Flood defence and tramway developments

The old sluice at Beggar Lane was used to flush the Cottingburn. The burn was a dump for garden waste, privvies that were strategically situated on the banks and the waste from tanneries and other industries.
The old sluice at Beggar Lane was used to flush the Cottingburn. The burn was a dump for garden waste, privvies that were strategically situated on the banks and the waste from tanneries and other industries.

In their look back through the Herald archives, columnists Alan Davison and Brian Harle explore some of the ideas that never came to fruition.

The Morpeth Herald has recorded most of the events and developments that changed the town in the 160 years since it was first printed. It is an invaluable record of the deeds and misdeeds of the politicians, improvements in education, the slow advance of suffrage and the expansion of housing. Wars and natural disasters, the development of sport, leisure and transport are all there, but it also has reports of many developments that were discussed but never happened.

What effect would they have had on life in Morpeth, then and now? Did we have some lucky escapes? Let us look at two examples, the saga of the Cottingburn and the No. 1 tram from Buller’s Green.

The saga of the 

Everyone is all too aware of the problem of flooding, but it is not a recent phenomenon because there are records going back for at least two centuries, and it has always been the same places, the old alluvial flood plains such as Middle Greens and the Stanners. Flooding of the Cottingburn (or Tanners’ Burn) has been as frequent and often very damaging, but it has received less publicity.

The burn was Morpeth’s industrial artery, the banks being lined with tanyards (Dawson Place and the old Morrison’s car park), breweries, saw mills, a pulp mill and Swinney’s renowned ironworks. Of course, it was often full of rubbish and stank every summer when it all but dried up. Occasional floods had a beneficial effect by cleaning it out, but people around Damside were badly affected by the smell and filth so it was suggested in 1883 that it should be diverted into a sewer near the end of Dacre Street and the dried bed be filled in with soil. No mention was made of what would happen when it was in flood – could the sewer cope? The idea was put to the council, but quietly disappeared.

Flooding mainly affected people in Newgate Street and nearby, the worst event probably being in 1900 when there was a flash flood that caused a huge amount of damage from Dawson Place to Staithes Lane.

The cutting from the Herald reports the details.

The council set up a relief fund, but did not consider ways of preventing future damage. However, a letter in the Herald by entrepreneur Sampson Langdale, who had his fertilizer business next to the burn, suggested that the Cottingburn, ‘should be diverted into the Wansbeck at the west end of the town and not as present to run through the town and out at the East end’. He also commented that the burn occupied valuable land, possibly with an eye to his future business.

The idea was not taken up, but a similar one emerged in 1928 when Charles Franklin Murphy, town architect and engineer, proposed diverting the burn from Dawson Place under the Beeswing and into the Wansbeck. This time it was discussed by the council and he was asked to consult with everyone who had riparian rights, but it too came to nothing.

Fast forward to September 1968 and yet another flood causing a huge amount of damage around Newgate Street, the Drill Hall and St James’s Church. The River Authority proposed two solutions, one to enlarge the culverts and the other to divert the burn at Dogger Bank 110 metres into the Wansbeck. Neither went any further and in his book, Land of Singing Waters, author David Archer commented that he was unable to find out why.

Would this ancient idea have worked and would it have prevented recent flooding?

The No. 1 tram from 
Buller’s Green

The second example is my favourite non-starter; the proposed electric tramway from Buller’s Green to Bedlington.

Electricity began to appear in articles around the 1860s, but the first record in this area was probably of Lord Armstrong’s exhibition of a hydro-electric machine in 1844. In Morpeth, the Mechanics Institute demonstrated electrical experiments in 1862. All kinds of predictions were made about its uses, but one article demonstrates how difficult it is to predict the future of any invention.

In 1883, a Professor Ayrton predicted that jobs in the home, then done by hand, would soon be done by electricity. That turned out to be true, but his example was rotary knife-cleaners that needed a knife-cleaner boy. In future, they would be turned by electricity, as would the brushes for blacking boots and grates. Being called a professor is no guarantee of being right.

By the 1890s, reports of electric lighting appeared, first in collieries and places such as the laundry of Alnwick Castle, then in 1890, the Northern Electric Light Association applied to the Board of Trade to supply electricity to the town. Street lighting was on its way, but not for some time and the first streetlights were erected, not by the Association, but by East Mill owner Wm Davison. In 1893, six lamps were installed between the Mill and the corner of Staithes Lane powered by ‘electric fluid’ from a hydro-electric generator at the Mill. Morpeth had ‘green’ energy.

Public transport and cycling were thriving, but trains were often crowded and there was a need for cheap travel for working people who were commuting further. One answer was electric trams and schemes appeared in most cities, notably Newcastle and Tyneside.

In 1901, the Northern Counties Electric Supply Company asked for consent to lay an electric tramway from Buller’s Green to Bedlington Station. Consent was given, but wisely the councillors asked for more details before they would allow it to go before Parliament.

The main problem was the requirement for roads 50ft wide with 6ft of tarmacadam either side. Councillors pointed out that many roads were not wide enough. There were also concerns about compulsory purchase of land and a conflict with the North East Railway Company. However, the NCESC Morpeth to Bedlington, Bebside to Blyth and Ashington to Newbiggin Bill was put to Parliament in 1902.

The Electric Company promised completion within two years and that trams would run at 12 miles per hour with a fare of one penny per mile. The plans, which can be viewed at the county archive at Woodhorn (QRUP 228), show the starting point at Buller’s Green and passing places in Newgate Street, the Market Place, in front of the Chantry, then from Castle Square all the way up the bank to Stobhill. The track continued on to Bedlington via Guidepost and Choppington. The tracks would have almost filled Bridge Street and the bank to Stobhill.

The Royal Warrant was granted in 1902 and reports continued to appear in the newspapers, but there was no sign of action. By 1907, Ashington Council was in such dire need of better transport that it wrote to the company, but it seems it did not get a reply.

Then, in 1908, the Herald carried an advert informing anyone who had incurred expenses that they might apply for compensation. This confirms that the scheme had failed, but the reasons are not clear. However, Ashington councillors were of the opinion that it was because of competition from motor transport.

The tramway was a bold idea, but what effect would it have had on traffic and congestion? Perhaps it is just as well it failed.

l Thanks, as always, to the MacKay family and to Mr F. Whittle. David Archer’s book is a detailed, readable history of Morpeth’s floods. If you have any information about the tramway please email us at morpethhistory@hotmail.co.uk