A Short History of Gateshead - CHAPTER SEVEN


© Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council, 1998



Unlike the present day, roads were of very minor importance in Gateshead's historical past. As the town was very much smaller than it is today, there were only short stretches of road which also served as sewers and a place to leave other rubbish. As might be expected, they were often in a state of disrepair.

In 1555· each parish was required to appoint Surveyors of Highways as officers of the parish. These surveyors were empowered to call upon residents to work on the roads to prevent them becoming neglected but this 'statute labour' naturally proved unpopular and road works were only carried out when necessary: in 1633 the streets were 'made even at the King's coming'. A special rate could be levied to pay for repairs, but this was only done eleven times between 1633 and 1754

From the end of the eighteenth century some improvements were made, due to the rebuilding of the Tyne Bridge. Church Street was constructed to alleviate the steepness of Bottle Bank, which

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itself was widened at this time. The Street Act of 1814 gave wide powers to commissioners to improve the streets in general. In Gateshead these commissioners included several well-known local public men, but despite this, they were not very active and paid more attention to lighting and watching of streets than to improving the road surface. In 1836 they transferred their powers, and debts, to the borough council.

When new streets were formed within Gateshead, they were taken over by the parish. From the mid-eighteenth century, main roads connecting large towns were known as turnpikes, under the control of turnpike trusts. Three such roads led into Gateshead; from Durham, Hexham and Sunderland, following the present routes of Old Durham Road, Derwentwater Road and Sunderland Road respectively. There were toll-houses at Shipcote Lane, Windmill Hills and Kirton's Gate on the Felling boundary. The present Durham Road through Low Fell was opened as a turnpike in 1827, seventeen years after the idea was first put forward and the present Al still follows this turnpike - apart from the new Gateshead Highway.

Turnpikes were in competition with the railways and lost revenue to this expanding industry. Many trustees lost interest and attendance at meetings was very poor; nevertheless, the trusts struggled on in the face of mounting criticism about the state of the roads and pressure from the Home Secretary

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to wind up their business. By 1871 all the Gateshead trusts had relinquished their powers and all roads within the borough came under the control of the town council.

The present council has embarked on an ambitious road network to carry the ever-growing volume of traffic through and around Gateshead. The Gateshead Highway has alleviated congestion in the town centre while the Western bypass from Eighton Lodge to Scotswood Bridge will provide a route around the town and a motorway link with the Team Valley Trading Estate. These modern road improvements are part of the redevelopment of Gateshead and have removed the criticism of the town being a 'dirty lane leading to Newcastle'.

Public Transport

The first public transport was provided by stagecoaches, wagons and carts. Stagecoaches operated between large towns but local services were carried out by the carriers' carts operated from public houses on High Street. The only major coaching inn was the 'Black Bull' which stood in High Street. The carriers served villages throughout Durham and survived until after the First World War when motor buses extended their services on these routes.

Public road transport in Gateshead began when the Gateshead and District Tramways Company

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began operations in 1883. Previous attempts to establish horse-drawn transport included an expensive hackney-carriage service, which began in 1827, with fares of one shilling per mile. Steam trams were used at the beginning of the service but in 1897 the British Electric Traction Company bought a controlling interest and electric trams were operating in May 1901. 'Stopping places' were introduced in 1904, and the first pay-as-you-enter system in Britain was tried in 1912· This last venture was not a success due to the added congestion caused at the Wellington Street terminus.

The trams ran to Heworth, Sheriff Hill, Dunston and Low Fell, while in 1910 new lines to Springwell Road and Saltwell Cemetery were opened. The system was very successful for some time. In 1908, 12 million passengers were carried and high dividends were paid but criticism increased, notably during the First World War. Boys were used as conductors, services were withdrawn without warning and the track was in very poor condition. The town council had an option to buy the Tramways Company and used this as a threat several times in an effort to improve the system. In 1916, a fatal accident at Bensham spurred the company to make improvements as did the threat of a government enquiry in 1920, but complaints were still to be heard. The corporation could not afford the asking price of £500,000 and the trams remained in private hands. Some modernisation

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was carried out and links were made with Newcastle over the High Level and Tyne bridges, superseding the horse-brakes which had run from 1878.

Trolley buses were introduced in Newcastle and the Gateshead Company planned the same innovation but the Second World War intervened and the low bridges on West Street and High Street prevented such a system linking Newcastle and Gateshead. Trolley buses were later abandoned in favour of motor omnibuses. An Act of Parliament in 1950 approved the conversion to buses and the days of the trams were numbered. The final journey was made from Dunston on 4 August 1951.

Motor-buses had been operated by the Northern General Transport Company since 1913. The 'Northern' began as a subsidiary of the Tramways Company and by '914 Owned 54 buses. After the war, routes were expanded and soon covered most of North Durham. Several rival companies competed for passengers during the 1920s and 1930s until fare-cutting forced out the smaller firms and companies owned by British Electric Traction operated all the routes within Gateshead.

Criticism of bus services have continued, complaints being levelled at the lack of an adequate bus station in the town which meant buses travelled on through routes to Newcastle so Gateshead shopkeepers have suffered a fall in trade. Fares

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and cross-town routes have also been criticised.

In 1969 pay-as-you-enter buses were introduced on some routes and have proved more successful than in 1912. Concessionary fares were introduced in 1970 followed in 1973 by free travel for pensioners throughout most of the Tyneside area.


During the 1830s several proposals were put forward to build railways in north Durham. Companies discussed and vied with rivals for support for their own plans. Two companies emerged as the strongest, the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway Company and the Brandling Junction Railway Company. An agreement was reached whereby the latter would build lines from Gateshead to South Shields and Monkwearmouth and an inclined plane to join the former company's line from Blaydon at Redheugh. This inclined plane was constructed to give the Newcastle and Carlisle Company access to a coal-staith at Hillgate: early railways were usually built with coal transport facilities in mind.

This short section was the first to be opened in Gateshead, on 15 January 1839. The line through the town followed the same route as the modern line across West Street and High Street. Apart from the main line, other visible parts of the Brandling Junction are the slope from Oakwellgate, which led to Gateshead's first station and the

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incline between the Redheugh and King Edward bridges. This latter was worked by a stationary engine but later by locomotives, as many as four being used to push and pull the waggons up the slope. This very noisy work went on day and night: it must surely have been a source of great annoyance to the residents of the area.

The railway was first planned to go under Gateshead. However, a bridge was preferred to a tunnel as the stations would not have been near the centre of population and the town would not have derived any commercial benefits had the latter plan been implemented. The arches formed by the bridge were let to small businesses to provide additional revenue, just as they are today.

The currently fashionable problems of 'The environment' are not new.'Noise pollution' was discussed in relation to the bridge through the town, while the owners of Redheugh Estate were paid f6,000 for the land used for the track and station and an additional £2,000 as compensation as the estate had lost value due to the railway destroying the quiet seclusion of the area.

The Brandling Junction was bought by the Newcastle and Darlington Railway, which later became known as the York and Newcastle Railway Company. It was this company that first obtained permission to build a line from Durham through the Team Valley, but this line was not completed until 1868, twenty years later, following virtually

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the same route as the present main line.

Railway facilities in the town continued to expand. Engine sheds and workshops were built at Greenesfield in 1852 and were extended three times, in 1854, 1867 and 1877 Gateshead West Station was opened in 1844 and Gateshead East in 1877 This latter station remains the only station in Gateshead, serving local passenger traffic only.

Gateshead did not enjoy good relations with the railway companies. The council made several requests concerning extra stations, workmens' fares and express services which met with little or no success. The York and Newcastle Company was taken to court in 1847 for failing to complete a new street near Half Moon Lane within the specified time but the council lost the case over a legal technicality. In 1932 the railway sheds were closed, bringing heavy unemployment to the town. All in all, Gateshead was badly served by the railway companies.

After the Second World War, the decline in rail traffic was countered in Gateshead by closing several stations. Low Fell closed in 1952· Bensham in 1954 and Gateshead West in 1965 The sheds at Park Lane were dosed in 1959 and became a freight depot while in 1963 the Lamesley marshalling yards were opened. The railway industry in Gateshead is now a shadow of its former self but signs of its importance can still be seen; the locomotive sheds at Greenesfield, old Gateshead station now

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used as railway offices, and the North Eastern Railway engineer's house on Mulgrave Terrace, now Greenesfield House health centre.


Canals were not built in the North-East for several reasons. The industrial areas already had good access to the sea, provided by the rivers Tyne and Wear, while the spread of the wagonway system would have made large capital investment in canals uneconomic. However, plans were put forward for a canal through the Team Valley from Durham. A survey was made and the cost estimated at over £77,500, with an annual revenue of £25,000· Shares were issued in 1797 but work on the canal was never started. Another proposal in 1809 to link Beamish Iron Works with the Tyne via the Team Valley received very little support.


The first bridge to link Gateshead and Newcastle was built by the Romans in about A.D. 120, on the site of the present Swing Bridge. It was destroyed by fire in 1248 after eleven centuries of use which included repairs and partial re-building. A new stone bridge was completed in 1250, the cost being borne by the city of Newcastle and the bishopric of Durham. Each owned part of the bridge; the bishop of Durham owning the southern third. The boundary was marked by two stones; 'St.

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Cuthbert's stones', and later by one blue stone. There was a stone tower and wooden drawbridge at the Gateshead end and shops and houses on both sides. The drawbridge was replaced in 1770.·

On 16 November 1771·a great flood destroyed all but one bridge over the river Tyne. The only one to survive was Corbridge. A temporary wooden structure was built and a ferry established while another bridge was built on the same site, but it was not until 30 April 1781 that the new bridge with nine arches was opened. In 1810 it was widened to allow adequate room for wheeled traffic but it was very low: keels were the largest boats which could pass upstream, and plans for a high level bridge were revived.

The idea of a high level bridge had been proposed in 1771, but this was disregarded. Several sites were mentioned, Redheugh, Rabbit Banks and Greenesfield; using suspension or conventional bridges. The main supporters of a high level bridge were the railway companies who saw such a bridge as opening a new direct route to the North. Obviously, the existing railways could not descend to cross a low level bridge. Robert Stephenson was consulted about the site of such a bridge in 1842 and a company was formed in which railway personalities such as George Hudson, the 'Railway King' were prominent.

The scheme received the royal assent on 31 July 1845, and work began. The first train crossed in

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1848 and the ironwork was completed on 18 April 1849 - Hawks, Crawshay were the contractors. It was tested by running a special train in August, and Queen Victoria formally opened the bridge on 28 September. The lower roadway was not completed until 5 February 1850

As well as forming an obstruction to river traffic, the Tyne Bridge was becoming unsafe due to dredging by the Tyne Improvement Commission and in 1866 it was decided to demolish it. Another temporary structure was built while this was done and the Swing Bridge was constructed. This was the largest swing bridge in the world at the time and took eight years to complete. It was designed and built by Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. and came into use in June 1876. There were no tolls on this bridge; and for many years it was more popular than the High Level Bridge. People obviously did not mind a long walk down to the bridge and up into Newcastle if they could save the half-penny toll.

In the 1860s, the idea of a high level bridge from Redheugh was revived and in 1865 a company was formed to promote such a bridge. The Redheugh Estate was about to be developed as building land and such a bridge would guarantee a regular income from workers crossing from the western suburbs to work in Newcastle. However, the North Eastern Railway could not be persuaded to help finance a second road/rail bridge and so a

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road-only plan was accepted, with the result that the project was not a great financial success. The engineer was Thomas Bouch, who worked on the Tay Rail Bridge which collapsed with great loss of life. The Redheugh Bridge was opened on 1 June 1871, but required frequent repair. It was largely rebuilt between 1897 and 1901.

The next bridge was known as the New High Level, until opened on 10 July 1906 by King Edward VII, when it became known as the King Edward Bridge. The North Eastern Railway was entirely responsible for this bridge which was built to give a straight run through the Central Station for North-South trains.

As early as 1893, a joint committee of Gateshead and Newcastle Councils was set up to report on the question of a new bridge from Gateshead High Street to Pilgrim Street. A report; advising against such a bridge on the grounds of cost; was accepted by Gateshead council in 1900.· A similar proposal was again vetoed by the council in 1904. By 1922, traffic congestion on the High Level and Swing Bridges was increasing. Tram-lines had been laid over the former and there were fears that the increase in traffic would be too much for it and 'would be found some morning in the river'. River traffic was heavier than at present and the Swing Bridge was often open. Moreover, a bridge owned by the councils of

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Gateshead and Newcastle would not have any tolls.

In 1924 council meetings were in favour of a new bridge, public meetings were held and work began. Many slums as well as a few fine old houses were cleared in Gateshead to accommodate the bridge and its approaches. King George V performed the opening ceremony on 10 October 1928. Apparently an old man in the crowd had been present at the opening of the High Level and every other subsequent bridge over the Tyne. He was Moses Easton, aged 80.

The next important development concerning the Tyne bridges was the ending of tolls on the High Level Bridge (owned by the London and North-Eastern Railway) and the Redheugh Bridge (owned by the Redheugh Bridge Company). They became toll-free on Coronation Day, 10 May 1937. There were well-founded fears that Gateshead would lose more trade to Newcastle and that the former town would lose a large contribution to its rates, paid by the London North Eastern Railway, who were reported to be asking £250,000 as compensation for the removal of the High Level toll. (In 1914, the railway company collected £22,000 from the tramway companies for their use of the bridge). However, a government grant helped towards the cost of acquiring the toll rights.

Today, in 1974, there are plans for a new Redheugh bridge, to be built to the east of the present bridge, and as part of the proposed rapid

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transit system, other bridges are to be built downstream of the present Tyne Bridge.

The river Team has also presented an obstacle to communications. High Team Bridge was built in the 1880s, replacing a medieval stone bridge. Low Team Bridge, another early bridge, was reconstructed in 1905· linking Gateshead and Dunston. A second bridge built nearer the Tyne had been opened in 1875 but by 1925 it was considered inadequate but its replacement was delayed until 1933.· It was officially opened on 17 December 1934·

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