Historian William Bourn tells us that the Cowen family moved from Lindisfarne (Holy Island) to Stella on Tyneside, sometime after the reformation and dissolution of the monastries. It seems they probably moved to what they hoped would be a catholic safe haven, in the shelter of the Tempest family of Stella Hall. The Tempests were a devout catholic family who were incredibly successful and wealthy. A merchant, mine owning and banking family who by a combination of unswerving loyalty to the crown and astute political skill, managed to stay onside of the Tudors when others were being persecuted.
SIR JOSEPH COWEN 1800 – 1873
Ambrose Crowley set up his ironmongery ‘factory’ in Winlaton in 1690. At some later date members of the Cowen family obtained employment there. Among them was John Cowen (born 1774). He and his wife Mary lived for most of their lives in Winlaton. Their son Joseph Cowen was born at nearby Greenside in the year 1800. Joseph served his apprenticeship as a chain maker and worked at the Crowley factory for some years. His married Mary Newton – the Newtons were an old Winlaton family.
The young Joseph soon began to take interest in the social conditions of his fellow workers, gradually developing a radical political philosophy based on equality, social welfare and improvement of workers rights. He was in fact one of the clannish and politically aware Crowley’s Crew – the close knit group of Crowley employees who were resolute in defense of their rights. At a very well attended reformist public meeting held on Newcastle Town Moor in 1819 we find the young man Cowen there, leading a Winlaton contingent, along with Thomas Hodgson, who was one of the speakers. The meeting followed directly on from the infamous Peterloo Massacre incident in Manchester – feelings were running very high!
When the Blacksmith’s Friendly Society was formed in 1826 he became secretary, then, in 1834, president of the society. When the Crowleys vacated Winlaton to concentrate on their Swalwell and Winlaton Mill operations, it created a lot of hardship. But gradually smithy work reorganised and recovered albeit fragmented. This society grew as a direct result and its prime aim was promoting the welfare and interests of its members.
Cowen was much more than a political activist. He had shrewd business acumen and was to be supremely successful in business whilst always retaining his sense of fairness and desire to see improving workers rights and conditions. He carried these principles throughout his life.
In 1828 Cowen, together with brother in law Anthony Forster, went into business manufacturing fire bricks in nearby Blaydon Burn. The firm was ‘Joseph Cowen & Co’.
They soon developed the business helped by the superior quality of the local fireclay. Gas Retorts became a speciality, winning awards at International Exhibitions in 1851 and 1862. His fire bricks and other clay products were of the highest quality. The family business grew rapidly.
By 1850 Cowen had become an extremely wealthy man and in that year ime he purchased Stella Hall (from the Widdringtons?). His ancestors having worked there for the Tempests, in the Tudor era, things had gone full circle. But he always retained his affinity with the working class. When his firm erected a gasworks to light the firebrick factory and following representations from the local people, the gas was also piped into Blaydon and used to light the village – this in 1853. By now Joseph Cowen was fifty three years old, a person of means and considerable local influence, a man held in very high esteem by local people.
That same year (1853) he was elected to the Municipal Council of Newcastle upon Tyne soon after becoming an alderman of the city. By then he was already an appointed member of the Tyne Improvement Commission (TIC). This was formed in 1850 to seek viable ways, funding etc. to improve the notoriously neglected, poor navigability of the Tyne. For twenty years he was chairman of the TIC. During that time considerable improvements were achieved – dredging, river bank improvements, even an alteration of the path of the river where, at Newburn, the north river bed was closed off, the protuding spike of land at Blaydon Haughs severed and the river route hence modified to enable better shipping access. This latter operation was known as ‘Cowen’s Cut’. Sadly all these measures did the keelmen no favours but the rapid growth of railways had already signalled a rapid decline in keelmens work, a trade which had existed for hundreds of years.
In 1865 , with much local political support, Joseph Cowen was successfully elected as Liberal MP for Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1872 he was knighted for his long and highly successful work for the TIC.
This great man passed away in his Stella Hall home on 19th December 1873. He had always been a person who got things done, a defender of workers rights, a genuine man of the people. He rose from a humble working class background to be a very successful businessman, a respected Parliamentarian and one of the most significant of all Tynesiders. He is buried in the family grave at St Paul’s Church, Winlaton.
JOSEPH (JOE) COWEN 1829-1900
(The ‘Blaydon Brick’)
Joseph Jnr was born to Joseph and Mary at Blaydon Burn in 1829. The house, Blaydon Burn House, still stands on the outskirts of Winlaton. His parents, by now affluent, wanted him to have a good education and he was sent to private school in Burnopfield, then Ryton and then to Edinburgh University, which at that time had a renowned reputation throughout Europe. There he had an extramural teacher in Dr. John Richie, a Scottish preacher, a fearless radical and fiery orator. Joseph was of compassionate social conscience as had been his father before him, and also a campaigner for the equality and rights of the masses but was much more radical in his political views.
He returned from Edinburgh to take a very active role in the family business – fire bricks, gas retorts and other clay products, mine ownership – most of it in Blaydon Burn. But despite this workload he devoted much time to politics and working to improve the social conditions and moral code of all classes of workmen in the locality. He was a frequent speaker at workers trade clubs, mechanics institutes and the like.
In 1854 a newspaper ‘Northern Tribune’ was launched – Joseph was editor. He also contributed articles about Winlaton, Blaydon, Stella, Crowley’s Crew – of the latter little might have been known today without his writings. In 1857 with others he formed the ‘Northern Reform League’ and was reputed to have spoken at every colliery village in Northumberland and Durham on principles of Christian Democracy. As chairman of the ‘Northumbrian Education League’ he helped push for availability of, and higher standards of, schooling for all.
By the 1850s Joseph Cowen was known in political circles throughout Europe. He associated with reformist movements abroad – it was rumoured he sent radical pamphlets and leaflets smuggled in brick consignments being sent abroad, such that those in authority were wary of him and that he was under surveillance. When Giuseppi Garibaldi visited Tyneside, Cowen met him and they became firm friends. Cowen also associated with other free thinking European radicals – Lajos Kossuth, Louis Blanc, Felice Orsini, Ledru Rollin and Polish revolutionary leaders fighting Russian tyranny – Worcell, Darasz, Mieroslawski, Dombrowski and Langiewiez.
In fact Cowen was a devout radical and republicanist. He believed in the franchise for all, that land belonged to everyone and not just the rich minority, supported home rule for the Irish. He developed an extensive network of contacts of sympathatic views throughout Europe and used his influence, his own funds, his publications and many speeches and lectures to further these political aims. He had much support among the working classes but no doubt had his enemies too in the light of his radical, anti-establishment beliefs.
In 1859 Cowen became proprietor of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle and quickly increased its popularity and circulation. In 1873 a campaign begun for a nine hour day for workers – he used his newspaper and personal funds to further this cause which achieved its aim.
He also involved himself in the growing Co-operative Movement based on the innovative ‘Rochdale principles’ – Blaydon was one of the first towns to have a Co-op store and it was a great success. He was Co-op Congress President in 1873.
Like his father before him he was elected to Newcastle Town Council, this in 1862 and was then invested as alderman in 1877. He sat on the council until 1886.
In January 1874 Joseph Jnr was elected to fill the parliamentary seat vacant because of the death of his father. Gladstone dissolved parliament before he could take his seat but he was immediately re-elected and entered parliament with a considerable reputation. Lacking in height and rather shabby in appearance, he at first shocked and then by his sincerity impressed the House of Commons. He had walked into the Commons wearing a soft cloth cap thereby ‘nailing his flag to the mast’. His political independence, combined with a gift of unrefined yet genuine eloquence made him a widely known and popular public figure. He spoke in parliament on matters that had for years been close to his heart – championing the weak against the strong, on matters of social and educational betterment of the masses and on Christian morale code. He was regarded as a great orator of the time, ranking with Gladstone and Bright.
Pictured right – ‘Joe’ – caricature by ‘Spy’ published in Vanity Fair in 1878.
In 1886 Joseph ‘Joe’ Cowen retired from parliamentary life (professing disgust for the intrigues of politics), and devoted himself to conducting his newspaper, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, and to his private business. In this capacity he exercised a wide influence on local opinion.
He passed away in the year 1900 leaving a daughter Jane. A fine bronze statue of Cowen stands in Fenkle Street in Newcastle (see photos below).
Jane Cowen continued to live at Stella. She certainly continued in her father and grandfather’s tradition writing and contibuting articles on similar beliefs and principles. She was a much loved benefactor in the Blaydon locality especially during the hard years of the 1930s depression when she helped the poor and unemployed in any way she could. She continued to reside at Stella Hall until her death in 1948.
The Cowens of Stella in their own way continued the Crowley tradition. Whilst Crowley was very autoctratic yet paternal, the Cowens joined the growing liberal reformist political movement which was a recurring feature of nineteenth century politics – campaigning for social justice for the working classes, for standards of universal education, for Christian democracy and moral code, and for improved conditions of employment. Joseph Cowen Jnr, in particular, participated relentlessly in a broad campaign against the ‘old school’ which helped achieve significant improvement in the status and well being of the working classes. In that respect they have their eminent place in the history of industrial Tyneside and the north east.
Pictured below – Cowen’s Low Yard(L) and High Yard(R) – the two brick works in Blaydon Burn. They ceased operating many years ago but the High Yard near Winlaton is still reasonably intact and used as a vehicle maintenance depot.
And below that two photos of Cowen’s statue on Fenkle Street/Westgate Road, Newcastle – near the Old Assembly Rooms.
This essay was written by Roland Veitch and is reproduced here with his kind permission.