Every child loves a story so when teacher Liz Judges discovered the amazing tale of Isaac Holden, Victorian tea peddler and much much more, she wove it into her lessons. Liz is the junior class teacher at Wearhead Primary School. Her official title is Deputy Head, but after meeting her I feel she should be Head of Enthusiasm and Joyful Learning.
So here’s the story: Once upon a time there was an ex leadminer who was facing hardship and heartbreak. Extreme poverty, death and disease had hit his family and he didn’t know how he would survive. He prayed to God, like he’d never prayed before, promising that if his prayers were answered, he would devote his life to doing good deeds. That night Isaac dreamt that he met a gentleman who gave him a present. A few days later he went to Haydon Bridge looking for work and was trudging back home to Allendale when he met a man on horseback. This was Thomas Blackwith, the Chief Agent for the lead mines, who took pity on Isaac’s desperate, depressed state, and gave him two wrapped packages of tea that he had just collected from Newcastle. Overjoyed with such a generous gift, Isaac realised that if he sold tea around the district he might be able to make a little money to feed his family. His customers kept buying, and the business grew. Remembering his promise to God, Isaac began raising money for community projects and a safe water supply for Allendale. In 1849 a freshwater spring was connected to Isaac’s Well, a life-saving facility that still bears his name in the village square.
Liz Judges heard about Isaac when she moved to live in Ninebanks 13 years ago. At the time she was teaching in Haydon Bridge and the children were studying the area’s lead-mining history. “As soon as I found out about Isaac Holden I thought here’s a story for children that needs to be told”, she says, “So I went away and created teaching material around it. Many aspects of it fitted the curriculum and the children loved it, they were fascinated by it.”
I met Liz as part of my personal exploration of Isaac’s Tea Trail on behalf of the North Pennines AONB Partnership. The Tea Trail is a 36-mile circular route linking Allendale, Nenthead and Alston via moorland tracks and riverbanks, and the sections I’ve walked so far have been a total delight. Each one has revealed new aspects of this special region – and given me a new respect for Isaac Holden and his work.
Liz Judges says her pupils, aged five to nine, already had a strong sense of local identity and immediately hooked into the reality of Isaac’s travails and the hardships he would have faced walking to remote farms to sell his tea. The story was bolted onto lessons in history, geography, science, religious education, citizenship, PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education), numeracy, and many other relevant topics. Liz’s teaching material can be seen on the Weardale Museum website.
Moving to Wearhead Primary School Liz found the children equally passionate about their local area. “They were horrified that children in the North Pennines were dying because of polluted water 150 years ago, and something as simple as Isaac’s Well was the solution,” Liz says. “So we looked at the issue of clean water and I challenged the school to raise £180 to pay for three loos for some of the poorest communities in the world as part of the ‘toilet twinning’ project.”
The result was a frenzy of fundraising, and by the end of term the children had enough money for seven toilets. There are only five in the school building, so they have also paid for the toilets at Lanehead Village Hall in Cowshill, and the loo at Weardale Museum to have twins in West Africa. Pride of place in the toilets at their school are photos of the loos the children have funded in Sierra Leone.
“The story of Issac Holden’s achievements is still fresh today,” Liz says. “Isaac came from nothing but he was committed to his vision and he enabled so many others to have a better quality of life. He had to work very hard but he became a community champion and that’s an incredibly gripping and exciting idea.”
One of the toilet-twinning fundraising events was a sponsored walk to Burnhope Reservoir. “An awful storm blew up, we had horizontal sleet, it was horrible,” Liz remembers. “Some of the children opted to come back in the minibus, but three of them walked the whole way. Afterwards every radiator in the school was covered in steaming clothing!”
Liz is full of admiration for her pupils. She sees daily evidence that they share Isaac’s concern for his fellow human beings, and they’ve demonstrated that they have the fortitude to make their ideas happen. In her lessons Liz looks at the qualities that Isaac showed – his resilience and courage, his ability to communicate, to take a risk and to adapt, and his determination to make a difference.
Liz says: “Linking these qualities to their own lives, one pupil was quite adamant that if he were to change anything it would be the end of all wars.”