Why the heritage of our town is in safe hands

Museum volunteers at Newbiggin Library (left to right-back row) Allan Wade, Frank Robinson, Maurice Teasdale, John Bibby, Kim Bibby-Wilson and (front four-left to right) Maureen Sellers, Vivien Wade, Shelagh Johnstone and Angela Teasdale.
Museum volunteers at Newbiggin Library (left to right-back row) Allan Wade, Frank Robinson, Maurice Teasdale, John Bibby, Kim Bibby-Wilson and (front four-left to right) Maureen Sellers, Vivien Wade, Shelagh Johnstone and Angela Teasdale.
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IT is about a year since Morpeth Antiquarian Society was forced to move its collection out of the town to a temporary base in Newbiggin by the Sea. Herald Chief Reporter ANNA SMITH went to find out what has been happening in the past 12 months and how the history of Morpeth will be told in the future.

FOR 65 years, Morpeth Antiquarian Society has acted as the guardian of the town’s heritage.

It has collected thousands of photographs, maps, documents and artefacts relating to all aspects Morpeth’s history to ensure they are preserved for future generations, with the ultimate aim of one day seeing them displayed in a dedicated Morpeth Museum.

But in August 2010, the society was plunged into crisis when it was told it would no longer be able to use free storage rooms at Morpeth Town Hall for the collection and would have to find an alternative base.

In October that year, the group moved into the former Morpeth Fire Station building on the edge of the town, however it was only to be a stopgap solution and soon the society found itself on the move once again.

This time, a temporary home was offered in the rear of Newbiggin by the Sea Library.

The suggestion was not ideal – there would be a rental charge for the premises, members would have to travel some distance to work with the collection and worst of all, it would mean taking Morpeth’s heritage treasures out of the town.

However, with no alternative the society was forced to accept the proposal.

Now, 12 months on, the group remains as determined as ever to return to Morpeth, but the last year has given some breathing space, allowing members time to catalogue the collection.

With some 5,000 objects to work through, including more than 100 framed pictures and 500 books, it is not an easy task, and prior to a recruitment exercise in November 2010 there were just two or three volunteers available to do the work.

Now, about 12 members attend the society’s premises once a week to set about the task.

Volunteer Frank Robinson said: “We came to Newbiggin about 12 months ago and since then we have been cataloguing. We have been sorting the objects more or less into their material classifications and sorting out a filing system.

“There is still quite a lot left to catalogue, but the work really has taken off. It is a group of people working together and the more we do, the more it builds interest.”

A vast range of items are held by the society, from a whalebone from the Whalebone Inn to an ancient quern stone. There are even bridge timbers, which the society believes date back to the original Chantry Bridge from the 1290s – the group is raising funds to tree-ring date the pieces.

However, the most popular items with the public seem to be photographs and documents, with requests coming from across the globe for information about people’s ancestors and the places where they lived and worked.

The society hopes to tap into this interest and create a website resource that will not only enable the community to find out more about Morpeth’s heritage, but also provide a much-needed source of income.

“The more cataloguing we do, the more chance there is of us being able to find information for people, although we do want to get it into a form where you can just press a button to search and find it,” said Mr Robinson.

“There is a lot of interest in heritage now, not just around Morpeth, but worldwide. The numbers visiting museum exhibitions are up all over the world.

“We are hoping to get some of our photographs and slides onto a website where people will be able to buy the images over the internet. It will help us to pay the bills.

“We are hoping to get something sorted this summer, but it will depend on when our volunteers are around, and it is quite possible that the Greater Morpeth Development Trust might get involved.”

He added: “The antiquarians’ funds are diminishing because at the moment there isn’t enough income to pay the bills and it really can’t go on like this for many more years.

“When we were in the Town Hall it was free so that may have led to some complacency from a business point of view. Now we need to get much more focused on getting some income – we have got to have something to sell.”

An income stream could also improve the prospects of a move back to Morpeth, which remains the society’s top priority.

“It is a problem being out of town,” said Mr Robinson.

“The volunteers come in every Friday morning, but if we had somewhere in Morpeth I’m sure there would be people around most of the time doing something. Now we are limited as to the amount of work we can do.

“Everybody doing the cataloguing is a volunteer and if we were in Morpeth I’m sure we would attract other volunteers to help.”

The antiquarians have been doing their best to promote the town’s heritage in the absence of a museum and last year provided photographs and information about buildings in Newgate Street as part of Heritage Open Days.

This year, the group is looking at doing the same for other streets and is in talks about what more it can offer.

And the first step towards a heritage centre has been taken with the installation of a display cabinet in the Town Hall for exhibitions, courtesy of the Friends of Morpeth Museum.

Mr Robinson said: “The antiquarians exist to preserve the heritage of the town so we are looking to re-locate to the town, that is still very much the intention. The idea is to get somewhere where we can display things and have exhibitions.

“As part of that aim there will be displays in the Butter Market at the Town Hall this year.

“That will form part of an assessment as to what the interest would be in a museum, based on the responses we get.

“It will give us evidence as to the need that we can then use when we go for funding because any building is going to need a lot of work doing to it to make it suitable for displays. It also needs to be accessible.”

He added: “We are looking at not just the antiquarians’ collections, but also the town’s collection and the King Edward VI School collection – anything we have got that tells the Morpeth story and what the stories are in Morpeth.”

MORPETH man Maurice Teasdale is one of those who stepped forward to join the Morpeth Antiquarian Society in its hour of need.

Along with his wife Angela, he attended a consultation event in November 2010 to discuss the prospect of a Morpeth heritage centre and from then on the couple became a part of the group.

“The antiquarians circulated something around the town about the event and as we are interested in heritage we decided to volunteer,” said Mr Teasdale.

“The cataloguing has been a completely new thing for me. I have always been interested in photography, but I have learned new things to do with scanning slides and trying to get my head around Photoshop to make the pictures look better. These are new skills.

“I’ve probably catalogued about 800 slides so far and there are about 2,500. Some have been donated by people and seem to have no real value in terms of telling the story of Morpeth, but I’m scanning them all anyway and I’ll leave it to other people to decide what the value is. Obviously, if everything was based in Morpeth I could pop along a lot easier and would probably get on more quickly, but I’m still enjoying it.

“I was born and bred in Morpeth, and I’m still living here, so it is interesting finding old photographs of things you can’t remember and it is nice to see what used to be there, or you are looking at a photograph and wondering where on earth it is.

“I’m always going around the town and remembering what used to be there and thinking if only I had taken a photograph.”