Tyne & Wear

Domesday in Gateshead 25 years on

Whickham Post Office
Image caption A shopping and social hub, Whickham's post office in 1985

In the summer of 1985 Les Turnbull was a very excited man, trying to "comprehend the sheer scale of what the BBC were trying to do."

He had been chosen to lead the Gateshead part of an ambitious BBC project which aimed to take a written and pictorial snapshot of the UK.

Using Ordnance Survey maps, the country had been divided up into a grid of 24,000 sections, or D Blocks, and schools had been asked to document life in their particular block.

The pupils took pictures and wrote about life in the villages, towns and cities in which they lived.

Keen not to influence the result, the organisers neither told the children what to write nor corrected any regional or incorrect spelling and grammar.

Mr Turnbull thought at the time that getting children to collect and write the material gave it a simple freshness that something more professional would not have had.

He said: "The...authority were astonished at what the children had collected and got people's impressions of the area which wouldn't be given to the professional surveyor from the planning department.

"People spoke about the area and children wrote about the area in a very fresh and direct way.

"For many years after we'd finished the Gateshead project the planning department were using the information."

"Just magnificent"

Image caption Whickham's old post office has gone from this site but the shops remain

As director of the Gateshead Domesday project Les Turnbull had the job of co-ordinating teachers and head teachers across the borough.

The project, completed in November 1986 to mark the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book, was years ahead of its time.

Mr Turnbull said: "It's difficult today, because of the sheer volume of computer technology within even reception classes in schools, to appreciate that the use of computers was very much in its infancy in the 1980s.

"People like myself were looking for ways to encourage teachers to become computer literate and, through them, pupils."

Mr Turnbull decided to go further than the BBC project by putting together a book of the pupils' work.

Enterprise lessons were then put into practice by sourcing advertising to fund the book's production and, then, by selling the book.

About a dozen schools in Gateshead bought the state-of-the-art technology needed to store and view the collected information.

Few others could afford it since it cost £5,000, the price of a small family car.

Now, 25 years later, and in a world transformed by the internet, the BBC is making the text and pictures easily public for the first time.

The corporation is hoping people will look at the old material - in some cases for the first time since it was created - and update it with information on the same areas, especially new pictures.

Each D Block had a special number which is now translated into a web page. You can search for your area by D Block or location here.

Les Turnbull's hopes for the project might now finally come to fruition.

He said: "It was just a magnificent opportunity that was presented to us by the BBC and I can remember coming back on the train from a meeting in London...and thinking, God, the potential of this is just magnificent."

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