Draining the courts, and at last Bedlington wins its freedom

Old Queen's Head Yard
Old Queen's Head Yard

IN November 1849, soon after Morpeth’s Inquiry under the Public Health Act, William Kell, the Town Clerk of Gateshead, wrote to William Woodman asking to borrow the papers from the Inquiry. It was a request with a 1,200-year history.

Gateshead, like Bedlington, was an Anglo-Saxon minster. Mander, in his History of Gateshead, plays down its significance: ‘The existence of a monastery in 653,’ he says, ‘does not automatically imply any great concentration of population.’

The reference to population, however, is beside the point. Bede’s words are: ‘Vttan, presbyteri inlustris et abbatis monasterii quod vocatur Ad Caprae Caput’ – Utta, a distinguished priest and abbot of the minster called Goats Head.

Utta was clearly a nobleman. Oswy, King of Northumbria, chose him to bring the Princess Eanfled from Kent in preparation for their marriage. Bede twice refers to him as a priest, but nowhere as a monk.

Monasterium can be translated as monastery or minster, and a 7th Century minster might be a monastery, or equally a collegiate church of secular priests, i.e. priests who were not monks. Every such minster had what we would nowadays call a team ministry, serving a territory much larger than the later parishes.

Mander wrote in 1973, when minster studies were in their infancy. Minsters, although primarily intended to bring Christianity to the people, quickly became centres of trade. Many of our earliest towns grew out of minsters.

Utta’s connection with Gateshead is evidence of its high status, but it declined as Newcastle rose. And although the Bishop gave it a charter in 1164, its freedoms never amounted to much.

When coal mining began in the 14th Century, it came under a constant siege of litigation from its more powerful neighbour. Gateshead was controlled by Newcastle from 1577 to 1679, and remained subject to the ‘through toll’ until 1910.

Its rise to independence began as a parliamentary borough under the Reform Act of 1832. Four years later, it became a corporate borough under the Municipal Reform Act.

William Kell was its first Town Clerk. He corresponded regularly with William Woodman, and one can easily guess why. He must have found it more comfortable to share professional concerns with William Woodman in Morpeth, rather than with the old adversary across the river.

A fortnight later he wrote again: ‘My dear Sir, By Rail, I send your Notes, Reports, Public Health Acts & the other papers which you were so kind as to lend to me; and also a set of Reports of the Health of Towns Commission, of which I have to beg your acceptance.’

These reports were the basis of the Public Health Act of 1848. Gateshead was even worse than Morpeth or Bedlington: ‘With a population of 38,747, only 110 houses have the water laid on. For the poorer classes there are only six standpipes.’ Pipewellgate, a mere 300 yards long, had a population of 2,040 and only three privies.

Cholera visited Gateshead in 1831-2 and 1849, and typhus in 1847-49. The prospect of being compelled to do something caused a flurry of committees and reports. A sewer was built down the High Street in 1849, but when the Inquiry was held in December, only 37 out of 165 eligible properties were connected to it.

The Presiding Inspector was Woodman’s friend, Robert Rawlinson. He was at the Queens Head, Newcastle, from late November until Christmas, during which time he conducted inquiries at both Newcastle and Gateshead.

The Gateshead Local Board was set up in 1851. It made byelaws about street cleansing, slaughterhouses and common lodging houses, but after cholera struck again in 1853, the Cholera Commission found little evidence of anything else.

‘Although,’ says Mander, ‘the main roads had been drained and paved, the narrow courts and entries remained as they had always been.’

The Great Fire of 1854 demolished more slums than the Board, and Gateshead had no sanitary inspector until 1866, nor Medical Officer of Health until 1873.

The Morpeth Local Board did better. It first met in September 1851 and immediately appointed Inspectors of Nuisances for Morpeth and Bedlington.

In October they proposed to have maps made of the two towns. The Bedlington members moved that no map be made of Bedlington. They lost, but after that the hardline reformers of Morpeth seem to have made little attempt to impose their will on Bedlington. It eventually got its own committee for roads, lighting and nuisances, and alternate meetings of the whole Board came to be held at Bedlington.

Sewers were laid in Morpeth in 1855, and, in contrast to Gateshead, the yards were drained as well as the main streets. But not in Bedlington.

Slater’s Directory for 1855 says: ‘The village stands in need of a more copious supply of water, the limpid element being only obtainable from a few pumps and wells, which often become dry during the summer months. Sanitary improvements, and the introduction of gas, are much to be desired.’

William Woodman retired in 1858, and shortly afterwards wrote the Board a long and reflective letter.

‘I am well aware that with many your board has been far from popular.

‘Those who complain forget that formerly they voluntarily paid for water a large portion of the sum they now pay for rates, that without the sewers many houses would be almost uninhabitable, and that all participate in the improved health of the parts benefitted by the existing works.

‘And I have a better opinion of my neighbours, more especially the educated classes, than for one moment to believe that they can look with indifference upon the misery, the wretchedness, the sickness and the deaths of their neighbours.

‘In Morpeth the means of promoting the public health have been obtained, but main sewers and water supply are but means to an end; and much remains to be done.

‘Cholera has happily been avoided in 1856 and (in) 1857 there were but three deaths from fever. What would the people of Newcastle and many other towns not give could they say the same?

‘But in Bedlington all those causes which produce disease not only exist, but no adequate effort is made to remove them.’

He takes the death rate in ‘ordinarily healthy’ parts of England and Wales to be 17 per thousand. Bedlington’s death rates were 22/000 in 1856, 26/000 in 1857, and 45/000 in 1858. I’m not sure that last figure was correct. But my electronic calculator, which he didn’t have, still makes it 35/000.

He finds that some 175 people have died needlessly in Bedlington over the three-year period: ‘As a mere question of economy, sanitary works are profitable. By the 175 deaths from preventable causes … how many are thrown as a burden on the ratepayers for years to come, in addition to the temporary increase to the rates by sickness and burials.’

On June 10, 1861, the Clerk reported that the Bill to separate Bedlington from the District of Morpeth Local Board was before Parliament. It followed soon after. Bedlington was at last free from the tutelage of Morpeth.