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
6th December 2023 Christmas lunch – Royal Station Hotel
3rd January 2024 Who were the Birtley Belgians? Valerie Greaves
7th February 2024 The Evolution of Stepney Street and Stepney Bank Liz Cowans
6th March 2024 Fenham Hall and its Legacy, 1740-2024 Mike Greatbatch
3rd April 2024 Newcastle in the Swinging 1960s and 1970s Freda Thompson

Reports of meetings

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.

June 2023

Branch meeting held on 7 June. Geoff Hughes returned to give his talk on “Newcastle through the Ages” subtitled “The life of Ordinary people from the Romans to the present day.

The talk was a rapid but highly detailed overview of almost 2000 years of our history. Geoff had accumulated a great many interesting facts : Newcastle’s bridge was one of only two to bear the emperor’s name: The Romans hired the Danes, who then stayed; the building of the castle and the walls; the Black Death, which killed over 2,000; Queen Elizabeth’s charter for the coal trade, which led to a monopoly and the town’s great wealth; witch hunts (57 women charged and 14 hanged); the Civil War when the town was besieged for nine weeks; floods and fires; the wealthy Westgate area in the 1700s; the terrible sanitary conditions; the growth and rebuilding of the town in the 19th century; and T Dan Smith. The talk was much appreciated by the eighteen members present.

May 2023

The Branch meeting held on 3 May 2023 was attended by 22 members. John Heckels stepped in to replace Anthea Lang and give his talk entitled “A street through Time”.
The street in question was Lish Avenue, Whitley Bay, and three houses in particular where John had located three people with fascinating histories. First was a relative, Richard Heckels Nesbit. As a young man he went to Australia, then to New Zealand, where he made a fortune. Returning to England in about 1866, he bought a brewery, a farm, set up a brickworks and became a builder, developing a large part of Whitey Bay. He died aged 71 in 1901.

Mary Elsworth Greaves was another relative. Born in 1907 she contracted polio aged four which left her permanently disabled. Despite this she set up a secretarial school at home and studied for a degree in sociology. Moving to London in 1945 to complete this, she worked in the Ministry of Labour. After retirement she took up the cause of the disabled, founding the Disablement Income Group and assisting getting legislation passed which led to the start of the Blue Badge Scheme. She was awarded an OBE in 1953 and died in 1983.

Lastly came Willy Fischer, The Russian, whose parents had worked with Lenin and came to Newcastle, later returning to the USSR. Willie’s own adventurous life came as a great surprise to the members, in which other groups might be interested.

April 2023

Twenty-one members were present at the meeting held on 5th April to hear a talk by Mike Greatbatch on “A Crowded District – Saint Ann’s Parish 1840-1900.

His subject was life in the lower Ouseburn area. This was originally part of the huge parish of All Saints, with Saint Ann’s being built as a chapel of ease in 1768, only later becoming a parish church in itself. The area was always overcrowded, with a population of 17,831 in 1801 rising to 27,950 in 1851. During the cholera outbreak of 1851 it was described as “living in a swamp”. In 1891 77 people were recorded as living in one dwelling place and many if the dwelling were still there in 1932. Water was still provided by a standpipe then. Expansion took place north of Saint Ann’s after1900

when the area was first included in Newcastle. The new housing was built to improved standards but the area continued to be one of the poorest in Newcastle well into the twentieth century.

The mouth of the Ouseburn was an important harbour, with shipbuilding and the sale of manure from the quayside. There was a brickworks and Maling’s famous pottery and a ropery, a flax mill and matchworks among the industries.

Much has changed or been lost in the gentrification of the area but it was good to be reminded of this different era in its history.

March 2023

Prof Derry had agreed to talk to us on the ‘Man on the Monument’ but unfortunately he did not arrive although he had phoned to confirm he would give his talk. Members were concerned that he may have had an accident or but it appears he is perfectly OK but simply forgot to come. He is now over ninety and will not be doing talks any more.

Apologies are extended to the 22 members who turned out to hear the talk and went away disappointed. It would be appreciated if the other Branches were informed that Prof Derry will not be available to give future talks: also if a note could be inserted in the next Journal thanking Prof Derry for all the talks he has given to the Society. (This would have been his eighth talk to the Newcastle Branch).

John Heckels had agreed to stand in and give his talk planned for May but unfortunately we had equipment problems and the meeting was abandoned.

February 2023

David Butler the retired archivist with Durham County Council returned to give a new talk to sixteen members at our meeting on the 1st February. His title was “Highwaymen and striking miners” and it related to a series of eighteen letters recently deposited, written to George Bowes of Streatlam by his cousin Gilbert Bowes of Gibside between 1728 and 1734. Gilbert was a barrister in Grays Inn and acted in family law matters and David outlined the family background. Unfortunately there is only one side of the correspondence and some of the letters are damaged with sections missing. David demonstrated how letters were prepared for sending at the time when envelopes were not used, and that postage was paid by the recipient.

In 1728 George inherited both Streatlam and Gibside. The coal mines at Gibside made him one of the leaders of the “Grand Alliance” of Durham mine owners who provided 70% of London’s coal. The letters also deal with matters of business, title and money problems. Of more general interest were the comments on social and family matters, visits in prospect, health and taking the waters. A journey to London was not interrupted by highwaymen – “collectors on the road” – but was made disagreeable by fellow passengers.

This was as always a very absorbing and well presented talk.

January 2023

Fifteen members were present to hear Susan Lynn give what she recalled was her tenth talk to the branch since 2012. Her topic was “California Calling” It began with a call she received from a previously unknown American lady who it turned out was descended from her grandfather’s brother. He was a master Mariner from North Shields who, having lost a ship, failed to get another and emigrated to America. There he was involved in whaling, raised a family, made several trips to California and became a ship owner. Susan outlined the subsequent history of the family, involving fights in San Francisco, the accidental death and the ghost of Captain John Craster Gunn, and a fraudulent medium, in a colourful and as always well researched talk.

December 2022

Branch Christmas Lunch

Last updated 5th December 2023