David Olusoga uncovers the history of a single house in Newcastle.
David Olusoga pays his first visit to the house. It is a Georgian end-of-terrace property on Ravensworth Terrace, in Newcastle upon Tyne’s gritty West End. The current owners of the house, Damian and Suzi, know little of their home’s history, but with its grand fireplaces and lofty proportions, the house offers a tantalising glimpse into the past.
Tracing the house’s early history, David discovers the original deeds revealing that the house was built by local developer William Mather and completed around 1824. Its first long-term resident was local lawyer and family man William Stoker. Searching the records for evidence of William Stoker, David is surprised to discover that he is named in an 1835 report in the local newspaper. The article tells of a theft from the house in which two teenage boys have stolen a pair of umbrellas, ‘the property of Mr William Stoker’. In today’s terms, this would be a trivial offence, but knowing how harsh the penalties were in the 19th century, even for petty crimes, David is keen to know more. Exploring the boys’ background David discovers the motive for the crime: poverty. The pair were ‘without visible means of subsistence’ and had exchanged the umbrellas for ‘two shillings and a piece of bread’.
David then meets historian Gaynor Halliday, who reveals that William Stoker actively pursued the case to trial. It was he who would have organised their arrest, found witnesses and brought them to court. The case papers reveal that the boys were found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.
As the boys were travelling to Australia, Stoker was working his way up the ranks of Newcastle society. He was elected to the post of town coroner, investigating suspicious deaths – drownings, industrial accidents and suicides. His first case is to investigate a man who has ‘drunk himself to death’. But there is a surprising twist to the story. David discovers that Stoker himself is a drinker. His death certificate reveals that he dies from chronic alcoholism aged 54.
The next resident David discovers is Joshua Alder, who moves into Ravensworth Terrace in 1841. Having recently sold his business as a cheesemonger, he has moved into the house with his sister Mary. But as David discovers, Joshua isn’t planning a life of leisure. The sale of his business is funding a new career as a scientist. He is a member of Newcastle’s renowned Literary and Philosophical Society, giving lectures, writing books about natural history, and rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest scientists of the age. David travels to the Northumberland coast to meet marine biologist Professor Peter Davis, sailing out to sea to observe the marine life that Joshua studied. But Joshua’s new life depends on the practical support of his sister. As design historian Deborah Sugg Ryan explains, it is Mary Alder who would have ensured the smooth running of the house while Joshua continued his scientific work.
And Joshua would soon rely on her even more. The devastating financial crash of 1857 brings down the local bank, taking Joshua’s savings with it. Now penniless, he and Mary are forced to leave Ravensworth Terrace, and move into a smaller house nearby, where Mary is the householder, supporting her brother financially. But this is not the end of Joshua’s story. David discovers that his friends in the scientific community lobby the Government on his behalf. Joshua is awarded a Civil List pension, saving him from penury and allowing him to continue his studies until his death in 1867.
The next residents of Ravensworth Terrace are well-to-do newly-wed couple Nicholas and Mary Sarah Hardcastle. Nicholas is a doctor recently appointed medical officer to the local workhouse, treating the poorest people in Newcastle society. David meets expert Caroline Rance to find out more. Caroline reveals that soon after his arrival, Hardcastle was caught up in a neglect scandal. A group of his patients, young girls suffering from the skin disease scabies, were discovered to be locked in a tiny room without access to proper sanitation. Hardcastle is investigated but cleared of any misconduct. He continues working at the workhouse and takes on an additional role as surgeon to the local gaol. The family move to a grand house in the centre of Newcastle where they have four children. But tragedy strikes when their daughter contracts scarlet fever and loses her hearing as a result.
Then some years later, Hardcastle is engulfed in a second scandal. An epidemic sweeps through the workhouse again – this time scarlet fever, the same disease that affected Hardcastle’s own daughter. After just nine days, nearly 200 people are affected, and two have died. Fearing the epidemic will spread beyond the workhouse walls, the authorities launch an inquiry where workhouse nurses accuse Hardcastle of neglecting his patients. This time Hardcastle is found guilty, and he is forced to resign from his post.
In 1861 the house is occupied by elderly widow Mary Colbeck, living here with her 13-year-old grandson James Todd. David is curious about this setup – why is James living with his grandmother? Where are his parents? Peeling back ten years to the 1851 census, David discovers that Mary Colbeck is a well-to-do landowner. She lives on a large estate and owns three other farms. Her grandson James is one of eight children, the son of Mary’s daughter Margaret, who has married local industrialist Frederick Todd. Frederick’s family own a large glass-making factory on the banks of the Tyne.
But David discovers that this apparently respectable and well-matched couple have fallen into financial difficulty. As historian Cathy Ross explains, Newcastle’s glass-making industry is changing rapidly, and the Todds’ business fails to keep pace with the times. David then discovers a series of extraordinary newspaper articles that describe what happened next. Threatened by the forced sale of his factory, Frederick Todd attacks one of his creditors with a knife before trying to take his own life. He is thrown into gaol.
The scandal not only damages the family’s reputation, but forces Mary to sell her estate in the country and downsize to Ravensworth Terrace, in order to free up money to support her family.
David then discovers a death certificate for Frederick Todd, who dies in 1864, aged just 46. Three years later, his wife Margaret also dies in extraordinary circumstances. Reports describe her as an alcoholic who set herself on fire while drunk. This appalling incident is witnessed by her six-year-old daughter Mary Victoria. The death and scandal have devastating effects on all Margaret’s children, now orphaned and dependent on their grandmother Mary. She does her best to support them, but sadly there is no happy ending for her grandson James, who dies of consumption aged 22, nor for little Mary Victoria, who dies in a convalescent home in Torquay, aged just ten. In 1878, Mary Colbeck dies at Ravensworth Terrace.
By now the neighbourhood is moving down the social scale. After a brief spell as lodgings, the house at Ravensworth Terrace is taken over by an organisation called the ‘Diocesan Home for Friendless Girls’. As David discovers from historian Fern Riddell, the role of this organisation is to rescue girls from the street who are at risk of falling into prostitution and trains them up for domestic service. Tracing the young women trainees, most of them orphaned, abandoned or penniless, is a difficult task. But David discovers that one young girl, Alice Coulson, who comes to live at the Home at the age of 15, has a happy ending to her story. Alice finished her training in Ravensworth Terrace, and goes to work for a wealthy family in the seaside town of Filey, where she meets her future husband.
The next resident of Ravensworth Terrace is draper Bevan Harris. David discovers that he is not just a businessman, but an enthusiastic follower of Spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living. He even hosts seances at the house in Ravensworth Terrace, as David discovers from experts Roger Luckhurst and Pat Beesley. The reason for his unwavering belief soon becomes clear. David discovers numerous deaths in Bevan’s family, and with infant mortality accounting for around a quarter of all deaths in the 1890s and life expectancy around 46, it is little surprise that people like Bevan Harris sought out the solace of Spiritualism. Harris himself writes ‘oh what a blessing is Spiritualism in these trying circumstances’ after the premature death of his wife from cancer.
In 1894, Bevan Harris moves to Nottingham to continue his Spiritualist mission, and the house sees the arrival of new tenants. Mary Ellen Oram is a draper and her husband William a captain in the merchant navy. To find out more about them David arranges to meet their descendant, Tony Holmes. To his surprise, Tony reveals that in 1900, Mary Ellen is committed to the local lunatic asylum, suffering from ‘melancholia’, what would today be termed depression. Money worries are behind Mary Ellen’s mental health problems. By 1898 her business had failed and her husband loses his job after being found guilty of overloading his ship with coal.
And as Deborah Sugg Ryan explains, Mary Ellen opened her business at exactly the wrong time, when high street drapers were facing stiff competition from new department stores. Mary Ellen is institutionalised for two years, and, David discovers, that she is not the only family member to spend time there. Her husband William was sent to the asylum after suffering from a stroke. Unlike his wife, who was released after two years, the unfortunate William Oram died just eight months after his admission.
David Olusoga follows the residents of the house through the early 20th century. The house is now being run as a boarding house by 41-year-old single mum Grace Eagle, who lives there with two of her children, Henry and Leonora. Curious to find out more about Grace’s circumstances, David uncovers a series of newspaper articles which reveal a furious public dispute about money between Grace and her estranged husband, Henry Eagle. To find out more, David goes to meet one of her living relatives, Carl Eagle. Carl explains that Grace was born in Tyneside, and at 17 she married Henry Eagle, aka Henrik Igel, an inventor and entrepreneur from Romania. The couple had three children, but the marriage foundered, not just from financial pressures, but due to Henry’s womanising. Grace left Henry to set up the business on Ravensworth Terrace.
But as David discovers from the 1911 census, this is no ordinary boarding house. Grace is running a theatrical boarding house, and her tenants are stars of the thriving music hall scene. David next visits the nearby Tyne and Wear Opera House to meet historian Anne Featherstone, to discuss the trick cyclists, jugglers and other colourful acts who lodged in Grace’s house.
But the lively atmosphere of the boarding house is soon threatened by the arrival of war. In 1914, the local recruiting office is besieged by young men eager to join up. An atmosphere of xenophobia is growing on Tyneside. A day after war is declared, the Aliens Restrictions Act is introduced. This law imposes a host of restrictions on foreign-born people in Britain. And although Grace is English, having married a Romanian she is now classed as ‘foreign’ herself.
The same is true for her eldest daughter Grace Marie, recently married a German man called Paul Wiese. The family are treated with suspicion, which soon turns to violence. Paul’s offices on the quayside in Newcastle are attacked by an anti-German mob, and the couple’s home is pelted with stones. Then Paul is discovered loitering near a temporary internment camp housing ‘enemy aliens’ and found guilty of ‘being found in circumstances of suspicion’. He is sent to Southend to be imprisoned on an internment ship moored off the coast.
With nowhere else to stay, Grace Marie and her children go to live with Grace Senior in the boarding house in Ravensworth Terrace. To find out more about what happened to Paul on the prison ship, David travels to Southend and meets expert Professor Heather Jones. The conditions on board were insanitary and overcrowded, she explains. In 1915, after a very cold winter, Paul contracted bronchitis and asthma, and died in March of that year. Grace Marie never saw her husband again.
David is keen to know what happened to Grace Marie. From her relative Jane Stupples David discovers that after the tragic death of her first husband, she found happiness again with a man named Billy Haselhurst. But sadly Billy lost his life just three years after Paul – he was shot in France in the final days of the war and died shortly afterwards.
Unsurprisingly after so much turmoil, the family didn’t remain in Ravensworth Terrace. In a trade directory of 1919, David finds a new tenant arrives in the house, a lodging housekeeper called Rose McQueeney. David discovers that Rose comes from an Irish family in Sunderland, and that her lodgers are mostly working men, also from Ireland. As design historian Deborah Sugg Ryan explains, running a boarding house was a multi-faceted job. Rose was cleaner, cook and mother figure to her tenants, working all hours, seven days a week.
But it seems Rose did find time for a social life. David finds a marriage certificate from 1920 revealing that Rose marries one of her lodgers, 24-year-old Irish colliery labourer Edward Kerrigan. Six months after the wedding the couple become parents to baby Patrick. But what appears to be a peaceful domestic setup is soon revealed to be anything but. David discovers a report in a local paper from 1921, implicating Edward Kerrigan in a case involving the theft of some explosives. His co-accused are named Richard Purcell and Gilbert Barrington. Digging deeper, David discovers that Purcell and Barrington are both members of the Irish Self Determination League, an organisation campaigning for Irish independence. Wondering if Kerrigan is connected to the group, David goes to meet historian Gerard Noonan. Gerard shows him evidence that proves that Edward Kerrigan was far more than a peaceful campaigner, he was actively involved in the local branch of the IRA and played a key role in an arson attack on a local aerodrome that made headline news in Newcastle. When the explosives theft case gets to court, Purcell and Barrington are found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. But Kerrigan gets off with a £5 fine, and his IRA activities are never uncovered by police.
In 1946 the householders are John Walter and Florence Smyth. They live here with their daughter Myra and rent rooms to lodgers. A collection of family photos picture John Walter and Florence as a well-to-do couple who dote on little Myra. But there is another child in the photograph collection – an unidentified older girl pictured alongside Florence. David is keen to find out who she is.
Tracing Florence’s family history, David discovers that John Walter is Florence’s second husband. She was previously married to a man named John Thomas Clark with whom she had a daughter, Gladys. So David wonders if the mystery girl in the pictures might be Gladys. Further digging into John Thomas Clark reveals that his marriage to Florence ended in divorce, on the grounds that he had committed bigamy. Legal expert Rebecca Probert helps David unpack this case. After World War I, she explains, there was an explosion in bigamy cases. Many people who made hasty wartime marriages couldn’t legally end them when the relationships went sour. Divorce law was strict and it was socially unacceptable to ‘live in sin’. Bigamy was seen by many people as the only possible option, although it was still a crime. John Thomas Clark was sentenced to four months in prison.
After her divorce in 1926, Florence got custody of Gladys and went to work as a housekeeper in Ravensworth Terrace. Here she met John Walter Smyth – the man who became her second husband, and Gladys’s stepfather. But sadly, Gladys died soon afterwards at the age of just 18.
Having solved the puzzle of the mystery photograph, David is keen to find out about the Smyths’ lodgers. He begins by searching the records for a young couple called John and Ruby Bell, who lived in the house during the late 1940s, and had a baby there.
This child, John Bell Junior is still alive and living locally. David brings him to the house to see the place where he was born. John reveals that his father served in the army during World War II, but was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. Following this lead, David uncovers a series of diaries that John Bell Sr wrote while he was incarcerated – an extraordinary record of the life of a prisoner of war. John writes of disease, death, cold, boredom and above all, hunger. And as Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan discovers, prisoners were chronically hungry in the camps, scavenging for food and even licking flour off floors.
But John’s circumstances worsened as the war drew to a close in 1945. He had been moved to a camp in the far east of Germany when the Soviets began to advance from the east. The Nazis decided to evacuate POW camps near the border and John joined over 120,000 Allied prisoners forced to march westward into Germany. This brutal journey came to be known as ‘The Long March’.
David meets 97-year-old veteran of the Long March Harry Winter, who describes exhaustion, starvation and men frozen to death or shot by their German captors. John stayed alive long enough to be rescued by American troops and returned to Newcastle, where he met Ruby, his future wife.
The couple left the house in 1947, and the Smyths continued to rent rooms to local workers. At this time Newcastle’s heavy industry was experiencing a postwar boom. But in 1959, after John Walter’s death, the house was sold.
Tracking down the next owner of the house is difficult but David discovers that it was bought by the Salvation Army and converted into a Goodwill Centre, a drop-in facility for needy local people. At the time the postwar industrial boom was over, unemployment was on the rise, and poverty and social problems on Tyneside were rife. Captain Eileen Moffatt, who worked at the Centre, describes a busy place whose doors were always open.
But in the early 80s, the Salvation Army leaves Ravensworth Terrace and the house is put on the market again. This time, it is no easy sell. The house is run down, along with most of the surrounding neighbourhood, and lies empty for months. Eventually it catches the eye of local solicitor Ian Bynoe. While working in a demanding job in Legal Aid, Ian – with the help of a local architect – restores the original features and starts to bring the house back to its former glory.
Subsequent owners continue the restoration work, and as the house is reborn, the city of Newcastle also experiences a regeneration too. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the quayside is reinvigorated, and Newcastle develops a reputation as a city of culture.
In 2015, current owners Damian and Suzi buy the house, knowing nothing of its former life. David tells them the story of some of its former occupants. The programme ends as the city of Newcastle honours one of the former residents of Ravensworth Terrace. A plaque commemorating the life of Joshua Alder, renowed marine biologist, is placed on the wall of the house.