Plaque's false claims about Czech folk hero Jara Cimrman throws Newcastle history under microscope

Julia Barthram investigates a blue plaque with eyebrow-raising claims about a Czech character's contribution to Newcastle and the world for ITVX

A character from Czech folklore has thrown a North East city's history back under the microscope.

In one of Newcastle's cultural centres, a blue plaque commemorates Jara Cimrman for inventing the light bulb and gifting the popular Jesmond Dene to the people.

But anyone who is vaguely aware of some of the city's claims to fame should be somewhat suspicious about the legitimacy of the stone plate's claims. And for good reason.

After some digging, via Newcastle's Lit and Phil, the Friends of Jesmond Dene and the man who put up the plaque in the Ouseburn, all is not quite as it seems.

Alan Ramsay, from Roots & Wings Design, said the memorial was a sort of metaphor for the North East - like the Czech folk hero - overlooked and underappreciated.

He told ITV Tyne Tees: "Jara Cimrman is a Czech folk hero, he's kind of like a nearly man. He invented lots of stuff but never got any credit for any of it.

The Lit and Phil holds some of the answers to questions raised by the mischievous blue plaque. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

"And we felt that like Jara Cimrman, the North East doesn't get shouted about enough - all its inventions and great things that its done historically and is still doing today," he continued.

"So we kind of put the plaque up to echo the North East history. It's been a good way to make mischief."

While the plaque has made mischief - confusing passersby and getting people talking - it has at the least served as a reminder of the real history of Newcastle.

North East local Joseph Swan is credited with producing an early version of the light bulb but Jara Cimrman did not "assist" in making it like the plaque claims.

Paul Gailiunas, from The Lit & Phil, said: "The first person to solve the problem - to get a lightbulb that worked and worked for long enough to be useful was Joseph Wilson Swan - who was born in Sunderland.

"He was the first person to start manufacturing it on a proper workable scheme. In fact Swan demonstrated his lightbulb in this very building - lots and lots of innovations here."

Sunderland-born Joseph Swan is credited as producing an early electric light bulb. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Meanwhile, Yvonne Shannon, a member of Friends of Jesmond Dene has handily myth-busted the plaque's second claim that Cimrman donated the Dene to the people of Newcastle after winning it from Lord Armstrong in a game of cards.

"Jesmond Dene was the garden of Lord and Lady Armstrong," Ms Shannon explained. "They had a house just up on the bank there.

"And slowly they bought up the land and made it exactly into this wonderful place today."

A popular spot, Jesmond Dene is full of surprises itself.

"It's not as natural as it looks because this whole area was full of quarries and pits and the Armstrongs used them to make some interesting features like grottos," Ms Shannon continued.

Not all is as it seems in Jesmond Dene, thanks to the Armstrong family. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

"The waterfall though, is totally artificial in that Lord Armstrong had the bottom of the river blown up to create that wonderful cascade.

"He was a problem solver, he was a scientist, he was an inventor.

"In front of the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen, he signed this deed of gift on the 3rd of October, 1883, and he gave Jesmond Dene to the people, the citizens of Newcastle.

"I'm thinking that since it was witnessed by so many eminent people, the bit about losing it in a card game is made up."

While Jara Cimrman is not completely real - and his plaque is not completely accurate - it has prompted a fresh look at some of the gems of Newcastle's past and present.

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