Historic photographs tell of the North East at war

PUBLISHED: 08:31 25 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:26 20 February 2013

Historic photographs tell of the North East at war

Historic photographs tell of the North East at war

Neville Denson discovers three North East heroes on an old set of tobacco cards celebrating the world's greatest inventors

In todays hi-tech society where everything is available at the tap of a few keys and the click of a mouse, it may seem rather tame to consider the viability of knowledge in the first half of the 20th century.
It often had to be gleaned from massive scholarly books - a daunting task to most people.
But help was at hand. The now much-criticised tobacco manufacturers came to the rescue, however unwittingly. From the 1880s until the outbreak of the 2nd World War they issued cigarette cards.
Originally, these were simply blank cards to protect the cigarettes in paper packets. Then someone had the bright idea to add pictures and, in some cases, words of explanation. With the issuing of series of cards on a wide variety of subjects, the tobacco companies were on to a winner.
People would collect them and, to do so, theyd have to buy a particular cigarette, developing a loyalty to a particular brand in the process.
It is difficult today to imagine the impact this must have had. But remember that this was an age when there was no radio, TV, cinema or colourful magazines.
A vast range of subjects was covered and apart from the interest in collecting, the information contained on the cards was often very useful and must have been instrumental in developing a hobby or even setting someone on the way to a new livelihood.
Cycling, poultry keeping, applied electricity, gardening and how to make wireless sets were among the things covered. And many a person living in a squalid industrial area must have had their first taste of the fresh air of the countryside - ironic when you consider this was essentially about smoking - from cards devoted to subjects including flowers, birds and travel.
One set of cards has a remarkable thing to say about the North East. Called Inventors, it was issued by Bucktrout & Co.Ltd, in 1924. The set contains 20 cards and covers the inventors of the world from Italian Marconi and his wireless telegraphy to Parisian Professor Charles hydrogen inflated balloon; from Irishman Louis Brennans Mono Rail to Dutchman Hans Lippersleys telescope, as well as Americans like Thomas Edison (phonograph), Benjamin Franklin (lightning conductor) and Cyrus McCormack (reaping machine).
The remarkable thing was that from these 20 cards, only four are on English
inventors and, of these, three are men from the North East.
George Stephenson, who was born at Wylam in 1781, became engine-wright
at Killingworth Colliery and in 1814 he ran the first locomotive there. Seven years later he was appointed engineer for the Stockton and Darlington Railway and in 1829, after overcoming many obstacles, he completed the line connecting Manchester and Liverpool.
Referring to a memorable contest of engines at Rainhill, near Liverpool in
the same year, the card tells us that in the battle of the locomotives his Rocket was easily the victor, attaining a speed of 32 miles an hour. Stephensons other claim to fame was in inventing, simultaneously with Humpry Davy (the only other Englishman in the set) and probably independently, a colliery safety lamp - the Geordie. For this he received a public testimonial of 1,000.
His only son, Robert Stephenson, was born at Willington Quay, in 1803. A
mechanical and structural engineer, he assisted his father in railway work and after three years in Columbia, he returned to manage their locomotive works at Newcastle. He attained independent fame by his Brittania Tubular Bridge over the Menai Strait and bridges at Conway, Montreal, and Berwick, as well, of course, as the constant reminder of his genius - the High Level Bridge in Newcastle.
He was MP for many years and had the final distinction of being buried in Westminster Abbey.
The other famous son of the North East in this set of cards is Sir William
George Armstrong. He was a partner in a firm of solicitors but, as the card puts it, the bent of his mind lay in other directions and he turned to engineering. He invented the hydraulic crane and in 1847 founded the Elswick Engine-works in Newcastle.
At first Elswick produced hydraulic cranes, engines and accumulators but it was soon famous for its ordnance and shortly after the Crimean War, Armstrong devised the cannon which bore his name and proved to be a great advance on all other patterns for strength and range.
The company moved into shipbuilding from 1882 and ultimately merged into Vickers Armstrong Ltd.
This period in history produced many fine innovators but there can be few, if any, areas of the country that can claim three such famous sons who more than held their own among a small, select group of people that played a major role in shaping the world during a time of rapid change and great progress.

Collections of cigarette cards lie hidden and forgotten in many cupboards and attics. Do you have any that you're particularly fond of or which hold a particular attraction to you? Use the message box to tell us about it.

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