Listening to the voices of Northumberland

THE recent meeting of the Morpeth Antiquarian Society took a different and slightly unusual format.

Dr Liz O'Donnell gave a talk about Voices of Northumberland, including older recordings made for the County Record Office in the 1970s and more modern recordings made for Woodhorn Museum.

Recently the museum obtained lottery funding and Dr O'Donnell was employed to record Northumbrians describing their lives.

She had searched the county archives and found some photographs, sometimes of the person being recorded, to illustrate her talk.

The first recording played was of shepherd Archie Dagg and his memories of sheep farming in Upper Coquetdale, Rothbury market and Windyhaugh School.

Before the school opened, the teacher used to travel around the Upper Coquet valley, visiting the farms. In one place there were 36 children from just three shepherd cottages.

Archie was a keen fiddle player, but his father forebade him practising the violin on Sunday unless he played hymns. To accompany this recording there was a wonderful old photograph of hundreds of Cheviot sheep at Rothbury market.

The second recording was of a suffragette from Tynemouth, Nora Balls, who spoke energetically of suffragists and suffragettes she had met. Her cut-glass accent was amazing and contrasted strongly with Archie's rural Northumbrian accent.

One unusual recording was made by the son of the last chairman of the board of Ponteland Workhouse, which gave an insight into a life long gone. There was even a photograph of the man as a boy with his father outside the workhouse.

Dr O'Donnell played some of her own recordings. She had recorded several Bevin Boys, who were conscripted to work in the coal mines during the Second World War. Seventy percent of Bevin Boys appealed against their conscription, but only five percent of appeals succeeded.

One of the Bevin Boys, a builder from London, had at first disliked the work intensely, but after the war he continued as a miner in Seghill.

The Society heard from women, who had worked in the wartime canteens or as Land Girls. The Land Girls described their work as hard at first, but they came to enjoy the life as they got stronger and more experienced. The girls who worked in the canteen had quite a good social life as men outnumbered them about 100 to one. Some of the girls were pictured with a group of Bevin Boys.

Many Society members remember the Second World War and were delighted to hear recordings of former evacuees. It was surprising to hear how many of them returned home, often just as the heavy bombing started.

An unusually accented Northumbrian voice belonged to an ex-German prisoner of war, who had worked on a farm west of Newcastle.

There was a prison camp at Darras Hall. Originally it held Italian prisoners, but later they were replaced by Germans. Some of the low risk prisoners were sent to work at farms.

The ex-prisoner said he enjoyed this as he was well fed and fairly treated. Though he spoke good English, which he had learned in Germany, he had found the farmer's dialect and accent impossible at first.

However, he enjoyed living in Northumberland and preferred to stay rather than return home to eastern Germany, which became part of Poland. He and his large family recently attended Woodhorn to help open a wartime exhibition.

All of these recordings are now held at Woodhorn and can be heard there or online. Dr Liz O'Donnell stressed their value for future historians and encouraged local history societies to continue recording voices of Northumberland. They form an invaluable archive.

Her audience greatly enjoyed and were fascinated by the talk and its format.