A Short History of Gateshead - CHAPTER FOUR
© Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998
HOW GATESHEAD WAS GOVERNED
After the Conquest of 1066, the Norman kings found that the north east was difficult to govern and defend. The one person in a position to assist the king was the bishop of Durham, and from the twelfth century onwards the bishops became increasingly powerful and gained many royal privileges. The Palatinate of Durham that was formed became, in effect, a kingdom within a kingdom, with the Prince Bishop as its ruler.
Gateshead was one of the palatinate boroughs in 1180, and until the sixteenth century was governed by a bailiff, as the bishop's representative. The bailiff, who was usually a member of a local landed family, supervised several executive officers--a steward, a sergeant of arrest, and four wainmen who collected the toll on wagons and carts passing through the borough. The bailiff was also responsible for forwarding the revenue of the town to the bishop, and for holding the borough courts.
The borough court was the main institution of government in the town until the seventeenth
century. It depended for its operation on the burgesses of Gateshead, who were the owners of certain houses and lands in the town that carried with their ownership a 'borough right'. These burgesses, who later became known as boroughholders, attended the borough court, which was normally held every two weeks, where they made bye-laws for the government of the town, under the guidance of the bailiff. A document of 1576 claimed that, 'the town of Gateshead is ruled by bailiff and burgesses, and hath good and wholesome constitutions and ordinances within themselves, and is as well governed for justice as they are in Newcastle, punishing all offenders who cast rubbish and cleansing of their homes into the river of Tyne...'.
The above was written during one of the periodic attempts by the town of Newcastle to annex Gateshead and sever it from the bishopric of Durham. The first of these attempts took place in 1553, after three centuries of harassment of Gateshead merchants and traders by their opposite numbers in Newcastle, who desired to control shipping on both sides of the Tyne. An added attraction of Gateshead was the rich seams of coal which were being mined there. How Gateshead was annexed has already been described but the complete take-over was short-lived. However, by 1599 Gateshead was firmly controlled by its larger neighbour to the extent that the bailiffs of
Gateshead during the first half of the seventeenth century were appointed not by the bishop of Durham, but by the Common Council of Newcastle.
This period of control by Newcastle, when the bishop's local authority was very weak, seems to have resulted in the growth of a more local type of administration--the select vestry of St Mary's Parish Church, known as the four-and-twenty. As its name suggests, this select vestry comprised twenty-four of the leading inhabitants of Gateshead. They were self-co-opting; not elected by the parishioners and they effectively controlled those aspects of local government - for example the care of the poor and the maintenance of the highways - which government legislation had made a parish responsibility. The minute books of the four-and-twenty survive from 1626, when the body was already well established. The four-and-twenty met at St Mary's Church each Easter and appointed the various parish officers - churchwardens, overseers of the poor, overseers of the highways, and four parish constables. By 1658, the power of the four-and-twenty was so great within the town that it was necessary to obtain an Order in Council from Oliver Cromwell himself to have them removed from office when they disagreed with the Puritan minister at St Mary's, Thomas Weld.
By 1679, with the easily obtainable coal in Gateshead almost worked out, the bishop of
Durham regained direct control of the town. By 1684, however, he had decided to abandon direct control of Gateshead through his bailiff and instead to lease the manor to private individuals in return for an annual rent. From 1730 until 1857, the lordship of the manor of Gateshead was held by various members of the Ellison family.
The borough courts were replaced by manor courts, although this change of name did not result in a change of function. The court could fine townspeople for having their shop fronts out of repair, for selling short-weight goods, for dunghills in the streets and for encroaching on their neighbour's land. For example, a Mrs Maddison was fined for 'allowing her servants to team filthy water out at the back side of her house', and the improbably named Cornelius Quack for 'building a Jakes House (privy) in the Common Landing'.
Throughout these changes in administration, the borough-holders had retained their power and influence, based on their property. In addition, since the seventeenth century, they had taken over the administration of the Town Fields at Bensham and on Gateshead Fell. In this they were joined by the freemen who were members of the guilds or of trade companies which had been set up from the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century the Town Fields were no longer 'common' to all the people of Gateshead as they had once been; they were run as a commercial proposition by the
relatively small number of borough-holders and freemen.
By the middle of the eighteenth century the four-and-twenty was in decline; at the annual meeting in 1745 only three out of twenty-four were present. Although they continued to appoint the parish officers, on more than one occasion a matter of major importance was decided at a meeting that was attended by the inhabitants of the town at large. In 1833 there was an abortive attempt to challenge the authority of the four-and-twenty, but the townspeople were so apathetic (only three people attended a parish meeting in 1830) that the powers of the four-and-twenty were gradually eroded, not as a result of local effort, but by various legislative measures which removed duties from the parish. As early as the 1770s it was realised that the various units of local government, the manor court, the boroughholders and freemen, and the four-and-twenty were either too inefficient or self-interested to provide a good local administration. In 1772 and again in 1791, groups of Gateshead people requested the bishop of Durham to re-appoint a bailiff, but their petitions were ignored.
In 1833, Gateshead's local administration was investigated by a Parliamentary Commission, and despite fierce opposition from the borough-holders and freemen, the town became a municipal borough under an Act of Parliament of 1835. The
first election of Councillors was held on 26 December 1835, and on 1 January 1836, George Hawks was elected Gateshead's first Mayor. Early meetings of the new Borough Council were held in the Anchorage at St Mary's Church, until a house in Oakwellgate was rented. In 1844 a building near Greenesfield was bought and used as a Town Hall until 1867, when it was demolished to make way for the Team Valley Extension Railway. While the new Town Hall was under construction in West Street, the Council met in premises in Queen's Head Yard. The foundation stone of the new building was laid by R. S. Newall, the rope manufacturer, in June 1868, and the Town Hall was opened amid great ceremony in February 1870. The building, surmounted by a statue of Queen Victoria, has recently been cleaned of decades of grime and must look much as it did when new.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the responsibilities, and consequently the cost, of the Borough Council slowly increased. In the first year of its existence total payments made by the council amounted to only £311. Most of this was spent on the police, street lighting and the maintenance of roads. Additional duties were added, such as public health, parks, public libraries and education. There was always considerable resistance from ratepayers to the increasing cost of local government in Gateshead: it was not until after
the First World War that the Council began to build houses for rent, although this had been suggested as an answer to Gateshead's housing problem in the 1890s.
Gateshead had a very low rateable value in relation to its population, which meant that very little could be done to improve the state of the town until assistance was available in the form of Government grants.
Gateshead became a County Borough in 1889 and was granted a Coat of Arms in 1932 which was very similar to those (entirely unofficial) arms which had been used for some years - the goat's head was usually prominent.
Various schemes of local government reform for Tyneside were proposed in 1935, 1962 and 1968, but they were mainly exploratory exercises. Finally, in 1973 the Metropolitan Council of Tyne and Wear was formed, and Gateshead, with its neighbours Felling, Whickham, Blaydon and Ryton, together with the parishes of Birtley and Lamesley forms one of the five districts of the Metropolitan area.
"A Short History of Gateshead". © Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998