When is a railway a railway?

Many people see the opening of the Stockton and Darlington railway in 1825 as the beginning of the railway age, but did you know that railways existed more than 200 years before or arguably even earlier?

In basic terms a railway is simply a prepared track that guides vehicles so that they can’t leave the track. It can therefore be argued that railways date back to the rutways of classical Greece and Rome where two parallel channels were cut into the surface rock to guide wheels along a specific route. The earliest example of a rutway discovered in Britain served a Roman quarry at Blunsdon in Wiltshire dating to circa 300 A.D. While the Greeks and Romans used this technology for specific reasons such as transporting materials, they didn’t develop it into a system of general transport.

Rutway, Stoupe Brow Moor

Rutway, Stoupe Brow Moor © Copyright Christopher Hall and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

There were also underground railways during the Medieval period in the mineral mines of central Europe. It is indicated in the book De Re Metallica (1556) that the waggons didn’t run on rails. Instead a pin, attached to the axle of the two small front wheels of the waggon, ran between two closely aligned rails which kept the waggon on course. Underground railways such as at Silver Gill Mine, near Caldbeck in Cumbria were introduced to Britain by German miners that worked for the Company of Mines Royal. The railway transported ore to the entrance of the mine where it was loaded onto packhorses.

Interestingly the development of railway systems was purely a product of European based culture. The long gap between the classical age waggonways to the reappearance in the Medieval period has made experts wonder if this was a reinvention or a continuation.

Wooden waggonways are undoubtedly more recognisable as the predecessor of modern railways. We first see them appearing in Shropshire towards the end of the Elizabethan period and then being built at the beginning of the 17th century by colliery owners in the Midlands. During the same period this new technology was also quickly adopted and developed in the North East.

Huntingdon Beaumont is widely credited for being responsible for the construction of the earliest waggonway in Nottingham between 1603 and 1604. While trying his fortune in Northumberland, he is believed to have introduced the waggonway to the area. Unfortunately, Beaumont was unable to break into the monopolistic Newcastle trade and ended his days in Nottingham Gaol as a debtor. However, he did leave behind an important legacy in the North East. By the early 18th century, wooden waggonways had become the principal means of transporting coal from the major collieries in Northumberland and Durham.

Horse and Waggon

‘The Coal Waggon’ © Northumberland Archives, ZMD 78/14

Carrying loads equating to more than 100,000 tons every year on the main lines, wooden waggonways were the main mode of transport for the product of a major industry. They were also the largest civil engineering projects of their time, requiring major capital investment for the funding of the cuttings, embankments, railway and the building of bridges. While some only lasted decades due to the lifetime of a colliery, others were in use much longer.

Visitors from elsewhere in Britain and Europe were amazed by the cutting edge technology which attracted visits from fellows of the Royal Society, antiquarians, British dignitaries, foreign royalty and even industrial spies!

gosforth colliery

The Ouseburn Viaduct by T.H.Hair

The large amount of traffic over increasingly long distances propelled both technology and mechanisation forward. From the second half of the 17th century the key developments of wooden railways took place in the northern coalfield. The waggonways were so distinctive and innovative that they were referred to as ‘Newcastle Waggonways’ or ‘Tyneside Roads’ by the British and ‘English Coalways’ by those overseas. It’s important to note that the development of the locomotive was not caused by any performance restrictions of the wooden waggonways but rather the cost of the horses.

The Willington Waggonway began very modestly as a simple branch line from the east to the Benton Way becoming a major railway network (due to the expansion of Willington Colliery) with an independent route through Bigges Main to the River Tyne at Carville. Although made up of several lines, contemporaries referred to the collective whole as the Willington Way. The section of waggonway excavated in 2013 dates from 1785 and is located close to the river on the Bigges Main line (Willington Way 2).

Willington Waggonway Route

The Development of Willington Waggonway 1773 – 1810 © Les Turnbull, 2016, A Railway Rediscovered (currently unpublished)

Even if we discount Greek and Roman rutways and rail-less Medieval systems, railways had been operating for a much longer period before the opening of the Stockton and Darlington railway than they have since.


The Willington Waggonway Research Programme is funded by the Designation Development Fund, Arts Council England.


Newcastle and the River Tyne in 1895: Bridges and Ships

G12962. Lund, Newcastle from Gateshead

This magnificent panorama shows Newcastle in 1895, at the height of the city’s industrial development. Hundreds of ships left the Tyne every month for destinations in Britain, Europe and America. Newcastle dominated the British coal trade and its shipyards built some of the biggest ships in the world. Massive railway development spurred on the development of industry. As a result, in the 60 years from 1851 to 1911, the population of Newcastle more than tripled from 87,784 to 266,671.

This view was painted by Niels Møller Lund (1863-1916), an artist of Danish ancestry who grew up in Newcastle. Although he moved away as he established his artistic career, he continued to visit the North East on painting trips. His picture is part of the Northern Spirit displays at the Laing Art Gallery.

G12962b Lund, Newcastle from Gateshead, detail sailing ships

Lund has arranged his picture so that sunlight picks out a pair of grand sailing ships at the quayside.

g12962a. Lund, Newcastle from Gateshead, detail Swing BridgeAnother huge sailing ship is being towed by a steam paddle tug through the open Swing Bridge. However, steam ships, like the black-painted vessel at the quay, were more typical of the shipping trade by the date of the picture.

g12962cc, Lund Newcastle from Gateshead, detail, train

In Lund’s painting, several steam trains are crossing the High Level Bridge, which had been opened by Queen Victoria 46 years earlier, in 1849. The new bridge was an immensely important land link between England and Scotland. It meant that road traffic could pass through Newcastle without having to negotiate the steep, narrow Side, as had been necessary for centuries.

K9288aa. Robert Stephenson photoThe bridge was designed by Robert Stephenson (pictured alongside) and Thomas Elliot Harrison. It was an astonishing engineering achievement, and its double-decked structure, with road below and rail above, was unique when it was built. The foundations were made from elm piles driven into the river bed by engineer James Nasmyth’s newly patented steam-driven pile driver. About 650 Newcastle families suffered the loss of their homes, knocked down to build the approach to the bridge.


John Wilson Carmichael’s view shows the bridge being built in 1848 (he has imagined the removal of scaffolding), with a construction yard set up at the end of the old stone Tyne Bridge. Travellers had to pay tolls to cross the High Level Bridge. It was a penny for a pedestrian, three pence for a horse and wagon, and ten pence for twenty cattle.

Feeeing from tolls ofHigh Level Bridge 10 May 1937 aa

It wasn’t until May 10th 1937 that the bridge became toll-free, after the bridge was purchased from the railway company by Newcastle and Gateshead Corporations. John Grantham, Mayor of Newcastle, is pictured at the ceremony on the bridge. The old Redheugh Bridge was purchased from the bridge company at the same time. The cost for both bridges was £275,060 (£112,530 contributed from central Government), with Newcastle paying the lion’s share as most of the width of the river lies within the city’s boundary. This was a very large sum at the time, but the benefits for trade and transport were thought to be worth it.

GH Andrews, View of Newcastle

The old Tyne Bridge eventually became a hindrance to shipping because it was so low. After the old bridge was knocked down, there was a temporary wooden bridge, which is pictured in London artist George Andrews’s view of 1872. A coal keel is on the right, with its mast down so it could pass under the bridge. The old Tyne Bridge was replaced by the Swing Bridge, which opened in 1876.

F3405ab TM Hemy, Newcastle from GatesheadThe Swing Bridge, seen on the left of TM Hemy’s watercolour view of 1881, was designed and constructed by Sir WG Armstrong and Company Limited of Elswick, Newcastle, and cost £240,000 to build. The river was dredged at the same time. As a result, large vessels were able travel up-river and Armstrong could develop his armaments and engineering works at Elswick. Subsequently, the Elswick works began to build ships and other industry also developed.

TWCMS_J12867aSir William Armstrong designed hydraulic engines to smoothly move the Swing Bridge, which weighs a massive 1,450 tons. In 1924, 6,000 vessels passed through the bridge. One group that suffered from the new bridge was Newcastle’s keelmen. Keels were easily able to pass under the old low bridge, and they were essential to carry coal (about 21 tonnes a load) to ships moored in deep water.  With the bridge gone and river dredged, there was much less need for keels.

TWCMS_1993_11003 Swing Bridge cropped

There’s a splendid model of the Swing Bridge on show in the ‘Story of the Tyne’ gallery at Discovery Museum, donated by the Tyne Improvement Commission. It shows a couple of sailing ships berthed up-river from the Swing Bridge, illustrating the better access it created.

TWCMS_K11190cc Tommy on the BridgeTommy Ferrens, known as ‘Tommy on the Bridge’, was a fixture on the Swing Bridge for many years (and previously on the old Tyne Bridge). Blinded and partially paralysed by childhood illness, he had little choice but to beg for a living. Rain or shine, he stood rocking from foot to foot on the boundary mark between Newcastle and Gateshead in the belief that this made him immune from police attention from either area. His constant presence and his obstreperousness meant that he was considered a ‘Newcastle character’ at the time, and he featured on picture postcards like this one. He collapsed on the bridge on 1 January 1907 and died soon afterwards in Gateshead Workhouse Hospital from apoplexy and the effects of cold weather.

The High Level Bridge is Newcastle’s oldest existing bridge and still carries considerable rail traffic. However, transport needs have moved on. The Swing Bridge is only required to open occasionally, and now the Tyne Bridge and the new Redheugh Bridge have taken over the majority of local road traffic. Today’s through traffic completely avoids the Tyne Gorge, using the A1 Western Bypass or the A19 Tyne Tunnels.

Illustrations: Newcastle upon Tyne from Gateshead, 1895, by Niels Møller Lund (1863-1916); Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), photograph by Maull & Polyblank, London; High Level Bridge, 1848 (detail), engraving, drawn by John W. Carmichael (1799-1868), engraved by George Hawkins; Freeing the High Level Bridge, 10th May 1937, Tyne & Wear Archives  DF.GRA/5/3, Photograph album, 10 May-August 1937; Newcastle from Gateshead (detail), 1881, watercolour by TM Hemy (1852-1937); Model of the Swing Bridge, about 1876; Tommy on the Bridge, about 1900, picture postcard:  all, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums collections.

References: ‘£275,000 To Free Bridges’, North Mail, 10 April 1937 p9; http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Newcastle-upon-Tyne; https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/wwwfileroot/legacy/libraries/HistoryofNewcastlemainbody.pdf

A teaspoon of history: the evolution of British cookery books

I am so excited for our upcoming event, Time Kitchen (Wed. Feb 22nd) to nibble delicious historic dishes and learn more about ancient recipes!

This event has inspired me to look into the history of cookery books, and the recipes in our museum collections.

The earliest surviving collection of recipes in Europe is De re coquinaria (The art of cooking), potentially by Marcus Gavius Apicius, an early version of which was compiled in the 1st century. The version currently used is believed to have been compiled in the 4th or 5th century, and the first print edition was made in 1483.

Apicius (public domain)

Apicius (public domain)


(If you want to taste a dish right out of ancient Rome, drop by the Time Kitchen event on Feb 22nd, and try the Roman lentil casserole!)


Since Medieval times, competition among nobles to host the most lavish feasts encouraged the rise of professional cooks, and recipe compilations aimed at the cooks for grand houses. But the first recipe books for domestic readers were still to come. In the 19th century, the emerging Victorian middle-class desire for domestic respectability encouraged the emergence of cookery books in a form we would recognise today.

In 1845 Eliza Acton published the first cookery bookn for domestic audiences, Modern Cookery for Private Families. This book established some of the norms for writing about cookery that are still practiced today. For example, she divided the book by types of food and meals, listed the ingredients and amounts needed, and suggested cooking times for each recipe. She also included sections for foreign recipes, mostly for chutneys, although these may not have been widely enjoyed until after the second World War.

Eliza Acton’s book influenced possibly the most famous British cookery book writer of all time- Mrs Isabella Beeton.


TWCMS : 1995.2872

Her book, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, was published in 24 monthly instalments between 1857 and 1861. Mrs Beeton was more like an editor than writer, as many recipes were plagiarised from earlier writers, including Eliza Acton.

TWCMS : 1995.2872

TWCMS : 1995.2872

This book was mostly recipes, but also included advice on fashion, parenting, animal husbandry, household management, religion, and much else. Mrs Beeton’s book has been reissued in numerous editions and has never been out of print.

TWCMS : 1995.2872

TWCMS : 1995.2872

Although recipe books now are based, consciously or unconsciously, on Acton and Beeton’s Victorian cookery books, they have changed a great deal in the last century and a half.

The way the recipes are written have changed to be more specific, to discuss adaptations for dietary requirements, and to incorporate colourful and tempting images to encourage domestic cooks (later editions of Mrs Beeton’s book began to include colourful illustrations as well).

The contents of recipes have also changed in line with what is in fashion, and what foodstuffs and technology is available to the domestic cook.

TWCMS : 1999.1509

TWCMS : 1999.1509

TWCMS : 1999.1509

TWCMS : 1999.1509

In the 1920s amd ’30s, gas cookers were a popular new technology becoming readily available to home cooks. Books of recipes adapted specially for gas cooking became popular.

During World War II, rationing was instituted in 1939 and did not end until after the war in 1954. It limited what was available to eat, and resulted in some interesting recipes using every last bit of the cow!

TWCMS : 2007.1971

TWCMS : 2007.1971

TWCMS : 2007.1971

TWCMS : 2007.1971

TWCMS : 2007.17

TWCMS : 2007.1971










This book also provides advice  specific to wartime circumstances. You can imagine, an air raid siren blaring and thinking ‘Oh NO! My casserole!’




In the 1960’s the celebrity chef began to take off, and one of the biggest was Marguerite Patten.


TWCMS : 2000.4518

Her encyclopedic books A to Z Cookery in colour provided recipes for anything the home cook would need to know, with beautiful images of the ingredients and finished product.


TWCMS : 2000.4518

In the 1980s microwave cooking was suddenly available to the domestic cook, and it became all the rage!


TWCMS : 2011.2917


TWCMS : 2011.2917

Now cookery books come in thousands of varieties, ranging from books highlighting specific dietary requirements, to featuring specific ingredients, to celebrating indigenous foods around the world.


TWCMS : 2011.1439


TWCMS : ol

TWCMS : 2011.1439








TWCMS : pij

TWCMS : 1995.2872


The bridle-bit and the river

B&W bridle

One of the objects going into the Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition at Segedunum is a late Iron Age bridle-bit from the Laing Art Gallery. It is a beautiful object, complete and in good condition. It was ‘found in the River Tyne, near Kay’s Meadows’. This is presumably a mistake for King’s Meadows (unless anyone knows of a Kay’s Meadows anywhere?), which was a large island in the river between Dunston and Elswick. It was ‘large’ in the sense that it was about 1500m long (nearly a mile) and had trees, hayfields and even a pub on it. It was removed during dredging of the river in 1884 to make the river more navigable for large ships. The bridle-bit may have ended up in the river as a votive offering, as it has been suggested that the length of the river between the Island and the current position of the Swing Bridge was used for ritual ceremonies from c.1000 BC.

Late iron Age bridle-bit

Late iron Age bridle-bit

The bit is made up of three copper alloy pieces, each cast in one solid piece. It would have required skill and time to produce, probably using a process called ‘casting on’. First one side-ring was cast, then a wax link, attached to the ring, was made and covered in clay to form a mould, the wax then melted and the bronze poured in. The process was then repeated, with a wax version of the second side-ring made, threaded through the central link. A lot of effort, but a beautiful end product!

Ten Things You May Not Know About Kurt Schwitters and the Merz Barn Wall

Interior setting of large abstract wall sculpture set on a wall of slate stones, with wooden roof beam across top of picture and wooden flooring in foreground

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (as if) you already know about Kurt Schwitters and his Merz Barn Wall sculpture, but if you’re new to the Hatton then I can sum it all up in just one word:


However you may be less familiar with the following nuggets of knowledge:

It’s heavy, man
Schwitters created his large sculpture on the interior wall of a small dry-stone barn. A dry-stone building is made from just loose stones, a problem when it came to removing both sculpture and wall in one piece. To consolidate everything into one mass, the Hatton’s removal team built a steel frame behind the wall then filled it with concrete to embed all the stones. While successful, it did leave them on a hillside, in the Lake District, 150 yards from the road, with a lump of slate, steel and concrete weighing twenty-five tons – ‘Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea..’.

Vintage black and white exterior photo of group of men removing a large section of wall from a smallstone outbuilding

Removing the Merz Barn Wall from the barn in Elterwater, Lake District

Here’s one I prepared before the programme started
Schwitters had moved to Norway in 1937 to escape increasing Nazi harassment but when Germany invaded in 1940, he fled to Scotland, where he was immediately arrested as an enemy alien. While in internment camp he continued to make new works, and his practice of creating art with whatever materials were to hand – his philosophy of ‘Merz’ – proved invaluable. Paints were improvised using oil from sardine tins, sculptures formed from leftover porridge and for a paintbrush Schwitters persuaded a fellow internee to donate some (perhaps all) of his presumably very bushy eyebrows.

Cash in the attic?
After the War, Schwitters and his partner, Edith Thomas, moved to Ambleside in the Lake District. He sold the occasional landscape, still-life or portrait, but there was little interest among the locals for the many collages he produced and he struggled financially. On occasion he resorted to asking for bread from the rear of the local bakery and a friend recalled Schwitters and Edith debating whether they could afford to buy an apple. In 2014 a Schwitters collage, Ja – Was? – Bild, sold at Christie’s for £12,400,000.

The Talented Mr Bickerstaff
To boost his meagre earnings while living in the Lake District, Schwitters entered the Ambleside Flower Painting Competition, but a professional artist entering a competition essentially for amateurs was, well, not really cricket. So First Prize was won by ‘Mrs Vartis’ for her roses and Second Prize by ‘Mr Bickerstaff’ for his chrysanthemums.

The pen is mightier than the sword (or at least the knife)

Close-up colour portrait photo of white middle-aged man in a tan fedora hat , cark suit, red shirt and tie, lighting a cigarette with a match

George Melly, 1978 (image Wikimedia)

George Melly, jazz singer, writer and critic, died in 2007 after a life that embraced every tenet of the term ‘Bohemian’. The only predictable aspect of George was his unpredictability, but on one occasion it proved his salvation. Emerging from a Manchester jazz club, Melly was confronted by two muggers who threatened him with a knife. Unwilling to give up his wallet and watch, George suddenly launched into a recital of Schwitters’ abstract sound poem Ursonate. So intimidated were the thieves that they ran off. The wonderful Chuwumbawumba featured the story in their song Ratatatay and you can listen to Schwitters himself reciting the poem here.

True Brit
Following his arrival in Britain, Schwitters heard about the concentration camps. He renounced his status as a German national and never spoke the language again. He also applied for British citizenship. It arrived in the post the day after he died.

Happy Birthday Kurt
By sheer coincidence, the Merz Barn Wall was installed into the Hatton Gallery on 20 June 1966, what would have been Schwitters’ 79th birthday.

Old black-and-white photo of large abstract square wall sculpture being lifted off a the back of an open truck by a lifting hook and strap

Preparing to lift the Merz Barn Wall into the Hatton Gallery

Black and white old photo of large abstract wall sculpture being hoisted into the sky by a large crane

Merz Barn Wall being lifted into the Hatton in 1966

What’s it all about?
When asked what the Merz Barn ‘meant’, Schwitters replied ‘It’s just form and colour, just form and colour.’

Python Hero
Just before his death in 1948, Schwitters declared ‘No-one knows who I am but in sixty years they will’ – but he hadn’t reckoned on Monty Python. In the very first episode of Flying Circus in October 1969, they mentioned Schwitters in a sketch about famous artists competing in a cycle road race: ‘And right at the back of this group, our very own Kurt Schwitters!’ You can see the clip here.

He liked Guinea Pigs

Old photo of white middle-aged man indoors holding two guinea pigs with water-filled glass jars and cases in backgroundAww…



‘Revitalising The Hatton Gallery’ is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund.            Logo for heritage Lottery Fund