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Beamish – The Living Museum of the North

Beamish – The Living Museum of the North

Maybe Durham folk have collecting genes in their make-up, but it led three individuals to create two unique museums, one in the Victorian era and the other more recently around fifty years ago.  

John and Joséphine Bowes used their wealth for the public good, while at the same time indulging their passion by creating a French château to hold their priceless art collection.  A few miles to the east of Bowes, Frank Atkinson, a museum curator by profession realising that traditional industries such as coal mining, ship building and other traditions were fast disappearing, set about collecting relics from the recent past.  His policy of ‘unselective collecting’ as he called it, needed somewhere to display everything.  This he found in the fields surrounding traditionally run farms on the Pockerley Old Hall estate near Beamish.  His idea soon gained public interest and with help coming from many sources; everything from family heirlooms to volunteer labour willingly arrived along with a wide range of financial grants.

Working within Covid-19 rules, we travelled north on a Slacks coach for their three-day excursion to Durham; this feature is about the day we spent at Beamish Open Air Museum.

The twin legs of a huge drop hammer known as ‘Tiny Tim’, made a fitting entrance to the museum, and soon we were clambering on one of the vintage buses alternating with rattling old trams along the perimeter road around wild flower hayfields where two magnificent shire horses were dragging a dusty chain harrow.

All the fully restored exhibits are laid out within their particular era.  Ranging from the 1820s landscape around Pockerley Old Hall, there is a ‘Doctor Who’ kind of time travel through a pit village as it would have looked in the 1900s, to two farms each showing how agriculture changed rapidly between 1940 and the 1950s.  We began our tour in the ‘Town’, a collection of restored houses and businesses that flourished around the time of Queen Victoria’s last years on the throne.

A typical Co-op emporium

A typical Co-op emporium fills half of the south side of Town Street prior to the small public park with its traditional band stand.  The store was moved lock, stock and barrel, from its position in the mining village of Anfield Plain near Consett.  All the departments were fully stocked, ranging from grocery to drapery where I shuddered at the thought of struggling to wear one of the stiff collars on sale.  All the basic foods like flour, butter and sugar were sold from bulk and had to be carefully weighed and packed – no plastic pre-wrapped shopping for the Edwardian housewife.  What did catch my eye and brought back childhood memories, was the contraption that fed cash held in a screwed container, and when after a sharp tug on a chain, ran all the way round the departmental ceiling to a hidden den. Here the account’s clerk would unload the container, check the bill, make a note appropriate to the customer in a ledger and send the container back to the counter where the customer was waiting.  One of the advantages she would have had was the annual dividend or ‘divi’, from her purchases.  According to the poster, this became an important part of the lady’s housekeeping, especially when the divi was, according to the poster, forty (old) pennies in the pound!

No question of fitting manufacturer’s parts in the garage next door to the Co-op, the mechanics would make whatever was needed.  Petrol didn’t come out of a pipe, but from two gallon cans carefully packed in a wooden case.  If you wanted to buy a new car, there was a rare 1906 Armstrong Whitworth on sale, or locally made SHEW (Seaham Harbour Engine Works), one of scores of back street car makers up and down Britain at the time.  Incidentally the garage once featured in an edition of the TV drama Downton Abbey.

Fortunately with modern surgery, a truss is something few if any of us need, but in the early part of the twentieth century they must have been quite common.  That is if the advert in the chemist’s shop is anything to go by.  Fitting such implements appears to have been a husband and wife team affair – wife to look after ladies and husband for the men.  All this is on offer at W. Smith’s chemist shop where prescriptions were made to order, no doubt working closely with John R. Edis the local photographer who had a small shop-cum-studio next door.  But if it was bread or pastries you wanted then the warm aroma of freshly baked bread directed you to Joseph Heron’s Bakery at the end of the row. The bakery currently marks the end of the south side of Town Street, but fairly soon now there will be a new development when a row of 1950s houses will bring the Town closer to date.

A substantial looking building stands across the road, a place where many of the local businessmen would meet.  When the Masonic hall in Sunderland’s Park Terrace closed, rather than destroy the building, it was rebuilt on Beamish Town Street. Nowadays visitors can wander and explore the mysteries of what outsiders often look on as a secret society.  Much of the society’s regalia is on show, together with such items as the voting box used to decide on admitting a new member.  This was done by placing a white ball in a closed box if they decided to admit, or black if not, hence the term ‘to be blackballed’. Hopefully though, they could expect to be held in higher esteem by the bank manager residing next door.  Set out rather like the bank where Private Pike laboured when not on duty in Dad’s Army, it still has its high-level desks and safe-rooms in the cellar which look as though they could withstand a bomb.

Miners cottages well served with a school

Moving west along Town Street, the next set of buildings after the tram waiting room, is a sweet shop and its enticing aromas, then in rapid succession a print shop where the local football results would be avidly snatched on Saturday evenings.  No doubt those results would be the topic of intense discussion  at the Sun Inn next door.  Originally dating from 1850 when it was called the Tiger Inn, the pub stood in Bishop Auckland’s High Bond Street until it was moved to Beamish in 1985 together with its bar games and fully operational beer pumps.  No longer open from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. and beer costs considerably more than 3d a pint, but women can come and go as they please, no longer having to skulk unseen behind a tiny hatch.

Although a haulage contractor kept his stabled horses behind the pub, it didn’t lower the quality of the ‘better’ end of the town, this is a row of middle class terraced houses known as Ravensworth Terrace, where professional people lived and frequently worked.  A rather genteel lady taught music at No. 2 Ravensworth Terrace.  Aided by a maid of all work, she offered lessons on the piano, violin, or singing.   Perhaps the efforts of her pupils were a blessing in disguise when they drowned the cries of patients being treated by the dentist next door.  All his gruesome implements and a crude operating chair are on display, more or less as they were when used by Mr J. Jones of Hartlepool.  His surgery is in No 3, but his family lived next door at No 4 Ravenswood Terrace.  No 5 completing the row was used as a solicitor’s office.  Assisted by two clerks, this office is based on one used by Robert Spence Watson at Bensham Grove in Gateshead, where Ravensworth Terrace originally stood.

Rowley Station is at the end of Town Street. Once part of the North Eastern Railway Company’s network of lines tracks across Northumbria, it is accessed from The Town by an iron footbridge which, like the signal box or goods sheds came from around the district.  Across the tracks is a fairground in full working order with old fashioned rides and a helter-skelter.

Two farms stand opposite each other beyond a regional study centre; although only separated by ten years in time from the 1940s to 1950s, they highlight the rapid changes when agriculture had striven to keep up with the demand for ever cheaper food.  The 1940s farm conveys the struggle to feed the country during wartime, and Spain’s Field Farm, once a struggling upland Weardale sheep farm, had lost the will to survive a mere ten years later.

1900s miners once lived in the row of tiny cottages, everyone growing their own food, were well served with a school, chapel and miners’ institute.  There is even a fully working coal fired fish and chip shop in one of the back streets.  The miners if they were around today, would delve deep within the ground in the nearby, fully operational drift.  Perhaps some of the coal they mined created power to drive the working replicas of two early locomotives, the 1814 Steam Elephant from Wallsend Colliery and a slightly older Puffing Billy that hauled coal trucks along the Wylam Waggonway.  We found these, steamed-up in their 1820s shed, almost hidden beyond a belt of trees in a corner of Pockerley Old Hall’s farmland.

Two oversized Meissen-like figures above the doorway of the Georgian Shepherd and Shepherdess pub, appeared to wave goodbye as we drove back to our Durham based hotel, in the comfort of Slacks green liveried coach.


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