Town has always faced tough times

Thomas Walker, millwright, had his premises on King Street.  This millstone, found on the Swinney's site in 1986, may have come from his 'building yard'
Thomas Walker, millwright, had his premises on King Street. This millstone, found on the Swinney's site in 1986, may have come from his 'building yard'
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In the latest part of his series on all things Morpathia, ROGER HAWKINS looks at the economic difficulties faced by townsfolk during the 19th century.

TIMES were bad for business in the early 1840s, and bankruptcies were on the increase:

“BANKRUPTCIES IN 1840. - The total number of bankruptcies in England and Wales gazetted last year, was 1,425, being an excess of 342 over the year 1839. In persons connected with manufactures there were, in 1840, no less than 336 bankruptcies, being an excess of 113 over the previous year. In the pursuits of agriculture there were 126, being an excess of 21; and in miscellaneous professions and trades, there were 963, being an excess of 208 (in the textile industries, the linen and woollen trades were the worst hit); in iron foundries 29, being 25 more than last year; and in miscellaneous manufactures 129, being an increase of 65. In miscellaneous trades there was a decrease only among innkeepers and victuallers, of whom the numbers were 106, being 8 less than last year.”

– Newcastle Chronicle, January 30, 1841

Morpeth was not immune. Mr Thomas Walker was an agricultural engineer whose premises were in King Street, which is now represented by Stanley Terrace and the walkway behind the bus station.

He was in some difficulty, which he sought to alleviate with a sale of stock:

“TO BE SOLD BY AUCTION, BY JOHN RIDDELL, AUCTIONEER. At the Building Yard of Mr Thomas Walker, Engineer, Morpeth, on Wednesday, the 3d of February, 1841, at Three o’Clock in the Afternoon, A DOUBLE BITTLING ENGINE Complete, 1 Teazer, 1 Rasing Mill, Eight Feet long, a Second-hand Wheat Screen, 1 New Winnowing Machine, 2 Trees (about 70 feet) of well-seasoned Larch Timber, 2 Pieces of Oak Timber, fit for Jib Crane Necks, or Water Wheel Axles, a Thrashing Machine of Four Horse Power, standing at Parkwall, near Netherwitton. Mr. SNOWBALL has kindly proffered that, on being applied to, he will send a Person to show the Thrashing Machine.”

Newcastle Courant, January 22, 1841 and Newcastle Chronicle, January 30, 1841

An engineer in those days worked in wood as much as metal, but it is a puzzle to guess what some of the machines were. A winnowing machine was a fan to blow away the chaff, while a wheat screen was one that shook the grain against a coarsely woven cloth to separate out the dust.

A bittling engine was a machine with heavy hammers for beating flax, or it could have been a local name for a fulling mill, which operated on the same principle. There were still linen weavers at work in Morpeth in the early 19th century, but they were dying out and it may be that the bittling engine was a white elephant.

A teazer was probably a machine for carding wool, or possibly a shredder, but if so, what it shredded remains a mystery. That leaves the rasing mill. Neither Brockett nor the Oxford English Dictionary are of any help with ‘rase’, but this machine is later described as a racing mill, which possibly means a machine for scratching or scarifying something.

Is there somebody out there who knows what these things really were?

The brave attempt to stave off bankruptcy failed:

“TO BE SOLD BY AUCTION, By JOHN RIDDELL, Auctioneer, Upon the Premises of Mr Thomas Walker, Engineer, Morpeth, (By Order of the Assignees under a Deed of Trust,) On Wednesday, the 3rd Day of March, 1841, and the two following Days, at 11 o’Clock , each Day, All the unattached MACHINERY, STOCK-IN-TRADE, HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, and other Effects, upon the said Premises; comprising one Engine, of 10-Horse Power, nearly finished; one Racing Mill, Framing for one Teazer, Machine for sifting Oatmeal, 57 Sheets of Wire, of Nos. from 32 to 69, Spike Nails, 18 Files, 24 Card-Cleaners, 12 Shuttles, 72 Pickers, 2 Saws, 20 Felloes (or Circles) for Thrashers, Frame for Winnowing Machine, Washing Machine, 2 Band Wheels, Mandrels and Bits, Dogs and Rests for Lathes, Benches, Wheel for Thrasher, Rake for ditto, Long Saw, Grindstone, 2 Pairs of powerful Bellows, 2 Anvils, large Beam and Scales, Metal Weights, Sheet Iron; about four Tons of Bar Iron, which will be put up in Lots of 2 Cwt. each; Scrap Iron, 2 Dozen Hammers and Chissels, Taps; Patterns, in great Variety; Pullies, Blocks, 22 Feet of Oak Timber, Memel and Larch Timber, 6 pieces of Alder, Refuse Wood, &c., &c.

“Also, all the HOUSEHOLD FURNITURE, Particulars of which will be advertised by Handbills. N.B. The Sale will begin with the Machinery, at the Building Yard, on Wednesday, 3rd of March, at 1 o’Clock. The above Freehold Premises will shortly be offered for Sale by Auction – further Advertisement in due Time. (One Concern.)”

– Newcastle Courant, February 19, 1841

This is somewhat easier to understand. The card-cleaners would be a kind of brush, probably with wire bristles, for cleaning a carding machine. The shuttles were presumably weavers’ tools, and not something different known by the same name, and I imagine that pickers were also something used in one of the textile trades.

The assignees were the men appointed by the bankrupt’s creditors to sell off his assets and pay them what he owed. The expression ‘One Concern’ was to inform the official in London who calculated the advertisement duty, that this was not two separate advertisements masquerading as one for the purpose of tax evasion. Mr Walker’s bankruptcy — or perhaps insolvency, which was slightly different — looked set fair to have a happy ending.

Whether or not the sale raised enough to pay off his debts, it looks as if most of his tools and materials were bought by his son, James:

“THOMAS WALKER, ENGINEER, MILLWRIGHT, &c., TENDERS his grateful Thanks to the Public for past Favours, and begs to inform them that the Business, in all its several Branches, will continue to be carried on by his Son, James Walker, whom he humbly recommends to their Notice and Support, and from whom further Particulars will shortly appear by Advertisement. Morpeth, March 10, 1841.”

Newcastle Courant, March 12, 1841

It was not to be:

“DIED. At Woodhorn Mill, on the 6th inst., James, son of Mr Thos. Walker mill wright, Morpeth; he was unfortunately struck with the wands of a mill a few days previously.”

– Newcastle Courant, May 14,1841

This sad little story is not quite all we know about the Walker family.

They will certainly be in the 1841 census, which you can consult at Morpeth Library. Thomas Walker is in two of the directories on the Historical Directories website, and King Street is on John Wood’s town map, accessible in northumberland.gov.uk/communities.

Yet more sources of information, such as birth, marriage and burial records, are available at Woodhorn.