“I criticize by creation, not by finding fault.” Rachel Parsons, quoting Michelangelo

At home in Northumberland

Holeyn Hall
Holeyn Hall

In early 1884, a year after their marriage, Charles and Katharine Parsons settled in Northumberland, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. Charles had been made a junior partner with the electrical engineers Clarke Chapman, and he needed to be within easy reach of the firm’s works in Gateshead.

After a brief period in Corbridge, an old Roman town near Hadrian’s Wall, the couple moved to Elvaston Hall at Ryton-on-Tyne, a few miles west of Gateshead, where their children, Rachel and Tommy, spent their early years. Being south of the River Tyne, Ryton was formerly in Co. Durham and is now part of the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear.

Elvaston was the first of three houses in northeast England where Rachel and Tommy lived – and ran wild – during their formative years. By late 1893, when Rachel was eight, they had moved to the village of Wylam, the birthplace of the railway engineer George Stephenson. The size of the household can be gauged from records of the bridge-keeper at Wylam, which show that on the day of the move, 19 December 1893, tickets to cross the bridge were issued for ‘the Hon. C. A. Parsons, Mrs Parsons, Miss Rachel Parsons, Master Algernon Parsons and eleven servants’.

Holeyn Hall

Their new home was Holeyn Hall, a squat but elegant brick building with balustraded parapets and a wide grassy terrace on its southern side overlooking the beautiful valley of the upper Tyne. It was built in the mid-19th century for a lead merchant, Edward James, with later additions by the Newcastle architect John Dobson. In an echo of his mother’s bold interventions at Birr Castle, Charles erected workshops at Holeyn, behind the stable block, where he could conduct his many and varied experiments. He also created a private laboratory inside the house and other test sites around estate, including an experimental propeller tank, which was used in the development of Turbinia.

Charles and Katharine remained owners of Holeyn Hall until their deaths, but in the early years of the twentieth century they bought the much larger estate of Ray at Kirkwhelpington, 20 miles northwest of Wylam, and began to build a house for themselves on a plateau amid the rugged heather moorland, extending what had been a small shooting lodge into a comfortable modern home. Katharine had discovered the site for the house while exploring the area on horseback, and was keenly aware that the Ray estate would give her unlimited opportunities to indulge her love of riding. Drawing on her childhood experiences as the daughter of a Yorkshire squire, Katharine took a great interest in the farming practices at Ray, in addition to planning and planting a spectacular terraced garden.

Ray Demesne

Covering more than 10,000 acres, Ray Demesne offered excellent grouse-shooting, as well as trout-fishing in a pair of loughs called Sweethope. ‘Charles was fond of entertaining his friends and neighbours for country sports and their pleasure was his main concern,’ according to Robert Strutt, a regular visitor to Ray, who noted that Charles himself was a keen fisherman. ‘He liked the fishing all the better in that he used a motor boat, which frequently refused to work, and gave him the congenial task of dealing with its deficiencies.’ On other occasions, model ships were floated on Sweethope Loughs to test new forms of marine propulsion.

The Wannie Line

Before cars became commonplace, the railways offered the most efficient means of transport in rural northern England, and one of the many appealing features of Ray Demesne was its train halt on the line from Morpeth to Reedsmouth, near Bellingham. Built in the 1860s, the Wannie Line ran for 25 miles through rural Northumberland, providing a valuable link with the east coast line between Edinburgh and London, and following for part of its route the course of the River Wansbeck. One of its many stations was located directly in front of Ray house. Trains would stop there when members of the Parsons family or their guests needed setting down or picking up, or to deliver their mail. The Wannie Line was the only public transport in the area and, given the atrocious state of the public roads – and the challenge they posed to horse-drawn vehicles – it was a lifeline for people without the means or the ability to drive a car.