A Short History of Gateshead - CHAPTER ONE


© Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998


Unlike some cities and towns, there is very little information available about the ancient history of Gateshead. The town was a minor settlement of little importance, being overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Newcastle. Roman coins were found in Church Street (in 1790) and Bottle Bank (in 1802) so there may very well have been a small camp at the southern end of the old Roman Tyne Bridge. There was, of course, a major Roman fort at Newcastle, and, as was the case in most Roman forts and towns, a small settlement probably grew around the gates at what is now the end of the Swing Bridge, Pipewellgate and Oakwellgate. Little is known of Roman activity in the area around Gateshead, but the exploration of a fort discovered by aerial photographs on Washingwell farm at Whickham may give some clues as to the settlement of the area.

The Venerable Bede, in his "History of the English Church and People", mentions 'Adda was

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index

Page 2

brother of Utta, a well-known priest and Abbot of Gateshead'. The site of the monastery is not known although old prints of the ruins of what is now Holy Trinity Church are captioned 'Gateside Monastery'. The older part of this building, formerly St Edmund's Hospital chapel, was built about A.D. 1250 but Gateshead was still a very small settlement. During the Middle Ages Gateshead is described as a place, rather than a vill (town) or a borough. Real growth began with the establishment of Norman Bishops of Durham from 1072. At this time the area now known as Gateshead was either forest or wasteland with some agricultural land. The forest, which covered much of East Gateshead, was used as a hunting reserve by the bishops of Durham who had a hunting lodge or manor house in the area, the theory that the bishops bad a palace in Gateshead is usually discounted. The forest was the subject of Gateshead's first charter, granted in approximately 1164 by Hugh du Puiset, Bishop of Durham. The forest was enclosed by a ditch or hedge. Rules were set down for its use by the people of Gateshead. The 'common lands' at Saltwell were also mentioned; this was probably the same area that was enclosed in 1814, stretching from the Windmill Hills to the river Team.

Durham was not included in the Domesday Book, but separate surveys were completed for the Bishopric of Durham, which covered most of

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index

Page 3

Durham and included Gateshead. The first such survey is known as the Boldon Book, made in 1183 Gateshead is listed as having watermills, salmon fisheries on the Tyne and bake-houses. Obviously, the town was not now entirely dependent on agriculture. In the late twelfth century dyeing and shipbuilding are mentioned. At this time, Gateshead was paying a tax of £10 per year to the bishop of Durham, the highest sum for any Durham town.

The appearance of Gateshead was changing, the first man-inspired changes in the town. The forests, which had probably covered the area for hundreds of years, were being cleared to make way for agriculture. The wastelands of weed and scrub were also being improved. The road from the south did not always follow the old Roman road. The first recorded road ran between the present old and new Durham Roads to enter the town by what is now West Street. A ditch, recorded in 1748 as dividing Low Fell from Sheriff Hill, may have been the remains of this road.

Gateshead was growing steadily, if slowly. The first recorded market was held in l246, while a bailiff is mentioned in a document dated 1287. The bailiff was the representative of the bishop of Durham, the first such officer was Gilbert Gategang. He took advantage of the grants and leases of land of the bishops who were generally losing interest in their Gateshead estates, apart

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index

Page 4

from being a source of revenue, with the result that his family and descendants became comparatively rich. His son, Alan, was known as the Lord of Pipewellgate, which may have been more important than the rest of the town; in 1539 there is a reference to 'Gateshead, near Pipewellgate'.

Throughout the medieval period, the bishops of Durham had to struggle to keep Gateshead as part of their estates. The wealthy merchants and burgesses of Newcastle tried to take control in order to benefit from the increasing trade. The fisheries were often the cause of friction. Those on the south side of the river were destroyed, the catches taken to Newcastle and the fishermen harassed.

The bishop of Durham owned the southern third of the Tyne Bridge: in 1383, this was taken over by the city of Newcastle and a tower was built on it. In 1416, however, the southern portion was returned to the bishop after appeals to the king; usually the bishop won his case at such appeals and investigations but nevertheless, Newcastle was gradually winning the 'war' despite losing these minor skirmishes. 1454 was an important year in this struggle as Newcastle was granted conservatorship of the Tyne, a privilege held for 400 years. This gave that city a monopoly of trade on the river but the coal mines, the main target, were still controlled from Gateshead. The

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index

Page 5

first record of coal being mined in the Gateshead area was in 1344 and there were staiths at Pipewellgate in 1349. The manors of Whickham and Gateshead became the best coal mining areas in Europe and were, of course, the envy of Newcastle merchants.

Eventually there was a take-over. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, had had a distinguished military career, but planned to become Lord protector of new bishoprics of Durham and Newcastle and then, possibly make an attempt on the throne of Edward VI.

Bishop Tunstall of Durham was imprisoned and an Act to annex the manor of Gateshead became law on 30 March 1553. Fortunately, Dudley's plans ended abruptly. Mary became Queen on Edward's death and the conspirator was beheaded. After some opposition, the bishopric was re-established and united with Gateshead on 2 April 1554. In return for his bishopric, Tunstall leased the Saltmeadows on the east of Gateshead to Newcastle for 450 years from 1555. The rent was 44 shillings per year. The amount of land leased gradually increased from 34 acres to 95 in 1857 and became an important industrial area from which Gateshead as a town derived little benefit.

Further attempts to take over Gateshead were in 1574 and 1576, but by the latter date a small powerful group of Newcastle merchants

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index

Page 6

had acquired the 'Grand Lease' of the manors of Gateshead and Whickham. The bishop still owned these manors but the terms of the lease were so devised that the ownership was purely nominal, as was the rent. The lease was renewed in 1582 for 99 years. The man who arranged this transaction, one Thomas Sutton (who had considerable influence at the Court in the person of the Earl of Leicester) is reputed to have left for London with two horse loads of money (£12,000) as his reward from the Newcastle merchants.

With the coalmines of Gateshead under the control of Newcastle, the impetus to take over the town was removed and only one other weak attempt was made in 1647. Although Gateshead people had been afraid of control from the north of the river, the town now enjoyed considerable prosperity. The coalmines were exploited as never before and in the hundred years from 1574 coal shipments from Newcastle increased eleven-fold while the population of Gateshead doubled to approximately 5,500. However, the lease and the abundant coal supplies ended in 1680. The pits were shallow as problems of ventilation and flooding defeated attempts to mine coal from the deeper seams. Gateshead was now in a state of depression, rents were low and in arrears, the fields were scarred with pit heaps, hindering the cultivation of crops.

The economy of the town was not revived until

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index

Page 7

the growth of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century. Steam engines were introduced to clear water from the lower coal seams; glassworks and ironworks created more jobs and Gateshead's fortunes began to improve steadily. The 1830s saw the greatest change in administration of Gateshead. Cuthbert Rippon became the Member of Parliament, the first for Gateshead, a Town Council was elected in 1835 and the Poor Law Union was set up in 1836. During the same period the Dispensary opened (1832) as did the Mechanics Institute (1836) and a newspaper was published for the first time, the Gateshead Observer (1837)

Throughout the nineteenth century the population expanded rapidly; between 1801 and 1901 the increase was 101,291. This expansion resulted in the spread southwards of working-class houses. Terrace upon terrace of houses and flats were built over what had been large country estates and the character of the town changed from rural to urban. The descriptions of Gateshead as a dirty lane leading to Newcastle' and 'huge dingy dormitory' were partially true during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the rows of houses which today seem drab were a big improvement on the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century slums down by the river.

Gateshead was and is an industrial town and is easily affected by any recession in trade. An added problem during the nineteenth century was that

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index

Page 8

several thousands worked outside the town but when unemployed, claimed relief from Gateshead's poor rate, even though their previous employers did not contribute to it.

In 1889, Gateshead was made a county borough but in the same year one of the largest employers, Hawks, Crawshay closed down. Unemployment was a burden from this date. Up to the Second World War there were repeated newspaper reports of the unemployed sending deputations to ask the council to provide work. The depression years of the 1920s and 30s created even more unemployment and the Team Valley Trading Estate was built in the mid-1930s to alleviate the situation. The borough boundaries were extended in 1951 to provide more building land and slum clearance was started and is continuing today.

Thousands of council owned dwellings have replaced the earlier substandard housing, new roads within and around the borough will carry the heavy traffic of the future and the former derelict riverside areas have been reclaimed. The appearance of Gateshead has changed, and will change, dramatically.

There are also imminent changes in the administration of the town. In April 1974 Gateshead merged with Felling, Ryton, Blaydon, Whickham, Lamesley and Birtley to form the Gateshead Metropolitan District Area as part of Local Government Reorganisation. A Royal Commission

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index

Page 9

on Local Government held an enquiry into possible unification of the Tyneside boroughs in 1935. Gateshead was in favour of unification, as the richer authorities (e.g. Gosforth) would help to support the less fortunate areas (e.g. Gateshead). The proposals were very similar to the Metropolitan area of 1974. Other far-seeing ideas of Gateshead at this enquiry were a joint fire service and a Passenger Transport Board for Tyneside, both of which were later put into operation.

Title Page and Table of Contents  Alphabetical Index  Next Chapter

"A Short History of Gateshead". © Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998