1920s 30s 40s

Photographs loaned by Lilian (nee Eggleston) and Jack Hepburn







Hepburn and Eggleston children at play, mid 1930's


There may no longer be anyone alive from those first years following the completion of the Dam and Waterworks, and the beginning of the place we know today as Fontburn. But to children like myself, born and brought up there in the 1920s and 30s, little would have changed since 1908, as our world was very much bounded by the immediate community, without any frills and scant technology. Two vital strands linked us all: first, the daily railway service, our contact with the outside world and so-called ‘civilisation’, a lifeline when necessity demanded. The second was the school. These two had been present from the very beginning of the new hamlet called Fontburn.

Bicycles, Wireless and Telephone
Three ‘advances’ come to mind, to mark our lives as ‘different’ from the earlier decade: bicycles, the wireless and the telephone - even if the sole instrument was at the ‘top house’ under the strict control of the boss, Mr McKay. The nearest public telephone stood outside Ewesley Station, the box being installed in 1940, according to the school log book. This served the community for decades – indeed until fairly recently when it was demolished in a car crash. Urgent messages could be delivered by telegram, by the long-suffering post mistress from Netherwitton, pedal-power coming into its own.

Bicycles played a huge part in getting around and we all learned to ride from a very early age. In fact, it is hard to imagine what our lives would have been without them. Pedal-power could get us to Netherwitton - the nearest church - or to Rothley cross roads to catch Tait’s Knowesgate – Morpeth bus. It could speed up getting to the station, Fontburn Halt, or to the public telephone at Ewesley, or going to fetch milk from Roughlees. I recall biking all the way to Rothbury for a dentist’s appointment for which I managed to be punctual – and then all the way back home, over Garleigh.

The only car at Fontburn belonged to Mr McKay. He could be relied on in an emergency for transport, but this was not undertaken lightly. It was always better to be self-sufficient, especially before the coming of the National Health Service. Everything cost money and the men at the Waterworks earned £2-6-8, before deductions for coal and rent. My dad had ridden a motor bike as a young man and when he first came to Fontburn in 1935. But low wages soon made this a luxury that could not be afforded.

Dad was a radio enthusiast, and had built himself a ‘cat’s whisker’ set even before his Fontburn days. And so we always had an efficient ‘wireless’, upgraded as he could afford it. As a child. I played on the floor alongside what seemed like a large long wooden box. This was where the batteries lived, and I was told to keep my hands off. The batteries were large, heavy and cumbersome, and people came from farms around to get their ‘accumulators’ ‘charged up’ at the ‘Works’. We were lucky, being on the premises.

The wireless was our main source of entertainment. ‘The Nine o’clock News’, ‘The Saturday Night Play’, ‘Dick Barton Special Agent’, ‘Rocky Mountain Jamboree’, ‘The Brains Trust’, ‘Workers’ Playtime’, Wilfred Pickles and ‘Have a Go’, all were shared with the world outside and made food for our imaginations.

We also had the daily paper, ‘The Newcastle Journal’, skilfully thrown in a bundle from the Guard’s van as the train left the viaduct, Rothbury-bound. The Morpeth Gazette was a weekly bonus, and some lucky children might get a comic (but not me)

The Post
Collection and delivery of letters and packages – and the occasional parcel - was largely in the hands of the Shillingworth family, and in particular, Gladys Shillingworth. Gladys rode her bike in all weathers, delivering as far afield as the Fallowlees, way beyond Newbiggin. According to my Dad, this meant ‘daily’ as they received their newspaper by post – so it must have been old news by the time it arrived. The red posting box was on the road up to the station, but later was moved to a roadside spot near the cottages, which is where it still is today. We bought our stamps from Shillingsworth’s house (the Schoolhouse), always a challenging experience for the senses. Just so, we kept in touch with the outside world.

Families and Houses
Most childhood memories centre on the cottages, my own family, the Bewicks, and our neighbours, the Egglestons, Hepburns and later the McLennans. Nearby Daisy Cottages and Bullbush, and the farms of Newbiggin (Stephensons), Blue Burn (Stephensons), Whitehouse (Smiths , Campbells, Charltons and Miss McKenna) and Roughlees (Proctors) were part of the bigger picture, with Ewesley, West Lodge Nunnykirk (Huttons) and Coldrife (Rutherfords) being just about our walking limit on carol-singing nights.

Cottages - front doorstep poses


Tom and Mary Bewick 1936


Noel Eggleston with his children, Joyce and Lilian c 1936


Joyce, Maud, Lilian and cousin c 1938


Hepburn family c 1942

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Fontburn consisted of two detached houses, almost identical, that were built during the ‘hutted village’ period to accommodate officials. Thereafter, the ‘boss’ lived in the ‘top house’ at the end of the Dam, the other house standing next to a row of three cottages, where the filter attendants’ families lived. This second ‘big’ house stood empty for many years, before the Bewick family eventually took possession in 1946. Behind this house stood a relic from the hutted days – the hostel, mysteriously known to us as ‘Sandsby’s’. In size it was as big as the cottages, and had had accommodation for the manager, and two large rooms for the living and sleeping areas of the boarders, and several small rooms besides. One of these rooms still held a stack of iron bedsteads, that became a useful source of furnishing for us all. I remember well the diamond pattern of the wire mesh under my thin mattress, in my childhood bedroom in our first house.


Lilian, with the Canteen and the Mission in the background


Egglestons and Hepburns and visiting children helping with hay harvest. Scything was done by the Waterworks men.
Mr McKay's car in the background c 1938


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The other relics from hutted days were the Canteen and next to it another building that might have been the Mission. These were supposedly forbidden territory for us children, but Jack Hepburn recalls that the hay scythed on the Waterworks property was stored in one of them and another was where his Dad had his workshop. ‘The bigger building nearest the railway line was the place my Dad kept his canaries as I can remember getting a ladder to get up under the eaves to build swallows nests. … I remember the beautiful large cages full of canaries and how sad we all were when he had to give the birds up due to the scarcity of the appropriate food for them…I can remember him making sledges for the three of us there.’ As well as snow sledging it was tempting for us children to slide down the red painted corrugated roofs of the Canteen and Mission, but woe betide getting caught or getting a paint splinter in your bottom! The only time that the Canteen was put to its original use was to entertain a special visit from the VIPs, the Corporation of Tynemouth, when a team of caterers would arrive, clean up, and serve refreshments to the great and the good. Occasionally we would be given leftover ice cream from a big container and this was a great thrill. I suppose we were there, hanging around looking hungry and expectant!

Amenities and Lack of them
The cottages had piped cold water to the scullery, but little else by way of amenities. At least in this sense, life was easier than up at Bullbush and Blueburn where the water had to be fetched from a spring. Our water was heated in the black-leaded range in the main room, and baths taken in a tin bath in front of the fire. The lavatory was outside in an adjoining space, and was simply a seat frame over a bucket. Before the days of toilet rolls, the previous week’s Radio Times was considered ideal material for the job, pages torn into two, then threaded by string and fixed to the wall on a nail. The men of the community had the task of emptying these buckets into a special trench that was dug over the hill, sited well away from the houses and presumably so that drainage would not contaminate the Waterworks. Only the boss’s house had a flush toilet – two in fact, indoors and out – as well as a bath and a proper bathroom, complete with a hot water system. No wonder we were so excited when we went to live there in 1948 when Dad was appointed to the Superintendent’s post. With this luxury came possession of the only telephone - still strictly for Works use only - but we could take messages. Progress!

Paraffin oil was used by all, for lamps and in our case, cooking, as we had a Valor cooker to supplement the black leaded coal range. We also had a petrol-driven iron instead of the more usual ‘flat iron’ that was heated on the range. Mr McKay kept paraffin and petrol in store in what had once been the stables for the horses. This was sold on to us and the surrounding community as we needed it. Other than that, candles and torches were still essentials.

The mothers shared a ‘wash house’, sited on the green at the back of the cottages, whereas with the ‘big houses’ the wash house was built on. The cottages’ wash house, a corrugated iron shack with a window, possibly another relic from the ‘hutted’ days, had a ‘set pot’ in one corner. The set pot was laboriously filled with cold water which was then heated up by the fire underneath. There, clothes could be boiled if necessary. We also had a ‘dolly tub’ and poss stick, and later, a washer that was agitated by hand by means of a handle fixed on the inside of the lid. Instead of the big mangle standing separate and often outside for obvious reasons, this machine had its own wringer-roller at the back that could be fed with washing straight from the tub. The main improvement over the dolly tub must have been that it had an outlet plug and was less like hard physical labour, though arduous enough in its way.

Wet washing was hung on the lines stretched across the green, and could also be hung indoors on a pulley fixed to the ceiling. Ours in the cottage was in the scullery, hardly the warmest room in the house. Often clothes were also draped on the fire guard, if the family had children and had put up a guard, and ironing placed on a clothes horse to air. The days of hot water cylinders and airing cupboards was stuff of the future.

Furnishing and Clothes
In most families, furniture was passed on from one generation to another. Our table was large, square and solid, and must have posed quite a challenge when it had to be transported from grandparents in Blyth to us at Fontburn. It had a central pedestal and four clawed feet, feet that appeared huge to me, as a small child playing underneath and hidden by the cretonne cloth that draped the top. Carpets were rare. Our floors were more often covered by linoleum and mats. Old clothes were never thrown away, but cut up into strips to be made into ‘clouty’ or ‘proggy’ mats. It seemed to be an ongoing project of my mother’s, to have her long frames with the hessian stretched in between, and a bag of cut-up old clothes and her proggy needle, another mat in the making, often of intricate patterns, depending on the raw materials.

An alternative destiny for old clothes was to be unpicked and remade - ‘cut down’ - into another garment for a smaller member of the family. We had a Bradbury treadle sewing machine that was already 60 years’ old when it came to us and went on well into its century. It was equal to any household task as well as dress-making. For special occasions we might use the services of the local dress-maker, a branch of the Eggleston family, Auntie Jenny Rutherford of Netherwitton. This usually meant a 12-mile round trip bike-ride for a fitting, which brought its own adventures, such as riding through Nunnykirk Estate without permission. Daisy Eggleston had a Universal catalogue where we could order items and pay by instalments, and this was especially useful for underclothes. Nothing was ever wasted and clothes were handed down among and between families. We were all in the same boat, poor and thrifty.

Keeping Fed
‘Waste not, want not’, a slogan to be used in the war to come, was already our motto. We never went hungry, as we lived off the land. Rabbits were our staple meat, though we did have a joint of beef on occasions from the butcher in Rothbury. Some families bought groceries from Fenwick Rutherford’s shop at Scots Gap and these came on the train. We kept hens and always had eggs, and vegetables grown in the fertile front gardens. Roughlees farm supplied the milk, and when times were hard during the War we could skim the milk and make butter in a small hand churn. The farms around were always grateful for seasonal help such as when hay making and were generous. At one farm where my Dad was always a welcome pair of hands the housekeeper would reward him on a pig-killing day with white and black pudding and the most delicious sausages I ever tasted. These were treats and worth waiting for. As were the nuts at Christmas, carefully collected hazel nuts picked in autumn and stored on a tray under a bed in the dark until the time was right. To have roast chicken was another treat reserved for such occasions. It was truly a red letter day if someone won a goose or turkey at a local whist drive. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, the arrival of a very large goose, draped over the handle bars of my Dad’s bike as he came across the Dam.

Jack Hepburn remembers ‘Corker’, a Rothbury fruiterer who used to come to Fontburn with his open-sided van. ‘He had to give up after the start of War, due to the scarcity of supplies. I think I had the last bananas for over five years, as they didn’t come back until after the hostilities.’ Speaking as an even younger infant, I did not know such things existed until after the War!

Keeping Healthy
Perhaps it was because we ate good plain food and lived very outdoor lives that we were on the whole very healthy. Apart from one whooping cough epidemic in 1927, the school, a barometer for local children’s health, was never closed nor unduly affected by illness. In the 1920s, and probably the previous decade too, Mrs Crosby who lived at Bullbush acted as local midwife. The nearest doctors were in Rothbury and there was no such thing as free health care. Probably risks were taken in waiting until the very last minute before asking Mr McKay to ring for an ambulance. Just so, my Dad’s burst appendix became peritonitis, requiring a lengthy stay in Newcastle RVI and great hardship for our family. Not long after, my mother broke her leg very badly – a case for an ambulance and a protracted stay in Newcastle and Wylam, and more hardship for the Bewick family.

When I was about nine, my mother was told that I should have my first teeth removed in order to make room for the next set. I knew nothing of this until we were visited at home by a dentist, and then followed an episode I shall never forget. Told to lie down on our settee, I recall the mask of what I think was ether being placed over my face. Some time later feeling extremely nauseous, I learnt that sixteen teeth had been removed, enough to put me off dentists for life, you might think. Such ‘home’ treatment was not so unusual for small routine operations, though as far as I know none of us had our tonsils removed on the kitchen table!

Amusing Ourselves


Hepburn and Eggleston children c 1938

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For us children, amusement was centred on ‘playing out’. There were the seasonal traditions, such as summer picnics that usually took place at the ‘top end’ of the reservoir. This involved a trek up to Newbiggin and then to the favoured spot that was a kind of island, reached by climbing along a sheep fence across the main stream. Now that spot is drained and unrecognisable, just a mass of reeds hiding the special boulders that were our table and seats. Another special occasion was the November bonfire, always built on the same spot. There was never a shortage of wood to be gathered and piled high for that, as well as an opportunity to send up in smoke any household item that had really come to the end of its life – very rare.

We immersed ourselves in the countryside and had a good teacher in one of the mothers. Daisy Eggleston knew the names of all the flowers and passed on her enthusiasm to us. We knew where the birds nested and one memorable year we watched the progress of a baby cuckoo in a banking just above the filter beds. Jack recalls this ‘titlark’s nest, and being entranced watching the development of such a huge bird, reared by such tiny parents.’ We caught minnows in the Font, below the viaduct, in jam jars placed against the current. We moved freely, but well aware of the no-go areas, namely inside the Waterworks and dam and especially anywhere near the overflow. This, in full spate, was an awesome prospect and a sufficiently frightening deterrent to keep most of us well away. But we were no goody-goodies, as Jack recalls in telling of his scrapes with authority, and could all be tempted into sliding down that red corrugated roof, or down the tarpaulin that covered the coal wagon standing in the siding and not yet emptied. Coal-black, we were always found out and went home in disgrace.

We all had home-made sledges, and these really came into their own in the winter of 1947, when Fontburn was cut off from the outside world for six weeks. With no school, we were out enjoying the deep drifts and the thrill not only of Barker’s Bank (the hill between the station and Bullbush) but some of the steeper places normally not allowed. Life was not so kind to our parents. All the men walked in a posse along the railway line to Rothbury (and back) using the tops of the telegraph poles as a guide, to bring back essential supplies to the Fontburn families. And the sight of sheep buried and dead in the deep drifts, as the snow melted, made a big impression on our young minds.


Maud and Pat Bewick and Lilian Eggleston with 'Beauty' (Bewick's cat) and Alison McLennan c 1948


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Lilian (Eggleston) and I were allowed to play in Sandsby’s, as our Dads used the building as their personal workshop. So, unlike many little girls who played with dolls houses, we had the life-size thing, and could act out any role we imagined. Lilian recalls the ‘table’ she had, made of a board resting over a bucket, where she had fondly placed a jam jar of wild flowers. Years later she was told that in the bucket were newborn kittens, drowned as was the practice then. What would today be regarded as cruelty, then was the norm. Lilian’s Dad must have been mortified when he learnt how near she had come to discovering the sad truth.

Ian, an evacuee with the McLennan family, then living at Blueburn, recalls the time when he came as a city boy from London, someone who had hardly ever seen a sheep or a cow, to become immersed in the country, in ‘wide adventures outside, rabbitting, setting snares every evening and checking them before school…..reading avidly Film Fun dropped from the train every Tuesday along with the papers…..haymaking with the Italian prisoners of war’. Alison (McLennan) recalls those same hayricks being led on a bogie, and the adders that could be found when the rick exposed the warm patch underneath. Adders sunning themselves on the paths and inside the wall of the Dam were really quite a common sight.

Ian goes on to recall: ‘Collecting movie stars in a scrap book’ and in contrast, ‘ and on one occasion we acted as beaters for Ivor Hutton (game keeper at Nunnykirk)…As beaters we formed a line at one end of the wood with tin cans and anything that would make a noise and chased the poor deer into the line of guns waiting at the other end. The following day the venison was brought up to school and the children who took part received their share, which was duly cooked and enjoyed…’ He goes on: ‘The floor of the boys’ washroom (at school) I knew really well – yes, the floor – as Anthony (McLennan) and Thompson (Rutherford) were into boxing……Both in turn donned the gloves every break to have a few rounds with me. How I wasn’t the heavy weight champion of the world after all this practice I will never know!’

Our knowledge of ‘the movies’, or rather ‘going to the pictures’, was restricted, as the train times did not necessarily fit in to accommodate such planned leisure activities. It was all right if you had a relation in Rothbury or Morpeth who could let you stay the night, but then there was still the problem of getting home again the next day. Alison recalls the film shows that were put on in the Jubilee Hall in Rothbury, and her very first experience of a Saturday matinee starring Gene Autrey. I can remember the experience of an entire row of seats tipping backwards – such was their temporary nature. My own memories of ‘pictures’ centred on those I saw while staying with my mother’s family near Blyth – what a luxury to walk down the road and be there! ‘Snow White’, ‘The Wicked Lady’, and ‘Oliver Twist’ made lasting impressions on my child’s mind.

Whist Drives, Hobbies and Social Events
Whist drives were held in the school and also could be enjoyed by taking a bike ride over to Rothley Shields. The takings must have made up the prize money. Jack recalls being upset because his parents had gone to one and he had fallen out with his two sisters, Molly and Betty. ‘I took out my Dad’s hammer and broke their dolls. On being confronted on my parents’ return, I had to think quickly so I said I had hit the dolls because I could not stand their crying – and I got away with it!’

Our Dads worked hard, keeping their families fed. The men had the sole right to fish the reservoir and were expert fly fishermen. As well as keeping prize canaries and budgerigars, Noel Eggleston was a keen bee keeper, with hives in the front garden. He was also an enthusiastic woodworker, and made toys for us, some of which have survived to this day, such as the ‘balancing parrot’ that sits on top of our bookcase and is still played with by grandchildren when they visit.


Noel tending his bees in front garden. To rear, left, is Sandsby's (former hostel)


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‘The Club’ at Whitehouse was somewhere the Fontburn men could go for a drink. This probably didn’t happen very often, because of sheer lack of money. A relic of the booming quarry days, it ended with the outbreak of war, and was mainly a mystery to us children. Only once did I see inside it, when we dared to call while out carol singing one Christmas Eve. Inside, it was just like Sandsby’s and Miss McKenna’s house at the other end of the row – timber and corrugated iron and very basic. I remember seeing the pile of coats in one corner, and my dad’s, where our faithful cat Beauty lay patiently waiting, having followed dad from the cottage, probably thinking he was going to check his rabbit snares. She knew all about those.

Rothbury Races was an annual event, apart from War years, and was not to be missed. The train took us to Rothbury, where we made for the hill overlooking the race course, to view the races for free. No betting for us when we could not even afford the entry fee. It was just the excitement of being there. One particular year, two of the race horses broke free and ran away – in the Fontburn direction. Somehow they found themselves on the railway track and headed onwards. We followed in the train home and could see the hoof prints on the line side. Everyone was hanging out of the windows, to follow their progress. Imagine our amazement when we drew into Fontburn Halt, to find the Dads had stopped the horses and were holding them there at the station. What pride in Dads that could perform such a feat!

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