Hundreds of years as the town’s back yard

Sewage Cottage is now two almshouses owned by the Hunter Memorial Homes Trust
Sewage Cottage is now two almshouses owned by the Hunter Memorial Homes Trust

FOR over 500 years the Low Stanners has been Morpeth’s back yard, a place of industries and essential services.

The Wansbeck surrounds it on two sides, and in the 18th century the tailrace from the Lord’s mill ran along what is now Damside to join the Cottingburn at the corner of Staithes Lane. Part of the tailrace, now dry, still exists underneath St George’s Church.

‘Stanners’ means a stony or gravelly place, and here condemned criminals were hanged and buried before the new gaol was built in 1829.

The earliest industrial use we know of was in 1604 when part of it was a tenter green, tenters being the wooden frames that cloth was stretched on.

In 1714 Andrew Fenwick, tanner, had a bark house on Mill Island, the area now occupied by the southern two-thirds of Mill Race, and there was a lime pit in which hides were steeped to loosen the hair.

John Wood’s town map of 1826 shows the eastern half of the Stanners as open land, while the western half was divided into small closes with buildings scattered along Damside.

The Terrace Car Park was a pleasure garden with a shaded walk round the outside. The pinfold, for impounding stray animals, stood at the corner by the library gate.

There was a barn and stackgarth and a lime kiln on Mill Island, all of which remind us that, while Morpeth was a market and manufacturing town, it was an agricultural village as well. The stackgarth belonged to the corporation, then a closed body of freemen and free brothers. They stored and threshed their corn free of charge, but ‘strangers’ had to pay.

The building that is now Barnabas Safe and Sound is probably shown on the map, but much more prominent is Mr Jobling’s steam-driven corn mill, roughly on the site of the Highways Depot offices. Further on, on the south side of the Cottingburn where the footbridge is now, was the Wauk Mill, where woollen cloth was fulled with wooden hammers.

Morpeth Gas Company was founded in 1832. In 1839 William Woodman, the Town Clerk, who was born within about 20 yards of the stackyard, gave this evidence in a dispute between the old and new corporations:

“The place where the stackyard is situate is known by the name of the Mill Island. The mill race once formed the north-west boundary of the Island. The race is now filled up and the road is the boundary. The pinfold is situate to the south of the barn. Witnefs is clerk of the Gas Company. As such made an application to the bailiffs for leave to lay pipes through the stack yard. The bailiffs granted a lease. Two walls of the stackyard were taken up for the purpose of laying the pipes down. A deep trench was dug and the pipes laid down. I went down to the stack-garth where I found rather a tumultuous assembly of people with picks etc to the number of 12 or 14 who said they were stewards. These persons threatened to take up the pipes, but on hearing that the Gas Company had a lease from the bailiffs, they desisted.”

Mr Christopher Tait remembered the same incident:

“Is a mason in Morpeth. In the year 1833 was in the employment of Mr Anderson. He had contracted with Stephenson & White with the Gas Company to put up gas works at the Low Stanners. Remembers the gas pipes being laid down. Opened the wall and gave orders for the trench and superintended its being done. Was foreman. Remembers Wm. Bean, George Todd and others coming down. Thinks it would be between 8 and 9 o’clock in the evening. We were working late to get the pipes through the stackyard to let the people get their stacks in. They wished to put a stop to laying the pipes thro’ the stackyard. They seemed very angry. 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. Does not know that they were frightened of Mr Woodman. Has been at Waterloo and would not care for any man saying at your peril.”

The retort house had become a council depot by the 1970s, but the rolley tracks for taking the coke out of the retorts were still there to see. Riverside old people’s home stands on the site now. By 1860 the Willows and Beechfield had been built on Gas House Lane. Staithes Lane had then just a few houses on it, and a building on the corner could possibly be the Old Red Bull. The attractive residential area of Wellwood Gardens was built between the wars.

Important infrastructure began to appear around the turn of the century: an abattoir, a sewage works and a power station. The corporation abattoir meant that, instead of slaughtering animals behind his shop, each butcher had a killing stall in the abattoir, so that people in the town did not have to put up with offal and blood outside their houses.

The sewage pumping station had a workman’s cottage, the correct address of which – so the late Don Turner told me with an almost straight face – was ‘Sewage Cottage, Gas House Lane, near the Abattoir.’ The power station, 1903-22, stood between Thompson’s Garage and the sewage works.

The Willows and Beechfield housed the ARP in the Second World War, and later the County Library before it moved into its present building. This, with the health centre and ambulance station, made Gas House Lane something of a county council enclave.

Sources: Alec Tweddle, Town Trail for Morpethians, No. 8; Ralph Crawford, History of Morpeth Gas Company. Internet: Try for old maps and street plans, and Google Earth for a virtual tour in which you can still see the swan-necked dragon finials on the Old Red Bull, and the faint outline of a gasometer. Visit Otterburn Mill to see fulling hammers and tenters. And, of course, take a walk round the Low Stanners.