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The Life and Times of Coffee Johnny - Died April 5th , 1900, aged 72

by Elsdon Watson

On behalf of Winlaton and District Local History Society

Introduction

In the Parish register of St Paul's Church at Winlaton appears the following notice of baptism. (Note 1)

April 19th 1829. A son, John to Thomas and Margery Oliver.
Picture of Coffee Johnny
Coffee Johnny
(By permission of Newcastle
Journal and Chronicle Ltd)

This describes the first appearance of the man who was later known as Coffee Johnny. In Geordie folk law he has almost mythical status due to his appearance in the last verse of Blaydon races. This conferred on him a sort of immortality. Yet Coffee Johnny was a real man, who was born, married and buried in Winlaton. The following article is an attempt to give some background to his life in Winlaton and Tyneside and also to try to separate some of the myths from the reality of his life.

Winlaton

The history of Winlaton is inseparable from the history of Crowley's Crew. For a period of almost 130 years the history of Winlaton was the history of Crowley's iron works. Even after its demise in 1815 the after effects still governed the history of the village for at least another half century. In 1690 Ambrose Crowley moved his iron works to Winlaton from Sunderland.

This was the beginning of an exercise in Social engineering at the very beginning of the Industrial revolution, which was remarkable in many respects.

The works were a strange mixture of a welfare state combined with a totalitarian state. In exchange for a guarantee of work, education, health treatment and a pension scheme the workers handed over control of their lives to Crowley. They worked for 80 hours a week and there was a curfew one hour after they finished the day's work. They had to submit to the force of Crowley's Court, which presented evidence gathered from informers. They could not leave their civil employment without promising to go at least 50 miles to get another job.

When the works closed in 1815 the shock in Winlaton was even more extreme than that of the demise in the area of the collieries, steel industry and shipbuilding during the latter years of the 20'h century. Not only did the employment disappear but also the underlying stability of education, health treatment and pensions. The village slowly recovered. The skills learned under Crowley were put to good advantage and the village became a centre for metal working under the leadership of families who had lived in the village for years.

The early years of Coffee Johnny are unknown apart from the church records, which show the arrival of a sister Dorothy in 1835. However the early years of his life were a turbulent time for Winlaton. The loss of Crowley's works with the subsequent unemployment and disruption had converted Crowley's crew from Tory royalist views to the most radical of opinions.

By 1819 they were well in the forefront at an open air meeting protesting about the Peterloo massacre. The mayor of Newcastle wrote to the Home Secretary about them, "700 men who came from a village about three miles distant were prepared with arms to resist the power." The years of protest came to a climax in 1839 with the Peoples Charter.

The Peoples Charter

This consisted of a six point plan for the reform of Parliament.

  1. Universal suffrage for all men over 21
  2. Secret ballot
  3. Payment of MPs
  4. Abolition of property qualifications for MPs
  5. Equal electoral districts
  6. Annual elections

The petition was presented to Parliament in August 1839. 46 voted in favour of considering it. 235 voted against. It was seen as a revolutionary proposal. The ones who voted against were not only the Tories but also people who considered themselves liberals. A typical representative of this type was Lord Macauley, a supporter of the 1830 Reform Bill who in a speech to parliament said, (Note 2)

"My firm conviction is that in our country, universal suffrage is incompatible with all forms of government, it is incompatible with property, and it is incompatible with civilisation."

The Chartists were divided between the "physical force" and the "moral force" sides. The physical force side thought that the way to support the petition was to be armed, drill with arms and if necessary to march on London.

Crowley's crew at Winlaton were the most ardent supporters of the Charter in the North and also contained within them many exponents of the physical force factor.

August 1839 saw Winlaton turned into an armed fort. Large numbers of hand grenades, pikes, spears and caltrops were made. The caltrop or craa foot was an iron pronged instrument designed to be placed on the road if cavalry were expected. Every entrance to the village was closed off and armed guards were placed there. Fourteen cannon were placed on the Sandhill. The expected armed troops of the government did not arrive. If the troops had come the likely outcome would have been disaster for the village. In Newport in November of that year armed chartists had marched into the town and came under fire by the militia. Several chartists were killed. The leaders of the Chartists were charged with treason and sentenced to death. {Note 3) Eventually a reprieve was granted and they were instead transported to Tasmania for life.

On the 13th August the tale is also told of a gang of Winlaton poachers led by Will Renwick who were involved in a pitched battle with guns on the Alston moors. A long and terrible conflict took place in which one of the gamekeepers died.

Coffee Johnny the boxer

At this time Coffee Johnny would have been 11. 11 years later on May 27th 1850 at the age of 22, fully-grown, well over six foot, with muscles developed by his work as a smith he fought Will Renwick on Hedley Fell. Renwick was a formidable opponent who had a reputation as a pugilist, a poacher and a man of violence. This was bare knuckle fighting, already unpopular with the authorities. The fights went on until the opponent could not stand up. Every round ended with a knock down. One minute later the fighters had to be on their feet ready to start again or the fight was over. The fight lasted for 36 rounds and 1 hour 10 minutes. At the end Renwick had to be brought home in a cart and was attended by Drs Brown and Callander of Greenside and Scott of Newburn. (Note 4) This type of fighting was the norm until in 1866 the Marquis of Queensbury produced his rules, introducing gloves, rings etc.

Coffee Johnny had a great reputation as a fighter and there are many local tales of his exploits, The following were told to Joan Gale by local people in 1967 and published in a booklet called "The Blaydon Races."

His grandson Joe Oliver recounted the tale of a fight with the landlord of a pub at Tanfield, with the name of Kirsopp.

"When he fit Kirsopp at Tanfield, Coffee won. The landlord paid him as the loser of the fight. And from that day on Kirsopp walked with his head tilted to one side till the day he died. Coffee must have hit him bloody hard."

The following was related by another grandson Tom Oliver.

It was the Hopping Week at Swalwell and Coffee Johnny had come down from Winlaton to visit his parents and to see the fun of the fair. But his father was not at home. So Johnny offered to take his mother, whose name was Sarah, down to the Hoppings. As they passed the door of the Highlander Johnny caught the voice of a Winlaton man speaking in the pub.

"If I could get my hands on that Coffee Johnny, I'd break his neck", promised the Winlaton worthy unaware that the formidable bare fist fighter was so close at hand.

The pub door was in two halves in them days. One half stood open on account of it being a summers day.

"Sit thee doon Sal and get thee pipe" Coffee told his mother. "I have a bit of an argument to settle in there" and in he strode.

"A minute later the double doors flew back and out came the chap that was wanting to meet Coffee Johnny in more of a hurry than he expected" related Mr Oliver proudly.

This tale has to be treated with a pinch of salt. In the 1851 census Coffee Johnny, blacksmith, aged 23 was living with his mother who was named Marjory and his sister Dorothy, aged 17. His mother is described as a widow aged 60. If the event described above did occur it seems more likely that the witness was not his mother but his daughter Sarah who was born in 1863.

John Thomas Pickering, born in Cuthbert St, Blaydon in 1873 recounted the following tale.

"Coffee was drinking with some of his pals in a public house when a farmer came in, called for a glass of beer, and pulled out a pile of notes. The farmer mentioned that he lived at Hamsterley, some ten miles away. His new found friends were very interested and so was Coffee. He knew that the men were going to follow the farmer and rob him. Coffee waited until the farmer was at the door of the inn and then he stood up and said, 'I will walk with you to Hamsterley. You lot can all go home'.

The farmer was assured of a safe passage home, with such an escort."

Blaydon races

Coffee Johnny was a great sporting man. As well as his boxing exploits he was also a great fan of horse racing and hunting. Tales are told over a period of forty years of his attendance at race meetings and also the Vale of Derwent hunt.

 

The Blaydon Races

First verse

Aw went to Blaydon Races, 'twas on the ninth of June,
Eiteen hundred and sixty-two, on a summer's afternoon;
Aw tyuk the 'bus frae Balmbra's an' she was heavy laden,
Away we went along Collingwood Street, that's on the road to Blaydon.

Chorus
0 lads, ye shud only seen us gannin';
We pass'd the foaks upon the road just as they wor stannin';
Thor wes lots o' lads and lasses there, all wi' smiling faces,
Gawn alang the Scotswood Road, to see the Blaydon Races.

Last verse

The rain it poo'd aw the day an'myed the groons quite muddy,
Coffee Johnny had a white hat on - they war shootin' "whe stole the cuddy?".
There wes spice stalls an'munkey shows, an' aud wives selling ciders,
An' a chep wiv a halfpenny round aboot shootin, "Now, me boys for riders".

When Geordie Ridley recorded his presence at the 1862 race meeting at Blaydon he was already obviously a character well known to his audience.

The song recorded the events of that day on the 9th June 1862, although the bus crash which is mentioned had occurred the previous year. The quote from Coffee Johnny in the song, "Whe stole the cuddy", was a sarcastic reference to the absence of horses on the racetrack. Due to the torrential rain the horses had difficulty in getting across to Blaydon Island where the races were held. It was argued by John W Bilcliff (Note 5) that the cuddy reference could also have referred to the mysterious disappearance of a horse on its way to be shod where Coffee was suspected of being the culprit.

Thirty ears later he was still attending the races. Mr Pickering (Note 6), already quoted above relates,

"My father owned a livery stable in Blaydon and each year he hired a landau to the race meeting. In 1891 when I was eighteen I began to drive the landau and used to take the race stewards from Blaydon to the race course at Stella. I often used to give Coffeee Johnny a lift on the boot of the landau. He was a great big fellow and used to get himself dressed up in a tall white hat."

Another eyewitness from the same source was Martha Ann Hall of Ryton, born in Blaydon 1877. She relates tales of other activities being held in Blaydon at race times.

"There used to be quoit throwing and foot racing in the streets at Harpers Ferry Inn at the times of the races. I remember the sack racing - Coffee Johnny was in that. A very tall man, he was. We children used to stand watching, all eyes."

Following the local hunt was another of Coffee Johnny's passions and various tales are told of this, often concerning Lord Ravensworth, Sir Thomas Liddle who during the 1800s owned a large part of the land in Winlaton. He had acquired this through marriage to Maria Susannah Simpson. (Note 7)

Joseph Oliver, grandson of Coffee Johnny recounted the following tale. (Note 8)

"Once he was following the hounds. He was a great one for following the hounds, and this day Lord Ravensworth's daughter had jumped a gate and her horse got stuck in a bog. Coffee got his back under horse's belly, and heaved her and the horse out of mud. Every time Lord Ravensworth saw Coffee Johnny after that he gave him a sovereign for saving his daughter and her horse."

Joseph Oliver also went on the relate one of Coffee Johnny's jokes which once again concerned Lord Ravensworth.

"I will be a bigger landowner than you some day," Coffee told his lordship.

"How's that?" asked Lord Ravensworth.

"Because when I die it will take seven foot of land bury me but less to bury you, so I'll be a bigger landowner."

This was literally true as Coffee Johnny lies in plot 107 in the North West sector of St Paul's cemetery and the burial records show that he needed a seven foot plot bury him, which was the biggest plot recorded in the parish records.

G Cowen who produced a history of the Vale of Derwent Hunt related the following,

"Coffee Johnny went to every meet of the hounds, My father and mother knew him well. He was a sporting man."

He told the story of how Coffee, who must then have been quite an old man, was assisting Lord Ravensworth into the saddle. Lord Ravensworth was getting near the end of his hunting days, and the business of mounting was not accomplished without a certain degree of effort.

"You're getting au'd and stiff, like mesel Mistor Ravensworth", Coffee told his lordship.

The Oliver family

On the April 14th 1852 in the Winlaton Parish records there is the following announcement. A wedding of John Oliver to Elizabeth Greener. Elizabeth had also been baptised at St Paul's on June 30th 1837, the daughter of John, a husbandman and Mary Greener. The marriage was soon followed by the baptism of a daughter Catherine on November 12th 1852, Mary Ann in 1854, Margery in 1856, Elizabeth in 1858, and Margaret in early 1862.

In those years infant mortality was very high, However in the early years the Olivers were blessed with eight children, all of whom survived.

After Margaret came Sarah in 1863, Tom in 1867 and Joseph in 1869. The 1871 census records the family as living in Church Road at Winlaton, presumably a misprint for Church Street.

It records the following

John Oliver Blacksmith 43 Blacksmith Durham, Winlaton
Elizabeth Oliver Wife 36   Durham, Winlaton
Catherine Oliver Daughter 19   Durham, Winlaton
Margery Oliver Daughter 15   Durham, Winlaton
Elizabeth Oliver Daughter 13   Durham, Winlaton
Margaret E. Oliver Daughter 10   Durham, Winlaton
Sarah Oliver Daughter 8   Durham, Winlaton
Thomas Oliver Son 4   Durham, Winlaton
Joseph G Oliver Son 2   Durham, Winlaton
Edward J Oliver Grandson 4 months   Durham, Winlaton

Edward J who died the following year is presumably the child of Catherine.

However their luck then turned. In 1872 the baptism of Hannah is recorded and then her death aged 8 months. The baptism of John is recorded on August 27th 1873. On May 27th 1875 the baptism of William is recorded, followed by the burial of Elizabeth on May 30th and then tragically the burial of William on June 10th aged 13 days. The cause of death of Elizabeth who died on the day William was born is given as aneurisrn of the aorta.

In the 1881 census Coffee Johnny is found at 12 Wagtail, Holmside, Durham at the home of his daughter Margery by this time married to Mark Young with three children of her own, Isabella, Thomas and Catherine. Coffee is registered as a widower and was living there with the three youngest children, Sarah, Thomas and Joseph.

Local historian John W Bilcliff suggested that in his later years he was a bit of a roamer and an idler, although he worked for a while in a forge at Swalwell. Tom Oliver his grandson (Note 9) gave a good illustration of this with the following tale,

"I heard tell of the day he went out in his shirt sleeves to fetch a pail of water. In them days, the only water was from a tap in the yard or the street - there was no water in the houses. Well, Coffee went out in his shirt sleeves for this pail of water, and did not get back for a fortnight. He must of met somebody he knew and that's why he didn't get home for a fortnight. He used to walk miles. There were no buses then."

In the various official records such as baptism certificates and death certificates Coffee Johnny is variously described as smith, blacksmith, oddware smith and journeyman. What seems to have been the case is that up to the death of his wife in 1875 he lived and worked in Winlaton. Joan Gale suggested that he might have worked as a smith in the last forge to have been worked, which is still in existence behind Winlaton library.

During his later years it is not clear where he lived or worked. What is known, is that there was a major depression in the country in the 1870s. Winlaton was badly effected as the use of iron implements was being replaced by steel and the small forges of Winlaton found it difficult to compete with the large-scale works elsewhere. In 1896 Bourn related in his History of Ryton,

"Winlaton, as a manufacturing place has seen its best days. At present, there is not a man engaged in nallmaking or in making pattern rings. Smithwork and chains are still manufactured at the engineering establishments of Messrs Thompson at the east end of the village, chains by Messrs Bagnall and at the west end are the shops belonging to the Nut and Bolt Company Limited. But these establishments only remind us of the world famous factory of Sir Ambrose Crowley."

Coffee and the Winlaton brass band

The Winlaton Brass band was an essential part of every local function in the 19th century. It was formed in about 1801 and linked to the 5th volunteer battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. Coffee Johnny was a long time follower of the band but does not appear to have actually played in it. There was some confusion over this as a Gateshead man, a trumpeter, took over the nickname Coffee Johnny after the death of John Oliver and is shown in photographs with Tommy on the Bridge.

Richard Hurst, the last Winlaton hinge maker recounted at the age of 96, (Note 10)

"He was a smith and a decent sort of chap. I remember he went to every funeral there was in Winlaton. Coffee Johnny was always at the end of the procession. He was a very tall man and he used to wear a top hat."

His own funeral on the 7th April 1900 was a memorable affair. He died of pneunonia in Blyth at the home of his daughter Mary Anne. His body was brought to Blaydon station to be met by the Winlaton Brass Band who marched him up the hill to St Paul's cemetery. At his request they played "When Johnny comes marching home."

Burial Register Entry for Coffee Johnny

Coffee Johnny in the Burial Register of St Paul's, Winlaton (DCRO EP/Win 1/23)
Reproduced courtesy of Durham County Record Office and the Parish of Winlaton, St Paul

Grandson Joe Oliver claimed the Band played the tune as they left Blaydon station. This is disputed by John W Bilcliff who claims they played the Dead March on the way to the cemetery and "When Johnny comes marching home" after the internment. What is certainly the case is that he had a good send off. He is buried in plot 107 in the NW section of St Paul's Cemetery.

Why Coffee Johnny?

Local historian John W. Bilcliff has produced the simplest and surely the correct explanation of the nickname.

"The name 'Coffee Johnny' is said to have originated from his schooldays. When others of his age went to see him and before they all set off for school together, he requested them to wait a minute or two until he drank up some coffee. Undoubtedly, a typical instance of how some folks were and even today are labelled with a nick-name."

Conclusion

Since his funeral in 1900 the memory of Coffee Johnny has faded. Indeed by 1999 the actual location of his grave had disappeared from common knowledge. On June 10th 2000 a gravestone will be placed on his burial spot in site 107 in the NW sector of St Paul's Church. This will establish a fitting memorial to one of Winlaton's most famous citizens.

  • Note 1: Tyne and Wear Archives
  • Note 2: The People's Charter, Lord Macauley, Miscellaneous Essays
  • Note 3: The British People, 1760-1902, Dorothy Thompson
  • Note 4: Blaydon Courier, J. Maugham, 11th March 1955
  • Note 5: Gateshead Post, 17th Sept 1987
  • Note 6: The Blaydon Races, Joan Gale
  • Note 7 A History of Blaydon, Winlaton and District Local History Society
  • Note 8: The Blaydon Races, Joan Gale
  • Note 9: The Blaydon Races, Joan Gale
  • Note 10: The Blaydon Races, Joan Gale