Monday, 10 April 2017

The Oxford Dictionary of Ponteland Biography

In the past few days I visited Ponteland Methodist Church to give a talk to their Men's Forum entitled The Oxford Dictionary of Ponteland Biography. This was an exploration of how the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a major reference work covering over 60,000 lives from Britain, Ireland, colonies and other associated territories, can illustrate the history of localities including Ponteland. I've been associated with the dictionary for nearly twenty years, including seven years on the research staff and over ten now as a consultant. I grew up in Ponteland and return regulary.

A search for Ponteland under the 'People' tab revealed a limited sample. Only six subjects had life events located in Ponteland, all concentrated at the end of the period. The earliest was the Newcastle banker Ralph Carr, who was buried in Ponteland in 1806, and the most recent the paediatrician Hugh Jackson, who died in 2013; his final address was Ponteland Manor residential care home.

Searching for Ponteland in full text was more helpful. Although this query still only revealed eleven subjects, the first four of these were all connected with Merton College, Oxford, whose church Ponteland was and is. These included Walter of Merton himself, but also John Ashenden (d. in or before 1368?), who probably came from Ashington in Northumberland, but spent most of his life in Oxford as a fellow of Merton College and a member of Oxford's circle of astrologers and astronomers. William Heytesbury (d. 1372/3) was another Merton fellow, whose journey from Oxford to Ponteland in 1337 or 1338 was accounted for in a document which survives: Heytesbury and his colleague covered 246 miles in seven or eight days, and the cost of their food and drink, the fodder for their horses, and of crossing major rivers can all still be examined.

Other articles suggest questions which deserve further exploration, such as Sir Nathanael Brent's (1573/4-1652) tenure of Ponteland rectory as a private leaseholder (though holding it on another's behalf) during the Commonwealth, revealed in his will at his death. While Brent had been no admirer of the politics and churchmanship of Charles I and William Laud, and at first complied with the demands of the Puritan regime, he was eventually forced from his wardenship of Merton by the parliamentary visitors, and one wonders whether he held property from Merton that might have actually benefited others out of favour with the regime. The engineer Thomas Sopwith (1803-1879), grandfather of the aeronautical pioneer, laid out a route for the Ponteland Turnpike in 1830, still largely the line the modern A696/A68 road from Prestwick Road Ends to Carter Bar, but later became an agent for the lead mines owned by the Beaumont family in Allendale, His clashes with striking and (of specific interest to the audience) largely Primitive Methodist miners led to large-scale emigration from the dale in 1849.

I also looked slightly further afield to Stamfordham. Results are skewed by the decision of the royal private secretary Arthur Bigge to take Stamfordham as his peerage title; but of the eight articles which concern the village and not the lord, there are many hints about early modern Northumberland's make-up, such as the Presbyterian Widdringtons of Cheeseburn Grange, just east of Stamfordham, one of whom (Thomas) was speaker of the House of Commons under the Cromwellian Protectorate, and another the scholar Ralph Widdrington, who rode out the Civil Wars and Interregnum at Christ's, Cambridge, despite gaps in his tenure, with appoitments under Cromwell and then Charles II. Nearby Bitchfield was the home of a branch of the Fenwick family who produced John Fenwick, a Covenanter prominent in the Scottish administration of Newcastle in 1640-1, and subseqently a parliamentary army officer, though his career in the 1640s and 1650s seems to have been that of a distinguished elder statesman.

Where in the seventeenth century tensions between episcopalian and Presbyterian in Northumberland might break out into armed conflict relating to disputes within England and Scotland, in the Stamfordham of nineteenth-century Britain matters were more measured. Two Presbyterian ministers from nineteenth-century Stamfordham are in the dictionary, Robert Gillan and William Fisken. Both came from Scotland and while Gillan returned, eventually holding a professorship at the University of Glasgow, Fisken remained, inventing a steam plough and also serving as secretary to Stamfordham Endowed School. What precisely happened to that, one of the endowed grammar schools of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reformed in the nineteenth, I have yet to find out. 

Friendliness and curiosity from an audience are always welcome and the enthusiasm of those present for the dictionary's live search facility and the capacity for expansion of the online dictionary was palpable. A tour of popular culture figures, Methodist laymen and businesspeople not only reminded me to show the only article to mention Darras Hall, that on Sir Lawrie Barratt, whose company built many of the homes in the area - there were cries of 'Greensitt and Barratt' from the audience who remember the company before it was Barratt Developments - but also draw attention to the portraits used in articles which are often not straightforward headshots, as seen in Mike Owen's progression of rectangles within which Barratt, arms themselves suggesting a right angle, is incorporated.

Other topics of discussion involved prominent Methodist laymen, with one candidate for future inclusion receiving wide support, the leading Methodist preacher of the early nineteenth century, Mary Porteous, and Methodist churchmen whose careers took them through the north-east such as Gordon Wakefield. We could all happily have continued, I suspect. This was one of the last hurrahs for the old search mechanism, as a new public interface for the Dictionary should be online later in 2017. It was good to put the present one through its paces again - it's still very effective in its thirteenth year.

Revised 1703 to include more text and links to ODNB articles (if logged in) or the Oxford Index (if not).

Revised 12 April 2017 to include details of my personal connections with Ponteland and with the ODNB.