A common theme in programmes like “Who do You Think You Are” is the discovery that some distant ancestor shared a talent or skill with the “celebrity” subject. “It must be in the genes” is the usual rationalization, though, of course, it’s really down to plain old coincidence. Nonetheless such coincidences can be intriguing, and I was certainly delighted when I found a similar case in my family – though it wasn’t really a skill or talent that I shared with an ancestor, it was just the opposite in fact.
I always hated PE and games lessons at school. I was absolutely hopeless at football and really didn’t enjoy any aspect of PE lessons. It wasn’t that I was inactive – I loved playing out with my friends and neighbours at home. We were a bunch of post-war baby-boomers – Tommy, Judith, Caroline, Peter, Edith, Sadie, Kathleen and myself – living in adjacent houses with a large field on one side and some woods on the other, and when weather allowed we would all be outside playing games or just running around having fun. But it was very different at school – there, games and PE were more like torture than fun.
At least that was how it had been at the junior school where we’d had Mr Harwood for games, and in the first three years at Hookergate Grammar School under Mr Bramley, but in the fourth year at Hookergate we had a new teacher, Mr Forster, and he made big changes. He introduced rugby which was certainly a lot better than football, though I still couldn’t say I liked it, but he also introduced Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling which I absolutely loved. I found myself actually looking forward to PE lessons for the first time in my life. Not that I was very good at wrestling, in fact I was hopeless, but I really enjoyed every second of it. Sadly it wasn’t to last. After a year at Hookergate Mr Forster moved on to teach at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle (and ultimately to be the National Gymnastics Coach for Scotland) and we reverted to the traditional hell of football and PE under a new teacher, Mr Errington.
My brief foray into wrestling ended in 1961, and if we could jump back exactly 100 years from there to 1861 we would find another “wrestler,” my great-great-grandfather Francis Pears, a lead miner at Shildon Mine, Blanchland. He’d had a sad childhood. He lost his father in 1846 when he was 5, and his mother in 1856 when he was 16. This left his elder brother William to assume guardianship of Francis and their two younger brothers, John and Joseph. William did the best he could and he brought in a housekeeper (who was soon to be his mistress) to cook and clean for them, but Francis, ever the rebel, soon fought against William’s brotherly authority and he moved out of the family home at the earliest opportunity. He took up lodgings at nearby Baybridge with blacksmith Thomas Parker and family, and that’s where Francis was living in 1861.
Now let’s focus on Easter Monday 1861, which fell on April 1st that year, and on the Wrestling Ground at the foot of Pottery Lane, Newcastle – where the Newcastle Arena stands today. This was the scene of the annual Newcastle Easter Wrestling and Great Northern Games. Among the listed entrants to the wrestling competition that year was one “Francis Pears of Blanchland.” Francis had travelled the 25 miles from his home with friend and neighbour Thomas Fawcett, who was also entered in the competition.
The first wrestling contest began just before one o’clock and was for Northumberland men for the Decies Prize of £20 given by Lord Decies (pronounced Deeshees) plus a silver medal. Twenty pounds was a significant sum of money in 1861, roughly the same as £1600 today, so it isn’t surprising that the contest attracted 65 entrants. In the first round Francis was paired against a Thomas Snowden of Kelloe and they were the second pair on the field. Sadly the scorecard soon read “Stood: T. Snowden, Fell: F. Pears” – and that was the end of Francis in that contest. In his defense I should add that the man who threw Francis in Round One lasted until Round Six when he was defeated by the eventual contest winner.
Francis also entered the next contest which was for 11 stone men for a prize of £28 (~£2300 today) and a silver medal. There were an incredible 114 entrants and this time Francis was facing Thomas Thompson of Leadgate in Round One. They were last on the field, but for Francis it was a long wait for nothing as he was again defeated – Stood: T.Thompson, Fell: F.Pears. The wrestling and other games – Hurdles, Bell Race, Sack Race, Pole Leap – continued into the next day, but for Francis, and indeed for his friend Thomas Fawcett who had also suffered a Round One defeat, the games were over.
Clearly, like me, Francis was not the most talented of wrestlers – but one can assume that, like me, he loved the sport.
Acknowledgements: The Newcastle Daily Journal, Tuesday, April 2nd, and Wednesday, April 3rd, 1861 The Newcastle Courant, Friday, April 5th, 1861 The Newcastle Guardian, Saturday, April 6th, 1861 Photograph of Wrestling Ground, Newcastle – Unknown Photograph of Francis Pears – Tintype of 1868 – Family Collection
A few years ago I bumped into a lad I’d known at Highfield School. This brief encounter got me thinking of my time at Highfield. Most of the staff were great and on the whole I’d really enjoyed the few years I spent there, but at the time I really hadn’t liked Harry Swan, the headmaster. He was a man of very small stature but enormous presence. He stood no nonsense and he used the cane for the slightest offense. Unfortunately I was an all too frequent recipient of that cane. Yes, I’d really disliked Harry Swan, but over the years since I left Highfield, especially after I’d entered the teaching profession myself, I began to understand what a tough job he’d had and how well he’d tackled it. Gradually I came to respect, even admire Mr Swan. Once my attitude to Mr Swan had mellowed, I was able to understand just how much I owed him. I’m now certain that my life-long love of maths stemmed directly from a time when he stood in for our class teacher and gave us a fascinating introduction to algebra.
But what had become of Harry Swan? Obviously he’d be dead, but I’d never heard of his passing. Rowlands Gill was a fairly small place and news spread fast. I’d heard of the deaths of many, probably most, of my former teachers at Highfield, but nothing of Mr Swan. I hate mysteries, and I’m a keen local historian, so I decided there and then to try to find what I could about the life and death of my former headmaster. It’s taken me a while, but with the very recent release of some new records I was able to break through a final brick wall and complete this very brief biography of Henry Swan.
Life of Henry Swan
Henry Swan was born in Dipton on 24th September 1902, the son of Colliery Checkweighman, John Edmund Swan, and his wife Alice. The family lived at 13 Swinburne Terrace, Dipton – which is still stands on the main road through the village – and Henry grew up there with his parents and his half-sister, Ettie Wilkinson, who was nine years his senior. In 1910, when Henry was seven, his parents had another son who was christened Rowland Cornford Swan.
Henry’s father had been active in local politics for some time, but in 1918, when Henry was 16, John Edmund Swan was elected Labour MP for Barnard Castle. Unfortunately his parliamentary career was to be rather short-lived; he lost his seat to a Tory at the next General Election in 1922. John Edmund didn’t stand for Parliament again, but he rose to great heights in local politics: he served as an Agent of the Durham Miners’ Association and served as its General Secretary from 1935 to 1945, succeeding the legendary Peter Lee.
While his father was serving as an MP, Henry trained at Bede Training College in Durham and he obtained his Board of Education Certificate. He took up his first teaching appointment as an Assistant Master at Rowlands Gill Council School in 1923. This was to be a very long and successful appointment: he taught at that same school until 1948. Not content with his basic teaching qualification, Mr Swan increased his versatility by studying for City and Guilds qualifications in Handicrafts, and for the Royal Horticultural Society Certificate in School and Cottage Gardening.
In 1927 Henry married a Tow Law-born lass called Iverene Phillipson. Henry had been living in Delight Row, Dipton for several years, but immediately after his marriage he and his wife moved into the house which was to be their home for nearly 50 years: “Neathsdale” on Dene Avenue, Rowlands Gill. This would be much more convenient for Henry travelling to and from work. In 1931 their first and, as it turned out, only child Joan was born.
Once established in Rowlands Gill, Henry involved himself in local politics and was soon elected to represent Rowlands Gill and Lockhaugh Ward on Blaydon Urban District Council. His political career reached its pinnacle in 1944 when Councillor Henry Swan was picked by his fellow councillors to serve as Chairman of Blaydon UDC, the equivalent of Mayor today.
When war broke in 1939, Henry Swan was given two important part-time jobs. He was to serve on Blaydon’s Food Control Committee, and he was appointed Head Air Raid Warden for Rowlands Gill and Lockhaugh in charge of the 35 or so full and part-time Wardens in the village. Many people questioned Henry’s suitability for this second role, claiming it was just a political appointment, but when he was tested he was to prove his detractors wrong.
In the early hours of May 1st 1942 Lockhaugh was heavily bombed and strafed with machine-gun fire. Many of the houses on the main road and Thornley Lane lost their roofs, and there was a lot of damage to windows, walls and ceilings. When the police arrived on the scene they were surprised to find that the Wardens led by Henry Swan had already searched all the damaged houses and they’d accounted for all the residents too. Afterwards the village policeman, Bill Meehan, praised Henry Swan and said he’d displayed outstanding leadership and organisational skills that night.
On 31st August 1947 the long-serving headmaster at Highfield Mixed School, Mr J.W. Mason, retired, and Henry Swan was appointed to be his successor. He took up his appointment on 1st June 1948. Highfield Mixed School had pupils aged 8 to 15 years and at the time of his appointment it had 212 pupils on its books. Because of the post-war baby boom and the building of Highfield Council Estate, the numbers on the books rose quickly over the next eight years to a maximum of 440 in September 1956 then tailed off to around 300 by 1963. Dividing the pupils into classes, and arranging classrooms and staffing for such wildly varying numbers was a major and continuing headache throughout Mr Swan’s time at Highfield. All this on top of the usual day to day responsibilities of any headmaster made this a particularly challenging job.
It was to get worse. Every year the school had lost some pupils to Hookergate Grammar School or High Spen Secondary Modern at the age of 11 or 12, but many pupils stayed on at Highfield until they left school at 15. When High Spen Secondary Modern was replaced by the much bigger Rowlands Gill Secondary Modern in September 1964, all 11+ pupils in the area who didn’t go to Hookergate would now automatically go the new Secondary Modern. Highfield Mixed was now Highfield Junior School taking only pupils up to the age of 11. There were now only 175 pupils on Highfield’s books with 6 staff. Losing all his senior pupils must have been really awful for Mr Swan who had excelled at careers advice and guidance for his school leavers. Perhaps he was glad that retirement was only three years away.
Henry Swan retired on 31st August 1967, just before his 65th birthday. He now had more time to devote to his main hobby – breeding birds – and to his work as a Justice of the Peace. He remained in the village until 1975 and then he and his wife emigrated to the USA to live with their daughter Joan and son-in-law Eric. Henry Swan died at the age of 81 in February 1984 in the City of Alexander, a small settlement on the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas. His widow, Iverene, died 11 years later on 4th November 1995.
Footnote 1. Henry Swan’s Siblings.
Henry’s elder half sister, Ettie Wilkinson, married chauffeur George Richardson and they set up home at Berry Edge near Consett. They had two children: Frederick in 1919 and Alice in 1920. Ettie died in 1957.
Henry’s younger brother, Rowland Cornford Swan, followed his elder brother into teaching. He was working at Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire when he met and married Peggy Fairclough. Rowland and Peggy had one child, Sandra, in 1938. Rowland Cornford Swan died in Leicester in 1975.
Footnote 2. He might have been Henry Spink!
John Edmund Swan, Henry’s father, was born in 1878, the illegitimate son of Isabella Alice Swan. When John Edmund was three, his mother married a coal miner called John Spink. They raised John Edmund as John Edmund Spink and he might well have retained that name had it not been for the fact that his mother and step-father split up when John Edmund was in his late teens. He then reverted to his birth-name, John Edmund Swan. If John Edmund had remained John Edmund Spink and married under that name, our headmaster might well have been Henry Spink.
The most significant event of 2015 for the Pears household was undoubtedly the loss of our little feline friend Samantha on January 5th. Although it’s nearly a year since we lost her, she’s greatly missed and I still find myself looking for her when I enter the house after being out for a while. On a personal level, the most significant event I suppose was my 70th birthday! Not that I mind being 70, but it’s a landmark nonetheless.
There’s been a huge change in our weekly routine as Chris is now taking a much bigger role in looking after her mother who is 99. Christine’s sister, Carol, is still bearing the brunt of the task, but Chris is now taking responsibility during the day on three or four days a week.
Once again, we’ve been very lucky healthwise with no major problems for either of us in 2015. We had our annual Diabetic Eye Screening and other eye tests with Tony Nurowski at Summers Opticians, Low Fell in February and our Diabetic Reviews at our GP surgery in March and September. These reviews include comprehensive blood tests and in many ways act as general health checks. During the September review we received our annual flu jabs – not 100% effective, but any protection is better than none. Our chiropodist, Michael Gallagher, still visits us every six weeks to check our feet. During the year he’s opened a little surgery just a quarter mile away, but we still prefer him to visit us at home.
Our only hospital visits during the year were a couple of routine nurse appointments and ultrasound scans for Chris – everything was fine – and a couple of hearing aid appointments for me. I’ll need to make another hearing aid appointment soon as my left hearing aid seems to have gone rather quiet.
Our dentist has changed yet again! We had our 6-monthly dental checks in April and October, and on our October visit we found that our dentist, Samira Rais, who we’d only seen twice, had gone back to India. So we have yet another new dentist, Diane Stevenson, who is the senior member of the practice. The practice itself has changed too. It was Robson and Partners until last year – now it’s part of a large company called Oasis Dental Care. We’re very happy with our new dentist, but not so certain we like the new set up.
There have been several happy additions to the family during the course of the year, including, in March, Lara, daughter of my cousin’s daughter, Lisa Lumley; in July, Jakob-Terry, son of my third cousin, Sarah Jane Taylor; and, just six days before Christmas, Isabel Eden, daughter of my second cousin once removed, Alexandria Newby. And finally, the addition of a husband rather than a baby – my cousin’s daughter, Amy Smith, eloped to Gretna Green on December 30th to marry Scott Anthony Hamblin. Best wishes to all of them.
2015 saw some terribly sad events too. Ethel Waugh, my brother-in-law’s mother, died in January, and my uncle, Ray Nattrass, died in July. They were both lovely people and will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with their families. Both Ray and Ethel were very elderly and both had been ill for a while, but there was one death in my extended family of a much younger man. Gordon Ross Philipson, a much loved and respected school teacher in Brisbane, Australia, died suddenly on June 25th at the age of only 54. His many friends, students and ex-students have left some wonderful tributes on his Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/gordonross.philipson
During the year I also found out about two family deaths in 2014 – Jean Bright, the widow of my dad’s cousin, Arthur; and on the other side of the planet in New Zealand, Eileen McCombe, step-daughter of my great uncle Arthur Axford. When my parents were alive, such was the efficiency of the family grapevine that I would have heard of events like these within hours. Now I only seem to find out that people have passed away when Christmas cards are returned.
It was really nice to see my cousin Ray who visited us in August, and Christine’s cousin Simon and his wife Zoe who visited in May, but the main family get-together of the year was the Walker family reunion at the Ravensworth Arms on October 3rd which I had the pleasure of organising. All descendants of my maternal grandfather Joseph Walker were invited and we had 28 attendees, including my cousin Ian from Calgary in Canada. Though some cousins had attended uncle Ray’s funeral in July, we hadn’t seen many of them for quite a few years, and it was great to see them all again.
My main family history research subjects this year were the siblings of my great-great-grandfather, Francis Pears. He was one of five children of Francis Pears Snr and Hannah nee Armstrong who’d married at Hexham in 1836. The family comprised Thomas born 1837, William born 1838, Francis born 1840, John born 1843 and Joseph born 1846. Only two of the five, Francis and William, seemed to have left any descendants. I knew that the eldest, Thomas, had died young, but what became of the other two, John and Joseph, was a bit of a mystery. I think I’ve just about cracked it – just a few “t”s to cross and “i”s to dot.
The main frustration with autosomal DNA results is that the DNA shared with a “match” could have come through any branch of the family. You know you’re related, but that’s all, and that makes the search for the common ancestors very difficult. One of the best ways of narrowing down the possibilities is to persuade relations to test as well, then, any matches you share with that relative, must be descendants of the ancestors you share with that relative. So far I’ve only persuaded two relations to test: my first cousin Ray Urwin and my third cousin Tony Freeman. We await the result of Tony’s test, but we got Ray’s results in April and we share many matches, all of whom must be related to us through one of our common grandparents, Joseph Walker and Elizabeth nee Shields. So we can now confidently say that our common ancestors with those matches will be ancestors of Joseph or Elizabeth, greatly easing the task of identifying them.
We still have our weekly visit to the Ravensworth Arms for a meal and that is where we generally choose as a venue to meet friends too. This year we met with friends Marian & Geoff for meals on three occasions – I’ve known Marian since we were toddlers in Rowlands Gill, so we have a lot to talk about. We’ve made friends with Paola, the wonderful vet who did so much for Samantha our cat, and we’ve had five most enjoyable meals with her at the Ravensworth. Without Paola’s help we would have lost our cat much earlier, so we will always be most grateful to her.
We had several meals at The Ravensworth with “The Gang” – a group of eight or nine family historians of similar vintage to ourselves, and with the “Famous Five” a group of six or seven (we’ve grown) from the same year at Hookergate Grammar School. The Famous Five also had two most enjoyable outings in 2015: the first involved a meal at the Washington Arms followed by a look around Washington Old Hall, the second, a meal at The Sun in Morpeth followed by a visit to Wallington Hall.
We don’t get to many of the monthly meals organised by The Retired Members Association of my former union; this year we only managed to make two of their get togethers – at the Washington Arms and at the County Cricket Ground at Chester-le-Street. I also continued to meet with good friend and former classmate, Bernard, every month at the Ravensworth. We never seem to run out of things to natter about. Finally, I met with Geordie exile Alan Dixon and his niece Maria for a cup of tea in Saltwell Park. Alan has since moved from Nottinghamshire to the Pembrokeshire coast so I don’t think he’ll be able to visit his homeland as often as he did.
Our local “corner shop,” a Nisa outlet run by Steve Barratt, has completed its expansion into two adjacent units, and our local Co-op Food store has been completely refitted. Both stores open until late at night and both can now stock many more lines than before – very convenient for local residents. There’s also new Cafe/Community Rooms on the main road called The Nest. The community rooms seem very busy with classes of various types and the cafe is proving popular, particularly with mothers and little children. The cafe looks very nice, but it’s noisy and doesn’t serve the sort of food we like, so I don’t think we’ll be using it. Fortunately business at the nearby Stairwayz Cafe and at the Chatterbox 592 Cafe further along the road, which we do use from time to time, doesn’t seem to have suffered.
There were huge changes too at the nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital with the opening of the new state of the art Accident and Emergency Department and new Main Entrance. Fortunately we haven’t had occasion to use A & E since the opening, but we did attend a talk in June on “Emergency Care at the QE” which described the new facilities in detail and explained how they would work. The problem of finding one’s way around the hospital has also been addressed with various areas of the hospital now colour-coded, and the direction signs have been coloured to match these. In July I volunteered to help test the new signage. There were about twenty of us involved and we were divided into pairs and given a series of tests where we were told to forget everything we knew about the hospital and navigate from given start points to given end points using only the hospital signs. Then we had to report back to a debriefing session and describe the problems we’d encountered. We found quite a number of issues, many of which, I’m pleased to say, have since been rectified.
My reading material covers a wide range of subjects – science, technology, history, language, even theology – but the one thing shared by at least 90% of the books I read is that they are non-fiction. I’ve barely read any fiction since I was a youngster, and as a youngster my favourite reads were the Famous Five and Secret Seven books by Agatha Christie. In the summer I was browsing the bookshelves in a local charity shop and I spotted a collection of five Famous Five books and I bought them on an impulse. I quickly read the lot, and I was hooked again. So I bought the full set of 21 Famous Five books, plus a volume of FF short stories. They didn’t last long either, so I bought the full set of 15 Secret Seven books, plus a volume of SS short stories, and I read those. I’ll probably read them all again before too long – I must have reached my second childhood already.
Neither Chris nor I travel too well so we haven’t been on a holiday for many years. As an alternative we thought we might try staying at some local hotel for a day or two – and where better, we thought, than a place we know very well, the Ravensworth Arms. It’s less than three miles from our home, but it’s set in wonderful countryside with some lovely walks and views. So in June we spent one night there just to try it out – we stayed in one of the chalets which was originally part of a blacksmith’s shop – and we enjoyed it. So in August we stayed for two nights in the same room, and we repeated the experience in October and again in November. No doubt we’ll do the same in 2016.
Perhaps not quite recreation, but we’ve been spending a lot of time de-cluttering. I’ve been going through a cupboard full of folders deciding what should go and what should stay. Chris has being doing similar things with her old catalogues and paperwork. Where does such rubbish come from? Nearly all of it ended up being recycled. I still have a filing cabinet and a few boxes to tackle, but I’m having a break at present. We also tacked our old coal-house and outside toilet which were intended to be storage areas for gardening tools and DIY odds and ends, and a workshop, but had morphed over the years into a tip. In August we hired a large skip for a day and got stuck into the task. It was worth the effort.
Gadgets and Tech.
As usual I couldn’t help buying what certain people unkindly refer to as Boys Toys, though of course they are in truth indispensable household aids. Last Christmas I got really frustrated trying to source and buy replacement bulbs for our ageing Christmas tree lights, so early in January I bought a set of 50 LED lights and we used them this Christmas for the first time. They are illuminating our tree as I write – just a nice steady multi-coloured display, though I could choose various types of flashing, fading or chasing sequences if I felt so inclined.
Around Easter time I bought some Wi-Fi security cameras which I’ve mounted in various parts of our abode. These can be armed using a mobile phone or tablet when we go out, and once armed, any movement in their field of view or any sound will result in an urgent e-mail being sent to me with an image of whatever triggered the camera attached. I can also view a video/sound recording which starts 7 seconds before the camera was triggered.
Some 46 years ago I was teaching in a secondary school at Sunderland, and on the day we broke up for the Christmas holidays I found myself looking after my own form, who were first years. We decided we’d sing carols and other popular songs, and as there was a rather expensive reel-to-reel tape recorder set up in the room, I recorded the occasion. I later transferred the recording to a cassette, took the cassette home and put it in a safe place. So safe,in fact, that I didn’t come across the cassette again until June this year. I no longer had a cassette player so I took the cassette to a local chap who can transfer sound recordings to MP3 files. What a wonderful experience it was to play that recording and relive that December lesson from so long ago – tears were rolling down my cheeks as I remembered those lovely kids. Strange to think they’ll all now be 57 or 58 years of age and very likely grandparents.
I’ve had a good selection of Kindle books for quite some time and I had been reading them on my PC, tablet or even on my phone. In July I saw a very cheap Kindle Paperwhite in the Gateshead branch of CeX and I couldn’t resist buying it. What a difference it makes! It’s so easy to use, so now I use the Paperwhite exclusively to access my e-book library.
Telephone marketeers are an increasingly irritating curse, and I’d had enough. Despite being registered on the Telephone Preference Service database, which marketeers are supposed to check before calling anyone, I was getting a ridiculous number of such calls. To try to minimise this I bought a pair of BT8500 phones which are designed to counter marketeers. To put it simply, the only callers who can get straight through are those in my contacts list – everyone else has to jump through hoops to get through. In the two months since I installed these phones I haven’t had a single marketing call.
The final gadget of the year was actually a 70th birthday present from my school-friend, Dave Routledge – a pair of bluetooth headphones. Now I can listen to music or video soundtracks from my tablet without having to rely on the tinny little built-in loudspeakers. I’d never been tempted to buy headphones myself, but now that I’ve used them I wish I’d had them years ago.
Another great year at Gateshead’s Little Theatre with the usual faboulous selection of plays. Of the ten productions during the year, Chris and I attended nine – The Ladykillers, Playhouse Creatures, The Dumb Waiter/Betrayal, Miranda, Blue Stockings, Ladies of Spirit, Get Up & Tie Your Fingers, Heatstroke and The Hound of the Baskervilles – and enjoyed every one. We also went to the Theatre Royal several times during the year and we saw Puttin’ on the Ritz, Oklahoma , And Then There Were None, The Sound of Music, and the fantastic pantomime Dick Whittington.
Our taste in music is rather varied as can be seen from the concerts we attended in 2015. In January we went to a concert at Gateshead Heritage Centre by Concert Royal entitled Under the Greenwood Tree – sounds from the baroque and classical eras played on period instruments. Concert Royal features harpsichordist, John Treherne MBE, who is the conductor of the Gateshead Youth Orchestra and former Head of Music Service for Gateshead Borough.
The marvellous New Century Ragtime Orchestra generally puts on two shows a year at The Caedmon Hall, Gateshead Library and we wouldn’t miss them for anything. This year the shows were in February and July and featured their regular vocalist Caroline Irwin. The July show also featured guest pianists Stephanie Trick and Paolo Alderighi. We’ve already booked for the first of the 2016 shows. Zulu Wail by the New Century Ragtime Orchestra
In April we went to a rock/folk concert at the Caedmon Hall by Larkin Poe, a band from Atlanta, Georgia fronted by two talented young sisters, Megan and Rebecca Lovell. Such a range of songs – wild, hot, haunting – and incredible effects from the slide guitar played by Megan. This band has played at Glastonbury and has recently backed several top flight entertainers, including Elvis Costello on two of his tours. Backing Larkin Poe at the Caedmon was an excellent local folk group called Gilded (sic) Thieves A wonderful night’s entertainment . Don’t by Larkin Poe
Early in the year we attended several of the “Library Lates” events at the Central Library. Five or six library staff organise these for 20 or so members of the public. At these we have a bite to eat followed by a talk on the evening’s topic liberally sprinkled with book readings, and we end with a quiz based on what we should have learnt from the event. Topics this year included Past Times and Crimes, Celebrating Children’s Fiction, and 30 Years of Hamish Hamilton.
Also at the Central Library, I attended a talk on “The Liberation of Belson” and a magical event by History Wardrobe on “Fairy Tale Fashion;” and at Gateshead Heritage Centre I went to some wonderful talks on a huge variety of historical topics: Enter the Word of Jane Austen, People Plaques and Places, As I cam’ through Sandgate, Home Front on Tyneside in WW1, Laurel and Hardy, Medicine in WW1 and Georgian Geordies.
I usually manage at least one history course a year and this year was no exception. In February I enrolled on a 5 -week course on The Great War – the beginnings with Anthea Lang and Malcolm Grady. Sadly I was not able to get to the next course in the WW1 series dealing with events of 1916.
The Lit & Phil Library in Newcastle put on a lot of lectures every year, mostly on subjects of little interest to me, but I always make a point of checking them out on the library website because, just occasionally, they have a real gem. This year there was a really intriguing item listed for October 15th: Uncovering Colossus – From Ludgate to Los Alamos given by Professor Brian Randell whom I know well. It turned out to be just as fascinating as the title suggested; it was the story of the fight to declassify details of the wartime computer called Colossus, a fight which was finally successful in the 1990s.
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital continued their Medicine for Members talks with some really interesting talks on What is a Pathology, Asthma and Emergency Care at the QE given by people who really know the subject: the consultants, nurses, technicians or scientists directly involved at the QE. Those of us who attended the Pathology talk in February were given the opportunity to tour the QE Pathology Centre the following month. We thoroughly enjoyed the talks and the tour.
Newcastle Skeptics in the Pub changed its regular venue during the year. We had been meeting mainly at The Bridge Hotel with occasional forays to The Old George, but mid-way through 2015 we switched to the Tyneside Irish Centre in Newcastle’s Chinatown. Unlike The Bridge and The Old George, this venue is wheelchair accessible and can easily accommodate the much larger numbers we’ve been getting recently.
The new SitP committee put on a wonderfully diverse range of topics this year: Dying – What you Need to Know, Secrets of Money, Confessions of a former Health Food Shop Worker, How to Talk to the Dead, Ada Lovelace – Victoria Computing Visionary, BDSM and the UK, Tresspass is Good for Cities and Islam and Apostasy. They were all most enjoyable and thought-provoking, but my favourites were How to Talk to the Dead in which Ash Pryce, himself a talented illusionist, demonstrated the tricks employed by psychics and mediums, and BDSM and the UK in which Margaret Corvid introduced us to the world of bondage, domination and sado-masochism, a sub-culture I knew absolutely nothing about.
This would have been an expensive year for us were it not for the skills and tenacity of appliance repair man, Marshall Grainger of South Shields. He repaired a blockage in the Washing Machine, a leak in the Dishwasher and a non-rotating brush in our Vacuum Cleaner. In each case we’d got to the stage of searching for a replacement because we’d just about given up on a repair being possible – but Mr Grainger came to the rescue.
Back in the 80s, I took some mirrors from an old dressing table and mounted them directly on the walls in the living room and entrance passage. Chris had the idea of framing these to improve their appearance, so we asked joiner Michael Hood to tackle this, and he did a magnificent job. Over the years we’ve struggled to find a decent joiner with good problem-solving skills, and now we’ve found one. We subsequently asked him to replace damaged woodwork on a sink unit, and to box in some pipework, and I’m sure we’ll use his skills again in the future.
In addition to these, Bob Thornton and Russ Anderson kept our boiler heating, our toilet flushing and our shower draining, while George Jukes and Earl Clelland kept our garden tidy and our trees trimmed, and Peter and Paul of Abel Decorators turned some yellow doors white.
Unusually I actually tackled a job myself in January – I remounted some wall-shelving which had collapsed under the weight of several very large books. It was quite a big job but I enjoyed getting back into DIY. It wasn’t long, however, before I was reminded why I’d given up this sort of activity years ago – every muscle ached and I was in agony for days!
So that was 2015 – not a bad year for us by any means, but lets hope for an even better 2016.
I’ve had various DNA tests in the hope of extending my family tree, but on the whole the result has been disappointing. I have many good autosomal DNA “matches” so I know I am definitely related to those people, but despite their best efforts and my own, we haven’t been able to establish how we are related. For each good match there will be a common ancestor within the last three or four hundred years, but we can’t identify any of them. There’s much more work to do using what’s called phasing and triangulation groups, so I haven’t given up, but it will take a lot of time and effort. (My wife has had more luck and now knows exactly how she is related to one of her matches.)
To do these searches etc there are various websites offering tools, mostly free, to automate the work, and some offer “fun” DNA tools too. One company, GEDmatch, offers a tool which compares anyone’s DNA with DNA extracted from the bones of ancient people found in various archaeological digs around the world. This tells me that I’m a close match to the DNA of persons who died about 7000 years ago at Stuttgart, Germany; 7200 years ago at Polgár-Ferenci-hát, Hungary; 8000 years ago at Loschbour, Luxembourg and 45000 year ago at Ust’-Ishim, Siberia; and a frighteningly close match to the DNA of a person, a man, who died 3200 years ago (Late Bronze Age) at Ludas-Varjú-dűlő, Hungary. Fascinating stuff, but not really of genealogical interest.
The “fun” tool which interested me particularly is another from GEDmatch called “Are your parents related?” As its name suggests, it looks at my raw DNA data and tells me to a good degree of certainty whether or not my parents were related to each other. Everyone is related to everyone else, of course, but here I’m talking about a comparatively close relationship with a common ancestor within the last six or seven generations.
The principle is simple. Most people will be aware that our DNA consists of a double helix divided up into 23 sections of varying lengths called chromosomes. Less well known is the fact that one strand of that double helix came from our fathers and the other from our mothers. They, of course, each got their DNA from their ancestors and this will be distributed in blocks, called segments, more or less at random along their DNA strand – some ancestors contributing a lot, others little, and, perhaps surprisingly, some ancestors contributing nothing at all. In general, recent ancestors will have contributed more segments and larger segments, distant ancestors will have contributed fewer and smaller segments.
The two strands of my DNA double-helix – one from my mother and one from my father – will, of course, have a huge number of differences over most of their lengths, but if I compare the two strands using this GEDmatch tool and find significant segments which are identical on both strands, we can say with certainty that each shared segment of DNA originated from one person in the past and has been passed down generation by generation separately to each of my parents. In other words, if that were the case, my mother and father must have had a common ancestor and were therefore related.
When I ran the tool on my DNA data I really wasn’t expecting anything to show up. None of my genealogical research so far has suggested that my parents were related. As I slowly scrolled down through the results chromosome by chromosome, this seemed to be confirmed as there was nothing showing up. I scrolled faster , then suddenly – whoa, what was that? A matching segment on chromosome 17, and quite a big one at that.
Matching segments are measured in centimorgans (cM, not to be confused with centimetres cm) and Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). Any matching segment above 7 cM and 700 SNPs is considered potentially “interesting” and the greater the two measurements above those figures, the more certain one can be that the match is “genuine” and not down to down to coincidence. The match on my chromosome 17 is of 17.0 cM and 2282 SNPs, which is well above both thresholds and almost certainly represents a real match – the segment really must have been passed down to me through both sides of the family from a common ancestor.
Estimated number of generations to MRCA = 4.9
So my parents were definitely related, and the GEDmatch tool calculates that the most likely number of generations to MRCA (Most Recent Common Ancestor) is 4.9 – say 5. Of course this is just the most likely – it could be slightly fewer or slightly more than 5 generations, and there’s a very small chance that it could be a lot more than 5.
Unfortunately I don’t yet know who that MRCA is. Of course, I don’t know all my ancestors even 5 generations back from my parents. In fact I know the identities of only 27 of my dad’s 32 in that generation, and only 20 out of the 32 on my mum’s side, and I know an even smaller proportion in earlier generations. The MRCA must either be an ancestor I haven’t yet identified at all, or one I have only identified on one side of the family; a really good incentive to double my efforts to extend my family tree backwards in as many lines as possible.
The only clue I have at present points to the Allendale area in SW Northumberland as a potential location for this MRCA. That was the early home of the Pears and Philipson lines on my dad’s side, and of the Henderson line on my mum’s side. It’s the only place I’ve found so far with connections to both sides of my family and it’s certainly where I’ll concentrate my researches first. As Sherlock put it: “The game is afoot.”
History books tell us that the Plague last struck our country in the 17th century, but they’re wrong. Plague last struck a mere century ago, almost within living memory, and for my wife’s lovely granny, Daisy, it struck very close to home. Much too close: four of its victims lived NEXT DOOR to her. There was just a wall separating Daisy and her family from that terrible disease.
The setting was the Shotley Peninsula in Suffolk, a few miles south of Ipswich, where the River Orwell meets the sea. No towns, not even a village worth the name, just a few scattered hamlets made up of farms and isolated dwellings housing farm workers. The only premises of any size were those of the Royal Navy Training Establishment, HMS Ganges, at Shotley Gate.
The bacteria responsible for plague is Yersinia pestis which can lurk unseen for long periods in wild populations of rats, rabbits, hares and ferrets. It is generally spread to humans when a flea bites an infected animal and then bites a person, but it can be caught by merely touching an infected animal. The illness can manifest itself in a number of forms, the best known being the highly contagious Bubonic Plague which is characterised by large black swellings around the lymph nodes. The most deadly form by far, however, is Pneumonic Plague which affects the lungs and can kill in 2 days and spreads through the air, not just by touch. The plague which struck Shotley, was of this terrifying type.
The first victim was 53 year-old Mrs Ann Church of Charity Farm, Shotley. She took ill on 9th December 1906 with a severe chest infection and died 3 days later on the 12th. Her two daughters, Mrs Edith Ratcliffe, aged 24, and Emily Church, aged 19, who’d nursed their mother, both contracted the disease. Edith took ill on the 17th and died on the 19th, while Emily took ill on the 20th. Happily Emily had what it takes to fight off the disease and she survived and lived on to marry and raise a family of her own.
So far there’d been two deaths, both at Charity Farm, but unfortunately a family friend, 46 year-old Mrs Goodchild, had nursed Mrs Church and her two daughters, and she carried the disease the half-mile to her home at 1 Brickfield Terrace, Shotley. Mrs Goodchild herself took ill on Christmas Eve and died on Boxing Day. The rest of her family took ill over the next few days: 9 year old Herbert took ill on the 27th December, 56 year-old William Goodchild on the 28th, and 7 year-old Reginald on the 30th. Miraculously Herbert survived and lived on until his 60s, but his father William died on 2nd January 1907 and little Reginald on the 4th.
Mrs Goodchild’s mother, 66 year-old Sophia Welham, had travelled the 20 or so miles from her home to attend her daughter’s funeral at Shotley, and when she found that her son-in-law and grandsons were ill, she stayed on to nurse them. Inevitably she contracted the disease too. Her first symptoms showed on 3rd January and Mrs Welham died on 6th January.
Brickfield Terrace as it is today – just as isolated as it was back in 1906.
[Use the Compass to have a look right around.
Not another building in sight!]
That was the end of the outbreak, but the plague wasn’t quite done with Shotley. On 10th October 1911 a sailor at HMS Ganges became seriously ill with a temperature of 104F. A throat swab was examined and Yersinia pestis positively identified. The sailor remained seriously ill for 12 weeks but survived, though the illness left him completely and permanently blind. He was thought to have contracted the disease from an infected rabbit he’d caught.
There were other plague outbreaks nearby over the 11 years following the Shotley outbreak – Trimley St Martin in 1909 (4 deaths from the Bubonic form of the disease), Freston in 1910 (4 deaths from Pneumonic Plague) and, last of all, Ewarton in 1918 (2 deaths, also from Pneumonic Plague). But as at Shotley, thanks to the scattered nature of the settlements, none of these outbreaks involved more than two dwellings. What would have happened if the disease had spread to Ipswich? So far the plague hasn’t re-appeared in this country – but is it perhaps still hiding in the rat populations around Shotley or elsewhere, waiting for conditions to be just right once again?
How does my granny-in-law, Daisy Ethel Dunnett, fit into this story? Well. Daisy was born at 2 Brickfield Terrace, Shotley on 2 December 1896 and lived there until she married in 1918. In December 1906, when Daisy was 10, the Goodchild family lived next door at 1 Brickfield Terrace and it was there that Mr and Mrs Goodchild, Mrs Welham and little Reginald suffered and died from the plague. If Daisy or her siblings had played with or visited neighbours Herbert or Reginald at the wrong time, it could have meant the end of the entire Dunnett family.
Partial transcript of the 1901 Census Return for Brickfield Terrace, Shotley showing the neighbouring Dunnett and Goodchild families. By 1906 there were two additions to the Dunnett family, Ethel and Edward, but the Goodchild family was unchanged.
Horseman on farm
As a footnote, there was one final family link to the Shotley outbreak. In the Autumn of 1916 a Zeppelin dropped bombs on HMS Ganges, and as a result an army Searchlight Company was moved into the area to help guard against a repeat attack. One member of that company was 40 year-old widower William Thomas Atkinson from Gateshead. Despite a twenty-year age gap, William Atkinson and Daisy Dunnett fell for each other and they married at Samford Register Office on 22nd January 1918. At the time of the marriage William was lodging at … Charity Farm where the 1906 plague outbreak had begun!
Everything, it seems, is being “improved” all the time. My e-mail program has been improved so much that it now takes ages just to boot up and then it doesn’t run, it crawls. And as for Google Maps and Streetview!!!! They’ve been improved so much as to be completely unusable. So when my GP Surgery announced their “improved” super-dooper all-electronic straight-to-the-pharmacy prescription system, I remembered the equation NHS + IT = CHAOS and thought that this was the end of civilization as we know it.
But I’m mightily impressed. As usual I put in my 2-monthly repeat-prescription request on-line just after midnight last night, and I was expecting to pick my meds up from Boots, Low Fell on Wednesday afternoon. But no. At 11.40 this morning I received a little text message “Dear Brian, your prescription is now ready to collect. Boots Gateshead Low Fell 01914 823 776”. And it was. An actual NHS IT success.
A distant relative of mine – a 5th cousin to be precise – died suddenly a few days ago at the tragically young age of 56. He was Gordon Ross Philipson – universally known as Ross, a well-loved and well-respected school teacher at The Citipointe Christian College in Brisbane. When I heard this awful news, I was reminded of how interested Ross had been in some family history research I’d conducted in the early 1970s for his great-uncle, Ralph Shields Philipson of New Farm, Brisbane. I thought this might be of some interest to Ross’s friends and perhaps to others too, so I’ve reproduced a slightly abridged version here.
Ross’s great-great grandfather, Nicholas Philipson, was born at Sinderhope near Allendale, Northumberland in 1809. He was the eldest of a large family and, like his father, he found work at the nearby Blackett-Beaumont Lead Mine. His male siblings: Francis, born 1812; George, born 1816; John, born 1818; and Edward, born 1829 all followed him into lead mining.
Lead miners were not, strictly-speaking, “employed” by the mine. A small group of two or three men would form a partnership and make an agreement – called a “bargain” – with the mine owners whereby they agreed that, for a year, the men would extract ore from a specified section of the mine for a specified sum per ton of ore. When and how the men worked was up to them, and most of them fitted mining in with a second job – small-scale farming – either on their own land or a relative’s. This arrangement worked well, the men could fulfil their obligations to the mine, look after their small-holdings and, most importantly, avoid working in the dangerous, dust-filled conditions which prevailed for hours after blasting. On days when they were blasting in the morning, the men would work on the land for a few hours until the noxious, lead-laden dust cleared.
The arrival of a new mining agent (a CEO in today’s terms), Thomas Sopwith, in 1847 put paid to a century or more of industrial harmony in Allendale. Sopwith couldn’t stand the idea of the men not working a full day, every day in the mine, so he insisted that they work 5 eight-hour shifts every week. This was not only inconvenient and impractical, it could be dangerous, but Sopwith insisted, and he even employed “spies” to check on the men’s arrival and departure. This was too much for the men, and early in 1849 they gathered together at the nearby Swinhope Primitive Methodist Chapel to discuss their grievances
Nicholas Philipson, a local preacher, was one of those organising the meeting, and he was also part of the delegation sent by the men to try to negotiate with Sopwith. Also in the group was Nicholas’s brother, George. Sopwith’s reaction was brutal – he fired all the members of the delegation on the spot. The entire workforce then came out on strike, but it was a hopeless cause – Sopwith wouldn’t budge. The men could return on his conditions or not at all – or rather, most of the men could return; the strike ringleaders were black-listed and would never again find work in any of the mines in the area.
Some of the strikers eventually went back to work, but many left the area. In May 1849, a party of 58 left Allendale, made their way overland to Liverpool and sailed to New York on board the sailing ship “Guy Mannering” – their intended destination, the lead-mining town of Galena in Illinois. George Philipson was in that party. It was easy for George to up-sticks and move to the USA, he had no dependants, but it would not be so easy for Nicholas; he had a wife and child.
In 1847 Nicholas had married Haltwhistle lass, Elizabeth Thompson, and they’d had a daughter, Mary Elizabeth, the following year. When he was fired from his job, another child was already on its way – and Sarah Ann was duly born in December of that year. Nicholas took on labouring jobs and they managed to scrape a living, but when a third child came along – William Harland Philipson (Ross’s great-grandfather) – in 1852, they decided on a complete change of residence and occupation. They moved to Cross Hill, near Workington on the Cumberland coast and Nicholas got a job there as a bookseller! Things looked good, but not for long. Tragedy struck – Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis, and the three children had to be sent back to Allendale, where they were looked after by family members. After suffering for several years with that terrible and increasingly debilitating disease, Elizabeth died at Cross Hill on 14 March 1857. Nicholas returned to Allendale. He was exhausted and desolate, what was he to do?
Meanwhile, brother George had been on the move. He’d initially settled, not in Galena, Illinois as planned, but rather just over the state border in the town of New Diggings, Wisconsin. He got a job in the lead mine there and even took the initial steps towards US citizenship, but he’d heard of the rich pickings in the goldfields of California and he couldn’t resist going there. He went via Panama, which was quicker and safer than joining a wagon train. This involved taking a boat down the Mississippi, a steamer down to Panama, making a comparatively short overland journey across Panama, and finally taking a steamer up the west coast to San Francisco. George stepped off the steamer “Northerner” in San Francisco harbour on 1 January 1852.
He had some limited success seeking gold in California, and he’d proudly sent some jewellery made from his gold back home to Allendale – but he soon realised he was two years too late for the richest finds. So when George heard of the discovery of gold in Victoria, Australia, he decided that was where his fortune lay. He sailed over the Pacific, landed in Melbourne and made his way up to the Ballarat area where he’d heard that prospects were good. Fortune certainly shone on George – he didn’t find gold, but he found a very good job. A mining company was desperate to find men with mining experience and the right spirit to manage their mines – and George fitted the bill perfectly in every way. So by the end of 1853, this young man from Allendale found himself in charge of a flourishing gold mine near Ballarat, Victoria.
In 1857, when George heard of his eldest brother’s tragic loss, he urged him to come to Australia. Nicholas agreed, and his youngest brother, Edward, decided to go along too. They sailed from Liverpool on 7 September 1857 on board the “Horizon” and arrived at Melbourne in December. Like George, Edward was quickly grabbed by one of the mining companies as a manager. Nicholas decided to go into farming rather than mining and soon managed to get himself established on some land. He also became a local preacher in the Ballarat Primitive Methodist Circuit.
Nicholas missed his children, so, in 1861, he decided to bring them to Australia. He couldn’t leave his farm to seek them in person, but his brother, seasoned traveller George, agreed to return to England to fetch them. George spent some time visiting friends and relatives back in Allendale, then, on 16 August 1862, he and Nicholas’s children, Mary Elizabeth, aged 13; Sarah Ann, aged 11; and William Harland, aged 9 sailed from Liverpool on board the “Matilda”. With them was George’s brother Francis and his son, William, aged 20. They arrived in Melbourne on 20 November. Both Francis and William soon found work in the mines at Ballarat.
So now there was quite a crowd of Philipsons around Ballarat – the four brothers, Nicholas, Francis, George and Edward, and four from the next generation – Francis’s son and Nicholas’s three children. All seemed to be doing well in their respective roles – but another tragedy was just over the horizon. It soon became apparent that Francis’s health was failing – he couldn’t get his breath. By 1864 he had to give up working altogether, and sadly, on 23 September 1866, he died. He was aged 54. Three days later he was laid to rest in Ballarat (old) Cemetery.
William Harland Philipson, Nicholas’s son, took up mining as soon as he was old enough. He got on well with his cousin, William, so when gold was discovered at Charters Towers in northern Queensland in 1871, it was no surprise to anyone when the two lads decided to drop everything and travel there together. They were soon joined by their uncle Edward.
More happy events. In 1875 Nicholas’s younger daughter, Sarah Ann, married Robert Richardson. Then, in 1879, William Philipson travelled back to England to visit relatives, and on his return to Charters Towers he surprised everyone by bringing back a new wife. While he’d been in Allendale he’d married his second-cousin, Margaret Philipson. Not to be outdone, William Harland also found himself a wife – he married Agnes Rebecca Jenkin at Charters Towers on 26 May 1881.
Back in Victoria, things were going well for Sarah Ann – by 1880 she and her husband had had two of their four children – but her happiness was in sharp contrast to the despair felt by her elder sister, Mary Elizabeth. She’d hated Australia from the start, but it was just about tolerable while her sister was with her. Now she felt so alone – no friends and no prospects. She became addicted to laudanum, and on 26 November 1880 she took the leg rope she used when milking cows, and she used it to hang herself from a rafter in the barn. She was only 32 years of age. A “Magisterial Enquiry” was held next day at the farm and the verdict was “That the deceased Mary Elizabeth Philipson died at Hardies Hill on the 26th November 1880 from strangulation by hanging and that she committed suicide whilst in a state of unsound mind.”
Tragedy followed tragedy. A year after Mary’s death, on 5 October 1881, George died from hepatitis and exhaustion. He was 64 years old. It was all too much for Nicholas – he died soon afterwards, on 11 March 1882. He was 73. Now the only family members left in Victoria were Sarah Ann and her husband and children. Their descendants still live in the state.
Up in Charters Towers, Edward, the only surviving brother, lived on until 7 May 1906, but left no descendants. His nephews William Philipson and William Harland Philipson, by contrast, both had large families, and their numerous descendants are now scattered throughout Queensland. They themselves died in 1920 and 1925 respectively.