As a volunteer in the West End of Newcastle a few years ago, I attended a community meeting in the Carnegie Library on Atkinson Road. About halfway through the meeting, a woman at the back of the hall declared “ I have lived in Benwell all my life. It is a marvellous place and I would never live anywhere else”
I did a double take. Although the West End was at the heart of the industrial revolution, its recent history has been turbulent and it is not the easiest place on the eye. What warranted this loyalty?
Newcastle is often described as a series of villages. I suspect the people of the East End would say much the same about Walker or Byker. What makes us feel so proud of the area we live in? I asked this question visiting four separate exhibitions about the illustrious history of the West End last week.
I started at the new West End Library, a multi purpose centre boasting 1000 visitors a day and thankfully not under threat of closure, to see an exhibition of mining history from Roman times. It has been produced by the Mining Institute in partnership with local residents.
In half term week, I doubted whether many of the young people clustered round the computers would realise they were sitting on top of one of the most prolific coalfields in the country. It is a shame that we do not value our industrial heritage and make it more apparent to the passer by. It is difficult now to recognise the remains of the Charlotte Pit just across the road from the library.
The library houses the 17,000 photographs that comprise the West Newcastle Picture History Collection, lovingly put together by a small group of volunteers. Pride of place goes to Jimmy Forsythe’s black and white photography of the West End before the latest phase of demolition. It ranks amongst the finest documentary photography you can see anywhere. The joy of the collection is the way that a vast array of photos of the buildings and people of the West End jostle along side each other in carefully catalogued binders. Where else could you find such a comprehensive record of the last hundred years?
Then off to see the newly opened West End Stories exhibition at the Discovery Museum; an eclectic collection of objects gathered together by the museum in partnership with community groups. They include a commemorative police baton that was used to put down the strike at Vickers in 1898 which left me wanting to know more of the industrial history of the times. There is also fascinating footage of building the Cruddas Park flats in the 1960s. The chief planning officer smokes a pipe in his vast office and appears from a bygone age. The flats are now on their way to being refurbished or demolished which underlines how quickly the landscape can change.
At Denton Burn Library, sadly facing closure in a few months time, a small exhibition of men’s lives brings home the working conditions of a generation ago. Somehow, the verbatim accounts make a greater impact than a historian’s gloss on the facts. “ In those days” Ted Clark recalls” you could walk out of one job into another” – and jobs in completely different trades – but as Stan Brown, a shipyard worker tells us, it was “ a dangerous place” where ”safety only came in as you got more modern”. The old days are not romanticised in these accounts.
Finally, lunch in St James’ Church Hall which is being developed into the Centre for Heritage and Culture for the West End and currently showing an exhibition of memories of war and peace. A display case contains the correspondence between the War Office and Charlie Devlin’s family who received a series of proforma letters informing them that Charlie was missing in action, taken prisoner of war and finally repatriated. What must it have been like to have such envelopes fall through your letter box?
The exhibition includes accounts from refugee children fleeing from Nigeria and Zimbabwe and now living in Benwell which brings the experience of war frighteningly up to date. A knitted spitfire and barrage balloon hang from the ceiling and in a case can be seen a knitted air raid shelter complete with chairs, beds and occupants – all knitted by local residents specially for this exhibition.
In the graveyard outside, Richard Grainger’s tomb has been restored and the other gravestones cleaned up. They remind me that the wealthy businessmen of Newcastle lived in the grand houses of the West End in the nineteenth century.
The Rector of St James’, Catherine Pickford, tells me she is always struck by the stability of the community – people who have lived in the same street all their lives – as much as by the way that the West End has coped with decline and rebirth.
It is an area that has lived with bulldozers – and continues to do so. Scotswood is a huge brown field awaiting new housing which shows no sign of coming. It is an area that has lost its industry – Adamsez sanitary ware and Ever Ready batteries as well as the Armstrong works – and developed some outstanding community projects like Riverside Community Health Project and Pendower Good Neighbours Project.
According to Judith Green from the Heritage and Environment Group, it is a “community that has experienced a turbulent and difficult history during the past half century but retains a strong sense of local pride and confidence which includes a passion for exploring, sharing and celebrating its amazing history.”
Visit their exhibitions or take one of the walking heritage trails available from the Heritage Group and find out for yourself. If we could bottle this community spirit and apply it elsewhere, the world would be a stronger place.
For information about St James’ Heritage and Environment group visit stjameschurchnewcastle.wordpress.com