I recently had a poem published in NE Bylines, entitled Learning My History. That has prompted me to think of a series of articles, briefly outlining some of what I consider to be the most important stories in our history in the North East. This is the history you probably weren’t taught in schools, but it is an important history full of relevance for our lives today.
To start with, let me take you back to the North East of the mid-18th century. There are two aspects of life then that I want you to particularly think about. Firstly, looking around us we can see a region on the cusp of huge changes, as the North East becomes, arguably, the first major modern industrial region in the world. The coalfield, around since at least 1183, when it was mentioned in the Boldon Book, is about to expand rapidly to feed not only the need for warmth in people’s homes, but also new machinery powered by steam, coming from water heated by coal.
Feudal past and the new industrial working class
The other aspect to consider is how on the one hand, most of the wealth, land and power are still in the hands of a few wealthy families, some of whom can trace their power and influence back to the Middle Ages. On the other hand, there is a new phenomenon in both the North East and the world at large; the growth of an industrial working class, quite different in many respects to the old peasant class, people who have thrown off the feudal shackles of earlier centuries and are working in mines and other industrial enterprises in much more collective ways and are beginning to understand their collective strength. The growing struggle between these two groups will define much of the politics of the North East for the next 150 years or more.
Into this cauldron of change and new aspirations come three interesting characters, who helped to make up Newcastle’s very own version of the Enlightenment, which was sweeping much of Europe and North America at the time. These characters, all men, went by the names of the Reverend James Murray, Thomas Spence and Thomas Bewick.
Murray was a Presbyterian minister. Originally from Fans in what was then Roxburghshire, now the Scottish Borders, his Covenanter background helped to encourage in him a rebel spirit. He became a Presbyterian minister and went first to Alnwick, before coming down to Newcastle where there was a meeting house on High Bridge, near the Bigg Market. It was there that Murray was able to build up a large congregation who loved coming to hear his sermons, which were for many an irresistible mixture of vibrant theology, bringing Bible stories to life and making them relevant for the people of his day and down to earth humour.
Murray would rail against the powerful and speak up for the powerless. He was often critical of the corporation in Newcastle, elected by a handful of wealthier men and the corruption and arrogance that they displayed. One example was when Murray spoke out about how long it was taking for the old Tyne Bridge across the river to be rebuilt after large sections of it were washed away in the great flood of 1771. Murray knew that he had a prominent position in the life of Newcastle, and he wasn’t afraid to use it, to speak out for the poor and the oppressed and for what he thought was right.
In Murray’s congregation was a fellow Scotsman by the name of Jeremiah Spence and he had a son called Thomas. Like many fathers at the time, Jeremiah brough his son Thomas up to read the Bible, but crucially also to think deeply about what the stories in the Bible meant. All this helped to give Thomas an enquiring mind and, as he grew older, a vision of a better society. Spence was a remarkable character, who among other things developed his own currency and his own version of phonics for spelling in the English language, long before the failed attempt at similar that I remember from my primary school days 50 years ago.
Spence is perhaps best remembered for his plan which he developed in 1775, in response to the perhaps surprisingly successful campaign to stop the Town Moor from being enclosed, as was the habit with much of the common land in the country in the second half of the 18th century. Spence’s plan was radical even by the standards of today, as he envisioned a country where all the land was shared out equally. Not long after this Thomas went to London to be a pamphleteer and he was deemed as so dangerous that he was briefly imprisoned in a crackdown during the Napoleonic Wars and was even mentioned as a threat to the ruling elites in parliament in 1817 some years after his death. Thomas Spence can also hold claim to be the only person in this country with an ‘-ism’ mentioned after him, with Spenceism seen as something dangerous, to be oppressed by the ruling classes, for a considerable amount of time after his demise. There is a blue plaque in an alleyway just off the Quayside at Newcastle commemorating Spence’s birthplace down by the Tyne.
Spence was involved in a memorable incident with the third of our North East campaigners mentioned here. As mentioned earlier, Newcastle had its Enlightenment in the late 18th century every bit as much as a city like Edinburgh did and one of the centres of that Enlightenment was Swarley’s Club, now recently renamed as such in Newcastle’s Groat Marke. Swarley’s Club was a well-known debating venue, where new and radical ideas could be debated. So, it was on one occasion that Spence decided to put a motion to a meeting at Swarley’s Club and expected support from his fellow Radical, Bewick. However, Bewick, who was not as radical as Spence, declined to support the motion and so Spence asked for a fight outside. Now Bewick was a tall, strapping man and according to legend even had cudgels with him, which he used to help him beat up the smaller, bow-legged Spence. It is reported that they did patch up their friendship afterwards.
It is then perhaps hard to imagine Bewick as a sensitive and talented artist, but of course, this is exactly what he was. He is, to this day, one of the greatest artists of nature that this country has ever produced, while he also invented a new form of printing press, which you can see at his old farmhouse at Cherryburn, near Prudhoe. But Bewick was not only interested in nature, he was also interested in people and used his art to protest about the injustices he saw around him at the time and he did that in quite an ingenious way. Many of the books of drawings that Bewick produced would end up in the hands of wealthier members of society and so in between the precise and beautiful drawings of the plover, the curlew, and the local prize bull, Bewick would sneak in a picture of a poor person, showing all their suffering in graphic detail. In this way, Bewick was making members of society face up to what was really going on. He also used his art to campaign against the slave trade, as he drew the original version of the famous. ‘Am I not a Man’ poster, showing a slave in shackles.
Fighting for our rights
If we learn anything from the stories of these three remarkable men, it is surely this; that our rights did not fall like manna from heaven, and nor were they imposed on us unwillingly from Brussels. On the contrary, they had to be fought for by our forefathers and they had to be won from an elite in this country who were to say the least reluctant to give them to us. And that is what makes the story of Murray and Spence and Bewick so important to us today, because what can be won can later be lost. We must always be on our guard and be vigilant for any attempts to take away our rights, while also remembering that our rights belong to all of us, regardless of who we are and what our background is. That is the legacy left to us by these local pioneers of human rights from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and it is a legacy we would all do well to remember.