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Historical analysis finds Durham most eventful UK city

Durham has been named the most eventful city in the country following new analysis of more than 67 million historic newspaper pages published between 1710 and 2021.

Researchers from family history website Findmypast analysed their extensive collection, published online as the British Newspaper Archive in partnership with the British Library, calculating Durham as the city that received the most mentions when the numbers are adjusted for population size, the equivalent of 24 per resident.

Ely, York, Salisbury and St David’s round off the remainder of the top five (See table one).

Experts predict that the historic number of industrial strikes in the 20th century and Durham being home to renowned individuals such as Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame and those lost to time, including singer, whistler and trumpeter of the esteemed vocal group, The Michael Sammes Singers, John O’Neill, are key contributors to the fact that Durham is the most action packed in the records. Riveting stories and historic events uncovered in the archives include:

· A strong mining history: In 1893, Durham was at the heart of industrial action across the country. Mine owners in County Durham had proposed a 10% reduction in wages and when the Durham Miners’ Association’s members voted strongly to reject this, they were locked out. The union was defeated and the miners returned to work after 12 weeks with their wages cut. Locally referred to as “The Big Meeting”; Durham has also played host to the annual Durham Miners Gala since 1871, developing out of the miners’ trade unionism. In 1925 at the annual event, miners threw a cleric into the river, believing him to be the Bishop of Durham, who had urged the miners not to strike. They had, in fact, thrown in the Dean of Durham, J Weldon, who was rescued by one of Brown’s boatmen. The event has only been cancelled a handful of times throughout history, including for both world wars as well as (ironically) several mining strikes in 1921 and 1926.

· A true wartime hero: Born in Durham, Private Michael Heaviside was awarded a rare wartime medal, the Victoria Cross, for valour at Arras, France in 1917. When Michael became aware of an injured man who had been lying in a shell-hole for four days without food or water, he crawled out to him in broad daylight and under heavy fire to bring him supplies. He returned at night with a stretcher and saved his life.

· Things that go bump in the night: Durham Castle is said to be haunted by not one, but two ghosts. Many unnerving sightings within the castle walls have made the local papers over the years. Start to climb the castle’s staircase and you may encounter the Grey Lady, said to be the wife of a 19th century Bishop of Durham who fell to her death from its topmost heights. When the University first opened its doors in the 19th century, one student stood above the rest - Fredrick Copeman, who lived in the highest room in the Castle, and whose soul allegedly never left. Ambitious Fredrick woke early on results day to see if he had passed. To his horror, his name wasn’t on the list of students who had passed the final exam. Thinking he had failed, he returned to his room devastated, before taking his own life. Later it emerged that he was in fact, top of his class. To this day, it’s said you can still hear Fredrick’s ghost as he paces around his room in anguish...

The new data has been released in line with the launch of Findmypast’s new podcast series; ‘Step into the Past’, hosted by historian and TV presenter, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb. Working in partnership with National Trust, Findmypast have launched the new series across two major National Trust properties; Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire and Wordsworth House in Cumbria. The podcasts highlight fascinating the family history of individuals who work at or live near to one of the National Trust’s historic properties. The family history website is encouraging members of the public to delve into their own family and local history.

These National Trust properties themselves are referenced numerous times within the historic records held by Findmypast; Quarry Bank Mill features in historic newspaper articles more than 280,000 times!

Aside from Durham, researchers were able to sort the data to reveal which locations had the most news related to a variety of interesting topics and keywords. Ely came out top in terms of references to ‘pickpocket’, also ranking first for ‘ghost’, with local town National Trust property Avebury, Salisbury, coming second for ghost stories. St David’s and York topped the list for mentions of the word ‘famous’ whilst ‘strikes’ picked up the most column inches relating to Durham.

With York almost topping the charts for most “famous” mentions, experts are attributing this to the number of famous events that took place in the historic city. These range from acclaimed chocolatier, Henry Rowntree founding Rowntree’s confectionary in York in 1826, with the infamous fruit pastilles being introduced in 1881, to the execution of notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin in York in 1739 for horse stealing, whilst ghostly ‘goings-on’ such as the haunted house of Oliver Cromwell were commonplace in Ely. War heroes were also a regular feature across the newspaper archives, including the first man from Ely to be killed in the First World War, Lieutenant R. C. G. Foote, and Lieutenant Colonel Betram Best-Dunkley from York, awarded the Victoria Cross for his services at the Battle of Passchendaele.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb said: “Durham is one of our great, historic cities and so it’s not such a surprise that it should prove Britain’s most historically eventful location. There are more than 88,000 mentions of Durham, ranging from famous names to acts of bravery in wartime, and they form just a small part of the millions of fascinating facts documented in these historical records. This ‘history where it happens’ research has inspired us to take an in-depth look at two wonderful National Trust properties for Findmypast’s new podcast series. I’m also thrilled to be able to share some of the surprises in my own family tree – something I hope will encourage people to investigate their own stories.”

Jen Baldwin, Research Specialist at Findmypast added: “Our extensive online collection of over 14 billion records, including over 65m historical newspaper pages give people the opportunity to unlock their own fascinating family stories and secrets. We can’t wait to bring some of these amazing tales to light, immortalising them for the future in their very own podcast episodes.”

‘Step into the Past’ podcast will be available to listen to from 28th August across all podcast platforms.


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