Heddon – the birthplace of our George

Heddon 4 - Stephenson's Birthplace
Heddon 4 - Stephenson's Birthplace

Eneas Mackenzie, writing in 1825, says of Heddon: ‘It is but a poor village ... and consists of one farmhold, two public houses, and cottages for mechanics and labourers employed in agriculture.’

There was actually a good deal of industry in the wider parish, mainly coal mining. Heddon History Society’s website has a map showing 14 coal pits, all of them on the banks running down to the Tyne, east of the village. If you look at the OS maps on the Northumberland Communities website, they show the exact locations of many of them.

There are references to digging for coal as far back as 1590, but the earliest mine for which we have much information is one in the late 18th Century, known as Heddon Colliery. It was in a field below Frenchman’s Row close to the boundary with Newburn parish, and the original row of cottages was built for the miners who worked there.

Heddon is credited with being the place where, in 1784, coal was first screened by machinery, and it is near certain that this was colliery where it happened. Mechanical screening may, however, have been tried at Willington a few years earlier.

It was not universally admired. Mackenzie (Vol. 1. p. 160) calls it the ‘profligate practice of screening coals.’ It was not the screening that he objected to, however, but rather that too little use was made of the small coal so that much of it was simply thrown onto the roads.

This colliery did not survive, and during the 19th Century the name Heddon Colliery was applied to the Margaret Pit, about two-thirds of the way down Station Road, on the right-hand side.

A fine gravestone in Heddon churchyard has on it: ‘Erected by Thomas Bates Esq., Heddon Banks, in memory of his Agent, Thomas Baxter, who died May 26th 1879, aged 56 years. Manager of Heddon Colliery for 17 years.’

Thomas Bates was a member of an old Northumberland landowning family, a barrister, and father of the historian Cadwallader John Bates.

Heddon Banks nowadays is the name given to a road and a farm on the westward side of the village, but on Greenwood’s map of 1828, also available in Northumberland Communities, this is distinguished as Heddon West Banks.

The Heddon Banks of the tombstone was an estate lying on both sides of Station Road, with Heddon Hall in the middle of it. On Greenwood’s map, Heddon Hall is called Mount Pleasant.

This was the scene of Thomas Bates’ colliery. It had a brickworks as well, making firebricks, and sent coal both southwards to the Wylam waggonway (later the North Wylam branch of the NER), and northwards to a coal depot serving Heddon and the farms and townships nearby.

Heddon is not a famous colliery, but neither was it negligible. Cadwallader Bates’ obituary in Archaeologia Aeliana (repeated on the Heddon History website) says that the colliery was “the most important part of his property,” and this despite the fact that he owned estates in England, Germany and Poland.

From the beginning of the 20th Century until the 1930s Heddon Colliery employed over 200 men. It was abandoned in 1933, but has left a reminder of itself in Heddon Welfare Field, at the other end of the village.

Heddon used to have a railway station, but it was too far from the village to be of much use to commuters. Buses and cars, however, were a different matter, and after the Second World War Heddon was transformed into the pleasant suburban outpost of Newcastle that it is now.

Part of Heddon Banks Farm was sold for building land and the developers, both private and council, built a new Rome on the banks of the Tyne. From Antonine Walk through Marius Avenue, Centurion Way and Campus Martius to Trajan Walk, all is Roman. Actually, these streets consist entirely of nice 1960s houses and bungalows, many with magnificent views of the Tyne Valley.

The walk from the village down Station Road brings you to another world, a linear playground for the people of Newcastle. You can follow either of two paths along the river, the riverside path proper, which winds in and out, or the former railway track, now a cycle path. The cottage where George Stephenson was born is a smaller version of Frenchman’s Row. When the Father of the Railways lived there as a little boy, each of the four rooms was home to a family. But apart from its intrinsic interest it has the great merit of possessing a café and a toilet.

Something I wanted to see especially was the Tide Stone. Despite looking everywhere for it along the riverside path, I couldn’t find it at all, either going or coming back from Stephenson’s cottage. Nobody knew where it was, and in most cases had never even heard of it.

I was about to give up when I looked up and there it stood. It isn’t near the river, where I’d been looking, but in the hedge at the back of the path.

The County History refers to it as a modern stone, but it’s actually over 200 years old, and marks where the inland limit of the port of Newcastle has been since the 13th Century.

It’s also called the Kissing Stone. The Mayor and Corporation used to survey the bounds on Ascension Day, travelling up the river by boat. When they got to the Hedwin Streams (Hedwin is an old spelling of Heddon) they disembarked at the tide stone, where it was the duty of the Mayor to kiss a pretty girl before he returned to his barge.

It was a day of jollity, and the people from Heddon and round about had dancing and other amusements in the field near the stone.