A history of Morpeth’s first historian

John Hodgson
John Hodgson

The first History of Morpeth was by the Rev John Hodgson, published in 1832. There were only 50 copies, it being part of a larger work, A History of Northumberland, Pt. II, Vol. 2.

It has since been reprinted by Frank Graham and Appleby’s Bookshop, and is widely available. The Frank Graham edition includes an Introduction by the late Harry Rowland, from which I have taken most of my information.

John Hodgson was born in 1779, in the parish of Shap in Westmorland. His father was a stone-mason and his mother’s family owned slate quarries. He grew up keenly interested in natural history and geology, collecting fossils and visiting quarries with his relatives.

“The neighbourhood,” says DNB, “was well supplied with small endowed schools ... and it was the custom in every family for one son to receive a good education with a view to taking holy orders.”

Hodgson went to Bampton Grammar School, got an excellent education, but could not afford to go to university.

He became a schoolmaster instead, teaching successively at two village schools in Cumberland.

In 1801, he moved to Sedgefield, County Durham, where his income from endowments and school fees was about £70 p.a. He studied to be ordained in the Church of England, but failed the examination.

He then moved to Lanchester, which kindled his interest in Roman archaeology, passed his examination in 1804, was priested in 1805, and became curate of Esh and Satley while still teaching at Lanchester.

He was offered a position worth £300-a-year at Lemmington Ironworks, but turned it down, preferring “to pursue a literary rather than a mercantile life”.

We owe much to that decision, not least here in Morpeth.

He and his family would have been a lot better off and no doubt he would have found time for some historical studies. But he rightly saw that the clerical life would allow him a reasonable living yet with ample time for creative leisure.

In 1806, he became curate of Gateshead, and in 1808, vicar of Jarrow with Heworth, where he took a serious interest in Anglo-Saxon studies.

In 1810, he married Miss Jane Kell. He was 30, she 23, the daughter of a local tradesman.

He wrote the Northumberland volume for the series Beauties of England, involving him in extensive travelling. Also the volume on Westmorland, and in 1812 a revision of Akenhead’s Picture of Newcastle upon Tyne.

On May 25, 1812, there was a terrible explosion at Felling Colliery when 92 were killed. Hodgson had been down the mine and knew the conditions. He launched a fund for the families and had his funeral sermon printed, with an account of the disaster, to raise public awareness. In 1816, he personally tried out the Davy lamp at Hebburn Colliery.

He determined to write a history of Northumberland, but, says Mr Rowland: “The area was large and the records were dispersed. Many of these had to be discovered and documents in private possession were often unsorted ... there were problems of obtaining accurate copies... Not all landowners were willing to allow their records to be investigated ... (and there was) the continued pestering of those whose only concern was family history.”

He was, however, a secretary of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries, and its members, including Sir John Swinburne of Capheaton, W.C. Trevelyan of Wallington, John Grey of Dilston and many others, helped him in the work.

He visited London in connection with a new chapel at Heworth and to search in the public records. While there, he “called at the Tower for a copy of the Morpeth School Charter for which I paid £1-10s.”

County histories had been published in 1769 by Wallis and 1811 by Mackenzie, but Hodgson’s was to be on a larger scale: An Introduction, two volumes of documents, and three on the parishes etc, all of 300 copies.

Volumes soon became Parts, each with one or more volumes.

The first came out in 1820: Pt. III, Vol. 1, entirely of documents. It did not sell, but for Hodgson the publication of original documents, “keeps truth before men’s eyes and ... histories that are grounded on facts, in preference to works of imagination, fables and romance.”

On a second trip to London, he returned via Oxford and visited the Bodleian and Merton College, which had the patronage of the churches at Ponteland and Embleton.

His new chapel was completed in 1821. In 1823, he became vicar of Kirkwhelpington. It proved to be a sad move. Three of his children died there.

Nevertheless, he fished in Sweethope Lough and toured Northumberland with a Durham friend, the Rev James Raine, visiting Stagshaw Bank Fair, the Roman Wall, Chesters and Housesteads.

His eldest son, Richard, attended the school at Stamfordham, where a relation on Hodgson’s mother’s side was headmaster.

Pt. II, Vol. 1, came out in 1827, covering Redesdale, Elsdon, Corsenside, Whelpington, Kirkharle, Hartburn, Netherwitton, Bolam and Whalton. He did eventually complete six volumes, but nowhere near covering the county.

In 1830, he was at different times digging at Housesteads, and visiting Morpeth Castle. He got a plan of the new gaol from the architect Mr Dobson, and a drawing of the old bridge from another architect, Mr Peter Nicholson, who lived in the Old Gaol. William Woodman supplied him with papers on the borough, and gathered information about William Turner, the Father of English Botany, in the British Museum.

The History of Morpeth is a good example of his work. The main narrative is in large type, the detail in smaller, and the genealogies and some of the footnotes very small. He is meticulous in giving evidences and acknowledging debts to other writers and to the people who helped him.

Almost every ward, parish, etc, has a section of ‘miscellanea’ to save cluttering the main narrative with detail. In Morpeth’s case, he had to divide it into manageable sections.

First is an ‘Alphabetical Account of the Streets, Public Buildings, (etc.)’, 45 pages.

Then Morpeth Miscellanea, 18 sub-sections, each one either a document or a series of letters, many in Latin, but with the sense of at least some of them given in the main text, ten pages. And finally, Annals of Morpeth, 55 pages, being incidents in the town’s history in date order, ending with its MPs.

There is an index, but no list of contents so, unfortunately, it is not always easy to find what you want.

In 1833, he moved to the better endowed living of Hartburn, and in 1838 completed his account of the Wall. Previously, the Wall itself was attributed to Severus, but Hodgson established that Wall, Ditch and Vallum were all Hadrian’s work.

The same book includes Alston, Haltwhistle and upper Tynedale. James Raine saw it through the press. Hodgson himself suffered a total collapse and went to the Isle of Wight to recuperate.

He was never really well again, and spent time at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Harrogate and Shap Wells, near where he was born. He died and was buried at Hartburn in June 1845.