-made clothes and reputedly, the first to start the aerial cash transport system that some members recollected.

A combination of social conscience and business sense: Thomas Pumphrey’s horror at the extent of drunkenness in the town, led to the café, as an alternative culture, and to a successful business in the Cloth Market. Coxon’s in Market Street (on the site later occupied by Binns) added additional storeys to the building to provide staff accommodation for employees who had come to Newcastle to work in the store.

Chance: The well-known ice-cream parlours trading as Mark Tony were begun by members of the Italian Marcantonio family. Planning to emigrate to the USA, they were misled into thinking they had arrived when their ship docked in England. They were unable to join other Italians in Scotland having only enough money to take them as far as Newcastle.

Hard work and perseverance: John Gregg started in business selling eggs and yeast from a push bike, He later opened a baker’s shop, a business developed by his family into a nation-wide organisation.

Understanding the customer: Broughs, in its Gosforth branch, offered 246 types of biscuit for sale because, it was reasoned, women in Gosforth held coffee mornings! The manager of Littlewoods in Northumberland Street, wishing to improve the café’s early morning trade, inaugurated breakfast for 99p. The profit margin was small, but it was greater on the cup of tea that he anticipated would be bought in addition. Its success led to its adoption by other branches of the company.

Many more businesses, too numerous to mention here, featured in the talk which was enjoyed and appreciated by the members present.

July 2023

Meeting held 5 July 2023 on Wednesday 5 July 2023 attended by 15 members. The meeting commenced with the AGM followed by a members’ forum on ‘Shared Memories of Two Coronations’ was held. Reminiscences included:
· the rare opportunity [in 1953] to watch the Coronation on TV
· the opportunity to see the ceremony, later, in a cinema
· a post-Coronation visit by the Queen to Newcastle
· local celebrations, including fancy dress parties and competitions
· the impact of the wet weather on activities
· mementoes brought by members or referred to, including: Coronation mugs, orders of service, a souvenir book, books as gifts, e.g. a cut-out book, to make a procession, a memorial edition of the Book of Common Prayer, (there were similar editions of the Bible) a commemorative Crown (coin).
· photos from the 1937 Coronation and an anecdote about the image of a 1902 beer bottle and its relevance to the Coronation of Edward VII
· that an invitation to the Coronation had had to be declined
· the existence of CDs containing a recording of the service.

Members also discussed how they had heard the news of the death of George VI

Attention was drawn to the fact that members had been speaking about the Coronation of Elizabeth II and not about the one that had recently taken place. It was agreed that the music at Charles III’s Coronation had been wonderful. Recalling the flags and bunting of 1953, some deplored the lack of visible celebration in Newcastle. However, signs of celebration could be found in smaller communities, such as in Allendale or in Chester-le-Street, where knitted crowns were to be seen. It was suggested that legal requirements might be a deterrent to street parties, for example. There were some comments about the new king’s decision to be known as Charles III.

Following this wide-ranging discussion, the meeting ended with a presentation of a card to Kevin in recognition and appreciation of his years as Branch Secretary.

Last updated 6th June 2024