Reports from 2017
The Fortifications of Berwick upon Tweed
The talk, illustrated with maps showing the different plans of the ramparts as they were built, re-designed, allowed to fall into disrepair, were re-built, strengthened and altered over the last millennia, gave a detailed insight into the strategic importance of Berwick as a bulwark between England and Scotland.
Not only were we informed about the walls themselves, but also of the weaponry, military developments, sieges and changes of power which led to the need for advances in protection.
The current walls are largely Elizabethan, but fortifications have been present since before the 12th century. We know that there were wooden walls and a castle even before King David l of Scotland in 1124 made considerable improvements to an existing castle.
When Edward l (The Hammer of the Scots) pushed north in 1296 he overwhelmed the forces of the Scots at Dunbar and ordered a deep moat to be dug at Berwick, added a palisade ‘a spear height’ above the walls and enlarged the site considerably. The following year William Wallace recaptured the town for the Scots briefly, and over the next 9 years power fluctuated between Scots and English until Wallace was decisively beaten in 1305.
Edward II managed to maintain some control in Scotland until 1314. He added 14 towers to the walls and held on to Berwick until 1319, but after Bannockburn (1314) there was no longer any real chance of succeeding in the north. The walls fell into serious disrepair until after Homildon Hill (1402).
In 1408 John of Gaunt spent £6000 over 14 years to rebuild and defend the ramparts.
We were told that although one cannot be certain how many times Berwick changed hands, at least 13 can be accounted for. It continued to be fought over during the Wars of the Roses, with Henry IV being defeated but Richard of Gloucester recapturing it in 1482.
Henry VII improved defences as artillery power required stronger protection against cannon fire; thus Coxon’s Tower was built as a great bulwark guarding the entrance. Henry VIII added a tower at the foot of the White Wall, and at Lords Mount, gun emplacements and a self-contained edifice with kitchen and latrines.
The later Tudors continued improvements, until Elizabeth developed, with Italian designers, a 20-foot-high rampart with a parapet of 17 feet. Six bastions were designed to completely surround the town, but only two-thirds were completed. There were brass demi-cannons, heavy mortars, Venetian cannon and breech loading guns. The Bell Tower was erected and the whole project was the most expensive of Elizabeth’s reign. A huge moat can be seen on a contemporary map.
When James VI of Scotland marched south in 1603, a cannon was fired symbolically and the garrison reduced to 100 men. He was crowned James I of England, an event re-enacted colourfully in Berwick recently. There was no longer a need for a barrier between the countries.
Although improvements to weaponry continued to be made, and even in WWII defences were added - this time to protect the coast, the walls were never again breached.
Berwick has a unique place in British history, its ramparts a fascinating reminder of conflicts in times past.
Outing: Berwick-upon-Tweed fortifications
Earlier in February Derek Sharman had spoken to the Society on The fortifications of Berwick upon Tweed; on this fascinating walk, Derek told us more as we looked at the defences on the north, east and south sides of the town.
The medieval street plan hasn’t changed since the 13th century, so when our tour started at Low Greens, we were following the line of the fastest route from Berwick to Edinburgh (the main route north went west through Duns).
After the Battle of Carham in 1018, the lands north of the Tweed became part of Scotland. Berwick, a seaport dealing with wool, grain and fish, became the most important town in Scotland, its population 4 times that of Edinborough.
In 1296 Edward I took Berwick for England, and immediately ordered the building of substantial stone walls to replace the timber defences around the medieval town; remains of these medieval walls can be seen in the boundaries of gardens to the north of the Greens, and along the north bank of the Tweed estuary. Over the next 220 years border warfare continued and the town changed hands at least 12 times, and the economy of Berwick never recovered.
We went into the ground floor of Henry VIII’s two-storey gun fortress, which lies outside the medieval walls, to the north of the town, to be a bastion against artillery attack. For maximum strength the fortress was octagonal, like a giant WWII pill box; it was completely self-contained with a well, latrines and fireplaces and flues to draw in fresh air, and the magazine under the captain’s accommodation. The kitchen was immediately outside, as a precaution against fire. The fortress was excavated in the 1970s and the layout and features clear to see.
Once the Elizabethan walls were completed, the first floor was demolished and the tower infilled to prevent it an enemy using it, and in the 1570s the tower nearby was rebuilt as a watch tower.
The medieval walls had fallen into disrepair, so Mary Tudor planned to build new defences; her early death left Elizabeth to implement the plan. With advice from Italian Giovanni Portenari, Sir Richard Lee devised state of the art fortifications. The Elizabethan walls were the biggest single expense of Elizabeth’s 45-year reign and are the only town walls of their type in the UK. (Similar town defences can now be seen only in Lucca, Italy.)
The walls took 2000 men 10 years to construct. The five bastions ensured that attackers from every possible angle could be stopped by cannon-fire or grape-shot. The walls were surrounded by a moat, fed from a lake dug out at the north of the town and controlled by sluice gates. The moat was 150ft wide, mostly knee-depth but with a 9ft ditch parallel to the walls to catch any would-be waders. Also, to deter attackers from the north, a wide trench was dug from the walls to the sea. Long wooden bridges, with drawbridges, enabled traffic to pass in and out in peacetime.
The cow port is the only gate through the walls that is unaltered. There was a portcullis, and the inner and outer doors were set at an angle so that if one were stormed open the way was still blocked.
Berwick’s defences were to protect the whole of the North of England against foreign invaders and also, as there were many catholic families in the North, to be the monarch’s power base in the event of any domestic rebellion or insurrection. However, to prevent the commander of the garrison becoming too powerful, he was kept short of artillery unless specific need arose: at the time of the Spanish Armada there were just 7 canons until more weapons were brought up from the Tower of London.
In 1644, during the Civil War, Cromwell paid Scots soldiers to maintain a garrison at Berwick. They were kept out of mischief building on top of the walls the high earth mounds for gun platforms. Cromwell ordered the buildings outside the walls, including two churches, be demolished to give the garrison clear views of any approaching enemy. Short of space for the soldiers to worship, the parliamentary government paid for a new church to be built; in Puritan style, it was free of ornament and without bells – the town hall bell was used to summon people to services until a narrow tower with a single bell was added for the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
The defences proved their value as a deterrent when in 1715 the Jacobites heading south bypassed the town. In 1745 the gunpowder had got damp, and Dutch troops had to bring supplies; the ammunition store was built in 1749.
The soldiers stationed in Berwick were billeted on the townsfolk until the barracks was built in 1721; the barracks became the model for the British army worldwide.
Berwick retained military restrictions until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815; until then, the gates were locked and a curfew imposed overnight.
As we walked around the walls, our guide pointed out the military hospital, the house that Lowry had wanted to buy, the Governor’s House, fine individual Georgian houses, the smokery and the Russian gun. We learned that in WWII Berwick suffered 11 air raids which damaged 25% of the houses, and that English Heritage foots an annual bill of £42,000 to cut the grass.
Berwick certainly has a rich heritage, much of it unique in the UK, and as a result of the tour we will appreciate it all the better.
‘Hens that want to crow’: Suffragists & Suffragettes of the North-east 1866–1918. Women’s struggle for votes and other campaigns in the 19th century.
This inspiring talk coincided with International Women’s Day and reminded us of the pioneering women of the North East who had struggled to ensure that today’s women can vote.
The most famous of course was Emily Wilding Davison, who lost her life as she protested at a national race meeting in 1913. But Davison was only one of a long line of female activists with strong roots in the North East. Dr O’Donnell explained how the campaign for votes for women grew out of several related campaigns which arose in the early part of the 19th Century, as the rights of every human being to equal respect and treatment before the law were increasingly recognised. Women were involved in anti-slavery campaigns and in the Corn Law League. The issue of women’s voting rights also arose in the various reform bills which slowly extended the franchise to different groups of men as the century proceeded. We were surprised to learn that Earl Grey’s famous Reform Act of 1832, which introduced votes for all men owning property, was the first to explicitly exclude women. Until then, the franchise was defined in terms of eligible ‘persons’, while the new act referred specifically to ‘male persons’. By the 1860s, with a new reform act underway (passed in 1867), a petition was presented in Parliament to include women in the extended franchise, the petition being presented by MPs whose wives and friends were involved in the growing campaign. We heard of the roles of Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Josephine Butler, the Priestman sisters, Millicent Fawcett, Norah Balls, Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell and Dr Ethel Williams, all with North East connections. These activists mostly had middle class backgrounds, which gave them the time, the education and the contacts for such campaigning. Several came from non-conformist backgrounds, particularly among the Quakers and Unitarians. But they were often involved in several campaigns and projects at once. Some, such as Josephine Butler, stayed largely on the margins of the movement, as she was so deeply absorbed in her work on the difficult topic of the treatment of women alleged to be spreading sexual diseases. Emily Davies put her main efforts into creating what became Girton College in Cambridge, and did not return to campaigning for the women’s movement until 1906.
By the 1880s, several roles in public life were being opened to women. They could vote on Poor Laws, and become members of School Boards. A well-supported proposal that the parliamentary vote be extended to women householders was justified on the grounds that such women were not only taxpayers, but had special knowledge of children and would bring more variety into national politics. Newcastle City Council voted for support for this measure, though Gateshead did not. There was also support in some of the national newspapers. However, in the end Prime Minister Gladstone dropped the issue of women’s suffrage from what became the 3rd Reform Act of 1884, in order to pass a significant extension to male suffrage.
But still 40% of men and no women had the vote. By this time, many women were getting impatient with the slow progress of the right to vote. While some continued to work through persuasive argument and continual pressure through legal means, others concluded that the only way forward was to become much more militant. The most visible of such groups was the Women’s Social and Political union, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, which organised not just demonstrations, but set fire to buildings and tried to disrupt the lives of key politicians. North East women such as Norah Balls spent time in prison as a result, though none demonstrated so dramatically as Emily Wilding Davison.
The flood of feeling which Davison’s funeral attracted was so large, that perhaps the campaign for votes for women would have succeeded within a short time. However, the first world war both disrupted the campaign and advanced it. So many women were involved in so many spheres of life, that in 1918, votes were finally extended to women over 30 in 1918, along with all men over 21. Women over 21 had to wait until 1928. As our speaker emphasised, however, winning the vote was only one step in the wider struggle for greater equality for women in all spheres of life. She herself was involved in struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, and suggested that there was a new interest in promoting womens’ rights these days, with very active celebration of International Women’s Day. Her talk reminded us nevertheless just how much the struggles of earlier generations of women had brought benefits which we later generations have enjoyed and should be grateful for.
Farming in Glendale: 1800 to the present
Dr Ian Roberts
Dr Roberts emphasised that throughout history agriculture has responded positively to the challenges that social and political changes have faced it with.
Between 1600 and 1800 a number of things happened in England that changed agriculture permanently. Land was enclosed and became more managed, new crop rotations were introduced and animals began to be selectively bred for desirable characteristics such as wool length and carcass size.
A report published in 1770 was very critical of the state of agriculture in Northumberland and it took an influx of forward looking farmers from Durham and Scotland to begin the process of turning things around.
Foremost among these were the Culley brothers who came from County Durham to Fenton in the late 18th century and began making the land more productive by drainage, liming and the use of manure. These practices are accepted today but were revolutionary at that time. Meanwhile war, the industrial revolution and a rapidly growing urban population meant that meat and corn came into demand as never before.
At Fenton Matthew Culley and his sons developed the Cheviot and Border Leicester breeds of sheep – breeds that went all over the Globe with the British Empire.
On the arable side Sir James Caird started a five-crop rotation system growing oats, turnips and grain with two years of grass to feed and refresh the land – a system unique to Northumberland.
Other landowners, seeing how the Culleys - now of Coupland castle – prospered, soon followed. Tankerville, Grey, Northumberland, Delaval and Robson of Belford were all instrumental in adopting new methods and ideas.
The idea of “continuity on the land” became important. Farms were let on longer tenancies than before often passing from father to son and workers’ wages and living conditions gradually improved. The legacy of that is the number of rows, squares and steadings seen in the area today.
The advent of the railway to Glendale in the eighteen eighties brought about big changes. For the first time goods and animals could be moved faster than a man on horseback. This brought an end to droving but it did mean that farm produce could be transported further before final usage.
In the twentieth century demand continued to rise and domestic production could not keep pace with demand. This led to mechanisation on the farm and the establishment of a huge trade in live cattle from Ireland which only ceased in 1971 with Britain’s accession to the Common Market.
At that significant point Dr Roberts brought his narrative to a halt except to mention that modern agri-business can be a lonely and isolating occupation. Here once again it appears that the industry is looking to itself to rise to new challenges and circumstances.