Northumberland, History Society

Berwick view by Jane Coltman
Berwick view by Jane Coltman

The title of Ralph Holmes’ talk was intriguing – Salmon Gallows And Other Stories, at the North Northumberland branch of Northumberland and Durham Family History Society.

Although steeped in the salmon trade all his life, he was puzzled by references in a document dating back to 1757 at Berwick Archives referring to ‘Salmon Gallows’.

An elderly acquaintance explained that the term signified the look-out tower next to a fishing shiel on the Tweed. It was used by the lad posted to watch for salmon swimming upstream and to alert the fishermen. The tall wooden tower with a ladder does resemble the gallows.

Our speaker listed numerous odd and misleading references he had come across in family history research.

He spoke of ‘Irregular Marriages’ on the border and dispelled some of the myths. For example, these couples were not all runaways. It was the standard form of marriage for non-Anglicans.

The fact that the ceremony was usually conducted at a lower cost was also tempting. We heard examples where couples were not under-age, but could be called elderly.

English courts did not always recognise these marriages. The case was quoted of a man transported for three years for bigamy.

Birth, marriage and death certificates do not always represent facts. Sometimes this is due to intention to mislead; sometimes it is accidental, as in the case of people giving their mother’s name when responding to an enquiry about the name of the mother. It is also possible that people gave false birth dates to avoid fines for late registration.

Bodysnatching was rife in these parts due to the proximity of medical schools in Edinburgh. Some churchyards had a watch house for a night-watchman to keep guard.

We heard of Betty Hogg, whose body disappeared shortly after burial. After human hair was discovered on the stile out of the graveyard, the hunt was on and the Kennedy brothers were caught in Berwick, leading to imprisonment.

It is said that the corpses of thin, elderly women were most at risk as they were easier to dig up and carry.

There is the story of the dog who appeared as author of an online family tree on a popular genealogical website. Such strange incidents make family history even more fascinating.

Ralph’s talk caused much amusement and we are sure he will have many more anecdotes to share.

Our next meeting will be on October 21, at 9.45am for 10am, at Bell View, Belford, when Anthea Lang speaks on From Here to Eternity – Graveyards And Funeral Customs.