Guide’s sad references to bygone world

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Last year, in one of several articles on past Guides to Morpeth, we looked at one published in 1972 by Ed.J. Burrow & Co.

Since then a friend, Janet Brough, has lent me an earlier version of the same guide, this time from 1965. The text is by Roland Bibby, and as soon as you get into it you find the characteristic marks of his style. This is from the chapter called Morpeth’s Story:

“The little old town is still there, its quaint streets deep in the Wansbeck Vale, entangled in the coils of the river and streams, sheltered and enriched by the climbing wooded banks of the valley sides.

“Of course, many new houses appear, small estates tucked into nooks and crannies, or large ones necessarily outside the valley and spreading over the southern uplands behind the ancient curtain of trees. Their people, native and migrant, crowd and enliven the old streets, swell the throng, participate in the brisk social and commercial life of this important district centre, yet tamper hardly at all with the traditional features of landscape and custom that are the very individual heritage of a community of great character.”

The difference is unmistakable. The anonymous contributor of 1972 wrote elegantly and knowledgeably, but without Bibby’s gift for the romantic image — “entangled in the coils”, “sheltered and enriched”, “climbing wooded banks”. It raises the question, if Roland Bibby didn’t write the 1972 text, who did? To this there is no obvious answer.

Morpeth’s Story also refers to incidents I haven’t heard of before. Thus: “In 1650 several hundred starving Scottish prisoners from Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar, locked up in a walled garden at Morpeth overnight — possibly the castle courtyard — died on the spot after a surfeit of raw vegetables.”

The 1965 Guide marks the beginning of the end of Morpeth as a self-confident, self-satisfied little town. Not everything changed at once, and some aspects of it are still with us, but there are constant reminders of what we have lost.

The siege of Morpeth I have heard of, the deaths of the wretched prisoners from Dunbar, not.

Under Morpeth Today, Bibby takes us on a tour of the town. Unfortunately, in an effort to be concise, he says that, “mention of a building by its street number or name implies that there is something fine, or old, or rare, or curious, to be seen”.

The result does not make easy reading, as in this passage on Newgate Street: “Bolland Hall (weird brick ex-Ragged School), Bow Villa (striking Georgian), 140, 138 (plain Georgian), 136 (oddly angled home of John Rastrick, steam thrasher inventor), 134, 132, 98-102 (melancholy 18c group), brick middle section of Girls’ Grammar School, 92, 90 (note wooden doorpiece), 88 (very old lower courses), 84 (remarkable doorpiece).” And so on.

I’m actually keeping a copy of Morpeth Today so that I can do the walk and see for myself. But such densely compressed writing isn’t what you expect in a guidebook, and it may be this that led Burrow’s, or perhaps the town council, to look elsewhere for their historian in 1972.

Bibby speaks of the new estates “spreading over the southern uplands”. A glance at the 1965 street plan shows just how accurate this was. Kirkhill, Loansdean, Stobhillgate and Stobhill as far as High Stobhill were complete or almost so, but there was no such development to the north. Lancaster Park was farmland, and while houses climbed the hills in Northbourne Avenue, Olympia Hill and Northlands, only the staff houses at St George’s Hospital occupied any part of the plateau itself.

The 1965 Guide marks the beginning of the end of Morpeth as a self-confident, self-satisfied little town. Not everything changed at once, and some aspects of it are still with us, but there are constant reminders of what we have lost. A photograph of Morpeth Grammar School, for instance, by Alfred B. Stait, is recognisably the same building as appeared in Wilson’s Handbook to Morpeth of 1884. By 1972 it had gone.

Superficially, Morpeth’s rail connections were better than now. It is described as “a junction on the London (Kings Cross), Newcastle and Edinburgh line”. The map even has an arrow on the Blyth and Tyne line pointing to Blyth, despite the fact that services from Morpeth had ceased in 1950. The Wannie Line, on which services had ceased in 1952, is marked Rothbury — two sad references to a bygone world. There were, however, bus services from Morpeth to places you can’t get to now — Wooler, Coldstream, Belsay and Ponteland.

Apart from some obvious exceptions, such as Woolworth’s, the Gas and Electricity Boards, and banks and pubs, almost every business was a family firm. Adams and Gibbon had garages in five other towns, and Jonathan Wilson Ltd, Builders and Contractors, 25 Oldgate, were unusual in being a limited company. But otherwise, they were all private firms.

Morpeth Savings Bank seems still to have been locally controlled, but it’s hard now to imagine just how limited the financial services provided by the trustee savings banks were. It was, in fact, only in 1965 that TSB was allowed to offer current accounts and issue cheque books, and even then you couldn’t overdraw. Most people, however, didn’t even think of opening an account with a clearing bank. That was only for the rich, or for shopkeepers and tradesmen in a large way of business.

Amongst the schools was Greystoke Preparatory School, the last of a succession of private schools going back more than a century, that served the middle classes of the town who didn’t want their children to go to ordinary schools.

Lastly, the old North Road (the A1 as it was then) “passes what is rapidly becoming Northumberland’s administrative centre, several departments being located there already”. County Hall was expected to move there from Newcastle in the near future.

Relocate County Hall from Newcastle. What a good idea! But why didn’t they just take it straight to Ashington and save all the upheaval now?

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Ken Stait of Stait Photography and to Louise Hurst, Production Director at Burrows Communications Ltd.,, for permission to reproduce the images.