Newcastle On Tyne
( Originally Published 1920 )
A great commercial city - Present inhabitants and old times - The famous monastery of the Black Friars - The Cathedral - The eye of the North - History of the Castle - The Black Gate - Neglect in eighteenth century - The old walls - Mr. Grainger, Mr. Clayton and the modern streets - The Hancocks and natural history museum - the genius of old Newcastle as seen in its " characters " and song writers - Still " Canny Newcastle."
NEWCASTLE'S paramount claim to attention is that in the whole world there is not a more stirring monument to human energy than is presented by the town and its river, the Tyne. It has been shown that distinction has been achieved at a price, but the price has not been too great. To say otherwise would be to reverse the highest praise bestowed on " Men, my brothers, men the workers." The fitting eulogy of Newcastle would be a recital of the names of the great shipbuilding and other works on the Tyne, the array of inventions and discoveries which trod hot on the heels of Stephenson's first locomotive, and the bulk of goods manufactured by those armies of labour which man the innumerable works. To do that adequately would necessitate the production of statistics easily accessible and not very suitable for these pages.
Newcastle is not a creation of yesterday. Its merchant princes were famous in the Middle Ages, only its advance was enormously accelerated during the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was not until 1850 that the River Tyne Commission was formed as an outcome of a feeling that improvement was possible and indeed imperative. Before that was the hour of the keelman and his local anthem :
Oh weel may the keel row, the keel row
The keel was a barge used for loading ships where there were few docks and the quays lacked the mechanical facilities. To-day the occupation of the keelman is gone. Until 1850 or thereabouts the Tyne retained much of its ancient character. Wilderness and moorland had given place to agricultural land on its banks, but the stream itself was shallow and in other respects unfit for navigation. The magnificent harbour of Tynemouth with its Black Middens remained as dangerous as it was when, according to Bede, Cuthbert performed the miracle of saving the men on a sinking ship. The North Pier was begun in 1854, completed in 1893, destroyed in 1897 and since rebuilt. During the same period the channel was deepened, the banks straightened, docks built, the first being the Northumberland and Albert Edward Dock, and the difficult, dangerous river mouth was transformed into a magnificent harbour in which a navy could ride in safety. Newcastle at length was in a position to take full advantage of the illimitable resources which nature had provided on either bank of the Tyne. " Men, my brothers, men, the workers " had conquered the apparently insurmountable obstacles to progress. It was regrettable but inevitable that much of historic value should be swept aside in the process. Many traces of the Roman Wall and even of the City Wall disappeared. Yet much remains to recall the city's dramatic and stirring history.
Newcastle is a pleasant town for a ramble. Long ago when I used to go there from the country it impressed me only as a welter of streets full of people in a hurry. Then during a pro-longed visit there came an understanding of the reason why the inhabitants are so proud of it. By the by, if any reader wishes to explore it methodically he will find an abundance of literature to assist him. The local guide-book published by Reid is excellent, and so is the chapter on it in Tomlinson's Guide to the county. I must be content to record a few personal impressions. One of them is that the manners of the place have changed much and for the better since the time of John Wesley. In his Journal he says of the population of the Sandgate : " So much drunkenness, cursing and swearing even from the mouths of little children do I never remember to have seen or heard before in so short a compass of time." It is getting on for two hundred years since that was written, and it holds good no longer. North country people have not the polite manners of the south. They do not "sir" you or touch their caps. With them the bob and curtsey have long gone out of fashion. But they make up for it in genuine kindness and intelligence. I remember once asking a Lincoln-shire rustic if Oliver Cromwell had not fought a battle near Somersby, and his answer was that he " did not know the name - it must have been afore my time." But along the Roman Wall, any day, labourers can talk to the point about the Romans in Britain, and in the slummiest part of Newcastle.
I have been astonished at the knowledge of local history. Once, indeed, a tatterdemalion showed me to the old stone steps leading to the upper story of the Guildhall in the Sandhill, and spoke of John Wesley's visits to Newcastle. Nor did' he hang about afterwards for a tip. One can go nowhere in Newcastle without meeting someone able to perform a similar office. The same man showed me the house near the Guildhall from which Jack Scott, afterwards Lord Eldon, carried off Bessy Surteesa very consenting party, who had let herself down with a ladder for the purpose of eloping. She was the daughter of Aubone Surtees the Banker, and this happened in 1772.
Nothing is pleasanter than to hang about the old streets near the quay and river and peer up the narrow entries called " chares." If their glory has departed it has left no melancholy behind, any more than there is in the modest villa which a man advancing in the way of prosperity forsakes for a mansion. Up to a hundred years ago the notabilities still lingered by the Tyne and had private residences and public offices there. They left only because quickening trade made demand on the shore. In a street called the Side - a real Northumbrian name - is the house in which Lord Collingwood was born. Only a public-house now, it is remembered for the sake of Nelson's friend and a national hero. In Low Friar Street is a building of the greatest historic interest. It is the Smiths' Hall, and bears over a door the motto :
By hammer and hand
John Balliol, in 1334, as King of Scotland, did homage here to Edward I as his overlord. For this was part of the famous monastery of the Black Friars.
As interesting as the Wynds and closes of old Edinburgh are the corresponding " chares " of Newcastle. They are a lasting joy to those who like to dawdle where chance leads in the knowledge that they must inevitably hide something with the charm of antiquity or interesting association attached to it.
The church of St. Nicholas was made a Cathedral in 1881 when the Bishopric of Durham was divided in two. It is certain from internal evidence that it stands upon the site of an older church, perhaps on that of the Saxon monks of Monkchester.
The previous edifice was destroyed by fire in 1216. In all likelihood its replacement began immediately, since there is a thirteenth-century capital of a pillar embedded in part of the masonry, and there are other relics of the ancient building.
At any rate the present church was finished in 1350, except the famous steeple.
The latter was put up by one of the earliest of the many public men connected with Newcastle, Robert de Rhodes, lawyer and member of Parliament. Original and beautiful, the lantern spire stands on a well-built tower. It was erected in 1435 and was imitated in succeeding churches such as St. Giles in Edinburgh, the church at Linlithgow, and the College Tower in Aberdeen. Wren copied it also in St. Dunstan's-in-the East.
History records many dramatic scenes in St. Nicholas, but they are too well known to bear repetition. Some of them show that war has always been very much the same. Sir John Marley, who was Mayor in 1644, when Newcastle offered so sturdy a defence to the Scottish under General Leslie, was the prototype of those gallant mayors of Belgian towns whom the Germans could not intimidate. When Leslie threatened to blow the lantern steeple to bits he retorted by putting his Scottish prisoners under it. Newcastle's motto refers to her gallant defence at that siege. It was originally " Fortiter defendendo triumphat " - " she glories in her brave defence," but it was watered down, or at least changed, to the present form : " Fortiter defendit triumphans."
Another scene, that between King Charles and a Scottish minister, must ever find a place in the records of the church. The ill-bred minister, insulting the captive, gave out the fifty-second psalm :
Why dost thou tyrant boast thyself
Whereupon the King rose and called for the fifty-sixth :
Have mercy, Lord, on me, I pray,
This the congregation sang with fervour. A regrettable incident in the history of the church occurred in 1784 and 1785, when, in pursuance of a plan for turning it into " a sort of a Cathedral," much that was ancient and venerable was destroyed. Such tombstones as were not claimed, or belonged to families then extinct, were sold by the churchwardens to a postmaster who was building a house in Hew Street, in the foundations of which they are buried. It was an outcome of the time rather than of the locality, and could be paralleled with very simila1 occurrences in other parts of the country. Only in recent times have people come to value such survivals and monuments of the past.
On the other hand the town has always been proud of its great church - " the eye of the North," as Grey called it in his Chorographia. It has been enshrined in a very popular Tyneside song, one that used to be sung over the whole county.
Div you mind of St. Nicholas Church ma pet
This is a variant due probably to a lapse of memory. A correct version will be found in "Allan's Illustrated Edition of Tyneside Songs and Readings." The southerner who can give the proper pronunciation of " fyece " has advanced a long way to the understanding of English as she is spoken at Newcastle. The origin of the song is explained in the following note to it : " The dial of the clock in St. Nicholas Church first lighted by gas Dec. 5th 1829. The dial blown out by a violent storm of wind October 19th 1862 ; relighted November 15th 1862." Other ancient churches in Newcastle are those of St. John and St. Andrew. The former stands at the foot of Grainger Street and the latter at the top of Newgate Street. St. John's Church is said to have been built towards the end of the thirteenth century, but it has from time to time been partly rebuilt or repaired. St. Andrew's is the more interesting and claims to be the oldest church in Newcastle, having been built by King David, whose name is treasured in Melrose Abbey.
Two heritages from antiquity tower above all others in Newcastle. It owes its name to one of them, the Castle. "And so the said vill from that time began to be called New Castle," says Simeon of Durham, referring to the fortification put up by the Conqueror's son Robert Curthose in 1080. But probably nothing remains of this structure. It has indeed been surmised that it was of wood. William Rufus began the building of the great Norman Keep, and the work was concluded by Henry II between the years 1172 and 1177. The purpose in view is tersely explained by the old metrical historian Hardyng :
He buylded Newcastell upon Tyne
The circumstances are very well known. Within two years of the Battle of Hastings the Conqueror was taken unawares by a revolt in favour of Edgar Atheling and the slaughter of 3,000 Normans at York. His vengeance was delayed but terrible. He bribed the Danes to withdraw their navy, he dealt with his enemies in the west,and then with fire and sword so devastated the county that for more than half a century it lay bare and desolate for sixty miles north of York. But even this did not end the terror. Malcolm Canmore of Scotland had married the Athelings' sister Margaret, and he again and again attempted the conquest of England till he met his death before Alnwick in 1071.
The castle occupied an area of three acres, enclosed by a curtain wall through which the chief entrance was by the Black Gate. This was built or renewed by Henry III in the year 1248, and is a most interesting and impressive piece of late Norman. The upper portion was restored by the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries, and is now very appropriately used as a Museum of Antiquities, most of which are Roman and from the Wall.
In a county so full of historical associations as Northumberland it would make a notable advance in education if a museum exclusively devoted to local antiquities were established in each local centre. There are already many museums in the smaller towns, but they are too miscellaneous, and often contain articles brought home by travellers that would find a more appropriate habitation in a great central museum. Northumbrians are born antiquarians, and young people especially delight in that kind of history which enables them to compare the village or town in which they live with the same place as it was in the days of their forefathers.
From the historical point of view the most important part of the castle is this entrance gate to the bailey - it gets the name of Black Gate from an occupant in the time of James I named Black - one of the three postern gates, and the great Norman Keep. Like the rest of England in the eighteenth century, Newcastle was careless of her antiquarian heritages. After the castle had been put to many mean uses, when it was no longer needed as " the bridle of Scotland," it was in 1782 advertised to he let as a windmill. Here is the notice :
" To be let, the old Castle in the Castle Garth, upon which with the greatest convenience and advantage, may be erected a wind-mill for the purpose of grinding corn, and bolting flour, or making oil, etc. There is an exceeding good spring of water within the Castle, which renders it a very eligible situation for a Brewery, or any Manufactory that requires a constant supply of water. The proprietor, upon proper terms, will be at a considerable part of the expense. Enquire of Mr. Fryer, in Westgate Street, Newcastle."
It was not till 1848, or fifty-six years after this, that the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries succeeded in obtaining a lease of the old Castle from the Corporation. At that time the Society, now the oldest of its kind, had already been thirty-five years in existence.
There is little left of the famous Walls and their Gates. There seems to have been a very early wall which was superseded by that built in the time of Edward I. The funds for this enterprise were according to Grey found by a rich citizen who had been " taken prisoner out of his house and carried into Scotland." How Newcastle has expanded outwards may be inferred from the fact that in 1745 the length of the Walls was 2 miles, 239 yards. They were gradually demolished, and what is left of them may best be seen between Westgate Street and St. Andrew's Church, a distance of about a quarter of a mile. They bring an air of antiquity into busy Newcastle. So do the names of the old streets. Pilgrim Street, High and Low Friars Street, The Close, and many similar names point to a time when monks formed an important' part of the population. Jesmond, the Mount of Jesus, forms a natural centre to these surroundings.
Modern Newcastle owes its reconstructed streets almost wholly to two men. Richard Grainger, who was responsible for the building of Grey Street, and Grainger Street, as well as many other scarcely less important parts of modern Newcastle, was a self-made man of a type not uncommon among the Novocastrians. Born of poor parents, educated at a Charity School and afterwards apprentice to a carpenter and builder, he succeeded in attaining a high position and securing the respect and affection of his fellow townsmen. His disposition can best be described by the kindly old Northumbrian phrase " a canny man." Shrewd but good-hearted and unassumingly religious without ostentation, persevering to the highest degree but no hustler, he seems to have satisfied his ambition without making enemies. Grey Street and Grainger Street form his best monument. Their solid, substantial stone houses will compare favourably with those of any other provincial English town. The monument to Lord Grey - the Reform Minister - is not unworthy the memory of Northumberland's most distinguished statesman. Grainger's most ardent desire was the improvement of his native town and the realisation of his projects, the building of Grainger Street and Clayton Street, Nun Street, Nelson Street, Hood Street and so on, in which he had the assistance and advice of Mr. Clayton, who came of good substantial Newcastle stock and had the welfare of the town as much at heart as his friend.
Apart from banks, theatres and other buildings devoted to business or amusement, the greatest interest attaches to the Museum of the Natural History Society at Barras Bridge. The county has a bird list of exceptional length, and every Northumbrian town and village possesses a naturalist or two. Consequently the work of the brothers Hancock is known far and wide. John Hancock took a prominent part in getting this museum built, and in it are housed the great collection of birdskins made by him and his elder brother, Albany Hancock. They afford the very best material on which to build up a knowledge of Northumbrian ornithology.
John Hancock lived from 1808 to 1890. His greatest predecessor in the same field had been Prideaux John Selby, of Twizell House, who was born at Alnwick in 1788. A careful observer and voluminous writer not only on birds, but trees, he was a great friend of Sir Walter Scott, who used to send him each of his books as it was published. Those first editions were in Twizell House during the time of Lord Redesdale, not the Lord Redesdale who died a few years ago, but the previous holder of the title. Afterwards birds and books were scattered and the house passed into other hands.
The founder of the Berwickshire Naturalists' Club, Dr. Johnstone, did not specialise on birds as much as on some other branches of natural history ; and James Hardy, for many years its secretary, had equally wide tastes, but he wrote many interesting papers on migration and kindred topics.
These are the outstanding names, but it would be possible to find in any Northern hamlet someone whose special delight it is to watch and remember the proceedings of the feathered folk.
It must be very difficult for a stranger to get into the atmosphere or recognise the true spirit of Newcastle. The first barrier in the way is the dialect, and the dialect is more formidable in print than in speech. The late Mr. Swinburne gave up all hope of writing poems in it, and used the braid Scots tongue for his Northumbrian ballads. To take a simple example, it is easy to indicate the pronunciation of " stone," by spelling it, for a southern ear, or " stane " for the Scottish, but the equivalent in Northumbrian defies the alphabet. If spelt as is usually the way, " styen," few except natives would recognise it was pronounced as a monosyllable which, roughly speaking, rhymes to " gin." But for this difficulty, any stranger could learn much about the manners and traditions, habits and humours of Newcastle by reading " Tyneside Songs." They take you into what may be called low company, but it is a company of real men and women. Though they are closely akin to the dramatis person e of the Jolly Beggars of Robert Burns, a very considerable portion of the poets were ne'er-do-weels, eccentrics, wastrels of one kind or another ; and here a peculiarity of Northumberland in general and Newcastle in particular may be noted. In other parts of the kingdom the rich are the leisured class who find time to write verses, and the poor are the horny-handed who have no leisure. But in Northumberland these conditions are reversed. The city merchants have always been too much immersed in the great projects of their generation to cultivate the Muses. But the poor sprang largely from the raiders of Reedsdale and the like, men who closely resembled that Robson who, like a good canny man, depended for his livelihood on lifting cattle. There is something of the outlaw lingering still in the families of those who form the " characters " of Newcastle. One consequence is that they break into rhyme very easily and the rhyme is steeped in local tradition and expressed in the local dialect.
A glance at the frontispiece of the revised edition of " Tyneside Songs," published in 1891, will show what the makers were. Their very names are sufficient to do so : awd Judy, Jenny Ballo, Whin Bob, Jackie Coxon, Pussy Willy, Cull Billy Donald, Bugle-nosed Jack, Hangie, Bold Archie, Blind Willie, Shoe-tie Anty, Captain Starkey, Doodem Daddum, to which are added the dog, Timour, a stodgy, short-legged, bull-headed piece of impudence. These, in their day, were eccentrics and well-known characters in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Some were the singers, and some the heroes of the songs. It may be worth while to give a brief glance at the contents of the book in order to show how it expresses an aspect of Newcastle which is really collected from the whole of Northumberland. In miniature every little town used to have a group of similar characters. Examples still survive, though modern progress ,is tending towards their ultimate extinction. The songs open, as was right and proper, with the authorised version of the Newcastle anthem :
As I went up Sandgate, up Sandgate,
" Bobby Shaftoe " is a local song which has attained the very widest favour and deserves it :
Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea,
Bobby Shaftoe's bright and fair
" My Eppie " makes one sure that many of these Newcastle minstrels drifted in from the country :
There was five wives at Acomb
" Sair fail'd hinney " is an old favourite, but the pathos is too much accented for modern taste. " A new song made on Alice Marley, an alewife at Pictree near Chester-le-Street," has been sung for the best part of two hundred years at sheep-shearing gatherings, harvest suppers, and barn dances, where the chorus resounded among the bare roof joists :
Did ye ken Elsie Marley. honey !
" Canny Newcassel " is a celebrated song which sings the true glories of the Tyne by contrasting them with those of the Thames. The chorus runs :
Bout Lunnun then divn't ye mak' sic a rout,
Naturally the glories are sung of the various public houses where these characters disported themselves, and the way to their haunts carries us into many a curious chare and street since destroyed by the improvements of Mr. Grainger.
" Ma canny hinny " is a good example of this kind of ditty. It is too long to quote, but begins :
Aw went up the Butcher Bank and down Grundin Chase, Call'd at the Dun Cow, but aw cuddent find thee there.
The wanderings end where they ought to end - at home and in a manner very distinctly Northumbrian:
Hing on th' girdle, let's hev a singin' hinny.
How often in the traditions and songs of old Northumberland we find a reference to the " singin' hinny." It is sometimes called a knead cake and is a product peculiar to the county. The pitman and his dog are inseparable, and many dogs appear in these songs. Here is the first verse of one about " Cappy " :
In a town near Newcassel a Pitman did dwell,
In the list of eccentrics already given there is one called Blind Willie. He was an unfortunate but happy soul who spent the last days of his life in the poorhouse of All Saints, but even then travelled the streets, which he could do as well as many a man who had the use of his eyes. There is a song about his singing of which one verse may be quoted for the sake of the local colour :
It's fine to hear wor Bellman talk,
Blind Willie appears in the " Lamentation on the Death of Captain Starkey," another of the worthies. He, with Cuckoo Jack, Bold Archie, and others make an unconventional elegy of their departed comrade in which occurs this serious question :
Then what'll poor Newcassel dee, deprived of all her ornamentals ?
When poor Willie's own turn came, the grief was expressed with the same genuine feeling and disregard of the ordinary proprieties. Whatever the faults of this company there can be no doubt of their affection for one another.
" As aw was gannin up the Side,
Although only one or two of these rhymers touch the high-water mark of poetry, they are homely and friendly, they are full of spirit and they reproduce with good humour the prize fights and cock fights, the drinking habits, the racing, the practical jokes and quips of the tap and bar. In this way they make themselves essential to a sympathetic understanding of that old Newcastle out of which the present one came.
We cannot take leave of them in terms more fitting than are to be found in William Watson's " Thumping Luck to yon Town":
There's native bards in yon town