Surprises galore as heritage is explored

Laura Gubbins (left) and Maureen Pearson who will be'acting out an election rally to launch the book about  Dorothy Robson.
Laura Gubbins (left) and Maureen Pearson who will be'acting out an election rally to launch the book about Dorothy Robson.

Morpeth Antiquarian Society

The St James’s Centre was full for the MAS January meeting, Members’ Night, featuring three short talks.

Kim Bibby Wilson began with an illustrated talk on Morpeth Town Hall, intriguingly entitled Notes And Queries.

She delighted the audience with a series of illustrations, photographs and paintings of Morpeth and the Town Hall ranging from the 18th century to January 2018.

Examples included early illustrations showing the Market Cross and the Fish Market, the Joicey Plaque, unveiled in 1923 and which can still be seen on the frontage, and Morpeth welcoming the return of marathon gold medal winner Jim Alder from the Kingston Comonwealth Games of 1966.

Throughout her talk Kim pointed out and questioned the subtle changes in the facade.

She went on to show examples of the work of the artist Thomas Bowman Garvie, who was born in Morpeth in 1859. Again, a question was posed, who is the old man in Garvie’s painting of The Old Man And The Cat?

Finally, Kim showed the silver oval box, dated 1656 or 1686, perhaps showing an early illustration of the Morpeth Coat of Arms. These and other town treasures can be viewed in the Town Hall on Heritage Open Days and are detailed in the booklet of Morpeth Town Hall And Its Treasures, edited by Kim.

The second speaker was Pamela Cassells, who talked about the work of local woman Dorothy Robson, who at her seventh attempt became Morpeth’s first female and first Labour councillor in 1939.

Dorothy campaigned on a series of social issues in Morpeth, including slum clearance, privy conversion, clean drinking water, a public ambulance service, maternal and child health services, relocation of the workhouse and an information and advice service.

Pamela explained that Dorothy kept a diary, which she developed into her memoirs. These she entrusted, before her death in 1984, to her friend and local councillor Jim Rudd, with the request that he published them after her death.

A group of local women formed the Dorothy Robson Memorial Group and commissioned Prue Heathcote to distill Dorothy’s memoirs of over 190,000 words into a book, Service Not Self. This book endeavours to use Dorothy’s words at all times, emphasising that the views and opinions are those of Dorothy Robson and not of anyone else.

Pamela entertained members with snippets from the book. These included the surprising description of what is now Sanderson Arcade as a world of Dickensian squalor, dirt and poverty. In this area were six-storey tenements, large families living in rat-infested rooms, and five families sharing one primitive earth closet.

Service Not Self can be purchased from MAS members and is a fascinating snapshot of Morpeth in the 1930s and 40s when, among other roles, Dorothy was a Guardian of the workhouse and an assistant to the Billeting Officer at the start of World War Two.

Caroline Allott concluded the evening with her talk on the Morpeth Jockey Scales, which are owned by the Morpeth Boundary Riding Trustees.

Traditionally, the boundary riding was concluded by horse races on Cottingwood Common from at least 1746. Caroline explained how the scales were used to weigh the jockeys before and after races, along with their saddle.

The Morpeth scales were made by Henry Pooley and Son, an engineering company founded in the 18th century and specialising in weighing machines. The silvered-dialled face showed weights up to 25 stones.

With illustrations of Newmarket and Doncaster, Caroline outlined the development of the ‘Sport of Kings’. She showed riotous gambling scenes, which led to an Act of Parliament in 1740 “to restrain the excessive increase in horse racing”.

Caroline’s audience was surprised by her final revelation. She described how she had worked in the Chantry Tourist Information Centre at the time when the jockey scales were in the Antiquarian Museum, a small, ground floor room in the same building. She was answering the phone when she was astonished to see two young men carrying the obviously heavy scales around the Chantry and heading for the foot bridge.

She raced after them, shouting something appropriate, and they dropped the scales in the middle of the footbridge and disappeared.

Astonished onlookers helped her to carry the scales back into the Chantry. This, said Caroline, is how the scales are now lodged in the Mayor’s Parlour.

A delightful anecdote to end splendid talks, which were greatly appreciated by members and guests.

The evening was not quite over as tables were groaning with the pooled supper, a huge selection of sweet and savoury morsels.

Following this, members were reminded that fees for the new season are £17, and that in the absence of a Morpeth Museum, whenever the Town Hall is open, everyone is able to go into the Butter Market to see the MAS cases on display there. The present displays by the Museum Group are World War I and 70 years of MAS.

After a thoroughly good evening, members and visitors can look forward to the next meeting on February 23, at 7.15pm, in the St James’s Centre, when Frances Povey will be talking about 200 years of Bolam Lake.