Chronicling the history of the town

Bridge Street, Morpeth, in Mate's Guide, 1908.
Bridge Street, Morpeth, in Mate's Guide, 1908.

Morpeth Corporation published its first official Guide in 1906. The author was James Fergusson, Secretary and Librarian of the Mechanics’ Institute, and sometime master of Cottingwood Lane Presbyterian School. It was published by Mate’s of Bournemouth, specialists in illustrated guidebooks.

The Hancock Library in the Great North Museum holds a copy of the 3rd edition, 1908, belonging to the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries. Apart from some railway advertisements of 1907, the latest date in the text is 1905, which suggests that it was largely unchanged from the 1st edition.

The publisher’s foreword says that in writing it, Fergusson had access to the papers of the late William Woodman.

While this accounts in part for its excellence, going through those papers would be a mammoth task, and having the use of them does not detract in any way from his achievement.

Fergusson himself combined accurate history with graceful writing, as in this account of the notorious outlaw, Gilbert de Middleton:

‘During the fifty years after the battle of Bannockburn the land was not tilled; famine followed, and lawlessness prevailed.

‘In the midst of all that distress and disorder, there appeared Gilbert Middleton, a military adventurer, who posed as a champion of the friendless people.

‘He even professed to be, and was by many believed to be, the rightful Earl of Northumberland, and took possession of every castle in the county, except those of Alnwick, Bamburgh and Norham.

‘One of his adventures connected itself in a strange way with Morpeth Castle. Finding himself unable to cope with the Scots in their depredations...the King of England invoked the aid of Rome, and the Pope sent two cardinals, armed with full power and authority to deal with Robert Bruce, and bring him to terms.

‘The cardinals sent on, in advance, two nuncios. Lewis De Beaumont, for whom, though utterly illiterate and unqualified for the office, his cousin, Queen Isabella, had procured nomination to the wealthy See of Durham, was in that city waiting his consecration. He and his brave brother, Henry, Lord Beaumont, with a splendid retinue, went forth to meet and do honour to the nuncios....The two parties met at Rushyford, halfway between Darlington and Durham.

‘All unknown to them, Sir Gilbert De Middleton and his marauding band were there also. They broke out from a wood and captured all the chief personages.

‘Middleton let the nuncios go, but, keeping the Bishop and his brother, he carried them north, shut the Bishop up in Morpeth Castle, and secured Lord Beaumont under his own charge in that of Mitford.

‘The Bishop was not released from Morpeth Castle until the Prior of Durham and the people of the Diocese raised a great and almost intolerable sum of money which was paid as his ransom, and for which Middleton gave a receipt at Mitford Castle.

‘There, the daring freebooter was at length captured by Ralph, Baron of Greystock and Lord of Morpeth. In fetters he was sent to the Tower of London, and on the 26th of June, 1318, he was sentenced to be dragged by horses to the gallows and hanged.’

Writing about Newminster Abbey, Fergusson gives a list of its possessions. The largest was Kidland, a moorland estate of nearly 12,000 acres; and he tells the following curious anecdote about it:

‘At the foot of Cushat Law, on a small peninsula formed by the confluence of the Sting Burn with the river Alwin, there was built a small chapel, with a cell at its west end for the accommodation of the monk....It was called Memmer Kirk.

‘It was built of boulder stones from the hillsides and the beds of the burns; and its floor was laid with the same. Its interior measured 40ft by 6ft, two thirds of which was the chapel.

‘wIn the desolation of winter it must have been isolated indeed to live there.

‘A tradition still lingers among the shepherds of the secluded valleys of Kidland that when some people arrived at the little kirk on a certain Sunday, they found the good monk busy at his ordinary work.

‘He said it was Saturday; they assured him it was Sunday. He replied he could settle the point by counting the bee skeps he had made, for his task was one each day. On counting, he found six finished, and so it was the seventh he was busy with and assuredly Sunday.’

The Memmer Kirk is indeed very remote, and one would never guess that it had any connection with Morpeth. It is marked on sheet 71 of the One-Inch OS map, 7th Series, at 922124, but does not appear on the OS 1:50,000 map.

The chapter on the Grammar School includes a vigorous rebuttal by William Woodman of Edward VI’s claim to be its founder:

‘The school was founded, not by Edward Sixth, but by ‘our noble selves, the bailiffs and burgesses of Morpeth’. The school existed as far back as the fourteenth century, and at that day a very celebrated man was master; he was called Adam, and we find him in our manuscripts to have been well known as the Rose of Morpeth.

‘He came here with all his learning, not extracted from the volumes of the middle ages of Rome, but with all the knowledge of the Arabs, which he had acquired at Cordova.’

Fergusson goes on, but still probably quoting Woodman:

‘Additional furnished by the fact that Sir Thomas Husband, who was the first master of the Grammar School under Edward Sixth’s charter, had for eleven years before that held from the Borough of Morpeth the gift of the Chantry of Our Lady, on condition that he should keep a school and teach the children of the burgesses and inhabitants grammar and other literature.’

Morpeth’s great market for fat cattle and sheep, the largest in England after Smithfield, ended in 1845, when rail transport meant that Newcastle was better situated:

‘That change proved serious commercial blow to the town from which it did not fully recover for a generation. Gradually a market for store cattle grew up, and before the end of the century it was of equal, if not greater, importance....

‘For 700 years the market for cattle, as well as for everything else, was held in the streets, the state of which may easily be imagined, when 1,000 head of cattle occupied them from the Market Place to the Bridge end. This condition of things was ended in 1903, when a new cattle market was opened between Oldgate and the river.’

Our pictures are from the 1908 edition, but it is clear from this account that the photographs of Bridge Street and the Market Place must date from 1903 or earlier.

Note also that there are no cars, the only traffic being two carts.

This suggests that the photographs were taken in the late Victorian period, rather than the Edwardian.