Firstly some thanks to those that made this day possible:
- Les Turnbull whose idea this church service was. His research in the Mining Institute led to a comprehensive book on William Brown in 2016. I have used many of his words here, some of them even in the right order!
- The Rev. Audrey McCartan, for her enthusiasm in running with the idea and inviting us into her church.
- We particularly welcome, Derek Newton (Secretary) and David Charles Bell (Treasurer) of the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, and their wifes, who have travelled to be with us today.
- Heddon Local History Society who I am representing.
- The regular congregation of St Andrew’s Church for making us so welcome in what is their normal Sunday service.
I am certainly not a historian and struggle to remember facts and dates. Before I get onto William Brown himself I would like to say a few words about how I see history.
For me, it remains closely connected with geography because places and physical remains are an important part of what gives me a link to the past. That straight bit of hedgerow, lumps and bumps of old buildings below the grass, but also old maps and place-names, sometimes all that remains of our ancestors from the distant past. I find that often I get an emotional response to such stimuli, even to remains as far back as the prehistoric.
The Greeks and Romans had a name for this, ‘Genius Loci’, Power of Place. I needn’t remind you of this, as in this beautiful building with its continuity of Christian worship going back over 1000 years, I feel it here in spades.
You can still see some of William Brown’s impact on our local landscape. The remains of coal pits often with circular patches of trees planted on the spoil heaps when they went out of use afer a life of 30 or so years. Around Heddon Hall and Station Road and east in Throckley there is one in nearly every field.
Old maps show their names, Thistle, Bounder, Jenny, Fortune, Engine Bank. With a trained eye you can still follow the lines of the former horse-drawn waggonways which transported the coal from the pits down to keels on the river at Lemington for onward transport by sea to London and the south-east. The area between Walbottle and Callerton is rich in their remains.
Coal miners had a word for what they did. Coal was not simply mined, it had to be WON from the ground something that needed knowledge, experience, skill, the use and development of technology, and perhaps also some luck.
William Brown (of Throckley, and later, Willington) was baptised in this very place on this day, 300 years ago, 2nd April 1717. We think he was the son of William and Anne Brown (née Watson, who lived at Close Lea). He was our local ‘Capability Brown’, who became known as the ‘Father of the Coal Trade’. His father and grandfather (both called William) were from Heddon and like William himself and many of his family members, were eventually buried in the churchyard.
We would like to thank a relative, Anne Willoughby from Australia who found out much of William Brown's family history and their connection with Heddon.
William Brown became an authority on the early horse-drawn railways, steam pumping engines and all elements of mine engineering. The Newcomen steam engines of his day needed to drain water to develop the mines of the Great Northern Coalfield required iron plates for massive boilers, 72 inch diameter cylinders and great beams of oak. Men of the calibre of William Brown must have been built of similar stuff. Some of his ironwork was sourced locally but some brought by sailing ship from Iron Bridge in Shropshire, all in the days before the internet, telephones, railways and good road transport.
He associated with some of the great figures of the Industrial Revolution including John Smeaton, James Brindley and Abraham Darby. Starting off in our local pits at Heddon and Throckley, he went on to play a major part in the development of the Great Northern Coalfield in the mid eighteenth century, an event of great economic significance not only for the landowners he advised, but also for the country at large.
As a colliery viewer (engineer, manager and consultant) his professional network expanded even wider over the country – he was a man held in high regard and sort-after during his working life.
William Brown certainly knew Lancelot of Kirkhale, the famous landscape gardener, whose tercentenary was celebrated nationwide last year. They were contemporaries who worked for the same clients among the landed gentry, one developing the estate above ground, the other exploiting the riches below. Unlike, ‘Capability’ though, William Brown of Throckley has largely been forgotten.
William Brown didn’t just work through some of the greatest innovations in coal mining during this period but instigated and adapted them as his own.
William Brown married Mary Smith from Morpeth in 1741. Browns and Smiths - what a nightmare for the genealogist!
William Brown died at Willington in 1782, just months after the birth of George Stephenson at the cottage in Wylam, close to one of the waggonways that William had perhaps help build. Steam locomotives came to be developed there and not just by George. Ours was an area of importance.
The flat grave slab by the south wall of this church is simply inscribed as ‘The Family Burial Place of William Brown Esq.’ and has no further information, but is ornamented with a coat of arms acquired by the family from an unrelated, extinct line of Browns. It bears the motto, 'Suivez raison' or 'Follow the Truth.' The motto is still used by the Dixons of Unthank Hall, south-east of Haltwhistle, into which family his eldest son (also William) married; William Brown may have been of humble origin but he was highly successful in his business, and his surviving children married well.
On the wall directly above the grave-slab is an ornate plaque with a difficult Latin inscription. It commemorates two of William’s children who died young; John on the 19th January 1748, aged three years, and Agnes on the 2nd February 1748, aged ten months.
William’s wife, Mary, died at Throckley Fell in 1794. We know nothing about her. She is probably buried here too but we are not sure.
We gather here to celebrate the important life and work of William Brown, his family and relatives, and their part in the development and exploitation of the coal reserves of our local and wider region.
Heddon Local History Society is proud to host a talk by Les Turnbull on Monday 10th April in the Methodist Church, Heddon on the Wall at 7:30pm. All visitors will be most welcome.