Hutted Village 1901-1908

Hutted Village Main Street

The work must have been very hard, whether labouring or in more skilled jobs such as that of stone mason. Hours would be long, in all weathers, and often in cramped conditions, calf-deep in mud. To compensate, wages were probably higher than for similar work on Tyneside, and if a man had a family to support the attraction of a house on site may have enticed those early Fontburn pioneers to come and settle for a few years, before moving on to another job. There was a hostel building for those without families, and many families would take in lodgers, as did the farms and cottages around. We know of one such instance at the railway cottages known as ‘Daisy Cottages’, where a stone mason lodged with the Proudlock family and later married one of the Proudlock daughters.



Catcleugh - restored hut

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The 1901 census shows an expanding population of quarry operatives at Whitehouse where, adjacent to the farm, there were rows of temporary cottages of timber and corrugated iron, very similar to some of the Fontburn buildings. Local folklore said that these cottages came from Catcleugh, when the reservoir there was finished in 1905. True or not, they existed and were able to absorb any overspill from the construction going on below, on the other side of the railway line.



View from southern end of viaduct looking north

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A map of the construction of Fontburn Reservoir can be found in the Map section and shows the siting of the various buildings.

For community life, there was a ‘Mission’ hut, supported by the Navvy Missionary Society, who could supply visiting missioners to bring some spirituality and news from the outside world into the little community. From the days of the ‘railway navvies’ of the nineteenth century there already existed nationwide a well established Navvy Mission system, where preaching was not the only role.



Workshops and stables 1905

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The existence of a Mission, and a Missioner, provided a social, health and educational safety net that today is filled by the Welfare State. We do not know what form this took at Fontburn, but we do know that the Mission building existed and was supported financially by the Tynemouth Corporation. The building could serve as a hall for social occasions. Similarly, at Whitehouse, a building was given over to the Roman Catholic faith, a building still there today.

Next to the Mission stood a building which we knew as the Canteen where one would imagine meals served to the workers. Whether it also sold alcohol is uncertain but probable. In any case, sited at nearby Whitehouse was a Club for this purpose. The Canteen was the place where the ‘great and the good’, representatives of the Tynemouth Corporation would be dined when they came to inspect progress and in later years on their annual inspection. There were stables for the horses, and a communal toilet which is there to this day. Between the construction site and the railway ran a tram line whose route was probably bordered by other buildings related to railway deliveries and quarry – a cement works is noted on one of the archive pictures. A school with a house for the teacher was set apart, north west of the main settlement. There was also a shop and Post Office savings bank, accommodation for the canteen manager and a temporarily seconded County policeman, who initially lodged at Roughlees. These did not outlast the temporary settlement. At the peak of its activity the settlement may have had 48 houses, though some of these would be dormitory-style, with a manager’s accommodation included. Population at its peak may have reached 450, some accounts say more, with perhaps 250 working men.



The dam under construction

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Men worked in gangs under a ganger, accountable to a senior ganger who carried responsibility for getting the jobs done. As happened at Catcleugh and at other reservoir sites, there were fatalities. Two are recorded, both relating to the small gauge railway used on the Dam.

Can we imagine what life was like in the hutted village built to house the families of the workmen? From the memories of children who lived at Fontburn during the 1920s and 30s it is possible to reconstruct a fairly accurate picture of what life may have been like during those early years of the hutted village and the early community. There would be few luxuries. All the furniture would have to be brought in by carter or train. A scrubbed kitchen table, chairs, beds, these were the basics on which to build a home. We know the hostel had iron bedsteads, as they were there, stacked, through the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. (As a child I slept on one.) Before wardrobes there were chests for storage and transport of goods. A few family treasures perhaps, such as a mirror, a picture, a family ‘heirloom’ to make a hut into a home.

The houses, which from the photographs are built primarily of wood, would have a main room and one or two bedrooms, with a scullery at the back, and perhaps an outbuilding that could be turned into a washroom if the household had lodgers.

Catcleugh restored hut interior shows the black-leaded range with fireguard, a small bedroom fireplace, the kitchen table and various domestic items including "clouty" mats.
Photos by M I Warren

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There would be a range in the main room, where all the cooking was done, and water heated for domestic use. There would be access to piped cold water but it may have been a shared standpipe on the street, which would mean that water had to be carried. The women would share a ‘wash-house’ where the laundry could be done away from the house, and here would be in the corner a set-pot which was a fixed tub to fill with water, heated by fire down below to enable very hot temperatures to be reached, such as boiling. In the living room of a house the fire might have a tall fireguard that would serve a dual purpose, for drying clothes, although enterprising men folk might build a drying rack to suspend from the ceiling and operate by pulley. There were probably small iron fireplaces in the bedrooms against the cold of extreme winters, and to make the wooden floors more comfortable, rugs would be made out of cast-off clothes, cut up into strips and worked into canvas – ‘clouty’ mats. Oil lamps would light the gloom.

As well as kettle and pans to use on the grate, a housewife would possess a large bowl for making bread and a rolling pin. Other kitchen implements, of the kind to be found in folk museums, might be a mincer that would fix onto the table edge, a board for rolling out pastry, knives, spoons, ladles and measures. A jug would be useful, or a can, to collect milk from the churn. According to a recollection, milk would be supplied by Roughlees farm, delivered by a donkey and churns. Flour would be bought in bulk and kept in a large bin, as would items such as sugar or oatmeal. Vegetables could be grown, for the soil at Fontburn was good and on a southern slope, and hens kept for eggs. Meat would be delivered by cart from Rothbury, or Longhorsley, or even be delivered on the train. With daily services to and from Rothbury, or even Morpeth, special trips might be made for special purchases.

We do not know how many families lived here during those hutted years, but, whatever the number, they would through the years blend into a community, as always happens in remote and isolated places. Illness, childbirth, hardship, school, all would play a part to forge friendships and links among the women and children. The men had common cause from their work, where team work would play a major role in getting the jobs finished. The archive photographs tell their own story, of hard manual labour and shared toil.

Thus a small community was born. To the newcomer arriving by train from Tyneside to make a new home in this bleak and windswept spot, eight hard years lay ahead full of challenge. It would then be time to up sticks and move on to the next job, leaving Fontburn behind to a more permanent set of residents.


Village and filter beds under construction 1904

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After the completion in 1908, several of the ‘temporary’ buildings were left standing and remained so until the 1950s. The two buildings of a more permanent nature, built to house the engineers during the building phase, plus three cottages built approximately where the hutted village had stood, became the new settlement. The big house that stood at the corner of the dam, became the home of the Water Superintendent, and the other, with the single-story cottages, housed the permanent workmen, filter bed attendants, and their families. Messrs Munroe, McNamara, Appleby and Low are named as the first permanent Fontburn employees.


Engineers and craftsmen posing outside one of the permanent houses


Two of the working horses of the day. Some were stabled where the present day fishing lodge has been built


Locomotive "Tattoo" in 1904

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Further reading:

1. Bowtell, H D, (1994) Dam Builders’ Railways from Durham’s Dales to the Border, pub Plateway Press

2. Coleman T (1965) The Railway Navvies, pub Pelican

3. Rita Morton: The Building of the Elan Valley Dams: publisher date and ISBN not given in the book. This little book tells the story of the reservoirs in Wales built to satisfy the growing city of Birmingham’s thirst for clean water. The construction was overseen by the celebrated civil engineer James Mansergh FRS and preceded Fontburn by only a few years. The author uses primary source material on wages that can give a perspective on what wages at Fontburn might have been:
Chief Engineer: £250 pa
Assistant Engineer: £13 per month
Clerks: 25s per week
Chief Cost Clerk: £130 pa
Missioner: £150 pa
Stonemason: 7 – 10d per hour
Carpenter: 5d per hour
Labourer: 4d per hour
Boy: 2 – 3d per hour
A lodger might pay not less than 2/6d a week, more usually 3/6d a week, for full board and washing done.
Occasional lodging priced at 6d per night
A teacher, plus wife as unqualified assistant, earned £175 pa jointly

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