Morpeth praised as one of the healthiest towns in the kingdom

Morpeth from the Postern in 1876.
Morpeth from the Postern in 1876.

The earliest guidebook to Morpeth was the Handbook to Morpeth and the Neighbourhood, printed and published by D.F. Wilson, Newgate Street, in 1876.

Newcastle City Library has a battered copy of the first edition, and this is the only one I know of, but facsimile copies of the second edition, of 1884, published by the Newgate Press, are available at Appleby’s Bookshop.

David Forrester Wilson was an enterprising printer and bookseller. The front cover of the Newcastle copy is missing, but the back cover advertises a View of Morpeth, and another of the Interior of St James’s Church, at 2/6 and 1/-. This was before the days of postcards, but he also offered ‘Photographic Views … in great variety, 6d. each’.

In the Preface, Mr Wilson says that he had long been of the opinion that there ought to be a guidebook for visitors: ‘inasmuch as Morpeth has been for many years past a place of resort for strangers in search of the picturesque, and others who come seeking for health; in that case they will find much to admire in the great variety of scenery. Wood and water, hill and dale, ruins of old castles and abbeys, manor houses and modern mansions, enrich the neighbourhood, while the statistics of the Medical Inspector confirm the general opinion that Morpeth ranks among the healthiest towns of the kingdom.’

He thanks Mr John C. Moor for help in compiling it, and the Rev W. Howchin for ‘the highly interesting and comprehensive Paper on the Geology of the district’. The chapter on geology was unfortunately not repeated in the second edition.

There is no map of any kind, but the panoramic view of the town that forms the frontispiece was probably as much as most people wanted.

This view, which we reproduce here, is both attractive in itself and an ideal complement to the text. It is not in the reprint. Mr Wallace senior assures me that the facsimile is a complete copy of the original in his possession so I think it must simply have been removed by a previous owner. If so, this would account for why this excellent view has remained quite unknown to historians of Morpeth since Wilson’s time.

The artist took it either from the top of Ha’ Hill, or perhaps from near the top of the steps above the play park. The most prominent feature is the river. There are two rowing boats, one with an angler waiting placidly for a pull on his line.

In the nearer ground, a man drives two cattle roughly where the end of the Elliott Bridge is now. The little tower on the other side of the river is probably a privy.

Nearer again, a woman carries something on a tray on her head. This was done with a ‘wease’, a piece of cloth twisted into a circle to make a pad for the head.

On the right, one can just make out Wansbeck Street and the Chantry Bridge. It is striking that, except for one large building on the site of Mattheson’s Gardens, probably a factory, the part of the town on the left, between Oldgate and New Market (which wasn’t there then) was all fields.

What comes over is how, up to that time, the town had developed almost entirely within its medieval limits. The Town Hall is discernible by its pagoda-like roof. In front of it, and stretching away eastwards to St George’s Church, Baysland and the yards south of Bridge Street, are completely filled with houses.

Wilson deals with this head on: ‘A number of yards and lanes enter from the main streets, and are densely populated.’

But, conscious of the need to maintain the town’s reputation: ‘In a sanitary point of view, however, the yards and lanes are kept in a very cleanly and healthy state by the residents.’

You can easily identify St Robert’s, the Clock Tower and St James’s, and here again, the ground between them and St George’s is densely built up. The workhouse is perhaps the large building to the right of St Roberts’s spire.

The built-up area appears to end abruptly on a level with St James’s, and this is actually correct. The present Methodist Church was not there, though there were two in Manchester Street, but: ‘a fine row of buildings at the back of the ancient borough, facing the fields sloping from Cottingwood, is termed Howard Terrace; between the town and this terrace is Dacre Street, in which several dwellings of a superior character are erected.’

Carlisle Park was not there then, but the footpaths in the vicinity of the castle were freely accessible. Cricketers played on the High Stanners, and there was ‘a lovely footpath which leads by the river to Mitford Bridge.’

This sounds familiar, but something is missing. It’s the Promenade. It didn’t exist then, and nobody in his right mind would direct visitors to walk along the precipitous slope that plunges down from Castle Woods to the river below.

There are woodcuts of some of the more notable buildings in Morpeth and the surrounding area. We include here the ones of Alnwick and Warkworth; the others can all be found in the reprint.

The first chapter, called simply ‘Morpeth’, includes some notes about walks in and around Morpeth that Mr Wilson contributed to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle. It seems to have been this that gave him the inspiration for the book.

The rest consists of a Historical Sketch, followed by descriptions of the public buildings, streets, railway stations and bridges. At the end is a chapter on Places of Interest in the District, followed by Mr Howchin’s chapter on the geology.

The first edition also has a chapter on the gaols of Morpeth. By 1884, Morpeth Gaol was no longer in use, ‘in consequence of the prisoners having been removed to Newcastle’. This is no doubt why the chapter was not repeated. It was in any case largely culled from Hodgson’s History, except for this item, which came from somewhere else:

‘On the 11th July, 1752, seven of the gang of Faas, who had been a terror to Rothbury and its neighbourhood, were apprehended and sent to Morpeth Gaol, several more were pursued to the mountains, but could not be come at. Various of the goods belonging to the owners of shops which had been broken into at Morpeth, and other places, were found in their possession.’

Altogether, Wilson’s Handbook is a bit of a ragbag. It isn’t arranged in a way that would be useful to a visitor, and contains a lot of information that would have been of little interest to him.

But, for the modern reader, it has all the charm and fascination of Grandma’s button-box, and I for one am profoundly grateful to him for it.