Category Archives: Newcastle upon Tyne

Entrepreneurs of Tyneside Past

ALEX ILES delves into the history of Newcastle and is inspired by three notable entrepreneurs

The Guildhall Newcastle
The Guildhall, Sandhill, Newcastle upon Tyne. Photo: David Simpson

This is my first blog for England’s North East, so it’s best to introduce myself. I own and manage a tourism company in Newcastle called Iles Tours, established in 2012.

I do a number of different tours and one thing that fascinates me is the region’s entrepreneurs who have inspired me in my own business.

Here I look at three such entrepreneurs from different eras in the history of Newcastle: Rodger Thornton (died 1430), Ralph Carr (1711-1806) and William Armstrong (1810-1900).

According to legend, Rodger Thornton’s entrance into Newcastle’s story has highly romantic beginnings:

‘West-Gate came Thornton in, 

With a hap and a halfpenny and a lambskin’.

In fact as the son of a minor noble Thornton’s father helped him start up in business in Newcastle. Membership of the trading guilds and involvement with the Right Honourable Company of Merchant Adventurers set up this young man well. The Adventurers met in the top of St. Thomas’s Hospital on the Sandhill where the modern guildhall stands today.

The Sandhill, Newcastle
The Sandhill, Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

There Thornton became involved in Newcastle’s most important trade during his lifetime – wool and hides. Wool was the petroleum of the Middle Ages and Newcastle’s wool was sold to the Low Countries where the major fabric producers were based.

It was the trade in wool that made Thornton successful, as a young man, although it was not an easy start. On some occasions during trade disputes his cargoes would spoil on the quayside while waiting to be sold or transported but bit by bit Thornton rose in power and wealth.

Brass depicting Rodger Thornton and his wife in St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle. Photo: Simon Neil Scott
Brass depicting Rodger Thornton and his wife in St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle. Photo: Simon Neil Scott

It enabled him to expand his business and invest in Weardale lead and local coal – two growing and very profitable trades in the North East of England. The investments paid off as the construction of churches in England and abroad meant there was much need for lead.

As his wealth increased Thornton was able to give to charitable causes – including vast quantities of lead for Durham Cathedral’s roof as well as great sums of money for St. Nicholas Church and St. Johns church in Newcastle. These donations were often written off as Rodger looked to ensure his place in heaven or perhaps it is better to see this as an ingrained understanding of the responsibility of the wealthy to care for the poor in the Middle Ages.

St John's Church Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
St John’s Church Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Thornton also invested heavily in monasteries which were the schools and hospitals of the Middle Ages, providing education and healthcare for all in society.  Medieval merchants were also involved in politics as they were “between worlds” – not landed elite, not clerics or priests and not workers of the land.

Because of this Rodger became the MP for Newcastle for five years and was Mayor of Newcastle nine times. He sided with the King when the Percys of Northumberland rose against Henry IV and his wealth made him an important ally.

Town Walls Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
Town Walls Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Thornton invested in the town watch, established a professional army and rebuilt the town walls. He held Newcastle against one of the most powerful lords in England and a grateful King Henry gave him the Percy lands in Yorkshire – making him a member of the landed elite. When I look at Rodger Thornton I learn that to fight for what you care about and invest in a location creates opportunities and opens doors in the future!

Ralph Carr is our second entrepreneur. As a young man Ralph’s father allowed his son’s membership of the Right Honourable Company of Newcastle’s Merchant Adventurers to slip, meaning that Ralph had to take an apprenticeship with the company to earn membership. During this term he took a break to visit all the ports that Newcastle traded with and learned about their needs, gaining a detailed knowledge of the North Sea and Baltic ports.

In the late 1700s there was an established oligarchy of merchants in the coal trade and breaking into this elite group was both hard and expensive – so Ralph branched out, investing in shipping, naval equipment, whaling, lead, insurance and millstones from Gateshead. He then went on to build alum factories, glass factories, lead works and linen mills.

These buildings in the Close near Newcastle's Quayside would have been familiar to Ralph Carr Photo: David Simpson
These buildings in the Close near Newcastle’s Quayside would have been familiar to Ralph Carr Photo: David Simpson

In later life he was so wealthy he was approached to become one of the first members of Newcastle’s first provincial bank.

The lesson I take from Ralph Carr is that when your path is blocked by groups with vested interests, take a step to the side and build areas that are not developed. You can do a better job in those areas and eventually get invited into new and exciting deals.

When he died Carr was worth £200,000 in old money or £300 million today – a highly successful man who started on an apprenticeship.

Our third entrepreneur is Lord Armstrong. From a young age William Armstrong was fascinated with engineering and mathematics but honoured his father and studied law. He practiced law for over twenty years, teaching himself engineering in his spare time.

Eventually he designed the Armstrong crane and approached his father and Godfather with the new business opportunity. They backed the project and the crane revolutionised the way ports functioned. This created a great amount of wealth for Armstrong and he became established in the business community.

Following this – for better or worse – he was moved by the loss of life for British troops during the Crimean War which he put down to ineffectual artillery.

William Armstrong
William Armstrong

This brought about the invention of the Armstrong Gun which required eleven patents because of its revolutionary design. Armstrong continued to produce these revolutionary guns and partnered Mitchell’s Shipyards to create warships on the Tyne.  He eventually produced ships for eleven great powers and in some ways prepared the world for the First World War.

Armstrong’s works at Elswick employed twenty five thousand people in Newcastle and were one of the largest employers in Britain. Alongside this, Armstrong was a huge supporter of renewable energies and saw a future where they would replace coal as the main form of energy.

In Armstrong I see that educating yourself, being dependable and ready for an opportunity may enable you to launch the business you always wanted to do.

I hope we have captured your minds and inspired you with these Newcastle Entrepreneurs. If you have enjoyed this blog, Iles Tours offers a tour focused on the entrepreneurs whose businesses and inventions have shaped Newcastle.

For more information visit www.ilestours.co.uk

or email Alex at info@ilestours.co.uk

Find out more about Alex and our England’s North East bloggers here

Toon tour of passion and pride

DAVID SIMPSON meets Newcastle tour guide, Alexander Iles, who talks about his popular city tours and his hopes for the region

I meet tour guide, Alexander Iles at Newcastle’s Journey Café to the rear of the the Laing Art Gallery. He’s very welcoming and offers me a coffee. My first impression is of an enthusiastic, engaging young man full of passion for Newcastle and very keen to share his knowledge of the city and region.

Alexander iles
Alexander Iles

He draws my attention to a nearby building that was home to Victorian architect, John Dobson and points out what looks like a plain pavement just outside the café. Alex explains that this is the controversial ‘Blue Carpet’, a worse for wear art installation of 250,000 glass tiles, completed in 1999 at a cost of £1.6 million. He’s clearly not impressed by its sorry state, but it’s great to have your eyes opened to something you might not have otherwise noticed and in this Alex excels.

Alex is the owner of Iles Tours,  a three and a half-year-old business providing popular walking tours that have become, in a very short space of time, a major tourist fixture in Newcastle. They are also a great treat for locals wanting to learn more about their city.

You’re left in no doubt that the success of the business  is down to Alex’s knowledge, determination and passion for Newcastle. We chat for more than an hour and I’m struck by his desire to share as much of what he knows about the city and the region as he possibly can. What he knows is exceptional. I learned much that I did not know and as a North East historian myself, I’d say my knowledge is certainly better than average.

Though only 25, Alex has soaked up facts, stories and insights spanning centuries and this all helps to make his energy and passion so much more infectious. In fact such is his passion that it’s sometimes hard to get a word in, but it’s endearing because what he has to say is so fascinating and inspiring. What’s more it’s all told with a conviction that Newcastle and the North East has an extraordinary story that just has to be told and that this is a city and region destined for great things.

“It all started in March 2012” says Alex, remembering the beginning of his entrepreneurial adventure fondly, “there was a blizzard on the day and I started asking people if they would like a tour of Newcastle.”

Alex had studied Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University and stayed on to follow up with a Masters in Innovation Creativity and Entrepreneurship. He believes his academic background helped him understand cultures and how to “take apart the method of idea generation.”

Post university and frustrated by his job searches, being told he was either overqualified or inexperienced, he opted for self employment.

“I didn’t want to do an office job and loved Newcastle” he reflects.

“When I was younger my family and I went to the Edinburgh Festival and I remembered the guides and thought, well, that is something I could do.”

Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne: photo courtesy of Iles Tours

As a student, Alex developed a great affection for Newcastle and in his preparation for business his passion for the city’s history was further ignited through absorbent research:

“I went into Newcastle Library and read every book I could get on Newcastle and wrote my first tour – the Historical Tour.

“From here I went out and started asking people if they wanted tours and contacting people about what I could offer them.”

In setting up the business Alex received guidance from PNE (Project North East) and Rise Up at Newcastle University who gave him a £400 grant to build a website and make the first flyers.

“It helped a lot, as I had a vision but not much finance to get off the ground.

“For research I went to York to learn about guiding and how the city of York structures things. I wanted to see how it was done in a place with lots of tourism so I could then see where Newcastle would and will be”

Alex is motivated when people get passionate about the region and start seeing it for what it is. He wants people to love the region and to fight for it too. I find him optimistic about the region’s future as well and he believes the North East is on the verge of another great period of prosperity.

His optimism is based on the belief that a new industry or technology will be found for the city. Let’s hope he’s right. Indeed, as part of his research into a new tour featuring the city’s historic entrepreneurs, Alex has learned much about modern technology developments and technology companies within the city and the region and this will feature in his latest themed tour.

I ask him what it is about Newcastle and the North East that he thinks is so special?

“This is the greatest region in England and has so much rich history that makes it so vibrant today” he says.

“The North East is a location with such a unique culture, it is English, but it’s not, it is communal, friendly, based on honesty and mutual respect with a huge sense of humour.

“The layers of history are near the surface with the ancient Hadrian’s Wall side by side with the modern parts of the region. It is also the durability of the location; it always picks itself up, has a bit of a laugh about it and gets on with the work needed”

Hadrian's Wall. Photo: David Simpson
Hadrian’s Wall. Photo: David Simpson

Typical customers on Alex’s tours are from all walks of life, ranging from school children on trips to students and professionals, to older people taking city breaks. He also undertakes corporate tours from time to time at the request of local businesses.

Around half of Alex’s customers are British, around a quarter are from Europe and the rest are from English speaking countries. He seems to get some great feedback from customers who are impressed by what they learn. This is certainly backed up by glowing reviews on Trip Advisor.

Alex clearly gets a great buzz from inspiring and educating people about the region. Even when they are local, he is keen to show that although they may ‘know’ their city there is always so much more to know.

I ask what kind of expectations or preconceptions visitors have about Newcastle on his tours and Alex has a view on this:

“I think many people think Newcastle will just be a party city. Geordie Shore has had a lot of influence on the way people view the city. Others think Newcastle is just flat caps, coal and ships – or the lack of all three! I like showing that there is so much more to the city than this.”

Alex has made many surprising discoveries about the city but one of the things that strikes him the most is how much the world owes day to day things to the city. He believes that the inventions and inventors who came from Newcastle and the region are often taken for granted despite the fact that they transformed the way the world works and I am inclined to agree.

Light bulbs, power stations, competitive rowing, cranes at docks are among the developments Alex mentions.

“Newcastle has been pivotal in how the world has worked” he says.

NewcastleQuayside
Newcastle Quayside, Photo: David Simpson

Alex is an entertaining teller of tales, but also a stickler for accuracy which is a good thing, but I want to know what are his favourite stories about the city?

“It depends on how people I am touring respond to it (the tour) as to which one is my favourite” he says.

“Currently on a personal level it is the story of Roger Thornton and Ralph Carr, entrepreneurial businessmen who were very influential in Newcastle during their day. I look to them as heroes in my own business. Both men started with some advantages but had to work hard on their business to succeed in Newcastle and grew to the level where they were two of the most influential people in the North East and able to protect and invest in the region through their finances.”

Alex undertakes a number of different kinds of walking tours in Newcastle, each with a different theme. There’s an historical tour, a cultural tour and a gory tour and, as mentioned, he is close to introducing the new tour focused on Newcastle’s entrepreneurs. He can also create bespoke tours for people on request.

His gory tour started this way after Newcastle Blood Bank wanted a medical tour of the city. Alex put together the tour for them and realised he enjoyed the material, so started adding and editing it.

Alex is of course not the only guide offering walking tours in Newcastle and the North East. There are many experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides offering such services throughout the region,  so I want to know what he believes makes his tours different?

“I think it’s a combination of my passion for the region and wanting people to love the area as much as I do. Anyone can list off facts, but to create an engaging story you need to take the facts and make it relevant and comparable to the age in which we live. History is a lot of stories and you need to draw it out of the facts and help people feel it.”

So as the business begins to grow where does Alex go from here? Well, Alex is clear in his future ambitions:

“My dream is to expand Iles Tours across the North of England within the decade – from Glasgow and Scotland down to the south of Yorkshire and then to plan expansion into Scandinavia, northern Europe and eventually southern England.”

However, in the present he’s focused on our region and hopes to continue developing the educational arm of his business as part of a teaching group called Meet The Ancestors – where like minded businesses work to teach the past to schools and the region. Alex has also written a book that he’s hoping to get published entitled A Time Travellers Guide to the North East.

“It is a passion of mine to work in establishing festivals in the North East”, he says “and helping to get people passionate about their region” he adds, and it is in this, it seems to me, that Alex is a shining light.

For more information about how to book an Iles Tour visit the Iles Tour website at Ilestours.co.uk

Tour Duration

Typically a historical tour of Newcastle lasts 2 hours

A Gory or Cultural tour lasts around 1 hour 45 minutes

If people ask a lot of questions tours can be longer – though Alex says these are often the best tours!

Prices

£20 for an adult, £15 for a concession and £10 for a child.

 

What does the future hold for Ouseburn Farm?

HELEN GILDERSLEEVE finds out how a popular urban-based farm hopes to achieve self-sufficiency as it faces major cuts in funding

Ouseburn Farm and Viaduct
Ouseburn Farm

Based under Byker Bridge, the Ouseburn Farm in Newcastle is a rustic green oasis in the heart of the city.

Sadly, the popular farm may face closure after a key backer was forced to withdraw support, leaving a significant funding shortfall.

Established as a charity in 1973, the farm is owned by Newcastle City Council, though for the last eight years Tyne Housing Association (THA) have paid £100,00 towards annual running costs. Cuts in funding mean the housing provider can no longer support the farm beyond April 2017.

The free-to-enter farm is a much-loved feature of the Ouseburn townscape and is home to cows, pigs, sheep, goats and ducks. It gives an opportunity for city people to get close to farm animals and provides farm-based and environmental education for over 4,000 school children and students in term-time.

Workshops teach agricultural, horticultural and environmental skills to vulnerable adults and members of the public and are provided by a staff of six full-time and two part-time employees supported by up to 20 volunteers.

Closure of the farm would be a major loss to Ouseburn but things are looking hopeful, as the charity is making steps towards becoming financially self-sustaining. The Board of the Tyne Housing Association has transferred a carpentry workshop and two furniture shops in Wilfred Street, Byker to the farm charity to help generate the much-needed funds.

Further funds come from Ouseburn Farm Shop on Heaton Park Road which opened its doors at the end of June. The shop sells upcycled furniture that has been restored and recycled at the Wilfred Street workshop which in turn reduces a cost to the environment by helping reduce landfill waste.

Ouseburn Farm Shop
Ouseburn Farm Shop on Heaton Park Road

In addition, the shop sells homemade bakery items and preserves produced at the farm. It is very a positive step forward for the farm in its aim to become self-sufficient

The farm itself in Ouseburn Valley also generates income from its newly refurbished coffee shop and educational classrooms. Workshops are available which aim to teach school children, students, vulnerable adults, volunteers and members of the public about agricultural, horticultural and environmental projects.

A spokesperson from Ouseburn Farm, said:

“We’d like to give a massive thank you to Tyne Housing Association who have funded the farm for the last eight years and we remain positive that the farm, treasured by all the community – near and far – will get backing in the near future.

“If anyone would like to do their bit to help us then they are more than welcome to donate as much or as little as they can afford.”

Ouseburn Farm Newcastle upon Tyne

Ouseburn Farm

Councillor Stephen Powers, Cabinet Member for Policy and Communication, said:

“The Council has had a long involvement with the farm and was instrumental in saving it ten years ago when it was discovered that the old City Farm was situated on land that was heavily contaminated from its historic use as the site of an iron works.

“Because it was recognised as an important and much-loved attraction in Ouseburn, which also had great potential, in 2006 the Council oversaw a major project to clear the contamination and replace the old buildings with a new environmentally friendly building.

“An innovative agreement with Tyne Housing Association for them to take over and develop the Farm has been very successful and I am very keen to see the Farm’s future secured. Both the Council and Tyne Housing face serious financial pressures in a time of austerity and so it is essential to find an alternative external funding source so the Farm can continue its excellent work with schools, volunteers and vulnerable adults.

“It is one of the key visitor attractions within the Ouseburn Valley alongside Seven Stories, the Victoria Tunnel and the various galleries, pubs and cafes and is integral to the emergence of the Valley as a unique and vibrant area of the city.

“The Council will work alongside THA to find a way of securing the future of the Farm after April 2017 and would be happy to talk to anyone who is interested in becoming involved with such a fantastic place.”

To find out more about Ouseburn Farm visit:

ouseburnfarm.org.uk

To donate to Ouseburn Farm, visit their Just Giving page here 

Tweet @OuseburnFarm