A backwater or a giant of industrial development?

The Glo-Bed-Rail sculpture.
The Glo-Bed-Rail sculpture.

BEDLINGTON was of some importance in Anglo-Saxon times. Morpeth was not, but it became so in Norman times. In 1553 it became a Parliamentary constituency, and this in spite the fact that it had no great mercantile interests, and nobody of sufficient wealth and ability to represent it.

Morpeth’s real importance was its position on the Great North Road. Stage coaches began to ply between London and Edinburgh in the late 17th Century, and the town had a post office. The mails to outlying places, including Bedlington, were directed through Morpeth as the post town. Wagons came in from the surrounding villages, each having its house of call at a particular pub. They, or letter carriers going on foot or in light carts, carried the mail to and from Morpeth to link villages and country houses with the wider world.

In short, Morpeth had a hinterland, defined by the local transport network and by its status as a post town.

Bedlington, the second most important place in this hinterland, emerged only slowly from medieval obscurity.

John Wallis wrote in 1769: ‘The village confifts of one long and wide ftreet, and forms a kind of floping avenue to the River Blyth, which is the fouthern boundary of the fhire, and glides paft it between two fteep banks, in broken murmurs, and fupplies a large iron-work with water.’

It was little changed when Eneas Mackenzie wrote in 1825: ‘All the inhabitants belong to the established church, except a small congregation of Presbyterians and a few Methodists.

‘There is a school attached to the vicarage, in which reading, writing, arithmetic, &c. are taught. Besides this, there are three other schools; and both the classics and the mathematics may be learned here. A boarding school for ladies, and a more humble school for poor girls, compose the educational establishments.

‘Labourers are well employed and tolerably comfortable at this place. There is a garden attached to almost every cottage in the parish, and which is usually cultivated with emulous industry. There are two benefit societies well supported here, and eight public houses for refreshment and amusement.

‘About a mile from the town is one of the oldest and most extensive iron-works in this part of the kingdom. The manufactory is built near the river, and is certainly as romantic a situation as can be well conceived. The banks on each side of the river rise to a most tremendous height, whilst the impatient waters hasten along rapidly between them, and, in passing over the dam, form a most beautiful cataract.

‘This concern belonged to the Mailings of Sunderland, and was considered very unsuccessful. Messrs. Hawkes and Co. of Gateshead, afterwards extended and carried on these works, which are at present the property of Messrs. Biddulph, Gordon, and Co., London. They give employment to a great number of workmen, who manufacture bolt, bar, and sheet iron, of various descriptions, which are conveyed from the works down the river in lighters, and shipped at Blyth for the London market. These works have recently been enlarged by many new buildings.

‘Adjoining is a school on the Lancasterian plan, supported chiefly by the Iron Company.’

Mackenzie manages to put a positive light on everything. Pigot’s Directory for 1828-9 is less flattering: ‘With the exception of the iron works here, which are supposed to be the largest in the north of England, this place contains nothing worthy of notice, either to the inquisitive tourist or the man of business... Letters are despatched to and received from MORPETH every day by foot post.’

Pigot was too dismissive. You can find the directory on historicaldirectories.org and really Bedlington looks much like anywhere else.

It has the usual trades, such as blacksmiths, joiners and stonemasons, and likewise grocers, drapers and public houses, some of them giving their address as ‘near Iron works’. Bedlington still had two nail makers, Robert Charlton and Philip Gibson. They, of course, were masters. The actual nailers were their employees.

And there were the Misses Piles. They were evidently ladies of genteel upbringing who nevertheless had to earn their living. They appear twice, once as dressmakers and elsewhere as the proprietors of a boarding and day school.

In short, Bedlington possessed all the usual amenities of civilised life. It obviously consisted, however, of several distinct communities. The town had its benefit societies, schools and pubs.

A mile or so away, in Blyth Dene, was the iron works with its own school. And, separate from either of these, three coal mines had been commenced.

Bedlington Iron and Engine Works by Evan Martin gives us a comprehensive account of its development. If you search on-line, there are several websites about it. Most of them quote Mr Martin extensively, though not always with proper acknowledgement. Another excellent source, available on openlibrary.org, is Vol. IX of the Northumberland County History by H.H.E. Craster.

In the early 1600s, a corn mill stood at the top of what was later to be the site of the iron works. It was already old and paid an ‘ancient rent of £4’ to the Bishop of Durham.

In 1736 a Newcastle iron master called William Thomlinson founded the first industrial works nearby, on the Bebside side of the river. This was a slitting mill, producing blanks for the nails made in workshops on site. Thomlinson died in 1737, but the business carried on.

I will try to convey an idea of Bedlington’s industrial importance in the picture, above.

It is of the Glo-Bed-Rail sculpture, with Furnace Bridge in the background.

The bridge was at the centre of the iron and engineering complex and is the only part that survives more or less complete.

The sculpture is by Tom Maley, who also created Robin of Pegswood. The globe is made with railway track and commemorates the invention in 1820 of the wedge-shaped malleable iron rail by John Birkinshaw, the principal agent of the Bedlington works.

Birkinshaw’s rail made long-distance railways possible, had a global impact, and was made in Bedlington.

The gentleman looking at the plaque proved to be a mine of information, having made a detailed study of the site. I didn’t get his name, so I hope he recognises himself from the picture.

Bedlington exported locomotives to Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Persia and Canada, and supplied boilers etc. to Robert Stephenson & Co so its influence extended to many parts of the world.

The locomotive De Arend (Eagle) was supplied to the Amsterdam-Haarlem Railway in 1839.

Along with its sister engine De Snelheid (Speed), it headed the first passenger train in Holland.

Michael Longridge, the man behind the engine works, did not tolerate bad work.

As a result, Bedlington became the training ground of choice for young engineers, including premium apprentices from well-to-do families.

Many of Longridge’s apprentices went on to become eminent in their own right.

The greatest of them all was Sir Daniel Gooch.