The old Mercury building
The old Mercury building

This year the Teesdale Mercury celebrates 170 years as a local newspaper. Over the years many people have helped in its production. Local historian David Croom has been looking through the archives to see if any of them went on to achieve greatness in their chosen field

NOT many people alive today will be familiar with the name Thomas Reeks, but his is a true rags to riches story that deserves to be remembered.

Thomas was the eldest of ten children born to Ambrose and Mary Ann Reeks. Ambrose was born in Ware, Hertfordshire, and Mary Ann was from Penrith.

Ambrose was a soldier in the British Army having fought in the Crimean War in the 1850s, later in his career he was posted to India where his eldest son Thomas was born in 1865.

The family returned to England in 1875 when Thomas was ten years old. They then spent some time in other parts of the country including Essex and Lincolnshire before settling in Barnard Castle in 1879.

In the 1881 census they are living in Marshall Street, Ambrose is a Staff Sergeant in the Durham Fusilier Militia and Thomas is an apprentice printer and his seven brothers and sisters are at school.

Thomas had been employed at the Teesdale Mercury print works in Market Place, Barnard Castle, by the then proprietor and founder Reginald William Atkinson. He most likely started in 1880 when he would have left school aged 14. This also coincides with the offices of the Teesdale Mercury moving from their original premises at 28 Market Place to their new home at 24 Market Place.

The work would have been hard, working long hours by gas light with the press being powered either by hand or possibly gas, the arrival of electricity in Barnard Castle was still some decades away.

Thomas was a bright lad and although he had left full time schooling and started work he continued his education at the Barnard Castle Science School and Art held at the Mechanics’ Institute where between 1883 and 1886 he regularly won top prizes for his efforts in science, mathematics and art which was reported in the Teesdale Mercury.

The duration of an indentured printing apprenticeship in those days would have been seven years so Thomas would have completed his ‘time’ around 1887 aged 21 and become a qualified ‘journeyman’.

It seems that Thomas had his sights set on more than a career at the Mercury offices and soon leaves his employment to seek work as a journeyman printer elsewhere.

In 1890 Thomas is in Bradford where he marries Alice Waud of Wakefield.

One year later Thomas is recorded in the 1891 census living in Peckham, London, aged 25. He is boarding with Mr George William Applegarth and his family and although Thomas is recorded as being married he is not living with his wife.

Mr Applegarth is a Law Stationer and Thomas is employed as a printer, it is thought they were both employed by Trilleo and Mason, Law Stationers, of 7 Carey Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.

Ten years later in the 1901 census Thomas is aged 35 and living with his wife Alice at 6 River Street, Clerkenwell, London. He is described as a printer and publisher and is now an employer.

During the preceding ten years Thomas has either started his own business or become the principal of an existing business called Hampton and Co which was based at 13 Cursitor Street, London. Thomas originally had a partner called Robert Shindler but the London Gazette reports in 1896 the partnership is dissolved by mutual consent and that Thomas will continue to trade under the same name and at the same address.

Thomas was clearly doing very well for himself in London.

In 1901 Thomas’ mother Mary Ann dies in Barnard Castle aged 57 and four years later in 1905 his father Ambrose dies aged 74. They are buried in the Victoria Road Cemetery in Barnard Castle where their grave is marked by a large granite plinth on top of which is a Celtic cross. Thomas’ sister Edith Florence Reeks is also buried in the same grave, she died in1896, aged 22 years.

Ambrose leaves £444 17s 11d in his will (today’s value around £45,000) which he appears to leave to his eldest son Thomas.

On August 10, 1910, the Teesdale Mercury reports that Mr Thomas Reeks, formerly of the Teesdale Mercury office, has been admitted to the Freedom of the City of London. He was also admitted to the Freedom and Livery of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, usually known as the Stationers’ Company which is one of the ancient livery companies of the City of London.

One year later in the 1911 census Thomas and Alice are living at 69 Stradella Road, Herne Hill, London which is a five bedroomed semi-detached house. Thomas is aged 45 and described as a printer and employer. Also living with the family is Thomas’ younger brother Alfred who has moved from Barnard Castle and is employed as a printer by his brother. They also have a live-in servant Evelyn Adelaide Clatworthy.

The family can’t be located in the 1921 census however this could be because in 1921 Thomas and Alice visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada by steam ship on at least two occasions that year. Their address at that time is Cannon Street, London. Also in 1923 the couple embark on a cruise to the Canary Islands. It seems that Thomas and Alice are now enjoying the wealth that their hard work and status has brought.

In 1928 Thomas enters local politics aged 63 and becomes a member of the Camberwell Borough Council. The Teesdale Mercury reports that he polled 850 votes to the Labour candidate’s 289.

An indication of Thomas’ appreciation of his childhood home and of his now wealthy status come in the form of several monetary donations to Barnard Castle charities including a donation of five guineas to the Whitsuntide Meet in 1933 and £2 2s. in 1940 to the Barnard Castle Home Guards’ Comfort Fund both of which are reported in the Teesdale Mercury.

In September 1940 the Teesdale Mercury reports that Mr and Mrs Thomas Reeks are celebrating 50 years of marriage. Thomas is now aged 74 and retired from his life in London and the couple have moved to 22 St Ledgers Road, Queen’s Park, Bournemouth where they have named their house ‘Teesdale’.

Thomas visits Barnard Castle regularly in retirement and meets up with old friends. He particularly enjoys visiting the Teesdale Mercury print works the scene of his early career.

On April 26, 1944, the Teesdale Mercury announces the death of Mr. Thomas Reeks, aged 78 in Bournemouth. His will is published later that year and he leaves a net amount of £97,438 (today’s value approximately £3.5m).

He bequeaths several large amounts to Barnard Castle charities including £1,300 (£48,000 today) to the scheme for founding a hospital in Barnard Castle; £500 (£18,000 today) to Barnard Castle Dispensary; £400 (£14,500 today) to Barnard Castle and Startforth Nursing Association and £300 (£11,000 today) to Hilton’s Charity, Barnard Castle. There was also a clause in the will that should his wife pre-decease him or die within six months of him then these charitable gifts were to be trebled in amount.

Alice Reeks however went on to outlive her husband by six years dying in 1950, aged 80.

Thirty five years after the death of Thomas Reeks the author of this column followed in his footsteps, starting as an apprentice printer at the Teesdale Mercury offices in 1979. Unfortunately that is where the similarity ends as unlike his esteemed predecessor he is still ploughing the same furrow 45 years later!