Don’t ask Who, It’s The Art Doctor!


Everyone knows how rarely doctors make house calls these days, but on Friday 24th May 2013, a doctor of a very special kind made a home visit. Keith Fenwick is better known to millions who have seen him on Sky TV as “The Art Doctor”, and his visit to the town was made even more special by reason of the fact that Keith, as he willingly admits, is “A Spennymoor lad, and proud of it.”

Keith was born in Dundas Street in 1937; his parents owned a general dealer’s shop there until after the end of WW2 when they moved to 20 North Street. He was educated at King Street School, and after leaving there he completed a five year engineering apprenticeship at Westool in Bishop Auckland, then went on to further education at Bishop Auckland Technical College as it was then known.

Afterwards he completed a 4 year Honours Degree at Loughborough University of Technology, covering 24 subjects in all. His thirst for knowledge still unquenched, Keith went on to Sunderland Polytechnic, where he completed a Post Graduate qualification in Advanced Management Sciences.

But art was his passion, and for the last forty years Keith has been the principal demonstrator at major fine art shows for well known international companies like Windsor and Newton (UK and USA) Raphael (France) and Caran d’ Ache (UK and Switzerland) leading to him demonstrating techniques and materials on company stands at both the Design Centre and Olympia in London, as well as at the NEC Birmingham, the SEC Glasgow, and, much closer to home, at Gateshead’s Metro Centre. At these venues he not only demonstrated the art of landscape painting, but also ran workshops in designated Masterclass areas.

As Sky TV’s Art Doctor, a programme he presented for 15 months, Keith could be seen painting landscapes three times a day, six days a week. He also went on to present “Art School” for Granada TV, and BBC’s “Eleventh Hour Challenge”. He can currently be found on Sky’s Painting and Drawing Channel on Cable.

A relaxed Keith on a visit to his home town

A relaxed Keith on a visit to his home town (Spennymoor Today)

In spite of this busy lifestyle, Keith has somehow found time to author 11 books on Landscape Painting for three publishing houses: books that have been translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish; has produced more than 30 teaching DVD’s and hosts painting holidays in Venice, Spain, Sardinia, Tuscany and Malta, as well as in the United Kingdom.

Yet Keith somehow manages to cram into his already well loaded schedule, 30 or more demonstrations to Art Societies every year. Based on all of this work, its not difficult to understand why this local lad who passed good on his way to making great (artwork), is highly respected throughout the international art community.

The Art Doctor with one of the five paintings he donated to Spennymoor Town Hall Gallery

The Art Doctor with one of the five paintings he donated to Spennymoor Town Hall Gallery (Spennymoor Today)

His homecoming coincided with the donation by Keith of five of his landscape paintings to the permanent gallery at Spennymoor Town Hall, housed in the Jim Smith Gallery, and, as is the case everywhere he goes, there was not a vacant chair in the Memorial Room when he was introduced by Gallery Curator Bob Abley.

Keith has a relaxed, informative and humorous presentation style, enhanced by his great skill, and those privileged to be amongst his audience hung onto his every word. Keith insists “Learning to paint is fun, and it’s easier than you think. There’s a painter inside all of us, just waiting for a chance to jump out.”

A section of Keith's audience

A section of Keith’s audience (Spennymoor Today)

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A Beacon to Light the Way…


Spennymoor Settlement was one of a number set up in the North of England, modelled on Toynbee Hall, (named after social reformer Arnold Toynbee) which had been established in the east end of London, and came into being through the commitment of a Liverpool man, William George Farrell. After studying at Toynbee Hall himself, in 1930 Bill conducted a survey into the effects of the depression on provincial theatrical companies. Through this he became aware of the social problems of the Durham Coalfield, and the following winter began another project, to establish the area most in need of help from the settlement movement. His study picked out Spennymoor (where unemployment was 35% of the adult population) and where most of the unemployed were miners who had nowhere to go, not even a public library.

Funding for the project came from The Pilgrim Trust, founded by oil tycoon Edward Stephen Harkness, a New Yorker of Scottish extraction. Being childless, he had decided to distribute his wealth charitably, and they had been moved by the sheer number of appeals for financial help coming from Great Britain in the 1920s, to make an endowment of £2 million through a Board of British Trustees chaired by Stanley Baldwin, who is probably best remembered for serving as British Prime Minister from 1935-37.

Bill made the settlement a residential one by moving into the area, along with his wife Betty (Elizabeth Ceridwen) so as to experience at first hand the difficulties being faced. The Settlement opened on 1 April 1931 in a disused shop, 38 King Street, and Bill and Betty lived in the rooms above. The scope of Spennymoor Settlement was never intended to be limited. Its doors were open to all, not just to miners, or even just to the unemployed, although the town and its environs had more than enough of those. Its aim was ‘to encourage tolerant neighbourliness and voluntary social services and to give to its members opportunities for increasing their knowledge, widening their interests, and cultivating their creative powers in a friendly atmosphere’. Those who came may have found the terminology, borrowed from the pilot scheme, rather confusing. They took the term ‘Common Room’ as implying that the users were common people, and Bill Farrell’s title of ‘Warden’ was generally misinterpreted as ‘warder’, although this was to be no prison – rather its intent was to set minds free to soar to new heights.

It was natural enough that early activities centred around what Bill and Betty could offer themselves. They began with a Sketching Club, born out of their interest in painting, and later added a Play Reading Group, which very quickly developed into the Settlement Community Players – forerunner of today’s locally respected Everyman Theatre Company, whose members (miners wives) were discussing the works of Anton Chekhov with a depth of knowledge and enlightenment that amazed the great writer’s British agent, and were even amongst the first in the country to study “The Method” school of acting, originated by Constantin Stanislavski. Their first play was put on in 1934 by a small group of women, mainly wives of miners, and the production utilised the skills of the Carpentry Group to make sets. A Dean and Chapter Colliery miner, Sid Chaplin, was encouraged to write plays, and Sid went on to become a leading northern writer in the 1950s and 60s. Practical classes in shoe repair and carpentry came next, with needlework for the women members. It was often claimed that The Settlement “mended souls,while it mended soles”. They added a male voice choir and a children’s playgroup, followed by studies in a variety of subjects, plus the first public lending library in Spennymoor, which Betty ran herself.

The national press were quick to dub the Settlement ‘The Miners Academy’ (later ‘The Pitman’s Academy’) although the fact that the press were even noticing stemmed from a visit in December 1934 by the Prince of Wales during his tour of depressed areas, when he expressed astonishment at the quality of the paintings being exhibited.

In 1935 theatrical success was recognised by an award from the Government Commission for Depressed Areas towards the building of a small theatre, the outer wall of which was adorned by a sandstone sculpture, the work of internationally celebrated artist Tisa von Hess – the late Countess Elizabeth Von Der Schulenberg, oriinally adorned the outside of the building, and this was one of the reasons for the building being awarded Grade II listing. Suffering from the ravages of time and the elements, the sculpture has now been given a place of honour in the main hall, where it is on permanent display, and a copy of the original work can now be seen in its place. Tisa’s brother was executed by the Nazis, for his part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. Towards the end of her life, she joined a convent and became known as Sister Paula. The history of the photograph reproduced here is uncertain. It’s believed that it shows the original stonemason and his apprentice (names unknown) fixing the carving in position and was taken around 1938/9. If anyone has any information about the stonemason or his apprentice, then Spennymoor Today – The History and Heritage Society would appreciate them contacting us, either by email to or by using the form at the foot of this article.

Settlement Stonemason c 1938

The Settlement stonemason and his young apprentice c. 1938 (Spennymoor Today)

The modern day Settlement was refurbished to a very high standard in 2008, thanks to a series of grants, including £140,000 from Sedgefield Borough Council and £50,000 from The Heritage Lottery Fund which gave the green light to plans to conserve and develop Spennymoor’s Grade II listed building. The awards ensured that all necessary funding was in place for the £225,650 project, which gave the well-loved community building a new lease of life for many years to come. The Everyman Theatre also benefited from a grant of £18,000 from Arts North East, for the provision of new stage lighting. Dr. Keith Bartlett, Regional Manager of the Heritage Lottery Fund said, “This is a great local project that has been put together thanks to the dedication of the volunteers involved. The conversion work will mean that even more members of the local community will be able to make use of the building for a wider variety of activities”.

The official reopening of the newly refurbished facility was performed on Friday 6th March 2009, by Lord and Lady Foster. Lord Foster, formerly Rt. Hon. Derek Foster MP, outlined the important part the Settlement had played in rejuvenating Spennymoor during the days of depression when unemployment was high. In doing so, he paid tribute to those who had been a part of one or other of the groups which originally met inside its walls – artists like Tom McGuinness, Norman Cornish and writer Sid Chaplin amongst others. To officially open the building, refurbished at a cost of about £300,000, a ribbon stretched across the stage was simultaneously cut by not one but eight people – Lord Foster, Marion Jackson (secretary) Sylvia Dobson (president) and David Acock (chair) on behalf of the Settlement Association together with pupils representing four Spennymoor schools: Thomas Barratt (Kirk Merrington) Daniel Guthrie (The Oaks) Chloe Young (Ox Close) and Niamh Fegan (King Street).

Tisa Hess ended her days as a nun (archive)

The audience at a modern day Settlement event (Spennymoor Today)

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Spennymoor’s Star of the Silver Screen…


Gibson Gowland

(4 January 1877–9 September 1951)

Alan Marron writes: Sometimes, the strangest things can start a search for information. In this case it was a query from a Spennynews reader, Bobby Hughes, who, whilst searching the internet, had found a mention of a Spennymoor born star of the silver screen. “Could we provide any information on the once household name?” he asked, in a plea that came via web-mail, which our web-master passed on en bloc at infrequent intervals. More often than not, the contents held nothing worthy of following up, but in this case, in my fifth year as a volunteer reporter with the paper, my interest was piqued, and off I went, hardly even pausing to push my Sherlock Holmes deerstalker onto my head, or reach for my trusty magnifying glass… the game was afoot!

Gibson was born Thomas Henry Gibson Gowland at 11 Flora Street, Spennymoor on 4 January 1877, the son of Thomas Gibson Gowland, a greengrocer, and his wife Jean, he was second eldest of a family of six (Gibson had three brothers and two sisters). The family business can be assumed to have been a very successful one, as they employed two servants at their home. Part of the street was demolished several years ago, as part of a site clearance exercise prior to the erection of newer homes, and Gibson’s home was unfortunately part of that clearance. It would have stood approximately opposite to what is now Trinity Methodist Church, which has had its entrance in Edward Street since being remodelled more than 25 years ago.

Gibson started work as a sailor, and worked his way up to mate on a ship, before spending several years in South Africa, where, from the age of 25 he variously hunted big game, prospected for diamonds, and organised a theatrical company in Johannesburg, in which he also acted, under the name of T. E. Gowland. He went on to prospect in Canada, where he finally made his début on the legitimate stage. In 1913, Gibson moved from Canada to the United States, where he met Beatrice Bird, also from Great Britain, and they married. Beatrice also came from a well to do family, and had emigrated with the intention of making a stage career for herself. They moved to Hollywood, where they worked as bit players, sometimes appearing together in the same film. Soon afterwards Beatrice changed her name to Sylvia Andrews

In 1915 Gibson appeared uncredited in director D. W. Griffiths’ “The Birth of a Nation”, followed a year later by “Intolerance”, a three and a half hour epic, also directed by Griffiths, now regarded as one of the great masterpieces of the silent era. That same year, 1916, he and Beatrice co-starred in another production – the birth of their only son Peter on 3 April. Unfortunately, just two years later they divorced, and Gibson took custody of his son Peter, who went on to make a name for himself as one of the foremost glamour photographers of his day, and the inventor of the Gowlandflex Camera, still in use today.

Six weeks old and hard at work already! Peter with his mother in his first film role: Small Magnetic Hand (1916)

Often cast as a villain, because of his bushy eyebrows, his six foot stature and curly hair gave Gibson a distinctive look, and in 1917 alone he made several films, ranging from westerns to mysteries, but his only starring role came in Greed (1924), directed by Erich von Stroheim, based on the Frank Norris novel McTeague, and co-starring ZaSu Pitts. The film has since become a classic, despite being cut to one-fifth of its original length before commercial release by MGM. In it Gowland portrayed the protagonist, dentist John McTeague. Von Stroheim had earlier directed Gowland as Silent Sepp in his 1919 film Blind Husbands, and this propelled Gowland to relative stardom, which in turn brought a succession of better roles his way. His two best known films “Blind Husbands” and “Greed” are still available on DVD.

Gibson with co-star Eliza Susan (ZaSu) Pitts in "Greed" (1924)

Gibson with co-star Eliza Susan (ZaSu) Pitts in “Greed”

The now relatively forgotten Spennymoor born star of the silver screen appeared in over 80 films – many of them uncredited – yet his acting CV includes: “The Wolf-man” (1924) the part of Joseph Buquet, a stagehand in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925, starring Lon Chaney jnr.) the part of Black Bastien in a non-musical version of Rose Marie (1928 with Joan Crawford where he is unmistakably seen on the poster with gun in hand) and “Mysterious Island” (1929, starring Lionel Barrymore). According to an article in the magazine ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’, production of the latter actually started in 1926. There were various problems, including weather and the advent of talkies, which served to slow or halt production several times before the film was finally completed and released three years later. The article included stills showing the original 1926 undersea denizens and the redesigned version which actually appeared in the film. Footage shot by Maurice Tourneur and Benjamin Christensen in 1927 was incorporated into the final version. Gibson also had uncredited parts in “Northwest Passage” (1940, starring Spencer Tracy) and “Gaslight” (1944, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer).

Rose Marie poster (1928) unmistakably shows Gibson toting a gun.

Rose Marie poster (1928) unmistakably shows Gibson toting a gun

After a second failed marriage, Gibson returned to England in 1944. He died in London on 9 September 1951, aged 74, and is interred in an unmarked grave in Golders Green Crematorium.

I managed to track Peter down with a little help from the internet. By this time (July 2007) he was 91, and so delighted that anyone remembered his late father, that he was only too happy to fill in the gaps for me. He replied “I’m thrilled that you wrote to me about my father. He was born on Jan 4th 1877 in Spennymoor, and I was born in the United States. My mother (also English) and father divorced when I was two years old and I lived with Gibson from age two until I was seventeen, when he found a new wife, after which I went to live with my mother.” Peter also revealed that he was “currently finishing work” on his own biography.

Pater also confirmed that Gibson arrived in the United States from England, by way of Canada, in 1913 and there met Beatrice Bird, also from England, whom he married. Both were actors who had left their comfortable families behind to seek careers. They arrived in Hollywood by train, knowing no one, in 1914. At first each worked for $2 a day as extras or bit players and lived in a $7 a month shack one-half block from the famous Sunset Blvd. In 1916, Peter was born there. He saw the irony of that humble beginning, by contrast with his later life-style, also just three blocks from Sunset Blvd, but at the other end, in an affluent neighbourhood. In his planned biography Peter said: “My father raised me from age two, to my late teens. He never hit me, or told me how to live my life, or what I should study in school”.. Peter’s one and only sadness was that he had not been able to trace the site of his fathers internment.

'Gibby' and Peter

‘Gibby’ and Peter

Perhaps I love a challenge;or it may just be that I don’t know when its time to give up, but I discovered that Golders Green Crematorium, was under the care of the London Borough of Barnet, so I sent an email to them, asking for information from their records. A day or two later I received their reply, along with an offer of assistance should I or any of Gibson’s family wish to visit the burial site. Based on that information I can now reveal that Spennymoor’s star of the silver screen was laid to rest in Golders Green Crematorium on 18th September 1951, in grave number 65455 Section H.3. There is no memorial stone on the grave which is just grassed over; information which I passed to Peter, who himself passed away on 17th March 2010, aged 93.

Cinema seems to run through the Gowland family history: two of Gibson’s brothers, Robert and Edward, opened The Grand Electric Hall in Cheapside, Spennymoor in 1910.

It has been suggested by other sources that Gibson appeared on stage in England and Germany under the name of T. E. Gowland, but I have found no evidence to support this, and his early life history suggests very strongly that there is no space where this would have conveniently fit. The same source also wrongly turned Peter’s half brother on his mother’s side, George, into his brother, which hardly inspires confidence.

Photo Credits: All images © Peter Gowland; used by permission

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Doodlebug, WW2

Flying Bomb stopped play…


Heinkel launching

Heinkel launching V1 Flying Bomb (Doodlebug)

It’s usually rain that interrupts cricket matches, but the most northerly doodlebug of World War II was the one that fell on Tudhoe Cricket Club at 6.05am on Christmas Eve: 24th December 1944.

It would seem that the doodlebug blew up in mid-air – somewhere just above roof level – and the biggest piece to survive was the nose portion, which fell to earth on Tudhoe Cricket Club. It has been wrongly suggested at one time or another that it might have landed on the pavilion, but we now understand that was not the case. The old wooden pavilion was in the opposite corner of the ground to where the new clubhouse stands, and the new clubhouse is very close to the spot where the doodlebug actually came to earth.

Cecil Lowes remembers the night the doodlebug fell: At the time, he was six years old, and his family home was at 254 Back Row, Tudhoe Colliery. (There was also Middle Row and  Front Street, although only Front Street remains standing). At the rear of Back Row there was an ammunition hut.

Cecil recalls: “When the sirens sounded everybody was advised to go under the stairs, which was always accepted to be the safest place. My mam got us safely under the stairs and then you had to black out, so she went to draw the curtains, and as she did the window blew and the glass came in, then the front door blew open and she suddenly remembered our Trevor. He was only about one year old and had been left in one of our two bedrooms. She went upstairs to find the ceiling had come down on top of the bed, and Trevor was laid underneath it, blackened by soot, but otherwise unharmed.

It was mayhem outside. Most of the people wanted to see what had happened. We lived about 500 yards away from where it had landed, so we ran across the cricket field to see it. It was fantastic for a six-year-old. It was sitting on top of the grass tennis courts that used to be in the corner of the cricket field near the vicarage, but the crater was only one or two feet deep, very black all round, but only about the size of a snooker table. It seemed a bit disappointing, but I don’t know what we’d expected it to look like.”

Although the Germans’ most northerly doodlebug did terrible damage to hundreds of houses locally, blowing out windows and doors, blowing off tiles and tearing down chimneys when it exploded, amid the debris in one household, the decorations on the Christmas tree survived, and in 2010, 66 years later, one still came out to be given pride of place on her tree.

I was a four-and-a-half year-old blonde girl living in Front Street, Tudhoe, and went to bed that night wearing a white winceyette nightdress”, recalls Sandra Chaytors, who now lives in nearby Bishop Auckland. “I woke up with glass from the window covering the bed. I looked in the long wardrobe mirror and all I could see was a little girl covered in soot.

Downstairs in the sitting room, which was kept only for best, we had a large Christmas tree, right in front of the window. It was decorated with miniature crackers and delicate baubles. On top of the piano and along the mantelshelf were Christmas cards. When the flying bomb exploded, it blew all the windows and doors out, and all the Christmas cards down, yet the delicate baubles and miniature crackers still hung on the tree.

Sandra says she still had some of the crackers (in 2010) but only one small silver-coloured bauble survived, which she still hung on her tree at Christmas.”


The Fieseler Fi 103 or V-1 flying bomb commonly known as a ‘Doodlebug’, was notoriously inaccurate when launched from Heinkel’s – which is how it came about that the most northerly landed on Tudhoe at 6.05am, as opposed to its intended target, which had been in the Greater Manchester area. Its ‘V’ designation came from the German word ‘Vergeltungswaffe’ which translates variously as ‘retaliation weapon’ or ‘vengeance weapon’. In either case the implication was clear: The V-1 rocket was intended by the Nazis to be a horrifying weapon, meant to instil fear and break the morale of their intended victims. For a short time, it seemed they might succeed, although it was very dangerous for the Heinkel pilot, as well as for those within range of the bombs. His plane was unstable, on account of the weight of the missile; It had great difficulty reaching a normal flying height, so was flown just above wave-top level, and because of this, some planes ditched in the sea. Also, since doodlebugs often fell off other Heinkel’s, pilots had to dodge them, which added to their personal danger, and when the doodlebug was launched, it was for all the world as though someone had turned a spotlight on the plane, which was ‘lit up’ – fully visible to any British fighter who cared to take a shot at him, as well as to anti-aircraft emplacements – for a full two minutes afterwards. About 40 of these ‘flying bombs’ were fired that Christmas Eve but only 30 made landfall, the rest tumbled into the sea. Brindle in Lancashire was the first to feel the wrath of the mighty Luftwaffe, at 5.28am; the last bomb landed in Hyde, Cheshire 57 minutes later. The last of its kind to terrorise Britain landed in a field close to a sewage farm at Datchworth near Hatfield, Hertfordshire at 9:00am on Thursday 29th of March 1945. There were no casualties.

What was inside the flying bomb

What was inside the flying bomb

The Fieseler Fi 103 (aka known as the V1 or Doodlebug) in flight (artists impression)

The Fieseler Fi 103 (aka known as the V1 or Doodlebug) in flight (artists impression)

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Gently does it…


The new look entrance_wp

How the former school will appear to viewers of the series (A Marron/Spennymoor Today)

The site of the former Tudhoe Grange School, which closed in July 2012 to join with Spennymoor School as joint founders of Whitworth Park School and Sixth Form College, will find a new lease of life thanks to a new series of prime-time BBC police drama Inspector George Gently. The series, which stars Martin Shaw, Lee Ingleby and Simon Hubbard, is based on characters created by Alan Hunter. The TV series based on those stories, produced by Company Pictures for BBC One, relocated the detectives from Norfolk to Northumberland and Durham. Series five ended on a cliffhanger, with the fate of the leading characters uncertain, but in September 2012 Peter Flannery, lead writer on the series confirmed that a new series of four, ninety minute episodes had been commissioned. For the last few months cast and crew have been based in their new home at Tudhoe Grange School’s former lower school site on Durham Road, which has not only become the police station from which the leading characters work, but also provides offices and a production base for the company. Filming at region-wide locations took place from March until early June, and the series, which has a regular audited viewing figure of about seven million, will air in autumn this year.

Publicist Deborah Goodman, said: “Period-wise the school really works for us. It has a great frontage to put our sixties police cars out front and the interior is great. We can make the police station sets work and have enough room for the production team to have its offices there. It has made a huge difference to the series to film it where it is supposed to be set, in and around Northumberland.”

To suit the series the entrance to the building has been altered dramatically: the familiar double doors now boast the legend ‘North East Constabulary’ etched into the glass pane above them, with the words ‘POLICE STATION’ engraved in the stone portico; a blue police lamp shines at the side, and an iconic red telephone box is sited below that, with parking spaces assigned to leading characters, and a number of period vehicles have been spotted, parked outside the building.

Agnes Armstrong, chair of governors at Whitworth Park, and a board member of Spennymoor Community Learning Trust has welcomed the new use. She said “The long term future of the site remains to be decided but we’re very pleased it is being put to good use in the interim. To have people in the building is good for security and it will generate an income that will go into school funds for the education and welfare of our children.”

Neil Foster, Durham County Council member for Tudhoe, and cabinet member for regeneration and economic development, added: “It is good to have this production based in County Durham. In the past, several firms from cars to catering have benefited, and while in the area the crew will spend locally. It also provides a bit of excitement for the area, people will enjoy seeing their town and old school on the television and there may be opportunities to get involved in crowd scenes.”

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Kenmir’s – a family tragedy


Frederick Kenmir name

The name of Frederick Kenmir can clearly be seen in the central column (Spennymoor Today)

When World War I broke out, one of John George Kenmir’s sons, young Frederick went off to fight for his country, as did a lot of young men and women, both from Spennymoor and elsewhere.

Frederick, 23, became a sapper in the Royal Marines, and history records that he was killed in action on 15th January, 1917. He now lies in a hero’s grave in the War Graves cemetery in Aveluy, France along with many comrades – hero’s every one.

Aveluy village was held by Commonwealth forces from July 1915 until 26 March 1918. The extension to the communal cemetery, begun by the French who held this part of the line previously, was continued by our units and field ambulances from August 1915 to March 1917. In the latter month the 3rd and 9th Casualty Clearing Stations began to use it, the 9th remaining until November 1917. On 26-27 March 1918, the village and the cemetery were lost during the German advance but were retaken by allied forces at the end of August. Aveluy Communal Cemetery Extension contains 613 burials and commemorations of the First World War. Twenty-six of the burials are unidentified, and three graves, the exact locations of which could not be found, are represented by special memorials.

The extension to the cemetery was designed by Sir Reginald Theodore Blomfield, who is famed as the designer of Regent Street, London (1920s), The Headrow, Leeds (from about 1929) and the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Flanders. In 1913 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and was elected to the Royal Academy the following year.

Before his enlistment Frederick had worked in the family business as a cabinet maker, ‘learning the ropes’ in readiness for the day when he would become a director of the company along with his brothers. Sadly it was a day that he was fated never to see. John George and his wife Margaret were plunged into deep mourning,as were many others of their day. It was possibly this that led Eric to design, and help in the construction of, the War Memorial that stands in the town centre today, a poignant reminder of a town that gave of its finest young men and women in answer to the call of its country, and the focus of the town’s Remembrance Day ceremony each year.

Parade Marshall Arnold W.Sanderson lays a wreath during the Remembrance Sunday Parade 2007 (Carl Marron/Spennymoor Today)

Parade Marshall Arnold W.Sanderson lays a wreath during the Remembrance Sunday Parade 2007
(Carl Marron/Spennymoor Today)

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The Great Fires of Spennymoor 2



1897 must have been, in every sense, a truly remarkable year! Nationally, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee – the 50th anniversary of her accession to the throne. Locally, Solicitor James J. Dodd, who had been elected a founder member of the new 21 seat Spennymoor Urban District Council as recently as December 1894, published his new ‘History of Spennymoor’. But perhaps most important of all, certainly insofar as the town was concerned, 1897 was the year when John George Kenmir of 13 Osborne Road, opened his furniture factory.

Kenmir’s started quite modestly in the Old Market Buildings on the South side of High Street, but the business grew quickly, to such an extent that by the time of the disastrous Kenmir’s fire of September 1929, they had a total of seventy employees. Of the fire it was said that there was not a single place in the town from which the flames from the burning building were not visible.

Undeterred, they rebuilt on a much larger scale, at the top of North Street: a three storey building, comprising machine shop, rack room and cabinet shop. On the first floor the parts were prepared and sanded down. From there they went upstairs to the rack room, where they were stacked in readiness for the next stage of their transformation. In the cabinet room, skilled hands assembled the parts into cabinets of all kinds, which went on to the polishing and spraying department. In the finishing shop locks, handles, mirrors and a variety of other accessories were added. Finally ready for dispatch, the cabinets were sent to all areas of the United Kingdom. With their quality furniture in such great demand, the company, by this time a family business, had soon expanded its payroll to about 100 workers. And a family business it still was; John George handed over the reins to his three sons: Eric, who became Managing Director, Frank and Carl.

Working conditions were poor by the standards of today, with just one week of paid holiday in the summer, plus Christmas and Boxing Day, but employees thought of it as a good place to work, and still have nothing but happy memories of the factory, of their employers, and of the time they spent there.

The big square chimney bearing the letter ‘K’ on its four sides, was a well known landmark in the town, and even folk visiting Spennymoor for the first time could not help but know where the home of fine, craftsman built furniture was.

Although the factory ceased production in 1965, by which time the payroll was reckoned to be over 200, the furniture produced there by its workforce of highly skilled craftsmen still remains a much sought after item, and pieces are known to command very high prices on the rare occasions when they become available.

Two reasons have been advanced to explain the closure of the business. Kenmir’s furniture was built to last – that was their proud boast – and not an idle one. Those who bought furniture crafted in Spennymoor would never have the need to replace it. Much more likely however, is the fact that, although John George’s sons happily followed in his footsteps, their sons had no feeling for the family business.

Sad to say, the premises were taken over in the 1960’s and put into use as a plastics factory – which was – most unfortunately – also burned down.

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