Richard Oliver Heslop M.A., J.P., F.S.A (1842-1916)
Richard Oliver Heslop is perhaps one of Newcastle’s most under-rated sons; a figure who was celebrated during his lifetime yet now largely unrecognized. Perhaps because he never sought the limelight his life was not one of public prominence. Yet, in his time, Heslop was a popular and well-known figure in Newcastle’s civic, commercial and antiquarian circles, his many and varied roles including that of businessman, historian, lexicologist, author, songwriter and liberalist, as well as holding esteemed civic positions such as Justice of the Peace and Consul to the Netherlands.
While he was a very successful businessman – a self-made man – and civic leader, he is most famously known for his work as a historian and lexicologist. There was no aspect of Northumbria’s heritage that was not addressed by Heslop. Place names, its people and their language, its history and archeology as well as its industrial development, were all examined and placed in context.
He lectured to audiences throughout the region while writing stories and songs under the pseudonym, Harry Haldane. He achieved widespread recognition for his work, Northumbrian Words, a dictionary of the Northumberland dialect published on behalf of the English Dialect Society in 1892.
Oliver Heslop’s unexpected death in 1916 at the age of 74, brought together a Who’s Who of dignitaries that included the Lord Mayor of Newcastle and the Sheriff both of whom, according to the Newcastle Journal, wore their robes of office as a mark of official respect. The funeral was also attended by Sir Walter Runciman, M.P., City Councilors and the Mayor of Durham as well as representatives from five Consular offices. Local papers of the day were effusive in their praise of Heslop and his work, perhaps none describing him better than the obituary written in the Newcastle Daily Journal on March 4, 1916:
“A gentleman of great charm of personality, he was one of the best known and most highly esteemed figures in Northern commercial and literary circles and he filled many public positions with grace, distinction and commanding urbanity.
“His researches were conducted with the zeal of an enthusiast and his efforts in disclosing the lustre of Northumberland and Newcastle in this particular realm will stand as a monument to his name for many years to come.”
It is more the pity that his name has since been largely forgotten.
Oliver Heslop was born March 14, 1842 at Villa Place in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Joseph and Elizabeth Heslop. His father was a relieving officer, a job that involved administering aid to the poor. He was educated at the Royal Grammar School following which he entered into a seven-year apprenticeship with Messrs. Haggie of Gateshead, a well-known supplier of rope and chains to the marine and coal mining industries.
In 1867, the same year in which he married Margaret Webster, Heslop ventured into his own business as an iron and steel merchant with offices located at Sandhill and Stockbridge in Newcastle. Following their marriage, the couple moved to Ashfield Terrace in Elswick where they lived with Heslop’s sister, Sarah, until about 1880 when the family moved to Corbridge. By this time, the couple had two children, Agnes 3, and Richard Oliver, 5 months. Another son, Cuthbert, would be born the following year. The Heslop family eventually returned to Newcastle in 1900, moving into a spacious house on Eskdale Terrace where he lived until his sudden death on March 4, 1916.
It is unclear as to when Heslop took an interest in the Northumberland history and dialect. He’d written a column, ‘North Country Words and Their Meaning,’ for the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle for several years and it is thought that he commenced work on his signature book, Northumberland Words, after moving to Corbridge. In recognition of his study of the antiquities of Northumbria, especially with regard to the region’s dialects, in 1901 he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by Durham University (Armstrong College of Science, Newcastle).
The many positions he held included:
President, Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society
Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians, London
Vice President, Newcastle Society of Antiquarians
Vice President, Surtees Society
Governor, Royal Grammar School
Governor, The Royal Infirmary
Governor, Armstrong College
Member, Public Library Committee
Member, Laing Art Gallery Committee
Consul, The Netherlands
Justice of the Peace, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Author, Northumberland Words
Author of numerous lectures and essays on Northumbrian history and dialect