A Brief History of Felton, by Eleanor George

Little is known about Felton before the 1100s but the recent archaeological discovery of an Anglo-Saxon settlement at its north end, and fragments of pre-historic pottery on the same site, show that people have been living in the area for thousands of years.

In the early 1100s century a Norman Knight named Bertram was granted the barony of Mitford which included the manor of Felton, a large estate, which became the original parish of Felton. By 1200 the Bertrams had built a church at Felton (now the parish church) and established a market every Monday. They also built a mill on the River Coquet for grinding their tenants’ grain and a manor house. In 1203 they obtained the right to enclose the woods of Felton to contain deer. This area became known as Felton Park. The village of Felton became a busy thoroughfare because of its position on the banks of the Coquet at one of the few places where the river can be forded at certain times of the year.

In 1215 King Alexander II of Scotland travelled to Felton where he met the northern barons (including the Bertram lord of Felton) who had rebelled against King John. The barons put themselves under the protection of the Scottish king by pledging allegiance to him. In retribution King John’s army ravaged much of the north of England. Felton, along with many other places, was said to have been burnt to the ground.

The next Bertram lord of Felton also chose to support a rebellion against the king and in consequence, in 1264, was forced to break up his estates and sell large tracts of land to pay his debts. When he died in 1272 there was considerable dispute over who would inherit the Felton estate and it passed through a number of hands until it was inherited, through marriage, by Sir Robert de Lisle in 1422. It then remained in the Lisle family for nearly two hundred and forty years. 

During the period of the Wars of the Roses (1455 to 1487) armies of both sides repeatedly crossed the river at Felton. There may have been a wooden bridge by this time but the strategic importance of the crossing led to the construction of the present old stone bridge. In 1644, during the Civil War, the bridge narrowly escaped destruction when the Royalist army was retreating south. To hinder the pursuing Scottish army, it destroyed any bridges it crossed but when it reached Felton bridge, the women of the village prevented its destruction by frightening off the soldiers.  Six years later the Parliamentarian army crossed the bridge on its way north to Scotland where it subsequently defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar. The army was led by Oliver Cromwell. He is said to have stayed overnight in Felton at the Angel Inn. 

The last member of the Lisle family at Felton, Robert Lisle, died in 1659. He left his Felton estates to his young wife Dorothy Horsley who, the following year, married Captain Edward Widdrington, the 4th son of 1st Lord Widdrington of Blankney and Widdrington. Edward supported James II and died in 1691 at the battle of the Boyne fighting against William of Orange.  The Felton estates passed to Edward and Dorothy’s son Edward Horsley Widdrington. In 1732 he demolished the old manor house and erected a grand new house within the park walls. Although it burnt down in 1747 it was soon rebuilt to the same plan. In 1762 the Felton estate was inherited by marriage by Thomas Riddell of Swinburne Castle. The Riddells, like the Widdringtons, were Roman Catholics.

Meanwhile the number of travellers passing through Felton greatly increased. In 1712 the first stage coach service between Edinburgh and London began. The journey took 13 days. It stopped at one of the Felton inns to change horses and allow the passengers to refresh themselves. Over the years traffic steadily increased and in the early 1780s, the Turnpike Trust built a toll road, which followed the route of the old road through Felton, to accommodate it. This allowed faster transport from London to Edinburgh. In 1786 an express coach began travelling the route, taking only 60 hours for the whole journey, and soon after a daily mail coach was introduced. In 1788 the old bridge was widened to allow traffic going in opposite directions to cross at the same time.  

The increase in traffic also stimulated the growth of the village. There was a rapid rise in the number of houses, shops, inns and other services. There were blacksmiths, harness and saddle makers, boot and shoemakers, cabinet makers, carpenters and joiners, fishing tackle makers, tailors, dressmakers, hat-makers, clockmakers, butchers, bakers, brewers and grocers as well as a host of other tradespeople. The small thatched cottages, which lined the route of the road, began to be replaced by large stone houses with tiled roofs. The long burgage plots behind the cottages had workshops, and living accommodation for servants and apprentices, built on them. A new coaching inn, the Widdrington Inn, was built. It competed with the two older coaching inns, the Red Lion and the Coach & Horses. Other inns included the Angel Inn, the Rose & Crown, the Fox & Hounds and the North Briton. The Red Lion had the added attraction of a theatre, which staged frequent performances by travelling players, and it hosted Felton Races, a popular annual event, which attracted large crowds. The Widdrington Inn also had an added attraction, a cockpit, where regular cock-fighting tournaments were held. Men came from all over the county to gamble on the fights.

Until the early 1800s the religious needs of the village were catered for almost entirely by the parish church although Roman Catholic families were allowed to use a small chapel within the Riddell’s house at Felton Park. There was a Presbyterians congregation by 1800 but they were unable to find any land on which to build a chapel. One was finally built in 1820, and named the Felton Presbyterian Chapel but it was situated in West Thirston. In 1857 a Roman Catholic Chapel was built by Thomas Riddell, close to Felton Park house, to accommodate the growing number of Catholic families in the area. In 1860 a Methodist Chapel was established in two cottages in Victoria Terrace.

For many years there was no school in the village. Although a parochial school was opened in 1830 it was built in West Thirston as there was no land available in Felton. In 1872 John G Riddell of Felton Park built a Roman Catholic School at the north end of the village to educate the children of his Catholic workers. Adult education was catered for by Reading Rooms. These were opened in 1876 on Main Street and housed a library, where the newspapers could be read, and a billiard room.

With the opening, in 1847, of the Newcastle to Berwick section of the railway, uniting London with Edinburgh, coach travel through Felton began to decline and with it the importance of its coaching, and other, inns. The inns also suffered in 1847 when cock fighting was made illegal in 1849 and in 1863 with the demise of Felton Races. By the 1880s the Angel Inn, the Rose & Crown, the Fox & Hounds, the Widdrington Inn and the Coach & Horses had all closed and the Red Lion Inn was going downhill.  The Widdrington Inn became the post office with its own frank and sorting office. Later it also housed the telephone exchange. The Red Lion eventually closed just before WW1.

And the railway also brought a new type of visitor to the village, the travelling salesman, who needed accommodation.  The Stags Head Commercial Hotel was built in 1869 specifically to meet this need.

However the reduction in coach travel did not have such a great effect on the tradespeople. Shops and businesses continued to thrive and they benefited in 1866 from the establishment of a gas plant at the bottom of Church Bank which provided lighting for the village.

The period between late 1880s to the first years of 1900 brought considerable change to the village and growth northwards.  A new row of houses (Prospect Terrace) was built first, then a new Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in 1891, a branch of the North Eastern bank in 1895, and the Jubilee House and Tea Rooms in 1897. In 1901 the Broomhill Co-operative Society opened a store (which later became the Felton & District Co-op) and a cemetery, for the burial of Roman Catholics and other non-conformists, was opened on a plot of land gifted by John G Riddell. In 1911, when the parish churchyard began running short of burial space, part of the land was consecrated by the Church of England and used for burials of members of the parish church. In 1904 the Coach & Horses was demolished and replaced with a house, although a carrier service then ran for many years from the premises.

During WW1 forty men from the Felton area were killed. Sixteen were from the village. In 1920 a War Memorial was erected by public subscription to commemorate all forty men. The memorial was unveiled in 1920 by Colonel Ernest P A Riddell DSO whose family had gifted the land on which it was built. It now also contains the names of the men of the Felton area who were killed in WW2.  In 1926 a village hall was built as a memorial to all the men who had fought in WW1, again on land gifted by the Riddell family. It was opened by the Duke of Northumberland.

Further changes came in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1927 a new bridge was built alongside the old. The old bridge had, for some time, been unable to cope with the amount of traffic which crossed it every day. It was too narrow for buses and lorries and the congestion became horrendous. About 1928 the Roman Catholic School closed because of lack of pupils only to be reopened in 1935 by the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Alnwick to educate the children of the Catholic families who had moved into the newly built Swarland Settlement. About the same time the Red Lion Inn, which had become derelict, and a number of old, unsanitary cottages, were demolished and Alnwick District Council began building council houses. Further council houses were built after WW2.

During WW2 Felton Park was requisitioned by the army. Officers lived in the house and the men were billeted in huts erected in the grounds. By 1952 the house was derelict and the main part was demolished leaving only one wing. Part of the park was sold for housing.

In 1970 the Roman Catholic School closed and is now a private residence. Only a few years later Felton Mill also closed. It became derelict for a number of years but was also converted into housing. The Methodist Chapel suffered the same fate at about the same time, as did Felton Parochial School in West Thirston. However, in 1973, a new school opened on Mouldshaugh Lane.

Meanwhile both the volume of traffic and size of lorries had increased significantly and the new bridge, like the old, had become a bottle neck. A bypass was built in 1981. The village suddenly became very quiet and, with no through traffic, businesses lost custom and began to close. However the peace and quiet was attractive to families and, in the 1980s and 1990s, new houses, in Benlaw Grove, Acton Crescent, Park View and Dene Close were built to accommodate them. Further housing began to built in 2017.

The Widdrington Inn is now the Running Fox, a very busy café and bakery, and its cellars house the Fox’s Den pub. The Stags Head, renamed Gallery 45, is now a centre for art and craft workshops and a gift shop. There is still a general store and a hairdresser’s shop. 

© Eleanor George 2018