The Villagers of Norham

There is a great deal of documentary evidence on which to base speculation as to what sort of a village Norham was in times past. Then as now, certainly a farming village and certainly a fishing village, with early reference to tithes collected from a number of fisheries of which "Peddewell" was one. It is clear from church and castle accounts that much of the local produce of farming and fishing went to feed the occupants of the castle, and the Vicarage, some of it for onward transmission to Durham for the Bishop's table with salmon and rabbits figuring-large in this latter respect. Consumption in castle and vicarage would be much enhanced by the large number of visitors and this gave a certain prosperity to the farmers and fishermen of the village and surrounding parish. Equally important in bringing work to the inhabitants of Norham would be the constant requirement for repair and rebuilding not only of castle and church, but other buildings and houses in the village, where the Scots would turn as a matter of course once the castle had been taken. Records do indeed show the early development of skilled trades such as stone masons, carpenters, blacksmiths and glaziers. It is equally apparent that the amount of traffic generated. between Norham and Durham created a demand for carriers and messengers to which there is frequent reference in the old documents.

Altogether, a picture emerges of a busy place with people constantly coming and going, kings and clerics, tinkers and traders a certain sophistication perhaps through contact with cities like Durham, soldiers and travellers constantly in and about the village ale-houses, a degree of prosperity as already mentioned, but tempered and inhibited by the consequences of proximity to the Scottish Border. There were constant interruptions to peaceful activities by warlike crowds and violent behaviour. At times like this "the old custome hath bene that when a fray came, all the country brought their goods and chattels into the hollow ditches under the walls where they were as safe as within the castell," (op.cit. letter of 19th August 1557 from the Earl of Westmorland to the Earl of Salisbury.)

An extract from another 16th century letter further illustrates the darker side of life in Norham in these times -- "The bitter recollection of stolen cattle and murdered relations would daily arise..." and "in this our district there were feuds between the inhabitants of one river valley and another, between name arid name..." It is not surprising that by 1560 market days earlier granted by Charter to the village were virtually disused and fair days were thinly attended. The annual fair on St. Cuthbert's day in September had long ceased to be held.

By the early 1800's after the turbulence of previous centuries although a wooden bridge had now been built, the village had in fact largely settled down to a modest prosperity based on farming and fishing with a range of services and skilled trades to meet the needs of the people of the surrounding district and in particular those of the large and prosperous farms which were developing. In 1806 "an excellent dwelling house, school, stable etc. were built for the master at the east end of the churchyard...." and this in a sense represented the start of the present era: there are for instance people living in the village whose fathers attended this old school before the new school was built on its present site in 1912.

An appraisal of Norham in 1831 can be made from the 1831 census. In the township at that time there were 819 people and 174 inhabited houses Classification of the occupations of males over the age of 20 showed : 4 described as "Capitalists, Bankers, Professional and other Educated men", 80 employed in retail and various skilled trades, 10 employed "making things" and 89 employed as farmers, farm workers or fishermen.

Fifty years later in 1881, the population of the township had risen to 920 and there were now 203 inhabited houses. The village had a post office, the stone bridge had been built, the railway had arrived and Norham was able to boast one of its earliest commuters, listed in the Census as Mr Ralph Dodds, Tea and Coffee Dealer, who had premises in Berwick High Street.

The Old Mill
This picture postcard is of the mill (now demolished) and the Castle at harvest time circa 1908.

The 1881 Census in fact yields a lot of information particularly about people's occupations in the village over 100 years ago. For instance there were then 38 men employed as salmon fishermen and 15 as farm workers; 36 were employed in domestic service including gardeners, coachmen and grooms. There were 14 dress-makers, 10 tailors and 8 shoemakers; 13 stone masons, 12 joiners, 5 blacksmiths and 3 tinsmiths; 6 railway men and 3 carters; 8 bakers, 8 grocers and 4 butchers; 4 clergymen, 4 teachers arid 2 doctors. In addition there were 2 saddlers, a commission agent, a policeman, an insurance agent and a cattle salesman.

One of the saddest changes in the last hundred years has been the final disappearance of salmon net fishing as a major occupation. The equally long association with farming continues although in different form with the development of agricultural engineering and contract work reflecting changes in agricultural practice. Nowadays, the traditional tied farm cottages are frequently all but empty of farm workers and as likely to be occupied by commuters or people retired from the cities. Small scale manufacturing or 'the making of things' referred to in the 1831 census, has 'virtually disappeared - no tailors or dressmakers or shoemakers remain, although happily, a number of businesses in the village are still based on the skilled trades such as joiners and boat builders, plumbers and heating engineers, painters and decorators, builders and glaziers. The blacksmiths and tinsmiths have gone. The village has gained a Bank and is fortunate to have retained grocers, butchers and bakers but has lost a resident policeman, the railway and a resident doctor, although the number of 'Capitalists and Bankers' quoted in the 1831 census, has probably increased!

Of the 5 public houses in the village in the 19th Century only the Victoria Hotel and the Mason's Arms remain, each with its own distinctive character and each playing an important part in the community life of the village. The Methodist Chapel has disappeared, the two Presbyterian Churches have merged into one and the Vicar of Norham now has charge of Duddo as well. The Victorian mansion of Birch hill has become a residential home for elderly people.

The 1981 census, the latest official figures available, shows a population of 526 made up of 294 females and 223 males and an age structure with a healthy bulge in the 5 to 19 age group; there was another bulge at 60 to 74 reflecting the attraction of Norham as a place for retirement. Two hundred and sixteen people were economically active and of these only 6 were seeking work. The same census figures showed 215 inhabited houses excluding second homes compared with 174 in 1831 when the population was 819, and 203 in 1881 when the population was 920. Whatever else has happened people now have more living space! Of the 215 households in 1981, 108 were owner occupied and 66 were Council owned and rented, with the rest either tied, rented privately or rented furnished etc.: In 1990, the Council owned housing stock in the village had decreased to 42 with over one third passing into private ownership in the decade. There was no-one on the Council housing list.

The census figures of 1981 also showed that of the 215 households in the village over 80% of them had at least 1 car. This great increase in personal mobility which has taken place over the last 50 years has helped to keep the level of rural unemployment down. A substantial proportion of working people living in Norham no longer work there nor are they any longer tied to bus routes in their search for work. The number of cars in the village - which will not have decreased since 1981 - reflects its prosperity, supports a garage but not a petrol station, makes running a rural bus service difficult, is an element in the economics of local shopping and creates a parking problem. The other side of the coin is that Norham is more readily accessible to people living well away from it, so that specialist shops and services such as bridal gowns, antiques and hairdressing become viable propositions. Visitors are attracted to the village with the main points of interest the castle, the church, the green and the cross, the railway museum at the former railway station plus opportunities for walking and rod fishing.

All in all then, looking at Norham at the beginning of the 1990's the impression is of a village in good heart, of a number of well established and thriving local businesses, virtually no unemployment, few housing problems and a good mix of age and interests with a variety of previous experience, and a school full of children in which the whole village can take pride and a caring interest.
"Berwick - A Short History and Guide" - Frank Graham - Published 1987 by Butler Publishing.
"Northumberland - England's Farthest North" - T.E.C.Walker & S.Warner - Published 1993 for Northumberland Education Committee.