Category Archives: History

Newcastle : City of many layers

Newcastle upon Tyne

The layers of history in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne are really quite extraordinary. A Roman temple in a city suburb; the secret foundations of a Saxon church; a Norman castle; a medieval town wall; cherished churches and a fantastic friary. How about the fabulous fenestration of a seventeenth century quayside house or the Regency terraces and neo-classical streetscapes of Grainger Town. Not forgetting, of course, the bridges of steel that are masterpieces of Victorian; twentieth century and twenty-first century enterprise.

Tyne Bridges
Tyne Bridges © David Simpson

Ascending from the river front of the Quayside, where medieval merchants plied their trade exporting colossal quantities of coal we may head upward to the sweeping grandeur of beautiful Grey Street and its prominent monument to the Northumbrian Earl Grey. Then we find everything topped by the crowning space of sporting worship that is St James’ Park. It is hard not to be impressed by the visible story that Newcastle has to tell and much has been said about the dramatic eye-catching contrasts of townscape created by the multiple levels of the rising river bank so beloved of photographers.

The course of Hadrian’s Wall, once the very edge of the Roman Empire runs through the heart of ‘The Toon’ the modest Geordie term for ‘town’ that locals use to describe this remarkable place. The Roman wall follows Westgate Road out into the suburbs where suburban gardens at Benwell back out onto a temple dedicated to Antenociticus and the nearby crossing of an impressive Roman earthwork called ‘the vallum’.

Remnants of Roman Temple of Antenociticus at Benwell
Roman Temple of Antenociticus at Benwell, Newcastle © David Simpson

In the heart of Newcastle’s impressive old centre still stands the sturdy Norman keep of the great castle from which this city is named. It looms high above the Tyne as it has done for centuries, though sliced through and separated from its equally impressive and once integral neighbour, the Blackgate, by the determined sweeping curve of a Victorian railway linking the two sides of the Tyne.

Newcastle Castle including the Blackgate
Newcastle Castle including the Blackgate © David Simpson

The ‘new castle’ has for centuries been one of the city’s oldest buildings and stands on a site where the Roman fort of Pons Aelius had stood, protecting the bridge or ‘pons’ ordered, presumably, by the Emperor Hadrian, whose family name was Aelius.

Curiously enclosed within the old fort and subsequently enveloped by the later castle is the enigmatic foundation of an Anglo-Saxon church, seemingly the only major legacy from that great era of the Kingdom of Northumbria, a period of centuries in which Newcastle’s future role as a regional centre was strangely dormant. It was then a place seemingly known as ‘Monkchester’ its importance easily eclipsed by Jarrow, Corbridge, Hexham, Hartlepool, Wearmouth, York, Ripon and of course Lindisfarne.

Anglo-Saxon church at Newcastle
Anglo-Saxon church at Newcastle © David Simpson

Yet, this place on the Tyne would emerge in the succeeding millennium as the dominant town (and much later city) of our region. At first slowly emerging on the banks of the Tyne, under the protective gaze of its castle and the later town walls, Newcastle’s growth was built on the export of coal. Powerful burgesses asserted their power eastwards along the Tyne and into the neighbouring ports of the North East coast. At Trinity House off Broad Chare close to the Quayside we can see a legacy of this era.

Grey Street in the nineteenth century
Grey Street in the nineteenth century

Of a later era, are the ‘Grainger Town’ developments of which Grey Street is the culminating glory. The architecture of this period of prosperity is equally epitomised by the elegant beauty of the Central Station but there are perhaps slightly more modest buildings that conceal stories, events and associations with people whose innovative impact in some cases extended far beyond the Tyne.

Lit and Phil, Newcastle
Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle © David Simpson

This is no more so exemplified by the Literary and Philosophical Society in Westgate Road not far from the station where in one era or another Tyneside greats such as Richard Grainger; John Dobson; William Armstrong; Robert Stephenson; Joseph Swan; Charles Algernon Parsons; Thomas Bewick and Charles Earl Grey were members. The ‘Lit and Phil’ recalls an era of great confidence, innovation, belief and destiny that still evokes an enormous sense of pride in this city of many layers.

You can read more about the history of Newcastle in the following pages of the England’s North East site:



Tees Valley : Steel Valley

Tees Valley

Tees Valley is a modern term that describes a particularly distinct part of North East England. It encompasses areas that were historically (and culturally still are) parts of south east County Durham along with much of an ancient district in the far north eastern corner of Yorkshire called Cleveland.

Newport Bridge, Middlesbrough
Newport Bridge, Middlesbrough © David Simpson

Officially, ‘Tees Valley’ includes, on the Yorkshire side of the River Tees, the Teesside borough of Middlesbrough along with Redcar and the associated smaller towns and villages clustered along the Cleveland coast.

North of the Tees and still in Teesside is the historic County Durham town of Stockton-on-Tees. Then we have the two slightly more outlying Durham towns of Hartlepool on the coast to the north and Darlington to the west. Darlington is situated in the low-lying countryside of the Skerne valley, a little river that forms a tributary of the Tees which it joins near Croft.

The River Tees at Stockton.
The River Tees at Stockton © David Simpson

The Tees Valley is a ‘border zone’ between Yorkshire and Durham and has attributes common to both. As an industrial region in the North East one thing that makes Tees Valley distinct is that, unlike Wearside, Tyneside, south east Northumberland and much of County Durham, it lies outside the historic coalfield. That’s not to say it wasn’t affected by the industrial developments associated with coal, it’s just that culturally it was never situated within that part of the region.

Dock Offices, Hartlepool
Dock Offices, Hartlepool © David Simpson

Nevertheless, the most important historic event in the industrial history of the Tees Valley was the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway of 1825, its primary purpose being the shipment of coal from south west Durham to the port of Stockton-on-Tees. Similarly, West Hartlepool owed its birth and growth to the shipment of coal as too did the initial birth and growth of Middlesbrough.

However, partly associated with the nearby availability of coal, it was industries connected to iron and steel that were the primary factor in the development of the Tees Valley’s industrial might.

One legacy and important factor in this is the broad scattering of mining villages along the Cleveland coast near Saltburn, stretching south towards Whitby, at Brotton, Loftus, Skinningrove (once the site of a steelworks) and Skelton. Historically these mining villages have much in common with their County Durham coal mining counterparts except that these were places associated with the mining of ironstone rather than coal.

Spirit of East Cleveland : Ironstone miners sculpture by William Harling
Spirit of East Cleveland : Ironstone miners sculpture by William Harling at Skelton © David Simpson

Iron and later steel was the lifeblood of the Teesside area and it was iron that really spurred on the extraordinary growth of Middlesbrough, Britain’s ‘Ironopolis’ as it was known in the nineteenth century. Bridge building at Middlesbrough and Darlington and the manufacture of railways were important steel-related industries too, along with shipbuilding and engineering, all of which were important aspects of local pride and prestige.

Transporter Bridge from Port Clarence looking towards Middlesbrough
Transporter Bridge from Port Clarence looking towards Middlesbrough © David Simpson

The iron ore deposits of Eston and the Cleveland Hills and coast helped to make the region’s steel making industry, a process enabled by purified coking coal from County Durham. Coal too played its part in the chemical industry that capitalised on the extensive salt deposits of the locality.

The iron and steel produced on Teesside significantly contributed to the industrial developments, heritage features and cultural characteristics of other parts of the region and across the world too perhaps best symbolised by the Middlesbrough- built Tyne Bridge at Newcastle upon Tyne or the Sydney Harbour Bridge over on the other side of the world.

You can read more about the history of the Tees Valley area in the following pages of the England’s North East site:

The Story of Sunderland


The historic heart of Sunderland is really three places in one: Monkwearmouth to the north of the River Wear; Bishopwearmouth to the south and then out towards the coast to the east is ‘Old Sunderland’ known as Sunderland’s ‘East End’.

Bridges Sunderland
The Wearmouth Bridge and railway bridge, Sunderland pictured from Monkwearmouth © David Simpson

All three places can trace their origins back to Anglo-Saxon times and Monkwearmouth is a particularly special place, being the home to the church of St Peter, part of the Anglo-Saxon monastery that was twinned with Jarrow. It was associated with the Venerable Bede, who was himself a Sunderland lad by birth. Monkwearmouth is of course also home to Sunderland Football Club.

Church of St Peter Sunderland
Church of St Peter Monkwearmouth, Sunderland with the site of the neighbouring monastery marked out © David Simpson

There are traces of more ancient origins in Sunderland, notably at Hasting Hill on the east side of the city, a significant prehistoric site and there is another rather ancient enigmatic site at Copt Hill near Houghton-le-Spring. Over time many places have been absorbed by the city (as it officially became in 1992): Fulwell, Silksworth, Southwick, Herrington, Hendon Houghton and Hetton to name a few. Some places were noted for quarrying and mining and most had earlier agricultural roots.

Copt Hill Neolithic site near Houghton-le-Spring © David Simpson

To the west is the expansive Washington New Town, a major part of the City of Sunderland that developed from a little village that produced the first named ancestor of the first US president George Washington. So it is that this Washington is the original, from which a US state and the American capital city ultimately take their name.

Washington Old Hall
Washington Old Hall © David Simpson

Of course it is the River Wear that forms the real heart of the city of Sunderland. Today it is a focus for modern developments, including housing and apartments as well as educational facilities associated with the University of Sunderland and the National Glass Centre.

The River Wear at Sunderland once thronged with industry, with wharves, glass works, breweries, potteries, docks, drops, paper works, coal staithes and of course shipyards. It is with shipyards and shipbuilding that Sunderland was especially synonymous for much of its industrial heyday and this was still true well into the twentieth century. The wonderful Rain’s Eye Plan of Sunderland published in 1790, a kind of 3D plan of the town, depicts dozens of cartoon-like carpenters hard at work at the mouth of the River Wear building wooden sailing ships for which Sunderland was then known.

Mackems at work from Rains Eye plan
Detail from Rain’s Eye Plan of Sunderland circa 1790 showing Wearsiders at work

According to William Fordyce, a County Durham historian writing in 1857, some enterprising Sunderland shipyard workers working in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century could either build a ship to high quality specifications or alternatively in their spare time at a cheaper than the usual market price be persuaded to make one.

There’s perhaps a sense that some Sunderland shipbuilders might ‘rustle up’ a more basic ship on demand ready for the buyer to take away at basement price, perhaps without the usual quality assurance. It is a possible early origin of the phrase mac n’ tac (make ‘em and take ‘em), seemingly a shipbuilding-related phrase that later developed into the ‘Mackem’ moniker given to Sunderland natives today.

Stadium and the River Wear, Sunderland
Stadium and the River Wear, Sunderland © David Simpson

You can read more about Sunderland’s history on the following pages of the England’s North East site: