Over two hundred people assembled at Derwent Walk Country Park at 10.30am on Saturday 21 September 2013. In pristine early autumn sunshine they followed the first group led by Colin Douglas, Noel Adamson, Steve Rutherford and including the Mayor of Gateshead, Councillor Jack Graham and his wife, the Mayoress in a guided walk around the park.
The walk, in total about one and a half miles in distance started at the Derwenthaugh car park, Winlaton Mill and ended at the Swalwell Juniors Football club. Now a hugely popular picturesque beauty spot, with almost four hundred thousand visitors recorded on site each year, it is a haven of wildlife attracted by the meadows and tree and shrub cover.
Visitors may spot foxes, badgers, and Roe Deer and along the Derwent River banks otters may be seen from time to time. The flowers in the meadows support many varieties of butterflies such as common blue, small skipper, meadow brown and small copper. In the river there are several fish species including salmon, trout and sticklebacks – the children’s favourite. As well as these there are a whole range of stunning birds to be seen including green and spotted woodpeckers, sparrow hawks, buzzards, nuthatches, black caps, whitethroats, bullfinches, kingfishers, dippers and many more. The most spectacular birds to make their homes in the area are the striking red kites re-introduced in 2004 as part of the Northern Kites Project. There are now more than eighty red kites in the area and the visitors were treated to a spectacular welcome with a group of them soaring about the walkers at one point.
Visitors to this tranquil site, however get very little impression and or impact of the huge cache of history located here. There is a ford crossing the river Derwent, part of the centuries old north-south route between Durham, Northumberland and beyond (fording the river Tyne at Newburn) and used by the Romans and by the heavy artillery unit of Cromwell’s army on their way to the battle of Dunbar, during the English Civil War.
There has been at least four bridges crossing the river in close proximity to the ford. One of these constructed in 1950 was destroyed in the great flood of 2008 and replaced by the current one in 2011. The bridge(s), widely known as the Butterfly Bridge, enjoys an iconic local status based on the area being a haunt of Victorian naturalist and in particular butterfly enthusiasts. Only a short carriage ride from the gross urban industrial pollution of the 19th and 20th centuries families were also able to picnic and enjoy the pleasures of an idyllic rural countryside.
The amazing industrial history of the site can now be barely discerned but in 1691 Ambrose Crowley established one of the very first factories in the world utilising water power ie the river Derwent to drive huge machines to mass produce wrought iron in a form of slabs, plates, rods etc., which could then be hand forged in the local ‘cottage industry’ workshops to manufacture a huge variety of ironware such as nails, chains, scythes, hoes, pots, pans, - over ninety items were made. The use of water power to drive machines mass producing workable wrought iron quickly established the area ie Winlaton Mill, Winlaton and Swalwell as the greatest producer of ironware in Europe at least sixty years earlier than the date usually associated with the start of the industrial revolution.
As well as the factory identified as his Mill Number One, Crowley designed and commissioned the building of a ‘model village’ to house employees brought in from other parts of the country and from abroad to work at the factory. This village subsequently became known as Winlaton Mill. Although the factory was abandoned in the early 20th century the picturesque village, which was condemned in 1933, with most of the residents moving out to the new Winlaton Mill village specially built to rehouse them. Some of the houses remained however with occupants finally moving, leaving the old village to be demolished in the early 1950s.
The last industrial enterprise at this location was the Derwenthaugh coke works which dominated and polluted much of the lower Derwent Valley for over half a century. Operated initially by Consett Iron Company the plant was supplied and erected by German manufacturers and commenced operating in 1929. It then worked virtually nonstop until its closure in 1985 converting coal into coke, a fuel used primarily in blast furnaces at Consett for steel production. It was also marketed world-wide as ‘Consett Coke Nuts’ and there were many by-products from the works eg town gas, tar, ammonia, naphthalene, benzene and so on.
Recognising that almost nothing remains to remind visitors of the significant historical heritage of the area five local history societies, Sunniside, Swalwell, Whickham, Winlaton and Winlaton Mill set up a project group charged with the task of researching, recording and promulgating the important, rich and significant history of the area which has been largely reclaimed by nature once again.
Supported mainly by a significant financial contribution from the Heritage Lottery Fund with further support from Gateshead Council and the societies themselves, volunteers from five of the societies together with others and professional help and guidance commenced the task in early April. Subsequently local forums seeking inputs from local people here, media outlets used to promote the project, bill board posters erected, and two thousand brochures printed. A twenty three minute film on DVD made by Noel Adamson, a renowned amateur film maker and deputy leader of the project recording the project, has recently been completed.
One of the most important tasks of the group was to design, commission and install three interpretation panels in situ to identify the Butterfly Bridge and ford, Crowley’s Iron Works and the Derwenthaugh Coke Works sites.
The first pause on Saturday’s walk was for the Mayor to unveil the first interpretation panel near the Butterfly Bridge. It continued along the tree lined path to interpretation panel number two which, on the Mayor’s invitation was unveiled by Chris Hamilton, a lifelong resident of Winlaton Mill, a noted local historian and member of the project group. This panel identified the site of Crowley’s Iron Works and the original village of Winlaton Mill. Further along the beautiful river side walk, with red kites flying overhead the Mayor invited David Best to unveil interpretation number three identifying the site of the Derwenthaugh Coke Works. David, also a lifelong local resident, Chairman of Swalwell Local History Society and a member of the project group gave a short address thanking all involved in the project. He valued the opportunity to be involved in a project helping to identify the significant industrial and social history on the site which had now largely returned to nature, its rightful owner.
The groups then moved on to the spacious assembly hall/café building recently constructed by Gateshead Council on the re-claimed coke works site. Here complimentary refreshments were available prior to the premier showing of Noel Adamson’s DVD. Copies available from Sunniside & District History Society (email contact or telephone contact.) This received a most generous reception by the over one hundred and fifty or so persons who continued to support the event. In the Mayor’s address which followed he complemented everyone concerned on what he described as an extremely well-conceived and led project. Everything had gone like clockwork on the day and he was very proud to be Mayor of Gateshead Council where his predecessors in office deserved much credit for their part in restoring the derelict industrial eyesore into the much appreciated country park and sporting facilities. Today however, added another dimension with the unveiling of the three panels, the distribution of the special brochures, and creation of the web site, adding a fantastic raft of information about the history of the area. He paid special thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for their financial contribution to the project which made it possible and to all those who had enthusiastically contributed to successfully delivering on time and within budgets, all the elements of the project.
Colin Douglas, closed the event paying tribute and giving thanks to all who had been involved including the National Lottery and other contributors of financial support. He said that the project had been a wonderful collaborative journey for all those contributing to its very successful outcomes. Today’s walk was not just the culmination of the project but it was also a celebration of the contributions by local people. It was as much their project as it was that of the team and he hoped that many more people will be attracted to the park in future and continue to tread the path of history.
He went on to report that although the project was now complete like every good one this wasn’t the end. The research element had brought to light two unanswered questions. The first one concerned the fate of the unique hand forging chain tools from Nixon and Whitfield’s, the last of the forges of this type at Winlaton when it closed down in 1966 ending almost three hundred years of production. A newspaper article of the time reported that the equipment, together with a complete disused stone workshop, which had been the Bagnells forge were to be removed to storage with the intention that they would eventually be exhibited at Beamish Museum. Consequently we are in discussions with curators at Beamish to try to establish what has happened because neither the tools nor the building are apparently featured museum exhibits.
The second mystery concerns the origins of the huge water powered machines, installed in Mill Number One, when it was established in the early 1690s. So far we have been unable to identify whether such machines were in use elsewhere and who designed, built and installed them. They were undoubtedly ‘state of the art’ at the time. Any contributions to assist in resolving this unanswered question will be greatly appreciated. He also went on to report that having come across a reference to pig (cast) iron imported from Baltimore Iron Company, Maryland, USA, being used at Mill Number One in the late 17th early 18th centuries we had made contact with the heritage museum on the site of the now closed Baltimore Iron Works,. An ongoing dialogue has been established with the director (who emailed his best wishes for today’s event) to exchange information about the pigs journey to and use at Mill Number One. With that he closed the event thanking everyone for their attendance and support.
Subsequent to the guided walk event we have received very many communications and expressions of congratulations for the event. It is very highly regarded and potentially one of the most valuable suggestions for future activity on the site has originated from a governor of a local Primary School who is keen to organise school visits to the site including conducted walks from the volunteer leaders.
The research element of the Butterfly Bridge Project has raised the question of the fate of the tools from Nixon and Whitfield, the last of the forges unique hand forging chain workshop at Winlaton closed down in 1966 ending almost three hundred years of production. A newspaper article of the time reported that the equipment, together with a complete disused stone workshop, which had been the Bagnells forge were to be removed to storage with the intention that they would eventually be exhibited at Beamish Museum. This is under investigation with Beamish Museum, in the mean time we have received the undermentioned account from John Steele (Ex Executive Chairman Swan Hunter, and Board member of British Shipbuilders) who has kindly sent an account of his reminiscences of the Nixon family of whom he is a descendant.
Mr JE Steele – his recollections of his families’ connections with Nixon and Whitfield, Chain Makers of Winlaton
Note: This information was received orally from my Grandmother Elizabeth Steele and passed to Mr TR Hodgson for his book “Houses of Old Winlaton”.
John Walton Whitfield a Cartwright born at Woolsingham in1824 married Mary Nixon of Winlaton Cottage the daughter of Forge master George Oakly Nixon and Mary Watson they had an only son George Oakly Whitfield.
Jarred Nixon founded a chain factory and was the son of George Oakly Nixon and Mary Watson whose sister was Mary Nixon wife of John Walton Whitfield. Jarred Nixon died in 1892 and his wife in 1881 and his son James in 1891, by which time George Oakly Nixon was and engineer and shareholder of the Chain Makers, and was offered a partnership by the other family members, who would remain sleeping partners. This was about 1892-93.
George Oakly Whitfield was an engineer fitter married to Mary Ann Robinson and had three daughters and two sons John and Thomas, my Grandmother being Elizabeth the fourth child and the family lived in Garden Close House, California, and Winlaton.
The company by then called Nixon and Whitfield flourished and was located next to Winlaton Hall on the Front Street making chains employing eight men and four boys, for the mining and shipbuilding industries, and had been bought by then from Nixon’s by George Oakly Whitfield.
George Oakly Whitfield died in 1915 and the factory was run by his youngest son Thomas, his eldest John was a Major in the DLI and was invalided out due to being gassed at Salonika. On his return the company in the 1920s bought out Scott’s Forge situated opposite their existing premises, and where the Post Office was situated.
The company suffered a significant drop in trade in the 30s due to the recession in mining and ship building.
It is interesting John Whitfield’s daughter Norah married Robert Scott son of the forge owners bought by Nixon and Whitfield in the 1920s.
Nixon and Whitfield had flourished from 1890s to 1930s and George Oakly had during that time rented Winlaton House, a large mansion in extensive grounds, which still stands today, but the grounds have been built on with lots of modern villas. However with the recession, Thomas and John on the death of their father gave up the rental house, trade was bad and John’s infirmity and difficult decision making, meant substantial debts accrued, exasperated by the death of John in 1940 and his brother Thomas a month later.
The outbreak of World War Two meant a substantial improvement in trade and the company was being run down by Thomas’s son George Oakly Whitfield, but by 1941 the burden of debts and his wish to continue his theological studies, he sought the approval of his aunties, to sell the company and debts to Robert Wilson Foundry of Swalwell and the company continues making hand wrought chain until December 1966 when it closed finally, - the last hand wrought chain forge in Britain – and end of an era.
Signed JE Steele
8th July 2013
NB My grandmother Elizabeth Whitfield married Ernest Steele the engineer at the German Coke Works at Blaydon Burn. They bought ‘Dunelm’, Tyne Street, Winlaton where I was born and brought up. ‘Dunelm’ was opposite Winlaton Cottage the Nixon family home, which was demolished by the Council and houses were built in its extensive grounds.
There were so many Whitfield families in Winlaton due to Crowley’s rule of only employees siblings being able to marry that to identify their ancestry they were known by adopted ‘Tribal non-de plumes’ such as Bonnie Dog Whitfields’, Josher Whitfield, The Peg Whitfield etc etc.