It seems odd to begin a series on Morpeth Historians with a man who wrote hardly anything on the history of Morpeth, but in fact much of the history we have is thanks to him.
William Woodman was born in 1806, and educated at Morpeth Grammar School and Bruce’s Academy in Newcastle. His father, Benjamin, was 13 times bailiff so he inherited an established position in the town’s government. He was elected a free-brother of the Tanners’ company at 14, but as the son of a freeman, served only a nominal apprenticeship.
He was articled to Anthony Charlton, solicitor, made a freeman in 1830, admitted a solicitor in 1832, and became Secretary to the Morpeth Gas Company.
He had a naturally commanding personality. In evidence in the Morpeth Common case, Mr Christopher Tait, mason, described an incident when he laid gas pipes through the corporation stackyard on Mill Island:
‘Opened the wall and gave orders for the trench...Was foreman. Remembers Wm. Bean, George Todd and others coming down...They wished to put a stop to laying the pipes thro’ the stackyard...said they would take the pipes up...Remembers Mr Woodman being there...He said to them at their peril touch a pipe there... They all went away and the pipes were laid in peace.’
Another incident, as told by the late Alec Tweddle, concerns the special harvest hirings of Irish labourers. The sole regular police officer, Thomas Wigham, was surrounded by a crowd in the market place, one of whom held a scythe to his throat. Woodman rushed up brandishing a small pistol, and the crowd fled. When Morpeth Town Council was formed in 1836, he was immediately elected Town Clerk. The freemen grudgingly accepted the council’s right to the corporate properties, but kept possession of Morpeth Common and the stackyard. The resulting Morpeth Common case lasted until 1840. The council’s side was managed entirely by Woodman, supported by the reformers on the council against Tory moves to give in to the freemen.
He was involved, as Clerk to the Rothbury Board of Guardians, in a miserable dispute at Rothbury.
The rector, the Revd Charles George Vernon Harcourt, alleged that the relieving officer,
Henry Boag, was incompetent and corrupt. He pursued his campaign with paranoid obsession, convinced that some of the guardians were corrupt, and that Woodman and the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, Sir John Walsham, were concealing the facts.
Boag killed himself in April 1841, leaving a long letter addressed to Woodman:
‘I do not see how I can get out of this business...I declare to my Maker that I was not conscious of it; the way we keep the books one can never see how the money stands...You have been one of the best friends I ever met with...I see no use in undergoing the trial on Monday, because all I can say or do is, that it was a perfect mistake on my part — not intentional. I am perfectly innocent. I would not on any account have the Rector or Thompson, the curate, to bury me...I am, my dear Mr Woodman, very sincerely your’s, Henry Boag.’
Rector Harcourt got the case investigated by George Cornewall Lewis, one of the actual Poor Law Commissioners. He held an inquiry into Harcourt’s charges, and into counter charges by William Forster, the vice-chairman, ‘against Mr Harcourt, for violent and improper conduct in the board-room’.
‘After a long and exhaustive examination, Mr Manisty (Mr Harcourt’s solicitor) said he abandoned all charges against the clerk and the guardians. Mr Busby, solicitor for the Guardians, demanded the same for the late Mr Boag...Mr Manisty said he abandoned all charges against all of the parties...Twelve persons present then bore testimony to the character of the late Mr Henry Boag...that he was a trustworthy, good hearted, honest, and upright man...and very attentive to the poor, often giving them money out of his own pocket.’ (Newcastle Courant, June 25, 1841).
Woodman was given a dinner at Rothbury, ‘as a testimonial of the high respect in which he was held by the inhabitants’, but resigned soon after because of the rector’s abusive behaviour. (Newcastle Journal, September 4).
Although he was an Anglican, Woodman suffered much from his own clergy. In 1838 he published an open letter to the curate, the Revd Thomas Finch:
‘When I have heard you preach, I have been reminded of the just observation of a Pagan author, that ‘the fury of Christians towards each other, exceeded the fury of the beasts against man’...You have derided the dissenter, and...Roman Catholic...when it would have been more becoming...to imitate the piety...of some of the Roman Catholic and dissenting Clergymen...from whom an extraordinary degree of wretchedness and poverty only seems to call for the more attention and respect.’
He had to address a similarly frank letter to Mr Ekins, the rector, after Ekins implied that the reason no school was built 20 years before, with money that he held, was the fault of Woodman’s late father.
In a more seemly dispute, each man quoting New Testament Greek, Woodman challenged the high church practices of the new rector, the Hon. and Revd Francis Grey, over the introduction of chanting in the services.
John Crawford Hodgson’s Memoir of Woodman says: ‘His ability, industry, and single-eyed devotion to the true interests of his clients soon procured a large share of the best class of business...(He was) successively town clerk of Morpeth, clerk to the justices of the West and South divisions of Coquetdale Ward, clerk to the Rothbury Poor Law Guardians, and treasurer of the County Courts of Northumberland and Durham.
‘To him it is largely owing that Morpeth is an important station on the main line...and not merely (on) a loop line or branch. In 1849 he prepared the evidence...which led to a revolution in the sanitary condition of Morpeth.’
It was above all the Morpeth Grammar School case that demonstrated ‘his keen insight, his wide grasp and marvellous aptitude for details’.
The 1552 endowment included five-and-a-half farms in Netherwitton, being strips in the common fields. A suit to recover them was commenced in 1710, but then suspended against a payment of £100p.a. pending final settlement. Woodman re-opened the case in 1832, going to immense trouble to find out where the school’s lands actually were.
The trustees finally got possession in 1855. Even then, there was a further challenge, only resolved in 1870 when the owner of Netherwitton, Walter Blackett Trevelyan, bought the school out for £15,000 and paid its costs.
Woodman published a historical monograph on Ulgham, supplied John Hodgson with more material for the History of Morpeth than he could possibly use, and preserved and edited the Newminster Chartulary. He also contributed an article on Chibburn Preceptory to the Archaeological Journal for 1860, and ‘Old Customs of Morpeth’ in Proceedings of the Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club, 1892.
He was an indefatigable keeper and tabulator of records. Northumberland Archives have 20 volumes bequeathed by him to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries, 12 of ‘Morpeth Collectanea’ – maps, papers, photographs, etc – and eight on Morpeth Grammar School.