GRAVEYARDS are infinitely interesting places, offering a potted history of a town’s past, and Hexham Cemetery certainly has its own tale to tell.
A stroll through the verdant – indeed, picturesque – parkland, so beautifully maintained by Hexham Town Council, is a bittersweet pleasure, the prettiness marred only by the sadness of people lost.
Opened in 1859, many of the ‘residents’ in the original part of the cemetery were responsible for laying the foundations of the town we see today. So who lies within?
Brothers George (1811-1887) and Henry (1814-1875) Bell: While the former was a chemist who set up what eventually became the Bell & Riddle Chemist’s on Fore Street, he had an even bigger impact on the town when he joined Henry to launch a large tannery business.
The Henry Bell tanning and wool merchants business helped put the town on the map during the 19th century with its very fine, and much coveted, Hexham Tans gloves.
George Hogarth Bell (1857-1905) and Henry Bell (died in 1920): Sons of Henry Bell senior, above, the duo took over Henry Bell Wool Merchants upon their father’s death and turned it into one of the leading firms in the country.
They built a striking warehouse on Gilesgate, now the sadly dilapidated former swimming pool complex, and took over two other tanneries. Eventually, their woolstapling business amalgamated with eight others under the name of Border Counties Wool Sales Ltd.
In 1912, Henry Bell presented the town with the Bandstand that still stands in the Abbey grounds today.
William Bland (died in 1902): a builder, William is responsible for the houses in Shaftoe Leazes, Windmill Hill and Kingsgate. He eventually took up residence on Windmill Hill himself.
Rev. John Bowran (1869-1946): A Primitive Methodist minister, he was born in Gateshead and moved to Hexham in 1906 to take up his post in the Hebbron Memorial Chapel that then stood in St Mary’s Chare.
He was the driving force behind the building of the new church on the corner of Beaumont Street and Battle Hill that is now home to Hexham Community Church.
He also wrote several novels under the name of Ramsey Guthrie.
He is buried with his first wife, who died of consumption shortly after they arrived in Hexham.
Joseph Catherall (1839-1881): This son of Newcastle was first apprenticed to the Newcastle Chronicle and then a reporter on the Western Daily Press in Bristol, before arriving in Hexham to found, with others, the Hexham Courant in 1864.
He was still only 25 at the time, but rapidly established himself as a key player in the town, speaking out forcibly on matters such as public sanitation through the pages of his beloved paper. He died at the age of 42 from consumption.
John Civil (died in 1954): A builder with a workshop on Hencotes, he built the Abbey Institute building that today is Hexham Community Centre, the Primitive Methodist Church, commissioned by the Rev. Bowran above, and the Methodist churches at Lowgate and Warden.
When he retired, he built himself a house on Fellside out of the stone he had hewn with his own hands at the quarry nearby.
He represented Hencotes ward on the urban district council from 1912 to 1924. At the time of his death, he was the last surviving member of the Northumberland Volunteers who attended a review in Edinburgh before Queen Victoria.
Joseph Fairless (1789-1873): A painter and decorator, a guardian of the town’s poor house, governor of Hexham Grammar School, member of the committee for the newly-instituted savings bank and a churchwarden, Joseph’s real claim to fame was as a numismatist (an expert in currency).
He played a major role in dating and deciphering the inscriptions on the 8000 Saxon stycas, copper coins that were the currency of 9th century Northumbria, found by a gravedigger in 1832.
His sculptural gravestone bears a fine Victorian photograph and he is commemorated in no less than three windows in Hexham Abbey.
John Pattinson Gibson (1838-1912): Having taken over the family chemist’s business on Fore Street following his father’s death, John took up photography in 1856. He went on to earn an international reputation, winning photography competitions in London, Melbourne, Paris, New York, Berlin, Chicago and Vienna.
Later, it was his interest in archaeology that held sway and he became a highly esteemed lecturer in Roman excavations, talks accompanied, of course, by his incomparable slide-show.
Frank Gibb Grant (1850-1918): Owner of the one-time Tynedale Hydropathic Hotel that now houses Queen Elizabeth High School’s sixth form building, he added the conservatory that is still cherished today as the Winter Gardens.
Charles Head (died in 1868): A solicitor and son of the vicar of Chollerton, he was the driving force behind the building of Hexham Town Hall and Corn Exchange (now the Queen’s Hall).
As a member of the Local Board of Health, he did much to help improve sanitation in the town and, true to his public spirited nature, took over the lease of the Sele and opened it to the public for a whole year.
William Robb (died 1892): The draper was held in such high esteem that his obituary is the longest ever to have been published in the Courant. Joining his father’s business, he started out travelling the district on foot, selling the firm’s wares.
On the death of his father, he took over the family business, then in Hallgate. In 1891, he took over the premises in Beaumont Street that Robb’s Department Store became synonymous with.
William was a tremendous driver of social change, championing the lobby for better sanitation, leading the public buy-out of Tyne Green and instigator of improved education in the town. A major force in the Methodist Church, he was also a powerful speaker for the Temperance movement.