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Introduction to the 1771 Tyne Flood Papers

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The Flood Papers are a bound volume of documents from the relief committee for Northumberland set up after the calamitous floods in North-East England in November 1771. The volume covers the subscriptions paid in, claims for damage, and the compensation paid out. It is essentially the office file of the Secretary to the Fund, solicitor Lancelot Heron from Hexham. It was bequeathed to SANT by John Adamson, who died in 1855. How it came into his possession we have no idea.

The digitised copy was made by Dr Ria Snowdon for Professor Helen Berry of Newcastle University, and put onto the Antiquaries’ website after a lecture by Professor Berry in February 2015. A joint venture between the Explore Lifelong Learning programme in Newcastle and the Antiquaries was then set up, with volunteers transcribing it all so that an easily readable version can be seen alongside the digital images. Though there is still editing to be done, this is now all-but-complete and can be accessed on the website. You can also trace particular areas and individuals through the Contents page, which includes a Search function.

However, the images give rather a false impression; it was originally an untidy collection of papers of different sizes and shapes. Many of the sheets have Mr Heron’s address on the back, because envelopes did not exist in the eighteenth-century; you folded your letter up, tucked the sides in, and wrote the address on that side. Attorney, Hexham was enough to find him. He seems to have filed his papers by gathering them together into bundles and writing the subject on the outside of the bundle. Follow this link for an example. At some point they were all bound neatly in a volume, and they have now been photographed sheet by sheet.  Unfortunately the minutes of the first committee meeting were missed by mistake when the imaging was done, and this was not realised until too late; however, a note of the decisions of that meeting was included in William Garrett’s pamphlet (see below); follow this link for an image taken from that book.

There are only a few human interest stories in the volume; follow this link for one of them, Edward Forster. Mostly, the papers deal with the financial consequences of the disaster, as seen by the local gentry who administered the fund. However, in 1818 William Garrett wrote An account of the great floods in the rivers Tyne, Tees, Wear, Eden, &c. in 1771 and 1815 (reprinted in 2010 by Kessenger Publishing and also available online at which drew on this volume, newspaper reports, and memories of the time. One of the most tragic stories was that of John Johnson, of Ovingham Boathouse, who lost eight members of his family; follow this link for Garrett’s description. Several people gave him immediate help, and this perhaps explains the churlish response of the Committee when deciding how much compensation they should pay the only other survivor from the family, his brother Matthew.

The assessment was done by churchwardens or other local worthies, and signed off by the vicar – or in Haltwhistle parish the curate, since the vicar Thomas Rotheram was non-resident and freely admitted he did not know his parishioners. However, there is little evidence that the ordinary people were devout; there are only three references to Bibles being lost, and a few prayer books.

Often the spelling is eccentric, and one can hear the Northumberland accents. Some words can’t be deciphered, and there are also many dialect words. Many of these are explained in a nineteenth-century book, Northumberland Words, by the Reverend Oliver Heslop, and some of his definitions are listed on the Glossary page. Strangely, some meanings varied between Newcastle and Hexham; a beatment, a quantity of flour, was twice as much in Hexham as in Newcastle – which must have caused some confusion when the claim was from Bywell, half-way between the two!

One recurring issue is a row between the Northumberland Committee and a group of subscribers to the relief fund from Newcastle, about how the money should be apportioned between Newcastle and the rest. It was an argument among the gentry, though; for instance, members of the Blackett family (still prominent in the area) were on both sides. The ‘sufferers’ themselves had no voice in the distribution.

Newcastle University student Emily Needle posted a blog on our library website in November 2015 about the flood and its relevance today.

In the future, don’t forget your past