In the course of my daily life I often hear people say that their family is not that interesting, that they came from a certain place and were just labours or some such menial occupation. In the world of family history there is no such occupation as “just a”, and every family has a unique story to tell. Think of the children’s nursery rhyme “The House that Jack Built”, where every character has a role to play and without each and every one of them, the rhyme would collapse and there would be no story at all. The same is true of family history. Imagine a post industrial revolution picture of a stream driven threshing machine. There would be no steam if there was no coal dug by the miners, no corn without the agricultural workers to sow and harvest it and drive the machine, that was owned by the farmers to produce the food to feed the nation, etc. etc. We have all witnessed in our own lifetimes the devastating results when just one these cogs in the wheel ceases to turn.
It was following a conversation along these lines with a fellow guest on a hotel balcony overlooking Rome that this month’s blog came about. The men’s single final at Wimbledon was playing out on the television and it was far too hot to do much else than sip chilled Prosecco. I don’t what it is about us Northerners but we seem to naturally gravitate towards each other, and our candid speech soon had us chatting about all manner of things, including an up and coming landmark birthday, and a unique present that would suitably mark the occasion. That birthday was yours Malcolm Spowart and this month’s blog is dedicated to you. I hope you enjoy reading about some of the characters from your family tree!
The Spowart Family were miners in the Backworth area of Northumberland, but just how deep and how far back does this go? It wasn’t long before a picture started to emerge and I was retracing the family’s steps back Northwards towards Berwick, and surnames long associated with Northumberland, such as Jackson, Hall, Thompson, Hedley, Armstrong, Charlton and Robinson began to appear.
Coal mining in Northumberland has over the centuries been intrinsically linked to the wealth and prosperity of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne and the north of the County was at one time littered with small pits and mine workings dating from as long ago as the 13th Century. The miners themselves are famed for their solidarity and support of those amongst their community. Some might think this is a relatively recent phenomenon that has sprung from the industrial disputes of the 20th century. This is not the case however as an Old History of Northumberland written in 1811 illustrates:
As the colliers form a distinct body of men and seldom associate with others, they entertain strong feelings of mutual attachment. When they combine or ‘stick’ for the purpose of raising their wages, they are said to spit upon a stone together, by way of cementing their confederacy. This appears to be a very old custom, the origin of which is lost in the remoteness of time.
A bit more background from the same History of Northumberland:
The Colliers are at first put to work when seven or eight years old; and being confined in the most part, to their own society, they acquire distinguishing marks of character by which they are easily known from the rest of their countrymen; and the language, deportment and general behaviour of the different individuals are so nearly alike, that by an acquaintance of one them a tolerably correct judgement may be formed of the whole body.
This social separation was no doubt due, in part at least, to the nature of the communities in which they lived. Often sufficient cottages to house the entire colliery workforce was erected next to the mine, with a small plot for growing vegetable and potatoes etc. They often intermarried within their own community, and when they moved, they moved en masse.
They sounded a colourful bunch too and this is just the men!
In their dress they often affect to be gaudy , and are fond of clothes of flaring colours: their holiday waistcoats (called by them ‘posey jackets’) are frequently of very curious patterns, displaying flowers of various dyes; and their stockings mostly of blue, purple, pink or mixed colours. A great part of them have their hair very long, which on work days is either tied up in a queue, or rolled up in curls, but when drest [sic] in their best attire , it is commonly spread over their shoulders. Some of them wear two or three narrow ribbands around their hats, placed at equal distances, in which it is customary with them to insert one or more bunches of primroses or other flowers.
So where does Malcolm Spowart’s family fit into this colourful tapestry?
Malcom’s Grandfather Richard Spowart was the first generation of the family to be born in South Northumberland in 1880 at 70 Havelock Place, Backworth, and was still living there, this time at number 48 in 1901 before his marriage to Mary Jane Edith Hall, a miner’s daughter from Earsdon Square in 1905. It was to Havelock Place that the Spowart family moved in the 1870’s. In the 1881 census two of Richard’s uncles James & Mark were living with his widowed Grandmother Mary Spowart at number 37 Havelock Place.
Sadly Havelock Place, the colliery houses for Backworth ‘C’ Pit, sunk in 1856, were demolished a century later in the 1960’s. In its hey-day Havelock Place hosted its own street parties and even had its own football team - “Havelock Villa”.
Richard, was the son of George Spowart (Malcolm’s gt Grandfather) and his wife Elizabeth Armstrong, a miner’s daughter from Earsdon. George was born in 1854 in Tweedmouth and was one of a large family to lose their father (also called George) to a mining accident in the Isabella Pit at Scremerston in 1862.
Premature death was nothing new to this family however, as George snr. (Malcolm’s 2x gt Grandfather) who was born in Tweedmouth in 1821 and was the eldest of at least five children born to a James and Elizabeth Spowart of Tweedmouth, who lost their father when George was just 16. Unfortunately it is not possible to ascertain the cause of death for James, as it went unreported in the papers and civil registration did not come into effect until later that year, but from burial records at Tweedmouth on the 25 March 1837, we do know his age – just 47 years old.
The 1841, 1851 census for Tweedmouth and Spittal are awash with Spowarts, as are the earlier parish records, so identifying individual members of our particular family is a little tricky, not made any easier by the fact there appear to be two couples by the name of James and Elizabeth Spowart! However, I believe I have tracked our family down to Upper St, Spittal in 1841, where young George snr (b.1821) is a pitman and sole bread winner for his widowed mother and younger siblings; Mary aged 15, James aged 12, Isabella aged 10, Robert aged 5 and Elizabeth aged 3. I do believe that there may also have been another brother, Thomas born in Spittal in 1824, who seems to have chosen a different career path as a sailor, and may have been at sea by the time of the 1841 census.
The answers to this part of the family riddle ironically came from a family member who could neither hear nor speak, and it was he who left a paper trail that would lead to the discovery of his mother’s maiden name and to the fate of his siblings
Robert Spowart was born in 1834, the youngest son of James and Elizabeth Spowart of Spittal and had been deaf and dumb since birth. In 1844 there is an entry in the minutes of the Board of Guardians, overseers of relief to Berwick’s poor for the approval of maintenance for Robert at the School for the Deaf in Edinburgh.
In 1848 Robert narrowly avoided being sent home when a letter was received suggesting a form of apprenticeship, which was agreed by the Guardians on the 15th May 1848:
The asylum account was charged to the parish of Berwick. A letter from Thomas G Dickson, manager of the Deaf & Dumb Asylum Edinburgh, proposed (on the suggestion of Mr Cook, Head Master of the institution) that the boy Robert Spowart should be retained in the asylum for one or two years longer, at a reduced rate of £6 per annum, so that he could benefit further from instruction by a local tailor. The Board assented.
With the following entry in confirmation appearing in the Minutes of January 1849:
The Board agreed to an application from the Deaf and Dumb Asylum Edinburgh on behalf of the Tweedmouth boy Robert Spowart that the reduced charge of £6 per annum should be paid for two more years so that he could learn the business of a tailor.
Source: GBR 40: Board of Guardians Minutes, Berwick-upon-Tweed Union
Robert flourished and love obviously blossomed for the young fellow too as in May 1860 he married Mary McPherson, the daughter of his tutor, Duncan McPherson an Edinburgh Tailor. He may even have met Mary at School as she too was deaf and dumb from birth. It was this marriage certificate that provided the evidence for his mother’s maiden name of Oliver.
Sadly Mary McPherson, Robert’s wife died childless on December 31st 1861. Robert never re-married, but throughout the subsequent decades he introduces us to many of his family members. In 1881 he is living with his sister Isabella now married to Robert Laidler in Winlaton, their extensive family which include nephew’s William and James Crosby the sons of his youngest sister Elizabeth who died in 1864 and her husband William Crosby.
This leaves just Robert’s sister Mary unaccounted for, as Brother Thomas who went to sea appears to have married an Elspeth Barbara Johnstone of Tynemouth in 1856, and Brother James had passed away in Berwick Workhouse Infirmary in Nov 1860.
There are many, many other colourful characters in Malcom’s family tree, such as his 2x gt Grandfather, Alexander Turner, a Master Mariner and captain of the brig Eleanor of Blyth who lost his ‘papers’ when the ship foundered off the Jutland Coast on the 20th March 1884. In his application for replacements he simply states that as the ship took on water his papers simply “floated away”.
Then there is the enterprising Lancelot Hedley, (2nd gt Uncle) born at Ince, near Wigan to Northumbrian born father John Hedley and his wife Ann Athertone in 1856. Following the family’s return to Northumberland Lancelot appears at his parents’ home in 1881 where his occupation is listed as ‘coal miner’. By 1891 he is still unmarried and living with his parents at No 11, Chapel Row, Seghill but he is now listed as a ‘Teacher of Shorthand’. It would appear he had more than one string to his bow as adverts such as the one below feature regularly in the local press as an emigration agent. Alas this seems to have been short lived as by 1901 he is married to Margaret Lumsden and has reverted to his original occupation of coal miner.
The Spowarts and their extended family like many others felt the effects of the Great War when it held the country in its icy grip. Namesake and nephew to Malcom’s gt Uncle Lancelot Hedley above, Lancelot Hedley junior was born in 1881 and in 1891 can be found living with his grandparents and uncle Lancelot at No 11 Chapel Row. His story and the reasons behind his death in Murren Switzerland can be read at:
I could go on but I think that is enough for now, and has illustrated my point that every family has a unique story to tell ~ it is just a question of finding it!
Some Useful Links
For anyone researching mining ancestors from the Northumberland and Durham area the Durham Mining Museum Online is a fabulous resource. Their transcriptions on the site of the 1881 census are a great help when it comes to identifying family groups, particularly when there are so many with the same surname. Take Armstrong just as an example: http://www.dmm.org.uk/census/name_arm.htm
Another great resource for those with mining ancestors from the Berwick upon Tweed area is the article written by the Friends of Berwick Archives that has listed all the pits in the area and their links to the Mining Museum website conveniently in one place.
The Friends Newsletter also features an article about another Spowart family of Berwick. Although I must stress that while there may be a familial connection somewhere in the mists of time, no evidence of such a connection has been found to date, and therefore these two families should be regarded as separate entities.
Whilst not open in time to benefit Robert Spowart, another point of interest that is worthy of note is the lasting legacy left by printer and philanthropist James Donaldson in 1830 to both the deaf children of the poor and the City of Edinburgh when the Donaldson School for the deaf opened its doors in 1850.