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Presbyterianism in Northumberland


Geoff Nicholson


            It is doing no more than stating the obvious to say that north Northumberland lies adjacent to the Scottish Border.   However, many beginners at family history research seem to regard that Border as having been permanently “closed”: that is, that families never crossed it.   Nothing could be further then the truth, as something like half the 19th-century population of north Northumberland had Scottish roots.   Various reasons have been put forward for this, from depopulation following the mediaeval Border Wars and the depredations of the Border Reivers of Tudor days to Jacobite refugees after Culloden,  but the main reason is likely to have been, as ever, economic.   The drift of population throughout the whole of the NE of England and SE of Scotland has always been from north to south, as people followed the chance of making a better living a few miles down the road.


            With them, these incoming Scots brought their own brand of religion: Presbyterianism.   The activities of, amongst others, the redoubtable John Knox had ensured that the Church of Scotland was firmly Presbyterian.   In “Episcopalian” England Presbyterians were not entirely welcome at first but such were their numbers in north Northumberland that a modus vivendi was soon established.   At various times during the 19th century Presbyterian churches were set up in centres throughout north Northumberland, from the larger towns which, like Berwick upon Tweed or Wooler, may have had several such churches, to tiny hamlets like Warenford or Branton.   There was never anything like a formal “parish” system, and Presbyterians would sometimes travel great distances, perhaps passing several other churches, to attend the one of their choice.   They were allowed to hold regular services of Worship and to baptise their children, but following Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, which became Law in 1754, and in practice for many years before that, right up to 1837, marriages were not allowed in Presbyterian churches.   Presbyterians wishing to marry had to either swallow their pride and be married in the local Church of England parish church or else make a journey to Scotland, where they could have either a Presbyterian ceremony in a church or else a civil ceremony at eg a Border Marriage House.   Burials were not normally held either, not because there was any Law against it, but because in practice the only burial ground in any (C of E) parish was the local parish churchyard.


            As with Methodists, Presbyterians were noted for their many schisms and splits, with occasional re-unifications.   Hence we have the “English”  Presbyterians, more often found in local ports, and the “Scottish” ones (“Scotch” churches) and the various “Associate” and “Secession” congregations.   Then, to confuse us further, there were the “Burger” and the “Anti-burger” congregations.


            Many local Presbyterian baptism registers lay neglected and little-used until in the 1970s the late Don Mason, in a mammoth effort, transcribed many of them and deposited copies in local reference libraries and County Record Offices, thus making available a vast amount of useful information.   Like most church registers, the earlier ones (no earlier then the mid-18th century in this case) tend to be very sparse but, as a rule, entries became more informative as time went on, and some registers have entries as good as, if not better than, the “Barrington” or “Dade” entries of the Church of England.


            Anyone tracing a north Northumberland family, then, and whose researches in Church of England sources come to a halt, could do a lot worse then to look at a variety of local Presbyterian registers.   In north Northumberland Presbyterianism was often carried into a family when someone married a Presbyterian, and once it had been adopted as the “family affiliation” it seems to have had a permanent staying power, unlike the situation in the more southern towns and ports of our region, where in the author’s experience Presbyterianism tended, with many exceptions, to be a “first and second generation only” connection.



by Geoff Nicholson


            From time to time Newcastle, like any large city, seems to go through grand upheavals when the whole face of large parts of it is altered by new developments.  In Newcastle there have been many such:  the demolition of much of the Town Wall in the 19th century, the redevelopment by Grainger of most of the town centre and the demolition of property in the Side and at the foot of Westgate Road to make way for the railway are all instances of that.  In the twentieth century, whereas we had some bomb damage during WWII it was nothing like as great as in many towns and cities but in the 1960s the mania for demolishing anything that was “old” and replacing it with anything that was “cheap”, especially if it stuck out over the road and so destroyed the view of other, better, buildings, more than made up for the omissions of Mr Hitler.  The activities of corrupt architects and local politicians served only to exacerbate the situation.  These events have always tended to bring out the nostalgia of local people and their appreciation of the “ill-considered trifles” of local architecture which, largely ignored while still standing, are much regretted once they have gone.


            The combination of Knowles - a local architect interested in the history of buildings and highly competent at sketching both whole buildings and their details, plus Boyle, a well-thought-of local historian with a love of old Newcastle was an ideal one to record those parts of the town which were thought in the 1890s to be in danger from the various redevelopment schemes then being promoted.  The pair did not confine themselves entirely to the little corners of vernacular architecture, such as the now largely long-gone alleys and courts off the Side or off Pilgrim Street or the corners of Sandgate and The Swirle on the Quayside.  They also appreciated the architecture of those fine buildings which are now “listed” and which any civilised people should always do their best to preserve - the old churches and monastic remains of Newcastle, plus, of course, the Keep and Black Gate of the Castle itself, from which the City gets its name and various other mediaeval remnants. Buildings such as the Keelmens’ Hospital, the Holy Jesus Hospital and Trinity House are also included.


            Although the emphasis is on the buildings and their associations, Boyle’s text not only complements Knowles’ pen-and-ink line drawings but also provides us with a good history of the “life and times” of the buildings and so with many insights into the historical background of Newcastle as a whole.  In particular, mention is often made of the people, families and trades associated with the buildings, including some of the families mentioned on the more elaborate monuments inside the churches.


            The book is not limited solely to Newcastle itself, however, as some suburban sites are included and it has a section on Gateshead, dealing mainly with St Mary’s church and with the Chapel of St Edmund.


            Lindenbridge publications are to be congratulated on bringing this interesting but now rare publication to the attention of their clients.