Herald archives deliver a look back at 150 years of history

Alan Davison and Brian Harle.
Alan Davison and Brian Harle.

MORE than 150 years of Morpeth Herald history will be revisited in a new bimonthly feature.

Local historians Alan Davison and Brian Harle – the men behind the hugely successful revamped Town Trails – will chart the social history of Morpeth through the Herald archives.

The newspaper was established by James MacKay in 1854 and passed through five generations of his family.

The MacKay family have kindly agreed that their original material can be used to produce the new feature, which will give a special insight into the lives of ordinary Morpeth people, as well as the famous and not so well known heroes and heroines of the town.

There will also be the opportunity for our readers to get involved by answering specific queries posed by the columnists and contributing their own anecdotes and material about the topics covered.

Mr Harle said: “We want people to become involved with this and to come back to us if any of our pieces triggers their memories, or if they have something tucked away in their loft that relates to them.

“We are always coming across queries as we go through the archives. Increasingly, we are finding names of people and don’t know anything about them, or we have photographs, but don’t know the names. It will be interesting to see if there are relatives of these people still around.

“We will be covering Swinneys engineering works at some point and it would be nice to find out if anybody has equipment that they manufactured. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be something. There could be a range sitting somewhere and if it still had the label on it would be superb.”

The Morpeth Herald, the town’s first newspaper, began as a four-page monthly publication covering national and local news, as well as stories on local legend and history.

It was so popular that it was extended to eight pages within its first year and in 1855 it was published fortnightly. By 1858 circulation was still rising and it became a weekly.

The MacKays remained at the helm until the newspaper was sold to Tweeddale Press Group in 1983. It was bought by Northeast Press in 1992 and became part of Johnston Press in 1999.

The newspaper archives proved an invaluable resource for Mr Davison and Mr Harle when they decided to update and re-publish Alex Tweddle’s Town Trails, which detail Morpeth’s heritage on a street-by-street basis through short walks, maps and pictures.

And the pair, who visit the MacKay’s Bridge Street premises every week to pore over the papers, quickly realised the significance of both the news and adverts to documenting local history and spotting trends.

They began to catalogue their findings and so far have recorded more than 16,500 images, from 1854 to 1912.

Their new Herald The Past feature, which will initially run every two months, stems from that research.

Mr Davison said: “When we started, we were very specifically looking at Whinham and Swinney, but we realised we were building up quite a big picture and right from the start we wanted to get this out to other people.

“The Town Trails are a walk through the town, looking at the history of buildings and certain individuals. This is much more about Morpeth’s social history, how people were living over 100 years ago.

“Almost every week we come across something and say ‘nothing has changed, we have done this before and haven’t learned’.

“They had the same sort of problems. For example, they had to re-plant trees in High Stanners over and over again for over four years because of vandalism. There were also problems of poverty, education and health.

“Of course, in general people had a much more miserable life than we have and most people had a pretty grim time.”

A wide variety of topics will be covered in the new feature, beginning next week with advertising in the Herald and how it shows fashions, prices and lifestyles, as well as the changing status of women.

Other articles will look at transport, tanning, market gardening, entertainment, pubs, the cattle market, cycling, aerial photographs and natural history snippets, such as reports of the arrival of the first swallow of the year, hares running down Newgate Street and rare bird sightings and shootings.

There will be a section on the law, crime and punishment, revealing the fines for such misdemeanors as speeding on bikes or leaving a parked horse unattended, and there will be a piece on the problems caused by the weather.

Mr Harle said: “There are quite a lot of extremes of weather and we can see how people coped. The floods are well documented, but there were also gales and heavy snowstorms. There is a tale of a postman from Rothbury who disappeared for days in a snowstorm, but he eventually got through to deliver the mail.”

There will be information about some of the town’s unusual and successful people — Morpeth has boasted no fewer than four Fellows of the Royal Society — and another piece will feature sport.

Mr Davison said: “A lot of the sport was originally based on gambling, with people having contests against each other or things like sparrow shoots, but we gradually begin to see cricket and tennis and by the 1880s women were taking part. There was a mixed hockey team as early as the 1890s, which was very surprising.

“It is fascinating going through the archives, and of course we spend a lot of time laughing.”

Mr Harle added: “We would like to say thank you to the MacKay family for letting us view the Heralds every week in their shop in Bridge Street, which has enabled us to produce these articles.”

Readers will be able to answer the writers’ queries and provide other feedback on their pieces via a new email address, morhistory@hotmail.co.uk