Coquetdale, History society

Bill Saunders suggested that most people in the North know about Bessie Surtees' elopement, but few know the whole fascinating story.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 15th January 2017, 10:30 am
View of Rothbury
Picture by Jane Coltman
View of Rothbury Picture by Jane Coltman

Bessie (1754-1831) and John Scott did elope, helped by school friend John Wilkinson. Bessie did climb out of the first floor window and in a four-horse carriage sped up the A694 to Fala to be married in Scotland.

On coming back to The Queen’s Head in Morpeth negotiations were started to achieve a partial reconciliation with their families. Both were wealthy families in business in Newcastle, connected to land owners.

John’s father was a member of the Hostmen’s Guild, hosts to the buyers of the coal trade.

Bessie’s father, Aubone, had been apprenticed and then joined the Merchant Venturers Guild, which considered itself a cut above the Hostmen. He was a rising member of Newcastle’s Corporation and had inherited the family position of tax collector. Later, he and his business partner started The Exchange Bank.

Both their sons went to the Free Grammar School, now the Royal, marked by the 10ft pillar outside the Central Station. Their contemporaries were Bessie’s uncle and Cuthbert Collingwood.

Bessie’s father had quickly become Sheriff of Newcastle, charged with public safety at the time of Bonny Prince Charlie’s army heading south to Carlisle in 1745. Bessie would have known General Wade, who was waiting in Newcastle with 12,000 men. He quickly diverted to Carlisle, but was hampered by the inadequate road and hundreds of his men died in a blizzard at Hexham, hence the construction of the A69 ‘Wades’ Military Road.

After the Scot’s invasion, Aubone married and rented the upper floors of 41 Sandhill Street for the growing family and to be in the hub of business and trade. The Quayside was a noisy, busy area.

The first daughter, Bessie, was baptised in 1754 in their parish church of St Nicholas, now the cathedral. After the reconciliation to the elopement Bessie and John were ‘properly’ married there.

After the wedding, John took Bessie to Oxford to complete his education to become a priest, but changed his studies to the law. In 1776 he was called to the Bar, where he excelled. In 1788 John Scott was knighted, and throughout his career continued to be elevated.

After buying the Eldon estate in Cumberland, he was created Lord Eldon in 1790. He was the longest serving Lord High Chancellor until 1827. He was made Viscount Encombe after his other estate in Dorset. Ironically, their eldest daughter, at 34, married without her parents’ approval.

King George III remarked to John that “if it weren’t for your wife you might be a country curate now”.

After Bessie’s father died her two brothers took over the bank, which went bust.

Bessie Surtees’ House, 41 Sandhill, has had many uses, but is currently occupied by the regional head office of English Heritage. The public may visit.

The next talk wil be King Arthur – Local Boy Made Good, by Michael Thompson, on Friday, January 20, in The Jubilee Hall, Rothbury, at 7.30pm. All are welcome, visitors £3.