A FORTNIGHT ago Echo Memories told of the Battle of Stanhope, when the leadminers of Weardale gave a bloody nose to the Bishop of Durham who tried to stop them poaching “the bonny moor hen” – the famous red grouse which lived on the bishop’s parkland.
A poem was written to celebrate the lads’ bravery as they fought the Bishop’s army on December 7, 1818. They administered a bloody beating to the constables and heroically set free Charles and Anthony Siddle, who had been arrested for poaching.
The poem, written by Thomas Coulson who was a schoolmaster in the dale, was obviously very popular, because Doreen and Geoff Spence of Darlington have a lovely version of it printed by H Such of London. Such had a large catalogue of “broadside ballads” – the pop songs of the day – which he printed between 1863 and 1885 on tissue-thin paper. The thinness of the paper kept the songs cheap – they were also known as “penny dreadfuls” – and once they had been sung, the paper was reused in baking or, brace yourselves, for bottom-wiping in the days before Andrex.
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Wouldn’t it be great to hear it the Battle of the Bonny Moor Hen sung as it once was?
Well, Mark Anderson has been in touch from Middleton St George. His grandfather, also Mark, was a leadminer and folk-singer from Middleton-in-Teesdale. In 1951, a US researcher working for the BBC recorded Mark singing traditional Teesdale songs in the High Force Hotel.
One of those songs was Scarborough Fair, and it is said that this recording of it found its way, via folksinger Ewan MacColl, to Paul Simon who liked it so much that he and Art Garfunkel recorded it in 1965 and turned it into a global hit.
Another of those songs was The Bonny Moor Hen, and you can listen to the song here
But how true is the story of the leadminers defending their ages-old right to help themselves to the Bishop’s birds?
Tony Young of Crook has researched it more fully, and shows that it all began in August 1818, when the constable of St John’s Chapel arrested Charles Siddle at Newhouse, a nearby hamlet. Siddle had probably been poaching, but his friends intervened and forced the constable to release him.
This led to arrest warrants being issued for the gang and, according to a report in The Times, on December 7, 1818, “a posse of about eight constables from Bishop Auckland and Darlington” were sent to execute them.
“By travelling all night, they surprised and took in bed two brothers of the name of Siddel, and immediately set out with their prisoners on a cart,” said The Times. “They halted at Stanhope to refresh themselves and were boasting how cleverly they had accomplished their dangerous business, when lo! six or seven of the most desperate poachers of the vale, who had been in pursuit, entered the town and, mustering in front of the house, rushed in.”
The scene of the battle was the Black Bull Inn – now the Bonny Moor Hen – in Stanhope Market Place, and the desperadoes were joined by at least 20 other ruffians.
The Times said: “The constables were armed with pistols and the poachers with fowling-pieces. Luckily, though two or three shots were fired, no one was hurt by them, the poachers knocking down the officers with the butt-ends of their pieces.”
Within minutes, the constables were battered to the floor, a couple of them being knocked unconscious, and the poachers emerged triumphantly into the Market Place accompanied by the Siddle brothers.
The floor of the Black Bull was so covered in with constables’ blood that the landlady was advised to mix it with meal and make a special black pudding.
The authorities were so angered by the “outrage at Weardale” that on December 19, the county magistrates asked whether it was possible for troops to be stationed at Stanhope.
On January 11, 1819, they issued warrants for the arrests of six men involved in the battle, but this time, rather than sending in a heavy-handed posse, they adopted a softly, softly approach. Mr Brignal, a Durham City constable was despatched along with the rector of Wolsingham to St John’s Chapel to bring the men to heel.
On April 19, they appeared in court at Durham and pleaded guilty. Their solicitor said how sorry they were and said they were men of previously good character with wives and young children to support.
The chairman of the bench, Rev Nesfield, the rector of Brancepeth, said without their expressions of contrition, he would have imposed a custodial sentence.
But as they were sorry, he fined them one shilling each.
He also ordered them to give a surety of £50 of their own money and a further two sureties of £25 from other people which would be returned if they were of good behaviour for the next 12 months.
Five of the six had their sureties ready and were released immediately, and the sixth was let go a couple of days later.
It looks like the authorities quite skilfully defused the situation, fining the men an affordably small amount but placing them in a position where they would lose a huge amount – £100 in 1819 is worth more than £8,000 today, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator – if they stepped out of line again.