A Unique Hand-Written Testimony
George Lingwood was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, around 1822. He moved to Alnwick in 1842. Originally trained as a brazier, George was employed by plumbers Wilkin and Dickman until he was forced to retire by ill-health. He was an advocate of abstinence from alcohol, and a member of the Order of Rechabites; a founding member of the Alnwick Workingmen’s Annual Provident Society; and librarian at the Mechanics’ Institute for forty-one years. He also contributed articles and poems to the local newspaper under the nom-de-plume of “Aln Brae,” and he was the local correspondent for the Northern Daily Express.
George lived in Percy Street, at the Mechanics’ Institute, and died in 1903 at the age of 81. He had a younger sister, Martha, who stayed in Suffolk. In 1848, six years after he moved north, he compiled a hand-written book about Alnwick and his life here and dedicated it to Martha. It provides a unique insight into the town in the middle of the 19th century. Here are a few extracts:
Arriving at Alnwick.
Six years have elapsed since I first approached this ancient town. All nature was as bright and cheerful as a glorious morning in the month of August as nature could make it.
To my right, and beyond large tracts of waving corn and massive patches of foliage the white sails of numerous ships were glittering in the sun and moving majestically over the blue expanse of the German Ocean. On my left in the far distance arouse the gigantic Cheviots, their conical heads breaking with a bold relief the verge of the horizon: while before me to the North appeared the tall columns and grey towers of Alnwick.
Bondgate Tower is an old tower built by the son of the famous Hotspur and under the arch, which is the only entrance to the town from this quarter. It is the first object belonging to the past ages that meets the eye of the traveler arriving from the South. When it first met my gaze, it strictly coincided with my preconceived ideas of what a border town should be. There it stood black grim and dismal- like a giant choking the thoroughfare.
The town is abundantly supplied with good water*. Public fountains or “pants” as they are termed are erected in various parts. The most elegant and most useful stands near the marketplace. It is built in the ornamental Gothic style and is surmounted with a stone figure of St Michael.
The Assembly Room is a massive stone building on the South side of the marketplace. It is supported at the two sides by a row of small arches under which are the “shambles”. Under the East end, which is circular and supported by stone pillars, is the once far-famed fish market.
The Moor is my friend. Let us go to the Moor and enjoy nature in its wildest mood, virginal nature, as yet free and untrammeled by the constraints of man.
We are soon in the midst of a narrow defile; the lofty rocks on either hand rising far above their savage grandeur peering boldly through the openings of the foliage which clothe their sides.
The Working Class of Alnwick
Some centuries ago the majority of the families of this town were armed followers of the Percy, fought under his banner at the bloody conflict of Otterburn and stemmed the fierce tide of battle on the memorable field of Flodden.
Now, their degenerate descendants…know not how to poise the gleaming spear, draw the flexive bow or wield the ponderous battle axe.
Let us now consider the social condition of the working man. One room 12 feet square with perhaps the addition of a lighted closet is the utmost extent of his territorial ambition.
The inhabitants of Alnwick possess the advantages of the means to secure to their children the blessings of a good education. Schools there are, both public and private, where the youth of both sexes are taught at a trifling expense.
I believe that the runaway matches are generally the offspring of sudden impulse. Sometimes the matrimonial journey (to Scotland) is undertaken on foot: this mode of travelling is very hazardous to the success of the enterprise; to whit the anxiousness has time to evaporate- no coach fare to lose and it easy to walk home again and come another time.
Angling on the Aln
The Aln affords to the inhabitants of this town one of their principal amusements, namely angling. The salmon at certain seasons inhabits here for the purpose of spawning.
The Aln produces eels of a large size which are caught in several ways, one of which is the” night line”.
There are many apiarians in this town, with whom the keeping and management of bees is both an object of pleasure and pecuniary gratification.
Until of late years the house of Northumberland possessed its ministers. Formerly it had three who wore the badge of the family, a silver crescent on their right arms. The last one was discharged a few years ago for misconduct.
Pastimes and Festivals
In Alnwick (the New Year) is ushered in by the mass of the people with great demonstrations of joy. Bands of music parade the streets and every person supplies himself with a bottle of whisky to regale the first acquaintance that he may chance to meet. A singular practice called “first-foot” is persisted in. It is a desirable object to young people to be the first visitor at the house of their friends and consequently as soon as the Town clock strikes twelve, they issue forth on their adventures which consist in making an entry, forcible or otherwise, into the neighbours’ houses and proclaiming themselves individually First-Foot. A person who squints need not trouble himself in this matter, as that defect is considered unlucky. At that hour it is also held to be a forerunner of misfortune if fire is allowed to go out of the house, to wit, a light for the “pipe” or candle. It is therefore carefully guarded against.
On Shrove Tuesday, during the first three years of my sojourn here, the game of football was played between the single and married freemen in the pasture opposite the north front of the castle: the ball being expressly provided and supplied gratis by the duke. And also, from the same source £10 were allowed for a ball and a dance held in the Town Hall in the evening. These were very old customs; but have since been discontinued in consequence of the “supplies” having been withdrawn.
The fifth Sunday in Lent is here called Carling Sunday. On that day the good folks indulge themselves with a dish of grey pease, fried in butter and seasoned with pepper and salt and the public houses of the town are well provided therewith to feast their frequenters. To observe old and cherished customs the Northumbrians residing in London on that day repair to their accustomed alehouse in Fleet Street. Kept also by a Northumbrian and there, in spite of Cockney sarcasm, eat grey pease and glory in the memory of old times.
At the Easter holidays a curious custom is observed. Eggs are boiled hard and dyed and gilded in a beautiful manner: these are called paste eggs or pasche eggs and are given to children who roll them about the grass. This custom is prevalent in Germany. On this subject a writer says “the egg was used in the feast of the Passover as a part of the furniture of the table with the paschal lamb. But it is still undetermined why painted eggs were peculiar to this day when they formed no part of the day’s repast. Perhaps the egg was thus decorated for a religious trophy after the days of abstinence were over and festivity had taken place. And as an emblem of the renovation of life certified to us by the resurrection from the grave”.
The last Sunday in October is Alnwick feast day and it is equal to the festivities of Christmas. The greatest endeavours are made even by the poorest to secure a good dinner on that day. Friends are invited and long separated families meet again under one roof. The origin of this feast is the same as that of the Wakes in the south of England. Namely the anniversary of the consecration of the parish church. But that is long since forgotten and it is no longer of a religious character.
At Christmas time the lover of antiquity may witness one of the remains of the olden time in the sword or military dance. A party of coal miners dressed in grotesque attire after the manner of the ancient mysteries perform clever feats and go through wonderful evolutions with their swords. This custom is supposed to be a fragment of the Pyrrhic Dance of the Greeks and Romans.
The Yule baby is a small image made of candy and presented to children in commemoration of Christ’s death. It bears an affinity to the Christ Child of Germany.
The Northumbrian dialect
The chief characteristic of the dialect of Northumberland is that of its being founded on the almost unalloyed remains of the Danish and Saxon tongue. Some words indeed are undoubtedly of French origin, which may be accounted for by the great intercourse and the many alliances the neighboring country (Scotland) contracted with France before the union of the two kingdoms.
Samples from Lingwood’s extensive “Glossary” include:
Abune = Above
Bike = A hiding hole
Dottle = The remains of a half- smoked pipe
Pauky = Saucy in the matter of food.
Sousy. = Good tempered and good looking
Yeblin = Perhaps
*It is unfortunate that Lingwood refers here to “good water” the very year before the great Alnwick cholera epidemic of 1849 which saw 136 people of all ages and social levels die in a few weeks. In fact, the underground sources were severely contaminated by open middens throughout the town.
George’s book can now be viewed in the Study Centre at Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn. It is catalogue number NRO 12440. Our thanks to Northumberland Archives for their permission to publish these extracts and to Alnwick Civic Society for all their help.