As part of our future expansion of the 1820s area at Beamish, the Buildings Team are hoping to recreate the lost cottage of a Georgian quilter. This involves investigating the scene of an unsolved crime from nearly 200 years ago!
On the 3rd of January 1826, an elderly, widowed quilter, Joseph Hedley, was brutally murdered in his isolated cottage in Northumberland. Joe was a kindly soul, who offered shelter to travellers and passers-by in his humble home. It was alleged that the killers were looking for his imagined wealth, but his murder was never solved, despite making national news, and a substantial reward being posted. In the wake of this tragic event Joe’s cottage was recorded in both plan and elevation sketches, which provide an extremely rare insight into the size, style and use of such a small, vernacular building.
The cottage was demolished in 1872, although it is shown on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map, and Joe’s story is further recorded in a chronicle of folklore published in 1887 (see p221-225 of The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend, July 1887), its exact location was unknown.
In order to prove whether the plans were accurate, the Beamish Buildings Team set out to locate and excavate the remains of the cottage. We found a clue to the building’s location from some bricks and tiles included in a field boundary wall in the area, and with the kind permission of the land-owners Mr and Mrs Straker, began our search.
We started by removing the heavy field stones and thick vegetation that covered the site before scrapping layers of soil off to see what was below. Thanks to some precision excavation from Beamish’s Track and Plant Team – Darren and Mark – we managed to uncover a spread of mortar which shows us we were in the right area.
A bit more digging showed some ‘linear concentrations’ of the mortar which we think represent the location of the walls.
There was also an area of ash signifying a fire, although this is probably associated with the building’s destruction rather than its occupation.
We recovered a few finds, most excitingly a few fragments of blue and white Scottish Spongeware which we think dates from the same period as Joe was living in the house. We’re not sure if the plate would have belonged to Joe or the people who lived in the house after him, but it is a tantalising glimpse of the cottage’s past.
After our brief investigation we’ve now covered the site over for the winter, and plan to come back to do a full investigation of the site next year. Having identified where the cottage was, we’re hopeful that we may even find the floor where Joe breathed his last – a bit gruesome, but a real help for us in telling the story of the life, work and death of Joe and other ordinary people of the Georgian North East.