So who was Percy Forster?

Andrea Cameron with the Percy Forster album
Andrea Cameron with the Percy Forster album

Fascinating 19th-century sketches of characters from a north Northumberland market town have been made available to a wider audience.

Percy Forster, who was a largely self-taught artist, put pencil to paper to capture Alnwick folk in the 1830s from all walks of life, before the advent of photography and at the time of the first census.

His eye-catching drawings show a cross-section of society, from singer to chemist, labourer to Duke.

Among the people Forster captured were Old Brown the Hatter, and Tom The Cutter who used to sell eels.

In total, Forster recorded more than 100 portrait sketches in his notebook of his fellow citizens.

Each character and occupation was identified and recorded in terms of clothing, attitude and attributes.

And now, an album of Forster’s sketches is available on the internet, thanks to staff from Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives, in Ashington.

Forster’s work has provided a fascinating experience for those working there.

Each year there are many items deposited at the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn, and each one needs to be carefully assessed and catalogued before the public can have access to the records and documents.

The work can be painstaking and slow at times, but cataloguing this album proved to be a pleasure for student archivist Andrea Cameron, who is currently on placement with the Archives as she works towards her professional qualifications.

Andrea said: “I’ve really enjoyed cataloguing this album.

“The drawings are such a beautiful and interesting record of a community.

“It has been fascinating to work on this and now we’ve been able to make the individual images available through the online catalogue.

“So many people will find them interesting – those investigating their family history or the story of Alnwick, those with an interest in art, and even those with just a curiosity about the past.”

The portraits formed the basis of a book by Professor Keith Middlemas.

Professor Middlemas, who comes from an old Alnwick family, taught at the University of Sussex.

The sketches were passed down through generations of his family.

His work, entitled As They Really Were: The Citizens of Alnwick 1831, explores social, cultural, economic and political structures of Alnwick in the first part of the 19th century.

He says that the survival of the sketches allowed him to look at such topics.

He used other historical records to illuminate the pictures and is able to portray in vivid reality many aspects of life, activities and relationships of people long thought to be lost to history.

Professor Middlemas says that there is no other comparable group of images of such a representative cross-section of local society.

To explore the album online, visit www.experience and search the catalogue for images by Percy Forster.

Copies of the book are available from Woodhorn.

l The Bailiffgate Museum, in Alnwick, is currently holding an exhibition of Forster’s drawings.

For more information about the display and opening times, visit