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Object in Focus: No. 22

Death Threats at Tynemouth

Manuscript letters dating from 1797

As part of the John Ellerman Project, the collections team are uncovering some fantastic items at all our sites across Northumberland. This latest find links the coal mining industry of south east Northumberland with our crime and punishment collections in Hexham...

In the summer of 1797, Will Brown, a wealthy colliery owner, was staying with his family on Front Street in Tynemouth. He was probably in the area on business, surveying or ‘viewing’ the pumping equipment at Shiremoor – one of seven collieries in region for which he owned half or partial shares. This was a typical working holiday for Brown, but it turned into something much more unpleasant…

On the 28th of July a man left a letter at the front door. It was written in an erratic hand. I have copied the letter exactly including grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes:

“Mr Brown, Sir. Necessity forces me to write this Letter. I was a Servent of yours once but was turned away for no reason, me famarly are now starving the Butchers will let them have no more meet, the Bakers will let them have no more bread what must we do, I’m resolved now to go to Immirica in the first ship I can get and all I want is twenty pounds to take me family and I their.” 

The letter goes on:

“and I demand that of you as you are the meens of bringing my family to this state, if you do not consent to it, I’m resolved to attack you upon the highway I’m resolved to watch you and do what I could never thought to have done, but hunger forces me to it.” 

The writer – clearly agitated and emotional – continues:

“…if you do not consent to this may I never enter the Kingdom of Heaven if I do not watch you till I have Opportunity of Shooting you, I have now a brace of pistols which I’m resolvd to carry until it be settled…” 

The writer goes on to tell Brown that he must send a servant (a man called ‘Gim’ is recommended) to the north side of the ‘barricks’ (probably one of the ruined castle buildings) and to place the money under a stone.

We don’t know exactly what Brown’s reaction to this was. Did he tell his family? Did he know who the blackmailer was? Did he feel guilty? Did he pay the sum?

The second letter

He certainly did not succomb to the blackmailer on the 28th because the next day he recieved another letter. It was written in haste ‘a Back of Tynemouth Castle Sonday Afternoon’. The ink is very smudged and the words are often jumbled:

“I find you take [no notice] of my request I will tell you what Sir, that if you do not this night send that sum or thereabouts, this night, I will be revengd upon you or some of your Family.”

He goes on to threaten his wife’s father, Mr. Dixon of Unthank Hall who was often in Newcastle, and Will Brown’s property at Benton:

“I have it in my Power to go to Benton and if your Hay is taken in, to set the Stacks of Fire”.

We also learn from the second letter that the man was born “at your collery”, i.e., born to a coal mining family living in a cottage tied to one of Brown’s coal mines. The man probably had a reason for leaving the family trade of mining to work as a domestic servant – perhaps a disability or health complaint – and as a result it is highly likely that Brown knew exactly who the blackmailer was.

The blackmailer closes the second letter:

“Hunger will drive a person to anything … if you will send Gim with it this night at the same hour… if not I immediately go to Benton and there six times the damage will be done.”

From this we can infer that Brown had perhaps protected the house in Front Street and the man turned his attentions to the unprotected property a few miles away. It also suggests that the man knew the Benton house quite well and was perhaps employed there.

Amazingly, Will Brown’s father, William Brown of Throckley (famous waggon-way builder, steam-engine maker and coal viewer) also recieved several death threats from disgruntled employees in 1777. He published these letters in the Newcastle Courant and offered a £50 reward to anyone who could help track down the “braugh lads” who threatened him. The men were probably caught, as they wrote their names on the letter and referred to the place where they worked (“Throcky Dam”).

Will followed a similar route – but rather than publishing the letters locally he sent transcripts to the London Gazette who published them in August 1797. This suggests that the man and his starving family may have run away – perhaps to catch a boat to the United States. Perhaps Brown paid the £20 afterall?

We do know that Will Brown’s house, family and stacks were never harmed. He became master of Unthank Hall and died a peaceful death in 1812 at Longbenton.

The letters are part of the Unthank Hall Scrapbook.

collections@museumsnorthumberland.org.uk

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