COTTAGES PLAYED HOST TO GRAND OLD VISITORS

MARINERS' Cottages in South Shields could tell many stories if they could speak. We conclude our serialisation today with one of the oddest: the reported visit by a future Russian Czar.

THERE is one mystery associated with the cottages.

In the borough of South Shields, the history of the town that was written by George Hodgson who was editor of the Shields Gazette up until the beginning of the First World War, a short chapter is devoted to public celebrations and distinguished visitors.

In it, Hodgson writes: "The list of visitors includes the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, afterwards Nicholas 1, our adversary in the Crimea, who visited the Master Mariners cottages and other objects of interest on December 15, 1816."

Now the problem with that is the cottages weren't even a gleam in anyone's eye at that time.

The Grand Duke Nicholas certainly did visit the north-east. This was an era that was too early for the Gazette but we do have the contemporary account of the Newcastle Courant.

This shows that the Grand Duke's retinue arrived in Sunderland, where he inspected the pier, iron bridge and the coal staith of Messrs Nesham and Co, after which he took refreshment at Bishopwearmouth rectory.

The party, by the way, included William Congreve, the inventor of the Congreve rocket which was used to overall unsuccessful effect in the Napoleonic wars.

They then set out for Newcastle, where the Duke visited the Royal Jubilee School.

From there he proceeded to Wallsend Colliery whose owner, Mr Buddle, explained the process of ventilating and working mines, and the shipping of coal.

The account then continues: "Mr Bewick" –who I take to be the engraver Thomas Bewick – "had afterwards the honour of laying before the Grand Duke specimens of his skill in the art of engraving upon wood."

The following day the Duke met Sir Thomas Burdon, the Mayor of Newcastle, before proceeding to Alnwick Castle, and then Berwick.

No mention whatsoever, then, of him visiting South Shields, let alone Mariners' Cottages, which hadn't even been built at that time. But the mystery deepens further.

Among all the papers relating to Dr Winterbottom in the local studies library in Shields, there is a lovely little account of how he would celebrate his birthday by visiting the cottages and, it seems, sitting in the library, taking refreshment and regaling the residents with tales from his travels and his life in general.

On his 90th birthday in 1856 he's recorded as recollecting the visit of the later Russian Czar to South Shields, where he called upon Mr Fairles, to whom he expressed a wish to visit a coal mine.

It's unclear but this could be Nicholas Fairles, the landowner and magistrate who lived at Field House on the Lawe and whose later murder on the Jarrow road during a miners' strike resulted in the hanging and famous gibbeting of William Jobling at Jarrow Slake.

Fairles, the account goes on to say, then went with the Grand Duke to see John Buddle, who was viewer at Wallsend Colliery.

Dr Winterbottom is recorded as having said later that Britain had nothing to fear from the Russian Czar as, on visiting the colliery, he had proved himself a coward by being too frightened to let himself be lowered into the 1,800ft-deep pit. This is borne out by a contemporary account which records: "He attempted to look down into the Tartarean abyss, up which a blinding smoke was rising then, stepping precipitately back and holding up his hands in horrified amazement, he exclaimed in French: "Ah my God it is the mouth of Hell, none but a madmen would venture in it," before retreating.

A commentator noted: "What idea he had formed in his mind of a coal pit it is impossible to say; but it is to be presumed that he had either thought little about the matter or been very wrongly informed on the subject."

What to make of Dr Winterbottom's account? Confusion reigns!

We are left, though, with the rather charming picture of this grand old man sitting in the cost, lamp-lit library of the cottages, sipping a warming drink as he recounted his long and eventful life.

Three years later he was dead. He died on July 8, 1859 at the age of 93. He had been housebound for some time apparently, though he had ventured out in the April to vote in the election which returned his friend Robert Ingham as Liberal MP for the town. He never lived, then, to see the completion of Mariners' Cottages on which construction wasn't finished until 1862.

Today they are among the oldest and most unique houses in a town which has parted too readily over the years with other old and unique buildings, to where only a handful of churches, and shockingly few houses, can claim seniority over them.

In many ways they are an anachronism, in a town that no longer sends so many ships to sea that if the collier fleet was held up in the river, the price of coal went up in London; where those same colliers, in the rush to get to sea once the weather broke, could be so close, hull to hull, in the channel that one skipper could lean over and punch another on the nose.

They occupy a backwater, overlooked by the speculator and the developer – and we should all be glad as a consequence.