Mr. William Carr of Blyth was, when in his prime, a prodigy of strength. He truly was the most remarkable man the town could ever boast of, and was the greatest sight Blyth had to show to strangers. Numbers of people came from great distances to get a sight of him.
He was born at Hartley Old Engine, April 3rd, 1766, but shortly after his birth his parents removed to Blyth, where Willie’s mother, Frances, died in 1769 when Willie was only three years of age. His father was a master blacksmith, and at the early age of eleven years Willie was apprenticed to his father. When in his full vigour and prime he was unquestionably the strongest man in the United Kingdom, if not in the world.
When only seventeen years of age, he was 6 foot 3 inches in height, weighed 16 stones, and could easily lift seven or eight hundredweight. As a youth, he could throw a 661 pound weight with a smaller one attached to it, either before or behind him a distance of eight yards.
He was once challenged to a trial of muscular power with the celebrated Mick Downey, but on finding that the “Blyth Samson” had appeared on the scene, and was eager for the fray, Mick prudently shrunk from the encounter.
On reaching thirty years of age Carr weighed 24 stone and was 6 foot 4 inches in height. There have been far heavier men than Carr, and one of the Huggups of North Seaton was at least three inches taller, but Carr’s bulk was constituted of bone and muscle covered with a moderate quantity of flesh. Every part of his giant frame was fully developed with the most perfect symmetry, and he was good-looking even in old age. On seeing him, you were struck not so much with his great height, as with the depth and fullness of his chest, and the great breadth of his shoulders, and when young he was as agile as he was strong.
On one occasion he leapt over a five-barred gate with a young woman 115 pound in weight under his arm! About this period of life his power of withstanding long-continued labour without fatigue was proved by the fact of his having wrought one hundred and thirty-two consecutive hours, without rest; and after twelve hours of rest, working for one hundred and twenty hours longer. This he did on different occasions in repairing engines at Hartley, Plessey, and Bedlington.
Five seamen were once engaged in conveying an anchor weighing half a ton, and a piece of chain cable to the Smithy shop of Carr’s father, but failed in the attempt. Young Carr was sent to their help, and to show them what puny fellows they were, took up the anchor and carried it to the shop himself.
At the end of the 18th century Press gangs roamed the streets looking for able bodied men they could capture and take to sea to join the navy. It was an extremely tough life, so not many people actually volunteered. On many occasions, Press gangs had attempted to capture Willie but they could never overpower him. One day enough of them got together to set a trap for him. Willie was taken to a boat in Blyth harbour and they began rowing towards the Press gang tender lying some way off shore.
Willie, an excellent swimmer, asked the coxswain if he could swim. When the coxswain asked why he asked such a question, Willie said, “because we shall all be swimming in a moment,” and at the same time with his back against one side of the boat and his feet against the other, he straightened his legs with a mighty heave and split the boat almost in two. He left the crew splashing around in a panic and then made his way back to shore never to be bothered by the Press gangs again.
A story is told that William Carr used to demonstrate his strength by lifting the Blue whinstone of Old Hartley and carrying it under his arm. A number of these large stones can be seen at various places on the Northumberland coast, supposedly formed during the ice age when the ice moved from west to east at the time of the great thaw. In the early English and Saxon periods, they were called ‘Moot Stones’ and were used as a meeting place by the ‘Wittan’, a council of Village elders who gathered to formulate the laws and dispense justice. At the time of the Black Death in 1348 it was thought that if one touched the stone they would be immune from the plague.
It now stands in its original position near the entrance to the Delaval Arms Hotel and once marked the centre of the village of Old Hartley. It had apparently broken several handcarts before Willie picked it up and carried it. It seems he slaked his thirst at the Delaval Arms too in a big manner. The Delaval Arms was built in 1748 as a coaching house, before Willie was born, so this story has a ring of truth to it.
Carr was quiet and gentle in his manners, and stood high in the estimation of his townsmen. He had a most extensive acquaintance, people of all ranks noticed him, and treated him with respect; he was often introduced into respectable society, and always conducted himself on those occasions in such a manner as to gain the good opinion of all whom he met.
Few men made more friends or kept them better than Carr. When Carr was in his prime the late Lord Delaval was, by the profusion of his housekeeping, maintaining the ancient reputation of that family for hospitality; and to gratify the numerous visitors whom the good cheer of his lordship attracted to his beautiful Hall, Carr was often sent for that they might see the world-renowned blacksmith, and witness an exhibition of some of his feats of strength. Not all the guests at Seaton Delaval were members of the ’upper ten thousand’; leading members of the equally degrading turf and ring were frequent visitors.
Once when the famous Big Ben was there Carr was sent for to have a fight with him, for the amusement of a select circle of fashionables. His lordship introduced the combatants with a request that they would shake hands. Willie bashfully received the pugilistic hand within his own, and after giving it a vice-like grip, which caused blood to ooze from Ben’s finger ends, the celebrated pugilist announced to his lordship that he should decline the combat, and would rather receive a kick from a horse than a blow from such a hand.
On another occasion the celebrated boxer Mendoza, accompanied by lords Strathmore and Tyroonnel, came over from the Hall to visit the big blacksmith. Lord Delaval had his portrait taken in his working habit, which picture his lordship highly prized. It was afterwards removed to Gribside.
Although Willie was a gentle person and not easily provoked, he was capable of being assertive when needed to be. Once in a pub, a drunk began to joke at Willie’s expense, saying some things which Willie thought were in bad taste and offensive to him. A couple of warnings from Willie had no effect, so he picked up the fire poker, a very strong iron bar, and with his two hands, twisted it around the drunk’s neck saying, “it wad hae te bide there till he behave hissel,” which translated from Geordie means “it will have to stay there until he behaves himself.” Only Willie had the strength to remove it.
After the death of his father, Carr carried on the business on his own account. His shop stood on the south side of the salt pans, and he acquired fame as a maker of harpoons used in the Greenland trade, forming them of iron made from old horse shoe nails, obtained from the country horse-shoers. He employed boys to file them into iron rings; these after being sufficiently heated to weld, were put under the hammer and consolidated: they were said to be remarkably tough, and would stretch rather than break under the immense strain to which harpoons were frequently subjected in capturing whales.
One of the most remarkable anecdotes related of Carr arose out of this part of his business; he had been late in completing an order for harpoons for the Euretta’s captain John Boswell. It was not till the morning of the day on which the ship had to sail that the harpoons were finished and packed in a box, Carr himself took them down to Willey Middleton, the carrier, to be taken to North Shields, where the Euretta (a whaling ship from Newcastle upon Tyne) was tied, but he found the carrier had gone rather earlier than usual. No other conveyance being available Carr determined that Boswell (master of the Euretta from 1798 to 1811) should have the harpoons in time and made up his mind to carry them himself; so he took the box of harpoons weighing a cwt. on his shoulder, and carried them to Shields; but another feat which, according to John Wallace, he accomplished on the journey was more remarkable still. He drank eighty-four glasses of spirits and returned home sober!
Another account of the event states that after delivering the harpoons, Carr and Boswell still had enough time left to visit a North Shields pub, where the pair of them shared two bottles of gin and Willie walked home to Blyth none the worse for his indulgence. This seems more likely than Wallace’s version, as the journey was time-sensitive and stopping to drink all those glasses of spirits would have seriously delayed Carr in his mission.
While Carr’s wife was on her death-bed, two sailors on board a ship which lay opposite his house quarreled, and came onto the quay to fight. The noise annoying the sick woman, Willie went out and besought the belligerents to cease their noise, or go elsewhere. This they doggedly refused to do. Finding persuasion would not do, he resorted to a somewhat less gentle method—taking the pugilists by the neck, one in each hand, and knocking their heads together till they were fain to promise better behaviour, and then greatly crest-fallen they slunk on board their ship, amid the laughter of the crowd collected together by the row.
Willie Carr was, however, far from using his great power to annoy his associates: he was no bully, nor did he ever seek occasion to provoke a quarrel, but was on the contrary remarkable for his extreme good nature. Once when at Morpeth races, a Scotch lord struck him with his whip. This was too much for even Carr’s good nature. He laid hold of his assailant, and brought him off his horse with a grip that instantly cowed his lordship, and made him feel that the man he had wantonly provoked could annihilate him if he chose; but Carr carried the matter no further than to convince his lordship that he was not to be insulted with impunity. He was long afterwards known by the soubriquet of Lord Haddo, which was the nobleman’s name.
Eventually, Carr became affected with rheumatism and was often confined to his bed. It was noticed that on his rare excursions outside he was almost bent double and walked with the aid of sticks. In 1818, when Carr was aged 52, he had a paralytic stroke, and for a considerable time before his death was confined to bed. He died at Blyth on the 6th of September, 1825, aged 59 and is buried in the graveyard of St. Cuthbert’s.
The name, like that of many other old Blyth families has become extinct, though there are several of the children of both of his daughters still living in the town the Fenwicks and the Simpsons.
There is a fast-decaying gravestone in St. Cuthbert’s churchyard, Blyth, commemorates the death of Carr’s mother:
“Here lies interred Frances the wife of William Carr, wagon smith. May the 16th, 1769.”
There is another inscription on the stone almost illegible, about the death of some of Carr’s sister’s (Mrs. Collier’s) children, but there is no memorial to any other member of Carr’s family.
His legend lives on, however, and a bronze statue depicting Willie bending an iron bar now stands proudly in the Keel Row shopping centre in Blyth.
COMPILED BY DAVE EDWARDS.
SOURCES – MAINLY FROM JOHN WALLACE’S HISTORY OF BLYTH
An account of Willie Carr, the strongest man in Blyth, Northumberland, England.