Spencer steelworks, Newburn

Thomas Blagburn 1877 – 1942

Thomas Blagburn was my second great grandfather. I’ve written a post of his life story using the research that I have completed to date (there is always more to find out). I hope that this gives you inspiration to write your own family member’s stories. 

I have written a second post about my approach and sources for Thomas Blagburn’s story to help you if you research your own ancestors.

In his father's footsteps (or not)

Thomas was born on 11th March 1877 at his parents home on Princess Street, Newcastle upon Tyne. Newcastle was a prosperous and expanding city, a centre of industry and innovation. Princess Street, with it’s commodious houses, was in an affluent area of the city centre. Thomas’ father, George Henderson Blagburn, was a butcher and his mother, Sarah Jane Blagburn (nee Rigg) was the daughter of a tailor. Skilled professions both, so we can assume that the family lived in relative comfort and had a decent income for these times. Thomas was their first son.

On 25th April Thomas was baptised at St. Peter’s, an imposing Gothic-style church located on the corner of Oxford Street and New Bridge Street. In June 1880 Thomas’ sister, Jemima, was born and also baptised at St. Peter’s. The family had moved to nearby Lisle Street, and then by 1881 they moved again.

This time they moved to Barlow Street in Gateshead, a busy and well connected street with trams running along it. It was during the 1880s that Thomas and Jemima’s other siblings were born. A brother, John, in 1881 and two sisters Mary and Isabella, in 1884 and 1889. Another sister, Maud, was born in 1991 but unfortunately died in the same year.

Finally in the early 1890s the family moved to the red brick terraced houses of Clara Street, in Benwell. Perhaps this time they were attracted by the new neighbourhood and the opportunities that it might afford them. Potentially their financial situation had worsened also, as this was a working class industrial neighbourhood, in contrast to their first home at Princess Street. Whatever the reason, Thomas’ parents George and Sarah Jane, were to stay in Benwell for the rest of their lives. 

At age 14, Thomas was an apprentice butcher, following in his father’s footsteps and that of his father before him. This would have been tough work, involving learning everything from slaughter to meat preparation and then cleaning up afterwards. Ultimately it was a rewarding and well respected trade to learn, but not one that Thomas would take to as we’ll see in the next chapter of his life!

A growing family

At some point before 1901, Thomas’ family had moved again to nearby Maria Street. Thomas was living with his parents, his brother John and sister Isabella. He had clearly decided that the butchery trade was not for him and was working as a brick kiln fireman. His younger brother John was similarly employed as a brick makers apprentice, thus ending a line of butchers by trade. 

A brick kiln fireman was a skilled but dangerous job, where Thomas would have been exposed to high temperatures dust and fumes. He had an important role in ensuring the quality of the bricks produced. The fireman had to be able to calculate the amount of fuel needed and maintain the proper temperature in the kiln. Benwell and nearby Elswick were growing areas of industry at this time and Newcastle in general was expanding rapidly. In short, there would have been no lack of demand for bricks!

1901 was an important year for Thomas as, at the age of 24, he married his wife Isabella (Bella) Bell at the Newcastle Registry Office. She was a dainty and fashionable woman, whose father, Jonathan Bell was a saddler and, alongside Isabella’s mother Margaret, ran a green grocery from 654 Scotswood Road. 

Thomas and Bella’s first child, John, was born in 1903, followed by Margaret (Meggie) in 1905 and my great grandmother Sarah (Sal) in 1907. At the time of Sal’s birth the family were living at 650 Scotswood Road, right next door to the Bell’s and the family shop. In 1911, Bella’s father Jonathan died and shortly afterwards his wife Margaret changed the shop to a fish and chip shop. Thomas and his family moved into 652 Scotswood Road right above the store, and Bella’s mother and siblings all lived at 654 below them.

In 1911 Thomas was working as a furnace man at the steelworks. Unlike his younger brother John Blagburn, when World War 1 broke out in 1914 he wasn’t required to enlist. The production of steel was essential for the war effort, required for the production of guns, tanks and ships. This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t in danger, as he lived and worked in one of the most important industrial centres supplying munitions and armaments for the war. Several key factories were located in the Benwell and Elswick areas including the Armstrong Whitworth armaments factory, the Hawthorn Leslie shipyard and the Vickers-Armstrong munitions factory. The area was targeted by German bombs from 1914 through to 1918 in an effort to disrupt the manufacture of supplies for the war effort.

Who knows if it was space that drove the family to look elsewhere or simply a change of scene but following the war their next move was to the coast.

Industrial expansion and decline

By 1917 Thomas and his family had moved to 6 Mona Terrace at Cullercoats. They lived in a house that was close the the beach (with sea views too), the train station and the trams. The house was large, with three sitting rooms and five bedrooms. It had modern amenities for the time with gas and hot running water. They shared the house with the Montague family who occupied three of the rooms and with Bella’s brother, John James Bell a labourer at Swan Hunter Wigham Richardson in Low Walker.

In July 1917 Bella gave birth to another daughter, Annie, who sadly passed away the following January. Annie was buried in an unmarked grave at Preston Cemetery in Whitley Bay. It would have been a sad time for the family, but one that was only too common prior to modern medical advances. At this time 1 in every 9 babies in the UK died before their first birthday. To put this in perspective Thomas’ brother John lost four of his sons at young ages between 1909 and 1918. 

By 1921 Thomas was a Steel Smelter working at Spencer Steel at Newburn. This was skilled and well paid but hot and dangerous work. The proximity to the train station would have been handy because he would have used it to get to work every day. As would his son, John, who was a shipwright at Swan and Hunter at Wallsend. There was an economic boom post World War 1 but this quickly subsided. The decline in the ship building industry in the 1920s would have affected all the family, and in particular Thomas as Spencer Steel collapsed as a business. By 1925 his family had moved back to the Bell family home at 652 Scotswood Road.

The mid-1920’s were a tough time for Thomas, not only did he lose his employment, but in 1924 his mother Sarah Jane died and in 1925 so did his father George. They were both buried at St James Cemetery in Benwell. 

In 1927 his first grandchild, my granda James (Jimmy) Blagburn, was born. He was the illegitimate child of his youngest daughter Sal. He was kept with the family, which at a time when illegitimacy was viewed negatively and many women were forced to give up their children was quite unusual. Jimmy was well cared for and dressed smartly by the family. In the only photo I have of Thomas he is with his grandson Jimmy (approx 1929).



Picture of a man, Thomas Blagburn, who this post is able and a child, his grandson James Blagburn

There were more grandchildren to follow. In 1930 his daughter Meggie married Patrick O’Connell and they had their first child Margaret (Peggy) in 1930. Shortly afterwards they moved to Patrick’s home in Ireland and had a son, Patrick, in 1935 and then back to Newcastle where they had their daughter Joyce in 1939.

In 1939 Thomas was still living at 652 Scotswood Road with Bella and his grandson Jimmy. His children were all living right around the corner on Alexander Street. He was no longer working with steel, but it is likely he put in shifts at the Bell family fish and chip shop with its piles of ice to keep the fish cool and a special contraption for chipping potatoes. It was the advent of World War 2 and once again eligible men were being conscripted, including his son in law, Patrick. 

It would have been a worrying time for the family but they stayed together. Despite the potential dangers of living in an industrial area my granda Jimmy was not evacuated with the other children. In April 1940 his mother Sal married to the rather lengthily named William Fish Dennis Patterson Robson. In April 1940 they had a son called William.

Final days

In March 1941 Thomas was admitted to the Newcastle City Mental Hospital. Jimmy always said that there was nothing wrong with hims but the medical records describe him as “feeble and debilitated, he appears prematurely senile”. Unfortunately, it was probably his chosen career that led to his illness. Steel Smelters are exposed to high levels of lead, manganese and other heavy metals, which have been proven to increase risk of dementia. His previous work exposed him to dust, heat and toxic chemicals which can have similar detrimental effects.

The conditions in Newcastle City Mental Hospital at this time were very poor. The hospital was severely overcrowded and there was little in the way of understanding of mental illness or treatment for them at this time. Thomas was bed bound for his full stay at the hospital and may well have been restrained. On 15th January 1942, Thomas succumbed to his illness and, in all probability, the conditions in which he was being cared for. His death was registered by his son-in-law Patrick, who’s own wife Meggie had died unexpectedly in the summer of 1941. 

Thomas is buried in the same grave as Maggie at Elswick ceremony, where a small private funeral was held. His grave is not marked, but perhaps this blog can serve as a record in his memory. I hope I have done his life and everything he worked for justice!

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4 thoughts on “Thomas Blagburn 1877 – 1942”

  1. Scarlett, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I grew up on Georges Road, right opposite where your mother lived, had an Aunt and Uncle who lived on Clara Street, often went to Whitley Bay and Cullercoats so many of the places you mentioned are very familiar to me. My father worked for a time at Vickers-Armstrong. Thank you for this post. Louise Dreossi

    1. Thank you, I’m really pleased that you enjoyed it. I’m in the early stages of doing some “house through time” type research on 652 and 654 Scotswood Road where Thomas lived as it seems that the Bell’s lived there for a few generations. The fish shop there started as a provisions store and then a green grocers. I’ll let you know when I’ve written it up.

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