Gateshead Borough, stretching west to Winlaton and Blaydon and east to Felling and Pelaw is home to over 200,000 people. The borough, located on the south side of the Tyne is widely-famed as the home to the Gateshead Stadium, BALTIC, Sage, the MetroCentre and of course the Angel of the North.
Gateshead Borough is quite a diverse area, dominated by open rolling countryside and river valleys in the south and west, while the heart of Gateshead centre is a heavily built up town where busy roads feed the renowned collection of bridges across the Tyne to Newcastle.
Gateshead Millennium Bridge
Down by the river, Gateshead Quays is home to the beautiful Sage, BALTIC and the elegant Gateshead Millennium Bridge, all complementing the view of the Newcastle Quayside on the opposite bank of the river.
The beautiful Gateshead Millennium Bridge is a pedestrian bridge linking Newcastle and Gateshead Quays and has played a major role in the regeneration of Gateshead’s former industrial waterfront. As the first Tyne Bridge built solely for leisure purposes it provides convenient access from Newcastle to Sage Gateshead and BALTIC showpieces of Gateshead’s riverside revival.
This steel bridge opened to the public in 2001 and consists of two arches. One lies horizontal, providing a crossing platform for pedestrians and cyclists to reach the opposing bank. It is joined at ninety degrees by the elegant vertical arch that spans the Tyne to 345 feet.
The bridge is sometimes called the blinking-eye or winking-eye bridge from its capacity to tilt forty degrees, allowing vessels to pass beneath with a navigational clearance of 82 feet. This can be achieved in four and a half minutes.
Architects, Wilkinson Eyre were given the task of building the bridge after winning a competition for its design in 1995. It has gone on to win some notable awards. In 2002 Wilkinson Eyre were awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize and construction engineers Gifford and Partners received the IStructE Supreme Award in 2003. In 2005 it was given the Outstanding Structure Award from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering.
Bounded by Oakwellgate and Hillgate – roads that were once Gateshead’s main medieval streets – we find the magnificent Sage Gateshead, a centre for music and conferences on the banks of the Tyne. It is one of Britain’s most unusual beautiful and remarkable modern buildings. Opened in 2004, it is constructed from panels of curved stainless steel with three huge glass windows facing the river. The whole effect is an elegant undulating mass reflecting the sky and complementing the Tyne Bridge and Millennium Bridge.
Sage Gateshead is the home and venue of the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra and to Folkworks who promote and develop the region’s traditional music. The venue has also been used for jazz, country, indie, electronic and acoustic sessions.
The construction of Sage Gateshead (sponsored by the Newcastle-based Sage software company) was a collaboration of different areas of expertise. The designers were the architects Foster and Partners who worked with structural engineers Mott Macdonald. The roof was engineered by Buro Happold, while Arup designed the acoustics and other aspects of the building.
There are three performance areas, the largest seating 1,700 people. Remarkably, its ceiling may be lowered and raised to maximise the acoustic results or ‘sound profile’ according to the type of performer or number of people in the auditorium. Other elements of the remaining building include rehearsal spaces, bars, cafeteria and a function room. It is one of Britain’s most amazing modern buildings.
The fabulous BALTIC, a gallery of contemporary art is only metres away from Sage Gateshead and is another of the town’s star attractions. Originally the Baltic Flour Mill, its foundations and design go back to the 1930s, but war delayed construction and Joseph Rank Ltd would not open the building until 1950. Like several other Rank mills it was named from a foreign sea. Built on the site of Hawks’ Gateshead Iron works (1858-1890), the mill included a warehouse (now demolished) that stored 5,000 tonnes of grain.
The mill could dispatch 240 tonnes of grain per hour and ships, from across the world delivered grain to the adjoining, 138 feet high silo which had a capacity of 22,000 tonnes. Grain was sucked from the ships and delivered by a conveyor under the quay to a corner of the silo’s interior.
Rank closed the mill in 1981 and in 1994 the architect Dominic Williams won a competition to convert the silo building into an art gallery. The stunning result is BALTIC, the centre for contemporary art which opened in 2002 with its changing programme of contemporary exhibitions.
Over 200 artists from many different parts of the world have displayed their work here. In 2011 BALTIC had the esteemed honour of hosting the Turner Prize. It was the first time the event had been held outside the London or Liverpool Tate since the inception of the prize in 1984.
For much of the nineteenth century, Gateshead was primarily associated with engineering particularly through the firm of Hawks, Crawshay and Sons. Known locally as ‘Haaks’, the firm began life on the banks of the Tyne in the vicinity now occupied by the Baltic Centre. This newly colonised industrial area was named ‘New Greenwich’ by the firm’s founder, William Hawks, who established the business here in 1748.
Hawks had previously worked as a senior blacksmith for the Tyneside iron manufacturer, Sir Ambrose Crowley who owned premises at Swalwell, Winlaton and Teams. Hawks’ works initially manufactured iron products used by local industries and the military. In the early nineteenth century Hawks’s output included anchors and chains for the local shipping trade and weapons for the Napoleonic wars.
Around 800 men were employed at the Hawks works by the late 1830s and although wages weren’t especially high, the firm provided houses for its workers, as well as schools for workers’ children. As the century progressed the firm became more ambitious with its output including bridge-building but it increasingly faced competition from specialist Tyneside firms and finally closed in September 1889.
Geordie Ridley (1835-1864), the Gateshead-born songwriter and music hall performer who wrote ‘The Blaydon Races‘ has a strong connection with this area of the Gateshead riverside. From the age of eight, Ridley worked at Gateshead’s Oakwellgate Pit and then later at Hawks Crawshay where a serious injury forced him to retire and pursue a performing career. His injuries eventually caught up with him as he died, aged only 30, at his Gateshead home in 1864.
Hillgate to Hellgate
Down amongst the bridges on Gateshead’s Quay is the former medieval street of Hillgate now nothing more than a riverside road. Sadly, like Pipewellgate, another former medieval neighbour to the west, it has nothing to show for its antiquity. To find out about Gateshead in medieval times see the section on Gateshead’s origin.
Hillgate stretches along the river from the Swing Bridge and then underneath the Tyne Bridge. Once crowded with houses overlooking the Tyne the main features today are St Mary’s church and Sage Gateshead towering above its course.
In 1857, Fordyce’s ‘History of Durham’ described the street as “recently crowded to excess with houses reaching tier above tier to the table land on which the church is situated.” When Daniel Defoe, author of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe lived in Gateshead around 1706-1710 his lodgings were in Hillgate. A plaque near the Sage commemorates Defoe’s residence.
In medieval times Hillgate was called Hellgate and on October 6th, 1854 it certainly lived up to this earlier name when a massive explosion in a Hillgate factory containing a perilous mixture of materials triggered the Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead.
In a wall near St Mary’s church, two ‘fire stones’ can be seen. One is inscribed:
“These stones with burning timber and red hot iron bars were blown onto the roof and into the church by the explosion in Hillgate October, 6th 1854. Weight of the largest about 6 CWT”.
Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead
Despite the early development of coal mining in the Gateshead area, Gateshead seems to have remained a rather small place that was in the eighteenth century still little more than a large village, noted for `oak trees and windmills’.
As late as 1834, Mckenzies’ History of Durham records that the Windmill Hills, near the town were studded with corn mills which seen at a distance, impart a lively and picturesque effect to the landscape. A Tyneside song further proclaims:
The Quayside for sailors,
The Castle Garth for Tailors,
The Gateshead Hills for Millers,
The North shore for Keelers.
This seemingly idyllic rural situation was to change as industrialisation brought about a continuous rise in Gateshead’s population with an increase from 8,597 to 108,024 between 1801 and 1901. As a result, the riverside area of the town became increasingly overcrowded and this was a contributing factor to the great Tyneside disaster of the nineteenth century which affected neighbouring Newcastle as well.
At one o’ clock on the morning of 6th October, 1854 a fire was discovered close to the River Tyne in a worsted factory in Hillgate, Gateshead. The fire quickly got out of control and spread to an adjacent warehouse containing huge stores of salt, iron, lead, manganese, nitrate of soda, guano, arsenic, copperas, naphtha, and 3,000 tons of Brimstone.
Enormous blue flames began emitting from the building as it caught fire and large crowds began to gather in both Gateshead and Newcastle to see the spectacle. Boats on the River Tyne were said to be alive with spectators.
At around quarter past three that morning, disaster struck; the whole building suddenly exploded, sending off flaming debris in all directions, the sight of which was described by onlookers as like ‘flying fish’. The explosion was said to be heard far off in Berwick upon Tweed and houses were damaged as far up the Tyne as South Shields. The glow from the fire could be seen in northern Yorkshire, many miles to the south.
The flying debris caused ships and boats in the centre of the River Tyne to catch alight, but worse still, caused a second huge fire to break out on the northern bank of the river, which ultimately destroyed many of the medieval buildings on the Newcastle quayside. Hundreds of people were made homeless by the event which was known for many years after as ‘The Great Fire of Newcastle and Gateshead’.
The Great fire destroyed nearly all of the few historical buildings that existed in Gateshead though many were in a poor state as a home to overcrowded squalor.
Salt Meadows and East Gateshead
Saltmeadows is the area along the river from the Millennium Bridge and the BALTIC to the east of Gateshead centre on the banks of the Tyne. Here salt was probably collected in medieval times. It was the first area of Gateshead to be annexed by Newcastle after it was ‘sold’ to the Newcastle Corporation by Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of Durham in 1555 for 44 shillings per annum in a lease that was to last 450 years: until 2004!
In the nineteenth century this became valuable industrial riverside land which Newcastle was able to rent out and reap the rewards. During that century the area was the home to a chemical works, iron works, soap works, brick works, a shipyard, a glass manufacturer and the coal staithes of the Tyne Main Colliery. The industrial developments led to the growth of housing at Saltmeadows and an area known as New Gateshead. Most of Saltmeadows was sold back to Gateshead by Newcastle before the Second World War.
Further east still, the industry continued through the riverside area called East Gateshead towards Friars Goose. Today East Gateshead is best known as the home to the 11,800-seater Gateshead International Stadium, the heart of athletics in the North East of England. The stadium opened in August 1955.
Town Hall and Trinity Square
The former focus of Gateshead’s civic activity was the Old Town Hall (above) that stands near the centre of the town in West Street just west of the High Street and looking south towards the bridges that cross the Tyne. It was built in 1868 by the architect John Johnstone who also built Newcastle’s Town Hall (demolished) that had stood in St Nicholas Square near St Nicholas Cathedral over on the other side of the river. Gateshead’s Old Town Hall is now a venue for conferences, gigs and concerts, complementing the facilities of the Sage. A former Victorian bank and library are close neighbours built in similar style.
As at Newcastle, Gateshead Town Hall’s civic role as home to the town’s council was superseded by a modern Civic Centre. Gateshead’s Civic Centre lies along the road to the south of the Old Town Hall between West Street and Prince Consort Road. It is a red brick building built by the Borough Director of Architecture D.W Robson from 1978 and 1987.
In between the Old Town Hall and Civic Centre is the modern Trinity Square, a recently developed central focal point for the town of Gateshead. It is on the west side of the High Street and consists of a retail and leisure development featuring shopping, dining and a cinema.
An earlier, shopping centre of the 1960s was demolished in 2009. It included the rather grim multi-storey car park that was known as a major Gateshead landmark and featured in the 1971 gangster movie Get Carter. The lively new development is far removed from those days
Shipley Art Gallery
South of Trinity Square we enter the Shipcote area where Gateshead High Street and West Street respectively become the Durham Road and Old Durham Road. Heading southward and running parallel to each other the two roads are accompanied in this area by a third main thoroughfare – Prince Consort Road. Here we find the Shipley Art Gallery, a Grade 2 listed Edwardian building that owes its origins to the wealthy Gateshead-born solicitor and art collector Joseph Shipley (1822-1909) whose bequest laid the foundation for the gallery.
Shipley began collecting paintings when he was sixteen and the bequest included all of his 2,500 paintings and £30,000 for the building of a gallery. However, his bequest was made to the City of Newcastle which already hosted the Laing Gallery. His request was that a new gallery should be built and he specifically asked that his paintings should not go to the Laing. Newcastle decided it could not accept these terms so the bequest was offered to Gateshead council instead.
Due to limited space only 504 of the best pictures were purchased by Gateshead and the rest were sold. Since that time, the Shipley Gallery collection has grown to around 10,000 items. One of the gallery’s most interesting paintings has an important place in the history of Gateshead and Tyneside as a whole. It is William C. Irving’s colourful and rather riotous portrayal of The Blaydon Races which depicts the characters mentioned in the famous song.
Outside the gallery is a touching memorial to rower, James Renforth of Gateshead, champion sculler of the world who died in 1871.
Shipcote is the area centred on Shipcote Road to the north of Saltwell Park and as well as being home to the Shipley Art Gallery, it is home to the Gateshead Public Library of 1926 (designed 1918), the Borough Treasurer’s Department and Gateshead Leisure Centre. The name of the area derives from sheepcote meaning a sheltering place for sheep.
Saltwell Park and Saltwell Towers
Saltwell Park is one of Gateshead’s gems, situated south of the town centre and west of the Durham Road. Its roots can be traced back to William Wailes, a nineteenth century Newcastle grocer with an artistic talent. Wailes became skilled in designing stained glass which he produced from a workshop in Newcastle’s Bath Lane.
He supplied churches the length and breadth of Britain including St Mary’s in Gateshead and Newcastle’s St. Nicholas Cathedral. Through his fortune Wailes purchased 60 acres of land in Gateshead and in 1856 built himself a castellated house called South Dene Towers. Now gone, the site of this house is occupied by the crematorium.
By 1871 Wailes had built an equally eccentric, but much bigger castellated house with bricks of varying colours producing a delightfully patterned facade.
Unfortunately Wailes encountered financial difficulties and in 1876 sold 500 acres of his land to Gateshead Corporation who employed Edward Kemp to redesign the land as a public park. Wailes continued living in the house until his death in 1881.
The house served as a hospital during the First World War and as a museum between 1933 and 1969. It was restored along with the park in 1999.
In 2005 Saltwell Park was awarded the accolade of Britain’s Best Park. In addition to the impressive Saltwell Towers, lovely features of the park include the Komatsu City Friendship Garden, a Japanese style garden constructed in 2009.
The garden was constructed by gardeners from the City of Komatsu. Birtley in Gateshead is of course a home to the Japanese firm of Komatsu UK Ltd.
Other features of the park include the traditional war memorial and bandstand and a memorial to the Durham Rifle Volunteers. There is a pleasant boating lake, pets corner, a wooded stream or dene and the renovated Saltwell stable block.
A rather curious feature of the park is a public art miniature of the Tyne Bridge or at least half the Tyne Bridge – the Gateshead half of course.
Bensham and Windmill Hills
Bensham to the north and west of Shipcote was called Benchelm in medieval times. Helm could be a kind of helmet-shaped hill or a shelter so Bensham may mean ‘shelter on the ledge’. The land on which Bensham is situated lies south of the Tyne and east of the River Team.
Bensham is noted for being the home to a significant Jewish community that has lived here since 1887. It is a community of Haredi Jews originally from Eastern Europe noted for their strict observation. After the Second World War Gateshead became the most significant centre for Orthodox Jewish education outside the United States and Israel.
Despite its early industrial development Gateshead was still little more than a large village noted for “oak trees and windmills” in the eighteenth century. The area of Gateshead known as the Windmill Hills near Bensham recalls the mills that were once an important feature of Gateshead’s landscape.
The hills and their mills are remembered today in the Windmill Hills Park just to the north of Bensham Road. This was Gateshead’s first public park, established in 1861. Historically, however, the Windmill Hills covered a much wider area than this.
As late as 1834, Mckenzie’s History of Durham recorded that the Windmill Hills were “studded with corn mills which seen at a distance, impart a lively and picturesque effect to the landscape”. It was a windy spot which was once home to around ten mills, though there were other mills in various parts of the town. One mill was still standing at Carr Hill as late as 1964.
During the Civil War the Windmill Hills were the site of a skirmish, prior to the siege of Newcastle of 1644 and it was on these hills that the Scots and Parliamentarians set up the cannons that bombarded the Royalist town of Newcastle across the river.
‘The Bonny Gateshead Lass’
Gateshead, like Newcastle has a rich tradition of songs, some of which, like The Blaydon Races have their roots in the music halls of the nineteenth century while others are folk songs that often tell stories of Tyneside life.
The Bonny Gateshead Lass is one such song and tells the particularly endearing tale of a young man’s blossoming romance for a young lady he encounters on Gateshead High Street. The song was written by the Newcastle performer Joe Wilson (1841-1875) who was also noted for the song ‘Keep Yor Feet Still Geordie Hinny’. Wilson was born in Stowell Street, Newcastle.
Aw warrn’d you, you’ve nivvor seen me lass, hor name I cannae mention,
for fear you’ll gan and tell her hoo I like her so I dee!
Well is it just for lads and lasses for to whisper their affection.
The bonniest lass in Gateshead’s bonny face has bothered me.
Well the forst time I saw her, well I thought I didn’t knaa hor,
but I’m sure I’d seen her face before, I couldn’t think of where,
her blue eyes met mine in passing, up the High Street in the morning,
and her look was so entrancing, that me heart was mine nee mair.
Well I didn’t see her for a week then one night at the Bridge End,
I stamped upon her gown, and the gathers they come away,
she told us I was clumsy and I said that I was sorry,
and I humbly begged her pardon, I was licked for what to say.
So I walked on by her side just as if I had a right to de,
the conversation first was shy but then it turned first class.
We talked about the weather and she mentioned that her father
was a puddler down at Hawks’, oh me bonny Gateshead lass.
She mentioned confidentially that her uncle was a grocer,
and her mother’s, father’s, cousin was a fiddler on the shore.
She talked so nice and pleasant and she looked both sweet and pleasant,
I thowt I’d never a seen a lass so charming like before.
She says her mother keeps a shop and sells hot pies and candy,
and her brother he’s a cobbler in the high part of the town.
Now she was a dressmaker and we got on so well together,
that I blessed I’d been so awkward as to stand upon her gown.
I made her laugh and slap me lug with talking lots of nonsense.
But bless you when you’re courting why there’s nowt so good’ll pass.
I asked her would she be me lass and I’d take her out on Sunday,
to my delight she says “I might” me bonny Gateshead lass.