WHAT brings together football, murder and a shower of fish from the sky? The answer lies in an unusual new range of North East-themed playing cards.
Centuries of folk tales, news stories and little-known facts are celebrated in the Little Wisdoms packs developed by Durham-based history enthusiast Dave Howarth.
“This region is rich with intriguing and hidden stories, but often they are buried away in museums or archives or just not presented in a fun way,” he said.
“Most of us are familiar with legends like the Hartlepool monkey and the Lambton Worm, but how many people have heard of the Durham Serpent, the Easington Hare or the day it rained fish in Hendon?”
Dave, a Lancashire-born specialist adviser in new business start-up, made the North East his home after studying to become a teacher in Newcastle during the 1970s.
It was his first job after leaving college, however, which was to set him on the road to card game success.
“I ended up working for Northumberland County Council, where they set me loose in the archives. It was a wonderful time,” he recalls.
“The archives really fired my enthusiasm for history. I came across fascinating items such as a John Wesley letter and even a handwritten poem by Wordsworth.”
It was while working for Northumberland CC that Dave, who now lives in Durham City, started making notes on the interesting stories he came across. It is a passion which still continues to this day.
Indeed, jobs at other archives and museums over the years, as well taking part in archaeological digs and developing local history trails, have all added tales to his ever-growing collection of information.
“I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to facts,” he admits. “If ever I come across an interesting story buried in a box or tucked away in an archive, I just have to write it down.
“It was while looking at my piles of notes one day that I got the idea for the cards. I thought they would make a neat, interesting and playful way to get these stories over to more people.
“Each card features a different story and each has been a labour of love, really. It has taken years to gather all these facts and figures together, but it has been a fascinating task.”
The first two packs in Dave’s playing card series, Great North Superlatives and Great North Beasts, include 100 stories from the Tyne to the Tees, highlighting the region’s folklore, history and local oddities.
Tales of treasures such as Durham Cathedral and Hadrian’s Wall sit alongside facts on Sunderland-born mass-murderer Mary Ann Cotton and even the invention of mustard in Durham in 1720.
“The packs also highlight achievements such as Sunderland AFC becoming the first club to win three league championships and score 100 goals in a season,” said Dave.
“But, sadly, Sunderland is also noted for Britain’s worst ever stampede – at the Victoria Hall in 1883 – and first ever cholera epidemic, in 1831. These details have been included on the cards as well.
“I suppose you could say the cards hold everything you’d like to know about the North East in 100 stories. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a great way of showing just why the North East is so special.”
Whitburn’s pioneering electric lighthouse, a 124-year-old record for the world’s largest cabbage at Swalwell and the world’s first formal dog show at Newcastle in 1859 are among other stories featured.
The invention of plasticine by a North East man, a record catch of tadpoles in County Durham and the patenting of the first windscreen wiper by a Whitley Bay football fan are highlighted too.
“In the Beastly pack probably my favourite story is about the Hartlepool toad. Almost everyone knows about the Hartlepool monkey, but very few know about the ancient toad found alive in solid rock,” said Dave.
“The stories I really like are the ones other people are not likely to know. There is a surprise for everyone in these packs.”
Dave, 60, is now planning to extend the card range to include other areas of the country, such as Yorkshire and Lancashire, as well as develop new themes for North East-based packs too.
“Playing cards are a great way to access the fun and interesting stories of our country without having to plough your way through dry and academic sources,” he said.
“The idea is that I burrow through the dusty archives and dig out the most interesting stories instead, such as the day in 1918 when it was reported to have rained sand eels in Hendon in Sunderland.”
** The Little Wisdoms packs retail for around £5.95 and are available from local bookshops, museums and the Craefta website at www.craefta.com
THE new playing card packs contain dozens of historical snippets from around the North East. Here are just a few:
* Insect plague: The Northumberland village of Low Newton-by-the-Sea was evacuated in 1943, after a plague of Siberian fleas were landed by a German U-Boat as part of biological warfare experiments.
* Bravery: The world life-saving record was broken in Whitburn on October 17, 1940, when 272 crewmen were brought ashore by Breeches Buoy after HMS Fame and HMS Ashanti ran aground in fog.
* Durham Serpent: An entry in the parish register of St Nicholas Church, Durham, reveals how an Italian brought a 16ft serpent to the city in 1568 – which had “devoured more than 1,000 persons” in Africa.
* All clear: Whitley Bay man Gladstone Adams patented his windscreen wiper design in 1911, after driving home through snow following a Newcastle cup final against Wolves.
* Safety first: Sunderland surgeon William Reid Clanney invented the first mine safety lamp in 1812. It was successfully tested at Herrington Mill pit – a very danagerous mine by repute.
* Easington Hare: Legend has it that a hare which constantly ruined a hunt at Easington was finally attacked by a hound. But hunters found only an old witch with a bleeding leg when they searched for the hare.
* Hartlepool Toad: In 1865 a Hartlepool newspaper reported that a cavity in a block of stone quarried in the town contained a live toad. A local rector adopted it, claiming his pet was 36 million years old.
* Vampire rabbit: A unique doorway ornament behind Newcastle Cathedral, featuring a fanged rabbit, has intrigued residents for decades. The truth behind the the bunny, however, has yet to be uncovered.
* The Durham Slug: This creepy-crawly was named after the city it was first found in 1952. The Durham Ox also won its name after being bred by the Colling brothers at Brafferton in 1796.
* Bovine time-capsules: The white cattle herd at Chillingham, isolated at the Northumberland estate since 1270, is the only undomesticated herd in the world – unrelated to any other European cattle.
* Only and highest: Easington boasts the only dolomite coastal cliffs in the world.
* Allendale Wolf: The discovery of mutilated sheep sparked panic in 1904. A “skilled Indian game hunter” was brought in, and the corpse of a wolf uncovered. It’s head was mounted for the local railway company.
* Mary Ann Cotton: The Sunderland-born nurse is known as Britain’s most prolific murderess. She is suspected of murdering up to 21 people and was hanged at Durham on March 24, 1873.
* Strike a light: Stockton scientist John Walker mixed potassium chlorate, antimony sulphide and gum to make the world’s first matches. These were sold in 1827 as ‘friction lights.’
* The Laidly Worm: One of several dragons said to have once infested Northumbria. At Spindleston Heugh, the King’s son Childe Wynd had to kiss the dragon three times to free a princess.
* Sparkie: Newcastle budgie Sparkie Williams beat 2,768 rivals to win a BBC talking bird competition in 1958. His 553-word vocabulary won him a record deal, with the disc selling 20,000 copies.
* Durham Puma: Hundreds of big cat sightings have been reported across the county. A footprint identified as that of a puma was found near Barnard Castle. Lynx and wolverine sightings have also been reported.
We have six sets of Great North Superlatives and Great Northern Beasts on offer to Wearside Echoes readers who can answer this question:
In which year did Sunderland surgeon William Clanny invent his safety lamp for miners?
Send your answers by March 15 to: Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland, SR4 9ER.