From wilderness to grazing land, looking back at the fascinating history of Morpeth Common

The common herd's house which became Morpeth Golf Club's clubhouse in 1922.
The common herd's house which became Morpeth Golf Club's clubhouse in 1922.

IN 1690, the Corporation embarked on a five-year scheme to improve the common by hoeing the whins. It cost £100.

But 70 years later, except for an area of about seven acres, it was a wilderness once again, with reeds in the hollows and whins everywhere, unenclosed and undrained.

The Stewards for the Improvement of the Common were first appointed in 1752, two from each company.

They drained and ploughed parts of the common, maintained hedges and roads, kept the town bull, bred young bulls to sell and so on.

Any man who was ‘free’ of one of the seven companies of Morpeth, or his widow, could stint two cows on the common, typically at a cost of 2/6 per animal and a load of manure to improve the soil.

The stewards employed the hind as ploughman and general labourer and the herd to look after the cattle. The herd’s house stood at the corner of Whalton Road.

The road, however, is no longer in the same place, having been diverted to make way for the Wannie Line.

The bull paddock was just to the north of the house, with the cow loan, for milking, nearby.

The following is a typical hiring agreement:

February 16th 1830. Thomas Proctor has agreed with the Stewards of Morpeth Common to continue their Herd for the ensuing Year upon the following terms, viz.

To have Seven Shillings and Sixpence per Week, one poke of Potatoes planted, Coals led (he paying for them at the first), to feed one Pig in the year, and to have half a guinea per annum for keeping his House open for the convenience of those who Stint the common.

The terms for the hind, Joseph Summers, were similar, except that he had 7/- per week, could keep six hens and a cock, and one cow summer and winter, and did not have to keep open house.

His house was near where High Common Farm is now.

The signatories were Luke Nicholson, Amos Atkinson, George Watson, John Cranston, Richard Wallace, Wm. Brady, George Burn, Robert Nichol, William Daglish, John Oliver, Thomas Henderson and George Todd. Joseph Summers made his mark.

The stewards took pride in what they did. A memorandum of 1834 says: ‘The following were Stewards of the Common when the new Plantation was made.’

They were: William Elliott and George Watson (Merchants & Tailors), Thomas Thompson and William Lyons (Tanners), Thomas Harbottle and James Anderson (Fullers & Dyers), John Millar and John Harbottle (Smiths), George Beaumont and James Patterson (Cordwainers, i.e. shoemakers), Jerh. Fenwick and James Henderson (Weavers), and George White and William Brunton (Butchers).

William Gourley, the Clerk, was the Master of the Corporation Free School, but augmented his salary by acting as clerk to the stewards.

Morpeth Town Council came into being in 1836, but the freemen would not surrender the common to its members.

The resulting court case, known as Doe v. Brady, has left us a treasure-trove of information in evidence given before a barrister at the Queen’s Head in 1839.

Robert Brown, now living at Cullercoats, said about a witness:

He was born and brought up at the hind’s house on the common. Was hired as a young man by the stewards at the time his father was hind.

The freemen of Morpeth were in possession at that time of both commons. This was about 40 years ago and more. The two commons adjoin in part to each other.

They were always diked off, but there was a gate leading from one to the other. His brother at one time occupied 100 acres of the common, more or less, about 30 years ago. This was of the Low Common.

My brother went to America and I immediately succeeded him in the occupation of the same land. I paid rent to the bailiffs.

I now remember that I kept the value of the land I let the herd have for potatoes from the rent.

Witness occupied 100 acres more or less. There was a house with it.

It is called the High Common house. It is situated on the Low Common.

I have not been there these 20 years. The amount of rent I paid was £100 a year.

Morpeth Common, then called the Low Common, was owned by the Corporation. The High Common, or Gubeon, was leased from the Earl of Carlisle.

Remembers hay and corn being frequently sold off the Low Common. Witness has himself bought hay and corn from the stewards and paid them for it. Thinks the clerk was Thomas Bowman – he is dead.

Does not recollect whether the stewards ever demanded the rent, but remembers that he got orders from the bailiffs not to pay it them.

Remembers the bailiffs to whom he paid his rent: Robert Fenwick, James Railston, Watson twice, & thinks Mr Woodman twice; knows he paid Wm. Woodman the last.

Never knew of the bailiffs interfering with me or with my father as hind. Received his orders from the stewards.

The lease I held under was prepared by Mr. Wilson the Atty. Thinks Mr. Brumell was then the attorney of the bailiffs. Signed it in Mr. Wilson’s office).

John Thompson, a farmer aged 66, lived at Benridge Lough House:

Is a free brother of the Smith’s Company. It is 52 years since he was elected a free brother, 40 years since I was elected a freeman. Was entitled by patrimony.

His father was a freeman. Was steward of the Smith’s company first about 1800. Continued steward till 1825. The hay and corn grown on the common was set up on the common.

The stewards met the first Thursday of every month. They met at any public house where the box was kept. It was then kept at one Edward Hedley’s, a publican at the Black Swan he thinks.

Mr Thompson said his father, who had also been a steward, told him that the stewards’ duties were to assist in improving the common. The barrister asked him, ‘You say it was all wild land at that time?’

‘Yes, it was all whin.’ He went on, ‘Cattle could not be admitted on the common without the signatures of both stewards & bailiffs.

‘As steward could not put in as many cattle as they liked. Had no private advantage as stewards.’

He ended by recalling the audit dinner when the bailiffs examined the stewards’ accounts, ‘The bailiffs came to the dinner & supper as a matter of right. They both sat together at the head of the table. The Clerk sat at the foot.’

Standing back, it is hard to see what use the Barons of the Court of Exchequer in London could have had for all the evidence collected at the Queen’s Head.

In the end, they decided the case on purely legal principles but it seems as if they wanted a narrative to give them a feel for what was going on in this remote corner of the kingdom and, happily, we have it to this day.

l Documents quoted from the Northumberland Archieves at Woodhorn.