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Featherstone POW Camp - a short film


20/10/2020
John Swann's story

Download the full research document here.

Brian Bennison of the North East History & Heritage Branch spent part of the Covid 19 lockdown reconstructing the life and times of a man called John Swann, who died in Maine in the United States at the age of 91 in 1885. Swann was born at Blackhall Mill, Derwentside, in 1794 and had a restless boyhood and youth, before emigrating to America in 1819 as a young working class man with a fragmentary education. Swann’s first years in New England were as peripatetic and uncertain as his childhood and early manhood in County Durham had been, but he eventually married and raised a family. Most of his time was spent trying to earn a living and toiling for Methodism and temperance. At almost the mid-point of his American life John spent eight months with family and friends back in the North East of England, either side of which he underwent two remarkable sea voyages. Swann was also, for a period at least, an enthusiast for botanic medicine and vegetarianism. 

We know about Swann’s life because in 2003 a gentleman looking through his late mother’s effects in a Newcastle attic found a leather-bound book containing almost two hundred pages of writings by him. A photocopy of the book had been deposited in the WEA North East regional office in Newcastle by Keith Gregson, an experienced historian who recognised its importance, in the hope that someone would recognise its historical value and give it some attention. 

With a little detective work Brian traced the route by which Swann’s book, written in Maine, ended up on Tyneside over a century later. The book would seem to have come into the possession of a Mrs Clements through a neighbour, Herbert Fenton, who died in 1986. Fenton’s mother was the daughter of Thomas Henderson whose wife was a Bullerwell, and two of Swann’s sisters had married Bullerwells. In the last paragraph of his book Swann says that he is sending the book to John Howson of Barnard Castle. Howson was the grandson of another of Swann’s sisters. 

Part of Swann’s book is based on what he calls ‘The Journal of John Swann on a Voyage to and Seven Months visit in England’ and an additional one hundred pages are headed ‘The Autobiography of John Swann’. For much of his book, Swann was putting pen to paper some distance in time and sometimes many miles from the incidents and issues he recalls, but his memories offer a rare insight into the impressions and pre-occupations of a lad growing up in County Durham and a man trying to make his way through life in a new country.  

Swann was well aware of his shortcomings when it came to literacy, as this extract confirms: 

Swann’s idiosyncratic spelling and grammar are part of the book’s strength. It adds authenticity to what is a voice, unmediated by some better educated commentator, of an elderly man looking back over what he regarded as some of the critical moments in his life. 

Swann’s recollections of his time in County Durham contains, for example, vivid cameos of his early work experiences. Sent to live-in at a forge to learn the blacksmith’s trade he found the


'allowence of food was so poor for Breakfast nothing but hasty pudding made of oate meal and plenty of sour beer to wash it down. I had not been used to such hard fair and could not bare it.'


Swann left after twelve months and was bound for seven years to a papermaker, where he described the work practices whereby 


'the first 2 or 3 Days in every week was generally spent in drinking Strong beer which they commonly had brought from the beer shops by the boys who was allowed as much as they wanted to drink free of cost to them, and the boys was not Backward in learning their wicked expressions and tricks they were practising at those times when they had nothing else to do, as their work was piece or job work and the last 2 or 4 days was Drive Drive to make  up loss time, 2 days works  in one which made it hard work for boys.'

Swann lived in the United States for sixty-six years. For much of this period he was involved in a constant battle to make ends meet. Swann illustrates the disruptive pattern of temporary employment endured as a new arrival moving between paper mills. At one establishment there was


'much sin and wickedness to contend with as I boarded in an ungodly Famely, as I must be with them nights and mealtimes… no regular rest at night for being disturbed by rowdys.'


Paper
A label from the paper mill on the Charles River where Swann got his first job in America. From Bidwell, J., American Paper Mills,1630-1832 (2013)


Swann tells in distressing detail how persistent attempts to put domestic and financial affairs on a firmer footing through involvement in commercial undertakings made matters worse and compounded the difficulty of  finding a permanent home for his family. But throughout his time in New England it was two constant crusades – the promotion of Methodism and the cause of temperance – that acted as the bedrocks of his life.

After settling in Camden, Swann was made a trustee of a fledgling Methodist society and after an ambitious decision was taken to build a meeting house Swann took it upon himself to get the building project underway and


commence Digging the Foundation all a Lone so I worked for Days and weeks. Some would come and stand and look at me and ask what I was doing. I would tell them. Some would say I was a Fool to even think of Building a Methodist meeting house here when we had then only 3 Male members in the place. Others would say I possest Great Faith. I still kept on digging and smiting the rock and trucking with my horse and wagon and two boys.'


A particularly graphic part of Swann’s book covers the visit he made to his native North East of England beginning in 1850. On his voyage to Liverpool he found his fellow passengers to be


'A Hetrogenious mess. Grandfathers & grandmothers, unprocted females, Mothers with 5 children and no husband, mostly Irish returning home and Rum and Sin. '


One feature of Swann’s time in England was the eagerness with which he demonstrated his belief in herbal medicine. For instance 

'I went to Newcastle and gave W Weightman emitic. They say I saved his child’s life by the Botanic Systum… went to Jarrow and gave E Gray Lobelia Emitic…took a Lobelia emitic, vomites 3 times, felt well and clear as a quill.'
 

Swann travelled around to relatives and old acquaintances, often on foot. On one of his last perambulations he 


'Walked to Killensworth…from their to Monkseaton to neice Jane B and cousin Mary Hutchison…from their to N Shields. Coble Dean to Jack Clark’s and up to Jarrow to George Grays 20 miles. Blistered my feet. 


Swann left London for Boston on the bark Henry, under a captain Campbell. He got on well with Campbell, who he treated at one stage with ‘Essens of Lobelia’, until


'the Captin made a great hole in his Temperance Coat … Got Drunk and Exposed himself from stern to stern like a Cow giving a good paile of milk and tipping it over, and lowering himself to the Level of a Silly Imprudent Boy. his conduct has Completely Turnd the Skale and Changed  the Tune'


It was after his return from England that Swann commenced to write his book. The last entry was made when he was 82, but


'was yet able (Thank the Good Lord) to do Considerable work such as Milk 2 Cows (night and morn), Saw and Split all the wood for 2 fires, Fetch in all the wood and Water, Clean out the Barn, Do Considerable Planting, Howing & Beside Walking from 2 to 4 miles a Day, on Sundays to meetings 2 or 3 times to the Village is more than 4 miles.'
 

On his death nine years later, the Camden Herald said Swann’s life had been one of ‘benefaction to all who came under his influence’. That life is recorded in Swann’s  own words in an extraordinary volume that is the testimony of a simple, uncomplicated man striving to make his way in two worlds over three thousand miles apart in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Extract from a letter sent by John Swann's son to Joseph Vasey in County Durham in 1884.

Brian [Bennison] has now produced an eighteen thousand word booklet which relates first-hand accounts of the experiences and events that Swann thought noteworthy, and adds further meaning to his story by considering some of the people, places and particular circumstances Swann encountered.