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Thirty Years of the Friends of Beamish.

By Frank Atkinson (June 1998).

First published in the Friends' Newsletter June 1998.

This year, 1998, is the thirtieth year of the Friends' existence, for we came into being in 1968, two years before the museum formally was established. Our next newsletter issued in September (our Editor assures me!) will be dedicated to a celebration of that occasion, largely by way of photographs.

So I will not jump ahead, but thought it might be helpful and interesting if I told you a bit about the museum and how you might visit it, to get the most from your trip. Of course you could come for years and still find something new, and I can do no more, here, than tell you a little of what there is and how to find it.

Beamish is a large and still growing organism, and you may like to congratulate yourselves on supporting something which is truly unique in this country, namely an active regional open air museum almost entirely supported by its visitors and its Friends. Not only this, but the museum provides an ongoing research section and a superb photographic department holding many thousands of photographic records of its region.

The region, incidentally, covers the geographical counties of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and what used to called Cleveland; in other words, North East England.

The museum lies within some 350 acres, basin-shaped and with Beamish Burn running roughly around two sides of it. Within this site an electric tramway provides a circular route, offering a quick and easy way around the site.

As a visitor you come into the museum site off the A693 (Chester-le-Street/Stanley road) and pass under a striking archway comprising an 1880 Steam Hammer, once used to forge ships' rudders at Darlington forge.

Here is a large well-laid-out carpark and below stands a welcoming entrance building based upon a quite imposing local eighteenth century stable block. A few steps further on and you come to a tram stop which offers a quick way down to 'The Town'

The museum is made up of buildings such as houses, shops, colliery and farm buildings etc., most of which have been carefully dismantled, numbered and drawn, and rebuilt here to bring together several distinct social environments.

There is a farm, based around a house, barn, stable-block, 'gin-gan' and so-on, where you can see for yourselves how such a farm would have worked last century.

The Town, which I have already mentioned, has a street of early nineteenth century houses, part of Ravensworth Terrace from Gateshead, a pub, a printer's workshop, a sweetshop and a complete Co-op group, comprising three shops: grocer, haberdasher and hardware.

Nearby is a Victorian pub (which works!), and a Victorian park with bandstand, where you may be lucky enough to find a brassband playing, and a captured German gun standing as a memorial of the First World War. A splendid Bank has just been built at the end of the street and is at present being fitted out.

Near the Town is a small rural railway station of a style once common in the North East, moved here from Rowley on the Stanhope and Tyne Railway, and adjoining is the station yard with two footbridges, a goods shed from Alnwick and a 'Coal and Lime Depot' of 1834, from West Boldon. A rail track runs from here, towards the circumference of the museum site, but it is so far inactive due to various restrictions, not least of which is finance. Perhaps one day.

A colliery is situated to the south of the site, where an 1855 steam winder can sometimes be seen in steam. It is the last of its kind in this country in such splendid condition and was designed by a Newcastle man: Phineas Crowther and it actually worked into the 1960s.

There are other typical colliery buildings here and a number of curious wooden coal wagons once very common in the Great Northern Coalfield (as it was called). These, known as 'chaldron' or black wagons, carried coal from collieries to the coast or riverside, for export down the coast to London.

You can get a glimpse of underground colliery working conditions in the nearby drift mine, where you are guided down into real coal and can see how the cutting and underground transport was done and the roof propped up by timbers. This is part of a real drift mine (that means, you can walk into it, as distinct from going down a shaft, lowered and raised by a winding engine).

The pitmen and their families lived in little cottages, owned by the colliery company, such as the terrace here moved from Hetton near Sunderland. The coal owners, who held the land from beneath which the coal was extracted, lived in big and splendid houses and Beamish Hall not far away was one such house: in this case the home of the Shaftoe family (Do you remember "Bonny Bobby Shaftoe"?).

And the latest part to be developed is Pockerley, an eighteenth century farm, in part based upon a mediaeval pele tower. The house has been fully restored and contemporary gardens created below it, whilst across the dip in the land will shortly be seen a marvellous and evocative sight: an early nineteenth century railway line along which George Stephenson's "Locomotion" (or, actually a steaming replica) will draw a train of typical vehicles of the period (around 1825): curious little coaches and attractive curved-sided wagons.

And all these, when not running, can be seen in the great locomotive shed recently built to hold this wonderful collection.

Perhaps I should state here, that every attempt is made in this regional museum, to portray historic accuracy and clearly few people of the time would have been so admiring of workaday wagons and machinery, but perhaps we can now look back from a different viewpoint from time to time? Certainly we should admire their ingenuity and their craft skills.

This can be enjoyed by all our visitors, though you - as a Friend - will be able to visit free and at any time the museum is open. This is actually the best way to get to know everything, for one visit is certainly not enough.

And even then, what you have not seen is Beamish Hall itself, where the museum's administration is housed, along with a wonderful reference library, which includes a very large and important collection of trade catalogues, invaluable for identifying curious nineteenth century objects - and finding their price !

And here too is the photographic collection which in unequalled for its size and scope. This is now available on "disk" and, we hope, will soon be available to the public. But you may have to wait a little for that.

Now almost everything I have mentioned is here for the seeking and yours to see. But of course it costs an enormous amount to keep everything going safely and efficiently and there is not enough staff and finance.

Your subscription, therefore, is immensely helpful for the Friends, as a body, providing many thousands of pounds to help and many, many thousands of hours of physical help. If you feel you would like to help, in any way, do contact the Friends' office. All you have to do is be dedicated, and be dependable (i.e. don't say you will come and then not turn up).

Finally I suppose I ought to insert a personal note here, for newcomers, by admitting (immodestly) that Beamish was my idea, though tremendously helped by thousands of people and greatly supported, especially in its earlier years, by the Local Authorities.

After a long and traumatic struggle, Beamish came formally into existence in 1970, opened by a tiny exhibition called "Museum in the Making" in 1971 and has grown every year since. I retired as Museum Director in 1987 and was invited to become Chair of the Board of Directors of the Friends in 1997.

Of course I have not had chance to say much here about the North East itself, let alone its interesting history, but I hope that Beamish will stimulate you to want to know more.

Happy visiting!
Frank Atkinson


The Story of the Coal Waggon and Friends' Logo.

By Frank Atkinson (Summer 1997).

First published in the Friends' Newsletter Summer 1997.

In a previous issue I promised to tell you something about chaldron wagons and why we chose one of these old wagons as the Beamish symbol, twenty six years ago. You'll see it still appears on our Friends notepaper and simple examples are to be seen on the big road signs to Beamish on the AI (M) near Chesterle-Street, which we had such difficulty erecting a few years ago.

It all goes back to the eighteenth century, when coal export was one of the major activities of North-East England. In the early years of that century coal was being transported from mines to the banks of the Rivers Tyne and Wear particularly, where it was then loaded on to boats (colliers) and sailed down the coast mostly to London. So common was this export trade that the phrase taking coals to Newcastle was used as meaning some quite unnecessary action.

Hauling the coal from inland mines to the river banks was probably first done in farm carts, then wooden tracks were laid to provide a hard surface on soft ground (no tarmac then, remember!) The wagons gradually developed into quite a big size, since the going was getting better. Moreover most of the early mines were relatively close to the river banks, and so loaded wagons were travelling on the level or down hill. The horse only had to haul an empty wagon back up hill. The sides of the wagons grew higher - you might say as greed or efficiency grew. Eventually the wagons were standardised to a northern chaldron.

In those early days weighing such a bulky product as coal was not feasible, so the coal had to be measured by volume and the volume of one of these wagons was described as a chaldron. More properly a Newcastle Chaldron for there were others elsewhere! In later years the Newcastle chaldron was defined as being 53 cwts (hundred weights; there being 20 cwts in a ton), or 2,693 Kg in modern terms.

This kind of wagon persisted from the eighteenth century right through in to the mid twentieth century, though by the early to mid nineteenth century they were being made even larger in capacity, fitted with solid oak buflers and hauled in trains by stationary steam engines at the tops of hills, and then by travelling engines or locomotives. The Railway had arrived!

The wagonways, first of wood and later of iron, became known as Newcastle Roads and as you will know the railway system of the world may be said to have begun here with George Stephenson's Stockton and Darlington Railway launched in 1825 by his steam powered Locomotion.

This railway was built to haul chaldron wagons full of coal from Witton Park Colliery near West Auckland in County Durham, via Shildon, past Darlington, through Stockton and down to the River Tees, where the coals were transferred in to boats for export. Have you noticed Locomotion and Skerne Bridge on your five pound note? And also the sketch of the Rocket, of 1829, NOT to be confused with Locomotion!)

The S and D R was also made available to passengers and so may be defined as the first steam drawn public passenger carrying railway in the world. At the colliery at Beamish you will see big chaldron wagons of late nineteenth century date, bearing the letter L. This refers to Londonderry, for they belonged to Lord Londonderry's collieries at Seaharn Harbour. Most of the larger colliery companies, by that time, owned large fleets of their own wagons. If you visit the new building going up near the tram route, below Pockerley Farm., you will see an example of an earlier chaldron wagon, with elegantly curved sides, which is due to be drawn by one of the museum's horses. This is a replica wagon and relates to the early 1800s (see your five pound note again).

Currently the Friends are building another of these replica wagons, and have helped to pay for the first one. Now I'm sure you will see why we felt that a chaldron wagon was so completely north eastern that it just had to be a symbol of this regional museum.

Frank Atkinson.
Summer 1997.

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