A blue plaque for Thomas Wilson has been placed on the Reading Rooms that he bequeathed to Low Fell in the 1841. Unveiled by the Mayor of Gateshead, Alison Ilderton-Thompson, it is a fitting tribute to a fine son of Low Fell, benefactor and Radical Whig. He was a member of Gateshead’s first council from 1835. The building is currently The Bank and it is at 516 Durham Road, Low Fell NE9 6HU.
The NELH Popular Politics Project collected a lot of information about Thomas Wilson, his activities and extracts from his private journals. These can be found at http://ppp.nelh.net/.
Born into a mining family he began working down the local pit at the tender age of 8 years. He worked his way from trapper boy up to hewer at the age of 19.In the few hours he was not at work or asleep he managed to get a rudimentary education at a school run by Samuel Barrass near Carter’s Well. At the age of 19 became a school teacher at Galloping Green Wrekenton.
Trying his hand at commerce he began to work for Losh, Lubbren and Co, in their counting office in 1803.Only two years later he entered in partnership with William Losh who in turn were joined by Thomas Bell which became the industrial giant of its day the Losh, Wilson and Bell Ironworks in Walker. His fortune was made.
Thomas Wilson was now in a position to demolish his parent’s humble old cottage and build Fell House near Lowery’s Lane Low Fell for his family and where he lived and died in 1858. He is buried in St John’s church Sherriff Hill.
He is described as being extremely generous donating to any good work irrespective of church, school or chapel, sect or party.
He began to write dialect poems in the 1820’s which were published in local magazines of the day and the respected Gateshead Observer newspaper. His most famous poem was Pitman’s Pay and it was published along with his other poems in book form as the “The Pitman’s Pay and other Poems”. It was widely read and translated into a play by the Dodds sisters (The Little Theatre’s founders) and the Progressive Players toured the Northern region with the play. Several of his poems have been adapted with music and are still sung today especially “The Washing Day “.His poetry is virtually all in dialect and has been a rich source for the study of the early 19th Century Tyneside dialect .
Thomas Wilson also took his civic duty very seriously and became one of Gateshead’s first Councillors and later as an Alderman until 1853. He never became Mayor even though asked to carry out this honour on countless occasions as he did not relish public appearances.
His most tangible legacy left in Low Fell is the building now known as The Bank Bistro Low Fell (Fell House was demolished in the 1960’s) . The Bank building was originally erected for the benefit of residents of Low Fell by Thomas Wilson and fellow benefactors as a local school and reading rooms. Thomas Wilson appreciated the education he had received and wanted his fellow citizens to enjoy the enormous benefits that education can achieve.
The building was used for various purposes including use as a social club established there for soldiers at the end of the 1st World War. The club eventually moved out and founded the Thomas Wilson Working Men’s Club which remains at the southern end of Low Fell in purpose built accommodation to this day. The building was then used as a bank and has now been converted to a Bar Bistro and adopted the name of its last use as The Bank Bar Bistro.
It is very fitting that the plaque to Thomas Wilson should be placed upon the building that he helped into being for the benefit he gave to his fellow man. A local man who did not forget his roots and recognised the importance of Education for all is a person who we believe should be recognised himself in a very fitting way.
Ian Daley Gateshead Local History Society