Musings from the North Country

The Northumbrian Riviera


To the coast! And an abrupt change of mood as riverside North Shields turns 90 degrees north to seaside; business turns to pleasure, and production to consumption.

Just as the Victorians invented industrial life, and the discipline of the factory hooter and dockyard clock, so too did they conceive of leisure as a commodity that was consumed at certain times and in certain demarcated zones.  By 1911 Britain had over a hundred substantial seaside resorts, from the big boys Blackpool and Brighton to lower league Largs and Llandudno.  The Northumbrian Riviera fits somewhere in between these poles, more akin to the maritime resort suburbs of Penarth or Southsea; but like all of them it was a place of beaches, bathing and boarding houses – with a big slug of hedonism.


Here the eight miles of metal-bashing Tyneside – from Newcastle to the sea – transforms sharply into the ancestral coastal playground of the Northumbrian middle and working classes.  While the Tyne was clogged, grimy and hard work, this Geordie Shore was a Mecca of relaxation, amusement and lung-fulls of fresh air.  Consider the working class novelist Jack Common in Kiddar’s Luck, sallying forth eastwards – on foot – from industrial Heaton to the glories of the Riviera:

“from North Shields on the air was full of the sea glow, a salt radiance brightened all the long Tynemouth streets.  And at the end of them, the land fell off at the cliff-edge into a great shining nothingness immense all ways over the lazy crimping of seas on their level floor.”

But earlier visitors were also struck by its luminescence; Harriet Martineau, recuperating in Tynemouth in the 1830s, wrote of looking out across the Tyne estuary to where

“the myrtle-green sea tumbles… and the air comes in through my open upper sash, but sun-warmed. The robins twitter and hop in my flower-boxes… and at night, what a heaven! What an expanse of stars above, appearing more steadfast, the more the Northern Lights dart and quiver”

Charles Dickens too had walked to the coast from Newcastle on one of his frequent visits to the city

“We escaped to Tynemouth for a two hour sea walk. There was a high wind blowing and a magnificent sea running. Large vessels were being towed in and out over the stormy bar with prodigious waves breaking on it, and spanning the restless uproar of the waves was a quiet rainbow of transcendental beauty. The scene was quite wonderful.”

The tide may have gone out on this coastline as a holiday destination, but it still remains a distinctive place, with a seductive rhythm of beaches, cliffs and promenades, punctuated by some of the most iconic buildings in the Geordie imagination.


The coast was long a dreamland and a resting-place for some, but for others it was always an edgy, liminal quarter where drink was taken, trousers were unbuttoned (for various reasons) and steam was let off.  Respectability and debauchery were held in tension as True-Blue Tory Tynemouth – the constituency of Dame Irene Ward and Sir Neville Trotter – with its stockbrokers’ Tudor, Masonic lodges and gin-drinking golf clubs, chafed alongside the fleshpots, arcades and Wurlitzers of the Esplanade and Spanish City.

The saddest legacy of this uneasy occupation by genteel middle class tipplers and teenage revelers – sad for me anyway as a resident – is the complete absence of any really decent pubs In Tynemouth, Cullercoats or Whitley Bay.*  This is certainly in contrast to the solid, characterful boozers of North Shields, of which the Tynemouth Lodge is the final outpost, and it is here that we begin our tour.

LNER Railway Poster - Tynemouth1926

Tynemouth and Cullercoats

Northumberland Park, now magnificently restored, has long acted as a cordon sanitaire separating proletarian NE29 from patrician NE30.  Some estate agents market properties in Eastern North Shields as ‘West Tynemouth’, but the change in affluence as we stroll east along Tynemouth Road is obvious as we pass the Park.

Frank Hornby himself could not have conceived of a more perfect collection of toy railway stations than the coastal stops of Tynemouth, Cullercoats, Whitley Bay and Monkseaton; each one is a gem – but Tynemouth (1881) is the grandest.  A graceful exterior in polite Victorian gothic opens up to a vast platform covered by a full acre of glass roof and frilly ironwork.  This usually quiet station is thronged at weekends by visitors to the Flea Market that takes up the whole concourse – look out for the odd Third Reich Memorabilia stall and their sheepish political disclaimer (“we’re not Nazis!”) – but this is prime mooching territory, and the Book Fair is always worth saving for.

front street .jpg

Front Street, Tynemouth

It’s now worth darting back across the road, down Oxford Street then following the path above the Black Middens towards the ‘Spanish Battery’ for the stunning views over the river mouth (and the fascinating Cape Cod style clapboard Watch House of the world’s oldest Volunteer Life Brigade). When looking from the South, the drama of Lord Collingwood’s statue is an effective curtain raiser to the castle and priory on the headland behind. If the Statue of Liberty bears a message of welcome and humanist principle, Collingwood the sentinel – with its inscription from Nelson ‘see how that noble fellow takes his ship into action’ – says to the incomer ‘take note: we are a martial race’, and reminds its much press-ganged native sons of their traditional role when England needed men for fighting.

Tynemouth castle

Second World War gun emplacement, Tynemouth Castle.

As the Tyne (and the Wear) was the most important industrial and population centre on Britain’s east coast, it was always strongly defended (the castle was in continuous military use from the seventh century until 1945), so the current site is a palimpsest of monastic cloisters, medieval battlements and twentieth century military architecture.  Three Kings were buried on the Uluru-like magnesium slab of Pen Bal Crag: the Northumbrian warlords Oswin and Osred, and Malcolm III of Scotland (look out too for the gravestone of Alexander Rollo, the man who held the lantern at the burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna).

Forget the chocolate box of Dunstanburgh and Warkworth, it’s the ramparts of Tynemouth where the ‘Lordly Strand of Northumberland’ really begins.  This is a set-piece of serious voltage: tense, Wagnerian and easily on a par with Dover Castle, Montjuic in Barcelona or even Dubrovnic.  The gesticulating shell of the of the Priory must be one the most prominent ruins in the country, but for all that its skeleton retains a tremendous energy, the ruined barbican presents an unnecessarily snaggle-toothed face to the town (the ruins only date from the 1940s, when the army left and took down their barracks).  So never mind John Ruskin, this really does need the full Violet-le-Duc treatment.  Repair those crenellations!

As Ian Nairn put it, the broad high streets of Stockton and Darlington were a ‘great northern breath of fresh air’, and Tynemouth Front Street is similarly expansive: narrowing gradually from a tranquil green in front of the Kings School – with its fine bronze of the Queen Empress (five of the, by my count, eight female statues on Tyneside are of Victoria) – and up to the castle gates.

The domestic and commercial architecture here presents an embarrassment of riches: late Georgian red brick and Parisian wrought iron balconies (and in the Northumberland Terrace group overlooking the estuary a rival to Thomas Oliver’s masterpiece at Leazes Terrace), the exotic ogee arches of the Cumberland Arms, a jewellery-box of an RC chapel from the prolific Dunn and Hansom stable, and more besides. Yet the ‘offer’ is disappointing: pretentious hipster cafes charging £12 for a ‘artisan’ breakfast, jostle with distinctly arriviste bars like Lola Jeans and the unspeakably named Hugo’s At The Coast.


Keeping an eye out: Percy Gardens, Tynemouth

North East of Front Street we find the noble lawns of Percy Gardens, a lavish crescent of 1880 with a rippling drumroll of bay windows only broken by the sympathetically Brutalist (is that possible?) post-war bomb-site infill at Priory House.  Hidden furtively around the street’s northern corner is an extraordinary lookout tower, built by the Navy in WW1 but now strictly domestic, its slit window still peers shiftily over the roof-tops towards the Old Grey Widow Maker.

The sands of the Northumbrian littoral unfurl northwards from this point, overlooked first by the stout and matronly Grand Hotel (built as a summer residence for a Duchess of Northumberland, it was found to be too accessible to the Tyneside hoi-poloi for Her Grace’s taste). Longsands is the Bondi of the North East; its proportions, even its municipal street furniture are remarkably similar to the plage at Sydney, and the ‘surf’ seems to be ‘up’ here all year round.  There’s also the soggy shell of a 1930s open-air salt water pool, which hosted the impossible glamour of the ‘Miss Tyne Tees TV’ competition in 1971, but whose future still hangs in the balance

The Frenchified Grand finds a trim Art Deco foil in the Park Hotel (this could be Tyneside’s answer to the Midland Hotel in Morecambe, but it’s been depressingly shabby for years).  What’s missing here is the stupendous Tynemouth Plaza, tragically destroyed in a suspicious fire in the early 90s.  One of England’s great lost buildings, in detail and giganticism reminiscent of Cuthbert Brodrick’s Grand at Scarborough, or even Seaton Delaval six miles north. It was a huge and stately pleasure-dome whose terraces billowed down from the dunes onto the beach below; in Victorian photographs its cetacean bulk reminds me of nothing so much as the beached Star Destroyer in the opening frames of Star Wars VII.


Tynemouth Plaza, 1877-1996.

Indeed, dominion over earth and water was an important theme in Northumbrian history; we could dredge it, tunnel under it, launch things into it, mine it and bend it to our will.  (This is why while other Victorian worthies built art galleries, Newcastle’s city fathers, in a nod to the carboniferous capitalism that made their fortunes, coughed up for a natural history museum – decades before the Laing.) The natural drama of the sea edge here was and is heightened by the buildings on the shore, not least engineering feats like the 900m-long Pier itself, 50 odd years in the building, and the prodigious galleries, promenades and sea-defences from the Headland to South parade, a mantle of ‘concrete poetry’ as forbidding as Hitler’s own Atlantikwall.

Longsands is bookended by Tynemouth and Cullercoats, and the next great landmark on the coast is the emphatically vertical extrusion of St George’s (1884) whose stiletto-sharp steeple erupts from the Beaconfield above the beach. Pevsner admired its antiquarian exactitude, but thought it a little cold-blooded, and I agree: for all its imposing mass St George’s is academic and bloodless; and the expensively furnished interior seems to me sterile too (dare I say it rather like Anglo-Catholicism itself – the strand of Anglicanism to which St George’s belongs: undoubtedly well-meaning, but not very convincing).

St George

St George’s Church, Cullercoats (1884). Paid for by the Duke of Northumberland (as were St Saviour’s Tynemouth and St Paul’s Whitley Bay).

Promenading is taken as seriously on the Northumbrian Riviera as the Cote d’Azur, but this is no catwalk; whatever the weather you’ll find a great caravan of wind-cheatered Geordie pedestrians, not so much to ‘be seen’ as to participate in the sort of bracing communal act that the locals have always enjoyed. And what a backdrop! Beverley Terrace on the sea-front is a real blockbuster, lofty Edwardian villas of real bounce and vim; a Fishermen’s Lookout of 1879 shrouded by an a immense pitched roof like the shell of a nautilus, and the mysterious Cliff House (1768), a shuttered and white-washed evocation of Moonfleet and Jamaica Inn. (The only fly in the ointment is the Dove Marine Laboratory, a clumsy building of 1908, with an even clumsier 60s extension, that squats clammily on the sands ruining the view. With some imagination this could be a superb facility, but Newcastle University really need to pull their finger out here).

Cullercoats was an ‘artists’ colony’ for a while, the home of Winslow Homer amongst others; and whilst these painters did romanticize the hard and precarious lives of fishing villagers, they did commemorate the informal matriarchy that predominated in the North East while men were away at sea, working underground or in the pub.


Fishermen’s Lookout, Cullercoats, 1879.

Longsands and Cullercoats Bay have developed something of a Newquay vibe, with surf shops, bike hire places and slightly pretentious cafes – but, typically, no decent pub (apart from the Crescent CIU Club which isn’t bad). It’s worth descending the stairs to Brown’s Bay, north of the Marconi station, to read an extraordinary interpretation board, put up by the council to describe ‘Table Rocks’ tidal bathing pool:

“Formed in 1910 the Whitley and Monkseaton Bathing Club made good use of the pool.  They had a winkle motif adorning their red and black swimming costumes.  It is believed that later in the club’s history each member was given a gold-plated winkle shell and that the custom of ladies and gentlemen showing each their winkles came from this.”

Whitley Bay

The ying and yang of refinement and raffishness, primness and vulgarity recurs both within and between British seaside towns: think of neighbouring Lytham and Blackpool, Hove and Brighton, even Portstewart and Portrush. The dilapidation of downtown Whitley Bay is of a piece with this: its residential zones are rich and abundant – especially the Hampstead-like Marine Avenue and Queen’s Drive axis – but the area of boarding houses and happy-hour drinking joints off South Parade and the Esplanade is dismal, peeling and radiates the seamier side of kiss-me-quick seaside culture.


LNER brochure, 1912

The stag and hen parties may be long gone – I can vividly recall, in the 1990s, seeing a naked man being cling-filmed to the promenade clock at 3 in the afternoon, and Whitley Bay Bank holidays were always a grisly bacchanal of fighting and fornication – but being at ‘the end of the line’, with no shortage of casual work and cheap accommodation, attracts a certain demographic, and this gives the town centre a palpable edginess, even during the day. By the time I first started coming to the place as a child in the 1980s the sea-front in particular was a forlorn stretch of artless municipal flowerbeds, indifferent hotels (including the Rex, where a young Shirley Williams worked as a waitress), and obese, wheezing seagulls. Yet it had been a serious resort – “the Blackpool of the North East” – whose attractions were primped and packaged by great commercial artists like Fred Taylor and Tom Purvis for LNER, each one a masterpiece.

LNER poster from 1925 showing the Aletsa Ballroom, Rex Hotel and the Spanish City.

The architecture of Whitley (the ‘Bay’ was added in 1903 to stop it being confused with Whitby) presents a mixed bag: the churches in the town centre are generally boring (although St Paul’s has an exquisite lych-gate), the Free Jacobean town hall was sadly demolished, and the miles of commercial premises from Park View to Whitley Road speak of the town’s prosperity (they were obviously built in large stretches, on spec, to meet local demand).  What is most exciting are those buildings devoted to pleasure from the town’s Edwardian heyday, all, tellingly, in the neo-baroque style: the cheerful Station of 1910 with its swagged and garlanded clock tower and Paris Metro style canopy, the main destination for Tyneside day-trippers and vacationing Glaswegians; the ionically pilastered ‘Coliseum’ picture house (1919), and the Belvedere Building on the corner of Park Parade, a creamy brick confection whose elevations undulate like Boromini’s San Carlino.

Tyneside flats

Topsy Turvy Tyneside Flats: Victoria Terrace, Whitley Bay

This taste for voluptuous neo-baroque was partly an Edwardian reaction to the severity of Victorian Gothic, and, as Jonathan Meades has pointed out, ‘mammarian’ domes were neo-baroque’s signature tune.  When the famous Spanish City was built in 1910 – following the success of a visiting Toreador act from Hebburn – only St Paul’s Cathedral had a larger unsupported dome in Britain, and its silhouette is as distinctive as the Qubbat al-Sakhrah in Jerusalem. It was influenced by and contemporaneous with the development of Atlantic City in New Jersey, and both places specialized in the architecture of pleasure, of lubricity in place of temperance, of sybaritic escapism. Tynesiders had much to escape from; that they chose a ‘Spanish’ building that exudes the Moorish sensuality of El Andalus, or the dazzlingly white Mediterranean sunlight of a Sorolla painting – decades before the final victory of Torremolinos over the British seaside – speaks to a yearning romanticism in the Northumbrian soul, and stays with you (just as “Rock away, rock away; Cullercoats and Whitley Bay” obviously stayed with Mark Knopfler). This is why the Spanish City’s igloo-dome is the town’s cynosure, its visual shorthand, and I’m delighted that it’s finally, finally, being restored.

Spanish City

The Dome of Whitley Bay – with original ‘bacchanalian’ dancers.

Could there be wider signs of life? Better standards of restaurant are popping up, and the superb Di Meo’s is leading an ice-cream led regeneration programme of its own; South Parade has lost most of its sticky-carpet bars, including Pier 39 (a teenage haunt of mine, which, in what I can only read as a heavy-handed metaphor directed at me personally, is being turned into a care home); and Park View has sustained a pretty good range of interesting shops and cafes. Given that the local demographic is so similar to Gosforth, it’s weird that the place still doesn’t have a hipsterish real-ale pub on the lines of the Brandling Villa; someone could do well here.

From the Spanish City the 50s concrete promenade and close-clipped green baize of the links sweeps northwards towards St Mary’s Lighthouse, separating the coal-streaked Bay of Whitley from the somnolent Walmington-on-Sea streetscape of the town’s northern suburbs (look out for a fine example of Miami-style seaside moderne at the end of Links Road). The image of this Lighthouse has been massively over reproduced, but deservedly so as it’s a fine spectacle: a tapering white Tuscan column of 1898 (in design similar to Souter over the river, and its twin in Gibraltar) perching on a tidal island, and surrounded by a picturesque group of cottages, rockpools and the lapping waters of Tyne, Dogger and German Bight. On the northern horizon you can see the Cheviot Hills on the Scottish border, while to the South the sands of Whitley curve towards the Spanish City with the North Sea shimmering like the Bay of Naples. This is a place that arouses great affection.

SM Lighthouse

The northern edge of the town is actually delineated by Whitley Bay Cemetery, a chilly granite necropolis that seems to declare in stone that the party’s over. The chapel there has a very fine Arts and Crafts interior of 1913, with angels rendered in icing-sugar plasterwork wielding motivational quotes from scripture: ‘The Lord Giveth – The Lord Taketh’, ‘Watch For Ye Know Not The Hour’. This is a fitting change of mood, and a good introduction to the next leg of our journey up the coast to the burned over country of pitmatic South East Northumberland, a terrain of ‘Ranter’ chapels, industrial tragedy and that brooding, unsettling hulk of English baroque virtuosity: Sir John Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval Hall.

*The Rockcliffe Arms is just about all right, but in the absence of any competition it gets too crammed at weekends.



The Lads of Moor and Tyne

TWW1 roll 2

Today was the culmination of five year’s work as a new First World War memorial was unveiled in North Shields.  When, in 2011, my friend the irrepressible Alan Fidler had the idea to research the lives of the 1,700 men recorded in the Tynemouth Roll of Honour we could not have guessed how far our fledgling Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project would expand over the next five years.

TWW1 boards 2TWW1 boards

For many of us involved in the project, the men on the Roll have become obsessions, almost like family members: Wallace the schoolteacher, Garnett the Cambridge Blue, Fyfe who piped the Tyneside Scottish over the top on the First Day of the Somme (read their stories here). Our brilliant team of volunteer researchers has done so much to rescue these lives from oblivion, and it has been incredibly moving to see the response from the ‘folk of Shields’ – and how proud local people have been to have one of our blue plaques on their homes.

hart pic

This work – alongside an acclaimed stage production based on the life of a North Shields man shot at dawn, a popular series of talks and lectures, an award-winning BBC documentary, even a ‘Tyneside Tommy’ beer – has all helped to remind local people of the extraordinary losses suffered by their community in the Great War. Perhaps the most vivid, and moving, illustration of what that war did to Tynemouth was compiled by the brilliant Steve Young, another volunteer on the project, in the form of a map that is now displayed in shops and pubs and schools across North Tyneside.  It still takes my breath away. (Steve also produced this animated version, which I narrated.)

TWW1 map

The original First World War memorials for Tynemouth Borough were the extensions to the Jubilee Infirmary (now a North East Ambulance Service building) and the fine cenotaph on Hawkey’s Lane.  Our map was, therefore, the inspiration for the new memorial unveiled today in the presence of descendants of the men whose names it records by the streets from which they left and never returned.   So I was delighted to be asked to say a few words to mark the occasion, which I’ve reproduced here:

DJ at unveiling

County Borough of Tynemouth 1914-1918 Unveiling of the new war memorial

It is my great privilege on behalf of the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project to respond to Councillor Bell’s very fine speech.

Can I begin by paying tribute to all those who have made today possible – including all our volunteers for their magnificent research, to our sponsors and supporters, to the Linskill Centre and those who constructed this garden, to Her Majesty’s Deputy Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear for being here today, and, for their unstinting support for our project, to our local MP the Rt Hon Alan Campbell, and the Mayor of North Tyneside Mrs Norma Redfearn.

But, I am sure we will all agree that today is chiefly about honouring the men from this borough who left these streets to fight for king and country and never came home.

Now we know from our colleagues in the North East War Memorial Project that over 100,000 names are recorded on war memorials in Northumberland and Durham. Therefore Tynemouth’s losses, as staggering as they are, are in one sense typical of the huge sacrifices made by North East England in the Great War.

Yet, as our research has revealed these men were more than just numbers, more than just names listed on war memorials.

They were real people, with real families; families who loved them and grieved for them for decades.

They were soldiers and airmen, sailors and merchant seamen.

They were librarians and fishermen, coalminers and schoolteachers.

They were men from Tyneside flats above the docks in North Shields, and men from the grand houses of Tynemouth village.

They were privileged young men, like the two officer sons of Sir James Knott (James and Basil) who now lie buried side by side in a British cemetery in Ypres

But they were also ordinary working men, like the dockyard labourer Robert Hogg, a Northumberland Fusilier killed in 1916, whose officer wrote home to Robert’s wife after his death to say that

“He was loved here by every one of us and was surely the coolest and most cheery man in the trenches, always chatting cheerily to those whose nerves had given way under the strain. I was near him before he died and heard him say to someone, “Keep your heart up, lad, you’ll pull through this all right; what has to be will be.” Then he was hit. “I took hold of his hands and asked if he knew me but he only murmured, “My poor wife, my poor bairns.”

He left his wife Sarah and their six children in Chirton West View in North Shields.

This is the calibre of the men that Tynemouth lost, and lost in their hundreds on the Somme and at Passchendaele, at Gallipoli and Palestine, in the South Atlantic and in the North Sea.

But we shouldn’t forget that in the main they were volunteers, who went willingly; keen to do their bit and defend their country, and not let their marras down.

It was men like this from North East England, in the trenches, on the high seas, in the mines and in the shipyards and the factories that won the war for Britain in 1918.

Indeed, in that year of victory a North Shields printer republished these lines from Sir Henry Newbolt, first written to commemorate the role of Lord Collingwood and his fellow North Country sailors at Trafalgar a century earlier

When England sets her banner forth, and bids her armour shine

She’ll not forget the famous North, the lads of Moor and Tyne.

And when the loving cup’s in hand, and honour leads the cry,

She knows not old Northumberland will pass her memory by.

We’re proud to say that even after 100 years our community has not passed the memory of these men by, and, on behalf of the TWW1 project, I’d like to express our gratitude to you all for being here today to be part of this generation’s tribute to the men of Tynemouth who fell in the Great War.


Aristocrats of Labour

Aladdin's Cave

“The working man belonging to the upper-class of his order is a member of the aristocracy of the working-classes. He is a man of some culture, is well read in politics and social history. His self respect is also well developed.”

George Potter, 1870

“To have saved thy life, I would have parted with

My lands for years three,

For a better man of heart, or of hand,

Was not in the north country”

The Ballad of Chevy Chase, 14th century

It’s now a year since my grandfather died. Ken Lawton had been a coalminer for 38 years, and on Christmas Eve 2013 I watched that burly and battered body of his, blue-veined and strong right until the end, finally succumb to multiple illness and plain exhaustion. We were very close, and after my own grief passed I’ve spent time brooding on what his death meant to me and, to an extent, why I think it signifies a watershed in the history of the North East of England.

For this past year also saw the passing of Norman Cornish, that supremely gifted pitman artist who recorded the culture of the Northern Coalfield and represented, with my grandfather (who was also an artist) the noble tradition of the working class autodidact, schooled in that ‘underground university‘ that saw the coal miner as the elite vanguard of the working class.


Norman Cornish at a display of his work

And the pitmen of the Northumberland and Durham did think of themselves as the aristocrats of the working class, and took enormous pride in their skill and stamina. That was certainly true of my grandfather, and he was great on the romance of it all. The newspaper report above appeared on the front of the Coal News in 1966 when he and his marra Tommy Rutherford discovered a quartz-lined cavern “the size of a cathedral’ near Blyth, and he loved nothing better than baffling us with impenetrable talk of “windy-picks”, the “bull’s heed’ and “driving the caunch”. (Watch Richard Burton here on his father’s pitman swagger and passionate love for the ‘Great Atlantic Fault’ coal seam.)

New Hartley Pit Disaster Medal, 1862.

New Hartley Pit Disaster Medal, 1862.

To be sure, many people were terrified by working ‘doon the pit’, but not him; he loved every single moment, relishing the physicality, comradeship and even the dangerous thrill of mining for coal while the North Sea creaked and groaned above your head. Between 1850 and 1950, 85,000 British coal miners were killed at work (there were pits in the North East nicknamed the Slaughterhouse and the Butcher’s Shop), and Ken – who started work at New Hartley Colliery, where, in 1862, 204 men and boys had been killed – was badly mangled several times, saw men die underground and was present when his best pal lost an arm. Indeed, it only struck me after he’d died that his usual words on parting – ‘watch what your deeing’, or ‘keep a howld’, grew from the fear of loss as described by the pitman poet Joseph Skipsey:

“GET UP!” the caller calls, “Get up!”

And in the dead of night,

To win the bairns their bite and sup,

I rise a weary wight.

My flannel sudden donn’d thrice o’er

My birds are kiss’d, and then

I with a whistle shut the door

I may not ope’ again.

Over the centuries a Geordie work ethic crystallised into a code of honour that still has some cultural purchase in the only English region with a positive balance of trade. A Stakhanovite cult of hard work certainly prevailed among Ken and his pit marras, but for men like him who did ‘piece work’ it had a practical benefit too: as higher productivity meant higher pay – summed up nicely by this hymn to the output of the toiling Durham collier ‘Ee aye, aa cud hew’. Hard work was reinforced by the unique ‘cavil’ system that held sway in the North East (a sort of lottery that meant each squad of miners had a fair chance of a turn at the most profitable seams). This was a great motivating factor, and any perceived slacking was dealt with harshly, in-house, without recourse to any HR department. Eric Hobsbawm described how workmen like him emerged in the 1850s and acted as the ‘agents of capital’ in supervising, ‘pace-setting’ and disciplining the rest of the workforce. This meant refuelling was taken seriously, and Ken was famed for his prodigious appetite for his ‘bait’ and talent for imbibing lagoons of Federation Special – ‘the pitman’s pint’.

The concept of the ‘Labour Aristocracy’ gained a bad name in Marxist circles, where miners in particular were seen as ‘Liberalism’s fifth column’. Lenin himself, upon studying the British working class, criticized the ‘the petty bourgeois craft spirit which prevails among this aristocracy of labour’ and their ‘insular, aristocratic, and philistine’ trades unions. But on that last point at least Lenin was wrong, these were the least philistine proletarians in the world. For all the hard-drinking tough-guy stereotype of the Geordie workingman, what has made this workforce so appealing to me was their strong intellectual tradition.

To start with coalmining was not just about brute force: being a pitman was a highly skilled job, and alongside the region’s great innovators such as Stephenson, Armstrong, and Parsons, there were legions of brilliant mining engineers and ordinary pitmen who had to understand maths, physics and chemistry to be able to do their job. They may have been patronised by W. H. Auden as ‘lurcher loving colliers, black as night’ but their keen practical intelligence made for curious minds, and the autodidact from a humble background is a common trope in Northumbrian history, beginning, perhaps, with Caedmon, and takes in the brilliant engraver Thomas Bewick, the radical Thomas Spence, Britain’s first working class MP, the Tyneside pitman Thomas Burt and the working class novelist Sid Chaplin. ellington The archetype here is the Durham miner Jack Lawson, who ended his career in the House of Lords (via Ruskin College) after serving as Attlee’s Secretary of War. Lawson’s marvelous autobiography ‘A Man’s Life’ describes how, from his early teens, this ordinary pitman from Boldon Colliery immersed himself in great literature and philosophy. In wonderful lucid prose Lawson paints magical vignettes of pitmen discussing the finer points of Nietzsche and Thomas a Kempis at the coalface, or Lawson himself reading Milton to his new wife in their pit cottage. For Lawson, book-learning and exposure to the best of art and culture was a simple matter of justice

I had actually arrived at the conclusion that if there were any good life, and freedom from insecurity, and beauty and knowledge, or leisure, then the men who did the world’s dirty, sweaty, toilsome, risky work, and the women who shared the life with them, ought to be the first entitled to these things … I held that no man needs knowledge more than he who is subject to those who have. That if there is one man in the world who needs knowledge, it is he who does the world’s most needful work.

Note where the coal was: British coalfields at the turn of the century

Note where the coal was: British coalfields at the turn of the century

The self-improving workingman steeped in Samuel Smiles was a commonplace in Victorian Britain, and this culture found unusually fertile ground in the Great Northern Coalfield. The North East has been a seat of learning since Bede wrote the first history of England at Jarrow, and into the early modern period literacy levels in the region were the highest in England, and Newcastle was second only to London as a centre for printing and journalism. The growth of Methodism helped to cascade this tradition of Northern literacy to the new industrial working class, and Methodist Chapels and Workingmen’s Institutes came to fulfil the same role as Yeshivas did for the Jews of Eastern Europe (nor should we forget the remarkable degree of religious literacy among the Irish Catholic working classes in Britain in the era of the ‘penny catechism’). In the winter of 1883, over 1,000 miners lost wages and paid fines for missed shifts to attend workers’ lectures in Newcastle on science, history and political economy, and the North East became an early hotbed of the Workers Education movement where ‘the only qualification was an enquiring mind’.


Newcastle Public Library Reading Room, 1910

The light-from-darkness possibilities of all this has provided a rich seam for dramatists. Starting with Michael Redgrave attempting a Tyneside accent in The Stars Look Down (1940), Alan Plater and Alex Glasgow’s Close the Coalhouse Door (1968) and Lee Hall’s modern classics, Billy Elliot (which no Geordie can watch with dry eyes), and the peerless Pitmen Painters, those Ashington miners represented what was probably the high-water mark of the North East working class’s culture of self-improvement and intellectual curiosity. That workingmen should have an intellectual hinterland was as surprising to modern theatregoers, as it was to baffled art professors and mass observers in the 1930s. One review I read criticized Hall for ‘dabbing the otherwise solidly working-class vocabularies of his characters with randomly refined verbs and adjectives’, thinking it unlikely that miners would use a word like ‘gallivanting’. But my own grandparents speech was exactly like this: unalloyed ‘pitmatic’ Geordie, with frequent Dickensian flourishes, like gallivanting (a word they used all the time for some reason) and their everyday conversation was littered with words like vexed, reconnoitre, transpire, decidedly and (my grandmother’s favourite) impertinent.

But again we should not forget the deep roots of Geordie literacy: there had always been a highly developed oral culture in the North East, where chapbooks, printed songs and broadsides sold in spades, and where the ‘the crack’ (whose Hibernicisation into ‘the craic’ is a modern development) was vital and good talkers were celebrated – think of Bobby Thompson’s witty monologues, Viz comic’s surprisingly erudite toilet humour, or how Sid Waddell, the Ashington miner’s son who went to Cambridge, peppered his unsurpassed darts patter with surreal classical illusions “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer … Bristow’s only 27!”

A prominent leitmotif in dramas like these is another trait of the North East, namely unashamed toughness softened by a certain sentimentality: think of Billy Elliot’s macho father weeping at the picket line, the little girl sat on an Armstrong gun barrel in Iron and Coal, Ralph Hedley’s ‘Geordie Ha’ad the Bairn’, or the touching farewell scene in the midst of grim-visaged Northumberland Fusiliers marching to war in The Response.

(c) Laing Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Geordie Ha’ad the Bairn, by Ralph Hedley

Indeed, writing of the Border Reivers, the historian G. M. Trevelyan noted that

like the Homeric Greeks, they were cruel, coarse savages, slaying each other as the beasts of the forest; yet they were also poets who could express in the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and woman, and infinite pity for all the cruel things which they none the less perpetually inflicted upon one another.

It was useful for Britain that men of the same stock were available to inflict cruel things on the Nazis centuries later, and it’s no coincidence that the famous 50th Northumbrian Division were the last British unit off the beach at Dunkirk, and the first to land at Normandy four years later (note well how these films from 1944 and 1945 play up the sentimental in their tribute to the region’s hard working and hard fighting men). An Anglo-Scottish friend of mine from Barrow is less impressed by all this and likes to mock ‘lachrymose Geordies’, greeting at the slightest provocation and it should come as no surprise that Gresford, the weepy ‘miners hymn’, although written for a Welsh mining disaster, was composed by a Tyneside pitman.)


What did all these cultural strains mean for North East politics? Broadly speaking in the post-war period the ‘Old Labour Right’ prevailed. The unions were instinctively conservative, with a narrow focus on their own hard-won rights and privileges. Membership of the European Coal and Steel community was rejected, in Herbert Morrison’s memorable words, because the “the Durham miners won’t wear it.” With nationalisation of their industry in 1947 many miners thought that the grim industrial battles of the last 100 years had been won. And who could blame them? When Harold McMillan claimed that working people had never had it so good, this Butskellite ‘politics of contentment’ was echoed by men like the powerful Durham Miners Leader Sam Watson (allegedly at the instruction of his CIA handlers), and stalwarts of the Labour right like Newcastle MP like Ted Short (who taught my grandfather in Blyth in the 30s), who ‘ran the Parliamentary Labour Party like the Durham Light Infantry’. Slide1 And real progress had been made. Some older pit communities had been declared as bleak as Belsen itself, but the miners’ satisfaction at this new world of the National Coal Board, NHS and well-built council housing was well summed up by the pit banner of Ellington Colliery (designed by Oliver Kilbourn of the Ashington group) ‘Close the Door on Past Dreariness. Open up to Future Brightness’. Indeed, the Northumberland Coalfield that my mother grew up in in the 1950s and 1960s came as close to Nye Bevan’s ideal of working class ‘serenity’ as any other time in its history. Life was good, communities were incredibly strong (even claustrophobically so), enforcing codes of decency and industriousness, and reached standards of living that Tommy Hepburn could only have dreamed of. By the early 70s, when the miners helped Ted Heath to answer his question ‘who governs?’, NUM leader Joe Gormley was arguing that miners should have “a Jag at the front of the house, good schools for the kids and a mini for the wife to go shopping”, and a contemporary Coal Board ad paints an impossibly glamorous picture of pitmen as well-heeled lounge-lizards.

NCB But was it sustainable? Leaving aside the economics of nationalized coal production, there were other pressures on traditional community structures. Geordie miners traditionally saw their role as chief breadwinner, bringing home enough money so that their wives did not have to take on paid work. This was, ostensibly at least, a man’s world where the only concession to femininity was the names of the mines themselves (in my own village there was a Gloria and Hester pit, and we used to pay football against Isabella Colliery). Men were even fed first (as they needed the calories) while the women hung back, a tradition maintained by my grandmother right up until the 2000s. However the archetypal strong woman was also celebrated in North East culture – from Cushie Butterfield and Grace Darling to Winslow Homer’s brawny Cullercoats fishwives – and in places like South Shields where men were either underground, away at sea or in the pub, women really did rule the community.  Yet the truth was that this world of full employment lit by a flame of workingmen’s self improvement was already dying as early as the 1960s, caught by a pincer movement of laissez-faire social and economic liberalism so brilliantly analysed by the late Norman Dennis.


Saturday Night by Oliver Kilbourn

I am just old enough to have witnessed the glowing embers of this culture – of old men in dark suits straight out of a Norman Cornish painting at the bar of Seaton Terrace Club, of well kept council estates and allotment gardens, and women in headscarves going to the ‘hoosy’ (bingo hall). But what a privilege it was to be born into that world and be brought up by loving parents and grandparents who valued hard work and education for its own sake.

Nineteenth century balladeers may have sung that ‘Delaval is a terrible place [where] they rub wet clay in the blackleg’s face’, but growing up in the area and spending time with my grandparents on the Seaton Delaval ‘coonsul estate’ where they lived, childhood was pretty idyllic. We were possibly the last generation to ‘play out’ unsupervised, roaming our burned out corner of the Northumberland coast, a Kes-like landscape of open fields studded with pigeon crees and rusting lumps of Victorian machinery, and only returning home panting and hacky when our tea was ready. Breathing in the coal smoke at Beamish still sends me into a Proustian reverie and some of my happiest memories recall time spent with my grandparents – listening to Ken cheerfully singing show-tunes in the kitchenette at 4 Coronation Road, or watching him toiling away in his allotment (which he treated like a full time job after leaving the pit – partly at my grandmother’s insistence to get him ‘oot the hoose’).

Pitmen in Drag, Seaton Delaval Gala, 1959.

Pitmen in Drag, Seaton Delaval Gala, 1959.

It’s from Ken that I learned about the immense worth and dignity of the ordinary working-man and woman. For my grandfather this was reflected in everything, from his politics – and the respect and fellow feeling he often talked about for working people all over the world – to him always wearing a collar and tie wherever he went.  My grandfather may have worked with his hands but this was a man with a deep intellectual hinterland. Omnivorous in his interests from Egyptology to American Westerns (he was great to watch films with), and a ferocious reader always devouring books on history and politics. He was a devoted family man first and foremost, but he was also a tremendous singer, a highly skilled craftsman, a champion leek-grower and allotment gardener, an amateur poet, and an accomplished, self-taught artist.

My Plot, by Ken Lawton

My Plot, by Ken Lawton

It was his appetite for knowledge that partly explains another of his characteristics: for he was a man of real principle. A proud Labour man (my mates called him ‘Red Ken’) a rock-solid Trade-Unionist, who always stood his ground on unfashionable causes. He refused to accept pension credits as he thought his income from the state and Coal Board was “quite sufficient”, and he even turned down the chance to buy his council house when he had the chance – because, as he said to me at the time, “another family could use that home when I’m gone”.

Bill Brandt, 'Coal Miner at his Evening Meal', Northumberland, 1937

Bill Brandt, ‘Coal Miner at his Evening Meal’, Northumberland, 1937

I learned so much from him: from his half-joking advice to “never work shifts, and never put the same numbers on the football pools” to more fundamental values like working hard, looking after your family and never, ever, letting other people tell you what to think. But perhaps what made the biggest impression on me was his fierce anti-racism. Despite the prevailing Labour politics in the region this was still unusual amongst people of his generation, and he would always, always, confront bigotry (to the extent of getting into scraps with racist loudmouths). In fact, in the early 70s his nephew married a black nurse from the Caribbean and this being the era of ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ she’d had a hard time. I met her for the first time at Ken’s funeral and to see how upset she was when recalling how kind and welcoming he’d been back then was an incredibly poignant moment for me.


Now Geordies can be as be as tediously chauvinist as the most boring Yorkshireman, but as Harry Pearson put it recently, Newcastle’s ‘atmosphere of almost pathological friendliness and good humour’ stems from ‘one simple thing: all Geordies believe themselves blessed to have been born here.’ I certainly feel that and for all the region’s enduring strengths, I do grieve for the loss of that working class culture, for the pitmatic dialect, for workingmen’s clubs that aspired to more than just selling beer, and for men like my grandfather Ken Lawton.

Ken Lawton, 1924-2013

Auld Acquaintances


No other part of Britain has more in common with Scotland, or more invested in the Scottish referendum result, than the North East of England. As London becomes ever more disconnected from the rest of the country it’s maybe not surprising that some in the capital think that England is indifferent to the independence referendum. But there are plenty of people living ‘North of Hadrian’s Wall’ – i.e. in Newcastle and Northumberland (the wall runs underneath the castle above the quayside) – and the wider North East who care passionately about the future of Scotland.

We may have fought each other for about 700 years but I’ve always detected a mutual respect between the Scots and the Geordies. I recall in particular being in Bridge of Allan when, during some good natured England v Scotland football banter, a local man interjected with “no he’s a Geordie, they’re alright”.

And we do share so much, from our patterns of speech – bairns, lassies, doon the Toon – and a shared culture built on heavy industry (and heavy drinking) sardonic humour and Labour-ish politics, to a reputation for aggression – nemo nos impune lacessit – tempered with a certain warmth and conviviality. We even have the same number of UKIP MEPs.


Some of this is well known, even the stuff of caricature, and although there are some differences between us, we share so many enduring industrial, intellectual and even martial traditions that to speak of ‘North Britain’ doesn’t seem too fanciful.

I’ve got nothing against English identity per se but Englishness makes me think of Guy Ritchie films or John Majorish images of warm beer and Morris dancing (Geordie folk dance is much better), whereas my British identity is based as much on how alien Southern England can feel compared to Scotland, as well as an understanding of my own family’s story.

One of my prized possessions is a photo of a handsome young corporal in the Gordon Highlanders. Hugh Dillon was my grandmother’s cousin, killed at Loos in September 1915. Hugh’s forebears originally came from the West of Ireland, settling first in Lanarkshire and then Dundee, while some of his siblings then migrated south to the Northumberland coalfield (we still have relatives in Carfin). It’s always fascinated me how much working class families would move around back then and its legacy was not the Britishness of Empire and Rule Britannia, but an identity based on familial bonds and shared experience.

hugh dillon

Coming from Northumberland Scottish things have been a constant in my life, nurtured first by parents who bought me The Broons and Oor Wullie annuals at Christmas (the Sunday Post is still taken in the North East), and tittered along to Rab C. Nesbitt, Naked Video and, latterly, the peerless Still Game. My father’s best pals were his Glaswegian workmates who’d relocated to Newcastle from IBM’s plant at Greenock, and I can vividly remember the boisterousness of ‘Glasgow Shipyard Fortnight’ when holidaying Scots would migrate en masse to Whitley Bay just down the coast from where we lived.

As kids we drank Barr’s pop and ate Scotch pies, Tunnock’s teacakes, and ‘Cowan’s Highland Toffee’.  We took character-building family holidays in places like Pittenweem and Rosemarkie, not to mention regular trips to the Edinburgh Tattoo. The first beer I ever bought was a pint of McEwan’s Best Scotch, my first flat was round the corner from St Andrew’s Kirk in Newcastle (by the old Deuchars Brewery on Sandyford Road), and my first boss at Fenwick’s was a taciturn ex Royal Marine from Govan (callow 18 year old me: “Have you read ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray?”, “No I havenae, now g’wan and empty the bailer”). I even honeymooned in Stornoway (I know how to impress a woman).


One of my oldest friends is the son of a Blyth-born piper in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers – who’d ‘danced across Europe for Queen and Country’, and even introduced ‘Keep Your Feet Still Geordie Hinny’ to the repertoire of the KOSB band. In fact, the conventionality of military service is one of the most fundamental things that Scotland and the North East have in common.   The seven centuries of warfare between England and Scotland is perhaps the world’s longest border war, and the castles of Northumberland and the walls of Newcastle were the scene of great events in our shared history – from the burial of King Malcolm III at Tynemouth in 1093 to the Scottish invasion of the town in 1640. (Thanks to William Wallace there are no medieval church steeples or domestic buildings left in Northumberland, and Newcastle was glad to receive 25 per cent of him after his execution.)

Following the Hanoverian peace, the toughness of border life was merely recast into a sort of industrial warfare in the nineteenth century, where the dangers of heavy industry placed great emphasis on strength, resilience and solidarity and formed the sort of the ultra-macho Geordie culture lampooned so well by the Viz and others.

Scots military prowess is well known of course, but Northumbrian feats of arms from Flodden to Trafalgar were also a big part of the North East’s identity.  This martial culture arguably reached its climax between 1914 and 1918 when North East England raised a record-breaking 98 battalions of Northumberland Fusiliers and Durham Light Infantry – two of the hardest fighting regiments in the history of the British Army.   According to the North East War Memorials Project there are 101,000 names recorded on memorials between Berwick and Redcar, and the losses in units like the Tyneside Scottish Brigade suggest an even greater level of sacrifice than the oft-cited (though contested) figures for Scotland.


In the Second World War Monty depended on his battle-hardened ‘Northern Legions’ (the 50th Northumbrian and 15th Scottish Divisions, often working in concert) as the shock troops of the British Army. Such service in the ranks remained typical after the war, and one of the early legends of the SAS recalled that life in the regiment in the 1960s was dominated by “Geordies, Jocks and Scousers’.

The raising of the Tyneside Scottish had shown the appeal of ‘military Scottishness’. (They even had their own authentic tartan to wear: the Shepherd’s or ‘Northumberland Plaid’ reputedly the oldest tartan in these isles.) As their official history described, this resonated in North East England even for those with no Scots blood, and built upon centuries of migration to Tyneside.

“The renown of Scottish fighting men, and the picturesqueness of Scottish garb and customs, rather than a desire to pose as genuine Highlanders, was the stimulus among the independent Tynesiders. They were as proud of being headed by pipes and drums and entitled Scottish as they were proud of being of the Northumberland Fusiliers – the celebrated Fighting Fifth – and being of a division composed of Tynesiders.”

In fact, the Union formally united two parts of this island for whom the Anglo-Scottish border had always been highly permeable and merely reflected fluctuating dynastic politics rather than any significant differences in culture. Edinburgh is named for a King of Northumbria after all, and Rory Stewart’s thoughtful Borderlands series demonstrated very effectively the shared heritage of the land between the firths of Solway, Forth and Tyne. Consider the famous ‘reivers’ for whom the border meant very little – being, as they were ‘Scottish when they will and English at their pleasure’. We shouldn’t forget too that the ‘Scotch-Irish’ in America actually included the ‘Border English’ too, for these same bellicose families had been transplanted from the borderlands first to Ulster to ‘pacify’ the Irish, and then deliberately settled in the dangerous back-country of Appalachia to fight the native Americans.


In Linda Colley’s seminal Britons she records how the poor in the North East consumed oatmeal like the Scots and had the same ‘raw high-boned faces and thin angular physiques’. Indeed, ‘to pass from the borders of Scotland into Northumberland’, a Scottish clergyman wrote at the end of the eighteenth century, ‘was rather like going into another parish than into another kingdom’, an observation that John Buchan would note a century later as he passed into England from his beloved Tweeddale.

This was true even before the Scots diaspora reached Industrial Tyneside. By the early 1500s there were hundred of Scots living in Newcastle, including John Knox who was appointed a preacher at St Nicholas’s Church in 1550. Many of the coal miners recorded on Tyneside in 1637 came from Scotland, and of the keelmen working on the Tyne in 1740 a majority came from ‘Fife, Stirling and Lothian’.  By the time of the ’45 so many Scots had made Tyneside their home that the native Northumbrians differentiated what they saw as ‘the savage highlanders’ from the more civilised lowland Scots, with whom they shared a loyalty to ‘King Geordie’ and the Protestant succession (although it should be remembered that significant funds were raised on Tyneside for the relief of the Highland famine in the 1840s).


A second wave of Scots migration to Tyneside shipyards and coalmines helped to establish what some have called a ‘North British Industrial Zone’ that linked places like Newcastle, Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast as well as outliers like Barrow-in-Furness. North East England and West Central Scotland were the only places in the world with large scale engineering, shipbuilding and coalmining all in the same place, a nexus so critical to the technological developments essential to capitalism and the wealth of Britain: Scotland gave us the steam engine, the pneumatic tyre and the telephone, whilst North East England gave us the railway, the turbine and the lightbulb (oh yes).

Some of Tyneside’s greatest industrialists had strong Scottish connections: George Stephenson had worked in Scottish collieries as well as those on his native Tyneside (his statue in Newcastle depicts him in quasi-Scottish dress), and Sir William Armstrong’s business partners were the Scotsmen Charles Mitchell and Andrew Noble. Newcastle’s art gallery was bequeathed by the Scottish distiller, Andrew Laing, the Jesmond home of the shipbroker Sir Arthur Sutherland is now Newcastle’s Mansion House, and the famous South Shields-based waxed jacket business was established by a Scotsman, John Barbour.

Scots played a huge part in Tyneside’s maritime trades: hundreds of Shetlanders settled in South Shields, many of the Scots ‘fisher lassies’ who followed the trawler fleet down the East Coast made their home in North Shields, and so many Scotsmen came to work at Andrew’s Leslie’s shipyard that Hebburn became known as ‘Little Aberdeen’.

Thousands of families, including mine, crisscrossed the Anglo-Scottish border in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – and figures like Arthur Henderson, Manny Shinwell and latterly James Herriott and Mark Knopfler spent their early lives swapping Tyne and Wear for the Clyde (and vice versa). You see this in the career of the theatrical impresario Arthur Jefferson who owned theatres across ‘North Britain’ but principally on the Tyne and the Clyde. It is significant that his son, Stan Laurel (who always considered himself a Tynesider), actually made his first professional appearance in his father’s theatre in Glasgow.


This movement of people and ideas from Scotland heavily influenced North Eastern taste and culture, in everything from architecture and football to religion and political thought. Presbyterianism was particularly strong in Northumberland and key figures in Scottish religious history like the secessionist Ebenezer Erskine, and Robert Morrison, the first protestant missionary to China, were actually from Northumberland. As was Thomas Bewick‘s mentor the Revd James Murray, who arrived in Newcastle in 1764, preaching fiery sermons on the equality of man ‘in a loud manner with a Scottish accent’.

The Scottish Enlightenment found an important echo in Northumberland, where as in Scotland, over a third of adults were able to read in the 1700s (much higher than other parts of England) and Newcastle alone in that period had no fewer than 36 private academies – as well as the Royal Grammar School and the charity schools – and was, after London, the chief urban printing centre of England.  This was a milieu in which women found unusual opportunities for self-expression too. One thinks of the first English feminists Mary Astell and Elizabeth Elstob, both from Newcastle, but also Catharine Cockburn (the wife of a Scots clergyman in Northumberland) who published work defending John Locke’s philosophy in 1702 and corresponded with Leibnitz and Congreve, right up to Pauline Trevelyan writing reviews for the Edinburgh Review and The Scotsman from Wallington Hall.

With typical Southern condescension Dr Johnson said that Scotsmen came to Newcastle to be ‘polished by colliers’, but, tellingly, books and newspapers from Scottish printing presses were read avidly in Northumberland and subjects like ‘Scottish political economy’ were regularly debated by members of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society – still the largest private library outside London.

The ‘Lit & Phil’ was established in 1793 – over fifty years before the London Library – and was, until England finally got a third university at Durham in 1834, the embodiment of a ‘Northumbrian enlightenment’ which so shaped the region’s political outlook. Take the great Aberdeen-born historian of Newcastle, Eneas MacKenzie, a notable early member, who presided over the town’s protests against the Peterloo massacre in 1819, before becoming one of the leading Chartists in a region where political reform was a popular cause.  Or the great historian and compiler of Northumbrian Minstrelsy John Collingwood Bruce (a Glasgow University alumnus) who led pilgrimages to the Roman Wall for Northumbrians rediscovering their border identity in the nineteenth century.


It became common too for the gentry and bourgeoisie of the North East to send their sons to Edinburgh University, and its alumni included noted Northumbrians like the poet and royal physician Mark Akenside, the mathematician George Walker, the industrialists Robert Stephenson and Sir Lowthian Bell, and the Northumberland shepherd boy Thomas Kirkup whose ‘History of Socialism’ was such a influence on Mao Tse Tung. (Edinburgh returned the favour through Burke and Hare who robbed graves on Tyneside as they did in Auld Reekie). The Newcastle Radical MP Joseph Cowen was another Edinburgh alumnus and his popular brand of liberalism made Tyneside, like Scotland, a bastion of high-minded Gladstonianism – which verged on republicanism to such a degree that Queen Victoria would reputedly close the blinds on the Royal Train as it passed through Newcastle on the way to Balmoral.

These movements would lay the intellectual foundations for the Liberal, and then Labour hegemony in the North East (the first part of Britain to send a working class man to Parliament) and partly explains why revolutionary figures have been so attracted to Tyneside – from Jean-Paul Marat (who lived in Newcastle for five years before leaving to study for an MD at St Andrews), to Garibaldi, Kossuth, Frederick Douglass and even Martin Luther King.)grey

Scottish and Northumbrian tastes overlapped in several other fields too. While Victorian England went crazy for the neo-Gothic, classicism was the prevailing architectural form in nineteenth century Tyneside just as it was in Scotland, and the great John Dobson was heavily influenced by the elegant terraces of Glasgow and Edinburgh (and Dobson himself designed the Glasgow Customs House).

What is more, just as the majority of the Scots working classes lived in tenements, by 1914 the North East was unique in England for the numbers of people living in flats, specifically ‘Tyneside flats’ (45 per cent compared to 3 per cent nationally). But the influence had historically worked both ways. Much of Georgian Edinburgh is built from Northumberland sandstone, but even earlier than that the architects who built Durham Cathedral – ‘half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot’ (in the words of Sir Walter Scott) – were taken to Scotland by King David II to build Dunfermline Abbey, and the quintessentially Scottish ‘crown steeple’ of places like St Giles’s Cathedral or Glasgow cross, was actually copied from the ‘strange airborne tabernacle’ (cf Ian Nairn) of St Nicholas’s Cathedral in Newcastle.


An enthusiasm for the bevvy unites us too, and our drinking patterns have always been very similar. Whisky was drunk (and illegally distilled) in great quantities in the North East. Newcastle claims to be the first town in England to have brewed ale, but Scottish beer like Youngers, Deuchars and McEwans were always staples of Tyneside pubs. Indeed the tartan carpets of Scottish & Newcastle Hotels were a good illustration of this shared culture – as were the huge numbers of pubs in the North East named for Scotland’s military hero Colin Campbell – aka ‘Lord Clyde’ (although it was wise to know your blood group before going in ‘The Sir Colin Campbell’ in North Shields).


Pioneering Scottish footballers were at the forefront of the game’s development in the North East, beginning with famous Victorian amateur teams like Hebburn Argyle and Shankhouse Black Watch, to the professionals who made Newcastle United and Sunderland so successful at the turn of the century. My father’s two favourite footballers were Newcastle’s Scottish hardmen Jimmy Scoular and John McNamee, but there’s a litany of great Scots who’ve graced St James’ Park and Roker, including Hughie Gallagher, Bobby Mitchell and Ronnie Simpson for the Magpies, and ‘Slim Jim’ Baxter, Bobby Kerr and Ian Porterfield for the Mackems. There were so many Scots footballers in the North East that between 1925 and 1928 the Robert Burns Memorial Trophy match took place annually at St James’ Park between teams of ‘Home Scots’ and ‘Anglo Scots.’ Lest we forget too that the last Scotsman to score at the old Wembley (in a handy 1-0 win) was a Geordie born in Gateshead.


Another shared tradition was music and poetry. From the Ballad of Chevy Chase to the Blaydon Races, the North East is one of the few parts of England with a strong indigenous folk tradition, albeit one heavily influenced by Scotland. Northumberland has its own distinctive bagpipe of course, but cross border musical collaborations take in the Eurythmics, Franz Ferdinand and even ACDC. However the most intriguing Scots-Geordie collaboration may well be the most celebrated Scottish song of all time.

Newcastle was one of the very few places outside Scotland that Robert Burns ever visited (his brother lived in the town) and he was amused to be told when he arrived in 1787 that Northumbrians ‘eat the beef before we sup the broth, lest the hungry Scotch make an inroad and snatch it’. He became a very popular figure on Tyneside with the first Burns Supper held in Newcastle in 1808. Burns Clubs proliferated across the North East from as early as 1816 and the only statue of Burns in Northern England was unveiled in 1901 in Walker Park, Newcastle, bearing these lines of Scotland’s national bard:


Auld Lang Syne has a similar message of brotherhood, but the melody may well have been borrowed from an opera written by a Gateshead composer William Shield. There seems to be enough evidence to suggest that Burns and Shield had borrowed the tune from a much older song, and Burns himself stated that he ‘took it down from an old man’s singing’. Given that Burns wrote the words in 1788 could he have heard that old man on his visit to Newcastle the previous year? It’s a beguiling thought, and entirely possible given the shared culture of Scotland and North East England.


But even if we do have a shared history the Scottish Referendum is about the future. I’m sure that the warmth of Scots-Geordie relations will endure whatever happens, but it is notable how debates about independence or further devolution for Scotland are stirring similar debates within England. It was interesting to hear the leader of Glasgow City Council point out that his city has more in common with cities in Northern England than it does with much of the rest of Scotland, how he doesn’t want to ‘turn people from Newcastle into foreigners’, and that a shared future should be based on ‘radically devolve[d] power and resources to city regions across Britain’.

This is an idea that is now gaining ground in England. After all, for the North East, an English parliament would just be as far away as the current British one. The Prince Bishops of Durham had the powers of a king for centuries, and the ‘debatable lands’ of North East England were only fully integrated into a centralised English, then British, polity not long before Scotland was, so what price the restoration of our ‘Northern Liberties’? Indeed, in the recent European elections the ‘Yorkshire First’ party pointed out that the white rose county ‘has a larger population than Scotland and an economy twice the size of Wales but with the powers of neither’, add in North West England, and the North East (the only English region with a positive balance of trade), alongside a devo-maxed Scotland, and a powerful ‘North British’ bloc could emerge to transform how Britain is governed.

But economics aren’t everything. For me at least, the emotional pull of these centuries of shared history really means something – from the Scots and Geordies who fought together and worked together on D-Day to the burning deck of Piper Alpha, or Mrs Gemmell who taught me in primary school and the wonderful nurse from Arbroath who looked after my grandfather in his final days. However Scotland votes I’m sure we will remain their staunchest friends, but I must admit that the thought of becoming foreigners to each other is pretty unbearable. I really hope Scotland doesn’t forget its auld acquaintances in the North East of England.

Deepest Tyneside: a trip around North Shields

Maritime Chambers

North Shields is a surprising place.  For all the town’s blue-collar reputation the stretch from, say, Osborne Gardens to Washington Terrace comprises handsome red brick and creamy stone streets of genuine refinement.  This is quintessential nineteenth century urban Tyneside, and embodies, perfectly, the craft and fortitude of the artisans whose toil built up the ‘Shielings’ around the wind-battered harbour into a Victorian boom-town.

I wonder if Ian Nairn ever came here? His father hailed from Tyneside and Nairn himself loved Newcastle, so it’s possible. Nairn’s work is so exciting because he really understood the ‘emotional power of townscape’. Where Pevsner and his (still utterly essential) Guides are taxonomical, Nairn was a genius with a broad brush, and his impressionistic descriptions are often a much better introduction to a place.

The other thing I admire about Nairn’s work is how seriously he took everywhere he visited.  To be sure, he was an enthusiast for the grandeur of London and Paris, but his ‘Football Towns’ series of the 1970s, for example, showed how much he respected the dignity of smaller places, especially in the North of England. We should all be grateful to Gillian Darley and others for keeping his flame alive.

Northumberland Square

North Shields is not much known outside the North East. Neil Tennant was born here, Stan Laurel grew up in Shields, and the sea-shanty ‘Dance to Your Daddy’ was probably written in the town. The clever motto of the old Borough of Tynemouth was ‘Messis ab Altis’ (‘Harvest from the deep’ – i.e. fish and coal), and, in its heyday Shields was a hub of heavy industry and maritime trades like chandlery, ropeworks and ship-repair. The Tyne has literally marinated this town in history, and the fact that this place has witnessed everything from the splash of Hadrian’s trireme in AD122 to the full-steam of the Mauretania in 1907 has given the streets of Shields a tremendous historical depth and emotional power.  This really is Tyneside profonde.

But this tough little town was badly battered in the twentieth century: 2,000 men from Tynemouth borough were killed in the Great War (a disproportionately high number, even for the North East), and it suffered the greatest single civilian loss of life in World War Two after a direct hit on an air raid shelter.  Slow industrial decline followed the war, and North Shields gained a certain notoriety after the ‘Meadowell’ riots of 1990. These were arguably the direct result of crude town planning: when the gritty families who lived in the rookeries above the Fish Quay were thoughtlessly scooped up and dropped into new council estates, dissipating the familial networks that had always made the place tick.

A good deal is still shabby, particularly the main shopping drag around Bedford Street and its southern and western fringes, but the well-built streets and handsome public buildings of its northern and eastern parts are worth exploring and give North Shields a dignity that certainly deserves our attention.


The best way to approach the town is to begin uphill, near the broad acres of Preston Cemetery whose funerary urns and weeping angels give a good sense of nineteenth-century prosperity and the rapid expansion of the town northward and away from the Tyne.  Head south first down the proudly-pruned 1930s suburbia of Walton Avenue, towards the ebullient Tynemouth College (1909).  Originally the borough’s grammar school, its ‘massing’ could make this a gloomy building were it not for the rhubarb and custard colour scheme and playful Art-Nouveau details: note, for example, the curlicues on the BOYS and GIRLS entrances and the quirky janitor’s house fit for a hobbit.

Queen Alexandra Road

From the College, head east to see one of the most distinctive urban vistas in the North East.  Were it not for the kink at the junction with Preston Road, Queen Alexandra Road and Trevor Terrace would present a relentless terraced kilometre bristling with two-storey bay windows.  These are the distinctive signature of the better sort of ‘Tyneside flats’, small but dignified homes fit for clerks or foremen (indeed ‘bay-window’ became something of a deprecation, suggestive of social-climbing and la-di-dah airs and graces).  The North East shares much in common with its northern neighbour, but where the Scots built tenements to save space when land was expensive, the Geordies (being English) preferred the dominion of their own front door.

North from here are the leafy terraces of Preston Avenue and Sandringham Gardens, the Wahnfried-like former vicarage and the solemn villas of Preston Park – the sort of places where you might find, in the words of Evelyn Waugh, ‘an aged colonel playing wireless music to an obese retriever’.  For this is the North Shields that John Betjeman might appreciate – ‘under cedar-shaded palings,
 low laburnum-leaned-on railings’ – from the quiet Georgian serenity of Camp Terrace to the Edwardian affluence of Cleveland Avenue. Here again are the ubiquitous bay windows, but grander still with heavy Downing Street-style wooden front doors, fanlights, basements and smartly striped cornices.  Alma Place is worth a stroll too, spacious and comfortable with creamy brickwork, distinctive heavy stone lintels and Tuscan door cases – a motif repeated in almost all the residential buildings put up in Shields between c1850 and 1910.

Emerging from Alma Place, you are confronted by the sooty basilica of Christ Church.  This replaced the ruined medieval Priory Church on Tynemouth headland and was built in stages from 1670 to 1789.  Seven miles north of here Nairn himself wrote of the ‘dour Northumberland grandeur that Vanburgh captured so perfectly at Seaton Delaval Hall’ and Robert Trollope pulled off something similar in Shields: huge stone slabs, gloomy battlemented tower, little ornament.

Christ Church

Christ Church sits on the ridge that formed the natural route of the Newcastle turnpike and once commanded views of the Tyne and the sea. From here the town gradually, and then steeply, falls away to the river.  (This is also an opportune moment to repair to the wonderful Keel Row Bookshop, itself a fine early Victorian townhouse.)

Eighteenth century North Shields now takes shape, most notably in the form of Northumberland Square – one of three such squares, and the focus of John Wright’s ‘New Town’. As in Edinburgh, Shields’s New Town was built on virgin ground and provided refined Georgian oases above and away from the stink and squalor of the teeming ‘bankside’ slums. Pevsner thought the square too wide for the scale of its graceful two-storey ashlar houses, but it is undoubtedly an elegant space.

Scotch Presbyterian Church

This part of town provides much interest for the church-spotter. The centrepiece of Northumberland Square is St Columba’s of 1853 (formerly English Presbyterian, now URC) a typically crisp neo-classical essay by the great John Dobson, a native of North Shields. But most styles are catered for: further along Albion Road is the gothic Wesleyan church of 1889 (now a dreaded ‘soft play’ centre) with its peculiar tower like a rocket idling at Cape Canaveral, and south of the square the broad and handsome Howard Street reveals three more Victorian churches. Two of these are by Dobson again, including his ‘Scotch Presbyterian’ church of 1811, which shows that even at 24 he had mastered the tricky Greek Doric vocabulary of friezes, triglyphs, attic floors and all the rest.  But Dobson could converse in several architectural languages, and on the opposite corner he demonstrates his stylistic dexterity yet again.

Dobson’s Elizabethan Town Hall of 1844 is actually a precinct of buildings, atypically domestic and not at all grandiose like its municipal contemporaries.  Its scale and stonework reminds me of an Oxford college: Mansfield perhaps, or University College, but more compact.  Tynemouth Corporation was notoriously penny-pinching which may explain its modest dimensions – the large, mullioned south facing oriel describes the width of the poky council chamber – but this makes the building all the more humane, and its well-pointed stone compliments the sturdy residential architecture of this hardy Tyneside town.

North Shields Town Hall

The Italianate Free Library of 1857 picks up the rhythm of Howard Street south of the junction with Saville Street, and introduces a nice stretch of well-mannered former banks done up like palazzi as was the fashion. The street culminates with a little piazza offering thrilling cliff edge views over the river to South Shields, west to Jarrow Slake (‘Jarra Slack’) and east to Tynemouth.  Perched next to this is the charming Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society of 1806, now North Tyneside Register Office.  The pedimented Tuscan doorcase and gorgeous big venetian window wouldn’t look out of place on a Georgian rectory, but is entirely typical of classical Tyneside.


In Nairn’s wonderful essay on ‘Superlative Newcastle’, he described how the Tyne’s steep sides provide a sort of ‘topographical ecstasy as you go up and down perpetually seeing the same objects in different ways’.  You get this in Shields too: from the pleasing way Grey Street slouches down to the Pow Burn (a tributary of the Tyne, now Northumberland Park – the Jesmond Dene of North Shields) to the view, from the otherwise cheerless Charlotte Street, of Knott’s Flats which looms like Prague Castle over the Black Middens, the infamous ship-wrecking reef in the Tyne estuary.

But Tyne Street offers the most invigorating vistas of all. It’s built on an escarpment parallel to the Tyne, and a fantastic riparian panorama unfolds beneath you like a sort of Northumbrian Lilliput.  From here you pass the site of Dockwray Square, the grandest of the town’s eighteenth century squares, and once the home of Stan Laurel (sadly, his cartoonish statue is hideous).  The literal focal point here is the most Heathcliffian building in Shields: the impossibly romantic ‘High Light’ of 1808 which clings to a windswept eerie above the Quay.  It was used as rudimentary, but effective, navigational aid to enter the Tyne (skippers would line up the high and low lights to find a safe channel) but now I wouldn’t be surprised if a romantic poet spent his days here musing on the seascape. Or perhaps a scientist lives here and conducts galvanic experiments in its lantern …

High Light

Now we must descend to the Fish Quay. This was once a moral, as well as a physical descent into a seedy land of sex and violence. The Northumberland Arms (aka ‘The Jungle’) at the western end of the Quay was built as the grandly becolumned townhouse of the eponymous Duke, but became one of the most notorious sailor’s pubs in the world (and may have inspired the setting of Get Carter on Tyneside).  Alas, the Jungle is no longer trading – now remodeled into pricey apartments – and the whole stretch from Smith’s Dock to the Groyne is now a (relatively!) safe and rewarding place to stroll around.

The authenticity of the place is still striking. This is a working fishing port after all, and although the forces of gentrification have made inroads, the heart of the place remains ‘the gut’ and the salty tang of the fish shops and factories that surround it (as it was when Mitchell and Kenyon filmed the place in 1901).  The cyclopean Low Light (companion to the High Light) dominates the scene.  A square white pylon, seven stories high with whittled corners like an unfinished chair leg, it is a striking sight (and was sketched by JMW Turner in 1818), but delve further and from amidst the clutter of the Fish Quay emerges the Vaubanesque ramparts of Clifford’s Fort.  This comes as a surprise amid the fish crates and forklift trucks but then Northumberland is the most fortified English county, and North Shields is a kind of counterscarp at its most southeasterly tip.  Built by the Swedish engineer Martin Beckman in 1670 (on the orders of Lord Clifford ‘of Cabal’) to prevent the Dutch doing to the Tyne what they did to Thames, its 29 gun embrasures now stare blankly out to sea.

Clifford's Fort

Within the bailey of the fort is yet another ‘light’, in this case the seventeenth century Old Low Light. An illuminated third floor window on the narrow sea facing side served as a beacon until the new Low Light came along. It’s now ‘The Net’ an exciting community-led maritime heritage centre. Watch this space.

Before we leave the Quay take some time to drink it all in. Notice the Victorian military buildings disguised as smokehouses, stand back and admire Irvin’s smart Edwardian warehouse (now, inevitably, a brasserie), and maybe repair to the Low Lights Tavern on Brewhouse Bank (reputedly the oldest pub on the Tyne – and certainly one of the best) for a well-earned pint and one of their delicious pies.


Emerging refreshed we must climb another bank – Tanner’s – and dip under Hawks, Crawshay and Sons’ sturdy iron bridge (built for the North Eastern Railway in 1863) to reach Correction House Bank.  As the name suggests justice was once meted out here, and the borough’s bridewell – an intriguing pale stone shed of 1792 – still stands, forming a striking contrast to the caramel tiles and red brick of the Tynemouth Lodge Hotel next door.   The ‘Bier Garten’ of the Lodge overlooks Northumberland Park, a nineteenth century pleasure ground hemmed in by the tight streets of Shields.  In New York, Frederick Olmsted had wanted Central Park to be a place of ‘silence, peace and repose away from the ills and agues of the city’.  The dene of the Pow Burn is certainly a blissfully arcadian rus in urbe, but given the park’s proximity to the quay, it’s unclear how well the burghers of North Shields ever escaped the agues and bad airs of the fish industry.  Nevertheless I’m delighted that the council is restoring it to its Victorian glory.

Master Mariners Homes

Further along Tynemouth Road you find two wonderful examples of ‘social housing’ built exactly a century apart. First, the cheerfully Jacobean Master-Mariners’ Homes, put up in 1837 by John and Benjamin Green (major contributors to Grainger’s rebuilding of Newcastle) as a sort of retirement complex for grizzled matelots.  ‘Northumberland knows no prince but a Percy’, and the family are still the major landowners in these parts.  As such the Mariners’ Homes are arranged obsequiously around a rather rum-looking statue of its benefactor, the 4th Duke of Northumberland – but it’s a great treat to observe that, on closer inspection, beneath his Garter mantle, His Grace is wearing what can only be described as frilly hot-pants.

The final stop on our tour is a stupendous sight. Knott’s Flats is six storeys tall and snakes almost 900 feet from west to east. This colossal block was built in the 1930s, thanks to funds left by Sir James Knott, to house families displaced by slum clearance around the Fish Quay.  Knott has been born in humble circumstances in Howdon, near North Shields, but his ‘Prince’ shipping line made him one of the richest men in Britain.  Losing two of his sons in the Great War inspired him to great heights of philanthropy which has left a great architectural, as well as charitable, legacy.  The Arts & Crafts Ss James and Basil in Newcastle (named for his two fallen sons), the strikingly Art Deco YMCA on Church Way in North Shields, and even St George’s Memorial Church in Ypres, are all buildings of great quality and originality.

Knott's Flats

Knott’s Flats is similarly unusual.  Built on a vast scale by Charles Holden (famous for 55 Broadway and the UCL Senate House) it was completed in 1938 and constructed, tellingly, out of fire-resistant materials with integrated air-raid shelters.  An urban myth persists that the Luftwaffe – or was it the Gestapo? – had it lined up as their prospective Northern HQ post Sea Lion, its vertiginous balconies perfect for defenestration.  Knott’s Flats is actually a more humane building than that, reminiscent of noble Gemeindebau like the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, with comfortable living space and, in this case, incredible views of the sea. I think this places it firmly within the building traditions of North Shields: well built, but not flashy, vigorous but not unfriendly.  Rather like the people who live here in fact.  So why not come and see for yourself?


In the next installment I’ll look at the ‘Northumbrian Riviera’ from Tynemouth, through Cullercoats, Whitley Bay and Seaton Sluice, to Blyth.

“I’ve always felt I belong to Shields”

I’ve adored Laurel and Hardy since I was a child, and agree with the great Buster Keaton who remarked at Stan’s funeral that “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest – this man was the funniest.” Indeed, how could anyone fail to laugh at classics like this, or this?

Although he was born in Ulverston (in that part of Lancashire since annexed by ‘Cumbria’), what made me especially fond of Stan is the fact that I was born (and now live) in his real home of North Shields, then a booming fishing port and shipyard town, where he lived in the rather grand Dockwray Square overlooking the river.

This is a matter of some controversy, but the absolutely wonderful Letters from Stan allows us to discover what Stan really thought. So Ulverston may be home to the Laurel and Hardy Museum, but Stan himself seems to play down the link to the town in his correspondence to the many fans that wrote to him.  In a letter to a Mrs Short in 1959 he admits that ‘Yes, I was born in Ulverston, Lancs. in 1890 but left there at an early age – lived in Bishop Auckland, Durham, a few years then came to North Shields & went to school in Tynemouth’.

He responds to a Frank Graves in 1952 with ‘I was born in Ulverston Lancs. but spent several years in North Shields – due to my Dad having several Theatres in the Tyneside section, I also spent a few years in Glasgow Scotland. Don’t be too hard with your colleague, as I am partly claimed in both latter places.’

To a Richard Sloan in April 1964 he notes that although ‘born in the same county – Lancashire’ as the Beatles ‘my accent of course is not so pronounced due my leaving that area in my very early days & raised partly in Northumberland & Scotland … my Lancashire accent does appear occasionally in my speech (unconsciously).’

But the killer evidence of Stan’s Geordieness is his 1955 response to Vic Silver (the stage name of Sylvester Blackett a Tyneside comedian) admitting that ‘Even tho’ I was born in Lancashire, I’ve always felt I belong to Shields’. 

In many respects the time he spent on Tyneside was the most formative of his itinerant early life. His father, the theatrical impresario Arthur Jefferson owned theatres and music halls across the North East and Scotland (including Blyth, where Stan’s nephew Huntley Jefferson Woods went to school with my grandfather).  ‘AJ’ noted in his own autobiography ‘that who could have foreseen that the wistful drollery of this little boy in a North Shields attic would one day hold thousands of American audiences simultaneously?’

Stan’s first appeared on a public stage during the celebrations for the Relief of Mafeking in North Shields in 1900, when Stan noted that ‘My Dad (Arthur Jefferson) produced a show battle of Boers & Britons in Dockwray Square – Fireworks & bonfires etc. with impersonations of Lord (Bob) Roberts – Kitchener – Buller – Kruger etc. & myself as bugler Dunn [14 year old hero of the Battle of Colenso] – I still have a photograph of myself taken that day.’

It has been even claimed that Laurel and Hardy’s magisterial ‘Music Box’ was inspired by an episode in Stan’s childhood when he watched some workmen struggle to get a heavy load up the steep Union Stairs from the North Shields Fish Quay to Dockwray Square  (one wonders if he witnessed this wacky Tynemouth river pageant in 1901 captured by Mitchell and Kenyon).

Stan returned to his native ‘Tynemouth’ (as the old borough was called) several times, and this footage from his first triumphal return in 1932 shows the civic welcome to his ‘native village’ at the old Tynemouth Plaza, and the genuine affection between Stan and his father. He later wrote to a Mr and Mrs Wray that ‘It was a grand home coming for me – I’ll never forget it – Bless them all, it was so genuine – it hurt me. My whole time was taken up with Public – Press – & Photographers. I went over for a rest – but came back a nervous wreck. However, if I died from it all, it would be a humble way of showing my appreciation.’

Stan himself recalled to Vic Silver his youth ‘on the Tyneside’:

‘Got a hell of a kick out of your letter. Enjoyed every line, re living those wonderful care-free days with your vivid description, sprinkled with laughter & Tyneside humour.

‘I don’t remember going to King St. school, I first started at a kindergarten at some house in Dockwray Square, it was down in a basement, then went to a private school in Tynemouth, it was called Gordon’s – he was quite a character, he collected Cats, don’t think he ever let them out of the house – you could smell the joint from Jarrow, the fish quay was like a garden of roses compared. The old screwball used to write poetry & we had to sit and listen to it all day long, his favourite one was “Ode To The Tyneside”

‘After this episode I was sent to a boarding school in Tynemouth I believe it was called Tynemouth College, the reason my folks had me board there was due to my always being in mischief & trouble at home, like setting fire to the house, (accidently of course) & falling into a barrel of fish guts in my best Sunday suit on the fish quay near the “Wooden Dolly”. [a wonderful film of the Edwardian fish quay that Stan would have known can be seen here]. Drinking Gin (thought it was water) got cockeyed & many more escapades too numerous to mention. Think this was the forerunner of my film character!

‘Got a terrific laugh out of your Dr. & Geordie gag – so typical. Reminded me of another similar gag about a coal miner who had terrible bow legs, his wife begged of him to have an operation & have them straightened out, his excuse was “No hinney they’re good enough to go to work in.”

‘Thought I’d die re the ‘apenny Dips & Black Bullets etc. what a memory you have.’

His correspondence to fans in the 1950s and 60s betrays a certain nostalgia and interest in his old home town. To Jean Mitchell in 1962 he recalls ‘the ferry plying tween North & South Shields, it was in my time known as the ‘Happney Dodger’ – still running incidentally – I took a crossing on it in ’54 just for old times sake!’ (I often use it myself). To Mrs Short in 1957 he notes that he ‘wouldn’t be surprised if the new ‘Wooden Dolly’ looks like Marilyn Monroe, they’ll probably have a water tank in her Creel to keep live Silver Herring!’ He notes to Lillie Wray in 1958 the ‘great progress [being made] in modernizing ‘Canny aad [old] Shields’, and his concerns at the decline of the Grand Hotel in Tynemouth (where, incidentally, I had my own wedding reception), recalling that in 1952 ‘we spent a miserable two weeks there, the place was so dilapidated & run down & most uncomfortable – was happy to leave the place … we expected to stay at the Railway Hotel in Newcastle, but unable to get reservations’, before signing off ‘Take care of yourself ‘Hinney”.

So that settles it, Stan Laurel – whose statue (designed, appropriately enough by local artist Bob Olley) looks out from Dockwray Square across the river Tyne – was a Geordie after all.  But let us leave the last word to Stan himself, writing to his friends in Bedlington, Mr and Mrs Short, in 1958:

‘I enjoyed reading the items you enclosed – very interesting.
 Well I’ll have to be a gaan now, dinner’s ready – am having a Tyneside Pheasant (a kipper with a feather stuck in it.!!!).’

A pious, just and exemplary man


As it is Trafalgar Day, a note on Cuthbert Collingwood – one of the great unsung heroes of British history. He was born on ‘Side’ (the street by the castle) in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1748. He was educated at the town’s Royal Grammar School, and joined the Royal Navy at the age of twelve – sailing out of the Tyne on HMS Shannon in 1761. In his long and distinguished naval career he saw action in the American War of Independence and in the many wars against France.

He is best known for his decisive role in the battle of Trafalgar where he was the first to attack the Franco-Spanish naval forces – alone in his ship HMS Royal Sovereign – before succeeding to overall command of the British fleet upon the death of his more famous friend Horatio Nelson.


Indeed, it was Nelson’s remark upon seeing the Royal Sovereign engage the enemy that is recorded on his imposing monument that overlooks the Tyne estuary at Tynemouth.


Despite his requests for retirement on the grounds of ill-health, Collingwood continued to serve at sea until his death on active service in 1810. He was buried alongside Nelson in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but his wife requested that he be commemorated in the church (now cathedral) of St Nicholas where he was baptised and married (and opposite the house in which he was born). To this day, Newcastle City Council place a laurel wreath on this cenotaph every year on his anniversary.


Its inscription is very moving and records his outstanding naval service, and the esteem in which he was widely held by his colleagues and friends:

1st of June     St Vincente     Trafalgar

Sacred to the memory of the Right Honourable CUTHBERT Baron COLLINGWOOD, Vice Admiral of the Red and Major General of Marines who was born in this town of an ancient family. He served with great bravery in the action of the 1st of June 1794 and had a most distinguished part in the victory off Cape St. Vincente in 1797.

In the memorable battle of Trafalgar he led the British squadron into action and pressed forward with his single ship into the midst of the combined fleets of France and Spain.  On that day after the death of his illustrious commander and friend Lord NELSON he completed the most glorious and decisive victory that is recorded in the naval annals of the world. He held the command of the Mediterranean for nearly five years, during which he never quitted his vessel for a single day displaying unrivalled professional skill and conducting many important negotiations with great political sagacity and address. At length on the decline of his health he became anxious to revisit his native land but having learned that his services could ill be spared in those critical times he replied that his life was his country’s and persevered in the discharge of his arduous duties till worn out with fatigue he expired at sea on the 7th of March 1810 in the 61st year of his age.

In private life he was generous and affectionate. A pious, just and exemplary man.

A monument has been raised by parliament to his memory in the Cathedral Church of St Paul’s where he lies by the side of the hero to whom he most worthily succeeded in the battle of Trafalgar.

His widow, SARAH, daughter of JOHN ERASMUS BLACKETT esquire of this town and his two daughters, had caused this cenotaph to be constructed, and after her death on the 16th of September 1819 it was inscribed to both their revered and lamented parents by their grateful children.

He was well known to be devoted to his wife and two daughters, with whom he loved to spend time in their family home in Morpeth (now the presbytery of St. Robert’s RC Church on Oldgate). Sadly, the exigencies of war (and the demands of the Admiralty) meant that, after setting sail from Portsmouth in May 1803, he never saw them again.

His bicentenary in 2010 was widely celebrated in the North East, with the band of the Royal Marines leading a naval contingent along Collingwood Street in his native city. But perhaps even more stirring is the poem composed by the poet Sir Henry Newbolt on the centenary of Trafalgar in 1905, in honour of Cuthbert Collingwood and the county that bred him

When England sets her banner forth

And bids her armour shine,

She’ll not forget the famous North,

The lads of moor and Tyne;

And when the loving-cup’s in hand

And Honour leads the cry,

They know not old Northumberland

Who’ll pass her memory by.


When Nelson sailed for Trafalgar

With all his country’s best,

He held them dear as brothers are,

But one beyond the rest.

For when the fleet with heroes manned

To clear the decks began,

The boast of old Northumberland

He sent to lead the van.


Himself by Victory’s bulwark stood

And cheered to see the sight;

“That noble fellow Collingwood,

How bold he goes to fight!”

Love, that the league of Ocean spanned,

Heard him face to face;

“What would he give, Northumberland,

To share our pride of place?”


The flag that goes the world around

And flaps on every breeze

Has never gladdened fairer ground

Or kinder hearts than these.

So when the loving-cup’s in hand

And Honour leads the cry,

They know not old Northumberland

Who’ll pass her memory by.

The Martial Culture of the North East

One summer’s day in AD 122, a quinquereme carrying a Roman Emperor and his Praetorian Guards sailed up the Tyne. His legacy, Hadrian’s Wall, established the area as a militarised zone – and the North East of England has been ‘a seat of Mars’ ever since.

When the Kingdom of Northumbria emerged after the Romans left, the region continued to define itself as a contested ‘debatable land’ where military service was a fact of life; first to repel the sea-borne invaders from Scandinavia, and then as the frontline in the centuries of conflict between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland.

This has left an indelible physical imprint on the region, and Northumberland remains the most fortified county in the British Isles – in Niklaus Pevsner’s evocative words ‘rough are the winds, the moors, the castles, [and] the dolerite cliffs by Hadrian’s Wall’. To what extent all these battlements and ramparts have helped shape the identity of the North East has long fascinated me.

To understand this martial culture it is useful to locate the career of the armaments tycoon Sir William, later Lord Armstrong at a pivotal point in the history of the region.  A period when the instability of Border warfare is brought to a close, and Northumbria is finally, fully integrated into the United Kingdom at the same time as its northern neighbour – but before the industrial warfare of the twentieth century, in many respects the apogee of Northern arms and the culmination of centuries of martial tradition, when the men of Tyneside took up arms with greater enthusiasm than any of the nation’s other great conurbations.

Even now, from Salisbury Plain to Sangin, Geordies will still be found under the Queen’s colours in disproportionate numbers.  Most will still be tempted to credit this to a depressed regional economy whose only consistent export has been cannon-fodder for the British Army.  There is much in this, but the deep-rooted martial traditions of the North East, and its hyper-masculine culture – that was shaped as much by William Armstrong as the Border Rievers – can provide us with a richer and more satisfying explanation.

For the peoples of the medieval Northern Marches, Tony Pollard has written of the ‘ clearly recognised and accepted obligation on the people of North Eastern England to contribute to the defence of the border’, and within such a militarised society a successful military career was the most likely route to advancement.  Northern levies were a staple of English armies and distinguished themselves at the battles of Neville’s Cross, Towton, and Flodden Field where, under the banner of St Cuthbert, the billhooks of the Northumbrian infantry sliced through the long pikes of the Scottish schiltrons.

Such experience was deep seated, and celebrated in local culture. Indeed, Daniel Defoe would observe in his tours of the region that ‘here is abundant business for an antiquary; every place shows you ruined castles, roman altars, monuments of battles, of heroes killed and armies routed’; and Anthony Goodman has written that the people of Northumberland ‘prided themselves on being different from other English folk, and projected their menfolk as a warrior elite’.  This was further bolstered by the infamy of the so called Border Reivers – the tough bandits that roamed the ill-defined border.  George MacDonald Fraser noted that these men ‘made excellent soldiers if disciplined, but the raw material was wild and hard to tame’.

Indeed, it is the migration of this border culture to the Appalachians that David Haskett Fischer so memorably described in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Fischer pointed out that the ‘Scots Irish’ actually included the ‘border English’ from Northumberland and Cumberland, and that their famous bellicosity was born in the instability of ‘North Britain’. Indeed, “until after 1745, the region never enjoyed fifty consecutive years of quiet.” This endemic violence caused heavy loss of life on both sides of the border, and it was written that “a Scots raid down toward the Tyneside often did as much killing in relation to the local population as the plague did nearly everywhere.”

The Pax Hanoveriensis ushered in a period of stability and prosperity for Tyneside.  It was property developers, and not invading armies that finally breached the town walls, and the old castle was replaced as the town’s military strongpoint by permanent modern barracks north of Gallowgate in 1804.  Yet despite this stability, the war-like instinct remained potent, and during the Napoleonic wars Northumberland had the highest proportion of men volunteering for military service in England at a staggering 75 per cent (greater even than Kent), and only London supplied more men for Nelson’s Royal Navy than the towns of North and South Shields, Newcastle and Sunderland.

Throughout the early nineteenth century troops were regularly dispatched North to fight pitched battles with riotous keelmen and miners. It seems fitting then that alongside coal mining, this war-like area should also become famous for the manufacture of armaments.  William Armstrong, the Newcastle-born solicitor and gentlemen inventor (with a classic Border Riever surname) had seen an opportunity to apply his rigorous scientific mind to the pressing problems of unreliable artillery.  The catalyst for this change, as so much in British military history, was the debacle of the Crimean War – particularly the battle of Inkerman where cumbersome field guns had almost led to a British defeat.   In the 1968 film, The Charge of the Light Brigade, the permanently befuddled but gentlemanly British commander Lord Raglan (played by John Gielgud) bemoans the rise of the professional officer – exemplified by the idealistic Capt Nolan – and wistfully remarks to his aide “heaven help us when the British army is run by men who know what they’re doing … It smacks of murder”.

William Armstrong certainly knew what he was doing and set about developing a new maneuverable breech-loading field gun. He had commenced firing trials by 1856 and his own backyard of Jesmond Dene soon echoed to 18lb shells slamming into its steep sides.  His prototype impressed the government (and even the hidebound Duke of Cambridge observed that “the Armstrong gun could do everything but speak”) and soon the orders flooded in.

After a sticky period with the war office, to whom he surrendered his patents in an act of patriotism that earned him a knighthood, he turned his priorities towards naval armaments and the arming of any government around the world who could afford his products.  He supplied both sides in the American Civil War, and built battleships for any nation eager to expand their naval power – the Italian warship Europa took delivery of a 100 ton gun in 1876, and at the Battle of the Yalu River in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 Armstrong ships fired on and sunk each other.  Indeed, the Japanese crews of Armstrong-built cruisers even appeared on the St James’s Park Terraces after annihilating the Russian fleet at Tshushima in 1905.

Between 1868 and 1927 Armstrong’s company was responsible for 42% of all British warship production – from the daintily rigged Victorian ironclads to the all-steel behemoths of the twentieth century. Armstrong had helped establish Tyneside as an industrial powerhouse as well as a coal exporter.  The Newcastle Chronicle  had noted with pride that ‘Tyneside has become one of the world’s greatest centres for the production of weapons of death’ and from the 1880s it was the only place in the world where a battleship could be built and armed from scratch on one site, and the local press understood that the town was ‘most prosperous at times of peril’.

The battalions of men employed at his Elswick works were also proud of their industry, with one foreman penning a hymn of praise to the power of Tyneside’s military hardware:

The gunboats have now lost their glory and pride

For wor gun sends its bolts slap bang through its side

Neither iron or oak can resist its awe

When it vomits them forth frae its terrible jaws

Armstrong’s huge enterprise dominated Newcastle, and the pub names in his fiefdom of Scotswood spoke of his influence on the culture of Tyneside; as his workforce could slake their thirst in the Rifle, the Gun, the Vulcan, the Blast Furnace, and the Ordnance Arms.  Despite dealing in weapons of war, it does not seem that Armstrong had any pangs of conscience like his almost exact contemporary Alfred Nobel.  To be sure, he was a great philanthropist and endowed the city with hospitals, schools, and parks – but during a speech in the Town Hall Armstrong seemed, metaphorically, to shrug his shoulders at those who questioned the morality of his trade. “We as a nation have few men to spare for war, and we have need of all the aid that science can give us to secure us against aggression – and to hold in subjection the vast and semi-barbarous population which we have to rule in the east.”

When he died in 1900, the black-bordered Newcastle Daily Journal paid him fulsome tribute, but in a thoughtful obituary they noted that he was responsible for both ‘the most wonderful machinery of production’ and ‘the most tremendous machinery of murder’, an that ‘there is something that appalls the imagination in the application of a cool and temperate mind like Lord Armstrong’s to the science of destruction’.  Could it be that the normality of such massive arms production influenced the ordinary Geordie’s attitude towards conflict resolution? Certainly the prominence of Armstrong’s insignia and the influence of his industries helped make the connection with the regions martial history.

The regimental reforms of the 1860s had had the consequence of making the names of Northumberland and Durham well known throughout the British Empire. (Indeed, in a Study in Scarlet, Dr Watson announces that he has recently returned from Afghanistan where he was serving with the ‘5th Northumberland Fusiliers’.) Nevertheless, for the respectable working classes a career in the ranks was not held in high esteem, and recruitment to those regiments from within a region of high employment was only sporadic in peacetime. Yet, when the Boer War broke out, recruiting sergeants were kept busy in Northumberland and Durham – and prominent “pro-Boer” anti-war Liberals were given a hard time in the khaki election of 1900 by a Tyneside population enthusiastic for war, and the military contracts that it led to.

When war came in 1914, no region responded more enthusiastically to Kitchener’s call than the North East.  Indeed, by the war’s end the Northumberland Fusiliers alone had an astonishing 51 battalions – a record for the British Army.

The response of the North East is interesting because it is inexplicable by economic factors alone.  Employment in the region was still relatively strong, and the miners of the Northern coalfield were among the highest paid proletarians in the world. To be sure, many men joined up because life was unremittingly tough, and a spell in uniform had its appeal – as a corporal in the Tyneside Scottish remarked “I didn’t join up out of a sense of patriotism – I was a hand putter and was hewing coal in a two foot seam”.

Their attitudes too are revealing. A southern officer recalled sharing a trench with battle-hardened Northumberland Fusiliers ‘who were callous about the dead, and jeered at effete southerners’. Another general was impressed – but chilled – to note that unlike other units, the DLI were well known for ‘charging mute’, and “the only thing I ever heard from them was a few grunts, curses, and remarks of the fuck you kind”. Even the white collared men of the so called “commercial battalions” – shipping line clerks, solicitors and draughtsmen at Armstrong’s works, revelled in the region’s reputation and celebrated their contribution in verse:

Just a company of penmen,

soldiers then of little worth,

but we set the ball-a-rolling

in the hard and fighting North

Any visit to Flanders is testament to the North’s contribution to the nation’s butcher’s bill.  The badges of the two regiments are ubiquitous, and their names dominate the granite slabs that record the missing at Thiepval and Ypres. (One theory as to why so many North Easterners are listed among the missing is that they wore their army dog tags as they did their ‘colliery checks’ – on their braces, not around their necks).  The archetypal ‘digger’ John Simpson Kirkpatrick ‘the man with the donkey’ at ANZAC cove, was actually born and raised in South Shields, and its surely fitting too that the largest British cemetery on the western front is named Tyne Cot, after the Geordies who fought there and thought the German redoubt looked like a pitman’s cottage.

Their sacrifice was massive (the small borough of Tynemouth alone lost 1,700 men killed in WW1, with many more wounded), but we have been lulled into thinking that it was only the war poets who spoke for that generation – Gary Sheffield’s revisionist work has shown how many men actually enjoyed trench warfare, as much as the camaraderie of military service.

In the years that followed, it was economic exigencies that account for the full muster rolls of local regiments in the 20s and 30s, but the martial DNA of the region was deep-seated (and it was noted that even the men of Jarrow marched in step with military precision).

Between 1914 and 1918 Armstrong’s works had contributed 13,000 guns, 14 million shells, and 47 warships to the war effort.  This had helped to establish Tyneside’s ‘arsenal economy’ which produced over half of the four million tons of shipping that won the battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War.  And just like in the Napoleonic period Newcastle was the first city in Britain to bring every territorial unit within its boundaries to double wartime strength, and Northumberland became the first county in England to attain this distinction.

The military contribution of the region in World War Two was just as prominent as it had been in the Great War. The aggressive rearguard action of two battalions of Durham Light Infantry at Dunkirk convinced Rommel that he was facing two British Army divisions (and it was during this retreat that a DLI lieutenant won the war’s first VC, and, in an odd echo of Harry Hotspur, the 9th Duke of Northumberland was also killed).   Indeed, the 50th Northumbrian Division was counted on as much as the 51st Highland as the spearhead of the British Army – particularly by Montgomery who thought he was conferring a great honour on the “five-o” by selecting them – yet again – for the assault on D-Day, despite having already participated in every single major campaign of the war in Europe, from the “phoney war” to Sicily. (Not to mention the fact that a man from Sunderland became the only Englishman ever to be awarded the Iron Cross, and that a 16 year old NAAFI assistant from North Shields probably did more than any other individual to shorten World War Two.)

But admiration for the fighting qualities of the Geordie soldier was perhaps best summed up by a Londoner, General Sir Brian Horrocks, who in his introduction to the official history of the Northumberland Fusiliers, noted that the regiment

“has always consisted of the following types of men: tough Northumbrian yeomen whose ancestors regarded border clashes as a normal way of life, and Geordies from the northern collieries, whom I have always regarded as the finest infantry in the world.”

The conventionality of military service for North Eastern men endured into the post war period. Geordie Doran, one of the legends of the early SAS started life as a Tyneside ship’s caulker – ‘red hot, hard work which soon built muscle and toughened sinew’ – and he recalled that life in the regiment in the 60s was dominated by ‘Geordies, Jocks, and Scousers.’ Indeed, in 1972, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle noted that of of the first 200 British casualties in Northern Ireland, twenty were from the North East (despite the region only having one twentieth of the UK population).

In Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket a leading character, dubbed ‘Private Joker’, is asked why he volunteered; to which he replies: “I wanted to meet interesting, stimulating people from an ancient land … and kill them.” This found an uncomfortable echo for the men of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, who teamed up with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Aden to terrify the local population (amid accusations of Geordie and Glaswegian brutality) – and it was no surprise that the successors of these same two regiments were in the vanguard of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Thus the martial traditions of the region are undoubtedly deep-seated, and have crystallized into something of a popular stereotype – with programmes like Soldier, Soldier, the Likely Lads, Alan Partridge and the movies Dog Soldiers and War Horse all including representations of the typically ‘up for it’ Geordie squad die.  I would argue that a simple economic analysis of Geordie over-representation in the armed-forces is not enough, instead we need to understand the cultural ‘longue duréeof the region (nicely represented by a piper from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers wearing the Northumberland plaid – the oldest tartan in these islands – at their recent homecoming to the North East).


In William Bell Scott’s well-known series of murals at Wallington, alongside depictions of Roman conquest and border warfare, a group of Tyneside workmen are shown wielding their quarter hammers like medieval men-at-arms – while in the foreground lies an Armstrong gun barrel and shell (despite the opposition of Scott’s pacifist patron). It was actually sledgehammers and raw muscle that moulded Armstrong’s first gun barrels – and the legend “see what the Northumbrians can do with iron and coal”, speaks romantically of conflict, heroism and the depth of the warrior tradition in North-eastern culture.

No less romantic is Augustus John’s moving ‘The Response, 1914’ a portrayal of the Northumberland Fusiliers as they marched down the Great North Road before embarking for France.  John perfectly captures the most enduring themes in North Eastern history: the unashamed masculinity, the easy transferability between dangerous work and life under shell-fire (and the necessary solidarity that involved), and the grit and stoicism of the peoples of the North East.

Friends of the Union: the British theatre of Irish Home Rule

With the centenary of the Ulster Covenant celebrated in Belfast, it is timely to look at the ‘British theatre’ of Irish Home Rule.

When I was interviewed by BBC Northern Ireland recently (1:34mins in) I was asked “what do people in Britain think about Northern Ireland?” To the interviewer’s evident surprise I answered that I don’t think British people think about it at all – yet this wasn’t the case 100 years ago.

Most historians have ignored the extraordinary interest that the anti-home rule campaign generated in England, Scotland and Wales before 1914. This was arguably the last time Ireland seriously mattered in British politics (in the sense of electoral impact), to the extent that the Times could report in June 1914 that ‘Ulster is once more not only the subject, but the scenes of all political interest’

Ireland mattered for three main reasons:

  • The centrality of the Union, the Empire and the protestant Christianity in the matrix of Edwardian British national identity, and the widespread condescension and hostility towards Catholicism in general and Irish Catholics in particular
  • The sheer scale of Irish migration to Britain (both RC and protestant) and the presence of politically active Irish Nationalists and Unionists – particularly in Scotland and Northern England – which made the Irish question such a live political issue on the Edwardian street
  • The leadership of the Unionist party in this period, firstly through Andrew Bonar Law, an unscrupulous Scots-Canadian of Ulster Presbyterian stock, who having been an MP in Glasgow and Liverpool well understood the emotions that the Irish question generated, and how playing the ‘Orange card’ could be the one card trick that would rescue the Unionist party from the doldrums. Alongside him was Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists – the archetypal ‘charismatic leader’, who was marketed carefully as the embodiment of the Union, and whose speaking tours of Britain drew enormous crowds of supporters from Plymouth to Inverness.

In Popular Opposition to Irish Home Rule in Edwardian Britain I argued that the ‘Strange Death of Liberal England’ thesis has overplayed the growth of militant Labour and the challenge of the suffragettes.  Indeed it’s not the decline, but the resilience of a particular type of Conservative politics in the face of competing political distractions that is most striking about this period.

It is arguable that in studying British political identities we have focused too much on class.  Jon Lawrence has written interestingly that ‘political belief doesn’t spring automatically from objective economic and social interests’; and the economist JA Hobson, writing at the time, had been stung by the resilience of working class jingoism and the ‘irrationality of the mass mind’.

To be sure, the UK was on the verge of major societal change in 1914 – but it hadn’t happened yet.

The campaign against Home Rule showed that Britain was still to emerge from the ‘long nineteenth century’, in terms of what motivated people to vote and demonstrate.   For no other contemporary political campaign could match that led by Carson for the breadth and intensity of its appeal.  Although Gladstone is remembered for addressing over 83,000 in the course of his famous Midlothian Campaign in the 1880s, Edward Carson probably addressed ten times that number in the years before 1914. But why is he forgotten?


One reason is that for any student of popular politics, the source material is very thin.  Roy Foster has written that opposition to Irish Home Rule was ‘the issue upon which the landed and plutocratic interests decided to confront Lloyd George’s welfare politics’. This is undoubtedly true but most studies of the period are ‘high political’ and miss the popular dimension of Ulster’s support.

The views of the common man are certainly hard to unearth, so it is useful to employ the work of Mark Harrison and others on crowds – who saw them ‘as vehicles for the expression of cohesion’. After all, Feargus O’Connor had written that the Chartists’ main weapons had been ‘the petition, the meeting and the procession’.  The Ulster Unionist pamphlet ‘The Lesson of Craigavon’, published in 1911 understood this, and urged that their demonstrations needed to be replicated on the streets of Britain to make a real impact on Westminster; and this is precisely what happened between 1912 and 1914 as Carson toured the cities and towns of Britain.

‘Liverpool, Sister of Belfast’

After signing the covenant in Belfast, Carson sailed straight to Liverpool where he was welcomed by even bigger crowds: an enormous demonstration of over 150,000 people with a torchlight procession through the city centre complete with dozens of Orange flute bands.

This was more like Palm Sunday than an ordinary political gathering, and this repeated through 12-14 wherever he goes: crowds of 40,000 in Wallsend and Leeds in 1913, and large demonstrations from Inverness to Plymouth, and from South Wales to Norwich.  As the Mitchell and Kenyon archive showed this was golden age of ‘processional’ activity in Britain, and the Unionist campaign was perhaps the last to exemplify an older political culture, of torchlight processions and horseless carriages, that we only tend to see in gatherings like the Durham Miners’ Gala, or, of course, Orange Marches.

The Ulster campaign culminated with a crowd of 250,000 who gathered to demonstrate in support of the Curragh mutineers in Hyde Park in April 1914. When Carson arrived, the Daily Mail described how ‘a tidal wave of humanity foamed into colour’, with their reporter hyperventilating that ‘I had a hallucination that I was in Ulster again … so many non partisan folk out in force, and how they cheered for Carson! As I left the park the street sellers were crying death of ‘ome rule, death of ‘ome rule memorial card one penny’

Those who see a proto-fascist element in Edwardian Unionism would find much corroboration in the musings of Leo Amery, which pinpointed a kind of fuhrerprinzip in Carson’s appeal. The secret of his power has lain precisely in the fact that he has represented, not abstract argument, but concrete will, the will of a great community embodied and intensified in the single will of the leader’.

What is more, the vivid description of pro-Ulster rallies that appeared in The Covenanter magazine in 1914 would suggest that at the very least the trappings and atmosphere at such events was very similar

“the coldest imagination must have been fired by such gatherings as those at Leeds, Newcastle and Glasgow, by the long processions, the waving of countless flags, the thunder of the old covenanting hymn, the vast array of faces fixed on the orators, and the stern enthusiasm of the packed assemblies.”

No popery

Indeed, the religious overtones in the anti-Home Rule campaign are very striking, and the Home rule crisis of 1911 to 1914 was also the last time religion seriously mattered in British politics – because it was a very religious period.  By 1900 Britain had more clerics than any other nation in Europe bar Italy and Spain, and as Linda Colley argued in Britons: Forging the Nation Catholics had become the archetypal ‘other’ that helped to unite the new kingdom.

The endurance of the British ‘no-popery’ tradition in this period is very striking, and it is useful to see the events of 1912 to 1914 as the culmination of a sequence of flash points: Catholic emancipation in 1829, the Maynooth Grant in 1845, so called ‘Papal aggression’ in 1850, the Garibaldi riots in 1862 and 1866, the Fenian scares in the 1860s, the declaration of Papal infallibility in 1870, the debates around Irish church disestablishment in 1869, the Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1892, the ongoing Ritualism disputes of 1900s, and the changes to the British coronation oath in 1910 which removed those passages judged offensive to Catholics.

All of these episodes were given added piquancy in Britain by the arrival of the catholic Irish in mid century in massive numbers; an arrival that coincided with the growth of evangelicalism in the UK, and the emergence of a vigorous and ultramontane Catholic hierarchy.  We owe a debt to Don MacRaild for helping us to understand this multi-faceted phenomena and its impact on British society.  It is important to remember that Irish migration included protestants too (which accounts for the massive growth of the Orange Order in England and Scotland from the nineteenth century), and authors such as Frank Neal have written of the ‘backlash vote’ in heavily Irish areas, which could boil over into sectarian violence, such as the huge sectarian riots that rocked Liverpool in 1909.

What is more, the English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh, were no longer neatly confined within their own national territory, and this internal migration within the UK strengthened familial and fraternal bonds, and by extension, the emotional appeal of the Union.  Indeed, the nexus between the Lagan, Mersey, Clyde and Tyne formed a kind of northern industrial zone that featured prominently on the itineraries of Carson and others.

The cockpit of British elections

We in Britain are used to the dominance of London and the south east, but it is important to understand the more even geographical distribution of power that existed 100 years ago.   Lancashire was known as the ‘cockpit of British elections’ – in contrast to what was seen as the ‘semi-feudal’ and sleepy South.  Recent work has shown the major cultural impression left by Imperialism on British cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow – so it is unsurprising that Ulster resonated so much, representing as it did the imperial mission in microcosm (which was still vital for the prosperity of the whole United Kingdom).

Where some historians have conceded that the tension in Ulster may have led to ‘sympathy riots in Liverpool and Glasgow’ this would massively underestimate the political and economic importance of those cities, who probably reached their apogee just before the First World War.  But support for Ulster not just confined to the sectarian redoubts of Merseyside and Clydeside.  Pro-Union activity spread right across those still prosperous, influential Northern towns – which each had at least one large circulation newspaper to amplify their concerns to the nation.

Bonar Law and Carson (and lest we forget F. E. Smith – another Liverpool MP) well understood this culture, and the pull of sectarian politics – and exploited it for all it was worth.  That is why Bonar Law abandoned tariff reform to focus solely on home rule – not for sentimental reasons: this was cold political calculation.

Owen Dudley Edwards thought that Carson skillfully held back the forces of ‘anti-Catholicism’ from its habitual riot, and Ralph Adams has argued that although Bonar Law undoubtedly played the Orange card ‘he didn’t bang the orange drum of hatred’; but there was a very fine line between these positions.

The London-based Catholic Times wrote indignantly in 1914 that ‘the whole Unionist case against Home Rule rests upon prejudices against the Catholic Church’ (and Bonar Law even admitted as much privately to Asquith that ‘Protestantism, or at least dislike of Catholicism’ motivated his core vote). So when George Dangerfield wrote that ‘Carson never descended to sectarian arguments – but how thrilling were his references to nefarious conspiracies to Protestant ears’. This was dog whistle politics before the term was even thought of.

And it was effective.  By 1914 the Unionists were clearly winning the numbers game in term of mass demonstrations, they had the government on the back foot in parliament and the Liberal Party’s worst by-election performances coincided with the most frenetic period of anti-Home Rule activity – late 13 to early 14 – when the Unionists won five seats from them (and one from Labour) in seats from Lanarkshire to Bethnal Green.

My view is that the Unionists had mobilized enough of their ‘core’ vote over Home Rule to have been favourites to win the next election planned for 1914/15.   Furthermore, by 1914, the Primrose League had arranged promises of accommodation for 8,000 refugees from Ulster, parties of British ‘swing voters’ were being escorted around Ireland to demonstrate the supposed backwardness of Southern Ireland, and the ‘British League for the Support of Ulster and the Union’ had arranged its own British Covenant (with hundreds of thousands of signatories) and was openly drilling volunteers.  Indeed in June 1914 King George V was alarmed to hear rumours of 100,000 volunteers preparing to leave Liverpool to fight in Ulster.

This has been forgotten by history, but there was real anxiety in 1914 that both Ireland and Britain were on the verge of civil war in 1914. The Belfast Northern Whig wrote that:

“to bring civil war to our loyal and peaceful province may be a slight matter to Mr. Asquith, but are they prepared to face it in Glasgow, Liverpool and Lancashire?”

The Liverpool Courier was even more concerned,

“The first blood spilled in Ulster would raise a storm in the large towns of England and Scotland … the problem of the working classes of Liverpool, Glasgow, Barrow, Manchester and Newcastle would be difficult to handle.   We are afraid that the position in English towns would be even worse than in Belfast for the men there are organized, and they have been taight to obey military orders.  We don’t care even to imagine what would happen in Liverpool …”

Belfast and Bosnia

When we think of 1914 – we tend to focus on Bosnia rather than Belfast. Yet in hurrying past this episode towards the ‘Guns of August’, or in our desire to see the Edwardians as the parents of our modern world , we fail to apprehend the endurance of older political impulses in pre-war British society; indeed how else could we explain the 1.75 million volunteers who flooded willingly into Kitchener’s new armies in the next two years, without this understanding?

For in its scale, message and impact, support for the Union between 1911 and 1914 provides the link between the  emergence of jingoism in the 1870s, the ‘mafficking crowds’ of 1900 and the extraordinary rush to the colours in 1914, a patriotism that had found a new expression and renewed energy through support for Protestant Ulster.

Although the British public is commonly felt to be apathetic and indifferent to Irish matters – what role did their opposition to Home Rule play in the creation of modern Northern Ireland? When a Drumcree Orangeman in 1996 was scoffed at for presuming that ‘England will rise in our defence if we are not let down the Garvaghy Road”, he may have recalled an Ulster folk memory of hundreds of thousands of Edwardian Englishmen – and Scotsmen and Welshmen – who did assemble angrily in support of protestant Ulster, at a time when English newspapers could declare with confidence that ‘Ulster will not have Home Rule, England will not allow it to be forced upon her.’


The trouble with Troubled Families

To really drive change, Ms Casey might usefully just copy the strategy and practices that were so efficient for the Stasi. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Letter to the Guardian

The government’s plans to ‘turn around the lives’ of ‘troubled families’ have led to an avalanche of comment. In the main, this has been a curious mix of silly hyperbole (such as the above) and hand-wringing platitudes – with Barnardo’s urging us ‘stop viewing troubled families as problems and start seeing them as people’, and the Children’s Society helpfully reminding us to ‘look much more broadly at the huge issues affecting this country’s children and their families’.  It is also an issue that echoes ancient ‘structure versus agency’ debates, and plays directly to the prejudices of both the Left and the Right – with some contributions from Guardian and Telegraph commentators exemplars of a sort of comfort zone, saloon bar journalism.

I should declare an interest here: I’ve been working on this agenda in my day job as a mid-level municipal functionary.  I too have scratched my head at some of the government’s (very loose) guidance, but have come to see it as a useful development that has the potential to do some good in a vexed area.

One of the main challenges facing any public sector reform is organizational inertia. ‘Turning round the oil tanker’ is very tough and sometimes you require a jolt to get things moving. This is why those commentators who have fixated on the almost certain inaccuracy of the government’s figure of 120,000 (the Staggers referred to ‘zombie stats’) miss the point completely. Patrick Butler points out that this was ‘more of a guess than an estimate … Not a good basis for policy.’ But this is a very complex area involving potentially thousands of mutually exclusive public sector datasets, with no current consensus on definitions, eligibility criteria and assessment.

Time is money, and navel gazing about data analysis often feels like an excuse to do nothing.  As too does the kneejerk reaction of Zoe Williams in the Guardian that this is about ‘the demonisation of the poor, with the aim, in the long run, of simply slicing off these families at the bottom of what we think of as “society’.’, and her rather naïve recommendation that ‘if you want to intervene with families, you do so in a voluntary, unstigmatising way, with a local hub providing many different services, from parenting advice to English lessons. You could call them Sure Start centres …’ (In any case, was anyone ever clear what children’s centres were actually for?) The metropolitan left’s squeamishness about ‘stigma’ reminds me of Norman Dennis’s concept of ‘social Micawberism’ (brought to my attention by the inestimable Michael Merrick) where troubled families ‘could be just as good as long as they were given enough money: [parenthood] is only a matter of cash’.

What we do know is that (a.) the public sector faces a funding crisis (finding the resources for ‘demand led’ services such as adults and children’s social care has the potential to bankrupt local authorities), and (b.) everyone at the chalk face knows that there is a hard core of families that absorb a disproportionate amount of time and effort – and that the collective efforts of the public sector aren’t making enough of an impact on their lives.

(It seems to me that the government’s ballpark figures were simply a reasonable accounting tool to ensure fair funding allocations to local authorities to get the wheels turning.  My experience is that this programme has been a useful lever to bring the various arms of the state together to figure out a better way of working, as well as a handy pot of cash to grease the wheels.)

In my view, the most obvious way ahead is a super ‘lead professional’ approach – i.e. work out who’s currently involved with the family, to then agree who should take the lead in working with them from that point on.  This would move us away from the current parade of disconnected professionals knocking at their door, towards building strong personal relationships and trust between a ‘keyworker’ and a family.  I confess this is technocratic – and reminds me of T. S Eliot ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good’ – but if we are going to invest in family support services (which, lest we forget, are more remedial and ‘hands on’, than more observational and dispassionate child protection social work models) then we must ensure that it has a chance of working.

Where Cristina Odone completely misses the point is to argue that (in Louise Casey’s words) “getting on the sofa” with troubled families will be of little use to an unemployed alcoholic who’s been claiming disability benefits for years – or a single mother who has had three children by the time she’s 20, never held a job, and is now crippled with depression.” This would be to presume that this is happening already.  Getting staff onto sofas to intensively problem-solve and ‘grip’ the family’s problems has, hitherto at least, been tough to coordinate because of the complexity of the public service landscape.

Therefore, alongside ‘family contract’ approaches that can bring bring rigour and focus, we should also move towards the presumption of one key worker per family.  As David Lammy put it “in healthcare we each have a GP who acts as a gatekeeper to other specialists. The same ought to be true for the family.”

This is challenge to the Right as much as the Left, as David Blackburn wrote ‘the state must be made to work better’, echoing Francis Fukuyama who urges the right in America and Britain to emulate Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘strong-state conservatism’. Fukuyama: ‘It [the American government] needs to be smaller but also stronger and more effective. And this will not happen unless people see public service as a calling rather than as a despised occupation for people unable to make it in the private sector.’

So much for technocracy, what about the larger societal issues that have led us here? The decline of manufacturing, and the nuclear family are obvious places to start, but I think we must add the ‘nationalization of parenting’. Jennie Bristow argues persuasively that ‘instead of being the boss of their own homes, parents are situated as mediators in the relationship between the child and the state’, and told that their primary responsibility ‘is not to do right by their child but to show that they are doing the right thing according to the current parenting orthodoxy.’  This has a disorientating effect, and has drastically diminished parental authority, which, in her view, saw its culmination in the riots of 2011.

Bristow draws on the work of Christopher Lasch who charted the growing intrusion of social science “experts” undermining the family’s vital role as the moral and social cornerstone of society.  In effect outsourcing the socialization process to official regulation rather than organic structures. Even I am old enough to recall adults other than my own parents chastising me for my misbehavior, in a way that seems unthinkable now.  All this has contributed to an emasculation of community life and their ability of neighbourhoods to police themselves and confront troubled families in their own midst – families who become, in the words of Eric Pickles, ‘fluent in social work’, and as quick to explain away their misbehaviour as the gangs in West Side Story.

It is interesting that initiatives such as the Tyne Gateway project (which I had a small hand in setting up) and the Swindon LIFE programme (do watch the video) are trying to revive the capacity of communities to help themselves, and, the process, re-imagine how the state should work. Whether these projects are sustainable or not, it is clear that we need a new paradigm.  Watch this space.