Local author’s contribution to history

The Easter Field, Morpeth, was one of the venues for the Morpeth Olympic Games. Picture by Roger Hawkins.
The Easter Field, Morpeth, was one of the venues for the Morpeth Olympic Games. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

Frederick Charles Moffatt was born at Bullers Green, Morpeth, c.1920. He was in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He then joined the police, served for 30 years, and retired with the rank of Detective Chief Inspector.

Although he was invariably referred to as Fred Moffatt, his name as an author was almost always either Frederick C. Moffatt or F.C. Moffatt.

Fred Moffatt was not an academic historian, nor did he claim to be, but he nevertheless made his contribution to academic history.

He was a prolific historian, concentrating mainly on local and sporting history, but writing also on the military, police, school days, pastimes, shopping, entertainment and seaside resorts, often drawing on his own and other people’s recollections.

I have 13 of his books, but catalogues show that he wrote at least 42. He dated less than half of them, but the outside dates I have are 1979 to 2007. This works out at one-and-a-half books a year, and there may have been yet others.

The earliest dateable books in my collection are volumes 1 and 2 of Morpeth Between the Wars. They came out in 1979 and 1980, and were followed a year or two later by Morpeth, the War Years and After. All three were written in co-operation with G.C. MacDonald.

Gil MacDonald, as he was always called, was Mr Moffatt’s brother-in-law, and a colleague of mine at Castle Morpeth.

He, or in this instance they, made great use of both their own and other people’s recollections.

The first paragraph of the first volume sums up the recurring difficulty they encountered:

“Several differing answers are given to the same questions asked, even when the questions are put to so called ‘authorities’ on the subject. In addition, a similar state of affairs exists in relation to old residents, and it becomes very apparent that the human memory is very fallible. What is fact, and what is imagination, no matter how true the speaker imagines himself to be?

“One is left, therefore, to go to the written word only to find...the same thing... and the same applies pictorially. Old paintings, postcards and photographs differ so greatly in the dating that some of them must be wrong.”

He concludes: “I therefore make no claim to complete authenticity, but merely suggest that my brief contribution to the story of the town is reasonably accurate.”

Vol. 1 contains 23 pages of text, 28 of old photographs, two of old advertisements, a list of the mayors of Morpeth from 1836 to 1939, and of town clerks to 1923. And although ‘between the wars’ refers mainly to 1914-39, there are also references to the Boer War and the Edwardian period.

The style is familiar and conversational, like this from Vol. 2, p.46:

“And how long ago is it since you saw anyone take up their carpets and take them over the Stanners and give them a beating on the grass with a carpet beater? Have you ever seen a carpet beater in fact?”

I never met Mr Moffatt, and this is a suitable place to acknowledge a particular kindness of both men. Some years ago, I wanted a copy of James Fergusson’s Morpeth from the Accession to the Jubilee, 1887. I happened to meet Gil in the street one day, and, knowing that Mr Moffatt had republished it at some time, I asked him if he would ask his brother-in-law if he still had any copies.

He came back not long after with not one, but two of the booklets, as a gift. One was a pristine copy of the reprint, and the other Mr Moffatt’s working copy, with snippets of information in it that aren’t in the final version.

Morpeth Golf Club, 1906-81, is different from most of his other works in that he had access to the club’s minute books. The details he gives from them are, therefore, factually correct, and the dates accurate. It is altogether an excellent history of the club.

It also illustrates his strengths and weaknesses. On the downside, his text is set entirely in capitals, though it’s only fair to say that most of his books are in the usual upper and lower case format.

General history was not his strong point. For example: “when James 6th of Scotland wed Margaret Tudor and became James 1st of England, it is said he ‘brought his clubs to England’ and made the game popular in this country.”

The bit about golf clubs may be true, but Margaret Tudor was actually his great-grandmother. And she was married to James IV, not James VI.

On the positive side, this book, like all of the others, is profusely illustrated, and contains many examples of what in other contexts would be called oral history.

Take this, for instance, about Billy Long, the Morpeth professional: “Billy started his training at Longbenton, then came to Morpeth as assistant to Jack Gibb, earning a princely 7/6 per week. He later became pro with a retainer of 10/- a week, with only a wooden hut as a shop...Billy also recalls the caddies of the thirties, who were mainly on the ‘dole’, getting a shilling a round, and running from the course when they saw the ‘means test’ man coming.”

Like most of his books, these were all in A5 format. After the third volume of Morpeth Between the Wars, Mr Moffatt assumed that the public had had enough of ‘old Morpeth’. When, two years later, they were still asking when he was going to produce another book, he felt that something different was needed.

What he came up with was much larger, roughly 8ins x 12ins, landscape-fashion. The emphasis is on the photographs, with the text limited to captions, albeit some are quite long. It is printed on high quality photographic paper, resulting in a quite startling improvement in the quality of the pictures. These two books alone put us permanently in his debt for the pictures they contain.

In the Introduction to Vol. 2, he wrote: “The publication of ‘Pictorial Morpeth’ last year obviously encouraged many locals to dig once more into old cupboards and drawers, and I have been contacted by many people who have unearthed some veritable treasures.”

This illustrates his greatest strength: his wide acquaintance, and what must have been such a warm and reassuring personality that it prompted people to trust him with both their treasured memories and their treasured pictures.

But again, you can never be sure of his dates. A rare and attractive drawing of the rectory in Vol. 1 is described as “a pencil sketch of the rectory during the residence of Frederick Ekins (1872) and drawn by his daughter.” Mr Ekins died in 1842.

Fred Moffatt was not an academic historian, nor did he claim to be, but he nevertheless made his contribution to academic history. Professor Martin Polley is Director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University, Leicester. When he wrote The British Olympics, 2011, he met and interviewed Mr Moffatt, and included material on the Morpeth Olympic Games that he took from two of his books, Turnpike Road to Tartan Track, and Sporting Cavalcade.

Mr Moffatt died in November 2013 at the age of 93.