Thomas Wilson, 1773-1858

Mike Greatbatch and Ian Daley

On 30 March 2017, a blue plaque was unveiled by Allison Ilderton-Thompson, the Mayor of Gateshead, in memory of `a great Low Feller’, Thomas Wilson. The plaque describes him as a pitman, poet, schoolteacher, businessman, councillor and local benefactor, and is affixed to the former Gateshead Fell Reading Rooms and School that Wilson established and financed on behalf of Low Fell residents in 1841.

Today the former Reading Rooms are The Bank Bistro, and following the ceremony, those in attendance had an opportunity to share stories about the great man indoors, thanks to the hospitality of the restaurant manager.

The event was organized by Gateshead Local History Society and supported by local Labour Party members. Ian Daley from the Society joined the Mayor to say a few words about the life of Thomas Wilson and why the Society had raised the money to pay for the plaque. The following is based on a detailed hand-out that Ian prepared for the event:

Thomas Wilson is considered one of the North East’s greatest dialect poets. He was born in the mining village of Low Fell on 14 November 1773 and began working down the local pit at the tender age of eight years. He had worked his way from trapper boy up to hewer by the age of nineteen, the year in which he also became a school teacher at Galloping Green, Wrekenton, about a mile from his father’s home. Wilson himself had gained his own rudimentary education at a school run by Samuel Barras near Carter’s Well.

In 1803 Wilson started work for Losh, Lubbren and Co. in their counting office andå just two years later he entered into a partnership with William Losh and later Thomas Bell, to establish the Losh, Wilson and Bell Ironworks in Walker. His fortune åwas made and he was now in a position to demolish his parent’s humble old cottage and build Fell House near Lowrey’s Lane in Low Fell, where he lived until his death in 1858. He is buried in St John’s Church at Sheriff Hill.

Wilson began to write dialect poems in the 1820s. His most famous poem was Pitman’s Pay and was published along with his other poems in book form as the The Pitman’s Pay and other Poems. Several of his poems have been adapted with music and are still sung today, especially The Washing Day.

Thomas Wilson also took his civic duty very seriously and was elected to Gateshead Town Council following the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, and then served as an Alderman until his retirement in 1853. He never became Mayor despite being invited to stand for this office on countless occasions.

Books and papers were a constant feature of Thomas Wilson’s life, and today collections of his papers, note-books, and many rare original documents from the 1770s to the 1840s survive in regional libraries and archives thanks to a thirst for knowledge and spirit of public service that informed his actions throughout his life.

This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 48, 2017