The Watson family of Allendale and Tyneside (Watson 2a)


Robert Spence Watson was born on the 8th June 1837 at 10 Claremont Place, Gateshead. At the age of three he killed his first trout at Rothbury, and began going to meeting, where he amused himself by trying to catch flies and making the elastic in his gloves jump. At the same tender age he first proposed to Lizzie Richardson, his future wife. In 1841 the census found him living with his family and two (perhaps three) servants, at Summerhill Terrace, Westgate, Newcastle upon Tyne. In mid-May 1842, with his family, he spent a week with his Spence grandparents in North Shields. By the age of six he could repeat the whole of Scott's 'Marmion' and 'The Lady of the Lake'. At the same age, in 1843, he stood side by side with John Bright on the hustings in Durham city. Around 1844, with his father, he made what he believed to be the first through rail journey from Gateshead to London. At the age of seven he suffered a very serious illness, from which he was told he was going to die; he was in fact weak and ill for a long time. Around Christmas 1845, as he remembered 43 years later, Jonathan Priestman spent a day with him at Penham, teaching the "little laddie" how to skate. In 1846 he became a pupil of Dr Collingwood Bruce; and in October 1848 he went to Bootham School, York, which he attended until 1852 (the 1851 census recorded him as a scholar there). When he went to Bootham he was given 100 words to spell, and was the only boy who got 99 right—the one wrong being 'fuchsia'. On one occasion he was one of a trio of boys plotting to show a panorama in one of the class-rooms; one painted the pictures to wind off the roll; another was stump-orator to describe them; and a third took the gate money; Robert was stump-orator. He was captain of the cricket first XI, and won an English prize; his love of literature, his critical taste and his ability to memorize poetry remained with him all his life and were a delight to his family and friends. At Bootham he was characterized as a boy of high spirits, a warm heart and the capability to stand up strongly for what he believed to be right. He was the only boy at school who could stand up and make a speech—he gave his first lecture at 16.1

a young Robert Spence Watson

Before his 16th birthday in 1853 he went to University College, London; though he tied for the 1853 English language and literature prize, junior division, he neither matriculated nor completed the course, to his later regret. While in London, he was looked after by John Bright at Westminster meeting. In the same year he heard Gladstone give his first budget speech to the House of Commons. That year he spent a fortnight with his uncle James Foster in Sandgate, Kent, and also spent six or seven weeks in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, acting as interpreter for Myles Birket Foster, who was working on his Rhine book. He also visited the Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland, with his father—at one point sharing a coach with James Buchanan, who three years later became President of the United States.2

In 1854, with his sister and father, he made his first visit to the continent, during which they travelled to Holland with M. Rochussen, the Prime Minister. He was shown round the battlefield of Waterloo by one Sergeant Munday, a veteran of the battle. In the same year he helped to organize in Newcastle the little band of opponents to the Crimean War. In 1855 he was a member of the Newcastle Scientific and Literary Society, to which he spoke on 'Our Living Authors' (between 1855 and 1859).3

From 1856, for some years, he had a large share in the management of the Newcastle Shoe-Black Brigade, which often meant rough and dirty work at midnight with vagrants and young thieves, many of whom later became competent and honest workmen as a result of his influences. Around this time, too, he helped with the running of a class at Newcastle Friends' Adult School, which laid the foundations at once of an intimate knowledge of working class life and a close friendship with many of the workers. He was reverent and devout and gave to his scholars the very best, both intellectually and spiritually, carefully preparing Scripture lessons for his class; often on week-day evenings he gave them subjects for their own private study, and these were mainly concerned with English literature.4

From 1858 to 1860 he was apparently a student in London, though in November 1858 he gave a lecture on 'Northumbrian Ruins' at the King's Head Inn in Allendale. In 1859 he was groomsman at his sisters' double wedding in Newcastle. While in London it appears he was invited to become a member of the firm that later became Morris & Co., but was unable to afford it at that time. He spent September 1859 touring Northumberland and the Borders with T. Harwood Pattison, and in the late summer of 1860 he spent three weeks touring Germany and Switzerland. At about this time he took articles with his father. The Law Society's examinations list shows that he sat examinations over the two days, the 4th and 5th Jun 1860, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; on day one he took papers on Preliminary Questions, Common and Statue Law, and Conveyancing; and on day two on Equity, Bankruptcy, and Criminal Law; he was living at Bensham Grove, and was articled to his father, and for the last twelve months had been living or working at 21 Foley Terrce, Pentonville. He was admitted to practise as an attorney in the Trinity Term of 1860, and was in partnership with his father, trading as J. & R.S. Watson, by 1862; he remained a practising solicitor for the rest of his life.5

Robert Spence Watson in legal attire

In the late 1850s he had come under the personal influence of Garibaldi, Kossuth, and Felice Orsini, and it is said that he was much inclined to fling over the Quaker's unconditional objection to war and join Garibaldi's 'Thousand' which landed in Sicily in 1860.6

In January 1861 he was secretary to the Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Derwent, and Weardale Railway. In the census that year he was recorded as a solicitor, living with his parents, three servants, and two visitors, at Bensham Grove, Gateshead. In that year he went on his first real climbing holiday, spending a month with Henry Tuke Mennell, walking round the North country. In September he went on a walking tour in Switzerland, during which he climbed the Cima di Jazzi and the Théodule. In July of 1862 he went on holiday to Switzerland, on his own; that year he joined the Alpine Club (of which by 1911 he was one of the oldest members).7

In 1862 he became Secretary to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, a position he retained until 1893, through which he was to exert much influence. He first met Gladstone in October of 1862.8

signature of Robert Spence WatsonIn April 1863, at Newcastle Monthly Meeting, Henry Tennant and Robert Foster were appointed to enquire into Robert's clearness to marry, and the following month, no obstacles being found, they were liberated to marry, and Robert Spence and Robert Foster were appointed to ensure conduct according to good order. On the 9th June 1863 he married [O1] Elizabeth Richardson, at the Friends' meeting house, Pilgrim Street, All Saints, Newcastle. He was described as of Bensham Grove, Gateshead, a solicitor, and an attorney at law.9

 The Newcastle Journal reported as follows:


MARRIAGE FESTIVITIES.—Yesterday morning, the marriage ceremony was celebrated between R. Spence Watson, Esq., solicitor, and Miss Elizabeth Richardson, daughter of Edward Richardson, Esq., South Ashfield, Elswick Lane, at the Friends' Meeting House, Pilgrim Street. There was a large muster of the relatives and friends of the happy couple, who arrived in ten carriages, and entered their place of worship under a canopy placed across the pavement in Pilgrim Street. The interesting ceremony was performed in the usual manner adopted by the Society of Friends. After it was over, the bride and bridegroom received the hearty congratulations of all present. A large number of the younger branches, who had been present, enjoyed the remainder of the day in pic-nic parties in the neighbourhood of the town. A most gratifying feature of the day's proceedings was the treat given to the children of the Ragged Schools. Mr. Watson is one of the secretaries to the gentlemen's committee of the Ragged Schools, and his bride one of the secretaries to the lady's committee. The children of the schools, after having had breakfast in order to commemorate the auspicious event, were drawn up in the court-yard shortly after eight o'clock, the girls under the care of the schoolmistress, on one side, and the boys, under the care of Mr. Morgan, on the other side of the yard, the whole acting under the direction of Mr. G.A. Brumell. They then sung several songs, after which a number of cannon, which had been mounted in the yard, were fired; and as each cannon was discharged, the children cheered loudly. They again sang a number of songs, and gave a hearty cheer for the future happiness of the two secretaries, whose marriage they were met to celebrate. The children dispersed to amuse themselves, and at the time appointed for the wedding, nine o'clock, a rocket was fired, and the cheering again commenced. The children then went to their school duties. At noon, the same rejoicings were repeated, with the addition of a small present for everyone who attended the schools, which had been kindly provided by the bride and bridegroom. From different parts of the building flags were hung out, which, together with the cheering, made those in the neighbourhood aware that something out of the ordinary was going forward. The countenances of the children betokened happiness and contentment, and the wish of each child was, that every joy and comfort might be showered down upon the happy pair, who had done so much for their benefit. At Messrs. Richardson's tannery, Newgate Street, a number of flags were displayed.

And the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury reported:


WEDDING AT THE FRIENDS' MEETING HOUSE.—The marriage of Mr. Robert Spence Watson, son of Mr. Joseph Watson, solicitor of this town and Bensham Grove, Gateshead, with Miss Elizabeth, third daughter of Edward Richardson, Esq., South Ashfield, Newcastle, was solemnised at the Friends' Meeting House on Tuesday. Long before the time appointed for the ceremony taking place, the vicinity of the chapel was crowded by persons anxious to see the bridal party, which, about half-past nine, arrived in seven carriages—four of them being distinguished by having outriders, and the whole of the horses, postilions, &c., wearing wedding favours. The bridal party comprised Mr. and Mrs. Richardson, Mr. and Mrs. Watson, the Bride and Bridegroom, Mr. H.T. Mennell and Miss Jane Emily Richardson, Mr. Thomas Whitwell and Miss Emily Watson, Mr. Joseph Watson jun., and Miss Lucy Fenwick, Mr. John W. Richardson and Miss Alice Richardson, Mr. William Joshua Watson and Miss Ellen Ann Richardson, Mr. George W. Richardson and Miss Helen Watson, and Master Herbert Watson and Miss Gertrude Watson. The bride and bridesmaids were all gracefully dressed in white. The meeting house was filled by a large audience, chiefly friends of the parties, many of whom had come from a distance. Upon the bridal party proceeding to the table the usual forms were gone through, after which Mr. Charles Brown, of North Shields, delivered an appropriate and impressive discourse from the words "Commit thy ways to the Lord." The happy couple took their departure by the 1.30 p.m. train for the south, en route to Switzerland, where they intend to spend the honeymoon. The children of the Ragged Schools, of which the happy couple were secretaries, had rejoicings on the occasion, and at Messrs. Richardson's establishment in Newgate-street, various flags were displayed in honour of the event.9A



Quaker marriage certificate for Robert Spence Watson and Elizabeth Richardson (with apologies for the poor focus)

Robert and Elizabeth Spence Watson

On their wedding night, at the London Bridge Terminus Hotel, the hotel was evacuated for a time, on account of a fire. They honeymooned in Switzerland and North Italy, where they made the first ascent of the Balfrin, 12,474 ft. From 1863 to 1874 the couple lived at Mosscroft, Elysium Lane, Gateshead, which had been built for him. They had six children: Mabel Spence (1864–1907, born at Moss Croft, Gateshead), Ruth Spence (1866–1914, b. Moss Croft), Evelyn Spence (1871–1959), [M1] Mary Spence (1875–1962), Bertha Spence (1877–1954), and Arnold Spence (1879–1897).9

In 1865–6 Robert was practising as a solicitor in partnership with his father; their office was at 10 Arcade, Newcastle.10

In 1865 Robert and Elizabeth, with Emmie and Allie Richardson, holidayed in Switzerland, where Robert, with Henry Tuke Mennell, ascended Mont Blanc, on the 27th July. At the end of July 1866 he suffered a severe cold, followed by pleurisy. In January 1867 he subscribed a guinea to the Newcastle soup kitchen. That summer he spent six weeks in Switzerland and Italy; on the 25th July he made the first ascent of the Sasso di Chiarena, mistaking it for Monte Tresero; and four days later, with Elizabeth, ascended the Ortlerspitze. In the latter year, on the nomination of Francis Galton, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He made his first visit to Norway, with his wife, in 1868. A dexterous fisherman, he was especially keen on Norway's salmon fishing.11

From at least the 1860s he kept a commonplace book, the surviving second volume of which shows a taste for schoolboy howlers, humorous mistranscriptions and mistranslations, and foreign proverbs, as well as more conventional verse and prose.11A

In the 1860s his interest in education came to the fore. In 1868 he published a paper he had read to the Lit. & Phil. in March that year, entitled 'A Plan for Making the Society More Extensively Useful, as an Educational Institution'—the germ of the later University of Newcastle.12

During 1868 he assisted Francis Galton with his notable book, published in 1869, on Hereditary Genius, by researching among northern wrestlers and oarsmen; though he set off with the strongest prejudice against the notion that cultivated qualities are passed down from parent to child, the facts he obtained entirely turned him round.13

Shortly after Christmas 1868 he had a mild attack of scarlet fever, followed by gastric fever, and was ill a long time.13A

In the autumn of 1869 he and Elizabeth spent three weeks on the continent, visiting Switzerland, Belgium, Nuremburg, Prague, &c.14

From October 1869 to February 1870 Robert visited London twelve times, "& is quite wearied with so many harrassing journeys. He generally travels at night, & although he sleeps easily, it is a fatiguing process, & he has had far too much of it."14A

He and Elizabeth were abroad in 1870, when war began between France and Germany; they had considerable difficulty in getting back. Not long afterwards, at the invitation of the Society of Friends, he went to Alsace-Lorraine as one of the commissioners of the War Victims Fund for the distribution of relief to the non-combatants in the Franco-German War, spending three weeks there over October and November, during which at one point he was close to being shot as a spy. His duties at Metz were "Investigating distress, convoying provisions, distributing relief." On Christmas day that year he gave his parents a fur rug and an easy chair. At the beginning of March 1871 he spent a further two weeks in Paris, organising distribution in the department of the Seine, returning home just eleven days before the proclamation of the Paris Commune, in the course of which many of the villages he had assisted were plundered by their own countrymen. The pamphlet he published, The Villages round Metz, gave a vivid picture of his experiences and a haunting picture of the awful waste and the grim horror of the war. In 1873 the French government, through the duc de Broglie, offered him the Legion of Honour, but he declined the distinction; he was, however, presented with a gold medal which was specially struck in acknowledgment of his services.15

Robert Spence Watson

Christmas Day 1870 had also seen his initiation as a Freemason, in the Northumberland Lodge at Newcastle, on the same occasion as his wife's cousin Henry Richardson. He 'passed' on 7 February 1871, and was 'raised' on 5 September that year. The history of Northumbrian Masonry records:


On his return to England, Mr. Watson lost no time in applying for admission to the brotherhood, and was initiated in Northumberland Lodge, No. 685, Newcastle, of which lodge he became the Worshipful Master on the 7th of November, 1876. Bro. Watson further states [. . .] that in his work in France (after he had been made a Mason), especially in the Department of the Seine around Paris, of which he took special charge in the distribution of the Fund, he found Masonry of very great assistance.16A

In 1871 the census recorded him as an attorney &c. of Leasham [sc. Elysium] Lane, Gateshead; the household included two domestic servants. In that year he was elected a member of the Newcastle school board at its foundation—the election marking Spence Watson's first real prominence in Newcastle. He continued to sit on the board till 1892, and was for a long time vice-chairman; but this was one of his less successful activities, and he had some personal share in the continued shortcomings of the Newcastle elementary educational system. Also in 1871 he helped to found the Durham College of Science, later to become Armstrong College, and still later Newcastle University. It may safely be said that he was for many years the real soul of the institution, preserving its continuity through many changes, and always aiming at a fuller development of the comprehensive plan which he had originally formed; he was honorary solicitor to the college. He was recently described as "a pioneer in the field of expanding university education, especially for women." He visited Switzerland in 1871.16

In January of 1872 he holidayed with his family in Tenerife. In August that year he had been much overworked, was suffering extremely from headaches, and was ordered by the Doctor to go abroad for a month. He accordingly went to Switzerland with Elizabeth, to recuperate. In this year, too, he was recorded as ascending the Galdhøpig in Norway. The following year he fell ill with diphtheria, and retreated to Glasgow to convalesce. In May 1873 Robert spent a month in Italy with his brother Joe ("poor Uncle Joe"), and in September he and Elizabeth, with her brother John and sister Allie, spent three weeks in Switzerland. In addition to ascending the Col du Grand Cornier, the Triftjoch, and Monte Rosa, the Alpine Club Register records that he made a long and perilous search for a missing tourist on rocks south of Findelen glacier. In the summer of 1874 the couple spent a fortnight in Belgium, during which Robert was able to show his wife the scene of some of his work during the war. That August he read a paper on 'Teaching and the Church' to the Conference of the Friends' First-day School Association at Darlington, at which he and Elizabeth, and his sister Gertrude, represented Gateshead; the paper was subsequently printed in The Friend and The British Friend.17

In 1873 Joseph and Robert Spence Watson, solicitors, were recorded as holding 20 £10 shares (out of 800) in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Turkish Bath Company Limited, formed the previous year. In 1878 Robert held just three shares in this company, but on 6 August 1879 he received 24 shares in part payment of the company's debt for services rendered.17A

In April 1874 he played (or read the part of) Shylock in the family's production of Ye Marchand of Venyse at Mosscroft, and later that month Brutus, in Julius Caesar; in May he played the Fool in King Lear, and in November the King in Richard II. That year he founded the Newcastle Liberal Association, of which he was president until 1897.18

In August 1874 Watson caught one of his clerks, Thomas Bartholomew Porter, embezzling £176 13s. 4d. from the firm, but at his trial he asked for leniency for the young man; Porter was sentenced to four months' imprisonment.18A

He was for some time Secretary to the Newcastle and Gateshead Anti-Slavery Society. In 1875–6 he led the successful campaign against Disraeli's Fugitive Slave Circular, at one stage threatening to indict the Prime Minister.19

In late 1875, after his father's death, the family moved to Bensham Grove, Bensham Road, Gateshead, where Robert and Elizabeth spent the rest of their lives.20


Bensham Grove

Bensham Grove

In late March 1876, in response to the proposal to give the Queen the title of Empress of India, he chaired a meeting at the town hall in Newcastle "to petition the House of Lords to reject the frivolous and dangerous attempt to imperialise the British Constitution". In 1876 he was given a signed and personally inscribed copy of the first, limited, edition of Two Rivulets, by Walt Whitman, as well as a similarly inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass.20A

In 1876 he presided at the Newcastle meeting of the TUC. In the following year he sat behind Gladstone and Chamberlain on the platform at the inaugural meeting of the National Liberal Federation. He had early been introduced into political affairs by his father, and was a warm and faithful supporter of Gladstone, who (it's said) came to heartily reciprocate his friendship in later years.21

In October 1876 he purchased a parcel of the Redheugh Estate near to the Redheugh Bridge, bounded by the Rabbit Banks to the north, by Tyne Road East to the south, by Redheugh Bridge Road to the east and partly by land sold to Laurence Henry Armour and partly by land sold to John Graham to the west, formerly part of St Helen's Close, reserving all mines, including the rights reserved to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners by a lease of 1 July 1866, paying 3s p.a. for tithe rent-charge. Covenants included contributing to the construction of a public road, Tyne Road East. The purchase price was £262. 10s plus £2311. 16s. 8d.21A

In 1876 and 1877 he holidayed with his family at Aardal and Faleide, Norway. At some point in 1877 he went riding to the Lakes, with Elizabeth and Mabel; he had an old lame horse called 'Chieftain' , as well, apparently, as 'Rosie' and 'Kitty'. In October 1877 he spent three weeks on the continent with John Wigham Richardson, visiting Florence, Budapest, Vienna, &c., on business in connection with the passing of the Treaty of Commerce between protectionist Austria and free trade Hungary. At the beginning of June 1878 he was with Elizabeth at Pooley Bridge; that autumn Robert and Elizabeth spent six weeks touring northern Italy. In late 1879 he spent five weeks in Morocco, visiting the sacred city of Wazan, which apparently no (male) Christian European had entered before, obtaining an introduction to the great cherif of Wazan and his English wife. This was the first pleasure trip he had taken without Elizabeth since their marriage. In 1880 he published A Visit to Wazan, the Sacred City of Morocco (of which a copy was ordered by John Greenleaf Whittier in February 1881).22

In 1879, in response to the Zulu War, he published The History of English Rule and Policy in South Africa, a defence of both Zulus and Boers which sold nearly a quarter of a million copies, and was still in print in South Africa over a hundred years later.23

In 1880 he was pressed to stand as one of the two MPs for Newcastle and Gateshead, but declined, acting instead as agent to Albert Grey, the successful candidate for South Northumberland.23A

In June 1880 he visited Sweden, on business connected with some large sawmills at Sundsoal or Lündsvall, in north Sweden. In September that year he took a hiking holiday in the Scottish Lowlands; at this time he visited Grasmere for the inaugural meeting of the Wordsworth Society, of which he served on the committee. Closer to home, he was a founder-member of the Gateshead Early Rising Association, whose members took long walks before breakfast during the summer, meeting at 6:15 at the gates of Ravensworth Villa; the association also promoted foot-racing.24

His solicitor's practice was evidently prospering, for the census in that year listed four general servants in the Spence Watson household. In that year he became legal adviser to Joseph Swan, British inventor of the electric light bulb, to whom he suggested the formation of a limited company; on the 7th February that year he contracted with Swan to set up and promote 'Swan's Electric Light Company, Limited'.24A He was to become, in 1887, an initial shareholder in the Sunbeam Lamp Company. From 1883 till at least 1894 he was recorded as a partner in Watson and Dendy, of 141 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. The firm came to possess one of the leading commercial practices in the North.25 It continued to thrive until 2019, trading as Watson Burton LLP, by then also with a London office at 30 St Mary Axe (the 'Gherkin'); but the partnership was taken over that year, and the name was lost.

From at least 1881 Spence Watson knew he suffered from a serious heart condition. In that year, and in 1882, the family spent six weeks in the summer in Norway, perhaps partly for health reasons. They were based, once again, at Faleide. In 1881 Robert became a life member of Den Norske Turistforening (the Norwegian tourist organisation). In 1882 Elizabeth recorded that "In the Alden river he caught one very large salmon, 3ft 10 in length which was kippered & brought home & much approved." In 1883 he and Elizabeth, with Mabel and Ruth, toured Switzerland and North Italy. In that year he was granted an honorary LL.D. from St Andrews University.26

In February 1882 he gave the following testimonial to Mr F.D. Siemms, surgeon chiropodist from Berlin: "Mr Siemms has this day extracted corns from my feet with much skill, and in a rapid and painless manner."26A

In 1883 he was behind John Morley's election as MP for Newcastle, a recent historian commenting on "Spence Watson's commanding influence in the region."26B

In 1884 he was the arbitrator in the Northumberland Mines Dispute. From 1864 to 1894 he pioneered the settlement of industrial disputes by arbitration, becoming the recognized arbitrator in the coal trade in the North. In October 1885, at the time he was engaged in his fourth arbitration, in the iron trade, his wife noted "It is indeed a heavy task—little do either masters or men know the long hours of anxious earnest toil given to this work, nor the pain wh a reduction in wages costs him. They would both trust him even more did they know all this." In 1889 he was involved in an arbitration with the North Eastern Railway. In 1891 Earl Spencer described him as "perhaps the greatest living authority in England" on labour questions. A Marxist historian of the late 1970s described him as a "key figure in promoting the new rapprochement between capital and labour", saying further that it "would be wrong simply to describe Spence Watson as representing the interests of a capitalist class, for he had the support of the trade unions in all the cases in which he acted as arbitrator. He epitomises rather the ambiguous role of the Liberal Party in this period in trying to reconcile the inherent conflict between a capitalist class and the working classes. . . . Objectively, therefore, the role of Liberals like Spence Watson was a reformist one, which while bringing some gains to the working class was primarily directed at stabilising the relationship between employer and employed."27

In the summer of 1884 the family again spent six weeks at Faleide. Robert made an attempt on Lodalskaupe from Erdal; he "forced a sporting but unnecessary passage through the Greidungsbræ icefall, which cost so much time that he had to abandon the peak; skirted it and descended to Bodal." William Morris spent the night at Bensham Grove on the 15th November 1884.28

In March 1885 Elizabeth noted "R. is now very busy—far too many engagements—lectures on "Domestic Reforms" "Peace" &c—& often looks sadly tired & overworked . . ." From 1885 to 1911 he was president of the Tyneside Sunday Lecture Society. He was a secretary of the Ragged and Industrial School for over 30 years, and was "the central figure in the excellent management of the school," playing "a major role in raising the profile of Industrial Schools nationally through the success of the Newcastle school which he had helped to mould."29

In January of 1885 Spence Watson announced his conversion to the cause of Irish Home Rule. He organized the first public meeting at which members of the cabinet spoke on the Home Rule Bill. He became an ardent campaigner for Home Rule, and in April 1887 published his longest pamphlet, on England's Dealings with Ireland, an important contribution to the campaign; in 1893 he published Home Rule for Ireland: Fear or Hope?.30

Robert Spence Watson in academic dress

In 1885 the family spent the summer with Elizabeth's sister Caroline in Ørstenvik, Norway. In 1886 Robert and Elizabeth went on a trip to the Tyrol. Kelly's Directory of 1886 described him as one of two hon. secs to the Newcastle Ragged & Industrial School; member of the Public Libraries Committee (but not of the Council); one of two hon. secs to the Lit & Phil, Westgate Rd; FRGS, LLD, of 141 Pilgrim street, res. Bensham grove, Gateshead. In 1887 and 1888 the family spent their summers at Ørnaes, Norway, within the Arctic Circle; during their first stay there Spence Watson shot an eagle, and had it stuffed; they also had bear's paw for breakfast, which no-one liked, as it looked like a human arm. He still enjoyed a little shooting the following year, his daughter Mary recording his shooting of "a splendid sea-gull" and "a lovely little duck." Evelyn noted that at Ørnaes "we lived mainly on father's fish".31

On New Year's Day of 1887 the Pall Mall Gazette published a review by Oscar Wilde of Joseph Skipsey's Carols from the Coal-fields, with a short biography by Robert Spence Watson.31A

At the beginning of 1888 his friend John Morley related in a letter to him that Sir William Harcourt, on a recent visit to the Spence Watson household, had found there "a cultivation and refinement not always to be had in the bosom of the 'Earnest Radical'." By mid-December 1888 Robert had subscribed £100 to the Durham College of Science. At the end of that year he wrote to Mabel and Mary "I have certainly been badly knocked up with cold and over-work, & I can't get rid of my cold, but it is not so bad now." In the spring of 1889 Robert and Elizabeth toured in Italy, visiting Rome, Naples, Sicily and Venice; from there they moved on to Dresden and Berlin.32

From 1889 his political sentiments moved leftward, with labour. He helped to establish a general shipyard union in Newcastle.33

His interest in literature still active, he published in 1890 a work on Caedmon, the First English Poet. In March that year he gave a lecture on 'Irish Songs', with musical accompaniment (probably in Newcastle).34

In the same year, with the revolutionists Peter Kropotkin and Sergius Stepniak, and his own daughter Evie, he founded the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom. This stemmed from his 1889 invitation to Stepniak to lecture at the Newcastle Sunday Society, and to stay with him at Bensham Grove. Spence Watson was its first Treasurer, and he remained President till his death (though still Treasurer in 1904). Robert and Elizabeth Spence Watson were the largest donors supporting its publication, Free Russia, though they insisted that the donations appear anonymously, so as not to give the impression that he dominated the society. He had a hand in many an escape from Siberia; and at the same time he developed a great friendship with Stepniak, Kropotkin, and Feliks Volkhovsky. In 1895 he wrote the introduction to Stepniak's Nihilism as It Is; after his death, Volkhovsky wrote: "In his handsome, brilliant and noble personality, I learned to admire and love the English people . . .".35

Among other friends of his may be mentioned William Morris, H.H. Asquith, and Fridtjof Nansen.36

In 1890 Robert Spence Watson was elected President of the National Liberal Federation, which he remained until 1902. On this occasion Sidney Webb wrote to him: "We don't care so much for what you say. You won't tell us much that is new and we shan't agree with you, but you are honest and have no axes to grind."37

The family holiday of 1890 was spent at Osen, in Norway. On the 3rd July Spence Watson caught a 34lb salmon, beating the local record.37A

Robert Spence Watson, portrait by Reid

In February 1891 he was one of two trustees for the debenture holders of the Lands Trust Company Ltd. The 1891 census records him as a solicitor, an employer, living with his family at Bensham Grove; the household includes his nephew and biographer-to-be, Percy Corder, a cook, and two other domestic servants.38

In December 1891 a reception was given in his honour at the Eighty Club (a grouping of Liberal MPs first elected in the 1880 General Election). His obituary in The Times recorded that "Probably no man outside Parliament exerted a wider political influence than he did in those days". It seems widely acknowledged that it would be wrong, however, to conceive of Spence Watson as a politician of the machine because he played a part in organisation, since he cared nothing for the machine except as the means to obtain support for the great causes he had at heart. He personally had no desire to enter the House of Commons, and refused all invitations to become a parliamentary candidate (he was, for example, shortlisted for the candidacy at Rochdale in 1895, but withdrew).39

Towards the end of 1891 the Spence Watsons spent six weeks on a tour of Spain, with a few days in Tangier. In 1892 Robert spent six to eight weeks at Bryn Cothi, in Caermarthenshire.40

Around this time he was described as having a large, genial presence, though of no great stature, ". . . but strongly knit, as became one noted for Alpine climbing, his twinkling eyes and fine, kindly face were set amid a tumbling mass of ruddy hair—beard and hair alike suggesting some touch of Viking blood." "His voice alone was a stimulus to talk, so full and strong and vibrant with energy was it, and with just a touch of the 'burr' of Northumberland in the pronunciation."41

He spent the whole of July 1893 on holiday with his family in Wales. That year he became Vice-President of the Newcastle Lit. and Phil., of which in 1897 he published the History.42

In 1893 and 1894 he subscribed £21 to the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, in respect of Elizabeth and himself. In January 1894 he presided at a lecture at Prince's Hall, Piccadilly, by George Kennan, on Siberian Exiles. That summer was spent with the family at Skjolden and Maristuen, in Norway. In the autumn of that year he spent a week in Ireland, with John Morley. In the spring of 1895 Robert and Elizabeth spent two to three weeks in the Pyrenees. In May that year Robert was a signatory to the appeal for Bootham School, and personally subscribed £25.43

In the mid 1890s Spence Watson was on the committee of the Northumbrian Small Pipes Society, of which he was a life-long member; a player himself, he wrote a history of the instrument.44

He took a prominent part in the Liberal Party's adoption of the radical Newcastle Programme (he had chaired the meeting in October 1891, at which Gladstone had presented the programme; on this occasion Gladstone noted in his diary "Dr Sp. Watson excellent"). On the 27th March 1896 Lord Rosebery told the National Liberal Federation his view of why the Liberal government fell in June 1895: "It fell because, with a chivalrous sense of honour too rare in politics, and with inadequate means, it determined to fulfil all the pledges that it had given in Opposition. It had, I think, given too many pledges—partly owing to you, Dr. Spence Watson." Despite this apparent rebuke, on moving the vote of thanks Spence Watson was received with loud cheering. The following March, he resigned as President of the Newcastle Liberal Association; he had attempted to the previous year, but had been dissuaded.45

In November 1895 he introduced and chaired the debate on 'Friends and Social Questions' at the Society of Friends' major Manchester Conference. In July 1896 he had an article published in The Friend, on 'The War Spirit.' 46

The family holidayed in Ireland in 1896. Robert said at the time that it might be the last time they were all together, and so it proved, but in more tragic circumstances than he probably imagined. Robert and Elizabeth and three of their children holidayed in Norway in 1897, but in November of that year their only son Arnold was taken from them at the age of 18. Characteristically, within a day of his death Robert expressed his grief by writing a sonnet in Arnold's remembrance.46A

In May 1898 he wrote the lead obituary to Gladstone, in The Friend, and on the 27th May, with Thomas Ellis, MP, he headed the procession of representatives of Liberal Associations that marched past Gladstone's catafalque in Westminster Hall, concluding the lying-in-state; the following day he was present at the funeral itself, in the triforium at Westminster Abbey, with a place from which he could see the actual interment. In the autumn of that year he spent six weeks touring in the Dauphiné Alps, with Elizabeth and his daughters Mary and Bertha. In late October he and Elizabeth stayed at Studley. The family summer holiday of 1899 was in Scotland, with a base at Oban.47

During the winter of 1898/99 he attended, and addressed, meetings on the Tsar's Manifesto, in York, Ripon and Newcastle. In 1899 he was recorded as owning 250 preference shares in Wigham Richardson & Co., his brother-in-law's shipbuilding firm. By 1898 his legal practice had expanded to Watson, Dendy and Burton, still of 141 Pilgrim Street. By 1906 Dendy had been replaced by Spence Watson's nephew Percy Corder.48

Robert and Elizabeth Spence Watson, with the office staff

Robert and Elizabeth Spence Watson, with the office staff

In October 1899 Robert chaired a public meeting on the Alliance Programme, at the Free Trade Hall. In December 1899 he signed the letter of appeal for the Bootham School Building Fund, personally subscribing £200. In July 1900 he had an article in The British Friend, on 'The War and After'. In the late summer of that year Robert and Elizabeth spent at least a month on holiday in Switzerland and Germany, accompanied for part of the time by Bertha and Mary. Mary noted at the time:


It is sad to see the contrast in Father since last year in Scotland, all owing to overwork during that horrible electric light business in May, in London. He has never recovered from it & can hardly walk at all, which is most disappointing, & almost makes us not wish to go walks, for it seems so queer without Father, who used to be so strong.48A

In a letter to Campbell-Bannerman in November that year, he says of himself that he is ". . . one who is growing too old to do much of the fighting, but who for 47 years has served as a private in the Liberal ranks under the good old banner. I have often had moments of deep depression lately when all things have seemed turned topsey-turvey & to be going wrong . . ."49

In January 1900 he spent a week or two in Grange-over-Sands, with his wife and Mary. The 1901 census records him as a solicitor living with his daughter Bertha at Bensham Grove, with a cook, a housemaid, and an under-housemaid. In July that year he planted a commemorative tree near the Science School at Bootham. In the summer of 1901 he had a long fishing holiday in Scotland, staying at the Loch Maree Hotel in Ross-shire. In April 1902 he was on a committee for a proposed memorial to the Venerable Bede, chaired by the Bishop of Durham. In the summer of 1902 he spent three weeks in Germany, followed by three weeks in the south of France in the Autumn. In December 1902 he gave an address on Peace, at Leeds Friends' Meeting House. In the spring of 1903 he and Elizabeth spent six weeks in Italy and Switzerland, to restore their health (in June, a report in The Friend commented that he was "looking older"); he visited Ireland in the autumn. In the spring of 1904, they spent two and a half months in North Africa (Algiers and Tizi-ousel) and Corsica, Robert recovering from two bouts of (near-) pleurisy within five weeks; at that time he doubted whether he would return. By June he had been diagnosed as suffering from angina pectoris. He had a severe attack of pericarditis, and within a week of recovering from that came down with enteritis. In June and July of 1904 he had much worry, as solicitor to the Tramways Company, over the Tyneside Tramways Bill, which brought him into dispute with the Corporation. He did his best not to let his health get in the way of his activities, and in November 1904 Mary recorded that, in London, he had attended no less than seven meetings in a single day—Liberal, SFRF, &c. In the spring of 1905 he spent six weeks in the Canaries, with Mabel and Hugh Richardson, at the outset of which he suffered a heart attack, from which it was thought he would not recover. While in the Canaries, he worked on his history of the National Liberal Federation. In June he spent a fortnight in Hampshire, where he had a slight stroke. At the beginning of July he felt compelled to give up his Education, Free Library and Art Committees. After his recovery he began going to the office again, for three hours a day. But he suffered another stroke in March 1906, which brought him close to death. It has been suggested that—like Mabel—he was afflicted with Renard's disease. He was well enough by June, however, to speak at and chair a peace rally in Birmingham; that month, too, he went for his first ride in a motor car—25 miles in two hours.50

Robert Spence Watson convalescing in Teneriffe

Robert Spence Watson convalescing in Tenerife

In early October 1904 he stayed a night with his daughter Mary and her husband, in York. That year he was a promoter of the proposal for the Tyneside Tramway Company to run an electric tramway within Newcastle. He was also a founding director of the Swan Electric Light Company, and of the Newcastle Electric Supply Company, and one of the promoters, in 1905, of a large scheme for electric extension in London. In 1905 and 1907 he was also a director of the County of Durham Electrical Power Distribution Co. Ltd.50A

In April 1905 he and Elizabeth visited Teneriffe.50B

In 1905 he subscribed £10 to the SFRF Russian Relief Fund. At least from 1906, and until his death, Spence Watson was President of the Peace Society.51

On the 11th July 1906 he was presented to the King and Queen on their visit to Tyneside (for the opening of Armstrong College), wearing a new (11 guinea) scarlet gown and black cap. At this time he had just been offered a knighthood by Campbell-Bannerman, but had refused.51A

When the Liberal Party were about to leave office, he was approached by the Patronage Secretary to the Treasury with the idea of conferring on him some honour or distinction, as a token of gratitude; he had only to name it and it was assured. He replied solemnly that he would like to be made Archbishop of Canterbury (though he is also said to have coveted the positions of Commander-in-Chief of the Army or Navy, and even of the Sultan of Turkey!). He was in fact created a Privy Councillor, in July 1907, on the nomination of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman; Edward VII allowed him to dispense with the ceremonial wearing of a sword.52

Robert Spence Watson in Privy Council dress

In September 1906 he was made an honorary D.C.L. of Durham University. In December that year was published his History of the National Liberal Federation. By August 1906 Bensham Grove was on the telephone—no 8 Gateshead.53

In the spring of 1907 his doctor informed him that, though he had no trace of pleurisy, the right lung had never yet properly filled so that he only had part of it to breathe with, and there was some adhesion in the left lung—but no new problems. He made his will in October 1907. In it he began by explaining why he was leaving no charitable bequests: "I have made it a regular practice with the advice and aid of my beloved wife to give each year to Charities and Societies as much as we considered we could afford, and this has not seldom come to considerably more than a tenth of my income. In addition to this I have through life given freely of advice and work to the several Institutions with which I have been connected including some like the Grammar School, the Education Committee and the Public Library, of a public nature. This being so I have felt free to distribute the things which remain amongst my own people." To Elizabeth he left all his personal effects in the house and grounds at Bensham Grove; to domestic indoor and outdoor servants he left £20 for those who'd been in service for fifteen years or more, and £1 for each year of service of those who'd been in service for shorter periods; to the clerks in his firm he left £1 for each year of service, with an additional £1 per year for those who had worked for him for over ten years; the real and residue of his personal estate he left to his trustees for them to pay the income to his wife during her life; he left £2000 for any daughter who remained unmarried after the deaths of both himself and his wife, to be held in trust.  In December the same year he was co-executor of the will of Mary Ann Hewitson, of Leeds, his first cousin once removed; he personally was bequeathed £4000 and a half share of the residue of the estate.55

Around the end of February 1908 he had another heart attack, and was seriously ill for a time. In June he had a slight attack of congestion of the brain. By October he was well enough to be attending his office for two hours a day.56

He wrote a codicil to his will in January 1909. Under this he bequeathed £250 to Armstrong College, to add to the sum given for the Gladstone Scholarship; as well as £200 to the Scholarship fund for Bootham School and £100 to the Scholarship fund for the Mount School; £200 to the Newcastle Lit and Phil; to his daughter Ruth, if she survived both himself and his wife, her selection of things from the house, including the Reid portrait of himself and the Whickham Howard portrait of Elizabeth, and probably the desk which had been presented to his wife; he requested his executors to consult Basil Anderton, the Public Librarian, as to the sale of books; he specified how his collected drawings and pictures should first be valued, with the aid of his nephew Percy Corder, prior to their fair division between his daughters, selecting them in their order of seniority; the contents of his different portfolios to be divided between Bootham and the Mount Schools, the School of Arts of Armstrong College, and otherwise the schools of Newcastle and Gateshead.56A

Robert and Elizabeth spent several months of the winter of 1909 at Ventnor, Isle of Wight. That year Robert published Joseph Skipsey, a biography of the pitman poet. In early February his bust in marble, by Christian Neuper, was unveiled at the Free Library. In May of that year he holidayed with Elizabeth on the Isle of Wight. By 1909–10 Watson, Burton & Corder, solicitors and commissioners for oaths, occupied Pilgrim House, 139 Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. Spence Watson was separately described as Secretary to the Redheugh Bridge Company.57

By 1910 he was vice-chairman of the Newcastle Public Libraries Committee. In that year he became the first president of Armstrong College; and in 1911 chairman of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne grammar school. He had also been president of the Friends' Guild of Teachers, since at least 1900.58

From March 1910 he was seriously ill, requiring a nurse—and by August two nurses; he was under morphine, his mind wandering. In the election of December 1910 he was eager to vote, but was not permitted to go out for the purpose. He died at Bensham Grove at 8:30pm on the 2nd March 1911, after a serious relapse the day before, followed by some hours of unconsciousness. His constitution enfeebled, the cause of death was given as bronchitis and heart failure. He was buried on the 6th March, in Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle. Sixteen carriages took part in the funeral cortege, of whom Bensham servants—seven—occupied the third and fourth; over a hundred people are named as attending, in press reports—about the same number as the wreaths and crosses. His will was proved at Durham on the 6th May, his estate being valued at £35,850.5s.10d. (£2,045,658 at 2005 values); net personal estate £35,443.5s.3d.

Before the funeral, Elizabeth had received the following message from the Prime Minister:

I deeply deplore the death of my old friend, who during so many years strove so devotedly for freedom and all high causes. His death is an irreparable loss to us, and I beg you and your daughters to accept our heartfelt sympathy.—H.H. Asquith.59A

The Annual Monitor described him as one of the Liberal Party's "boldest, ablest and most distinguished leaders." The Times saw him as "an eager and even an advanced Liberal"; and the Westminster Gazette said of him that "Never was there a man in whom the passion for human right and justice burned with greater fervour. He was an advocate of peace among nations, of justice at home, of the real elevation of the poor and oppressed, and he saw in politics the means to his goal in all these things." The American Journal of International Law noted that his death "was a distinct loss . . . to the friends of progress and humanity in the world at large."60

A recent academic study (Kota Ito, 2006) considers Spence Watson to be "the key figure in the civic public life of Victorian Newcastle.61

In May 1917 the Newcastle Corporation sent a telegram to Russia to congratulate them on the revolution, and saying that "they thought they wd like to have a telegram from N/C. the birthplace of Dr Spence Watson & Jos. Cowen."62

In February 1927 BBC 5NO Newcastle twice broadcast a 15-minute talk by Ramsey Guthrie, on "Dr Spence Watson".62A

More than a quarter of a century after Spence Watson's death, in 1937 his old clerk Jameson wrote to Mary Pollard the following touching tribute:


Your letter makes me think of times of long ago when we had for our Chief your glorious Father, Fair minded, kindly, genial and able. When I came to the office in August 1882 he was having a holiday. On his return the first time he saw me and had spoken to me he did me a kindness. That is over 55 years ago. I don't know how many generations have to pass before another such man is vouchsafed to us but although now in my 73rd year I have not experienced such a pleasure although meeting many fine men.63

Robert Spence Watson was the second child and first son of [M3] Joseph and [N1] Sarah Watson.64


1 TNA: RG 6/1149; TNA: HO 107/824/10 f20 p33; HO 107/2353 f231 p32; Dictionary of National Biography; documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Annual Monitor 1912; Friends' Quarterly Examiner 45:259 1911; Percy Corder: The Life of Robert Spence Watson. London: Headley, 1914; Friends' Quarterly Examiner:51; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard (Ms); The Friend LI:164–7, 1911-03-17; RSW letter to Mabel & Mary Spence Watson, TWAS Acc. 213/259; Robert Spence letters to Robert Foster, in my possession. A 1906 letter to his granddaughter Molly (now held by Paul Thomas) gives a somewhat different perspective:

It will seem funny to you who only know Gackie as an old man, but when I was a little boy at school, & long after, I was very shy. My sisters & my little brothers used to have to sing & to say pieces of poetry but I never was asked to, and I never got a prize at all of any kind until I was nearly 15 years old & at Bootham School!

2 Corder (1914); Newcastle Journal, 1853-07-16; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Journal, Newcastle Central Library. In the afterword to the 1853 edition of Longfellow's Hyperion, there is a description of the tour made by Birket Foster, the engraver Henry Vizetelly, and Robert Spence Watson, retracing the steps of 'Paul Flemming', i.e. Longfellow himself; RSW himself is referred to merely as 'another friend', but there is a striking reference to him from their visit to Weinheim, where Vizetelly records:

I believe we were indebted for the offer of the two rooms to an idea which had penetrated the old miller's head, that the friend who accompanied us was a person of some consequence, as, after watching him attentively for a considerable time, he suddenly leant over the table in a very anxious way, and asked me in a gruff whisper, "Is he a Baron?" Had I been able to have answered this inquiry in the affirmative, I expect an appeal to my friend would have followed, asking for his good offices on behalf of the imprisoned son.

3 Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Corder, op. cit.; Annual Monitor 1912; John William Steel: A Historical Sketch of the Society of Friends 'in Scorn called Quakers' in Newcastle & Gateshead 1653–1898. London & Newcastle, Headley Bros. 1899: 101. M. Rochussen must be Jan Jacob Rochussen, who didn't actually become prime minister until 1858. Sergeant Munday was Sergeant Joseph Munday, formerly of the 7th Hussars, who became a battlefield guide in 1849, and ran an inn and museum at Waterloo, mentioned by Dickens in Household Words; he later emigrated to join his family in Iowa, where he lived until at least 1866 [J. Mountain Antiques].

4 DNB; RSW: 'Education in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Two Lectures'. Newcastle: 6

5 Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; DNB; Newcastle Journal, 1858-11-20; Mary Sturge Gretton: Re-Cognitions (Oxford 1951, private): 15; M.S.G.: 'A Personal Recollection', in Manchester Guardian 1911; 1862, 1868 & 1872 Law List; The Friend; John William Steel: A Historical Sketch of the Society of Friends 'in Scorn called Quakers' in Newcastle & Gateshead 1653–1898. London & Newcastle, Headley Bros. 1899: 102; Journals, Newcastle Central Library; Law Society final examinations list of candidates for examination

6 Annual Monitor 1912; Sergius Stepniak: Nihilism as It Is. London: Unwin, n.d.

7 RG 9/3800 f39 p27; Newcastle Journal, 1861-01-14; Corder (1914); DNB; Journals, Newcastle Central Library; 'In Memoriam' , Club Journal 15: 648–9, 1911; Alpine Club Register: 368–9

8 Friends' registers in (RG6); Corder (1914); DNB

9 Minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting 1861–67, TWAS MF 170; documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; daughter's birth certificates; marriage certificate; Joseph Foster: A Pedigree of the Forsters and Fosters of the North of England; Evelyn SW copy of RSW letter, in book of cuttings now at TWAS; Corder (1914); 1871 census returns; Elizabeth Spence Watson: 'Family Chronicles/Home Records', and supplement; marriage digest; The Friend 1863-08-01 p. 196; The British Friend 1863-07-01 p. 181; 'In Memoriam' , Alpine Club Journal 15: 648–9, 1911; Alpine Club Register: 368–9; Ms journal of their wedding tour; The Friend IV:146 1864-06-02; The British Friend 1864-07-01; Evelyn Weiss (July 1928) 'Bensham Grove', in the Bensham Grove Settlement Magazine, pp1-3

9A Newcastle Journal, 1863-06-10; Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, 1863-06-13

10 Ward's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead

11 Alpine Club Register: 368–9; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Newcastle Journal, 1867-01-21; letter to me from Royal Geographical Society; Corder (1914); Annual Monitor 1912; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; Ms journal of their wedding tour; J. Edmund Clark (1923) 'Henry Tuke Mennell', Bootham 11.6:311-321

11A Commonplace Book B

12 DNB; pamphlet as described

13 John Wigham Richardson: Memoir of Anna Deborah Richardson Newcastle 1877: 219; my own knowledge or hypothesis; Corder (1914)

13A Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"

14 Catalogue of Tyne & Wear Archives Service; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"

14A Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"

15 DNB; Annual Monitor 1912; Northern Echo 15 Feb 1919; Newcastle Courant, 1873-06-20; William K. Sessions: They Chose the Star. 2nd edn 1991, York; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; poem in Wayside Gleanings; John Strachan (1898) Northumbrian Masonry, and the Development of the Craft in England. London: George Kenning: 164–5; General Report of the Committee of the War Victims Fund to the Meeting for Sufferings, 1871; Wikipedia

16 RG 10/5051 f63 p24; DNB; Annual Monitor 1912; Corder (1914); E.I. Waitt: 'John Morley, Joseph Cowen, and Robert Spence Watson. Liberal Divisions in Newcastle Politics, 1873–1895'. Ph.D. thesis, Manchester Univ., Oct. 1972: 37; letter to author from Nicholas Morrell; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Reminiscences of John Theodore Merz. London: Blackwood (privately printed), 1922: 289 & 306; The Times, 1911-03-03; Marriott, Dan (2002) 'Robert Spence Watson. A Pioneer of Education in the North' , University of Durham MA dissertation. He was one of the five school board members who identified themselves as 'Unsectarian' (Joan Allen, 2007, Joseph Cowen and Popular Radicalism on Tyneside 18291900, Monmouth, Merlin Press: 127)

16A Library and Museum of Freemasonry; London, England; Freemasonry Membership Registers; Description: Register of Contributions: Country and Foreign Lodges, 966-1050 (1832); 668-748 (1863); John Strachan (1898) Northumbrian Masonry, and the Development of the Craft in England. London: George Kenning: 164–5

17 RSW & ESW letters now at TWAS; RSW letter to Mabel Spence Watson, TWAS Acc. 213/13; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Catalogue of Tyne & Wear Archives Service; FQE:98; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; The Friend NS XIV.Aug:243-6; The British Friend XXXII.254-7, 277; Alpine Club Register: 368–9. Allen (2007): fn51, p192, notes that in his Reminiscences Spence Watson was highly critical of the way the 1874 election was fought, which had been won by Joseph Cowen, "yet he was Cowen's electoral agent at the time. He would have been complicit in any 'sharp practice' and, notably, his comments were made after relations between the two men had soured."

17A, accessed 2006-09-24

18 Mosscroft visitors' book; DNB

18A Alnwick Mercury, 1874-08-29

19 Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Annual Monitor 1912

20 Robert Spence Watson: Caedmon: The First English Poet. London: Longmans Green; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; death certificate; 1881 census returns; Ward's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead

20A, accessed 2006-09-20;, accessed 2008-08-13; The Guardian 1876-03-30

21 Corder (1914); Robert Spence Watson collection, House of Lords R.O. Hist. Coll. no. 136; Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, 1911-03-05; my own knowledge or hypothesis; Journal of the Friends' Historical Society

21A Catalogue of the Redheugh Estate deeds (BRA 715), 58

22 Corder (1914); RSW & ESW letters now at TWAS; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Catalogue of Tyne & Wear Archives Service; DQB; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; family letters, TWAS Acc. 213/24 and /25; autograph book order advertised on eBay, HTTP://CGI.EBAY.CO.UK/WS/EBAYISAPI.DLL?VIEWITEM&RD=1&ITEM=330260249350&SSPAGENAME=STRK:MEWA:IT&IH=014, accessed 2008-08-09

23 DQB; pamphlet as described; my own knowledge or hypothesis

23A Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; Allen (2007): 127 says that the fielding of Ashton Dilke in Newcastle that year "was part of Spence Watson's long term strategy to secure a more malleable representative."

24 E. Spence Watson: Notes to RSW Reminiscences; Catalogue of Tyne & Wear Archives Service; Manders (1973) A History of Gateshead

24A Thomas A. Edison papers

25 RG 11/5033 f97 p14; DNB; Merz (1922), op. cit.: 257; Kelly's Directory; Robert Spence Watson collection, House of Lords R.O. Hist. Coll. no. 136; Yorkshire Post 3 Mar 1911; Oliver M. Ashford: Prophet—Or Professor? The Life and Work of Lewis Fry Richardson. Bristol: Adam Hilger 1985; Ward's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead

26 Three holiday journals, 2 by ESW & 1 by RSW, now at TWAS; Evelyn Weiss: Ms Foreword to TS RSW Reminiscences; my own knowledge or hypothesis; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; doctoral degree certificate now at TWAS; The Times; information from Per Gran, in email to me of 2008-07-01

26A Newcastle Courant, 1882-03-10

26B Allen (2007): 132

27 DNB; Bootham School Register. 1914; Daily News obit.; Corder (1914); Benwell Community Project: The Making of a Ruling Class. Newcastle 1978: 41; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; The Coming Work of the Liberal Party. Speeches by Dr. Spence Watson . . . 1891: The Eighty Club

27A Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard

28 Three holiday journals, 2 by ESW & 1 by RSW, now at TWAS; Elizabeth Spence Watson: 'Family Chronicles/Home Records', and supplement; Alpine Club Register: 368–9; ;, accessed 2006-04-15

29 Corder (1914); Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; Marriott, Dan (2002) 'Robert Spence Watson. A Pioneer of Education in the North' , University of Durham MA dissertation

30 E.I. Waitt: 'John Morley, Joseph Cowen, and Robert Spence Watson. Liberal Divisions in Newcastle Politics, 1873–1895'. Ph.D. thesis, Manchester Univ., Oct. 1972: 280; Corder, op. cit.; pamphlets as described

31 Merz (1922), op. cit.: 280; Corder (1914); RSW & ESW letters now at TWAS; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; Kelly's Directory of Newcastle-on-Tyne and Suburbs; note by Evie Weiss on ESW letter to Mabel, TWAS Acc. 213/250

31A, accessed 2006-09-20

32 Robert Spence Watson collection, House of Lords R.O. Hist. Coll. no. 136; RSW & ESW letters now at TWAS; Friends' Quarterly Examiner: 290; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; RSW letter to Mabel & Mary, TWAS Acc. 213/260; Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 1888-12-12

33 Waitt (1972), op. cit.: 322, 330

34 DNB; John Rowland (1960) Progress in Power. London: Merz and McLellan, pp. 42-6; printed songsheet in my possession

35 DNB; Corder (1914); Annual Monitor 1912; book as described; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; The Friend XXX Dec:313–5; To the Arctic Zone, 1890, reprinted from Free Russia; Free Russia 5.7-9, July–October 1904; Lara Green (2019) 'Russian Revolutionary Terrorism in Transnational Perspective: Representations and Networks, 1881–1926', University of Northumbria PhD thesis, which notes that "Despite his pacifism and his other beliefs, such as in settling labour disputes by arbitration, Robert Spence Watson did not condemn outright Stepniak's justifications of terrorism, writing: 'Your work is truly noble. I can't, of course, hold some of your views. To some I am intensely opposed, but when the vessel holds good measure of good stuff, why should we quarrel with the shape or pattern?' "

36 The Friend 51:164-7 1911; The Times 6 Mar 1911

37 DNB; Corder (1914)

38 RG 12/4176 f60 p46; Vol. III of RSW Cuttings, Newcastle Central Library; The Scotsman 1891-02-07

39 DQB; Westminster Gazette obit.; The Times 3 Mar 1911; DNB; Corder (1914); Rochdale Observer, 1915-01-02. Allen (2007): 121 poses a contrary view, that Spence Watson had a key role in establishing the caucus model in Newcastle, which was the root cause of the continuing tension between himself and Joseph Cowen, especially during the latter's period as MP.

40 RSW & ESW letters now at TWAS; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"

41 M.S.G.: 'A Personal Recollection', in Manchester Guardian 1911; Westminster Gazette

42 Friends' registers in (RG6); DNB; The Friend XXXVII:35–6; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard

43 Free Russia; Waitt (1972), op. cit.: 414; Corder (1914); Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; The Friend XXXIV:47; The British Friend IV May: ads 17

44 Catalogue of Tyne & Wear Archives Service; Transactions & Annual Reports of the NSPS 1894 & 1897

45 Annual Report, National Liberal Federation, 1896 119 & 123; my own knowledge or hypothesis; Mary Spence Watson, Commonplace Book; The Gladstone Diaries 2 Oct 1891

46 The Friend XXXV:759–60, 1895-11-22, XXXVI:433–4; The British Friend IV Nov:319–10; Hope Hay Hewison: Hedge of Wild Almonds (London, 1989)

46A diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard

47 The Friend XXXVIII:317; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; DNB; The Journal of John Wodehouse First Earl of Kimberley for 1862–1902: 463; The Times, Saturday, 1898-05-28, p 8, issue 35528; Sheffield Independent, 1898-05-30; London Daily News, 1898-05-31

48 The Friend 1899-01-06; The British Friend VIII Feb:34–5, Mar:65; TNA: BT 8596/62618; Ward's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead; letterhead in front papers to my copy of Corder, op. cit.; letterhead of letter from Robert Spence Watson to Evelyn Weiss, now at TWAS. By 1904 there were more details on the letterhead (letter to Molly Richardson, 1904-11-16, held by Paul Thomas):


TELEPHONES:- NAT. NO. 1671; P.O. NO. 437

48A The Friend 1899-12-01 Supplement; The British Friend IX July:190–2; Corder (1914); diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; The Guardian 1899-10-18. In a letter to his granddaughter Molly (1901-06-06; held by Paul Thomas) he described his mobility impairment: "Gackie has been very poorly & is still such a weak old man that he has to hobble slowly about with a strong stick in his right hand & his left on dear Grannie's strong arm. But he is getting better."

49 Corder (1914); British Library Add. Mss 41236 f. 22. In a letter to Molly (1899-01-21; held by Paul Thomas) he said "Grandfather gets no dancing & no fun now." In another letter to Molly (1904-11-16) he amplified this: "Well, I used to like dancing much & would have had more fun with you at Christmas, but I have no breath left, & can walk very little & cannot dance at all,"

50 Mary Spence Watson, Commonplace Book; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; Catalogue of Tyne & Wear Archives Service; Elizabeth Spence Watson: Album / holiday itinerary; E. Spence Watson—watercolour sketches possessed by me; letters of Mary S.W. Pollard; Corder, op. cit.; BL Add. Mss 43638; RG 13/4751 f106 p54; The British Friend X July:198–9; The Friend XLII:800, XLIII:392; The Times; letter from RSW to Mabel & Hugh Richardson, 1901-09-17, and to Molly Richardson, 1904-03-23, held by Paul Thomas

50A Frank and Mary Pollard visitors' books; The Guardian 1904-04-15, 1905-04-08; Corder (1914); DNB; The Scotsman 1906-07-12

50B letter from Elizabeth Spence Watson to Molly Richardson, 1905-04-09, possessed by Paul Thomas

51 Free Russia; Corder (1914)

51A diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard

52 Annual Monitor 1912; DQB; Theodora E. Clark: 'Robert Spence Watson', in The Friend 1911, 51:164-7; Corder (1914); BL Add. Mss 41242 f. 253; DNB; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; The Times & Yorkshire Post 3 Mar 1911; Privy Council admission paper in possession of Kathie Coleman

53 DNB; Corder (1914); diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; letterhead on letter from Robert Spence Watson to Molly Richardson, 1906-08-19, possessed by Paul Thomas; The Times

54 Benwell Community Project: The Making of a Ruling Class. Newcastle 1978; Yorkshire Post, 1911-03-03

55 letter from Robert Spence Watson to Mabel Richardson, now at TWAS; will, codicil, and probate; National Probate Calendar; Hexham Courant, 1907-12-14

56 diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard

56A will, codicil, and probate

57 DNB; diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; Ward's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; Alice Mary Merz, 'Family Notes', typescript

58 Ward's Directory of Newcastle-on-Tyne; Corder (1914); DNB; The Friend 40:39 1900, XL:39–41

59 diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard; letters of Mary S.W. Pollard; Northern Mail, 1911-03-03; Yorkshire Herald obit.; Yorkshire Post, 1911-03-03; death certificate; DNB; obit.—Daily News; Corder, op. cit.; National Probate Calendar; accounts of funeral in Newcastle Daily Journal and Yorkshire Herald ; The Friend LI:180, The British Friend XX Mar:86

59A The Scotsman 1911-06-03

60 The Times 3 Mar 1911; Annual Monitor 1912; American Journal of International Law 5.3:752–3, July 1911; will, codicil, and probate; see also the tributes from his associates in the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom

61 Kota Ito (Dec 2006) 'The Making of the Civic Community—Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1850–1900', University of Leicester PhD thesis

62 diaries of Mary S.W. Pollard

62A BBC Programme Index

63 letter from _ Jameson to MSWP 16 Dec 1937

64 Anne Ogden Boyce: Records of a Quaker Family: The Richardsons of Cleveland. London: Samuel Harris, 1889



Selected opportunities for further research

The British Newspaper Archive has over 1700 references under "Robert Spence Watson", and over 11,000 to "Dr Spence Watson". I have barely skimmed over the tip of this iceberg.

Considerable numbers of letters, to and from numerous correspondents, remain to be read in the Parliamentary Archives, Tyne & Wear Archives, and Newcastle University Library; the Royal University Library in Oslo has some correspondence with Nansen, the National Library of Scotland correspondence with Lord Rosebery, the Fawcett Library correspondence with Josephine Butler; Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiisko Federatsii in Moscow has correspondence with Stepniak (these have been published in Russian, but not in English); a large collection of correspondence with Volkhovsky is held by the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Small holdings are scattered far and wide, but I can advise on the whereabouts of these, as I have tried to keep track of them all.

Tyne & Wear Archives also hold volumes of newspaper cuttings, also including copy letters. Newcastle University Library also has a scrapbook of articles on Russian Freedom, annotated. Newcastle Central Library seven volumes of newspaper cuttings, 1834–1914.

Significant private holdings include 6 volumes of letters of condolence, one volume of the Bensham Grove visitors' book.

The 1873 French medal has yet to be located.

The archives of the law firm of Watson Burton are now held by Tyne & Wear Archives.



Joseph Watson was born on the 4th September 1807 in St John's parish, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was educated at Ackworth School from 1817 to 1819; but in those days the discipline was severe and unsuited to those boys who had special attractions at home, and he was not sorry to leave it. When his younger brothers met him at the coach office they refused to walk home with "the funny little old man" (as the gamins of that day called him), attired in broad-brimmed beaver hat, Friends' coat and vest with brass buttons, knee breeches, grey stockings, and shoes with plain buckles. He went afterwards to the famous school at Darlington kept by the brothers Cowan. Here he was in a more congenial atmosphere, and made great progress under those enlightened masters. His remarkable memory retained throughout life much of the Greek and Latin poets, with whose worlds he then became familiar. While at Ackworth he became the friend of John Bright, a friendship he retained throughout his life.1

After leaving school he became clerk in Backhouse and Company's Bank, in Darlington, where he remained for nearly two years, gaining that knowledge of accounts which enabled him afterwards to take a leading part in all legal enquiries in which figures were involved. He had an unusual gift for mental arithmetic and he never lost this. In 1860 he had a contest with George Parker Bidder, the famous calculating boy, in which he came off victorious.2

Wishing to have a more independent life, on the 27th November 1827 he was articled to John Fenwick, of Messrs Kirkley and Fenwick, a well-known firm of solicitors, "to serve him in the profession of an Attorney at Law and Solicitor in Chancery" for the term of five years. In 1827—described as a gentleman—he was granted by his father an annuity of £2.2.0 a year for life, payable out of a plot of land of 18 acres 3 roods & 5 perches in the Forest Greveship of East Allendale, Northumberland, one of the two plots late part of Allendale Common which were, upon the division of parts of Hexhamshire and Allendale Common, allotted to Joseph Watson late of Shildon near Blanchland yeoman decd in respect of his copyhold estate at Tedham then held of the Manor of Hexham, to be paid half-yearly. He spent the year 1829–30 in London, attending law lectures by Professor Amos at University College, then recently opened. In April 1830 he was living at 33 Poultry, London. In one term he shared the first prize, writing to his parents that "It is unnecessary for me to say that this is the greatest event in my life." As he expected, however—partly due to his study being disrupted by Yearly Meeting—he didn't do so well in the final exam, coming second. As a prize, his professor gave him a copy of Perkins' Profitable Book, bound in red morocco and gilt, with a handsome inscription. In the Easter term of 1830 he was admitted to practise as an attorney.3

portrait of a young Joseph Watson

In April and October 1831 he was one of two Newcastle representatives to Monthly Meeting, and in July that year was one of 45 men Friends who signed the certificate for George Washington Walker. In February 1815 he again represented Newcastle at Monthly Meeting, along with Edward Richardson. He was a Quaker in religion, and in politics a fiery reformer. He was a member of the council of the Northern Political Union. In 1831 he spoke on the Reform Bill at a mass meeting (50,000 strong) on the Town Moor. When the Lords threw out the first Bill, he was among a dozen politicians who met at Sir John Fyfe's house in Newcastle to consider whether, in the event of the ultimate defeat of the measure, open rebellion would not be justifiable. The story tells that Watson, as a Quaker, was alone in opposing such extreme measures. In any event, another of the twelve reported the discussion to the authorities, and it is clear that, had the bill been defeated, all the conspirators would have been arrested.

In May 1832 he addressed a public meeting of the inhabitants of Gateshead and its vicinity, held at Oakwellgate, to look at what need to be done to secure the Bill's passage. The political climate had just changed, and Earl Grey had been returned to office.


"Tell me not," said he of revolutions effected by violence. Talk not of an appeal to physical force. Here is a revolution, the most glorious that is recorded in the annals of this or any other country, carried forward without tumult, and concluded without bloodshed [cheers].

Following a rousing and popular address, he moved one of the resolutions, which was carried unanimously.4

He was an ardent lover of civil and religious liberty; and his rare oratorical gift made him a powerful ally of the Liberal party in the mighty struggles which went forward in the late twenties and early thirties. His speeches in favour of Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery in the West Indies, and the Reform Bill, were filled not merely with eloquent passages (which indeed abound) but with the glow of generous conviction. He sheltered fugitive slaves, including Frederick Douglass; and he was a friend of William Lloyd Garrison, as well as Garibaldi and Kossuth. A frequent speaker at public meetings on Corn Law reform, he was a northern secretary of the Anti-Corn Law League, and was secretary for the great Anti-Corn Law Bazaar held in London.5

As a young man, he fell in love with [P1] Jane Wigham, and it is said that he set off the same day as [O2] Edward Richardson, to propose to her; his suit was unsuccessful. Many years later, he was delighted when his son Robert married the daughter of his old love.6

signature of Joseph WatsonIn January 1832 he was one of the readers at the Essay Meeting at Summerhill, and read his own 'Magazine Ditty' , "a very clever six-line verse on the events of the Past and the Coming Year." By April that year he was practising as a solicitor at 22 St Nicholas' Churchyard, Newcastle. In February 1834 he was one of two representatives from Newcastle at Monthly Meeting, held there, as he was in September, at the meeting held at Sunderland; on the latter occasion he was appointed to the committee in charge of deeds and papers relating to trust property. On the 1st August that year he wrote a poem, 'The Day of Jubilee' , to celebrate the abolition of Slavery.7

In 1833 he was living at Bensham Grove, and practising as a solicitor at 23 St Nicholas' Churchyard, Newcastle; the firm's London agents were Richardson, Shield & Hall (by 1836 Shield & Harwood).8

In February Monthly Meeting appointed William Brown, James Gilpin and Thomas Robson to enquire into Joseph's clearness to marriage; at the March meeting, there being no obstacles, Henry Brady and Edward Richardson were appointed to ensure conduct agreeably to good order, and to prepare abstracts of the marriage certificate. On the 12th March 1835 he married [N1] Sarah Spence, at the meeting house in North Shields; at this date he was described as an attorney at law, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as he was at the births of his three eldest children. They had twelve children: Lucy (1836–1918), [M2] Robert Spence (1837–1911), Esther Mary (1838–1903), Joseph (1840–1873), William Joshua (1841–1896), Sarah Jane (1842–1848), Emily (1844–1913), Charles John (1846–1846), Helen (1848–1922), Sarah Anna (1849–1849), Herbert (1852–1873), and Gertrude (1854–1930); all births were recorded by Durham Quarterly Meeting, the two eldest (at least) being born at (probably 8) Claremont Place, Gateshead. In June 1835 and April 1837 Joseph was one of the two Newcastle representatives to Monthly Meeting. In February 1836 he signed the testimony to Thomas Richardson. In December 1835 he was one of four signatories to a paper on Friends being chosen as town councillors—reporting from a committee to examine the provisions of the Municipal Reform Bill in this regard; the committee concluded that members should not hold municipal offices, though there was no longer a legal bar; this was because office holders had to declare they would uphold the established church. In January 1837 he was one of four men appointed by Monthly Meeting to look at the implications of the new law on births, marriages and deaths.9

By January 1838 he had been deputed by the Newcastle and Gateshead Law Institute to represent them on the committee planning for the arrival of the British Scientific Association in Newcastle. By that year the family were living at 4 Claremont-place, Gateshead; at some time they apparently also lived at 8 Claremont Place (or perhaps the houses were re-numbered); in December 1838, however, Joseph's residence was given as 10 Summerhill Terrace, Westgate, Newcastle. From 1838 onwards Joseph is usually described as a solicitor.10

He was a keen fisherman, being exceedingly skilful in taking bull-trout upon the small trout fly—many a time he took one or two weighing seven and a half pounds. In his son's opinion, he was "the best of the old-fashioned fishers." He also wrote verse, being the author of the ballad 'The Legend of the Lambton Worm' ; he was a tolerably regular contributor for some years to Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, and the anti-slavery album called The Bow in the Cloud, and that produced by the young Friends of the district at that time, entitled the Aurora Borealis, have important poems by him; and the latter one of the few Quaker stories which have been written by a Friend and full of the right Quaker atmosphere; in fact he assisted with the preparation of this latter album, which was considered "a very creditable production of its kind." He had a rare talent for epigram, and did good work with it upon many occasions. His great love of children led him to write many a pretty story for their delectation. He was quite happy when he could have a children's party, eight or ten wee ones, all to himself, showing them toys and telling them tales; after 1839 he introduced the family to the German-style Christmas, with a tree hung with candles and all sorts of curious things, including gingerbread donkeys.11


Joseph Watson with an unidentified son

Joseph Watson, with an unidentified son

An ardent lover of literature and a frequent contributor to the Newcastle Magazine, he excelled in light sketches of a popular character, but sometimes he left the region of prose and produced poems of considerable merit. One of his pieces, entitled "An Address to St. Nicholas Steeple," appeared in the Magazine and became very popular. Several literary productions from his pen also appeared in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle. He represented Newcastle at Monthly Meeting in August 1838 and August 1839. In February 1840 he was one of five men appointed by the Meeting to prepare a memorial on Sufferings, to go to the Secretary of State; this was signed the following month. In December 1840 he signed the testimony to Margaret Bragg.12

In March 1840 he was living in Summerhill Terrace, Westgate, Newcastle. By October that year his office had moved to 25 St Nicholas Churchyard, Newcastle. In November of that year, assisted by a Mr Greenhow, he carried a series of resolutions on the expediency of establishing a Collegiate Institution in Newcastle. In 1841 he donated £5 and subscribed £1 to the North of England Agricultural School. The census that year recorded him as a solicitor, living at Summerhill Terrace with his wife, four children, two servants, and a third person, probably also a servant. In the latter half of May 1842 Joseph and his family spent a week with his father-in-law in North Shields; towards the end of the visit they all visited the supposedly haunted Willington Mill. In December 1842 he took the lead on arranging and reporting to a meeting of the proprietors of the Great North of England Railway, to discuss a course of action in the light of the opposition of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In 1843 he took a leading part in the return of John Bright as MP for Durham City. In October and November that year he had letters published in The British Friend, on the subject of anonymous writing.13

Around 1844, with his son Robert, he made what was believed to be the first through journey from Gateshead to London by rail.14

In the early 1840s he went to Vauxhall to see George Catlin and his North American Indians. He had much correspondence with Catlin and was much interested in the question of the North American Indians.15

By 1842 he was living at (6) Elswick Villas, where his children were born in that year, 1842 and 1846. He was present at the death of his father-in-law [N2] Robert Spence in 1845. By 1847 he was a member of the Newcastle and Gateshead Law Society. The family home was by then given as 6 Elswick Terrace, Newcastle. That year Joseph Watson was an active worker on the Liberal Committee which successfully united the sections of the local party to secure the return of two Liberal members, Messrs Ord and Headlam. By 1848 he and his family had apparently moved to (1 or 2) Gresham Place, St Andrew, Newcastle, where his next three children were born. In April that year he was one of the Friends who visited George Miller Robinson regarding his reinstatement.16

In 1836 his father-in-law's connection in the banking company of the Messrs Chapman had led him to take an active part in the conversion of the bank into the Newcastle, Shields, and Sunderland Union Banking Company. At this time he occupied himself very much in business affairs, and became an attorney of considerable practice. He was solicitor to, and a large shareholder in, the Newcastle, Shields and Sunderland Union Joint Stock Banking Company, which failed in late 1847; he had been advising them to meet their creditors and shareholders as early as March. Edward Richardson offered him pecuniary assistance at this time, which however he declined. He devoted himself with great regularity and punctuality to the duties of his profession, and soon recovered lost ground. His legal opinion in connection with mercantile and commercial matters was highly thought of, and his intimate acquaintance with the bankruptcy laws especially secured for him a large connection in that branch of legal practice, and he was one of the leading attorneys in the Newcastle Bankruptcy Court up to the period of its abolition. He was prominent in founding the well-known banking business of Messrs Hodgkin and Co., of St Nicholas' Square, Newcastle, to which he was solicitor. He subsequently prepared the Bankers Limited Liability Act and saw it through Parliament (it was passed in 1862).17

In March 1848 Joseph Watson acted as one of four secretaries of the Newcastle Polytechnic Exhibition, to be opened on the 24th April. Around the beginning of July 1848 he wrote to Charles Dickens, inviting him for a now-unknown occasion. Dickens graciously declined. He wrote again in December 1855, Dickens again replying that he was too busy.18

In 1851 the census recorded him as a solicitor, living at 2 Gresham Place, St Andrew, Newcastle upon Tyne, with his wife, five children, and two house servants. That year he was local secretary to the Great Exhibition.19

In 1852 he was secretary to the Coquetdale Angling Club. He was secretary of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society from 1852 to 1860, and for many years was chair of the Newcastle Fine Arts Society.20

He appears in the 1853 electoral register as a resident of Newcastle, qualified to vote by possession of one undivided third part of a freehold house in Bensham Lane. That year, with Robert, he visited the English lakes and the Highlands. In 1854 he spent two weeks on the continent with his children Lucy and Robert, travelling to Holland with M. Rochussen, the prime minister; they were shown round the field of Waterloo by Sergeant Munday, a veteran of the battle. He visited Rothbury every year till 1870.21

On the 13th February 1854 he advertised in The Times as solicitor for the petition for the appointment of an official manager of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Marine Insurance Company, under the Joint-stock Companies' Winding-up Acts 1858 & 1849; London agents: Shield & Harwood, 10 Clement's Lane, Lombard Street, London.22

On the 30th May 1855, a gentleman, of Newcastle, he was co-executor of his father's will. That year he was variously described as an attorney, of Royal Arcade, Newcastle, and a solicitor, of Arcade and 2 Gresham Place; and in 1858 as a solicitor, of 10 Arcade, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, resident at 4 Summerhill Grove, Newcastle. In May 1856 his offices in the Arcade had been damaged by fire in the salerooms below, but the cost would be recoverable from his insurance. "The chimney of Mr. Watson's office had been on fire in the course of the previous afternoon, and the fire in the sale rooms may have arisen from its not having been completely suppressed." By 1857 his firm's London agent had become J.U. Harwood, and the following year S.R. Pattison (by 1868 Pattison, Wigg & Co.). By 1860 Joseph was a member of the Metropolitan & Provincial Law Association.23

In July 1859 he was present at his daughters' double wedding in Newcastle; local newspaper coverage referred to him as "our much respected townsman, Joseph Watson, Esq., solicitor." In November 1859 he gave notice of intent to apply to Parliament for leave to bring in a bill to incorporate the Newcastle upon Tyne and Derwent Valley Railway Company, with a view to connecting the Stockton and Darlington Railway with the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway; by January 1860 he was solicitor and Secretary to the company. By May, however, the bill had been rejected by Parliament. In his will, dated 23rd August 1860, he is described as a gentleman. That month he seems to have travelled at least as far as the continent with Robert, on his three-week tour. By March 1861 Joseph was solicitor to the Official Managers of the Newcastle, Shields and Sunderland Union Joint Stock Banking Company, in course of being wound up. In 1861 the family was living at Bensham Grove, where they employed three domestic servants; two visitors were also present. He owned a number of houses in Elysium Lane, Gateshead.24

He was one of the founders and first secretary of the Victoria Blind Asylum. He was a kind and worthy man in all the relations of life, and as a solicitor held a high place in the Town.25

By 1862 he had taken his son Robert into partnership, trading as J. & R.S. Watson; their office was at 10 Arcade, Newcastle. Joseph was now a member of the Solicitors' Benevolent Association. In 1863 the private ledger for E. & J. Richardson includes an account for J. & R.S. Watson, showing payments of £456-0-0 for "Expenses o/a Whittle Dean Water Co." and £52-5-3 just described as "Lawyers Bills." In July 1865 the firm was paid £8/8/2½ by David Richardson.26

As he advanced in years his public appearances became rare, but his Liberal convictions strengthened. Never was he heard to greater advantage than when in 1868 he took the leading part at a public breakfast, given in the Assembly Rooms, Newcastle, to William Lloyd Garrison, for whom he performed a similar service 21 years previously. It was indeed a meeting of brave old men, eloquent once again in the cause for which they had fought so stoutly for so many years, side by side, though in distant lands.27

In early February 1869 Joseph represented the Society of Friends in an action at Newcastle police-court against David Davis, a street preacher, who had been disrupting Friends' meetings; Davis was fined 60s. On the 15th February Joseph Watson's firm advertised in The Times, as solicitors to the official manager of the Newcastle, Shields and Sunderland Union Joint-Stock Banking Company, to be wound up on the 15th March. Pattison, Wigg, Gurney & King, 50 Lombard Street, London, were acting as their London agents.28

In September 1869 he wrote 'Rothbury' , a poem in dialect. For Christmas 1870 he and Sarah were given a fur rug and an easy chair by their son Robert. In 1871 his domestic circumstances were as in 1861; the servants are described as a domestic servant, a house servant, and a cook/servant.29

After his wife's death in August 1871 he felt his loss acutely—for him the world was changed—but he bore up bravely, and found some relief in looking over the countless letters which brought back all the past. He went to Rothbury for a few days (or more) after the death. He also had printed a booklet, In Memoriam Sarah Watson.30

By 1872 Joseph was recorded as a member of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Incorporated Law Society.31 In 1873 Joseph and Robert Spence Watson, solicitors, were recorded as holding 20 £10 shares (out of 800) in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Turkish Bath Company Limited, formed the previous year.32

He felt his son Herbert's death in March 1873 a terrible blow. In 1873 he went out to Italy for ten days, during the final illness of his son Joe. In January 1874 he wrote and printed his poem 'A Tale of Florence' in memory of "my beloved son" Joseph.33

In 1874 he was resident in Newcastle, and a registered voter in Gateshead by virtue of his ownership of one undivided third part of a freehold house in Bensham Lane. In October that year he purchased the Chirnels Estate, Rothbury—8 acres, 2 roods and 30 perches of land, with cottage attached—for £1100, at auction.34

Though one who spoke little about religious matters, his voice was always raised on the side of righteousness, and his quiet but effectual testimony to the truth carried conviction into many quarters where such teaching is but seldom received. Shortly before his death he wrote several poems of much beauty, breathing that spirit of Christian resignation which he had in life so truly exemplified.35

He was described as "a man of great integrity, and much esteemed by all persons who came in contact with him both in business and private life." "Being one of the oldest lawyers in Newcastle, Mr. Watson was well known; and his pleasant and genial manner secured for him the respect not only of his professional brethren, but of all who knew him." "He was a fine specimen of a good North Country Englishman and a Quaker. A man with no pretence and no vain show, but a man of strong, solid intellect, earnest conscientiousness, deep and true religious feeling."36

the mature Joseph Watson

Although in later years his action in public affairs was less prominent than in those early days when great principles summoned indomitable energy to inculcate their truth and defend them from detraction, he still maintained a warm sympathy with all popular movements, and did not hesitate to throw himself into the breach, when occasion offered, as of old. Still, he was rather a watchful observer and keen sympathiser than an active combatant in recent political strife. His natural modesty prevented him from coming forward as a leader of men, but he thought vigorously, had a keen sense of humour, and could wield a polished and caustic pen. He won genuine respect as a reputable and useful citizen, and as a warm and generous friend.37

In late 1874 he bought books for all the grandchildren, writing their names in them, but, as if he had had some presentiment of what was going to happen, he said to the family, when they laughed at him for being so beforehand, "We cannot tell what may happen before Christmas." He had had a cough and cold, but made rather light of it, going in to work as usual. About six o' clock on Thursday evening, the 10th December, he left his office in Pilgrim Street, and went home, where he was then in very good spirits, and his family noticed nothing to cause them to anticipate that he was soon to be overtaken by an illness which was to end fatally. He busied himself about some law matters, and sat up writing till a later hour than was usual, and soon after retiring was seized with illness, and was attended by one of his daughters. Two doctors were called in, but their services were unavailing, and on the 11th December he was taken much worse. The following day he made a codicil to his will, to reflect his wife's death since the date of the will itself. The doctor said at once there was great danger—he was suffering from a complication of disease—bronchitis, heart complaint &c. He thought from the very first he would not rally, and he spoke to his family with calm and joyful anticipation of the approaching end. He told of his happiness, of his faith in Jesus, the only Refuge, and of the joy he had in looking forward to meeting with the beloved ones gone before. The watching continued until Monday, the 14th when he quietly passed away, at Bensham Grove, the cause of his death being given as pneumonia. On the 17th he was laid in the family vault at Jesmond beside his wife and his son Herbert, an immense concourse of people joining the procession of 26 coaches from Bensham to the cemetery; amongst those present were the mayors and town clerks of Newcastle and Gateshead, as well as Joseph Swan and Theo Merz. Whilst the coffin was being lowered into the vault, two of the lady mourners placed two immortelles upon it, one at the head and the other at the foot. A meeting was afterwards held in the meeting house—very largely attended—when Thomas Hodgkin, R.B. Butler and Thomas Pumphrey all spoke very beautifully, dwelling on Joseph Watson's special characteristics—his love and tenderness, and child-like faith; a Mr Rutter noted that "Even in his last illness, when most people would be wrapped up in themselves or their families, he was much interested about establishing a soup kitchen for the poor on his own premises." His will was proved at Durham on the 25th February 1875, his estate being valued at under £18,000 (£822,600 at 2005 values); this included Bensham Grove and Mosscroft, the proceeds of some recently sold freehold land at the (Viaduct?) in Gateshead, a £2000 life assurance policy, and shares in the Redheugh Bridge Co. & the Newcastle Gas Co.38

Robert wrote the following of his father:

. . . But this last change! the father, so beloved,
So wise, so true, so gentle,—he hath passed
Away from us to whom he ever proved
A refuge from life's cold and bitter blast.
Could tenderest love and prudent spirit last,
He were immortal; and from him we learned
To sorrow us with hope; his lot is cast
With those for whom his heart so fondly yearned:
His day's work done his rest is due and nobly earned.39

Joseph Watson was the eldest child of [M4] Joshua and [M9] Esther Watson.40

The obituary in the Newcastle Courant41 reads:


DEATH OF MR JOSEPH WATSON.—The death of Mr Joseph Watson, solicitor, of Gateshead and Newcastle, took place on Monday afternoon at his residence in Gateshead after a brief illness, and at the age of 68 years. Mr Watson's family belonged to Cumberland. His father, Mr Joshua Watson, carried on a large provision business in the Side, Newcastle. Joseph was educated at the Quaker school in Darlington, and afterwards articled to Mr J. Fenwick, a well known solicitor of Newcastle, but while attending to the dry technicalities of legal science, he was nevertheless an ardent lover of literature and was a frequent contributor to the Newcastle Magazine. He excelled in light sketches of a popular character, but sometimes he left the region of prose and produced poems of considerable merit. One of his poems entitled "An Address to St. Nicholas' Steeple," appeared in the Magazine and became very popular. He also assisted Mr Doeg, a literary gentleman in the employment of Mr Charles Bragg, in writing and editing an annual called the "Aurora Borealis," which was considered a very creditable production of its kind. About 1830, Mr Watson [unreadable word] his clerkship and went to London University, where he obtained considerable distinction [two or three unreadable words] at the legal examination conducted by Professor Amos. After returning to Newcastle he resumed the practice of his profession at St Nicholas' Churchyard. The country was then greatly [unreadable word] about the great Reform Bill, and [two or three unreadable words] movements of that stirring [two or three unreadable words] took an active part on the Liberal [two or three unreadable words] the Reform Bill had passed Mr Watson's [two or three unreadable words] was in connection [with the] repeal of the Corn Laws, and he was a [two or three unreadable words] at the public meetings of that [two or three unreadable words] struggle which took place when [two or three unreadable words] and Mr Headlam were returned [two or three unreadable words] over Mr Richard [two or three unreadable words] the [Conserva]tive candidate. Mr Watson [two or three unreadable words] was an active worker on the Liberal [two or three unreadable words] About 1835 he married Miss Spence at North Shields, a member of the Society of Friends and [daughter] of Mr Robert Spence, of Messrs [two or three unreadable words] Bank. The connection of [two or three unreadable words] Mr Watson, in the banking company [two or three unreadable words] led Mr Watson to take an active part in the conversion of the bank in [two or three unreadable words] Shields, and Sunderland Bank [two or three unreadable words]. At this time Mr Watson [two or three unreadable words] in business affairs, and [two or three unreadable words] considerable practice. In 1847, [two or three unreadable words] failed, Mr Watson suffered [two or three unreadable words] unfortunate scheme; but [two or three unreadable words] great regularity and punctuality [two or three unreadable words] profession, and soon recovered [two or three unreadable words] intimate acquaintance with [two or three unreadable words] especially secure for him [two or three unreadable words] branch of legal practice, and [two or three unreadable words]ing attorneys in the Newcastle [two or three unreadable words] to the period of its abolition [two or three unreadable words] commissioner Ellison, and [two or three unreadable words] Mr Commissioner Abr[aham]. Mr Watson was prominent in founding the well-known [two or three unreadable words] of Messrs Hodgkin and Co, of [two or three unreadable words] Mr Watson was also for a number of years one of the honorary secretaries of the Literary and Philosophical Institution; but it is [a few unreadable words] prominent part in public life [a few unreadable words] not have been so well known [a few unreadable words] generation of Newcastle, [a few unreadable words] who took part in the Liberal [a few unreadable words] and forty years ago. The [a few unreadable words] leading member of the Society [a few unreadable words] community he was universally respected. In the course of a long life Mr Watson [a few unreadable words] a wide circle of friends who [a few unreadable words] intelligence of his sudden [a few unreadable words] sincerely mourn his loss.

*** For an exhaustive treatment of the lives of Joseph and Sarah Watson, please see this .pdf file. ***


1 TNA: HO 107/2405 f74 p68; TNA: RG 6/628; Quaker birth certificate; Yorkshire Post, 1911-03-03; Ackworth School Centenary Committee: List of the Boys and Girls admitted into Ackworth School 1779–1879, Ackworth 1879; RSW in John William Steel: A Historical Sketch of the Society of Friends 'in Scorn called Quakers' in Newcastle & Gateshead 1653–1898. London & Newcastle, Headley Bros. 1899: 169

2 RSW in Steel (1899):171; Percy Corder: The Life of Robert Spence Watson. London: Headley, 1914; Northern Mail, 1911-03-03

3 Corder, op. cit.; documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; RSW in Steel (1899):171; 1862, 1868 & 1872 Law List; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341; articles of clerkship. Perkins' Profitable Book was a popular law book, first published in 1538 [Sixteenth Century English Lawyer's Library].

4 Minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting, TWAS MF 169; obit. of Robert Spence Watson Daily News, 1911-03-03; Steel (1899), op. cit.: 338; Tribune 9 Oct 1906; Sansbury, Ruth: Beyond the Blew Stone. 300 Years of Quakers in Newcastle. 1998: Newcastle-upon-Tyne Preparative Meeting. pp. 167-8; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings II

5 DQB; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; RSW in Steel (1899): 171-2; Tribune 9 Oct 1906; Sergius Stepniak: Nihilism as It Is. London: Unwin, n.d.; Corder, op. cit.; obit. of Robert Spence Watson Daily News 3 Mar 1911; obit. of Robert Spence Watson Annual Monitor 1912; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341

6 Evelyn Weiss: Ms Foreword to TS RSW Reminiscences

7 Steel (1899): 129; minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting, TWAS MF 169; poem; RSW Cuttings II, Newcastle Central Library; Newcastle Chronicle, 1832-04-21

8 Ihler's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead, 1833; 1833, 1835–37, 1839–40, 1843–47, 1850, 1852, 1854–55 Law Lists

9 Minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting, TWAS MF 169; Philip Spence: Robert and Mary Spence. 1939; TNA: RG 6/202, /527, /1149, /1245; DQB; son's birth certificate; Steel, op. cit.: 80; The British Friend; Corder (1914); Sansbury, loc. cit.

10 Corder, op. cit.; 1861 & 1871 census returns; daughter's birth certificate; son's marriage certificate; Ward's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead; DQB; The British Friend; Newcastle Journal, 1838-01-20

11 RSW in Steel (1899):171-2; Corder, op. cit.; DQB; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Sansbury (1998): 157-8; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341

12 Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341; minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting, TWAS MF 169

13 HO 107/824/10 f20 p33; Robert Spence Watson: History of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1793–1896). London: Walter Scott, 1897: 270; f6 (source reference misplaced) 45:259 1911; RSW in Steel (1899):171-2; son's birth certificate; TWAS MF 188; clipping in volume at Newcastle Central Library; Robert Spence letters to Robert Foster, in my possession; Newcastle Journal, 1840-10-31; Yorkshire Gazette, 1842-12-17

14 Corder, op. cit.

15 Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson

16 father-in-law's death certificate; White's Newcastle & Gateshead Directory, 1847; 1847 Law List; The British Friend; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341; children's birth certificates; son's death certificate; minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting, TWAS MF 169

17 Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Friends' Quarterly Examiner; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edn; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341; Robert Spence letters to Robert Foster, in my possession

18 The Guardian, 1848-03-15; The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vols 5 & 7 (1978) ed. Graham Storey and K.J. Fielding. OUP

19 HO 107/2405 f74 p68; RSW in Steel (1899):171-2

20 RSW: 'Northumbrian Story and Song', in Northumbria, Lectures delivered to the Lit. & Phil., Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on Newcastle in History, Literature, and Art, by Thomas Hodgkin, RSW, R. Oliver Heslop, and Richard Welford. Newcastle: Reid, 1898: 158; Watson (1897); Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341

21 electoral register; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Corder, op. cit.

22 The Times

23 Durham Probate Records, DPRI/1/1855/W8; Slater's Commercial Directory of Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire; Kelly's Directory of Northumberland and Durham; 1857–58, 1860, 1862, 1868 & 1872 Law Lists; Whellan's Directory of Northumberland; Newcastle Journal, 1856-05-24

24 will; RG 9/3800 f39 p27; Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; The Friend; RSW Journal, Newcastle Central Library; London Evening Standard, 1859-11-23; Newcastle Journal, 1860-01-14; Durham County Advertiser, 1860-05-04; Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, 1861-03-02

25 W. Harris Robinson in Steel (1899): 70

26 Ward's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead; 1862 & 1868 Law Lists; E. & J. Richardson private ledger, TWAS Acc. 161/330

27 RSW in Steel (1899):172; clipping from local paper in volume at Newcastle Central Library (which says it was an evening event, rather than a morning)

28 The Times; Leeds Mercury, 1869-02-05; Newcastle Chronicle, 1869-02-06

29 RG 10/5051 f64 p25; poem; poem in Wayside Gleanings

30 Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"

31 1872 Law List

32, accessed 2006-09-24

33 Reminiscences of Robert Spence Watson; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; printed poem

34 electoral register; The Berwick Advertiser, 1874-10-23; Morpeth Herald, 1874-10-24

35 RSW in Steel (1899), op. cit.: 172; poem of Nov 1874

36 Merz (1922), op. cit.: 221-2; Dr Thomas Hodgkin, in Bootham Magazine (York Old Scholars Assn magazine) V.5:369-9 Nov 1911; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341

37 Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341

38 death certificate; Gateshead Observer, 1874-12-19; National Probate Calendar; will and probate; documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; Elizabeth Spence Watson's "Family Chronicles"; death/burial digest; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341; Durham County Advertiser, 1874-12-18

39 poem in Wayside Gleanings

40 DQB; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341

41 Newcastle Courant, 1874-12-18—the BNA scan is poor quality, and difficult to read in places



Joshua Watson was born on the 15th August 1771, in Allendale, Northumberland.1

In 1796 he witnessed the marriage of David Carrick and Mary Wilson, at Cornwood, Northumberland. In 1799 he was assessed in Allendale, as an owner-occupier, for 3s. 4d. Land Tax. As a young man he worked as a lead miner—apparently before 1803, though he is still described as such in 1806. In this occupation he was a member of a most democratic confraternity. Each man took his bit of ground to be explored at a certain figure from the lord of the manor: there was not the relationship of master and servant.2

But the town had its fascination for him, and he came to Newcastle in 1804, after staying for a year or perhaps less in the catchment area of Carlisle Monthly Meeting. He lived in the Side—then almost a fashionable quarter of Newcastle—over the shop in which he carried on the business of a cheesemonger. In 1805 he witnessed the marriage of Elizabeth Watson and Thomas Tessimond, at Allendale.3 In April 1806 he placed the following advertisement in The Newcastle Courant:


late with mr daniel oliver, cheesemonger,

BEGS Leave to acquaint the public, that he has taken the Shop lately occupied by Mrs Samuel Nicholson, Cheesemonger, next Door above Mr. Craike, Woollendraper, Foot of the Side, Newcastle, where he has laid in a good Stock of Cheese of different Sorts; also Butter, Bacon, and Hams; and he hopes, by his steady Attention to Business, to be enabled to merit the Favour of those who may honour him with their Custom.

Newcastle, April 4, 1806 3A

signature of Joshua WatsonIn July 1806 Newcastle Monthly Meeting appointed David Sutton, Joseph Procter, and John Mounsey to investigate Joshua's clearness to marry, with David Sutton to publish his intentions at first day morning Meeting in Newcastle. On the 27th August 1806 he married [M9] Esther Watson at Allendale meeting house; he was described as a cheesemonger, of St Nicholas's parish, Newcastle. They had three children: [M3] Joseph (1807–1874), William Wigham (1809–1847), and Joshua (1811–1888), all being born in St John's parish, Newcastle. By November 1806 Joshua had subscribed £100 towards the fund for the new meeting house in Newcastle. He was one of two representatives to Monthly Meeting in December 1806, as well as in February, May, and November 1807; on the latter occasion he was accompanied by Isaac Richardson. He represented Newcastle there again in June 1808, in March 1809 (with David Sutton), May 1809, December 1809 (with David Sutton again), in May 1810, in October and November 1811, in June 1817, September 1818, July 1819, in October 1820, and in February 1827.4

Behind his house and shop his garden ran up steeply to the Moot Hall. When his eldest son, Joseph, was born, in 1807, he was anxious that the child should have plenty of fresh milk; and, laying down the little garden, or garth, in grass, he bought a cow: but the problem was how to get it into the garden! A long and steep flight of stairs intervened between the Side and the garth. Joshua Watson was little of stature but a Hercules in strength, and the story goes that he carried the astonished cow up the stairs and deposited it in the garden,—no doubt with much groaning of spirit on the part of both! He was indeed a Hercules. In early youth he had thrown the champion wrestler of Cumberland; had leaped on to the head of a wild stag at bay in a rocky pool, and held it down until ropes were brought and it was led securely away. With old-fashioned gallantry, when acting as guide in his native parts to two lady Friends engaged in the ministry, he threw himself over an open pit-working and made for them a bridge of his body that they might pass over the narrow but perilous strait to the fair land beyond, otherwise inaccessible for them. [These stories are, of course, to be taken with a pinch of salt].5

Joshua Watson

In late 1814 and early 1815 he took action in the Sheriff's Court for recovery of debt, from a few individuals. In September 1815 he purchased premises in the Side, at an auction at Wallace's, through a Mr Richardson; he took a £1000 mortgage from Benjamin Slater; the purchase was completed at the George Inn, on the 26th September; conveyancing fees totalled £57.10.0d. In January 1816 he advertised for sale "About 70 Tons of excellent OLD MILK CHEESES".6

In 1818 he purchased two allotments on Gateshead town fields, from a Mr Fairweather, and another there from a Mr Gibbon; conveyancing fees amounted to £20.15.6d. It may be that these transactions relate directly to his purchase that year of Bensham Grove, as a country cottage for his children. Possibly he overstretched himself, for around 1819 he borrowed £600 from a Margaret Watson, of which he had only been able to return £100 by July of 1820.7

In 1821 he was one of the subscribers to Westgarth Forster's A Treatise on a Section of the Strata, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to the Mountain of Cross Fell, in Cumberland.7A

He didn't vote in the 1820 election, but did in 1832, for Charles Attwood, voting as an inhabitant householder, a shopkeeper, of the Side; he also voted in 1835, as a householder, for William Ord and James Aytoun.8

In May 1823 he leased a shop and bakehouse in the Side to a Richard Mort, for £75 per annum. He appears to have owned nos 17, 19 and 21, in the Side.9

It appears that Joshua hadn't entirely lost interest in lead mining, for on the 1st November 1825, at an auction at the house of Mrs Wallace, Innkeeper, Newcastle, he purchased 1/64 part of Foreshield Grains Lead Mine, for £31—held under lease of the Commissioners and Governours of Greenwich Hospital at one fifth Duty.10

In September 1827, a cheesemonger of Newcastle, he granted an annuity of £2.2.0 p.a. each to Joseph and Jacob Watson, payable from "All that Plot or parcel of land containing eighteen Acres three Roods and five perches more or less lying within Forest Greveship in East Allendale . . . being one [each—bsb] of the two plots or parcels of land late part of Allendale Common which upon the division of certain parts of Hexham Shire and Allendale Common were set out and allotted to Joseph Watson late of Shildon near Blanchland yeoman deceased in respect of his copyhold estate at Tedham then held of the manor of Hexham . . . now in the Occupation of John Robson Joseph Philipson and Thomas Hetherington as tenants to and under . . . Joshua Watson . . ."11

In 1828 he was a subscriber to the Royal Jubilee School. In October that year the Courant reported that "A Scotch cabbage has been grown in the garden of Mr Joshua Watson, at Bensham, near this town, of the extraordinary weight of 37 lbs.".11A

In February 1829 he was among the signatories to an open letter to the Mayor, requesting a meeting to consider the expediency of petitioning Parliament for a Removal of the Civil Disabilities which affect His Majesty's Roman Catholic Subjects.11B

His cheesemonger's business flourished. In 1827, now himself living at Bensham Grove, the business was located at 109 Side, as it was in 1829, 1833, 1838 and 1840 (at the latter date described as Joshua Watson and Son, Cheesemongers/Provision Merchants); at the end of 1830, describing himself as cheese-monger, butter and bacon-dealer, and general commission agent, he advertised in the Courant, to say that he had taken his son William Wigham Watson into partnership. In the period 1830–1846 his mean annual turnover was slightly over £10,300. Business fluctuated quite a lot, with peaks in 1831, 1840, and 1845, and troughs in 1830, 1839, and 1846. Overall the trend was upward to 1840, and then declined. Interestingly, in 1839 his account books record payments—apparently investments—in the Northern Railway Company. In 1840, first year of the penny post, the firm kept a letter book, in which the receipt of about 700 letters is recorded.12

In December 1830 his stock book as a provision merchant valued the business at £2030-9-3, including £994-12-9 stock in trade; there was a further £595-15-4 owing to the business. in December 1834 the valuation was £2060-7-11. In 1832 the stock included:

	184 sides of bacon
	36 spoiled bacon
	141 Hams
	cut bacon
	672 OM cheese
	627 Plain cheese
	526 OM cheese
	559 Gouda
	50 Firkins of Butter
	33 Bushels of Peas
	21½ Boxes of Oranges
	Butter on the counter
	72 Bladders of lard
	Empty Casks
	6 Hams
	Grease & Tar
	Oats & Beans

1833 is similar, plus:

	Edam & Yorkshire cheeses
	Plain & Cot Cheese
	6 Casks of Herring
		and minus oranges

1834 also has:

	Old Hams, new hams, & spoiled hams
	Peas & Barley
	1 sack of flour
	9 Bundles of Sprats
	27 Tongues

1835 also has:

	82½ casks of herring (29 Dec)
	5 Plucks


His suppliers were listed as Backhouse, Etches, Smith & Holland, Haansbergen, Harrison, Reed, R. Elliott, J. Elliott, Reavely, Bradshaw, and Jos Watson. The stock book for 1843–1848 gives more detail on his suppliers: he bought bacon from J. & T. Sinclair, Belfast; butter from Thomas Martin, Allendale; Gouda cheese from Haansbergen, Newcastle; American cheese &c. from James McAllister, Newcastle; lard from U.J. & A. Duffield, Belfast; hams from Thomas Little, Carlisle; and herrings from Morton & Taylor, Alnwick, as well as from Yarmouth and Sunderland.12A

In January 1831 he was a signatory to an open letter to the Mayor, requesting a public meeting about petitioning Parliament against the Bill then pending for establishing a General Register IN LONDON, for all Deeds and Instruments affecting real Property in England and Wales.12AA

In July 1831 he was one of 45 men Friends who signed the certificate for George Washington Walker. He attended Newcastle Monthly Meeting in August 1831, August 1834, February 1835, November 1836, and June 1841. In April 1834 he subscribed 5s. to the Friends' sabbath school, of which he was on the first committee, as well as being one of the teachers (though he had stopped teaching by 1840). In May 1834 he donated 18 books and one monthly magazine to the school, and in September he was listed as one of its seven librarians. In February 1836 he signed the testimony to Thomas Richardson, as he did to Margaret Bragg in December 1840.12B

On 3 November 1833 his shop in the Side was burgled:


A robbery of a more daring and important character was committed on Sunday night last, by breaking into the shop of Mr Joshua Watson, cheese-monger, of the Side, one of the principal thoroughfares of the town. This was effected by taking off the padlock, and by picking the other lock by which the front door was secured. The depredators carried away three tills containing copper to the amount of between £2 and £3. Two of the tills were afterwards found in different parts of the street, one with eight-pence and the other with two-pence remaining in it: the third, containing letters, &c., was found on the Quayside.12BA

It appears that in July of 1837 Joshua Watson was sued for libel, though no details have yet been discovered beyond the following announcement that appeared in the Courant on the 21st of that month:



I, JOSHUA WATSON, of Bensham, the above-named Defendant, regret that any Thing which I have said should have been construed to apply to the above named Plaintiff, which I never intended, and I feel obliged by his staying this Action on my paying the Costs, and declaring (which I hereby do) that the Report which I mentioned was, on Enquiry, found to be untrue, and that I know of Nothing to affect his Character as a Tradesman or a Man.


In April 1838 Joshua was elected as an assessor for the borough of Gateshead, but resigned, having refused to sign the affirmation "according to the act of parliament, Mr. Watson objecting on the ground of his conscientious scruples with respect to the established church" . . . . In January 1839 he was co-signatory, with Joseph and others, of an open letter to the Mayor of Newcastle, requesting that he call a public meeting with a view to petitioning Parliament over the corn laws. In July 1840 he subscribed half a guinea to the Royal Victoria Asylum for the Blind. That year he was recorded in the electoral register for St Nicholas ward, Newcastle, as owner of a house and shop in the Side.12C

His stock books for 1837 to 1847 and 1843 to 1848 list purchases by supplier and date. New items of stock include "Cold cheese", smoked ham, Wensleydale cheese (from 1846), Lancaster cheese (from 1847), Cheshire cheese (in 1848), sides of pork, and "old milk cheese". By 1840 he employed an apprentice, Jacob Brown (who described himself as the accountant). Brown appears on the 1841 census return for the Watson household at Bensham Grove, together with one domestic servant. That year he acted as co-executor of his father-in-law's will.13

In July 1842 Watson, Cheese & Bacon Factor of Newcastle, leased the firm's shop in the Side to John Lowthin & Musgrave Fallows, Bacon Dealers; he agreed to make the necessary alterations to separate the shop from the "Room and Offices above or adjoining". The rent was £70 p.a., the tenancy commencing the 2nd August 1842. The 1843 electoral register records him as a resident of Bensham Grove, qualified to vote in Newcastle by his ownership of freehold shops and warehouses in the Side.14

In February 1845 he was listed as a shareholder in the Northumberland & Durham District Banking Company. In October 1846 he leased Bensham Grove to William Yellowley, grocer of Newcastle, for seven years commencing 7th November next, at £60 p.a.; the lease included "garden stable Coach house" etc.; and also referred to "the garden and the hothouse". . .; Yellowley could only sublet, without Watson's consent, the small house next the road, part of the said premises.15

Despite this, an 1847 directory still shows Watson living at Bensham Grove. In that year his business is described as a Cheesemongers, Butter and Bacon Factors.16

In August 1847 he purchased for £12 a double vault in the Westgate Hill General Cemetery, Newcastle—plot nos 302 & 303 in Ward N. It appears that he retired from business at about this time, for in December he let to James Fox & Samuel Sterling, auctioneers of Newcastle, the shop in the Side as lately altered, and which with other premises was lately used by Watson as a cheesemonger's shop; the rent was £75 p.a., starting immediately; the premises had been advertised in October. In May 1849 he placed an advertisement in the Courant, saying he was transferring his cheesemonger's business to Potts and Oubridge.17

In January 1848, at Monthly Meeting, he signed the testimony to Rachel Wigham, as he did to Daniel Oliver in September. He represented Newcastle at Monthly Meeting in North Shields in April 1849. In June 1849 he put up for sale an allotment of property near Tedham Green Estate, by auction at the King's Head Inn, Allendale Town; his reserve was £900, but the highest bid was £700, so presumably the property remained unsold.18

On his 78th birthday, in 1849, he crossed the High Level railway bridge from Gateshead to Newcastle, part of the way on a single plank; and was told, at the Newcastle side, by Robert Stephenson himself, that he was the first man who had done this.19

In December 1849 he was the sole executor and residual legatee of his sister Hannah Watson.20

In the 1851 census Joshua Watson is described as a retired cheesemonger, of Bensham Grove, Gateshead, living with his wife, son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and one house servant. He made his will on the 12th April 1852:20A


This is the last Will and Testament of me Joshua Watson of the Borough and County of Newcastle upon Tyne Cheesemonger as follows (that is to say) I order and direct that all my just debts funeral and testamentary expences and the expence of proving and executing this my Will shall be paid off and discharged by my Executors hereinafter named as soon after my decease as conveniently may be and subject thereto I give devise and bequeath unto my sons Joseph Watson and Joshua Watson the younger their heirs executors and administrators All my real and personal estate and effects whatsoever and wheresoever and of what kind nature kind or quality soever the same shall or may be or consist of which I shall die seized or possessed of interested in or in any manner entitled unto to hold the same unto the said Joseph Watson and Joshua Watson the younger their heirs executors and administrators upon the trusts following (that is to say) Upon trust to pay the rents interests and annual proceeds thereof to my dear Wife Esther Watson for and during her natural life and from and after her decease - Upon trust as to one third full part or share of my said real and personal estate and effects (the whole into three equal parts being considered as divided) for my said son Joseph Watson his heirs executors and administrators absolutely for his and their own use and benefit - and as to one other full third part or share thereof Upon trust for my said son Joshua Watson the younger his heirs executors and administrators absolutely for his and their own use and benefit And as to the remaining one third full part or share of my said real and personal estate upon trust to pay and apply the rents interest and annual proceeds thereof towards the maintenance and education of my grandsons Thomas Carric [sic] Watson and Edward Watson until they shall respectively attain the age of Twenty One years And upon their respectively attaining the said age of Twenty One years Upon trust as to the said One third part of my real and personal estate and effects for the said Thomas Carrick Watson and Edward Watson their heirs and assigns for ever equally to be divided between and among them share and share alike and to take as tenants in common and not as joint tenants and in case either of my said grandsons shall depart this life before he shall attain his age of Twenty One years then as to his share of my said real and personal estate and effects upon trust for the survivor of them his heirs and assigns for ever - An I hereby direct that until my said Grandson Thomas Carrick Watson and Edward Watson shall respectively attain the said age of Twenty One years the rent interest and annual proceeds of One third part or share of my said estate and effects shall be paid to Mary Carrick Watson the widow of my late son William Wigham Watson towards the maintenance and education of her said children And in case my said grandsons Thomas Carrick Watson and Edward Watson shall both depart this life without having attained their respective ages of Twenty One years then I direct that the interest dividends and annual proceeds of their said One third part or share of my estate and effects shall be paid to my said daughter in Law the said Mary Carrick Watson and upon her decease the said One third part or share of my estate and effects shall be divided between the said Joseph Watson and Joshua Watson their heirs executors and administrators in equal shares and proportions and to hold to them as tenants in common and not as joint tenants and that the receipt or receipts of the said Mary Carrick Watson shall be full and sufficient releases and discharges for all sum or sums of money payable to her under this my Will notwithstanding her coverture — And I hereby authorize and empower my said Trustees at any time during the continuance of any of the said Trustees aforesaid either to mortgage any part of my real and personal estate or to absolutely dispose of the same either by public Auction or private Contract unto such person or persons for such price or prices and subject to such conditions or stipulations as to title or otherwise and in such manner in all respects as they shall think expedient with full power to vary rescind or abandon any contract and also to buy in the premises offered for sale at any auction or auctions without being answerable or accountable for any loss which may arise thereby and generally to do all acts and execute all powers necessary for completing any such sale or sales And I hereby declare that the receipt or receipts of my said Trustees and the survivor of them and the heirs executors administrators and Assigns of such survivor for any money payable under this my Will shall effectually discharge the person or persons paying the same from being answerable or accountable for the misapplication or non application thereof or of any part thereof or to enquire into the validity propriety or expediency of any sale or mortgage that may be made under this my Will. Provided always and I further declare that my said Trustees and each of them and the heirs executors administrators and Assigns of each of them shall be made charged and chargeable respectively only for such monies as they shall actually receive by virtue of the trusts hereby reposed in them notwithstanding their or either of their giving or signing or joining in giving or signing any receipt or receipts for the sake of conformity And the one of them shall not be answerable or accountable for the other of them or for involuntary losses And also that it shall and may be lawful for them with and out of the monies that shall come to their respective hands by virtue of the trusts aforesaid to retain to and reemburse themselves respectively and also to allow their Co Trustee all costs charges damages and expences which he or they shall or may suffer sustain expend or be put into in or about the execution of the aforesaid trusts or in relation thereto And I give to the said Joseph Watson and Joshua Watson the younger their heirs executors and administrators all estates vested in and for trust or by way of mortgage To hold the same to the said Joseph Watson and Joshua Watson the younger their heirs executors and administrators Upon the several trusts affecting the same respectively — And I hereby revoke and make void all former and other Wills by me at any time heretofore made and declare this only to be and contain my last Will and Testament And I hereby appoint the said Joseph Watson and Joshua Watson the younger Trustees and Executors of this my Will — In Witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand this twelfth day of Fourth month / April in the year of our Lord One thousand eight hundred and fifty two

Joshua Watson

[witnesses: Mary Wigham, Lucy Watson]

Joshua Watson was described by his grandson Robert as "a good type of a North Country Friend, plain and direct of speech, resolute, a trifle irritable, and with his temper not always quite in control, no respecter of persons, one to whom the substance meant all, the form nothing. [ . . . ] under a stern and, to children, rather affrighting exterior, he had the gentlest and softest of hearts. A man of genuine and unaffected piety;—" one who never turned his back, but marched breast forward, "—and whose whole life was a simple, honest endeavour to do his duty towards God and man as a faithful follower of Christ."21

He appears in the 1853 electoral register as a resident of Bensham, qualified to vote by possession of one undivided third part of a freehold house in Bensham Lane. Described as a gentleman, he died of hydrothorax on Friday the 11th February 1853 at Elysium, Bensham, and was buried at Westgate Hill cemetery. His will was proved at Durham on the 30th May 1855 by his two surviving sons. His effects were affirmed Under £600 (£35,118 at 2005 values).22

Joshua Watson was the fourth child and third son of [M5] Jacob and [M7] Hannah Watson.23


1 TNA: HO 107/2492 f140 p58; TNA: RG 6/1271; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341 says he was born in Cumberland; a source I have misplaced gives his birthplace as Huntwell

2 RG 6/355; RSW in John William Steel: A Historical Sketch of the Society of Friends 'in Scorn called Quakers' in Newcastle & Gateshead 1653–1898. London & Newcastle, Headley Bros. 1899: 131-3; Land Tax redemption

3 RG 6/188; Testimonies & Certificates 1788–1811 p. 105, Tyne & Wear Archives Service MF 188; RSW in Steel (1899), op. cit.: 131-4 (which says he came to Newcastle in 1803); DQB

3A The Newcastle Courant, 1806-04-05, issue 6756

4 RG 6/355, /628, /1155; Minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting, TWAS MF 167, 168 and 169; minutes of Newcastle Preparative Meeting 1761–1814, TWAS MF 191; DQB; The Newcastle Courant, 1806-04-05, issue 6756 & 1806-08-30, issue 6777

5 RSW in Steel (1899)133-4; Yorkshire Post 3 Mar 1911; E. Spence Weiss: 'The Background of the Bensham Grove Settlement'

6 documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; Tyne Mercury; Northumberland and Durham and Cumberland Gazette, 1816-01-02

7 documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; Percy Corder: The Life of Robert Spence Watson. London: Headley, 1914; E. Spence Weiss: 'The Background of the Bensham Grove Settlement' (which gives purchase of Bensham Grove as being in 1801)

7A Forster

8 Dictionary of Quaker Biography, Friends House Library, Ts

9–11 documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005

11A Sansbury, Ruth: Beyond the Blew Stone. 300 Years of Quakers in Newcastle. 1998: Newcastle-upon-Tyne Preparative Meeting, p. 116; The Newcastle Courant, 1828-10-18, issue 8022

11B The Newcastle Courant, 1829-03-07, issue 8042

12 Yorkshire Post 1911-03-03; White's History, Directory & Gazetteer of Durham & Northumberland, 1827; Pigot & Co.'s Directory of . . . Northumberland . . . &c., 1828/9; Ihler's Directory of Newcastle & Gateshead, 1833; M.A. Richardson's Directory of Newcastle and Gateshead, 1838; documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; RG 6/187, /527, /1155; Newcastle Central Library RSW Cuttings V. 3 N920 W341; Steel (1899): 69; The Newcastle Courant, 1831-01-01, issue 8136

12A stock books, TWAS DX 139/1 and /2

12AA The Newcastle Courant, 1831-01-29, issue 8140

12B Minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting, TWAS MF 169; minutes of Friends' Sabbath School, Newcastle, TWAS MF 208

12BA Durham County Advertiser, 1833-11-08

12BB The Newcastle Courant, 1837-07-21

12C Northern Liberator, issues 24, 67 & 146, 1838-04-07, 1839-01-26 & 1840-07-25; The Newcastle Courant, 1839-01-25, issue 8567; electoral register

13 stock books, TWAS 139/2 and /3; documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; HO 107/296/9 f34 p15; Durham Probate Records, DPRI/1/1841/W8

14 documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; Newcastle electoral register (registers for 1850/1853 give the same information)

15 documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; Newcastle Journal, 1845-02-22

16 White's Newcastle & Gateshead Directory, 1847; documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; The British Friend

17 documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005; The Newcastle Courant, 1849-05-18, issue 9102; Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, 1847-10-23

18 Minutes of Newcastle Monthly Meeting, TWAS MF 169; documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005

19 RSW in Steel (1899): 134-5; Corder (1914)

20 documents donated to Tyne & Wear Archives Service 2005

20A HO 107/2492 f140 p58; Durham Probate Records, DPRI/1/1855/W8

21 RSW in Steel (1899): 131 & 135; Corder (1914)

22 electoral register; Gateshead Observer 1853-02-12; Corder (1914); death certificate; widow's death certificate; death/burial digest; Durham Probate Records, DPRI/1/1855/W8

23 HO 107/2492 f140 p58; RG 6/1271


Jacob Watson was born around 1722.1

He lived in Huntwell until at least 1778, and afterwards in Tedham.2

He married, first, Ann Johnson (? – 1760, of Whitesham), on the 15th May 1760, at Burnhouse, Coanwood, Northumberland; his bride survived the marriage by just six months.3

He married, secondly, [M7] Hannah Bell, notice of the marriage being given in July 1765. Their children were: Hannah (1766–1850), Jacob (1769–1848), Joseph (1769 – after 1784), [M4] Joshua (1771–1853), Jane (1775–1870), Ann (1778–1827), Elizabeth (1778–1857), and Anthony (1781–1839).4

In 1766 he was of Farehill, High Aldston, Cumberland.5

In 1782 he witnessed the marriage of Joseph Watson and Rachel Wigham, and in 1796 of David Carrick and Mary Wilson, both at Cornwood. In 1805, described as a miner of Tedham, he witnessed that of Elizabeth Watson and Thomas Tessimond.6

Described as a black smith, of Pathfoot near Allendale Town, he died on the 28th March 1813, and was buried at Wooleyburnfoot in Allendale on the 30th.7

Jacob Watson was the son of [M6] Anthony Watson.8


1 TNA: RG 6/385, /465

2 RG 6/188, /355, /527, /1155, /1271; Corder (1914)

3 RG 6/1271

4 RG 6/228; A History of Northumberland, vol. 4 (1893)

5 RG 6/1271

6 RG 6/188, /355, /1271

7 RG 6/385, /465; A History of Northumberland, vol. 4 (1893)

8 A History of Northumberland, vol. 4 (1893)


Anthony Watson lived in Tedham in 1737. His only known child was [M5] Jacob (c. 1722 – 1813).1


1 A History of Northumberland, vol. 4 (1893)

Suggestions for further research

Although the parentage of [M5] Jacob Watson is known from the History of Northumberland, it would be good if a birth or baptism for him could be found.

All life events for [M6] Anthony Watson need to be located before any further progress can be made with this line.


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