Wallsend, famed as a shipbuilding town from the nineteenth century has ancient origins. It is of course named from its location at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall and was the site of a Roman fort.
From Walker (the ‘carr’ or ‘ker’ within the wall) in the eastern reaches of Newcastle, the River Tyne flows northward for about a mile and half, and then makes a dramatic bend eastward towards North Shields and the coast. It is here on this bend of the river that the Romans built a fort which they called Segedunum at the eastern terminus of the wall. Its name is thought to be Celtic meaning ‘the strong fort’. The modern name, Wallsend, was not recorded until around 1085.
From this point the broad river to the east of Segedunum provided sufficient defences that made the further extension of the wall unnecessary. Just to be sure, the Romans extended the wall into the Tyne itself with an extended offshoot of the wall projecting from the south east corner of the fort.
Segedunum wasn’t the most easterly fort on the Roman frontier, however. That honour arguably fell to Arbeia at South Shields at the mouth of the Tyne, though this is over on the south side of the river where it served as a Roman port.
Initially the Roman wall had terminated – or more correctly commenced – at Newcastle’s fort of Pons Aellius when the wall was completed in 122AD. Around 127 AD Hadrian’s Wall was extended by three and a half miles to Wallsend ensuring the protection of the Roman bridge across the Tyne at Newcastle.
The geographical origin of the men who were originally garrisoned at Wallsend is unknown but in the second century AD it was manned by Roman soldiers who were members of the Nervii tribe of people. Roman soldiers were recruited from throughout the continent and the Nervii were a Belgic Celtic tribal people (from the area of modern Belgium) who had Germanic roots.
Later, in the 3rd century, the fort was manned by soldiers from another Belgic tribe called the Lingones and soldiers from this tribe were still listed as occupants in the fifth century. The fort, like the others along the Wall and across Roman Britain was abandoned around 400AD as the power of the Roman Empire began to collapse.
A Roman civilian settlement or ‘vicus’ – which would have been occupied by traders and soldiers’ families developed in the angle of land between the fort and the wall during the Roman occupation. Nearby, a bath house was also located in the region of the former Ship in the Hole pub. When the pub was demolished in 2013 the bathhouse was excavated.
Wallsend developed as an industrial settlement from the eighteenth century with the opening of coal mines and by the 1880s the site of the old fort was lost beneath housing development, with little regard for its antiquity. In more recent decades the fort site has been widely excavated and its importance to Wallsend is now properly recognised, promoted and preserved. Most of the fort layout can be explored as the site is now the home to a Roman museum and visitor centre.
The A187 Buddle Street cuts through part of the fort site. Isolated from the rest of the fort on the northern side of this modern road is the site of the infantry barracks. Here the fort’s outer shape is clearly outlined but paved over and overlooked by housing. Also here on the northern side of Buddle Street just a little to west, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall itself can be seen along with a reconstructed section of the wall.
Most of the Segedunum fort is on the south side of the road within the museum grounds where we can trace the outline of the headquarters building, a cavalry barracks, the south gateway and other features.
The wonderful modern visitor centre on the east side of the fort includes a 35 metre high panoramic viewing tower with a fabulous view of the entire site of the fort and a view of the surrounding area including the Tyne and shipyard site and much of neighbouring Newcastle to the west. Inside the museum are displays of finds from the fort, exhibitions, a cafe and much information on Wallsend shipbuilding as well as its Roman past.
Just outside the fort, but still within the museum to the south is a reconstructed Roman bath house and a little to its south, alongside a former shipyard dock, where the demolished pub once stood, are the excavated remains of the original Roman bathhouse.
Wallsend Village and Holy Cross
Long after the Roman departure a village developed at Wallsend about half a mile to the north of the river and Roman fort site. Here, near the village, a Norman church dedicated to the Holy Cross was built in about 1150 just to the east of the Wallsend Burn. It is possible that Durham monks had owned land hereabouts in Saxon times but we can’t be sure.
In 1082, we do know that the Bishop of Durham, William St Carileph (who instigated the building of Durham Cathedral), gave Wallsend to the monks of the cathedral and it continued to be part of their lands up until the time of the Dissolution of Monasteries in 1540. A charter of the 1100s in the reign of Henry II confirmed Durham Priory’s ownership and the Holy Cross church at Wallsend was considered a dependent chapel of Jarrow, itself a cell of Durham.
The revival of the monastery at Jarrow and its affiliation to Durham in the Norman era may have been a factor in the grant of the land at Wallsend, Willington and neighbouring Howdon.
Jarrow is just across the Tyne and almost certainly linked by ferry from these early times. Following the Dissolution of Monasteries, lands at Wallsend continued to be part of Durham Cathedral’s Dean and Chapter land well into the nineteenth century. Within the later town of Wallsend itself these lands were sold off or enfranchised around 1851 but the Dean and Chapter still held on to land in the wider Wallsend area in the late nineteenth century.
The old Norman church of Holy Cross had a porch added to it during the 1600s but this church somehow came to be neglected and had fallen into disrepair by the end of the eighteenth century. Things became so bad that it is shown as a ruin on nineteenth century maps. In the early nineteenth century a William Clark of nearby Wallsend Hall, planned to restore the church, and began with the removal of its roof but he then went on to sell his hall and abandoned the project.
The romantic ruined medieval shell of the ancient Holy Cross church can still be seen in the open fields close to Denehill in the Rosehill area to the east of Wallsend. It should not be confused with the chapel at the centre of the huge cemetery of Holy Cross to the north of Rosehill.
Perhaps the neglected shell of this old medieval church could be attributed to a long-standing legendary association with witchcraft and the chapel’s supposed haunting by a witch. It was said that a member of the Delaval family, returning from Newcastle to Seaton Delaval one evening, in 1570, had encountered a gathering of witches at the chapel and managed to capture one of their number.
She was, it is said, subsequently burnt to death on the beach at Seaton but not before her request that two wooden platters be placed at her feet. After muttering some spell she was lifted by some unknown sourcery, high into the air but the magic spell was short-lived as one of the platters had been dipped in water which weakened the spell causing her to fall to a fiery death.
Prominent farming families and landowners associated with Wallsend in medieval times included the Punshon family who were first mentioned in the area as Punchon in the 1360s and connected with Wallsend for several centuries. Also likewise connected with Wallsend were the Durham family beginning with a John De Durham mentioned at Wallsend in 1368. The Durham family still owned land in Wallsend in the 1700s when they moved on to nearby Howdon in the 1740s and then later moved on to Newcastle.
The old ruined church of Holy Cross was superseded in 1809 by a new church for Wallsend, dedicated to St Peter. This was built far across the other side of the Wallsend Burn in the Church Bank area about half a mile to the south towards Willington Quay and is still there today.
The church of St Peter was built somewhat hastily it seems. The urgency of the need to find a replacement for the old ruined church at Holy Cross came to light in 1806 when the residents of Wallsend were informed by the Bishop of Durham that the marriages they had been holding in a small school room in Wallsend village for many years were not legal because the building was not consecrated. So, many unfortunate Wallsenders, discovered that not only were their weddings illegal but that many of their children had been born illegitimately and not properly baptised.
In 1825 Wallsend was described by a historian as a pleasant and well-built village and included four mansion houses – two on either side of the green. Of these the most prominent was Wallsend Hall, a late Georgian building. It was built on land associated with the Moncaster family of the 1700s and Hindmarshes of the 1600s.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Wallsend Hall was home to a William Clark who was Mayor of Wallsend (in reality a council leader) in 1802, 1803 and 1804. A later occupant of the hall, Anthony Hood, was also mayor, in 1808. Other later occupants included John Wright who married into the Clark family, followed by an Edward Grace; a Newcastle solicitor called Robert Richardson Dees and the shipbuilder, Sir George Burton Hunter who gave the lands of the hall to the people of Wallsend as a public park in 1914.
In later times for much of the twentieth century, the hall served as a hospital and is now used for weddings, conferences and events. Parts of the old village can still be seen today near the hall in this particularly secluded and leafy neighbourhood of Wallsend known as ‘The Green’.
There are some old cottages in the adjoining streets of Crow Bank, Lilly Bank and ‘The Green’ itself that give the impression of a surprisingly rural setting, quite different from the expected heavy industrial picture you might imagine when thinking of Wallsend.
Fields along the banks of the Tyne once separated Wallsend from Newcastle to the west and from North Shields to the east but from the nineteenth century industry and the gradual merging of all these places began with a continuous urban landscape soon developing along the entire bank of the Tyne.
Wallsend merges with Walkerville to the west and with Walker to the south west and is only divided from Willington and Willington Quay to the east by the Wallsend Burn or Willington Gut as it known before it enters the Tyne. Willington Quay and Howdon then merge with North Shields to the east.
Surprisingly, the old village part of Wallsend known as ‘The Green’ still retains an element of separateness with the old wooded park of Wallsend Hall and the green itself along with the Richardson Dees Park to the west almost separating it from the neighbouring Wallsend communities.
As well as Wallsend Hall in the old village, there was a second hall to the west in the Carrville area of Walsend (the area along High Street West). This hall was originally called Cosyn’s Hall and was a house that had belonged in the 1660s to a Newcastle draper called John Cosyn but was rebuilt by another draper of that town in 1750, called Robert Carr, who renamed it Carrville and from which the later industrial village of Carrville was named before it became part of Wallsend. From the 1860s Carrville was the home to an alkali chemical works.
South of the old village of Wallsend are the terraces of the more familiar town of Wallsend surrounding the old Roman fort. This is the Wallsend that was of course most famous for its shipbuilding, though in fact coal mining was the industry for which Wallsend was initially renowned.
Shipyards may have come to dominate the neighbouring stretch of the Tyne at Wallsend but initially Wallsend’s growth came from the mining of coal.
Wallsend coal was well-known and highly prized in the London market for its quality. In fact similar grades of coal mined at other collieries in other parts of the region were sometimes branded with the name ‘Wallsend’ (alongside the particular colliery’s name) as a mark of quality. Indeed the name of Wallsend was so closely associated with the mining of coal that the coal mining district around Newcastle in eastern Australia was called ‘Wallsend’ as it is still is today.
Wallsend Colliery, also known as ‘Russell’s Wallsend Colliery’ opened around 1781 with around seven associated pits under its wing mostly in the vicinity of the Segedunum fort. The colliery belonged to William Russell, a Sunderland merchant, who was initially the prime investor. The speculators who attempted to establish the mine by finding the coal were pushed to the verge of bankruptcy as they came close to success and ran out of money for their enterprise. Russell bailed them out and reaped the rewards of the Wallsend mine.
Russell became one of the principal, elite coal owners of the region. His wealth and influence grew and he became the owner of Brancepeth Castle near Durham. William’s son Matthew, also a coal owner, was the richest commoner in England.
Famously associated with Wallsend Colliery and recalled in the name of one of Wallsend’s principal streets was the engineer John Buddle (1773-1843) who is a particularly notable name in the history of Wallsend. Born at Kyo near Stanley in County Durham, Buddle was the manager of Benwell Colliery to the west of Newcastle before succeeding his father as manager at Wallsend Colliery in 1806.
Buddle soon earned a great reputation for his self-taught engineering skills and his desire to improve safety and ventilation in the mines. Also a skilled locomotive engineer, in 1815 he developed a steam locomotive at Wallsend Colliery called the Steam Elephant in collaboration with William Chapman. There is a working replica of this locomotive at Beamish Museum. Buddle worked for the Marquess of Londonderry in the development of Seaham Harbour and was later chairman of the company that built the Tyne Dock at South Shields. He was also the President of Newcastle’s esteemed Literary and Philosophical Society.
Wallsend Colliery was seemingly a place of wonder and in 1816, Tsar Nicholas I, the ruler of Russia visited the Wallsend area as a royal guest and was encouraged to make an internal inspection of a pit at the colliery. He came close to the mine entrance but ultimately shirked the invitation, declaring it the “mouth of hell” and saying that “none but a madman would enter it”.
The tsar may have had a point, as with many collieries across the region, the mine at Wallsend could be a place of considerable danger and did not escape its share of tragedy. Explosions at Wallsend Colliery in 1799 and 1803 claimed thirteen lives each and another in 1821 took 52 lives. The worst tragedy at the colliery came on June 18th, 1835 when 102 lives were taken in yet another explosion.
Other early mines and pits in the Wallsend area included Bigges Main Colliery and the Bigge Pit (named from an owner), but the ‘big’ colliery associated with the Wallsend area during the twentieth century was the Rising Sun Colliery. Superseding the earlier Wallsend Colliery it opened in 1908 a mile to the north of Wallsend village near Rising Sun Farm and was operated by the Wallsend and Hebburn Coal Company and later, from 1947, by the National Coal Board. It closed in April 1969 and much of its site and lands are now part of the extensive and beautiful Rising Sun Country Park which is arguably Wallsend’s version of the Town Moor.
Shipbuilding is as synonymous with Wallsend’s history as its links to Hadrian’s Wall. Those who do not remember the days of shipbuilding on this stretch of the Tyne cannot fail to be awestruck by the old photographs showing enormous ships looming like iron giants high above the ends of terraced streets that sloped down to the shipbuilding yards on the banks of the Tyne.
There had been shipbuilding in Newcastle from medieval times and at Howdon near Wallsend they were building ships from 1759 when Francis Hurry established a yard there.
It was in 1863 that shipbuilding finally began at Wallsend itself with the opening of a yard by Schlesinger, Davis & Co. Then another yard arrived in 1871 with the relocation to Wallsend of the recently established firm of Coulson and Cooke from St Peters basin at Byker. This was later taken over by Charles Sheridan Swan but Swan died in a tragic accident during a journey from Calais to Dover in 1879
Swan’s widow went into partnership with a shipbuilder from Sunderland called George Burton Hunter. The new company called Swan Hunter would become the most famous name in North East shipbuilding. Steel ships were built from 1884 and in 1903 Swan and Hunter combined with the Wigham Richardson firm of Walker on Tyne.
In 1906 Wigham Richardson and Swan Hunter built the famous ocean liner RMS Mauretania for Cunard at their Wallsend yard. It was not only the biggest ship in the world of its time but also for a considerable time became the fastest and it still remains an enormous source of pride on Tyneside. In 1907 she captured the Blue Riband prize for her eastbound transatlantic voyage that was achieved during the maiden voyage return. She then went on to claim the same prize for the westbound journey across the Atlantic during 1909.
Another famous vessel built at Wallsend which although of a much smaller scale than the Mauretania was perhaps of even greater stature in historical significance. Here we refer, of course, to Turbinia.
The steam turbine was invented by the Newcastle inventor and industrialist Charles Algernon Parsons – who through his invention has been described ‘as the man who invented the twentieth century’. In 1884 Parsons set up the Parsons Marine Turbine Company for building the engines.
Turbinia herself was built by the Wallsend steel firm of Brown and Hood and incorporated the new engine with Turbinia really showing off the capability of this new development. At a naval demonstration at Spithead off the Isle of Wight, in 1897, with an audience that included the Prince of Wales, the Turbinia raced between two navy shapes at speeds previously unseen and evaded a naval boat that attempted to pursue.
The North Eastern Marine Engineering works at Wallsend of 1882 soon became the famed makers of the Parsons turbines, that were fitted into naval ships. The technology was also adopted by Cunard and those same turbines made possible the record breaking feats of the Mauretania.
The RMS Mauretania incidentally made her last voyage from New York to Southampton in September 1934. Her fittings were sold for scrap and she made her way to the ship breaking yard at Rosyth the following May in a sad end to a very distinguished career. The Turbinia however, survives and is now the star attraction at Newcastle’s wonderful Discovery Museum.
Willington Quay and Howdon
Willington Quay and Howdon are situated along the Tyne to the east of Wallsend. Willington was first mentioned in Saxon times when it was the home to a man called Bernard. However these lands were likely centred on the original old village of Willington which is further to the north of the Tyne and Willington Quay.
Today little can be seen of the old village of Willington other than a red brick vicarage and the church of St Mary dating to 1876 in the Engine Inn Road area of Wallsend. In earlier times Willington, like Wallsend had belonged to the Priors of Durham Cathedral monastery but came into other hands after 1540.
Families associated with Willington in the 1600s included the Tempests, Andersons and a Richard Stote. To the west of Willington is the area of Wallsend known as Battle Hill which was once the name of an isolated farm. Although the name is likely to create much speculation about it being the site of a battle, sadly it most likely comes from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word ‘bottle’ meaning building or abode and also occurs in place-names like Shilbottle, Morebattle, Walbottle, Newbottle and Bothal.
In 1665, a Sir Francis Anderson of Willington leased land on the Tyne foreshore to the south of Willington village and began the construction of a ballast shore for the use of sailing ships. The site developed into the place we now call Willington Quay.
During the early nineteenth century there was a stationary engine involved in hauling and tipping the ballast at Willington Quay and a young engineman by the name George Stephenson was responsible for this engine’s maintenance. Stephenson had moved here from Newburn with his first wife and set up home in a cottage close to the river where in 1803, his equally famous son Robert Stephenson, was born. The following year George and his family left Willington Quay and headed a little further north where he took up the role of brakesman at Killingworth Colliery.
Willington was a hive of industrial activity from the late eighteenth century. One notable early industrial development was the first steam powered flour mill in the north of England. It was opened here next to Willington Gut around 1800 by a George Unthank and Joseph Procter on the site of an earlier flour mill of 1780.
A neighbouring millhouse once lived in by the Unthank family and later by the Procters was supposedly haunted – with the Procters apparently witnessing all kinds of strange apparitions during their residency in the 1830s and 1840s. These hauntings were supposedly linked to the possible murders of two women sometime between 1800 and 1806 but the details of the murders, if they occurred at all, are unknown.
The old mill house has gone but the Willington Mill building is still there alongside Willington Gut which enters the Tyne nearby. It is in amongst the industrial works of the Bridon International rope making firm.
Willington has a long history of rope making as testified by the name of the nearby Ropery Lane. A ropery was founded at Willington Quay by William and Edward Chapman in 1789 where William Chapman invented a revolutionary machine that improved the efficiency of making ropes. In 1843 the firm was taken over by Robert Hood Haggie, a Scot who had lived on Tyneside since 1800 and established a rope works at Gateshead in the 1830s.
The Willington rope works later became part of a firm called British Ropes which now trades as Bridon International. Just upstream from the mill Willington Gut is crossed by the Willington Viaduct. Although rebuilt in 1869, the original viaduct of 1838 by John and Benjamin Green (whose work also included Sunderland’s Penshaw Monument and Newcastle’s Grey Monument) carried the Newcastle and North Shields Railway across the gut. Today the line is part of the Tyne and Wear Metro.
From the nineteenth century Willington Quay and neighbouring Howdon Pans were home to several shipyards, a copper works, chemical works and engineering works and much other industry besides.
Howdon, called Holden in the seventeenth century, has a name that comes from the Howl-Dene meaning ‘a hollow dene’. It was once situated on a small peninsula between the Tyne and an adjoining stream called the Howdon Burn.
The riverside area here has long been known as Howdon Pans and comes from historic salt pans that existed here from at least as early as 1539. In that year a Thomas Bell worked the pans on behalf of the Prior of Durham Cathedral monastery who owned the land. The following year when the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII the lands were confiscated from the church but somehow the cathedral’s Dean and Chapter retained the salt pans and kept them until their possession came to the attention of the crown in 1562 and they were confiscated. Later owners of the salt pans included the Anderson family and the pans continued to operate here until 1787.
Glass making was an important industry at Howdon from the 1600s when specialist Huguenot glass making families from Lorraine in France came to settle here, notably the Tyzack family and the Henzells. A Frenchman called Tymoline Teswick (Tyzack) owned glassworks here from around 1619 and the Henzel family operated glassworks later in the century.
Just east of Howdon the huge Northumberland Dock opened alongside the Tyne in 1857. Today this dock has mostly been reclaimed and industries now occupy this area including the extensive works of Northumbrian Water. Further along the Tyne to the east of the dock site we are firmly into North Shields where we have the huge ‘car park’ of the Tyne automotive distribution centre, the Royal Quays outlet to its north and the Royal Quays Marina further to the east, occupying the former Albert Edward Dock.
Finally, back at Howdon perhaps the most significant feature of the Tyne hereabouts could easily go unnoticed if you took a trip along the Tyne. The Tyne Tunnel from Jarrow passes beneath the river here and emerges a little to the north of Howdon.
First proposed in 1937 but delayed by the war and then by funding limitations in the post war era, the road tunnel would not open until 1967, though the neighbouring cyclist and pedestrian tunnel was commenced in 1947 and opened in 1951. This tunnel emerges much closer to the Howdon riverside than the road tunnel. In 2011, a second Tyne road tunnel was opened close to the first to improve the tunnel’s efficiency.