An education in more ways than one

Although he was a Morpethian, Dr Robert Blakey spent his teenage years in Alnwick.

Monday, 21st November 2016, 8:49 am

His uncle and aunt, Mr and Mrs Coxon, had the Angel Inn in Fenkle Street.

So in February 1809: “My grandmother and I left Morpeth, and were provided with a couple of rooms in the back of the inn. I took with me a goodly stock of penny ballads, histories, drawing books, and my grandmother’s entire library. Thus, with a light heart, I entered my new abode, and met with a hearty welcome from my uncle and aunt at their home.

“There were three persons in Alnwick to whom I have always considered I was under great obligations. These were Robert Dunn, a wheelwright; Thomas Hall, a roper; and the Rev. David Paterson, Presbyterian minister, whose place of worship I pointedly attended.

“Dunn and Hall were poetical enthusiasts. Dunn’s hobby was Young’s Night Thoughts; Hall’s, Milton’s Paradise Lost. Both carried their respective poems in their pockets, ready at a moment’s notice to descant on their varied beauties.

“They were both ardent political reformers. They took in the London Examiner, the Tyne Mercury, and Cobbett’s Register. This was by far the greatest favourite, and there was always a rapturous display of political feeling on its being read aloud by Hall, who was well up in good reading.

“I owe more to the late Rev. David Paterson than to any person in the world. He was my guide and instructor, and he always felt the most lively interest in my progress.

“I had not been in Alnwick more than two or three weeks, when, in one of my rambles on the Town Moor, he came upon me when reading a book on theology. He took the work in his hand, and asked me if I understood it. I answered rather sheepishly, ‘Not at all, sir’. From that hour he seemed to feel a strong partiality for me.”

We know from certain articles he wrote in the Newcastle Magazine, that Mr Paterson disliked novels. He probably thought Robert’s book was something highly improper, like Tom Jones or Moll Flanders. Imagine his surprise when he found himself holding the Mirror of Modern Divinity, a work of irreproachable Presbyterian theology.

“In the course of a few weeks it was agreed between my two uncles, Robertson and Coxon, that I should be put to the fur trade. I was not to be bound to serve any fixed time, nor to be employed any prescribed number of hours a day. I was to be made acquainted with the wholesale side of the business, and of this I soon acquired a fair portion of knowledge.

“My time was taken up with my business from six o’clock in the morning till eight in the evening. But whenever I had a moment to spare, I devoted it to reading, and I always carried a book in my pocket.”

Robert also studied Euclid and plane and spherical trigonometry with a “very respectable schoolmaster” called George Barkas.

“Soon after my private instructions from Mr Barkas were finished, I took a fancy to learn geography, with the use of the globes. I found out a schoolmaster, named O—, a Scotsman, who had a pair of excellent new 12-inch globes. I soon found out that he knew very little about the globes; even the simplest problems puzzled him. In fact, I had not been there long till I had to teach him, instead of he me. It was really amusing the arts he had recourse to to conceal his want of knowledge, and his mortification that I perceived that want. At last he bought a key to the grammar, and this assisted him greatly.

“Wishing to draw a chart of the constellations, we set out one night in winter, about nine o’clock, to an elevated part on Alnwick Moor, where our field of vision was extensive and uninterrupted. It was a fine frosty night, and there was snow on the ground.

“I persuaded my teacher that we could do nothing without a table; and that he should take the large one that we had in the house, and I would carry the lantern, &c.

“After some scruples regarding the unseemliness of a person in his station in life being seen carrying a table, &c., we forthwith set about the matter in good earnest. With much difficulty we got the table downstairs; and the only way he thought he could carry it was upon his head.

“I advised him to leave his hat and put a thick red woollen night-cap on, and get his wife’s wease with which she used to bring sticks home for the fire; and he got the table fairly on his shallow skull, when off we trudged up Potter Gate, to avoid as much of the town as possible.

“In going up Clayport Bank he began to give evident signs of distress; and hearing him breathing thick, I turned round, when, lo! down he fell on all fours. I got him up, and found him nothing the worse, with the exception of his nose, which was bleeding profusely. He suggested that the plan of making a chart should be postponed; but I did not relish this, and I cheered him up with the hopes that the difficulties of our enterprise were now nearly conquered, and that I would help him with the table.

“I shall never forget his grotesque appearance, with his red woollen night-cap on, and his face all sprinkled over with the crimson fluid. I rubbed his nose with snow and plugged his nostrils with tissue paper; and then he mustered courage to prosecute his journey.

“We got to the place of destination; our table placed upon the ground; our pens, ink, and paper out; and got to work in making a chart of the stars, but found it a very cold and hungry job. I was highly amused with his loud and enthusiastic roar in the Scotch accent, when he saw a star arise above the horizon towards the sea: ‘Robert, there’s Aldebaran in the bull’s eye!’

“We made a chart, but such a chart as a ploughman might have made, who knew nothing of the matter.”

Please note that I have silently edited these passages from Dr Blakey's Memoirs.

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, 48 pages, illustrated, is a study of the Anglo-Saxon church in Northumberland, available from Woodhorn, Morpeth TIC, Newgate News and T & G Allan, or from the author, price £6 post free. Email