In 1625, Sir William Benton considered Newcastle’s quayside, ‘the finest quay in England’ and today the whole riverside area from Sandhill near the Tyne Bridge to Sandgate near the Gateshead Millennium Bridge is still one of the most impressive riverside townscapes in the country.
Having medieval origins but now dominated by modern buildings, for centuries the Quayside was a home to sea merchants, hostmen and members of related trades. A beautiful survivor of the maritime age is the Customs House. It dates from 1766 with a facade of 1833 by Sydney Smirke.
In the past, the narrow riverside chares that began life as medieval jetties, were an important feature of the quayside. At their base the river between the wooden jetties was gradually filled in with rubble. This began in medieval times. Houses were subsequently built on the land that was created and the riverside route-way we call the Quayside came into being.
The old wooden jetties gradually evolved into narrow riverside alleys called chares and Newcastle once abounded with such chares, though only a few now remain. Chare is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning, ‘a ninety degree turn’ and such alleys often projected from neighbouring streets at an angle. Most of the chares descend to the Tyne. On a map of 1736 twenty chares appear along the quayside from Sandhill in the west to the wall at Sandgate in the east although other alleys called chares could be found scattered around the town.
Trinity Chare is a surviving and typical example of a narrow quayside chare. It was the back-way into Trinity House which is situated in neighbouring Broad Chare. Broad Chare, close to the Crown Court is, as its name suggests, not a typical chare in terms of width.
Trinity House, the home of the Masters and Mariners is an institution that has stood on this site since 1505 though the present building dates to 1721. Trinity House came to be the Corporation of Newcastle and was responsible for improving the navigation of the River Tyne.
There are notable courtyards to the rear of Trinity House which would have dated back to medieval times but are now home to an interesting collection of eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings including an almshouse of 1787. One courtyard hosts an anchor from the Spanish Armada of 1588. Neighbouring nineteenth century warehouses that belonged to Trinity House are now part of Newcastle’s Live Theatre venue.
At the north end of Broad Chare, a steep lane called Dog Lane breaks off to the west up towards Akenside Hill, Sandhill and Side. It should not be confused with the Dog Leap Stairs. Down at the south end Broad Chare opens out onto the Quayside with a fabulous framed view of Sage Gateshead across the river.
As well as the chares, there were a number of historic descending stairs over in the western area of the Quayside . A 1736 map shows rapidly descending stairs stretching to the Tyne. These were situated to the west along Sandhill and The Close and some of the stairs can still be seen today with impressive dramatic descents down which you wouldn’t want to fall. They include Castle Stairs, Dog Leap Stairs, Long Stairs and Tuthill Stairs.
The Dog Leap Stairs are mentioned in a Dire Straits song, ‘Down to the Waterline’ while the ‘Lang’ Stairs feature in a Tyneside folk tune ‘Adam Buckham’.
Sandhill: Bessie Surtees
For centuries the riverside street and area called Sandhill formed the hub of Newcastle. It was a bustling focal point for town government, a centre for trade and a home to rich merchants. Sandhill lies next to the Swing Bridge where the medieval bridge had stood and was the principal point of entry into Newcastle from the south.
Sandhill is roughly triangular in shape and may have been Newcastle’s main market place before the Bigg Market and neighbouring streets rose to prominence.
The street called Sandhill is home to a fabulous group of merchant’s houses of the 1650s that are regarded as the region’s best timber-framed houses. Most notable is the one formerly occupied by a pub of recent times called Bob Trollop (he built the Guildhall opposite in the 1600s) and the equally impressive Bessie Surtees House now occupied by the Historic England regional office. The house fronts feature an impressive collection of almost uncountable timber-framed windows.
A plaque explains the name of the five-storey Surtees house: “From the above window on November 18th, 1772, Bessy Surtees descended and eloped with John Scott, later created first Lord of Eldon and Lord Chancellor or England. Bessie escaped using a rope, disobeying the wishes of her wealthy merchant father who forbade the marriage.”
The Guildhall in Sandhill lies between the Tyne Bridge and Swing Bridge and was once the heart of Newcastle’s government. It housed the council chamber, whose powerful members were drawn from the various trade guilds in the town. They were responsible for regulating each of the trades, rights, rules, apprenticeships and the quality of produce. Guild Merchant status was granted to Newcastle by King John in 1216. The Guild Merchants owned the premises in Sandhill that were partly built on the site of a former hospital established by Newcastle’s Mayor Roger Thornton in 1420.
Much of the present building is credited to the architect Robert Trollope who worked on it in the 1650s and although a substantial part of the interior is of this time, the building is quite a complex structure. Additional work was carried out by the architects David Stephenson and William Newton in the seventeenth century and by John Dobson in the nineteenth century.
There were around 50 Guilds established in Newcastle between 1215 and 1675. They included the Mercers (1512), Brewers (1583), Cordwainers (1566), Tallow Chandlers (1442), Barber Surgeons (1442), Felt Makers (1546), Upholsterers (1675) and Scriveners (1675).
In times past, members of the craft guilds in Newcastle, like those of other medieval towns, would organise and perform miracle plays with religious themes. The text of the Newcastle shipwright’s play called The Shipwright’s Dirge or Noah’s Ark, dates from the fifteenth century and is recalled in Bourne’s History of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, AD 1736.
The Close and the Cooperage
The Close, beneath the High Level Bridge, was an important part of Newcastle’s medieval riverside. It acquired its name in medieval times from the enclosure of ground between the river and castle and is situated upstream from the site of the medieval bridge.
This placed it beyond the reach of larger ships making it an attractive place of residence for Newcastle’s wealthiest medieval merchants especially on the south side where their houses had their own private riverside quays.
The Percys, Earls of Northumberland, were amongst the men of power with a place on The Close. Today, some of the most interesting buildings in The Close are pubs and restaurants. The first is the timber-framed ‘Cooperage’ (now permanently closed) near the Long Stairs. Timber additions were made to the original ruins of a stone house between 1543 and the 1600s. As the name implies it was once a barrel-making concern.
The entrance to the Long Stairs separates the Cooperage from what is now ‘The House of Tides’ restaurant next door. This building seemingly has an 18th century exterior but its interior reveals that it is a merchants’ house dating back to the late 16th and early century. It was once the home of the Clavering family who later moved to Axwell Park near Blaydon.
Across the street, The Quayside pub beneath the High Level Bridge occupies extensive riverside warehouses dating back to the early 1500s. At the east end of The Close, near the Breakneck Stairs, remnants of the town wall can be seen where The Close Gate stood near the river. Towering high above everything else up the river bank is the massive Turnbull warehouse of the 1890s in Queens Lane. Now apartments, it was originally built for a printing works.
Sandgate : Keelmen’s Quarter
The eastern part of Newcastle’s Quayside was historically called Sandgate and was outside the town’s medieval walls. Sandgate encompassed the present riverside area near the Millennium Bridge and spread up the bank from the Quayside towards Sandgate Street and City Road.
In the eighteenth century the Methodist preacher John Wesley called Sandgate ‘the poorest and most contemptible part of the town’ but enjoyed preaching there. He is remembered in nearby Wesley Square.
Sandgate was a virtually separate town with a distinct culture being home to a tough breed of boatmen called the keelmen. By the eighteenth century there were 1,600 Newcastle keelmen, with most living in Sandgate’s crowded streets.
Keelmen often intermarried and wore their own distinct clothes, not just at work but in a social context too – blue jackets, yellow waistcoats, belled trousers and black silk hats, tied with ribbons.
The keelmen were keen to preseve their distinct identity and employed their own tailors to ensure this. Increasingly numerous in Newcastle from the 1500s, many were descended from the Border Reivers who had inhabited the Scottish and Northumberland borders in Tudor times.
Surnames like Armstrong, Charlton, Milburn, Robson, Graham and Dodd were no doubt as common amongst the keelmen as they would later become in the region’s coal mining community.
The keelmen were highly skilled boatmen, who handled the movement of coal from the riverside to ships further along the Tyne. They took their name from their small vessels called keels which could carry around 20 Tons of coal.
Sadly, the keelmen’s trade was brought to an end by the development of coal staithes in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The staithes enabled railways to deliver coal directly into ships on the banks of the Tyne.
Nevertheless, the life and legacy of the keelmen is remembered in three surprising ways, in the form of a song, an old hospital and one of England’s oldest recorded words.
The former Keelmen’s Hospital lies just over 300 metres to the east of the Holy Jesus Hospital, alongside the busy City Road, just above of Sandgate. This brick building was erected in 1701 and forms a quadrangle. The centre piece of the southern range, facing the road is a white-painted square shaped tower featuring a clock, a sundial and a prominent inscription listing the trustees of the hospital in 1701.
It was paid for by Newcastle’s keelmen (who resided in Sandgate) to look after their sick and elderly. The keelmen, who transported coal and other goods in their keelboats along the Tyne, paid a penny a tide to raise funds for building the hospital.
In the later part of the 19th century Sandgate increasingly became an overcrowded slum area with a significant community of Irish immigrants who like the keelmen before them have contributed significantly to the rich cultural heritage of the city. Those slums have of course long since been cleared and today the area is home to attractive modern offices, eating establishments and apartments.
The Keel Row
A more surprising reminder of the keelmen and their work is a unique and distinct collection of traditional Tyneside folk songs that recall their trade. A number of these songs feature Sandgate with the most famous being ‘The Keel Row’ later a popular marching song for the military of which Rudyard Kipling wrote while in India:
“The man who has never heard the ‘Keel Row’ rising high and shrill above the sound of the regiment….. has something yet to hear and understand”
The Keel Row is undisputedly a Tyneside song but the song does seem to have a slight Scottish influence – perhaps a reminder that many of the keelmen originated in the Borders.
As aa cam’ thro’ Sandgate,
Thro’ Sandgate, thro’ Sandgate,
As aa cam’ thro’ Sandgate’
Aa heard a lassie sing:
Weel may the keel row,
The keel row, the keel row
Weel may the keel row
That ma laddie’s in.
He wears a blue bonnet,
Blue bonnet,blue bonnet,
He wears a blue bonnet,
An’ a dimple on his chin.
An’ weel may the keel row…..etc
Another surprising legacy of the keelmen or at least of the word ‘keel is that keel was the first English word ever to be written down. It was recorded by a Welsh chronicler in the sixth century. Its etymology is imaginatively explained by R.J.Charleton in his `History of Newcastle Upon Tyne’ (1882). He reminds us that when the heathen Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, they sailed across the sea in boats called ‘Ceols’ which:
“after all these centuries… are still to be seen (on the Tyne) as though endowed with the enduring and persistent characteristics of the race that built them”.
Charleton claimed that the design of the nineteenth century keel was very similar to that of the Anglo-Saxon Ceol. The earliest recorded use of Keels for transporting coal on the Tyne is in the early 1300’s and it is possible that at this time the Keelmen had already established a community in the Sandgate district.
Seven Tyne Bridges
All views of Newcastle and its Quayside are dominated by the seven great bridges and it is of course as a fortified bridging point that Newcastle owes its origins. Today’s famous ‘Tyne Bridge’ is a great steel bridge of 1928 but it is the lower level Swing Bridge of 1876 that marks the site of the earlier Tyne Bridge of historic times.
Here a medieval bridge of uncertain date superseded an earlier Roman bridge. The bridge was in existence by 1179 but was rebuilt in 1248 following a fire. Constructed of stone, it had 12 arches. Its entire course was cluttered with a picturesque collection of houses and shops of wood and stone, as well as defensive towers and a chapel.
In 1724 Daniel Defoe compared the street of houses on the bridge to that which existed on London Bridge at the time.
There were frequent disputes between the ruling merchants of Newcastle and the Prince Bishop of Durham over who controlled which parts of the bridge. In 1416 a court ruled the Bishop was responsible for the final third of the bridge on the Gateshead side with Newcastle responsible for maintaining the rest.
In November, 1771 a flood wrecked the Old Tyne Bridge destroying the buildings that lined its course. A temporary bridge was constructed in October 1772, replaced by a new stone bridge in 1781. It was the only bridge across the Tyne in Newcastle until the High Level Bridge opened in 1849.
The seven famous bridges across the Tyne, which link the city to Gateshead on the south bank of the river are from west to east; the Redheugh bridge, King Edward VII Bridge, Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, The High Level Bridge, the Swing Bridge, the George V Bridge (Tyne Bridge) and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge.
The George V Bridge, a road bridge more familiarly known as the Tyne Bridge is the most famous Newcastle landmark. Opened in 1929 by King George V and built by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough, it closely resembles the very much larger Sydney Harbour Bridge which was also built by the Middlesbrough firm at around the same time.
The Tyne Bridge is overlooked by the prominent church of All Saints which towers above the Newcastle Quayside. Sir John Betjeman called it, ‘one of the finest English Georgian churches’. Now disused as a church, it was built in 1786-1796 by David Stephenson after the earlier Norman church began to crack.
The lowest of the bridges is the Swing Bridge of 1876, a road bridge which leads directly into the heart of the Newcastle Quayside below the castle keep. Designed by the famous Tyneside engineer William Armstrong (1810-1900) it opened without ceremony in June 1876. The Swing Bridge replaced the Georgian stone bridge which had very little clearance for ships passing beneath. The swing mechanism of the new bridge enabled larger vessels to reach the upper parts of the Tyne.
The Swing Bridge (like its Georgian predecessor) is located on the site of the Roman and medieval bridge. During the construction of the Swing Bridge, two Roman altars were dredged from the river that were dedicated to the gods Neptune and Oceanus. They would have belonged to a shrine built to protect the Roman bridge of Pons Aelius from the tidal Tyne.
The King Edward II Bridge is a rail bridge, built in 1906 by Cleveland Bridge of Darlington and opened by that king. The Redheugh and Queen Elizabeth II bridges are more modern structures. The present Redheugh Bridge, a road bridge is a concrete structure and was opened by the Princess of Wales in May 1983. It is the third of that name, superseeding earlier bridges of 1871 and 1901.
The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge is a steel structure used by the Tyne and Wear Metro system and was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in November 1981.
Oldest of Newcastle’s present Tyne bridges, is the High Level Bridge which was erected in 1848 to the designs of Robert Stephenson, it comprises two tiers for road and rail. One of the best views of Newcastle can be obtained from on board a train, as it crosses this bridge on the main London to Edinburgh line. The High Level is so-named because it was the first Newcastle bridge to span the Tyne from the top of one bank to another. All earlier bridges had spanned the river at low level.
The most recent of the bridges is of course the beautiful Gateshead Millennium Bridge which is for the use of cyclists and pedestrians only. Opened in September 2001, the whole bridge can be tilted by 40 degrees to allow ships and boats to pass underneath.