George Bainbridge – the forgotten philanthropist

Watson's corner.. Morpeth
Watson's corner.. Morpeth

MOST of the buildings around the Market Place have a story to tell and the corner of Oldgate and the Market Place is no exception.

Pre-1904 photographs of what was then called Watson’s Corner show a group of run-down buildings that Alec Tweddle recorded as being built in 1675. In 1903 they were demolished and the present building was officially opened in February 1905.

The story of this new building started in 1876 when an article in the Herald announced that a branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association was being formed. It began with a committee chaired by Edward Norman, a prominent market gardener and future Mayor, and lectures and bible classes started later that year.

Initially, meetings were held in the British Workman (next to the Town Hall, previously The Scotch Arms). The arrival of the YMCA was timely because the economy had improved, but there was little to keep young men occupied apart from pub-based pastimes such as quoits and football.

The Mechanics Institute had a reading room and lectures, but membership was relatively expensive and attendances were falling. There was a great need for organised social activities.

This is when George Bainbridge came on the scene. He was a son of Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge, the Victorian entrepreneur who created what has been claimed to be (but wasn’t) the world’s first department store: Bainbridge of Market Street, Newcastle (for younger readers, in 1952 it became part of the John Lewis chain and took that name in 2002).

By 1849 it had 23 departments within the one store. George and his brothers took over in 1892 and shortly afterwards he bought Espley Hall. He and his brother Cuthbert became more and more involved with Morpeth and the YMCA. In 1892 George was elected President of Morpeth YMCA and proceeded to play a vital part in its development.

By 1900 the YMCA had a library, bible classes, lectures and football and cricket teams, but membership was falling. George later said that ‘an association of 60 members was worthy of superior premises’ so he looked for a site and ‘secured’ Watson’s Corner. He proposed to develop it into a block of shops, flats and a commodious meeting place for the young men, but ran into opposition from the council. His revised plan for eight shops, the YMCA, two houses, eight tenements and a bakery were accepted and the building was completed in 1904.

It was one of several new buildings that heralded an era of modernisation of the old town centre. The Lloyd’s Bank building followed close behind it.

Bainbridge’s generosity was further revealed at the opening ceremony in February 1905. He supplied all the fittings and furniture, gave 20 guineas a year for the rest of his life (he died in 1944), left £500 in his will and leased the premises for 99 years at £1 per year.

His only condition was that members should be of good character and pay the affordable fee of 1½ pence per week.

From the start the number of activities and members rapidly increased. In the opening year they had 230 members and several clubs were formed.

A Camera Club was no doubt inspired by keen photographer George Bainbridge, and there were Rambling and Cycling Clubs that attracted as many as 70 on their joint outings. A mixed hockey team played at Swinney Brothers East Mill field. There were at least 15 women players, including Flo and Alice Swinney, and a star goal scorer, Dr Dickie’s wife. They were probably members of the YMCA Women’s Auxiliary as the organisation stated that they had no intention of debarring young women.

Development continued with a Debating Society in 1906, while Bowls, Shooting and Quoits Clubs were formed in 1908. They used a recreation ground behind the defunct Gentlemen’s Club, re-vitalising an old bowling green. Sadly, 18 of the young men of that era lost their lives in the Great War of 1914-18, but the YMCA continued for many decades. Although there is no longer a branch in Morpeth there are still Morpethians who benefited from the social guidance that it gave.

One such is Emeritus Professor Ted Milburn CBE BA MSc CYS FHEA who was born in Edward Street in 1938 and went on to become President of the National Council of YMCAs in Scotland for seven years. Ted was one of many who ‘failed’ the 11+ exam and ended up with no formal qualifications, but through his church and the 5th Morpeth Scouts became committed to voluntary youth work. Backed by John Wallace, Secretary of Morpeth YMCA, and Bob Vince of Ashington YMCA, he applied to train as a full time youth worker with the National Council of YMCAs in England. He was attracted to the YMCA because ‘it worked with young people of both sexes, of any faith or creed (or none), had a positive view of young people no matter how poor or challenging their social background.’

After training, he became Director of Youth Work at Huddersfield YMCA, and then at Hove, working with Mods and Rockers in 1960s Brighton. He went on to become Professor of Community Education and Director of the Centre for Youth Work Studies at the University of Strathclyde where scholarships in his name were established by friends and colleagues to support talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds in entering higher education. He is a fitting example of what the YMCA and George Bainbridge set out to achieve.

The main source of information for this article was the Mackay family’s Morpeth Herald archive and Ted Milburn, but we are also indebted to Katherine Bell for access to her collection of Bainbridge and Espley artefacts. Some dates are taken from an article by Harry Rowland in the Herald of November 6, 1997.