A Short History of Gateshead - CHAPTER TWO


© Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998


The history books tend to overlook Gateshead as very little of national significance took place here. However, the history of the town is not without interest, the earliest important event being the murder of Walcher, Bishop of Durham in A.D. 1080. The exact date is known, being recorded as May l4th.

After the Norman Conquest, the North of England proved difficult to control. The border with Scotland had not yet been defined and Saxon nobles used the area as a sanctuary to strike at the invading Normans. The Saxons of the North East were persecuted as a warning to other unruly persons. There was one exception: Liulph, an ancestor of the Lumley family of Lumley Castle, near Chester-le-Street, was on good terms with Walcher, to the great annoyance of the bishop's Norman advisers. This jealousy resulted in the murder of Liulph. Unlike some bishops, Walcher was a timid cleric, and realising the possible results of this, took refuge in Durham Castle. He sent

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out messengers proclaiming his innocence and offered to meet and explain to Liulph's relatives. The place chosen was Gateshead, near to St Mary's which stood slightly to the north of the present church.

Walcher came with a large group of followers, obviously a bodyguard; amongst them were the murderers. A mob gathered, and, urged on by Liulph's family and friends, attacked the Normans. The bishop and his followers took refuge in the church; those remaining outside were killed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the figure of one hundred dead. St Mary's was put to the torch and one by one the Normans were forced to leave and were killed. Walcher's pleas were of little avail and with shouts of 'Short rede, good rede, slay ye the bishop' the crowd hacked him to death. (Rede is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning plan or solution, advice or counsel.) His badly mutilated body was eventually recovered by monks from Jarrow and taken to Durham.

This small success encouraged a general uprising, including a brief siege of Durham Castle, but it was short lived and an army under William the Conqueror's half-brother laid waste the area. Gateshead probably suffered badly as it was the scene of the crime.

Mention had already been made of the attempts of Newcastle to annex Gateshead. However, one such attempt deserves to be explained in detail

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as it shows the collective determination of the town to remain a separate community, apart from the influence of Newcastle.

In 1576, the merchants of Newcastle took the opportunity of the death of the Bishop of Durham, James Pilkington, to press their claim. On 13 March, a bill was introduced to unite the towns was read in the House of Commons.

The second reading of the bill suffered a delay that allowed the people of Gateshead time to organise resistance to this threat; letters, petitions and statements were issued in their struggles that were eventually successful. The first effort was a petition to Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer of England, stating their case, explaining the take-over attempts as a means of 'private profit of a few of the said town of Newcastle'. This was followed by a statement of the consequences of such a takeover; mainly comments that Gateshead trade would be acquired by Newcastle, to the detriment of the former town. The speaker of the House of Commons, Robert Bell, was the next to be persuaded by Gateshead people. They stated their town consisted of a great number of 'substantial, honest men, faithful and true subjects, as did appear in the late rebellion', and that if the takeover was allowed to proceed, Gateshead would be 'replenished with evil-disposed persons and thieves'!

As the new bishop had not yet been appointed,

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Sir William Fleetwood, Recorder of London, wrote to Lord Burghley on behalf of Gateshead. Fleetwood was well known for his law against papists and in his letter confided to Burghley, 'The town of Newcastle are all papists, save Anderson'. Which Anderson is not specified. This letter signalled the end of the last direct attempt to annex Gateshead, mainly because the merchants of Newcastle had acquired the leases of coal mines on the south bank of the Tyne from 1577, as has been explained in an earlier chapter.

Gateshead was not situated in a strategic military position, being at the south of a river while the danger of attacks from the Scots came from the north; Newcastle, with its walls and castle guarding a bridge was much more important. Newcastle suffered sieges, but the only record of Gateshead's involvement was during the Civil War, when the Scots under General Leslie look control of the North-East to cut off coal supplies to London.

It was in August 1644 that the battle of Windmill Hills took place. After Marston Moor, a Royalist defeat, the Scots had time to try and take Newcastle, a feat which they had been unable to accomplish earlier in the year. Approaching from the south, the Earl of Callender sent a party of men to clear the way to Newcastle but they met strong resistance on the Windmill Hills where the Royalists made a stand. The advance party waited

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for the main army to arrive and they easily overran the defenders, chasing them down through Gateshead and over the bridge to Newcastle. Cannon were set up on the south bank of the Tyne to bombard Newcastle, but these cannon in turn were shot at by the defenders of Newcastle, so Gateshead was probably damaged by both sides. Five batteries of cannon were set up on the Windmill Hills, an ideal site from which to destroy the defences and the defenders of Newcastle. The occupying forces destroyed the rectory, left St Mary's in a deplorable state, stole cattle and generally disturbed the way of life of the area. A severe plague added to these troubles. The battle of Windmill Hills was really a minor affair when compared with others in the Civil War, but it was an important event in the history of Gateshead.

A great disaster to affect Gateshead was the flood of 1771. Very heavy rain over most of the North-East caused the Tyne to flow at a higher level than ever before, six feet above that of 1769. The scale of the flood can be imagined as the water level was estimated to be twelve feet above the spring tide high water mark!

The Tyne rose suddenly during the night of 16/17 November, flooding the lower banks at each end and demolishing parts of the medieval Tyne bridge as well as some of the shops which were built at each side of the bridge roadway. Some of those who lived on the bridge managed

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to escape, others were drowned, but some were dramatically rescued. One family was marooned on a pier with the arches on each side swept away. The hero in this rescue was a Gateshead bricklayer called George Woodward, who noticed that although the arches had been swept away, there were still some shops linking the piers, supported on some timbers. Woodward broke through the walls of each shop until he reached the stranded sufferers and led them to safety.

The rivers Wear and Tees were also in flood, so the North-East suffered badly from this storm. The losses of livestock were heavy, many lives were lost, and communications were disrupted as several bridges were swept away. In fact the only bridge over the Tyne to survive was at Corbridge. Built in 1674, it was reputed to owe its strength to its Roman foundations, but the flat ground to the south allowed some of the flood water to flow around rather than against the bridge. Nevertheless, the townspeople of Corbridge were able to wash their hands in the river while standing on the bridge. At Gateshead, where the banks rise steeply from the river, the bridge had to bear the full weight of a river augmented by the Derwent and Team. One result of the flood was the establishment of a separate post office in Gateshead as easy communication with Newcastle was no longer possible. The first office was at the bridge end and was only meant to provide a temporary service,

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but the new Tyne Bridge took so long to build that this service was not withdrawn. A temporary bridge was built, and a ferry service introduced, but the new bridge was not opened until 30 April 1781.

There was what was known as 'common land' near each town and village, which was for the benefit of the inhabitants in that they could graze their livestock there. These lands, of medieval origin, in Gateshead covered the area bounded by Coatsworth Road; Claremont Road; from there west to Saltwell Road; to Bensham; west to the river Team; downstream to Low Team Bridge; up Derwentwater Road to Dixon Street; then east to Bensham Road taking in Ross Terrace and Fourth Street, and then up Bensham Road to its junction with Coatsworth Road. Windmill Hills and Gateshead Fell were also included. By the mid-seventeenth century, this 'right of common' had been taken over completely by the borough-holders and freemen for their own benefit, a privilege they jealously guarded. The freemen declined in numbers until the borough-holders were to the fore. In August 1807 they decided to enclose Gateshead Fell so that each member would have his own land, rather than share the whole Fell with others. Obviously, there were considerable conflicting interests with the result that the area was not divided until December 1821. Similar events affected Bensham. In May

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1813 the borough-holders decided to look into the possibility of dividing the rest of the town fields. The necessary Enclosure Act was passed on 28 June 1814, and the fields were divided in 1818 and so this ancient right came to an end. These fields and plots were quickly sold as building land over the next three decades. The Windmill Hills remained in the possession of the borough-holders until 1861 when they were conveyed to Gateshead Corporation to form the first public park in the town.

The year 1832 was notable as far as coal mining was concerned. The miners had no union and were determined to form such a group to struggle for better conditions of employment. On the other hand, their employers, the colliery owners, were just as determined to break the union and therefore employed men who were not members, known as 'blacklegs'. The miners' houses were the property of the colliery owners and they were needed for the new, non-union, workers. The efforts of the police to eject the striking pitmen from their homes led to several unpleasant incidents, one of which took place at Friars' Goose at East Gateshead. The miners had been urged to keep the peace and behave in an orderly manner but the attitude of the police and bailiffs was enough to cause riots and bloodshed.

A large body of miners had assembled at the colliery to meet the police. The leader of the policemen,

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a Mr Forsyth, issued two cartridges of swan-shot to each of his men and then proceeded with his unpleasant task. The miners were enraged by the taunts of the police and the damage to their furniture, so, while the 'ejectors' were in the house of a Mr Carr, they overpowered the sentry of the building designated as the police headquarters and stole his guns. In the ensuing chaos the police were trapped in a narrow lane. Unfortunately, the lane was overlooked by a small hill where some miners stood and threw stones and other missiles. Realising their predicament, they fired on the crowd and the miners fired back inflicting several casualties during the police retreat to the safety of some rising ground. Messengers were sent to bring soldiers from nearby Newcastle, but the pitmen realised the plan and obstructed their passage as much as possible so that when the military arrived, accompanied by the Mayor of Newcastle and the Rector of Gateshead, the rioters had dispersed. Not to be outdone, the forces of the law arrested more than 40 innocent people, including three women, accompanied by considerable police brutality. This episode is known as the 'Battle of Friars' Goose'.

The coal owners of the area bribed the constables with beer so that those stationed in pit villages often used unnecessary and unwarranted violence against the strikers. No doubt Friars' Goose suffered as badly as any.

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The greatest disaster to strike Gateshead was the Great Fire. There had been plagues and fires before 1854 but this was by far the greatest conflagration Tyneside had ever seen. It began in the early morning of Friday 6 October, in a worsted factory in Hillgate. The alarm was raised by a policeman in Newcastle at about 12.30 a.m., and such fire fighting equipment as was available was brought into use. Despite this the fire raged virtually unchecked. There was a large, seven-storey warehouse very close to the fire used for storing sulphur, nitrate of soda and other combustible chemicals. The sulphur began to melt and although this warehouse had been designed to withstand fires, this conflagration proved too great and soon the warehouse and nearby buildings were blazing. Soldiers and volunteers from the gathering crowds were now helping the firemen.

There were two small explosions but people were preoccupied with the fire. Then at 3.10 a.m. a terrific explosion blew up the warehouse, sending flaming sulphur and timber over the river to Newcastle. It is recorded that some wood and stones had been blown over half a mile away. The noise was heard from as far away as Hartlepool, Hexham and Alnwick, gas lamps were blown out at Jarrow and the flames could be seen from Northallerton. The High Level and Tyne Bridges shook, no doubt to the great alarm of the crowds

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which had chosen them as a vantage point from which to view the fire.

The fire had now spread to Newcastle and help was sent for from Berwick, Sunderland and even Carlisle. Horse drawn fire engines were brought from all over the North East. The fire continued to spread in Gateshead, threatening the badly damaged St Mary's Church. It was only brought under control by army sappers and miners blowing up buildings in its path. Spectators came to look at the damage, special trains ran on the following Sunday bringing 20,000 people into Newcastle and Gateshead. Some time later in the year, Queen Victoria asked that her train be stopped on the High Level so that she and her family could look for themselves. More than fifty people were killed and 200 families were made homeless, many of them from the poorer classes who lived in the slums near the river. There were several stories concerning narrow escapes during the disaster. People were said to have sat up in bed at the sound of the explosion and seconds later a stone came through the roof landing amongst the pillows.

A fireman and his son were standing together at the scene of the disaster. The fireman was killed during the explosion but the son survived. The estimated damage was put at more than £500,000 but only one quarter of this was paid out in insurance cover. As well as the large crater in

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Gateshead and fire damaged buildings, many windows were blown out.

A Presbyterian Minister from South Shields wrote a sermon, which said that this calamity was a divine judgement for the ungodliness of the people! Copies went on sale and profits were given to the relief fund. This raised more than £10,000 thanks to special collections, a charity theatre performance and large donations, including £100 from the Queen. Compensation was paid at a rate of £50 per family, probably making some poor families much better off than they were before the fire.

Official inquests were carried out in Gateshead and Newcastle and rumours that gunpowder had been stored in the warehouse were discounted. Experiments were carried out to find the cause of the explosion and experts were called in, but both juries decided that there was insufficient evidence to point to any particular cause. If any good can be said to have resulted from the fire, it was that the shocking slums of Hillgate were largely destroyed and were never rebuilt. The area destroyed by the fire may be seen to this day.

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