Blue plaque holders
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We set up the Northampton Blue Plaques project in 2019 to commemorate local philanthropists who made significant material contributions to Northampton’s residents or had enhanced the reputation of the town
Members of the public were invited to suggest potential blue plaque holders through an online survey under the nomination criteria that the individual must have a strong connection to Northampton and have been deceased for 15 years.
A panel of local historians and heritage professionals selected 4 plaque holders for the first phase.
We are exploring the possibility of a wider blue plaques scheme covering the West Northamptonshire area as part of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery’s ‘Histories of Northamptonshire’, an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation grant-funded project.
Read about the 4 blue plaque holders
A local councillor and Mayor, Joseph Gurney founded the Northampton Freehold Land Society, enabling working men to own their homes.
This was a predecessor of the Nationwide Building Society. Gurney was a leading radical who championed parliamentary reforms and was Charles Bradlaugh's foremost supporter.
He lived at Elysium Cottage, which is demolished, but was close to the Barrack Road end of Freehold Street.
Joseph Gurney first came to prominence due to his opposition to the Vicar’s Rate, payable to the local Anglican parish priest. Non-conformist Christians and secularists like himself resented being taxed by a church they did not attend.
He was twice tried in court on charges arising from his resistance and was acquitted both times. Later, he served as a local councillor, Mayor, Magistrate, School Board member, and Improvement Commissioner.
The Northampton Freehold Land and Building Society was founded in his Gold Street shop in 1848. Gurney was a Director from the beginning, Secretary from 1856, and President from 1891. He was the driving force in this enterprise, which was often known as ‘Gurney’s Society.’ It helped working men to own their own homes and with the franchise contingent on property ownership, enabled them to vote.
Gurney was a leading political Radical during Northampton’s most radical period. A pioneer democrat, he supported the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884, which gradually extended the right to vote, and the Ballot Act of 1872. According to Edward Royle, Gurney’s name ‘runs like a silver thread through the history of Bradlaugh radicalism in Northampton.’
His obituary in the Mercury recorded: “For half a century he held a foremost place in the municipal and parliamentary history of Northampton, always one of the leaders of the advanced guard… in the forefront of every progressive movement… active in every endeavour to extend the principle of human justice.”
Gurney stood, unsuccessfully, for election to the Town Council as a Chartist, then as a Radical, before finally being elected in partnership with the Liberals. In 1859 and again in 1868, he invited the secularist lecturer, Charles Bradlaugh, to speak in Northampton, beginning Bradlaugh’s long association with both Northampton and Gurney.
Gurney and Thomas Adams sponsored Bradlaugh’s unsuccessful Northampton parliamentary campaigns in 1868 and 1874 and formed the alliance of Radicals and Liberals which at last secured his election in 1880. Gurney’s strong support continued during the bye -elections that followed the Speaker’s refusal to allow Bradlaugh to swear the oath and take his seat, and a through a second general election. In the meantime, Gurney became an Alderman in 1874, and Mayor in 1875 and 1879.
He was never afraid to go against public opinion. In 1878, when Bradlaugh faced hostile criticism for co-publishing a controversial pamphlet on birth control, Gurney chaired a Town Hall meeting in his defence.
As his friend, J. M. Robertson, said at his funeral: “He was one of those who instead of waiting to choose a cause when it should seem to be respectable, chose his cause first of all, with the most disinterested regard to truth and justice.” At his request there were no wreaths or flowers at his funeral, which consisted simply of Robertson’s short graveside eulogy.
Image credit: West Northamptonshire Council
In 1205, King John employed a man called Peter the Saracen as a maker of crossbows at Northampton Castle.
The term 'Saracen' described someone of North African or Middle Eastern origin and Peter was one of the first recorded Muslims in England.
During the Middle Ages, Northampton Castle was a royal residence and the seat of several parliaments.
King John (1199-1216) is known to have visited the Castle on 30 separate occasions and moved the Royal Treasury there in 1205.
Financial records from July 1205 show that King John employed a man called Peter the Saracen as a maker of crossbows. The records state that King John gave a ‘…mandate to the Constable of Northampton to retain Peter the Saracen, the maker of crossbows, and another with him for the King’s service, and allow him 9d. per day.’ The Constable of Northampton Castle is also recorded as purchasing a robe for Peter’s wife together with ‘utensils and other necessaries in conjunction with the royal crossbows.’
Today, the word Saracen is mainly associated with the Crusades, a series of bloody European invasions into the Middle East that took place between 1095 and 1291. European Christian knights used the term Saracen to denote their foes in the Holy Land. However, the term was generally used to denote cultural and religious rather than racial difference.
Peter the Saracen was probably one of the first Muslims to be recorded in England. It may be that he came to England following Richard I (1157-1199) after the Third Crusade (1189-1192). The high wage he received shows that he was not a prisoner and was probably employed to make more powerful crossbows with horn than was the norm in the East. His presence suggests that there may have craftspeople of North African and Middle Eastern origin in England in the Middle Ages.
Peter the Saracen is described as a maker of crossbows. The correct term for a Medieval Crossbow is an Arbalest. During the second half of the 12th Century and throughout the 13th Century, the crossbow was the dominant handheld missile weapon in most of Western Europe.
King John spent significant sums of money on armaments and at least 6 royal crossbow workshops were established during his reign. It may well be that he established a crossbow workshop in Northampton and that Peter the Saracen was employed there.
The Northampton Black History Association has researched the presence and contributions of Black people to the development of British society and Northamptonshire’s local history over the past 500 years.
‘Sharing the Past' has been co-operatively written by members of the association and chronicles the black presence in Northamptonshire since the first evidence of Peter the Saracen, crossbow maker, in the early 13th Century.
Image credit: image provided by Mike Ingram
Rose Scott was an anti-poverty campaigner, supporter of adult suffrage, and Northampton’s first female councillor.
She served on the Board of Guardians supporting widowed fathers, and as a member of the Education Committee, advocated provision of playgrounds.
The daughter of a Baptist minister, Scott was a lifelong campaigner against poverty.
Convinced that it was caused by an unjust social system, she joined the Socialist movement and was elected to Croydon Board of Poor Law Guardians. In 1905, after the death of her first husband, she came to Northampton, and was elected to Northampton Board of Guardians in 1906.
As a Guardian, she defended relief work for the unemployed, and was concerned to find housekeepers for widowed men with children, out relief for unmarried mothers, and a female Relieving Officer to give more confidence to female clients.
Co-opted onto the Education Committee, she criticised the poor quality of elementary school buildings in the town, and advocated the provision of playgrounds, apparatus and smaller class sizes.
Rose was a feminist who opposed the suffragettes’ policy of the vote for propertied women, and argued, face to face with Emmeline Pankhurst, the case for full adult suffrage for all men and women, regardless of property. She was well-known as a national speaker for the Social Democratic Federation.
During the First World War, she campaigned against the high price of food and fuel, and in 1917 was appointed to the Northampton Food Control Committee, one of only three women among 15 members.
Although a member of the British Socialist Party, she opposed the BSP’s anti-war policy. She worked hard within democratic institutions to win support and make alliances in order to achieve concrete goals and was respected by her political opponents.
In 1919 Rose Scott was elected as a Labour member of Northampton Town Council, the town’s first woman councillor. She served on several committees and chaired the new Maternity and Child Welfare committee, a position she held until her death.
While leading this committee, she brought in Dr Emily Shaw as the first woman Assistant Medical Officer of Health with specific responsibility for maternity and child welfare and led the drive for improved maternal health and mortality and a reduction of infant deaths and still births.
Under her leadership, the Council introduced free meals for pregnant women and nursing mothers and began to pay maternity home and General Hospital fees for women in need.
After her death in 1923, over 1,000 people attended her funeral at Billing Road cemetery.
Northampton’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr J. D. McCrindle, wrote, “No official worked with greater zeal and success, and none secured a larger measure of confidence and true respect. Those who served with her were sure of encouragement and ready sympathy at all times, and more often than not her assistance took the practical form of personal effort.
“I consider she did more real good in the town amongst those who needed it than any other single individual, man or woman, and I know that her successor is most ready to own the difficulty of filling her place. Her effort for what she believed to be the good of the working people of this town hastened her death and she literally died in harness.”
Image credit: SWNS
William Barratt was a self-made Northampton shoe manufacturer who donated funds to build the Barratt Maternity Home, greatly improving the safety of childbirth.
He was nationally well known in the shoe industry for his progressive ideas and methods, and Barratt shoe shops were once found on every high street in the country.
He and his wife Alice are best remembered for financing the building of the Barratt Maternity Home with an initial gift of £20,000 in 1934.
The Home was opened in July 1936, as William and his wife desired to do something in their lifetime of a lasting character for the benefit of the town.
The establishment of the Barratt Maternity Hospital was a huge enhancement to medical provision in Northampton, and at a time when home birth was still the norm, it made giving birth much safer.
William Barratt’s influence and philanthropy were derived from his success in business as a shoe manufacturer. By the time of his death, W. Barratt and Co. Ltd. was one of the largest business concerns in the country, not only manufacturing but also retailing shoes.
Sons of a boot sewer, William and his brothers were shoe workers by their early teens. William managed one of Manfield’s shops in London, then his father’s boot shop in Gold Street, which he later bought. By 1902, he and his brother David had a boot shop in the Drapery.
Their innovative idea of selling boots by post was resented by the manufacturers who cut off supplies of boots and shoes, resulting in the brothers’ bankruptcy.
However, in 1907, the brothers started a new company, W. Barratt and Co, Ltd. with two of their other brothers, Albert and Richard as nominal shareholders. William and Richard became joint Managing Directors, and they pioneered the sale of shoes by aerial delivery.
In 1913 they opened a new factory on the Barrack Road, the Footshape Boot Works, and added a chain of retail shops, advertising their wares with the slogan ‘Walk the Barratt way,’ which became internationally famous. By 1939 there were 150 Barratt shoe shops.
William Barratt was also active in politics. As a young man, he was a prominent member of the Social Democratic Federation, one of the forerunners of the Labour party. In 1904 he stood twice, unsuccessfully, for the Town Council. His third attempt came 25 years later in 1929, when he was elected as Labour councillor for Delapré ward. In 1935 he became a Northampton magistrate.
William Barratt’s socialist principles influenced his attitude as an employer and manufacturer. He supported state regulation of the industry and unionisation of the workforce. More significant was his concern for the working conditions of his employees.
The Footshape Works was designed for the comfort of its workforce, with air conditioning and natural light through roof vents and widows with clear glass. An up-to-date conveyor reduced lifting and carrying, and a canteen served tea free of charge, and made hot meals available. Welfare services included a benevolent scheme and contribution-free pensions.
William was also a regular contributor to good causes, including a rest home for the unemployed, and the Mayor’s Fund for the Red Cross. In 1939, Northampton Town footballer, Syd Russell, broke his leg so badly during a game that it had to be amputated. When the Chronicle and Echo raised £845 in donations for Russell, William Barratt made it up to £1,000.
This gesture was entirely in keeping with William’s consistent support for sporting and leisure activities in the town. He was a Director of Franklins Gardens Sports and Pleasure Company, and a Committee member and later President of the Saints Rugby Club. He had been a member since 1902, and had taken part in several sports as a young man. As a town councillor, he advocated the introduction of Sunday games for young people.
William Barratt’s lasting legacies are the Barratt Maternity Home, the birthplace of countless Northamptonians, and his widely influential innovations in shoe retail methods, advertising and factory design.
Image credit: The portrait of William Barratt was kindly provided by the Northampton General Hospital Archive.
Last updated 03 February 2023