Delving into the history of the Town Treasures

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The town treasures were again on display this year as part of the Greater Morpeth Heritage Open Days.

What’s special about them is that they are not just exhibits. They are all connected with Morpeth, either as it once was or as it is now.

The Town Hutch is 500 years old. Much of Hodgson’s History of Morpeth was composed from its contents, including this, from 1513:

“It is ordered and concluded by Thomas lord Dacre, the burgesses and commonality of Morpeth, that they shall have a chest for the common wealth with seven keys and locks, and the said chest to stand in the inner chamber of the Toll Booth, and the aldermen of the seven crafts to have the keeping of the seven keys of the said locks...provided that the bailiffs of the town for the time being shall have one key of the said chamber-door so that the said chamber be kept honestly dried and arrayed.”

On December 26, 1835, the first election took place under the Municipal Reform Act for 12 councillors. The poll was taken by the bailiffs, who were, in effect, presiding over their own dissolution.

The councillors held their first meeting on December 31 when they elected four aldermen, making 16 in all, and also resolved: “to place in the custody of Mr William Woodman, as the Agent of the Councillors, all papers deeds and documents securities for money contained in the Town’s Hutch....And the same were accordingly so deposited.”

This minute cannot, however, be taken at face value. After a flurry of meetings in January, the council held a quarterly meeting on February 9, then an ordinary meeting on March 30.

At some point between these two dates, the council summoned the aldermen of the seven companies to bring their keys and open the hutch. Some did not attend so the council sent for a locksmith.

A few freemen then sat on the Hutch to assert their ownership, but to no avail. Inside, amongst the papers and rolled-up deeds, was a banknote for £500.

The minute of December makes it sound as if it all happened then, but here at the end of March we have: “It was resolved that the £500 be immediately invested at interest in Messrs Chapman’s bank.”

The money was used to pave the footpaths of the main streets. The papers were removed to William Woodman's office, and the hutch ceased to be the repository of the Corporation’s official records.

The muzzle-loading gun, just above the Hutch, was used by the guards in the Watch House in St Mary’s churchyard, built in 1830 to deter body-snatchers.

The jockey scales were for weighing the jockeys at Morpeth races. It was one of many institutions, including county meetings, the Easter sessions, high class shops, etc, that allowed the ruling classes to attend to both public duty and private pleasure at Morpeth, and so contributed to its prosperity.

The makers were Henry Pooley & Son, founded circa 1790, but the scales could be as recent as 1897. The seat was re-upholstered in the 1980s by Mr George Green, of Hadston, then General Foreman in Castle Morpeth’s housing department direct labour force.

The picture of Auld Archie used to be in the Post Office in Oldgate.

Archibald Elliott was the Widdrington letter carrier. He was 86, 4ft tall and could neither read nor write. But, says Fordyce in his Local Records: “None could deliver a message better, and seldom, if ever, did he make a mistake with any letters entrusted to his keeping.”

Archie and his donkey Billy were drowned in May 1847 while crossing the ford at Ulgham in a flood.

The cylindrical object is a telescope. In 1871 a subscription was raised in memory of George, 7th Earl of Carlisle, to buy reference books, mainly scientific works, for Morpeth Mechanics’ Institute.

The donation also included the telescope and an equally fine microscope.

The Institute had a Field Club, the members of which went on outings and collected specimens to mount and examine under the microscope. If an astronomical event was forecast, such as an eclipse of the moon, the members would assemble at the Town Hall, when they would set up the telescope on the roof to watch the eclipse.

The Institute closed in 1919, and the collection reverted to the Town Council.

The Health Department used the microscope to examine food samples, etc, but the telescope lived in its box.

When Castle Morpeth moved to Longhirst Hall, a lot of stuff was sent to the saleroom, including the microscope. I suppose nobody knew that it belonged to Morpeth, and that the council was only the trustee of it.

I quite believed that the telescope had been sold as well so I was delighted to find it back where it belongs, at the Town Hall.

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, 48 pages, illustrated, is a study of the Anglo-Saxon church in Northumberland. Available from Morpeth TIC, Newgate News and T&G Allan, or direct from the author. Email rhcu@btinternet.com, price £6 post free.