Reports from 2015
Anecdotes from the Napoleonic Wars
Bob Harrison gallantly stood in, from the audience, replacing the absent speaker at January’s Glendale Local History Society’s meeting. Without aide-memoire, he introduced us to some aspects of the era of Admiral Lord Nelson and Napoleon.
We learnt thatfollowing the French Revolution, the French became aggressive and Napoleon, a master tactician, aimed to spread French influence throughout Europe, including the invasion of Britain, and thus create a French empire. At length, Admiral Nelson’s victory over the larger Franco-Spanish fleet at the decisive Battle of Trafalgar put an end to his plans for a French invasion of Britain and thus hastened the end of the long-fought Napoleonic Wars. This British victory was due to its superior naval force: our sailors were healthier and better fed, especially as the Admiralty had a better understanding of scurvy than the French. The sailors were better trained, with greater nautical and weaponry skills. Also, the development of flintlocks ─ a new canon-firing mechanism ─ made for a faster, more accurate use of these weapons. The advanced construction of British ships also proved superior to their opponents’. So too did Admiral Nelson’s successful tactics ─ aiming to break the opposition’s line of ships, causing them to disperse so that individual ships could be targeted and destroyed. Many prisoners were taken. Naval journals, log books and other records depict life on board warships.
We heard several extraordinary ‘Anecdotes from the Napoleonic Wars’. One such tale recorded how four English officers had managed to escape from captivity in France. While making their way across country in France, tired and hungry, they implored a local woman to help them ─ trying at first to persuade her that they were Dutch. In fact she recognised them as English as she had worked here. After four months being cared for in her attic they finally escaped and managed to return home. Twenty years later, one of these grateful men, having gained promotion, was able to return to France to seek out his benefactor. He found the town but was told the woman had died. After further investigation he finally found her – appearing as a bundle of rags, in a squalid room, lit by one candle, in the poor quarter of the town. Although nearly blind she spoke clearly, and after a conversation to cross reference facts, she named the four officers she had protected. The officer was able to tell her “It is Boyes!” one of the four she had named as having helped those many years previously! He repaid his debt by providing clothes and a financial allowance, plus money in trust should he pre-decease her.
Some women lived aboard, mainly wives of non-commissioned officers, and babies were born – traditionally between two canons. One baby, Sally Trunion, was cared for by fellow crew members and reared as if their own after her father was killed and her mother had died. When old enough, she was set ashore with £50 sewn into the hem of her dress!
Live animals were carried on board for food whilst at sea, but when entering battle the order to ‘Clear the decks!’ involved all livestock being thrown over-board. To this end an officer’s dog was accidentally thrown out too, but miraculously survived by being caught up in bow-head netting and, being rescued, it became the ship’s mascot thereafter.
Our speaker suggested that the Napoleonic Wars could classify as the true First World War (a century prior to the Great War of 1914-18) since it involved the major powers of Europe, North Africa, Russia and Scandinavia.
Many thanks to Bob for standing in at such short notice, and depicting an era for which the end came with the Battle of Waterloo ─ its 200th anniversary is this year.
Visit to RAF Boulmer
The members who took up the limited number of places available to visit to RAF Boulmer were not disappointed.
RAF Boulmer started its life in 1940 as a decoy airfield for RAF Acklington, evolving through the Cold War to its current role. Although the long standing air/sea rescue function at RAF Boulmer was widely understood, we learnt that this is a subsidiary function of the Station. Its main task is the protection of the airspace of the whole of the UK, as the hub of the UK Air Surveillance and Control Systems Force. All civil and military aircraft are tracked in the Control and Reporting Centre, and any unidentified aircraft are intercepted by military jets.
Two floors underground in the Operations Centre, staff work in shifts round the clock at screens depicting air lanes and flight movement, monitoring all movements from civilian microlights to jumbo jets. In a combat simulation, they also demonstrated directing flights over the North Sea, with real fighter planes and real flight crews!
We had recently seen press and TV reports of Russian incursions into UK airspace, and learned that it was from this centre that the monitoring was done, and the planes scrambled to intercept them and to escort them around and out of our air space.
RAF Boulmer is also home to the RAF School of Aerospace Battle Management, which runs high level air battle management courses for the UK Armed Forces and personnel from NATO and other allies. Programmes involve operational training, augmented by flight simulators, to support war-fighting operations, peace-keeping duties and delivering humanitarian aid.
Station personnel are actively involved in many local community projects and support several local charities. The Station has been honoured by receiving the Freedom of Northumberland.
We felt privileged to have visited Boulmer, and went home in a more thoughtful mood.
John Hardy & Rosemary Bell
Sir Edward Grey and the "War to end all Wars"
Sir Edward Grey of Falloden. In the summer of 1914 Europe was like an overheated pressure cooker on the way to explosion. Empires, nations and nation states were all competing for what they regarded as their place in the sun. This was the scene set by Mike Fraser, author of “The Lamps Went Out”, when he spoke to Glendale Local History Society at their latest meeting. His subject was Sir Edward Grey, Liberal MP for Berwick from 1885 and Foreign Secretary between 1905 and 1916. Mike painted a sympathetic picture of a quiet, diffident and somewhat secretive man who held high office reluctantly, coming to it out of a strong sense of duty. Grey, although born in London, much preferred life in Northumberland and often wished that he were at his family home of Fallodon Hall fishing or bird watching. However, once in office he performed the duties of MP and minister conscientiously and as Foreign Secretary before the war worked hard to build an accord with and between the nations of Europe and in particular an “entente” with France. He was instrumental in improving relations with Russia and although Britain remained wary of Germany’s intentions, relations between the two countries thawed a little.
At the Balkans peace conference, held in London in 1913 and chaired by Sir Edward Grey, it must have seemed to him that his eight years at the Foreign Office had borne fruit. Stability in Europe, built on a careful system of checks and balances, restraints, understandings and promises of mutual support looked as if it might ensure peace. No nation was actively looking for war and yet by August 1914, in a very short span of time, the whole thing had unravelled and Grey had to tell the House of Commons that Britain would not be able to stand aside from the coming conflict.
Personally this was a grievous blow to a man who had laboured so tirelessly for peace and so hard to avoid war. As he put it himself he felt “like a man who has wasted his life”. He continued in office until a change of government in 1916 led to his retirement. Thereafter, in failing health, he sought more and more the solace at his home in Northumberland amongst the birds and landscape that he loved so much. Judgement upon him has been mixed ranging from high praise to accusations of incompetence. After Mike’s talk it would be difficult to disagree with the view that he was an important and significant Northumbrian who cared deeply for his county and his country.
Street names of Newcastle
Neil Munro, a former City Guide for Newcastle upon Tyne, took members on their very own guided tour of old Newcastle’s streets from the comfort of Wooler’s Cheviot Centre. Neil was well equipped to negotiate the way through numerous lanes and roads with his extensive experience in Adult Education and the Education Service of Tyne and Wear Archives.
We learnt first about the early bridges over the River Tyne in Roman times and why they were positioned in a particular place. The Pons Aelius was a Roman fort and settlement on the north bank of the Tyne. In Saxon times there was a cemetery where the castle now stands. The son of William the Conqueror was the first to erect a castle of earth and timber there about 1080. In succeeding centuries it was rebuilt in stone. Masons from all over the country came to the town to provide building expertise. Both the Black Gate and The Keep have been recently restored and re-opened to the public and are well worth a visit.
From 1400 Newcastle was designated a Town and a County, thus earning certain rights and privileges. The oldest street in Newcastle is the mediaeval Side, still cobbled, which runs down to the Quayside from St Nicholas Cathedral. Dog Leap Stairs lead from the Castle Garth to Side. The name refers to ‘a narrow slip of ground between houses’. In 1772 Baron Eldon, later Lord Chancellor of England, eloped with Bessie Surtees making their escape, according to folklore, on horseback up Dog Leap Stairs, quite an achievement as they are extremely steep!
The town was vulnerable to attack from the Scots, so a wall was built around it commencing 1280 and a tax levied to fund it. It was not permitted to build up against the wall. A surprising amount of the wall survives, sometimes in the most unlikely spots of the present city.
Admiral Collingwood was baptised and married in the then Church of St Nicholas so it is not surprising to find an adjacent street of fine buildings named after him in 1810 after his death. It provided a through route between Pilgrim Street and Westgate. Many of the streets near the wall are named after the towers. These include, Pink Lane, Westgate, and Neville Street. The wall was not breached until the Civil War.
Pilgrim Street recalls the pilgrims who made their way to the Shrine of our Lady in Jesmond. Nearby Gallowgate is derived from Galler Gate (gate or gata meaning street), the road to the gallows. Here prisoners from Newgate Prison were executed from `1400, the events being recorded in ancient parish registers of St Andrew’s Church, the oldest in the town.
The Keelmens Hospital, set back from the Quayside in All Saints Parish, is an early example of men providing for themselves by contributing to build an Almshouse for keelmen and their dependants. Holy Jesus Hospital is another building provided for the needy of the town. It was built by the Freemen of Newcastle.
Along the Quayside numerous “chares” can still be found. These narrow medieval alleys or lanes retain the term “chare” such as Broad Chare with its magnificent Trinity House and Pudding Chare. Others have picturesque names such as Breakneck Stairs and Long Stairs. The Benedictine nuns of St Bartholomew’s lived where Nun Street now stands. St Mary’s Place near the Haymarket recalls St Mary Magdalene, with its leper hospital outside the town wall. Wesley Square is named after John Wesley whose visit in 1715 was to him memorable for “the sight of so much drunkenness”.
Other famous men connected with the town included Roger Thornton, Harry Hotspur, Thomas Bewick and John Marley, all of whom gave their names to streets in the town.
This talk encouraged us on our next shopping trip to Newcastle to take a closer look at streets which may be familiar to us now for their shops and restaurants. We shall look at them with different eyes in future.
Biddlestone chapel & the Selby family
Speaker: Tony Henfry
On 14th October 2015 Tony Henfry gave an excellent talk about Biddlestone Chapel and the Selby family. Our speaker had been much involved in the rescue and restoration of the chapel through the support of the Historic Chapels Trust and the National Park, and with its continuing maintenance.
Biddlestone is a tiny, remote hamlet at 800 feet on the edge of the Cheviot moorlands. The name means ‘little valley of the little burn’, unrelated to the large (listed) stones which were the base of a Saxon village cross. Sited in an excellent defensive position a few yards to the south of the ‘little valley’, a well hidden chasm with a 200 foot drop to the little burn, is a 14th century pele tower, which became the ground floor of the chapel.
The Selby family inherited Biddlestone in 1311 and owned it for over 600 years. A Roman Catholic family, one of many in north Northumberland, as border landlords they paid their recusancy fines and maintained pragmatic relationships with the government and their neighbours. As the border region settled in the 16th century they became quiet estate owners, and through good management and good marriages the estate grew to 30,000 acres.
The Selbys did not live at Biddlestone all year, preferring York and London; thus they avoided any involvement in the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745.
When in 1796 they rebuilt the house after a fire, Dobson designed their new home to join a chapel seating 50 people superimposed on the pele tower – clearly the Selbys were confident to show their faith publicly well before the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. In Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), the narrator Frank Osbaldistone heads north to Scotland, and describes seeing on his way a large and antiquated house, the burn and the hunting kennels in a wild spot at the edge of the moors – surely Biddlestone.
The chapel was refurbished in 1862 with gothic windows, the east window displaying the Selby coat of arms; a small but elaborate altar; and tile-patterned linoleum at the east end. But it remained quite simple, with plain pine pews and gallery, white walls, small framed pictures of the Stations of the Cross and the coats of arms of the family.
The family prospered, gaining coal mines in Lancashire, Jesmond and County Durham. Several younger sons became priests, and in the 1840s another made his fortune in Denmark where he became the king’s chamberlain and a baron. In the 19th century two Selbys became JPs, one of them serving also as Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of the county.
In 1914 the last Selby owner was a naval Lieutenant Commander based in Sussex, who severed all connections with Biddlestone. In 1911 he sold some land to the War Office to form part of the new Otterburn Training Camp, and before war broke out he sold the remaining 17000-acre agricultural estate; the house and its immediate grounds were finally sold in 1918, becoming home to several families in succession. In 1940 the house was requisitioned as a military hospital, left in poor condition, vandalised, and subsequently never occupied. It was in a ruinous state by the time it was demolished in 1957.
The chapel remained intact because it was used for worship by local families, a nominal rent paid by the Catholic diocese. The Forestry Commission took over the land, planting a dense spruce and fir plantation which hid the chapel from casual view and no doubt protected it.
By 1990 the chapel was unfit for use; plaster 2 feet deep on the floor, although the pele tower, and an Anderson shelter erected within it, remained in good condition. The Historic Chapels Trust acquired it in 1997 and began its restoration. It has no electricity or running water but it is well ventilated being 10 feet above ground level. It is technically a secular building but it used for occasional services and is licensed for Catholic marriages.
The Selbys were buried in Alwinton parish church except for two buried in a small plot in a field to the south around 1900.
Tony Henfry also gave twenty GLHS members a guided tour of the chapel, an opportunity to see this fascinating building for ourselves.
For more information, including opportunities to visit, see www.hct.org.uk.
11th November 2015
War time laws in Northumberland
On Armistice Day, November 11, members were given an entertaining talk by Philip Rowett on ‘Wartime Laws in Northumberland’. The talk cast a light on some of the strange laws in operation for the civilian population during the dark days of the Second World War.
We were told of many instances where individuals were fined in the local courts for displaying a light during the blackout. The blackout was not popular people walking home had found themselves hopelessly lost in park shrubberies. However the local courts seem to have generated a significant amount through the imposition of fines. All vehicles had to have their headlights screened and the speed limit in blackout areas was 20mph. The owners of cars parked on the wrong side of the road would find themselves in court and inevitably fined.
Public transport was not exempt from the laws, individuals queuing for buses had to queue at no more than two abreast and individuals could be fined for queue jumping.
Local shopkeepers were subject to some stringent regulations and could be fined for selling goods for which they did not hold a licence. All shops had restricted hours for the sale of goods and the volume of goods to be sold was strictly limited. Rationing was a major issue for the population and the use of ration coupons in some areas of Northumberland gave rise to concern about the recycling of coupons.
The Cornhill area of Northumberland seems to have had a particularly strong adherence to the rules and regulations and the zealous nature of the local police was noted. The area it was reported was deliberately avoided by some lorry drivers who feared being stopped for the smallest infringement.
The talk focussed on some of the more humorous and curious laws implemented at that time. However it was apparent that underlying the stringent laws and regulations enforced was a fear and paranoia in relation to a potential German invasion. It is now hard to fully understand the anxiety which gripped the country at that time.
Vita vinum est: life is wine: Romans and their wine
“Having just graduated I was unsure what to do next”.
For Professor Jeremy Patterson, the solution to this quandary led him to research wine production in the ancient world.
He soon found himself immersed in an absorbing study of the commercial life of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations that became his life’s work.
In an informative and entertaining talk entitled Life is Wine, Professor Patterson described how the cultivation of grape vines and olive trees started at about 6000 BC and was one of the first forms of agriculture. He suggested that the production of wine and olive oil was an important factor in the development of a more settled agrarian lifestyle which led to the establishment of city states all around the Mediterranean. Trade routes were established as the Roman Empire expanded. Commerce often preceded conquest.
The wine was transported in amphorae, large pottery vessels and sold by weight. Its quality was tested by inspectors and the trade regulated by a legal framework that would have been familiar to us. There are How to do manuals that have survived to this day.
Professor Patterson surprised his audience by revealing that he is one of only five people who have actually tasted ancient Roman wine! His verdict – a bit acidic but not bad after two thousand years of aging!