Amid rationing, a rich exhibition

The Town Hall. The hotel on the left has been used as Morpeth Town Council's offices.
The Town Hall. The hotel on the left has been used as Morpeth Town Council's offices.

MORPETH Antiquarian Society was founded in 1946. In February 1949, the society put on an Exhibition of Objects of Local Interest in the Town Hall, with almost 250 exhibits on display over three days, Thursday to Saturday.

Nearly everything was in short supply at that time. Butter, margarine, sugar, meat, bacon, sweets and much else besides were rationed and some rations had actually been reduced after the end of the war, but you would never guess it from reading the catalogue. The cover is finely printed with the borough badge and motto in colour, the text is in gothic type with never a smudge or a badly-formed character and inside are three beautiful engravings.

The officers of the society were the great and good of Morpeth, some later to become notable figures in the history of the town in their own right. Coun Mitchell called the meeting at which the Antiquarian Society came into being. Roland Bibby founded the Morpeth Gathering and Alderman Appleby visited South Africa and set free the funds from William Hunter’s estate that led to the building of the Hunter Memorial Homes.

It is striking to compare the list with the Antiquarian Society as it is today. Out of 15 people then, only one was a woman and one a graduate, this being Canon Baker, who was MA. Out of roughly the same number today, eight are women while five, including three of the ladies, are graduates.

Twice each day, according to the programme, there was a ‘Description of Special Exhibits in Council Chamber’ by either the Mayor or Mr Walter Slassor, the deputy town clerk and on Friday evening Mr C.B. Stevenson, curator of the Laing Art Gallery, gave a lecture on old prints. The Morpeth Herald of March 4, 1949, tells us that Messrs Appleby and Slassor gave more than 50 talks between them and it was Mr Stevenson’s son who gave the ‘illustrated lecture in the reading-room’ – a passing reminder of the Morpeth Mechanics’ Institute. It ceased to exist in 1919, but its reading room continued to be so called until, not long after the exhibition, it was converted to become the Mayor’s Parlour.

A lot of documents now in the Northumberland archives were then still in the borough council’s care, including the evidence in Doe v. Brady (the Morpeth Common case), whole bundles of parchments, ranging from Edward I (1283) to Queen Victoria, the Freemen’s Roll, 1770-1867 and the returns of the MPs for Morpeth from 1796.

Things that are still in the Town Hall today gain interest from what the 1949 catalogue says about them. The Mayor’s Chair, for instance, was made by prisoners in the gaol and the chain of office was presented by F.E. Schofield when he was mayor. Mr Schofield was a chemist in Newgate Street and lived at The Retreat, where the Dark Lane car park is now. Among the portraits were those of John Rastrick, inventor of the threshing machine and Thomas Burt, the first ‘working-man’ to become an MP.

Other public bodies that contributed exhibits were: the County Borough of Tynemouth, a portrait of Admiral Lord Collingwood; the Rector and Churchwardens, the earliest parish register (1585); churchwarden’s pewter flagon of 1738 – presumably for use at vestry meetings rather than at Holy Communion – and among other things, the register entry of the birth of Robert Morrison, the Chinese missionary; the headmaster and governors of Morpeth Grammar School, a facsimile of the charter of King Edward VI; Newcastle City Council, several pictures, mostly of the castle, but one of Morpeth Gaol by J.W. Carmichael; the Head Postmaster of Morpeth, portrait of Archibald Elliott – ‘Auld Archie’, the Ulgham letter carrier, who drowned in a flooded stream while in the course of his duty; the Chief Constable, Collection of Relics of Local Crimes; the Trustees of Morpeth Savings Bank, the first account in the bank’s ledger, 1816; and Mr James Mackay, the first edition of the Morpeth Herald.

Many other items were loaned by private individuals and will probably never be seen by the public again. The Mayor loaned several, including ‘Peeling the bark in Morpeth Woods’, by J.W. Carmichael.

A number of exhibits brought out Morpeth’s links with the armed forces, including a pair of naval flintlock pistols (c. 1770) and a telescope, both of which had belonged to Admiral Mitford; ‘Danish Fleet before Copenhagen’, which had belonged to Admiral Lord Collingwood, his waistcoat, and a letter signed by him; the Peninsular War Medal (1793-1814) of Pte. George Flint of the 36th Regiment of Foot, the Morpeth Militia Roll, 1802; the Waterloo Medal of Sgt. Jos. Creighton; the sword of Capt William Craig (the great-grandfather of J.A. Flint), who served under Admiral Collingwood, and a photograph of the gallant Captain; Dr Robert Paton’s Commission as Staff Surgeon in the Turkish Contingent of the British Army in the Crimea; the Crimean War Medal of E. Dodds of Morpeth, 38th Regiment of Foot, with clasps for Sevastopol, Inkerman and the Alma; an aeroplane message streamer ‘War Loan 1918’ from RAF Cramlington; and the crest of HMS Morpeth Castle from WWII.

There were many mementoes of interesting people: the Borough Council in 1897; the Imperial Service Medal presented to William Stoker, postman; portraits of old Morpeth characters, including Turkey Andrews, Peggy Douglas, Daddy Mammy, Andrew Nicol and Tommy Longstaff; a photograph of Billy Scott, Town Crier, 1912; and an autographed one of Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle.

Cartoons were a regular feature of local council elections. There were two in the exhibition, dated 1876 and 1928.

A lot of people in the town must have had impressive private collections of memorabilia. The names of R. Anderson, J. Ashton, G.W. Brown, J.B. Creighton, Miss E. Diggle, Coun Elliott, Mrs J. Embleton, G.R. Flint, J. Hood, T.H. Horne, E.C. Jackson, Ald. Jobling, Mrs M.H. Johnson, G.S. Jessup, R. and T. Matheson, Miss Middlemiss, W.L. Oliver, Walter Slassor, Mrs M Waters and C. Webb occur often, as well as others who only lent one or two items.

Several of the pictures were of interest in the historical geography of Morpeth.

I should like to see ‘Cottingwood Brick Works’, ‘Corn Mill on site of Presbyterian Church’, and ‘Old Methodist Chapel, Manchester Lane’. If anyone knows their whereabouts, we could perhaps see them again in a future edition of Morpathia.