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African Lives in Northern England

William Fifefield

Picture Credit; the Black Gate, Newcastle (part of Newcastle Castle), photo taken by Don O'Meara

William Fifefield was a ferryman on the Tyne, and a drummer in several local militia regiments, at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. We know about him from a warm obituary in the local newspaper on his death in 1834. This described him as ‘very generally known, and very much respected in his station’. Further research by Peter Livesey has discovered that he arrived in Newcastle from St Kitts in the Caribbean in 1794, at a time when Britain was in the grip of an invasion scare, and quickly joined the Newcastle Volunteers. He continued to be active in the local volunteer regiments until at least 1825. At the same time he earned a living through his ownership of a ‘Comfortable’ – a small ferry-boat on the Tyne, so-named because it had a canopy to shelter passengers, whereas earlier ones had been open to the elements. It would have been worked by oars and travelled up and down-river with the tide. However, by the time of his death, ‘the march of steam threw him and his Comfortable into the shade’ as his obituary puts it.

William married Margaret Wintrup, daughter of a Northumberland farmer, at St Mary’s Gateshead in 1803, and had two children, both baptised at St Nicholas in Newcastle. They lived in a street called Bailiffgate (which no longer exists), close to Newcastle Castle On his death in January 1834 aged 65, he was buried at St John’s Church. His son William Thomas was a hairdresser in the Groat Market. There are three newspaper reports of William Thomas coming up before the magistrates in 1827-8, and in 1831, but while he was punished in the earlier cases, in that of 1831 it was the watchman who was reproved for acting beyond his powers.


William’s obituary is in the Newcastle Journal, 18 Jan 1834, while his son’s troubles with the law are in the Durham Chronicle, 13 January 1827, the Tyne Mercury, 23 December 1828, and the Newcastle Chronicle, 9 April 1831.

The research by Peter Livesey is summarised in Sean Creighton’s 2008 article and his booklet (see African Lives main page). Thanks to Adrian Osler for the information about the ‘Comfortable’

In the future, don’t forget your past