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The Nessworthys of Tyneside: Chapter 4. Gunslingers!

by Alan D. Craxford


The first episode of this saga, The Nessworthys of Tyneside: Chapter 1: Matthew the mariner, examined the origins and life of Matthew Nosworthy who established the Nessworthy dynasty in South Shields. Born in Devon in 1819, he moved to the North East of England where he spent his working life at sea, mainly skippering Tyneside colliers taking coal to the near continent. He was married twice and died on February 18th 1903.

This article looks at two of his sons born to his first wife, Mary Ridley. William and Thomas Weightman Nessworthy were born nine years apart but had many facets in common and various stages of their life. The narrative for both brothers has been split into two parts to take into account a significant change of employment.

William Nessworthy (1852-1910) Part 1

Matthew Nessworthy's fourth son, William, was born at Marshall's Quay, South Shields, in the spring of 1852. During his childhood, he was joined by another three brothers and a sister who died at the age of 2 years in 1856. As a ten year old, he saw his oldest brother Robert Ridley Nessworthy marry Elizabeth Young who returned to Marshall's Quay to live and raise their own family. Within a year he had a niece, Mary Ann Nessworthy.

In his early teens William followed in the family tradition and went to sea as an apprentice mariner. After his father moved the family to Garden Lane, William preferred to spend his shore leave in the familiar surroundings of Shadwell Street. In 1871 he was residing at the house of his uncle and aunt, Robert and Frances Ridley, in Marshall's Quay, just four doors away from the old family house where Robert Ridley Nessworthy and his family still lived.

St Cuthberts Church

St Cuthbert's Church Bensham (2)

The following year on October 13th 1872, William married Mary Ann Heddle Piper at St Cuthbert's Church, Gateshead. The church, which stands on the corner of Derwentwater Road and Lobley Hill Road in Bensham was designed in 1846 by the Newcastle upon Tyne architect John Dobson. The couple were living in the Low Teams district of the town. Mary Ann's sister, Margaret, and her husband James Davison were witnesses at the ceremony. Mary Ann was born in Stromness in 1851 and was the daughter of mariner Charles Piper who originated in Brighton but had settled in the Orkney Islands with his wife Margaret Malcolm.

After the ceremony William and Mary Ann moved to Derwentwater Terrace in Gateshead which is where her first two babies were born. William continued to work offshore. Charles Piper arrived first in the spring of 1873. William Matthew was born at the beginning of 1875 but died on January 2nd 1876 of pneumonia. Mary Ann's married sister, Margaret Davison, informed of the death. In the early stages of her next pregnancy, Mary Ann moved with her young son Charles Piper to 6 Lumsden Street, a short side road at the western end of Derwentwater Road. A girl, baptised Margaret Piper, was delivered there in 1877 but died aged one year on May 22nd 1878. The record shows that she had caught an acute chest infection. Almost immediately, the family moved a few yards away to 8 Walker Street, a property behind the Trafalgar Brickworks, close to where Margaret Piper, Mary Ann's mother lived. Their third son they named again William was born there on June 1st 1879, but he too died of capillary bronchitis on March 18th 1880.

William was involved in an incident at sea in 1881 (3). He was a member of the crew of the Chevy Chase which has left the Tyne on September 24th bound for Rouen, France under the charge of Captain Gentles. This 218 ton iron screw steamer had been built in 1848 by Denny Brothers of Dumbarton, Scotland. When off the Yorkshire coast at Whitby that night, the French steamer Amitie collided with its starboard side fouling the rigging. William jumped on board the French vessel to bring boats to check for any damage. The Chevy Chase was able to carry on its way to Rouen. The Amitie continued on to Burntisland, Fife, Scotland where William was able to disembark. He was returned home to South Shields by Shipwrecked Mariners Society.

In the early months of 1881 Mary Ann gave birth to a daughter. She was baptised Mary Ann after her mother. Within a few weeks they had moved from Walker Street into the adjacent, Carnaby Terrace. Over the course of the next ten years, another six children followed but only two survived the decade. The couple's fourth son James was born in the spring of 1882. The following February, Mary Ann's father, Charles Piper, suffered a fatal heart attack. On March 15th 1884, a son they named after his uncle Ambrose was born. In mid decade, William moved the family yet again, this time to 23 Gordon Street, Gateshead. This side street was close by St Aiden's Church which stood on the southern approach to the tollroad which crossed the Redheugh Bridge. The next child after Ambrose, baptised John Piper, was born there in November 1887. He died within two months on January 10th 1888 of acute bronchopneumonia and convulsions.

One year later another son, baptised John Willie, was born on January 15th 1889. In the spring Mary Ann's mother married again to David Mason, a glassmaker. It was this same year that he saw the death of his brother Ambrose's wife, Joan, on March 29th and Ambrose's daughter (his niece) die aged six months on August 22nd. It was also during this year that he made his life changing decision to quit the ocean and seek work on dry land.

Thomas Weightman Nessworthy (1861-1939) Part 1

Thomas was born in the Spring of 1861, the eighth of the children of Matthew Nessworthy and Mary Ridley. He was given his second baptismal name (apparently slightly mis-spelled) in honour of Thomas Wightman, the husband of his mother's sister, Barbara Ridley, who had married about five years before. After his mother's death, Thomas was moved with his brothers first to Garden Lane and then to Heron Street. Like his older brother William, he too became an apprentice mariner.

Thomas married Mary Ann Fawell at the Register Office in Gateshead on November 9th 1880. Thomas was working as a fireman on board ship at the time of the wedding. Mary Ann had been born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1860, the daughter of bricklayer George Fawell and his wife Margaret Grey. Her mother died soon after Mary was born. Mary was sent to live with her uncle James Fawell and his wife Mary Wilkinson, whose marriage had been childless, whilst George kept his other four children with him. Initially they lived in next door houses in Stepney Bank which ran down the valley side to the Ouseburn, a stream which fed into the River Tyne. This area was part of the township of Byker which was one of the first formed outside the Newcastle city walls. With the advent of the industrial revolution many and varied developments were attracted to the valley as the Ouseburn was fast flowing and tidal allowing easy transport of materials to and from the Tyne by keel boat. Over time, glass making, pottery, lead works, iron foundaries, tanneries and saw mills were all established along with the building of necessary infrastructure such as warehouses and houses for the workforce. (4)

James Fawel worked as a gas fitter. During the 1870s, James' wife, Margaret, took over the running of a shop in Stepney Bank. It became clear that Mary Ann's father, George, was not happy with his lot. By the end of the decade, George moved away to take up loadgings nearer to the centre of Newcastle in Watson's Terrace. His three remaining offspring (Mary Ann's siblings - 17 year old William, George 16 and Margaret 12) were all sent to join her at her uncle's home.

There is no clear evidence to show how Thomas Weightman Nessworthy and Mary Ann Fawel met. They gave their place of residence as Teams, Gateshead. One of the witnesses was John Piper, the brother of William Nessworthy's wife Mary Ann Heddle Piper. After their marriage, Thomas and Mary Ann made their first home at 15 Amberley Street in Gateshead which was only a few hundred yards away from brother William's house in Carnaby Terrace. The following spring he became a member of the crew of the 481 ton steamer, Eunice, under Captain Robert Burdon which plied the route between North Shields and London. During the 1880s, Mary Ann gave birth to five children. Mary Jane was born in the autumn of 1882, followed by a second daughter, Margaret Malcolm three years later. Their first son, John Ridley Nessworthy was born at the Amberley Road address on March 18th 1886 but failed to thrive and died at the age of five months. The cause of death was given as inanition and convulsions. A third daughter, Isabella, arrived in the summer of 1887. A second son, James Ridley, was born in the winter months of 1890.

The census of 1891 found the family in residence at 89 Vine Street, Gateshead. Vine Street ran north west from Askew Road close by St Pauls Church and the Gateshead Police Station. Thomas was still working offshore, now a stoker on a steam ship. Now retired, Mary Ann's uncle and aunt James and Margaret Fawell had moved into the house next door at No 87. Mary Ann's father, George Fawell, had moved further afield and was living in Hencotes, Hexham, Northumberland. The 1890s were not without tragedy either. Mary Ann gave birth to another five babies. A boy they named Thomas Whiteman Nessworthy was born on November 13th 1891. He was followed a year later by Matthew on December 9th 1892. Then, in the spring of 1893 the region was hit by an outbreak of measles. The two toddlers, James Ridley and Thomas Whiteman, both caught the disease and died of pulmonary complications within two days of each other (James on May 15th 1893, Thomas on the 17th). Mary Ann was soon pregnant again, giving birth to Robert on September 3rd 1894. Two daughters followed: Sarah on October 28th 1896 and Elizabeth Ann on September 26th 1898.

By the turn of the century Thomas decided it was time that he too gave up the life of a mariner.

The Baron of Cragside [A, B]

Lord Armstrong

William Armstrong

We looked at some of the socio-political and geographical aspects of the River Tyne which had historically affected the relationship between Newcastle and the settlements at the coast with particular reference to the coal trade in Chapter 1 of this series. The river lies at the bottom of a U-shaped valley with steep embankments on either side. For centuries most living and working activities occured at river level. A stone bridge which included houses and a chapel on top had linked the Newcastle and Gateshead shores as early as 1270. This was washed away in floods and was replaced with a new bridge in 1781. In both cases the lack of height of the spans caused a severe impediment to the passage of craft going up or down stream.

The two towns were linked at the level of the top of the escarpment by the coming of the railway. Designed by Robert Stephenson, the High Level Bridge carried the railway track on its upper deck and a two lane roadway on the lower deck within the bridge structure. The bridge is a wrought iron girder construction mounted on top of a series of masonry piers nearly 1400 feet in length and 512 feet above the water level. It was opened in 1849 for the York to Berwick Railway Company (which ultimately became the London to Edinburgh East Coast Mainline). As the railways expanded, a second dual purpose high level bridge was proposed somewhat to the west of the town. When the rail proposal was dropped the Redheugh road bridge was built and opened in 1871. Serious structural faults soon developed and it was replaced by a second structure in 1897.

To the west of Newcastle, Elswick had been established as a township (a subdivision of the ancient Barony of Bolam) in the twelfth century. It became the site of one of the earliest coal mines and was under the control of Tynemouth Priory. The priors had a mansion there which became known as Elswick Hall and its estates, Elswick Park. In the 1840s and 1850s the then current owners, the Hinde family, first constructed the Scotswood road through it and then allowed the passage of the Newcastle to Carlisle railway.

Whilst the High Level Bridge was under construction, a 35 year old engineer William George Armstrong, demonstrated a hydraulic crane of his invention for the loading and unloading of ships to Newcastle Corporation. This was so successful that he founded a company for the manufacture of hydraulic equipment which bore his name and bought up a strip of land along the edge of the river at Elswick. The factory that was built here became the Elswick Engineering Works. In 1863 the company merged with the Elswick Ordnance Factory, producing a catalogue of field artillery and naval guns. In 1867 Armstrong reached an agreement with Charles Mitchell and Company, a firm of shipbuilders whose yard was at Low Walker, whereby Mitchells would build the warships and Armstrongs would supply the armament. Over the course of the next 25 years, the range of manufacture increased to include railway locomotives, bridge building and hydraulic rams and cranes. By this time, the organisation controlled its own blast furnames and steel works.

Old Tyne Bridge
High level and swing

High Level Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne: (LEFT) Looking east with old Tyne Bridge behind (about 1865); (RIGHT) Looking west with the Swing Bridge in front (about 1900)

Elswick Works

The Armstrong Mitchell Elswick Works about 1887. (Further Reading B) A view from King's Meadow.
The spire of St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral can be seen in the distance.

Armstrong really felt that he wanted to expand his empire into the building of vessels itself. To achieve this he needed to open up access to the western reaches of the river. In association with the Tyne Improvement Commission, the old Georgian bridge was demolished and a new Swing Bridge designed by Armstrong was constructed in its place. Built on a central core, hydraulic engines turned the bridge superstructure through 90° around its horizontal axis allowing shipping to pass through. The bridge opened in 1876. At the same time the river bed was deepened by dredging. A 30 acre island in mid stream called King's Meadow was also removed. This had been used as a recreational venue since the seventeenth century and was home to a herd of cows and a public house called the 'Countess of Coventry'. It was however a significant obstruction to the flow of the Tyne.

Continued in column 2...

First added October 6th 2014

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Expansion and Tyneside Flats

In 1882 the two companies merged to form Armstrong, Mitchell and Company. More land was purchased to the west of the Engineering Works and in 1884 a new shipyard was opened which specialised in warship production. Water Street formed the division between the two limbs of the company. In the next 20 years the shipyard produced battleships and cruisers for navies around the world including China, Japan, Austia-Hungary, Spain and South America as well as the British Royal Navy. The company had the boast that it was the only place in the world which could build and arm a battleship in its entirety.

By 1887 the company employed in excess of 13,000 people (which had risen to 23,000 by 1906) and the original village of Elswick has mushroomed into a suburb holding a third of the city's population. The site spread for more than a mile between the river and the Newcastle to Carlisle railway line. A visiting journalist reported the works as follows (1) "The bastion-like wall, which confronts the spectator from the river, crowned with machinery sheds, is the only view obtainable from the level, even if the cloud of smoke and the murky atmosphere did not as a rule envelope all and blot out the outline. In accordance with the usual and necessary rule in such establishments, Armstrong's is sedulously shut against the mere curiosity sight-seers; whilst even the workmen employed in the several departments have no liberty to access to another 'shop' than their own."

Tyneside flats

Tyneside flats. Note the paired front doors (6)

Armstrong also bought up tracts of land to the north of the Works where he planned to build housing for his workers. Rows of terraced streets were laid out up the hillside between Scotswood Road and Westgate Road; most of the housing in the form unique to the North East - the Tyneside flat. Each house consisted of a self contained flat on both the upper and lower floors. The defining feature was that each had its own front door which were placed side by side onto the street. The back yard was partitioned with a 'modesty wall' to separate the two outside toilets and coal stores.

The Elswick Works was not without its industrial relations issues. A variety of Trade Organisations, Benefit Clubs and Societies had sprung up in the mid part of the nineteenth century to support workers' right. These were finally recognised by a Royal Commission in 1867 and led to the formation of the Trade Union Movement in 1871. That same year, the Works was embroiled in industrial action when the engineers withdrew their labour in support of a nine hour day (claiming a 54 hour rather than a 60 hour week). The employers were opposed to this but after a strike lasting for five months they eventually gave way. A second dispute in 1898 attempted to bring the working day down to a maximum of eight hours. There were large scale marches, demonstrations and rallies (one of which was addressed by Keir Hardie who became the first leader of the Labour Party) but after six months the action collapsed and was unsuccessful.

William Armstrong was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1859 and was elevated to the peerage as Baron Armstrong of Cragside in 1887. In 1863 he bought an estate outside Rothbury, Northumberland where he built his home, Cragside, which was perched on a rocky hillside. He continued to experiment with water power and the generation of electricity and Cragside became the first private house in the world to be illumated by electricity using light bulbs made by inventor Joseph Swan. Armstrong died at Cragside on December 27th 1900. He was aged 90 years.

William Nessworthy (1852-1910) Part 2

The next ten years were as heartbreaking for Mary Ann as the last. She found herself three months pregnant again at the beginning of 1890, this time with twins. She gave birth to a son, Matthew, and daughter, Margaret Jane, on May 19th 1890. The baby boy was unwell from the start and died on May 31st 1890 at 13 days. Jane Hutton, a neighbour, registered the death. The little girl clung on to life for three months but she too perished on September 2nd 1890. In both cases the non-specific term of atrophy was made. Mary Ann's other next door neighbour, Margaret Bell, was present when the second baby died. At the same time, Ambrose, now a lad of six years, was taken seriously ill. He died of phthisis - acute pulmonary tuberculosis - on October 11th 1890.

In the early months of 1890, William moved his family across the Tyne from Gateshead to take up residence at 7 Railway Terrace, Elswick. This ran parallel to the river along the back of the Elswick Marine Engine Works between Water Street and Dunn Street. In all probability he made this move in preparation for giving up the life at sea. For although he was still registered as a mariner on one of the birth certificates of that year, by the census of 1891 he had started work at the Engine Works as a general labourer. His oldest son, Charles, was also working there on a drilling machine.

Water Street

End of night shift on Water Street (Further Reading B)

Mary's maternal woes did not end there. Next up was Archibald, born in March 1892. He survived for 5 months until August 1st 1892. His death was attributed to an acute chest infection. Soon after, the family moved again this time to Rendel Street, about half a mile west along the Scotswood Road. Mary Ann's thirteeth child, a boy they named David, was born there in July 1894. The baby contracted a diarrhoeal illness and died on September 24th 1894. Mary Ann had two more children before the end of the decade. Jane was delivered in the Autumn of 1895. David Mason (named after Mary Ann's step father) was born in the early months of 1897.

The new century found the family living further west along the Scotswood Road at 123 Frank Street in the Benwell neighbourhood of the city. William was still working for the Elswick Works but was now classified as a steel slinger. The job of a slinger was a heavy and physical manual one which involved moving or loading large loads (in his case forged steel ingots) with ropes, chains and pulleys. Charles was still employed as a machinesman and James had been taken on as an apprentice fitter. The census of 1901 recorded that William and Mary Ann were still living with their remaining six children: Charles (27), Mary Ann (20), James (19), John Willie (12), Jane (5) and David (4). They also had some spare capacity to provide lodgings for 20 year old Alfred Sanderson, one of James fellow apprentices. Daughter Mary Ann was classed as working at home as a domestic servant. There was to be one more addition to that family. Sometime after 1904, the couple adopted a young girl, Mary Benson.

John Willie seems to have attracted some attention from the local constabulary in his younger days. He was taken in front of the magistrates on at least two occasions in 1904. In early January he was fined 2s. 6d. and costs for 'causing serious annoyance to pedestrians' by playing football in the street with friends. In July the same year, he was fined 5s. for playing cards for money in the street. (9). Oldest son Charles Nessworthy married Mary Jane, the daughter of painter Robert Pattinson at St James Church, Benwell, on January 1st 1906. They set up home in Edward Gardens in the West End of the city. They were to have three sons and four daughters. Tragically, all three boys died before their fourth birthdays.

In due course, William moved his family to 150, Buddle Road, Benwell. It was there that William died of acute bronchitis on July 12th 1910. He was 58 years old. At the time of the 1911 census, his widow, Mary Ann, was living in the house with her youngest three sons, James, John Willie and David and daughter Jane. They were sharing the property with her married daughter Mary Ann White and her husband William and three children. William White worked as a crane man.

Mary Ann's mother Margaret and her second husband came to live close by at 207 Buddle Road. On a visit to Leith near Edinburgh, Margaret was taken ill with pneumonia. She died on September 11th 1912. Her daughter was present to register her death. Mary Ann Nessworthy survived William by nearly forty years and died on September 13th 1938.

Thomas Weightman Nessworthy (1861-1939) Part 2

In a move mirroring that of his older brother William, Thomas also decided to change his lifestyle and by early 1893 had found himself employment as a labourer in the engine works. By the middle of the decade, the family had crossed the river Tyne to a house at 18 Violet Street. This was one of the side streets off the Scotswood Road on the western edge of the Elswick Works and only a brisk five minute walk away from William's house in Railway Terrace.

Gun Shop
Gun Lathe Shop

Elswick Ordnance Works. LEFT: No. 1 shop - detail (5); RIGHT: The Big Gun Lathe Shop (6)

100 ton gun

The 100 ton gun

By the turn of the century Thomas had also been reclassified as a slinger. However, given the exclusivity of working in specific departments in the Works as expressed in 'The Graphic' magazine article, Thomas felt proud enough to describe his position as 'gun slinger'. This probably placed him in the Gun Lathe shop in the Ordnance works. The heaviest naval artillery on record at the time weighed in at 100 tons.

By 1901, he had moved his family again, this time to 148 Buddle Road, Benwell. Still at home with Thomas and his wife were Mary Ann (18), Margaret (16), Isabella (14), Matthew (8), Robert (6), Sarah (4) and Elizabeth (2). Mary Ann was pregnant for the eleventh time when the 1901 census was conducted, her oldest daughter Mary Ann was helping her at home as a domestic servant. This time she gave birth to twin boys on August 19th 1901. They were named William Gray and George. The latter was a sickly infant and died within a month. One final daughter, Christina, was born on October 31st 1902.

During the first decade of the new century, his brother William had moved his own family in next door at No 150 Buddle Road. Thomas and Mary Ann were able to celebrate the wedding of daughter Mary Ann to John Harker Neve (a timekeeper for the railway company) in the Spring of 1905. Second daughter Margaret married pastry chef John Jamieson in the Autumn of 1910. After his brother William died in 1910, Thomas and Mary Ann moved again to Maughan Street, a side street off the Scotswood Road adjacent to the St John's Cemetery. Thomas lived on until just before the outbreak of the second World War. He was 79 years of age. Mary Ann survived him by four years, dying of heart failure on December 2nd 1943.

Further Reading

As well as the articles and source material indicated in the reference list below, we recommend the following books for background reading.

Lord Armstrong
Elswick Works

The book covers

A.. "The Great Gun-Maker: The Life of Lord Armstrong": David Dougan. Sandhill Press, Morpeth, Northumberland. 1970, 1991. ISBN: 0946098 23 9. David Dougan's book presents a detail account of the life and times of William Armstrong charting its high points and its lows. In nine chapters we follow Armstrong's family and boyhood and education and examine the unexpected decision he took to abandon an apparently successful career as a lawyer and take on the then uncertain occupation as engineer and inventor. The social, finanical and political background that led to Elswick, armaments and the destruction wraught by war are fully discussed.
B.. "Down Elswick's Slipways: Armstrong's Ships and People 1884-1918" Dick Keys and Ken Smith: Newcastle City Libraries, Newcastle upon Tyne 1996 ISBN: 1 85795 037 2. This second book is a well illustrated and annotated examination of a relatively short period of one facet of the Armstrong empire. An account is given of the design, building and fate of a number of Elswick built warships is described. It is fascinating to realise that in many naval engagements, opposing vessels has been built in these yards.


Cragside became a property managed by the National Trust in 1977. It was opened to the public in 1979. The house is a Grade 1 listed building in a Free Tudor style. The house is a showcase for Armstrong's varied collections of art, furniture, ceramics and natural history. It also demonstrates on site hydroelectric power generation which supplies some of the house's needs. In the grounds is a formal Victorian Garden. The estate is renowned for its display of rhododendrons and azeleas. Further details available from Cragside The National Trust


1. Family tree graphic: Freeware Graphics: Vintage Kin Design Studio Australia. Reproduced with permission
2. St Cuthbert's Church, Bensham, Gateshead. from an old postcard John M Berry Flickr
3. 'A Tyne Steamer In Collision' Disasters at Sea: Newcastle Courant Friday September 30th 1881 British Library Newspaper Archive
4. Ouseburn from an 1860 Ordnance Survey map Life in the Ouseburn at the end of the 1800s. Heddon Local History Society May 2012
5. 'Elswick Works (Armstrong's)' The Graphic May 14th 1887.
6. 'The Rise and Fall of the Tyneside Flat': Francesca Williams News: Tyne & Wear BBBC Local Live
2. 'Elswick Ordnance Works - Big Gun Shop': Grace's Guide British Industrial History. Southtynesideimages. Reproduced under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licence, version 1.2

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