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.
Numerous medieval jetties were an important feature of the Quayside in times past. At their base, the river between the wooden jetties was gradually filled in with rubble, beginning in medieval times. Houses were subsequently built on the land that was created and the riverside routeway we call the Quayside also came into being.
The old wooden jetties 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’ or bend (like a chair) and such alleys often projected from neighbouring streets at this 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 end of the town wall at Sandgate in the east although other lanes and alleyways called chares could be found scattered around the town, away from the river.
Exploring the eastern area of the Quayside from the Tyne Bridge to the Gateshead Millennium Bridge we find the narrow Trinity Chare half way between the two bridges. This 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. The Broad Chare near the Crown Court is, as its name suggests, not a typical chare in terms of its width.
Trinity House, 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 later 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 once 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. Some neighbouring nineteenth century warehouses that belonged to Trinity House are now part of Newcastle’s Live Theatre venue in Broad Chare.
Newcastle’s Trinity House was a powerful institution whose presence was felt along the entire course of the navigable Tyne as well as in neighbouring ports of the North East coast from Berwick to Whitby.
At its south end Broad Chare opens out onto the Quayside and provides a fabulous framed view of Sage Gateshead across the river. Up at the north end of Broad Chare above the Quayside, a lane leads to Pandon to the east, a neat modern part of the city with buildings consisting of restaurants, hotels and the Quayside multi-storey car park. It’s hard to imagine it but Pandon was once supposedly the site of an Anglo-Saxon settlement.
Also in this part of Broad Chare, a lane breaks off to the west called Dog Bank which becomes narrow, steep and cobbled – almost like a country lane – running west towards Akenside Hill. Here the prominent landmark is All Saints church which towers above the Newcastle Quayside from this high bank.
Sir John Betjeman called All Saints, “one of the finest English Georgian churches”. Currently disused as a church, it was built in 1786-1796 by David Stephenson after the earlier Norman church began to crack.
From a distance the most prominent feature of the church is the tower and the portico of four Greek columns below, but the real surprise of this church is that the main body of the building is circular. From All Saints you can return to the Quayside via King Street.
Westward along the Quayside towards the Tyne Bridge, a beautiful survivor of Newcastle’s maritime age is the Custom House. It dates from 1766 though its present façade designed by Sydney Smirke dates from 1833.
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 its neighbouring streets rose to prominence.
The street called Sandhill is home to a fabulous group of merchants’ 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, Bessie 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 Guildhall is credited to the architect Robert Trollope who worked on it in the 1650s and although a substantial part of the interior is of his 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, 1736. It opens with the words of God himself:
Ere was this world that I have wrought
No marvel it is if I do show;
Their folk in earth I made of nought,
Now are they fully my foe.
Vengeance now will I do
Of them that have grieved me ill,
Great floods shall over them go,
And run over hoope and hill.
All mankind dead shall be,
With storms both stiff and steer;
All but Noah my darling free;
His children and their wives,
Ever more yet they trow’d in me,
Save therefore I will their lives.
Sandhill is linked to the Castle, Blackgate and St Nicholas Cathedral area up at the top of the bank by the steeply climbing street called Side. Note that it is simply called ‘Side’ rather than ‘the Side’. This is one of Newcastle’s old medieval streets and was noted for its shops and stalls. In 1649 it was described as a home to merchants drapers and other traders.
About half way up, the street is crossed by a Victorian railway bridge that carries the East Coast Main Line from Newcastle Central Station northward on its way to Edinburgh. Beneath the bridge are the Dog Leap Stairs – a short cut climb up towards the castle and Blackgate. The Dog Leap Stairs are mentioned in a Dire Straits song, ‘Down to the Waterline’
This steepness of the street derives from it once being the western bank of the Lort Burn that entered the Tyne at Sandhill nearby. Until 1807 Side was the site of the Cale Cross where cabbage was once traded. The old Cale Cross can still be seen on the borders of the Blagdon Estate near Cramlington in Northumberland.
At the lower end, Side is joined by Sandhill leading to the Quayside and by Queen Street and the steeply climbing Akenside Hill which are both crossed here by the northern part of the Tyne Bridge approach.
Sandhill is linked to the Close to the west, beneath the High level Bridge, by a street with the intriguing name Javel Groupe. Called Javelgrippe in 1425 and Gaoell-Grype in 1505 it is named from a gaol (jail) or ‘gavell’ in the castle keep and from a ‘grippe’ which was a drain or channel that once ran nearby.
Nearby, closer to the river and High Level Bridge, is the old, red brick building of the former Fish Market guarded by Neptune on the top and dating from 1880. It has not been used as a fish market for many years and has served several purposes since then but is now firmly established as the ‘Riverside’ music venue which features touring national and international musicians and artists.
The Close and the Cooperage
Now situated beneath the Victorian High Level Bridge, the Close was an important part of Newcastle’s medieval riverside. It acquired its name in medieval times from an enclosure of ground between the river and castle, 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 of the Close where houses had their own private riverside quays.
The Percys, Earls of Northumberland, were amongst the men of power with a town house in the Close. Buildings of interest include the timber-framed ‘Cooperage’. Timber additions were made to the original ruins of a stone house between 1543 and the 1600s. As the name implies The Cooperage was once a barrel-making concern. Sadly, it is presently unused with an uncertain future and appears to be in a neglected state.
Next door to the Cooperage are the rapidly ascending ‘Long Stairs’ or perhaps more correctly to use the dialect, ‘Lang Stairs’. Stone stairs were, like the chares, a notable historic feature of the Newcastle Quayside but unlike the chares the stairs are concentrated in the western area of the Quayside around the castle, Sandhill and Close. The 1736 map shows several of these stairs rapidly descending to the Tyne.
Some of the surviving stairs have impressive descents down which you wouldn’t want to fall. They include Breakneck Stairs, Castle Stairs, Dog Leap Stairs and Tuthill Stairs. The ‘Lang’ Stairs next door to the Cooperage feature in the Tyneside folk song ‘Adam Buckham’:
Oh it’s doon the Lang Stairs, in an’ oot the Close;
All in Baker’s Entry, Adam Buckham knows.
O Adam Buckham O, O Adam Buckham O,
O Adam Buckham O, wiv his bow legs.
Nanny carries water, Tommy cobbles shoes,
but Adam Buckham gans aboot gath’rin in the news.
O Adam Buckham O, O Adam Buckham O,
O Adam Buckham O, wiv his bow legs.
Jackie’s sellin’ besoms, Mary feeds the goats,
But Adam’s doon the Quayside gabblin’ roond the boats.
O Adam Buckham O, O Adam Buckham O,
O Adam Buckham O, wiv his bow legs.
The entrance to the Long Stairs separates the Cooperage from the esteemed ‘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 17th 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 further 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
Now we head back to the far eastern part of Newcastle’s Quayside to Sandgate that was historically outside the town’s medieval walls. Sandgate encompassed the present riverside area beyond the Gateshead 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. On his first visit to Newcastle in 1742 the remarks in his journal about his first impressions of the town make interesting reading:
“…so much drunkenness, cursing and swearing (even from the mouths of little children) do I never remember to have seen and heard before in so small compass a time.”
Newcastle would become one of Wesley’s favourite places to visit.
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 where they wore blue jackets, yellow waistcoats, belled trousers and black silk hats, tied with ribbons.
The keelmen were keen to preserve their distinct identity and employed their own tailors to ensure this. Increasingly numerous in Newcastle from the 1500s, many were later 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 also 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 transported the 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, with their attached spouts, 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: firstly in the form of a song; secondly in an old hospital building and thirdly in 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 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. The hospital was paid for by Newcastle’s keelmen to look after their sick and elderly. The keelmen 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 melody 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 seemingly 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 Bridges 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 that 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 (or 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 lowest of the Tyne bridges in terms of height is the Swing Bridge of 1876, a road bridge that leads directly into the old 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 – where of course the famous Armstrong works at Elswick were located.
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 VII Bridge is a rail bridge, built in 1906 by Cleveland Bridge of Darlington and opened, appropriately enough, by Edward VII. 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 Diana, the Princess of Wales in May 1983. It is the third bridge of that name, superseding 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 Queen Elizabeth II 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.