A Short History of Gateshead - CHAPTER FIVE
© Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998
SOCIAL CONDITIONS IN GATESHEAD
Some aspects of everyday life in Gateshead.
Today, it is hard to imagine a medieval Gateshead, with markets and fairs, ancient buildings and narrow thoroughfares but the Vestry minute books of St Mary's church give an insight into almost every aspect of life in the town. It would seem that Gateshead was a fairly typical English community, right down to the provision of stocks for the correction of the criminal element. The church and parish were the centre of community life; people were more religious, attending church regularly, and the parish was the unit of local government.
As the unit responsible for law and order, Gateshead parish was fined a sum of 6/8 by the justices of the peace in 1627 because it did not possess a ducking stool. This omission was rectified in 1628 at a cost of 12/-. This ducking stool, traditionally used for the punishment of scolding wives, was soon worn out and was replaced in 1660. Whipping was another device used in the defence of the
law as well as a means of discouraging poor people and vagrants from staying within the town and so placing an extra burden on the parish funds. However, this deterrent did not prove absolute, the burial registers often list 'a poor unknown stranger' who was interred in a parish coffin at a cost of 1/4d. Some economies were effected as these coffins were used over and over again! Witches and sorcery have been the cause of considerable superstition during the centuries. Witch-hunts were common and the only punishment was death. Gateshead had witches; in 1649-50 several were arrested, imprisoned, tried at Durham, executed and buried, all for £2-0-10d. Yes, these were the 'good old days'. However,life had its happier moments. The annual riding of the boundaries was an important social event, especially for the small boys who fought over figs and prunes thrown down by the passing cavalcade. When the town fields were mown, or the streets relaid, fiddlers or pipers were provided to entertain the workers - the provision of music to improve working conditions is not a recent innovation. There were 'sports' as well, bull-baiting, cock-fighting and archery were the order of the day instead of football. The site of the present bus station at Wellington Street was known as 'the Butts', possibly indicating the place where the mandatory archery practice took place.
Education was virtually non-existent in
Gateshead until the nineteenth century when national schools, and from 1870 board schools, were provided. The Anchorage school was held in the parish room attached to St Mary's church, from which the institution was named. This name in turn was derived from anchoress, a female hermit, for whom a cell was built beside the church in the fifteenth century. The number of pupils was limited by the size of the building and the wealthiest families sometimes preferred to send their children to private schools elsewhere; for example, Henry Ellison sent his sons to Eton.
Markets were held from the early thirteenth century and by 1336 there were two each week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as an annual fair held on the first of August. These activities appear to have ceased in 1647 when the influence of Newcastle resulted in a general decline in the independence of Gateshead. However, towards the end of that century, an annual shoe fair was established which attracted traders from all parts of the North-East. This continued until 1853 when only one stall was set up, although the fair had been a shadow of its former self for several years beforehand.
A street scene in old Gateshead was similar to that of many other English towns: the old houses would be stepped out over the narrow thoroughfares, which were filled with traders, carriages and carts, animals being driven to the slaughterhouse
or markets, and rubbish. The streets in those days served as sewers, drains and rubbish dumps. One such heap cost £4.00 to be removed although the contractors paid 10/- for the rubbish itself. The size of this heap, which had accumulated over four years, can be gauged by the cash involved; and although exact dimensions cannot be given, it must have been very large! People did not realise that such uncleanliness bred germs and the town was frequently visited by the plague.
From the lords of the manor in their mansions to the miserable beggars in the streets, the people of Gateshead and their activities represent a cross section of life in England over the centuries.
During the middle ages, the poor were cared for by charities, both private and ecclesiastical, until legislation in 1559 and 1601 made relief of the poor one of the responsibilities of the parish authorities but church hospitals existed after this time. In Gateshead there were the hospitals of St Edmund, Bishop and Confessor; and St Edmund, King and Martyr. The dates of their foundation are unknown but they are known to have existed in 1247 and 1315 respectively. The history of St Edmund, Bishop and Confessor, is the more obscure of the two. It was connected with the convent of St Bartholomew of Newcastle and suffered badly during the campaigns of Henry
VIII against the Catholic Church. Only the chapel of the hospital remains and this is incorporated in Holy Trinity Church in High Street. St Edmund, King and Martyr, further south on Old Durham Road, was intended for life-pensioners or bedesmen who were admitted at the discretion of Master who was appointed by the bishop of Durham. It was financed by rents from land in Gateshead and Shotley Bridge and from the produce of coal seams underneath this land. In 1584 this coal was leased and three old people were maintained in the hospital from the rent received at a cost of 13/- a year each.
In 1611, the foundation of St Edmund, King and Martyr was re-founded as King James' Hospital as a result of a petition to the King himself. The successive Masters were the rectors of Gateshead who were allowed one third of the hospital's income, which cannot have been high, as during the latter part the seventeenth century and the eighteenth century, the fortunes of the hospital were at a low ebb. The cottages of the bedesmen had been pulled down, and hens lived in the chapel. It was reformed at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Dr Richard Prosser, the rector, whose proposals included the re-erection of the cottages, the supply to each of the inmates of a suit of clothes each year and the provision of an adequate supply of coal in the winter. The next Master was the Reverend John Collinson who continued the
reforms and introduced another innovation,'younger brethren', as well as the existing bedesmen. These 'younger brethren' had to be over 56 years of age, receiving less than £20 per annum and attending church regularly. Once accepted, they were given a pension, not exceeding £25 per annum.
From this time, the hospital prospered, and the chapel (St Edmund's) was rebuilt in 1810. Increasing industrialisation enhanced the value of its land and the income rose accordingly so that by 1903 there were 46 'younger brethren' receiving £897 per annum between them. A new hospital has been opened on Sunderland Road at the time of writing.
A rate was levied by the parish to provide for the poor. A poor house was built in St Mary's churchyard and was in use in the seventeenth century but the largest portion of the money available was used to send paupers and vagrants back to their own parish in case they fell ill or died and caused even greater expense. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Gateshead's trade was at a low ebb and the poor rate collected was raised to £148 per annum to help those unemployed. The parish gave financial assistance to those living at home as well as maintaining a poor house; in 1733, one hundred and forty-five were included in this category, at various rates per week, from 2d to 2/-·
Another parish poor house was acquired in 1750.In 1728 a Newcastle merchant, Thomas Powell, bequeathed all his wealth 'towards building an almshouse for poor men and women in Gateshead'. This almshouse was built in 1731 on the east side of the High Street and in 1750 the trustees of this bequest agreed with the parish overseers to convert the building into a poor house and later a workhouse. This change was illegal, against the terms of the bequest, but it was not questioned for almost a century, and after an enquiry, it became an almshouse once again in 1841.
Meanwhile, the poor rate had risen to £264 in 1757 and efforts were made to halt this unhappy trend. Assistance was withheld from those who refused to enter the poor house while from 1771 a man was paid £250 from which he had to feed and clothe the inhabitants of the poor house and pay any other expenses which arose. This system continued until 1809 when a permanent, salaried, Overseer of the Poor was appointed. The poor rate collected in 1810 amounted to f2,865 so committees were set up to report on the poor house and the out-relief payments which were now very large, the main recipients being widows and wives of men in the armed forces.
In 1813 rules were laid down to reorganise the poor house which show something of the life 'inside'. The main aim appears to be cleanliness - clean blankets every 6 months, clean sheets every
3 weeks and a daily wash for the inmates. The poor rate was still rising and those receiving assistance were put to work levelling High Street, probably in the hope that this would deter others from seeking relief.
An Act of 1819 changed the administration of the Poor Law. A Select Vestry was chosen by ratepayers and included many people from the four-and-twenty. One of its duties was to examine all applicants for relief, a kind of means test, and as a result the poor rate fell from £4,500 in 1820 to £3,040 in 1822, although mild weather and cheap food were factors which affected the number of applicants. The poor rate was held steady until 1831 when removals of vagrants to Scotland and Ireland, a cholera epidemic and then in 1832 a miners' strike placed an intolerable burden on Gateshead causing a sudden rise to £4,709.
A further Act, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 established Poor Law Unions (neighbouring parishes grouped together) which were operated by Boards of Guardians. The first meeting of the Gateshead Board took place on 14 December 1836, in Gateshead. The area covered was approximately the same as the new Gateshead Metropolitan District Council area, extending to Chopwell, Crawcrook and Heworth. This Board of Guardians remained in power until 1930. The Guardians resolved to build a new workhouse which would be better suited to the purpose and
eventually decided on a site off Coatsworth Road, now Woodbine Street, in the then fashionable suburb of Bensham: a healthy site was necessary for the recovery of the sick. This new building was opened in July 1841 with accommodation for 276 inmates. Powell's Almshouses reverted to their original purpose. They were finally demlolished in 1947 and new homes for the almspeople were built in Cross Keys Lane in 1962.
Gateshead's increasing population meant larger numbers of inmates in the workhouse. A workhouse was first suggested in 1863 but it was June 1890 before High Teams Workhouse was occupied. The Guardians had trouble in finding a suitable site. Heworth, Low Fell, Saltwell, Whickham were all discussed but eventually High Teams Farm was bought in 1885, the unemployed were used to level the area and to make bricks, and building began. Those parts of the farm not used for the workhouse were leased and sold for house building; the Guardians making money to ease the rates by inserting restrictive covenants against the sale of alcohol into the legal transactions. This meant public houses could not be built and covenants were withdrawn at a high price.
When one thinks of workhouses today, one associates them with poor living conditions, inadequate food and clothing, harsh masters and matrons, very little education for children and
no means of enjoyment for the inmates. In Gateshead there were complaints, frequently about the food, although only the best was ordered, and on one occasion, the master and matron were found to be locking up troublesome inmates in the mortuary! The inmates were expected to work; the women performed domestic duties while the men worked on the High Team farm or broke stones for the roads. Although some nurses appointed in the early days of the Guardians were inclined to alcoholism, the standard improved later and generally the staff appear to have done their best to improve life for the inmates. When one matron, Mrs Penrose, died in 1886, the Board of Guardians paid tribute to her: 'To the aged inmates she was a comforting counsellor, while in her, each child found a parent.'
Children were a special problem, they had to be educated and attempts were made to rid them of the workhouse stigma. Classes were held within the workhouse for girls (1841) and boys (1851). Teaching methods improved and in 1895 all the children attended Brighton Avenue Board School. Footballs and the use of a playing field were provided. Other attempts to improve the way of life of the children were emigration to Canada, carefully supervised apprenticeships and boarding-out of children to foster parents. This latter scheme was not successful as those interested quickly realised that it was not a cheap way to acquire a
domestic servant. Trips to Tynemouth and pantomimes in Newcastle and Gateshead theatres were arranged. After 1869, modest attempts were made to vary their clothes as the uniform branded a child as a workhouse inmate.
Eventually, cottage homes were opened in 1901 at Shotley Bridge, the first in the North East. Six cottages provided for 120 boys and 90 girls and at first met with some hostility from local residents (this had been a problem in selecting a site for the workhouse itself) but continued in use until 1930 when they were handed over to Durham County Council.
One group of inmates in the workhouse received very little sympathy, the tramps and vagrants who slept in the casual ward of the workhouse. They were a problem from the mid-nineteenth century and several times suggestions were put forward that the vagrant wards be demolished. On one night in January 1865, twenty-three people slept on the stone floor of a room 12 feet square! Later on, in the 1890s, attempts were made to distinguish between those who had left home in search of work, and vagrants who knew no other way of life. In 1901 it came to light that the master of Newcastle Workhouse was turning away vagrants and advising them to come to Gateshead! This practice was discontinued after complaints by the Gateshead Guardians.
The miners' strike in 1926 brought acute
financial embarrassment to Gateshead Guardians as it did to most other Boards in mining areas. At the end of the year, Gateshead's debt stood at £250,000 and they had to borrow to pay necessary bills. The mass unemployment and the economic problems of this period were the causes of the breakdown in administration of the Poor Law. The Local Government Act of 1929 abolished Boards of Guardians and transferred their functions to county borough and county councils.
The High Teams Institution continued as before but in August 1948, the name was changed to Fountain View and the internal organisation was reformed, the old workhouse furniture was sold and modern styles substituted while the drab paintwork gave way to bright, cheerful colours. As time went on, the council realised that Fountain View was inadequate for its purpose - it now catered for old people. The residents were transferred to newly built old people's homes such as Alderwood and Cedarwood and the old workhouse was demolished in 1969. Gateshead was a pioneer in this field in the North East.
Since the Second World War, Gateshead Corporation has taken maximum advantage of the relevant Acts of Parliament to become a leader in the provision of social services to all sections of the community. Recent innovations include a club for the handicapped, opened in April 1972 by
Lord Shinwell, and the provision of telephones for the housebound.
Until the twentieth century Gateshead was an unpleasant place in which to live from the health point of view. In medieval times public health services were non-existent and the policy of isolation was used when serious illness or plagues were present in the town. Temporary huts were built at Bensham for this purpose but there was no preventive action. During the plagues of the seventeenth century, the market or butter cross at Ravensworth was used as a place to deposit goods and money. Country people, unaffected by the plague, left food around the base of the cross and town dwellers took it and left money in exchange. Apparently this was later disinfected in vinegar !
Early Gateshead was a perfect breeding ground for disease of all kinds. The houses were packed close together, lodging houses and tenements were crowded, there were insufficient drains, refuse and sewage were thrown into the streets and several unpleasant trades, such as slaughtering and glue making were carried on close to houses. Cholera first appeared in Gateshead in December 1831, the first victim being 'a female rag-gatherer of depraved habits'. The epidemic lasted a year, resulting in 234 deaths, and was the impetus in
the opening of the Dispensary in 1832. The Dispensary did not alleviate the problem as sufficient money was not available, those who paid rates did not live in the squalid parts of the town and did not suffer from the epidemics as much as the poor lower classes.
A police report in 1835 on lodging houses illustrated the problem: 'There were 34 people in one house mostly Irish, including one dead child.' Another report on Gateshead in 1843 showed that while the population was 38,747 only 110 houses had a direct water supply. Pipewellgate was 300 yards long, the thoroughfare was 8 feet wide and the population was 2,040. In 1849 cholera broke out for a second time, the disease was thought to have been brought by a tramp from Edinburgh who stayed at Williams' lodging house where the 24 'guests' slept two to a bed! This epidemic again lasted for one year. An enquiry by the General Board of Health in 1849 described the squalor of some parts of the town which in some cases was unbelievable. The third and last outbreak occurred in 1853 but, typhus, brought by Irish immigrants, was often present. The Borough Surveyor thought that the only way to free the town of such diseases was to demolish Pipewellgate and Hillgate. His prayers were partly answered in 1854 when the Great Fire destroyed most of the latter but the former was not completely levelled until the 1930s.
A sanitary inspector and part-time medical officer of health were appointed in 1866 and 1873 respectively, but the high mortality rate was the cause of an enquiry by the local government board inspector, Dr Barry, in 1884. The lodging houses had improved since the 1850s but the tenements were very bad and the slaughter-houses disgusting. Barry praised the public baths in Oakwellgate built in 1855 (the building still stands, 1974) and the isolation hospital at Sheriff Hill, despite its deficiencies. However, the baths were not used to capacity due to the high charges. The death rate in some parts of the town was very high; in Oakwellgate it was 36.5 per 1000 whereas the national average was 19·3.
In 1884 a full-time medical officer of health, a Dr Robinson, was appointed at a salary of £400. The improvements gained impetus, and the epidemics began to die out. The last smallpox outbreak ended in 1905, but children's diseases such as measles and whooping cough still had a strong hold and the infant mortality rate was high. The main problem was that the population was so poor that the town could not support sufficient doctors to provide an adequate health service. Diphtheria, scarlet fever and tuberculosis remained a danger until the 1940s.
Sewers were built to drain the now expanding town. A water carriage system to replace the ashpits had been suggested in 1898 but it was not
until a government grant was available in 1925 that the work was undertaken and 18,706 houses were converted within two years. Alderman P. S. Hancock deserves much of the credit for this improvement as he campaigned energetically for this cause and in fact was awarded the O.B.E. for his work in public health. In the 1920s, the Gateshead population reached its peak, so the influx of those needing houses decreased from this date. The Tyne Bridge was built at this time with the result that the worst slums were cleared to make way for the approaches and supports for the bridge. Inspection improved the quality of food shops and competent municipal health services began to operate, centred on Greenesfield House, which has been the centre of corporation health activities from 1920.
Gateshead lacked hospital accommodation. Sheriff Hill Isolation Hospital was extended in 1904, while Saltwell Hall was also used ats a hospital for infectious diseases for a time. Whinney House was another stately home converted to this purpose. Finance was not available for new building until 1936 and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was begun at Sheriff Hill in 1938. Unfortunately, the Second World War delayed the completion of this building and the hospital wards of the workhouse were taken over. This later became Bensham General Hospital.
The Queen Elizabeth Hospital was officially opened on 18 March 1948.
St Mary's Hospital at Stannington serves the town's present needs for a mental hospital. Previously, mentally ill patients were catered for at private asylums situated at Wrekenton (1825-55), Sheriff Hill (1817-60) and Bensham (1799-1868). Part of the latter building can still be seen on Sidney Grove.
Gateshead Council sent patients to an asylum owned by Durham County Council from 1856 but this agreement was ended in 1912. An estate was bought at Stannington for £9,221 and the hospital was opened in 1914.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, the area now covered by Gateshead was essentially rural in character. The population was centred on the river and the steep banks above. Pipewellgate and Hillgate had been rebuilt in the eighteenth century while High Street was 'one continued line of buildings of various and irregular appearance'. Little building had been done since 1801 and by 1831 the population had doubled to 15,177. This was the start of Gateshead's housing problem, as insufficient dwellings were constructed to keep pace with demand. There were crowded slums behind the main streets, approached by narrow alleyways, which sometimes served as open drains.
The richer people moved away from the town centre to Low Fell and Bensham where select houses such as Claremont Place (1819-24) were built and their large town houses were tenemented: even cellars were let to the poorer classes. As late as 1932 the roof of one such house at 13 Mulgrave Terrace fell in and 54 people were made homeless!
Further select houses such as Walker Terrace and Regent Terrace were built in the mid-nineteenth century and when part of the Shipcote estate was sold for working-class dwellings, it was stipulated that the houses facing Regent Terrace (Queens Terrace) were to be of better quality so that Regent Terrace would not be devalued by the presence of poorer houses. House building increased with estates at Mount Pleasant, and Windmill Hills (the northern Coatsworth Road area) developed from 1850. During the 1860s houses were built from the Hills down to St Cuthbert's Road. In 1865 came the break-up of he large estates in the town and the start of contruction of large houses for wealthy industrialists at Low Fell (Ashfield, Enfield) and Saltwell (Ferndene). Large areas of Shipcote, Redheugh, Teams and Sunderland Road were built over up to 1875 when there was a temporary halt. The houses were mostly of the terraced flat variety, developed by tradesmen of Gateshead and occupied by skilled workers; the labourers still
lived in the slums of the town centre. A second wave of building began in 1885 and the inhabitants of the earlier type of flat moved to the new variety. The older flats were in turn taken over by the poorer classes.
The town centre slums were degenerating even further. The authorities, like their predecessors throughout the nineteenth century, were not really aware of the shocking conditions in which people lived. Moves to encourage the council to build houses in 1899 were defeated. One alderman, as if explaining the situation said, 'dirty people make dirty houses'.
There was still a shortage of good houses, and as the population had increased and the First World War had halted most of the building in the town, the situation became even worse, with one in three people living in overcrowded conditions. After the war the council yielded to local demands and began to build houses for rent, the first council houses were built at Carr Hill and Sheriff Hill in the early 1920s. Council house building progressed, but there was still a shortage of houses as very successful slum clearance in the 1930s made increasing demands on the building programme. Council houses were built in all parts of the town and by 1954 there was a desperate shortage of land.
In 1948 a report on this problem suggested a new town of 80,000, eight miles west of Gateshead,
to be called Barlow, but the idea received little or no support. The answer to the housing problem was seen in multi-storey blocks, usually built on the old slum areas, although the existence of old mineworkings limited available sites in the town, although special foundations can alleviate this problem. The first block of flats on Tyneside was that completed at Barn Close in 1955. Others followed; Regent Court 1958; Bensham 1962 and Chandless 1962/3. These large blocks did not solve the social problems and the 'village' concept has been tried at Redheugh with popular Clasper Village and St Cuthbert's Village.
Despite the large waiting list for council houses, Gateshead Council's record of house building is second to none: during the years 1946-70 the number of houses built totalled 10,686, this works out as an average of almost two houses per working day!
How the people of Gateshead spent their leisure time varied according to their social status and income. Letters in the Cotesworth and Ellison family papers in Gateshead Central Library show the hobbies and pursuits of the upper and wealthy classes. As might be expected, hunting and horse riding occupied a lot of their time together with breeding suitable dogs. Horses were highly prized possessions as they were the best means of
land transport. Cockfighting was enjoyed late into the eighteenth century but it was dying out as a common sport, although there are advertisements in local newspapers for cockpits at public houses in Gateshead in the 1770s. They also indulged in more gentle pursuits. The ladies had their sewing and the gentlemen looked after the garden: they only supervised, of course; gardeners were employed to do the hard work. Apricots were grown in the garden of Park House, obviously the climate was rather better than it is today! When in London, the opera and theatre were excellent diversions and reading helped pass the time at home. Newspapers kept them up to date with world events while the latest plays and poetry were read in place of the novels which are taken for granted today.
The poorer people had very little leisure time. Very long hours were common as late as 1890 when chemical workers still worked a 72-hour, six day week. Sunday was the only free day. As the ordinary worker could not afford to spend a lot on recreation, his hobbies were very simple. The country lanes that led from Gateshead were ideal for a pleasant stroll in the fresh air, away from the fumes of chemical works or dirt of coalmines.
There were activities common to all classes. Hunting was a common interest, although when the poor took an occasional rabbit it was called
poaching. Gamekeepers were employed more as a deterrent to poachers than to conserve and increase the supply of game birds. The public houses were popular with all classes of people as they provided meeting places as well as drinking places. They became the centre of social life of the town.
During the nineteenth century, Durham and Northumberland were at the top of drunkenness leagues, and societies, such as the Rechabites and Bands of Hope, were formed to combat this problem. Temperance halls were set up but in 1846 there were reported to be 73 adult teetotallers in Gateshead along with 49 juveniles, and only 4 ministers! Of course, the rest of the population was not alcoholic, but they were not members of the temperance movement. Strangely enough, Wesleyan Methodists would not allow teetotal movements the use of their rooms but this rule was ignored in Gateshead. 'The Temperance Committee have the use of the schoolroom for· 2/6 per night, that they refrain from abusive language, that on no occasion whatever are they to stand upon the furniture.' Obviously, they did not need alcohol to make them unruly!
Drunkenness increased, but so did the population. In 1851 one in every 168 people of Gateshead was convicted of drunkenness, but in all fairness it was pointed out that; 'the Gatesiders, 'are not disorderly in their cups, but go pretty quietly
along the streets when drunk!' Large numbers of immigrants, especially the Irish and Scots, may have contributed to this problem. One supporter of temperance was George Lucas who wrote pamphlets pointing out that the 170 public houses in the 1860s earned their proprietors approximately £80,000 per year. The population of Gateshead was only 35,000 at this time.
One such pamphlet caused a rather humorous situation. Lucas proposed to lecture on a Gateshead magistrate who had recently died, it was said, of alcoholism. The nephew of the deceased resented the criticism of his uncle and attacked Lucas with a whip. The meeting did not take place as the police could not guarantee to keep the peace; rumour had it that a mob had been offered free beer by a publican to break up the lecture and that three men were seen near the Temperance Hall in Ellison Square, 'seeking the main gas pipe'.
The working men's clubs began to appear in London in the 1860s. The earliest recorded clubs in Gateshead were temperance clubs - this was not an uncommon phenomenon, as the main object of these clubs was mental and moral improvement. The boom in working men's clubs came during the years 1900-14, when about 17 were formed in Gateshead, including some which are still in existence; Redheugh Social, Teams and District, Saltwell Social, and High Fell. Others were shortlived as enthusiasm of the members waned. Some,
like the Empire Workmen's Club in Southend Terrace, lost their licence for too many cases of drunkenness amongst the members. After the First World War a second group of clubs opened and the public houses introduced various sports to regain some of the business lost to the clubs. From about 1905, quoits was played in wooden sheds behind pubs such as the Patent Hammer, the Fountain Inn and the Plough at Deckham. The game was very popular for some time but interest diminished so that by 1930 not a single shed was in use.
Billiards was formerly an aristocratic pursuit but was introduced into some pubs, the Beehive, Arthur Street; the Star, Forster Street and the Shakespeare, Deckham by 1900. Purpose-built halls were opened in Corporation buildings, High Street (1906), the Crown, Sunderland Road (1912) and at Coatsworth Road and Low Fell. These displaced the pub billiard rooms and were themselves closed by 1957.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the working classes had more free time as working hours decreased. It was at this time that Gateshead acquired two public parks, Windmill Hills and Saltwell Park. The Windmill Hills had been a favourite place for meetings, concerts, sports and Whitsun hoppings for many years, but in 1861 it was handed over to the council by the boroughholders as the first public park in Gateshead. The local newspaper had campaigned for such a park,
expressing a general public need for such a facility. On the actual transfer day, there was a general holiday, and the factories closed to allow the ordinary workmen to witness the ceremony. Although this was a popular park, it was eclipsed by the opening of Saltwell Park in 1876. This was bought for f32,000 from William Wailes, who had had Saltwell Towers built, and a further £11,000 was spent on landscaping, including the artificial lake which was made in 1880. Since then all the town's social activities centred on the park; Coronation celebrations have been held there, activities were organised for 'Holidays at Home' during the Second World War, the town festival takes place each July and now there are some 'hoppings' in August. A new park at East Gateshead is being developed from former industrial wasteland but Saltwell will still hold the unofficial title of the 'best park in the North-East' for many years to come.
The theatre, music hall and cinema were very popular pastimes but now this part of the entertainment industry is a shadow of its former self; having been overtaken by television. Music halls were first held in pubs but shows became too large and separate premises were taken. The first in Gateshead was the Alexandra at the corner of Oakwellgate Chare and High Street, opened on 14 November 1870 The acts on the first bill included a female impersonator and clog dancers,
but the theatre closed the following year after an 'unseemly performance'. The building was later used by the Salvation Army and the Baptists. The next music hall was in a large public house in Bottle Bank and seated 400 people. Known as the People's Music Hall, it had a short life from 1874-80. The owner of the 'Peoples' was a George Handyside, who later built the Handyside Arcade in Newcastle. He tried to establish another hall at Pleasant Row but residents of the area petitioned against his plans and a theatre licence was withheld. Music halls were socially unacceptable in those days.
The first theatres in the town were travelling troupes, playing wherever an audience could be gathered, sometimes in Methuen's Long Room on High Street, sometimes at the New Cannon at Low Fell. A temporary theatre was set up in Oakwellgate and put on pantomimes as well as travelling players and works of local playwright Isaac Tucker, a brass founder. Unfortunately, his first dramatic effort in 1845 produced roars of laughter and applause instead of the more genteel appreciation that he had hoped for.
The first permanent theatre was the Queens on High Street. The building had a chequered history as a chapel (1815), music hall, boxing ball, Salvation Army hall (1882), Royal Theatre (1887), the Queens (1891) and the New Hippodrome Cinema (1919)· It was badly damaged by fire in
1922 and a Woolworth store was built on the site. A tragedy occurred in 1891 when seven children were crushed to death during a scramble to escape after a false fire alarm.
The most luxurious theatre in Gateshead was the Metropole, at the corner of High Street and Jackson Street opened on 28 September 1896, by Weldon Watts, former owner of the Oueens. The Metropole had a marble staircase, brass handrails, and a ceiling of elaborate plasterwork. Touring companies provided most of the plays and as these declined in number, the building became the Scala Cinema in 1919 As befitted the splendour of the building, the changeover was carried out in a grand manner. A large orchestra and later a f3,000 organ played music for the silent films.
The first permanent cinema was the Askew, opened in 1909. Moving pictures had been shown by travelling showmen and shopkeepers converted their premises to cash in on what proved to be a profitable sideline. The Askew was in fact one of the latter group and was generally known as 'Horns'. Other early cinemas were the Ravensworth, nicknamed 'the Rats', opened in 1909; Black's Palace (1909)· Empress Electric Theatre ('Loppy Lloyds' 1910) and the Shipcote (1911). 'Loppy Lloyds' was always the cheapest in town. During·the harsh depression years, admission cost 1d, 2d or 3d, while matinees cost three jam-jars, The 1930s saw another spate of new cinemas.
Black's Regal, now the Odeon, was opened by no less a star than Gracie Fields in 1937 and by 1950 there were fifteen cinemas in Gateshead but this was the peak year. Television and bingo were the cause of many closures, although the Essoldo and Ritz were demolished to make way for the Gateshead Highway. Now only two remain, the Odeon and the recently opened Classic which has brought the three in one cinema concept to the town.
Today, most people think of competitive rowing in terms of the university boat race, but in the latter part of the nineteenth century, rowing was a popular spectator sport and the North-East produced several well-known oarsmen such as Renforth of Gateshead, Clasper of Dunston and Chambers from Byker. These men were champions and their popularity can be gauged by the fact that their funerals were attended by many thousands. Robert Cooper from Redheugh was said to be one of the most scientific scullers on the Tyne, but skill was not enough and he did not win a major race. The prizes were considerable, Clasper was awarded £200 for one race in 1858 while Chambers won £400 for a day's work in 1864. Spectators lined the hanks of the river to cheer on their favourites and spent such money as they had betting on the rival oarsmen.
The British national sport is football and most towns have a football league side. Gateshead is one of the few that does not. In fact, the last Gateshead A.F.C.
has recently closed down following financial difficulties. Teams from Gateshead had existed from about 1880, but the first Gateshead A.F.C. was formed in 1913· playing at grounds at Old Fold and the Shuttles. They played against teams from Shildon, Houghton, Newcastle Reserves and Sunderland Reserves in the North Eastern League. It is not generally realised that the second Gateshead A.F.C. was originally a South Shields team which changed its name and ground after severe financial difficulties. This team's first game against Doncaster attracted a crowd of 15,545 on 30 August 1930· but it declined in the following years. Falling receipts were partially relieved by a greyhound track in the stadium and Hughie Gallagher signed for the club with the result of improved performances from 1938-45 and interest in the town was revived. Unfortunately, the standard of play fell again and during the 1950/51 season gates fell from 11,000 to 2,000.
There were brief moments of glory, however. In 1953 Gateshead reached the sixth round of the F.A. Cup, people queued at the Town Hall for tickets and cup fever hit the town. The cup tie was played against Bolton who won 1-0. In 1955 Tottenham Hotspur came to Gateshead to compete in the same competition and 18,840 people turned out to see their team defeated 2-0. Gateshead's first season in the Fourth Division was their last. They suffered several heavy defeats
and applied unsuccessfully for re-election. The official reason for their exclusion from the football league was given as poor gates, but the real reason was either the rumoured Yorkshire/ Lancashire conspiracy, or the existence of a greyhound racing track within the ground.
The club joined the Northern Premier League, then the Wearside League in 1970 and then the Midland League but in August 1973 dosed down. Almost immediately, another team, Gateshead Town was formed to play in the Northern Combination League, and recently (January 1974) there have been reports that another South Shields A.F.C. will move to Gateshead Youth Sports Stadium.
"A Short History of Gateshead". © Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998