This article provides a plausible account of some of the history surrounding the former ‘Powburn Shop’ in Powburn, Northumberland UK from 1841-1939. It is based on limited data and, as with any other research, it would need further investigations to confirm or refute the tentative hypotheses put forward. To this end, suggestions for further research are provided. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the reasoned narrative will be of interest to anyone fascinated by local history and the village of Powburn within the Breamish Valley.
Two houses of interest
The image above (Fig 1) shows two terraced houses that stand opposite The Plough Inn public house in Powburn (at the time of writing, The Plough Inn is standing vacant). The property to the left is currently known as the ‘Old Post Office Cottage’ and the adjoining property on the right as the ‘Old Post Office House’. Figure 2 below shows their location within the village.
If you look closely at the stone/brick work on the ‘Old Post Office Cottage’ you should notice a rectangular outline extending from the ground floor up to the second floor, surrounding the single ground floor window (Fig 3).
The reason for this is that this house used to be the old Powburn Shop, run by members of the Thompson family. On the image below, you can clearly see the large rectangular, street level, façade of the shop, incorporating a large entrance door on the left and two large, multi-paned, display windows to the right. There is a full-width signage panel above the door and windows. These architectural features imply monetary investment with the aim of attracting attention to the business and its products.
In the next image (Fig 5) that was taken prior to 1904, the façade is again clearly visible. In addition, you can just make out the final ‘-PSON’ of the name ‘THOMPSON’ on the signage panel.
Once more, the shop front can be seen in the undated image below (Fig 6).
You can see the join!
If you examine the stone/brick work of the shop in the three black and white, vintage images immediately above (Figs 4-6) and compare it to that of the immediately adjoining building on its right, there appears to be a difference between the two. The pointing on the shop is evidently a lighter shade and it is possible that the size and shape of some of the stones/bricks are also different from those used on the adjoining building. This suggests that the shop may either have been built as an extension to the terraced building on the right (currently the ‘Old Post Office House’) or that an original building (currently the ‘Old Post Office Cottage’) was converted into a shop. But do we have any evidence to support such suggestions? Well, the following announcement (Fig 7) in the 3 March 1883 edition of The Alnwick Mercury provides a hint.
The announcement clearly indicates that Andrew THOMPSON had new premises built for him, and that he opened these to the public on 6 March 1883. It is not explicitly stated where the premises were – only that they were in Powburn. However, as we have subsequent photographic evidence of the location of Andrew Thompson’s Powburn Shop, it is plausible to conclude that the new build was the property currently known as the ‘Old Post Office Cottage’. So, while we have evidence of a property development, from this evidence alone we are not able to determine if this refers to the building of an extension or the conversion of an existing building.
In the 1871 Census , when Andrew Thompson was 37 years old, he cited his occupation as “Grocer”, as he also did in the 1881 Census . We know, therefore, that he was working as a grocer for at least 22 years prior to opening his newly built premises at Powburn. However, it is not clear from the newspaper announcement if he had previously been operating his “grocery and provision trade” from fixed premises. He does, though, indicate his intention to “…continue to carry goods from Alnwick to Powburn via Eglingham, on Wednesdays and Saturdays as usual” (my emphasis). This is interpretable as him having had some form of mobile business: having been delivering, and/or selling goods, by travelling regularly from Alnwick, through the villages, to Powburn for some time prior to him opening his “large and commodious premises”.
Some further observations about the announcement are worth considering. We see that the building work was funded by “Major Brown (sic) of Doxford Hall”. Built in 1818, Doxford Hall was a large Georgian country house and estate just 14 miles from Powburn, in Chathill. There are reports of Major Browne having bought Lord Poltimore’s pack of hounds in 1870, the pack from which the present Percy Hunt hounds at nearby Beanley are descended . He is also the same gentleman who renovated and converted Breamish House in Powburn into a hunting lodge in the early Victorian era (Victoria reigned 1837-1901). It is also reported that, subsequently, Major Browne’s daughter Isabella lived in Breamish House with her husband General Lambert, of the Royal Bengal Fusiliers . Clearly then, Major Browne was an influential gentleman who had links to Powburn. The nature of the relationship between Andrew Thompson and Major Browne is, however, not clear and it is not known why Andrew Thompson enjoyed his patronage.
What’s in a name?
The above goes some way to explaining the establishment of a grocer shop in Powburn but why are the two buildings under consideration both labelled today as a ‘Post Office’? Why not, for example, ‘Old Grocer Cottage’ or ‘Old Grocer House’? While not commenting on the name of the properties, one of the current owners of the ‘Old Post Office Cottage’ had this to say:
Andrew Thompson and his family lived here from the late 1850s…We believe that our property the ‘Old Post Office Cottage’ and next door the ‘Old Post Office House’ were once one property. We believe at one point nine people lived in this property.Jan Hunter 
So, is there any evidence for this? And might we find some pointers as to why the properties are now remembered as ‘Post Office’? We will follow the official records and see where they lead.
Census records: two strands
We will use UK Census records and the 1939 England and Wales Register to investigate two strands: one looking for grocer-related occupations, such as ‘grocer’, and the other searching for Post Office-related occupations, such as ‘postmistress’.
We will also take account of the numbers of people living in a property to see whether this supports Jan Hunter’s surmise that, at one time, nine people lived in one enlarged property.
Neither the 1841 nor the 1851 Census list any person living in Powburn as having a grocer-related occupation. However, 20 years later, in the 1861 Census , the first record appears: George DAVIDSON (42 years), living with his wife and three children, is listed as a “Grocer & Flour Dealer”. He lives in one property in Powburn.
The property is identified only as ‘Schedule 67’ on the Census return. A Schedule number is an enumerator’s record of population statistics for just one household, i.e. details of the people who spent the night in the dwelling on the date the Census was taken. While often the enumerator attempted to indicate the “Name of Street, Place, or Road, and Name or No. of House”, for small villages such as Powburn, typically only the place was given, i.e. “Powburn”. A Schedule number cannot, therefore, unequivocally be tied to any building from the Census return alone. One would need to investigate the process of how enumerators surveyed Powburn and assigned Schedule numbers.
Nevertheless, in the next property surveyed, ‘Schedule 68’ – would this be the next-door property? – Mary DICKINSON (28 years) describes herself as a “Post Messenger’s Wife” and in the next Schedule 69 property, Mary ROBSON (66 years) is an “Innkeeper”. This suggests that we are in the right location within Powburn, as a grocer is associated with one property, a post messenger with another nearby, and both are close to an innkeeper. We may suppose that the innkeeper works in The Plough Inn public house (the only inn in Powburn) and we know that this is directly opposite the two houses under consideration: Old Post Office Cottage and Old Post Office House (Fig 2).
As discussed, Andrew THOMPSON first appears as a “Grocer” in 1871 . He does appear earlier in the official record in 1851 , but not as a grocer. Rather he is working as a 17-year-old “Servant” and “Shepherd” in East Brislee, about 8 miles from Powburn on the outskirts of Alnwick. In 1871, he is 37 years of age and living in one property in Powburn (Schedule 62) with his wife, Elizabeth SCOTT, four children and his mother-in-law: a total of seven people.
Interestingly, there is a James SCOTT (39 years) living nearby in Powburn (Schedule 59) who also gives his occupation as “Grocer”. It is tempting to think that the two are related, given that Andrew’s wife is Elizabeth SCOTT, and that they may be working together. However, at the time of writing, we have no evidence to support this speculation.
In addition to Andrew Thompson and James SCOTT, there is a third individual in Powburn (Schedule 66) with a grocer-related occupation: Thomas LOTHIAN (27 years), a “Master Grocer” born in Scotland.
However, there is now no mention of the first recorded grocer in Powburn, George DAVIDSON, nor any mention of him as a grocer in any subsequent Census of Powburn.
In the 1881 Census , Andrew THOMPSON (47 years) is now the only person recorded as a “Grocer”. He is living in one Powburn property with his wife, seven children, his mother-in-law and one female domestic servant: a total of 11 people. This large number of people might suggest that the single property is also large. However, we must be cautious about assuming a direct relationship between size of family and size of property. Consider, for example, Schedule 70 of the 1891 Census  – likely to be the Old Forge, blacksmith’s shop, next to The Plough Inn, and also opposite Andrew Thompson’s shop (See map in Fig 2) – in which seven people, including one servant, are all living in a property with just two rooms.
As this 1881 data predates Andrew Thompson’s opening of his “large and commodious premises”, this may suggest that the new build of 1883 was a conversion of one combined property capable of housing 11 people, rather than the building of an extension.
Employment status was recorded for the first time in the 1891 Census: individuals declaring a profession or occupation were additionally recorded as either ‘Employer’, ‘Employed’ or ‘Neither Employer nor Employed’. The 1891 Census  again shows Andrew THOMPSON working in the grocery business. Now, however, he is listed as a “Grocer & Farmer” and, specifically, as an employer. In addition, his resident daughter Elizabeth THOMPSON (14 years) is described as a “Grocer & Shopwoman” – presumably employed in the family business. No other persons in Powburn are recorded as being in grocer-related occupations at this time. Interestingly, Andrew’s son Joseph THOMPSON (20 years) has the occupation of “Butcher” but his occupational status is ‘Neither Employer nor Employed’. We will meet Joseph again in ten years’ time (see ‘1901’ below).
In 1891, Andrew Thompson is living in one property within Powburn with his wife and six children: a total of eight. For the first time, the 1891 Census required the enumerator to record the ‘Number of rooms occupied if less than five’ and no number is recorded for Andrew Thompson’s property. Assuming that the enumerator has not overlooked this item, we can conclude that the property had five or more rooms. This lends some weight to the suggestion that the two properties under consideration were, in fact, one property.
1901: a change of hands
There were several changes to the type of data gathered in the 1901 Census. As well as continuing to record the ‘Number of rooms occupied if less than five’, people declaring a ‘Profession or Occupation’ were now required to declare their status as ‘Employer, Worker, or Own account’, and ‘If Working at Home’.
By 1901, eighteen years after opening his shop, 67-year-old Andrew Thompson had retired. The now “Retired Grocer” was living in one property in Powburn (Schedule 91) with his wife, five children and a granddaughter: a total of seven people . Again, there is no recorded entry for the ‘Number of rooms occupied if less than five’ and so we can reasonably assume that Andrew THOMPSON is still living in the same large property.
Despite Andrew’s retirement, it seems this was not the end of the family business, as three of the resident children appear to have taken over the running of the shop: Joseph THOMPSON (30 years) a “Grocer Shop Keeper” working on his ‘Own account’; Elizabeth THOMPSON (24 years) also a “Grocer Shop Keeper” working on her ‘Own account’, and Andrew THOMPSON (18 years), a “Grocer Assistant” working as a ‘Worker’. All three children were declared as working at home. All this lends further weight to the suggestion that the Thompson family ran their family business from a relatively large shop premises that had at least five rooms available for habitation.
Intriguingly, Joseph – the ‘butcher’ of 10 years ago – is now the grocer. In the ‘Powburn Golden Jubilee Cookbook’ , there is an unattributed claim that Andrew Thompson’s grocer shop was “specialising in wholesale rabbit and game”. It is enticing to think that Joseph made use of his butcher skills to establish a healthy meat trade. However, we must be guarded in our conclusions, as the evidence is scant.
Finally, the 1901 Census is the first to mention the Co-operative Store: in a nearby property (Schedule 95), 15‑year‑old Edward POTTS is described as an “Assistant Grocer at Coop Store”.
Andrew Thompson (Snr) was 77 years old and, having been a “Retired Grocer” ten years earlier, now declared his occupation as “Farmer” . He lived in Powburn with his wife, three children, two grandchildren, one general domestic servant, and one farm assistant: a total of nine people in one household. The mix of family members, young and old, and two unrelated helpers, suggests that the property they were living in was sufficiently large to house them. In fact, we now know the exact number of rooms in Andrew Thompson’s property, as the 1911 Census was the first to specifically record the number of rooms in each property, not just recording the number if it was “less than five”, as in the previous two Censuses. The number of rooms was defined as:
“…the Number of Rooms in this Dwelling (House, Tenement, or Apartment). Count the kitchen as a room but do not count scullery, landing, lobby, closet, bathroom; nor warehouse, office, shop.”
We see, therefore, that commercial rooms (warehouse, office or shop) were not to be included in the count and yet the number of rooms recorded for Andrew Thompson’s property is eight. This is highly suggestive of the fact that his shop (current ‘Old Post Office Cottage’) was indeed part of one larger building (being combined with the current ‘Old Post Office House).
Joseph Thompson and Elizabeth Thompson, the grocer shop keepers from ten years earlier, are no longer living in the property and are nowhere listed as continuing to work in the grocery business. Rather, Andrew Thompson’s youngest daughter, Eleanor THOMPSON (32 years) gives her occupation as “Grocer & Postmistress”. This is the first mention of a Thompson in relation to the Post Office and the first hint that a Post Office may have been operated from the grocer shop premises. Curiously, though, Eleanor THOMPSON is not listed as ‘working at home’.
The youngest son, Andrew THOMPSON (28 years), who was a “Grocer Assistant” ten years earlier, is still living in the household but is no longer working in grocery. He is now listed as a “Farmer’s son assisting on the farm”.
There is now no mention of anyone holding a grocer-related occupation in Powburn . It would be interesting to know, therefore, the date when the Thompson grocery business finally closed.
Summary Timeline: Grocer
Post Office-related occupations
From the data acquired at the time of writing, the sequence of events for Post Office-related occupations in Powburn is less complicated than the foregone discussion centred predominantly on Andrew Thompson’s grocery business. Again, we are using Census data and the 1939 Register.
Just as there was no grocer recorded in Powburn in the 1841 Census, there was also no record of anyone carrying out a Post Office-related occupation.
A widow born in Wooler is the first mention of anyone working in a Post Office-related occupation in Powburn. She is Eleanor STEWART, 61 years of age, who described her occupation as “Post Office Keeper”. She lived in one household in Powburn (Schedule 120) with a lodger, William ROBSON (30 years) who was a “Post Office Messenger” .
We have already noted that in a Powburn property with identity ‘Schedule 68’, Mary DICKINSON (28 years) described herself as a “Post Messenger’s Wife” . She was married at the time of the Census but also labelled as the ‘Head’ of the household. It is not clear, therefore, where her post messenger husband was at the time of the Census or if he lived and worked permanently in Powburn.
For the subsequent four Censuses, there is no one living within Powburn with a Post Office-related occupation. From the Census data alone, it is not possible to determine if this means that there was no Post Office within Powburn for several decades or that, for example, the Post Office personnel lived outside of the Powburn area (although this seems less likely). One would need to investigate the history of the postal service within north Northumberland to begin to address such issues.
As we have seen already from the above discussion of the grocer shop, it is in 1911 that we have a record of Eleanor THOMPSON (32 years), youngest daughter of Andrew Thompson (Snr), working as “Grocer & Postmistress”. She is living in her father’s large eight-room property and shop premises, with eight other people .
About 28 years later, Eleanor is still living in Powburn but the official record  provides a slight twist in the tale.
For the property identified as ‘Powburn Post Office’ (Schedule 27), Andrew CHISHOLM (42 years) is registered as a “Sub Postmaster”. He lives there with his wife Mary and their son Robert.
There is, however, a second property of interest. It is identified as ‘Old Post Office’ (Schedule 35) and it is here that we find Eleanor, now 61 years old. She is called Eleanor ARMSTRONG, having married John Armstrong in 1915. Her ‘personal occupation’ is now recorded as “Unpaid Domestic Duties”. She lives with her younger brother Andrew Thompson who is now 57 years old – this is the same person who worked as an 18-year-old “Grocer Assistant” in the Thompson shop back in 1901. He is now listed as “Incapacitated”. There are also two others living with Eleanor: Sarah HARDING (39 years) a “Domestic Servant” and Doris M HARDING (13 years) who is “At School”. It is not thought that they are related to Eleanor.
Summary Timeline: Post Office
Making use of predominantly UK Census data and 1939 England and Wales Register data for Powburn, we have been able to craft a plausible narrative of the personnel who ran the old ‘Powburn Shop’. In part, we have also been able to identify links between a ‘Post Office’ and the shop.
The first declared grocer-related occupation in the official record occurs in 1861, with George Davidson. Shortly after, however, a new family line began to dominate the village’s grocery trade. Andrew Thompson built “large and commodious premises” in 1883 and, over the following decades, he and his children operated a grocery and provisions business from the new shop. Our analysis of the number of rooms in the building which housed the shop, the number of people living therein, and its location to other known buildings within Powburn, suggest that it may well have been a much larger building than the extant properties imply. As at Oct 2019, there are two private houses where, we suggest, there was once just the one ‘Powburn Shop’. And within this eight-room property, there have been up to 11 people at a time living there.
The Thompson family appear to have continued running the shop until at least 1911: an almost 30-year reign. At that time, Eleanor Thompson, Andrew’s youngest daughter, is the “Grocer & Postmistress”. This furnishes an explicit link between the grocer shop and a Post Office.
By 1939, the grocer shop appears to have ceased operating. However, this is when we have the first reference to two properties labelled as a Post Office: the ‘Powburn Post Office’ operated by Andrew Chisholm and the ‘Old Post Office’, a residential property where Eleanor Armstrong (nee Thompson) lives with her brother and two others. It is tempting to infer that, by 1939, Andrew Thompson’s large grocer shop and dwelling place had been converted into two properties. One (Powburn Post Office) being the remnant of the grocer shop where Eleanor had formerly been the “Grocer & Postmistress”, which continued to function as a Post Office under Andrew Chisholm. The second (Old Post Office) being the adjacent terraced building into which 61-year-old Eleanor retired to care for her incapacitated brother. However, as stressed throughout, we would need much more confirmatory evidence before we could arrive at such a currently tenuous conclusion.
Nevertheless, the foregone reasoned account does appear to lend some weight to Jan Hunter’s conjecture that “…the ‘Old Post Office Cottage’ and next door the ‘Old Post Office House’ were once one property…(and at)…one point nine people lived in this property.”
Suggestions for further research
To explore the history of the various households and/or buildings identified in the above account, there are several ways to pursue this. Some suggestions are outlined below.
- Explore newspapers. One means is through the British Newspaper Archive. Three pages can be accessed for free and a month-long subscription is available for £12.95 (as at October 2019). Find it at https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
- There may be plans and maps available that will show the buildings and their location in Powburn village in more detail. It may be fruitful to explore the records held by Northumberland County Council. A cursory inspection of their online catalogue shows that there are records relating to several properties in Powburn and some references to a Post Office and Co-op Shop. https://www.northumberlandarchives.com/catalogue/
- To find out about Post Office employees, there is now a digitised record that can be explored through www.ancestry.co.uk. To find out more see: http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/news/post-office-employee-records-go-online
- More information about Post Office Employees can be found at the Postal Museum based in London. They have an online catalogue, but the records must be viewed in the museum. https://www.postalmuseum.org/discover/collections/archive-collection/
- There are a few references to Powburn and surrounding parishes and hamlets on https://www.british-history.ac.uk/, including some maps and entries in old topographical indexes.
- To understand how Schedule numbers relate to particular dwellings, one would need to investigate the process by which enumerators carried out a systematic survey of Powburn. The National Archives (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/) may have information or may be able suggest ways of investigating this further.
If you do any research, let us know!
If you do conduct any further research into this area, then would you please let us know that you are doing so? That way, we need not duplicate the effort and we can ensure that it is eventually published on this site for all to read and appreciate. To get in touch, just use the Contact Form.
- Alnwick Mercury, “Announcement,” The Alnwick Mercury and North Northumberland Weekly Advertiser, 3 March 1883.
- The National Archives, “Census of England and Wales,” no. RG10/5175, 1871.
- The National Archives, “Census of England and Wales,” no. RG11/5124, 1881.
- The Hunting Office, “Percy Hunt,” [Online]. Available: https://thehuntingoffice.org.uk/ju-directory/29-northumberland/155-percy-hunt.html. [Accessed 22 October 2019].
- Mail Online, “Oh Lordy! Viz magazine creator sells his 17th century country mansion for just £750,000 – complete with 10 bedrooms and enough space to watch Roger Mellie, the man on the Telly,” 17 July 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3165291/It-really-Better-Creator-Viz-magazine-sells-17th-century-10-bedroom-country-mansion-just-750-000-far-Fulchester.html. [Accessed 17 October 2019].
- J. Hunter, “Email communication,” 21 May 2019.
- The National Archives, “Census of England and Wales,” no. RG9/3880, 1861.
- The National Archives, “Census of England and Wales,” no. HO107/2419, 1851.
- The National Archives, “Census of England and Wales,” no. RG12/4265, 1891.
- The National Archives, “Census of England and Wales,” no. RG13/4842, 1901.
- M. Wilson, Ed., Powburn Golden Jubilee Cookbook: A Commemorative Collection of Recipes, Powburn: Powburn & District Community Fund, 2002, p. 36.
- The National Archives, “Census of England and Wales,” no. ‘Township of Glanton, District 4’, 1911.
- The National Archives, “England and Wales Register,” no. GDBH/565-3, 1939.
JUDY BEAUMONT of Billingham, Tees Valley for her many hours of detailed investigation of the Thompson and Scott families and, particularly, their declared occupations and likely dwelling places, through a painstaking examination of Census and Register returns. Judy is a good friend to BreamishValley.com, having previously researched the family background of James William Atkinson (died 1916) to confirm his association with the local area and, consequently, his entry on the Breamish Valley Roll of Honour.
MARGARET WILLIAMSON of Powburn, for searching newspapers and locating Andrew Thompson’s 1883 announcement, for confirming map locations and her suggestions for further research.
Graham Williamson (19 October 2019)