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Tenderness and remembrance at Barras Bridge

Regular contributor and prolific local historian Ken Smith continues his research on the memorials at Barras Bridge - the centre of tribute and celebration in Newcastle.

 

The Barras Bridge area of Newcastle features a number of impressive sculptures which add immense character and interest to the urban scene. All stand within a short distance of the equally impressive Newcastle Civic Centre, completed in 1968.


There can be little doubt that to many people the most emotionally moving of these sculptures is The Response 1914, which is a fine tribute to North-East men who volunteered to serve in the Northumberland Fusiliers during the early months of the First World War.


Masterpiece in bronze: Figures on The Response 1914 by William Goscombe John. Photo: Tom Yellowley

The Response commemorates the raising of B Company, the 9th Battalion and the 16th, 18th and 19th Service Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers by Newcastle and Gateshead Chambers of Commerce between August and October 1914.


This superb sculpture is the work of Sir William Goscombe John and was unveiled by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, in 1923. An inscription on the rear of the monument makes clear that it was the gift of Sir George and Lady Renwick. Sir George was a North-East shipping businessman and Newcastle MP. He and his wife paid for the memorial and they were moved to a considerable degree to make this gift because their five sons had returned safely from the First World War. They were clearly mindful of the many thousands of soldiers who did not return.


Sited at Barras Bridge in front of the Civic Centre and next to St Thomas's Church, this highly expressive group of figures depicts men marching off to war after volunteering to serve. A number are saying goodbye to their children. In the centre, a young daughter and her father bid farewell. On the extreme right, a father kisses his baby goodbye and is also saying goodbye to his wife and small daughter. Also on the right, a son carries his father's kitbag. Great tenderness is expressed. Nearly everyone who visits this work of art can identify emotionally with a least one of the figures, whether as a mother, father, son or daughter.


A father's farewell to his baby, his wife and daughter depicted on The Response 1914. Photo: Tom Yellowley


There is indeed tenderness and emotionally touching detail in this masterpiece of sculpture . Yet, by contrast, a military note is struck by the two drummers who lead the group and many of the men are carrying rifles. Some are still wearing their workday cloth caps and clothes. One is carrying a large spanner. Others are in uniform. What appears to be a boy aged about 12 to 14 is taking his coat off as if eager to enlist and don a uniform, although he is clearly too young to do so. Above the group, an angel, representing Renown, blows a trumpet which points towards the sky. An inscription on the front of The Response reads: Non Sibi Sed Patriae – Not for Self but for Country.


The rear of the memorial carries reliefs of St George and two soldiers, one representing a 17th Century ancestor soldier of the Northumberland Fusiliers and the other a Fusilier of 1919. This side carries the motto of the regiment: Quo Fata Vocant – Whither the Fates Call.


A special painting of The Response by artist Andy Farr is now on permanent display at the City Library in Newcastle. It was bought by a Lord Mayor of the city, Councillor Hazel Stephenson, who kindly gave it to the library on long-term loan. Two of the children in the painting are depicted in modern dress saying goodbye to their fathers. The two youngsters are in colour. Councillor Stephenson did not want the work to leave Newcastle where it was on temporary display, She therefore purchased it so that the people of the city and beyond could enjoy this excellent picture for a long time to come.


A father in soldier's uniform says goodbye to his daughter. One of the tender details on The Response 1914 by William Goscombe John. Photo: Tom Yellowley


Another sculpture not far from the Civic Centre is the statue of Lord Armstrong of Cragside, which is sited in front of The Great North Museum: Hancock on the corner of Barras Bridge and Claremont Road. The position of Armstrong's statue is very appropriate because he was a great benefactor of the museum, known for many years as the Hancock Museum of Natural History. Lord Armstrong and his wife, Lady Margaret, donated a total of £11,500 towards the building of the museum, which opened in 1884. This was an enormous sum in those days. Armstrong also gave a collection of fossils to the institution. He served as president of the Natural History Society of Northumbria for a number of years and the society is still based at the museum.


The statue of Lord Armstrong by William Hamo Thornycroft. Photo: Tom Yellowley


The statue depicts the great inventor, philanthropist and industrial chief standing holding a scroll of drawings and at his feet to his left side is one of his favourite little dogs, possibly a Dandy Dinmont terrier. Armstrong, who was born in Newcastle, died at his home, Cragside, Northumberland, in 1900, aged 90. He is buried in a corner of Rothbury Churchyard. The statue, unveiled in 1906, is the work of sculptor Sir William Hamo Thornycroft.


The dog at the feet of Lord Armstrong. Photo: Tom Yellowley


Lord Armstrong was a great benefactor of his native city of Newcastle. Two of his gifts to the people of the city were Jesmond Dene and Armstrong Park. These beautiful public areas can be regarded as further memorials to one of the city's most prominent men of the 19th Century.


 

Retired Newcastle journalist Ken Smith is co-author, with his wife Jean, of The Great Northern Miners. He has also written more than 20 other books on aspects of North-East history, often with co-authors, including shipbuilding and shipping as well as coal mining.

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