Packed programme of talks for Antiquarians

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MORPETH Antiquarian Society began its winter programme of lectures on September 30 in St James’ Community Centre.

Speaker for the evening was David Saunders, Professor of Russian History at Newcastle University, whose subject title was An Appealing Eerie Happenstance — NE England and Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Professor Saunders gave an interesting insight into relationships between our area, St Petersburg and Siberia.

The section about trading relations included Charles Mitchell, who began to construct ice breakers for Russia in 1857 at Walker and this resulted in him being asked to build a shipyard in St Petersburg to train Russians in ship building skills in 1862.

He sent his brother-in-law, 19-year-old Henry Swan, to supervise the Russian contract and build five ships.

During the 1870s, Joseph Wiggins was the pioneer in demonstrating the practicability of trade relations by sea between the North East and the northern portion of Siberia via the Yenisei River. His ship carried rails for the Trans-Siberian Railway.

A ferry, built on Tyneside, was taken apart, packaged and rebuilt on a lakeside as a link in the Trans-Siberian Railway. Was this the first flat-pack?

Although Russia is rich in coal and iron deposits, transport was easier by sea than by land over a country with little infrastructure.

Coal from the north of England warmed the people of St Petersburg and kept their industry working well into the 20th Century. During German blockades of the Baltic in 20th Century wars many Russians died from freezing temperatures.

Turning to political relations, he spoke about political satirist and naval architect Yevgeny Zamyatin, who lived in Jesmond around 1916 supervising the building of ice-breakers for Russia. His literary works inspired George Orwell to write Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Sergius Stepniak escaped from Russia in 1878 after stabbing to death the Russian chief of police in St Petersburg.

Stepniak formed the Society of Friends for Russian Freedom with Robert Spence-Watson, founder of Armstrong College, and Thomas Burt, MP for Morpeth.

Professor Saunders’ final story concerned Willie Fischer, born in 1903 in Benwell and educated in Monkseaton.

His father had come from Russia to work in the Tyneside shipyards, where he became involved in smuggling arms and Bolshevik literature back to Russia.

Unable to arouse industrial unrest in Britain, the family returned to Russia in 1921. As a spy, Colonel Willie Fischer, under the alias Rudolf Able, was exchanged for CIA agent Gary Powers in 1962 at the height of the Cold War.

The next meeting of Morpeth Antiquarian Society will be in St James’ Community Centre on Friday, October 28 at 7.15pm. The guest speaker will be Keith Hartnell, who will talk about Bygone Morpeth — films by Tom Temple.