In the first episode, David Olusoga pays his first visit to the house. It is a Georgian end-of-terrace property on Ravensworth Terrace, in Newcastle upon Tyne’s gritty* West End. The current owners of the house, Damian and Suzi, know little of their home’s history, but with its grand fireplaces and lofty proportions, the house offers a tantalising glimpse into the past.
Tracing the house’s early history, David discovers the original deeds revealing that the house was built by local developer William Mather and completed around 1824. Its first long-term resident was local lawyer and family man William Stoker. Searching the records for evidence of William Stoker, David is surprised to discover that he is named in an 1835 report in the local newspaper. The article tells of a theft from the house in which two teenage boys have stolen a pair of umbrellas, ‘the property of Mr William Stoker’. In today’s terms, this would be a trivial offence, but knowing how harsh the penalties were in the 19th century, even for petty crimes, David is keen to know more. Exploring the boys’ background David discovers the motive for the crime: poverty. The pair were ‘without visible means of subsistence’ and had exchanged the umbrellas for ‘two shillings and a piece of bread’.
As the boys were travelling to Australia, Stoker was working his way up the ranks of Newcastle society. He was elected to the post of town coroner, investigating suspicious deaths – drownings, industrial accidents and suicides. His first case is to investigate a man who has ‘drunk himself to death’. But there is a surprising twist to the story. David discovers that Stoker himself is a drinker. His death certificate reveals that he dies from chronic alcoholism aged 54.
The next resident David discovers is Joshua Alder, who moves into Ravensworth Terrace in 1841. Having recently sold his business as a cheesemonger, he has moved into the house with his sister Mary. But as David discovers, Joshua isn’t planning a life of leisure. The sale of his business is funding a new career as a scientist. He is a member of Newcastle’s renowned Literary and Philosophical Society, giving lectures, writing books about natural history, and rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest scientists of the age. David travels to the Northumberland coast to meet marine biologist Professor Peter Davis, sailing out to sea to observe the marine life that Joshua studied. But Joshua’s new life depends on the practical support of his sister. As design historian Deborah Sugg Ryan explains, it is Mary Alder who would have ensured the smooth running of the house while Joshua continued his scientific work.
And Joshua would soon rely on her even more. The devastating financial crash of 1857 brings down the local bank, taking Joshua’s savings with it. Now penniless, he and Mary are forced to leave Ravensworth Terrace, and move into a smaller house nearby, where Mary is the householder, supporting her brother financially. But this is not the end of Joshua’s story. David discovers that his friends in the scientific community lobby the Government on his behalf. Joshua is awarded a Civil List pension, saving him from penury and allowing him to continue his studies until his death in 1867.
The next residents of Ravensworth Terrace are well-to-do newly-wed couple Nicholas and Mary Sarah Hardcastle. Nicholas is a doctor recently appointed medical officer to the local workhouse, treating the poorest people in Newcastle society. David meets expert Caroline Rance to find out more. Caroline reveals that soon after his arrival, Hardcastle was caught up in a neglect scandal. A group of his patients, young girls suffering from the skin disease scabies, were discovered to be locked in a tiny room without access to proper sanitation. Hardcastle is investigated but cleared of any misconduct. He continues working at the workhouse and takes on an additional role as surgeon to the local gaol. The family move to a grand house in the centre of Newcastle where they have four children. But tragedy strikes when their daughter contracts scarlet fever and loses her hearing as a result.
Then some years later, Hardcastle is engulfed in a second scandal. An epidemic sweeps through the workhouse again - this time scarlet fever, the same disease that affected Hardcastle’s own daughter. After just nine days, nearly 200 people are affected, and two have died. Fearing the epidemic will spread beyond the workhouse walls, the authorities launch an inquiry where workhouse nurses accuse Hardcastle of neglecting his patients. This time Hardcastle is found guilty, and he is forced to resign from his post.