History and heritage

The importance, significance and quality of Newcastle as the regional capital of the North East of England has been recognised for hundreds of years. In few parts of the country does one settlement form such a strong focus for a whole region.  

Over the millennia Newcastle has had many identities. The earliest settlement ( Pons Aelius as it was known ) was a bridgehead of the Roman world, Hadrian’s Wall was the edge of an ancient empire, Northumbria was the cradle of Christianity and medieval Newcastle a town of huge importance. By the seventeenth century Newcastle was considered the second town of the kingdom. In 1609 Newcastle was described as the ‘glory of all the towns in this country’ and in 1633 ‘beyond all compare the fairest and richest town in England, inferior for wealth and building to no city save London’. Its mineral wealth was renowned. For two centuries the region fueled the industrial revolution and made Britain the workshop of the world. This was the home of the locomotive, the birthplace of the railways, the supplier of ships to the world, where electricity supply, electric light and turbine power were developed. In the nineteenth century Newcastle was a town ‘making more strides in wealth, population and importance than any other in the British Empire’.

The story of Newcastle is one of change but also of continuity. It is a long and fascinating story which goes back to Roman times.

Roman Settlement

The line of Hadrian’s Wall ran from Wallsend through what is now the centre of modern Newcastle. The eastern end of the Roman Empire’s Northern frontier was protected by three forts - Arbeia at South Shields, Segedunum at Wallsend and Pons Aelius on the high ground above the River Tyne in what was to become Newcastle. This is the earliest known crossing of the river and the origin of Newcastle as a settlement. Archaeological evidence has shown that there was not only a bridge and a fort here in Roman times but also a civilian settlement. 

Norman Stronghold

The advent of Norman control in the 11th century saw the establishment of Newcastle’s contemporary urban landscape. The continuity of the city’s history is illustrated by the building of the royal castle - founded in 1080 by Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror - on the same advantageous sandstone bluff high above the River Tyne as that used for the Roman fort. This was the new castle which gave the town its name.

Strength and Magnificence

The shape of Newcastle, the North East’s principal settlement, was established in the medieval period – not only were its defences, boundaries and churches built but its medieval street pattern, quayside and markets were established. The replacement of the original timber castle in stone, the construction of the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas and the building of the Town Walls, begun in the reign of Henry III, established Newcastle as one of the country’s key medieval towns. The strength and magnificence of the town walls ‘far passith all the waulls of the cities of England and most of the cities of Europe’ ( Leland c.1540 ) It was within the largely 13th century walls that the town thrived – spreading out from the high ground around the Castle and St. Nicholas Church. Three main streets led to the gates in the walls. Four principal churches developed and the precincts of at least eight religious houses, a Benedictine nunnery and the four houses of the Austin, White, Grey and Black friars all stood within the medieval town, 

Border Fortress

Newcastle had an enormous strategic importance as a base and fortress in every period of conflict between Scots and English from Norman and early Plantagenet times to the second Jacobite rebellion. Its role guarding the border to the North was augmented by the great medieval castles of the Northumbrian coast.

The Beginnings of Greatness

The strategic importance of Newcastle was matched by its growing importance as the centre of what was to become known as the Great Northern Coalfield. The accessible coal measures had been exploited by the Romans but was established as a medieval industry in 1239 by charter of Henry III and so began the area’s 750 year long association with coal – the region’s black diamonds. An association which would in time involve powering a revolution and fostering the development of a means of transport which would change the world.

The Second City of the Land

By the time of the Civil War Newcastle is established as not only a regional capital but as the second city in the land. ‘The river is plentifully supplied with salmon, the Quay at Newcastle, the fairest in the land and the Nags Head the finest-built inn ’ wrote a contemporary chronicler. Newcastle is the most wealthy coal port in the country – reviving the early links across the North Sea and with the towns of southern and eastern England and most of all providing the heat and power to foster the rise of London – ‘the hearth that warms the south part of the kingdom with fire.’  It is a town of vital strategic and political importance in the Civil War – the site of siege and of the Battle of Newburn Ford

Cradle of the Industrial Revolution

The stirrings of the industrial revolution begin on Tyneside with the use of coal to fire the manufacture of glass. Tyneside also continues to lead the country in the vital manufacture of salt. The increasing importance of coal for domestic and early industrial use was the catalyst for the development of waggonways - the precursor of railways. The Great Northern Coalfield, with Newcastle at its heart is the cradle of, and the driving force behind, Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

From Avison to Bewick

Daniel Defoe writing in the 1720s was impressed with Newcastle as a ‘ spacious, extended, infinitely populous place. .. a noble, large and deep river with a strong and stately stone bridge, the longest and largest quay that it is to be seen in England.’ Its role as border stronghold was made redundant by the failure of the Jacobite Rebellions and allowed Newcastle to spill out beyond its defensive walls and to develop as a post medieval town. The town walls were removed along the quayside, allowing trade to burgeon, the first new early Georgian streets and buildings were added to the medieval backdrop. Charles Avison inaugurated the first public subscription concerts in the town, Thomas Bewick established his workshop and published his delightful volumes, a Theatre Royal was built, and a Literary and Philosophical Society established. 

Where Railways were Born

The steam locomotive and with it the modern railway was originally developed not to provide public transport but to serve the coal industry. The work of George and Robert Stephenson in the 1820s and 1830s developing the locomotive, most famously the Rocket, in their Newcastle works - the first purpose built locomotive works in the World - was arguably the most important industrial advance of the nineteenth century. Within a few decades of the success of the Rocket at the Rainhill Trials railways had begun to cross not only Britain and Europe but were opening up North America and the sub-continent.  

The Golden Age of Coal, Iron and Steam

By 1860 the Tyne was Britain’s second most important river. It was the focal point of the Golden Age of Coal, Iron and Steam – coal mining, railway engineering and shipbuilding forming an inter-connected relationship which lay at the base of Britain’s prosperity, its industrial power and its global strength. 

A City of Palaces

The growth and achievement of the region was embodied in that of Newcastle itself. Its rise was meteoric – the population grew from 28,000 in 1820 to 215,000 in 1900. It contained some of the largest industrial complexes in Europe – especially the mighty Armstrong works employing 25000 people by the late nineteenth  century. Newcastle also underwent, in the course of a decade, an architectural transformation unique to English cities.  Richard Grainger, building, developer and entrepreneur, was without doubt the single most important influence on the development of central Newcastle in the nineteenth century. He changed the appearance, the nature, the commercial heart and the external perception of Newcastle. His creation of a wholly new stone built classical town centre, using a range of high quality architects including John Dobson, John and Benjamin Green, Thomas Oliver, John Wardle and George Walker within the still predominantly medieval town was one of the architectural achievements of the nineteenth century.  Its brightest jewel was Grey Street – ‘the noblest and most magnificent street’ ( Howitt ) ‘ one of the best streets in England ( Pevsner ) and ‘ England’s finest street’ ( Gladstone ). “You walk into what has long been termed the COAL HOLE OF THE NORTH “ wrote William Howitt “ “ and find yourself at once in A CITY OF PALACES; a fairyland of newness, brightness and modern elegance”.

Building Bridges

The coming of the railways into Newcastle brought with it two of the country’s finest railway structures - Newcastle Central Station, widely accepted as one of the country’s finest stations and the High Level Bridge, the world’s first combined rail and road bridge. Today the High Level Bridge, Armstrong’s innovative Swing Bridge, the iconic Tyne Bridge and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge are individually and collectively remarkable.

Power to the People

Tyneside’s reputation for innovation was carried into the later years of the Victorian epoch. The area, for centuries recognised as the home of coal ( Coals to Newcastle ! ) now became synonymous with the development of a new form of power, a new source of heat  and light. In the closing years of the nineteenth century Tyneside was the scene of the invention of the electric light bulb, the application of turbine power to marine engineering with the building of Turbinia and the development of modern electricity generation and supply. Developments which heralded the enormous and rapid changes in technology, life and society in the twentieth century.   

Britain’s Anvil

As the twentieth century dawned Tyneside enjoyed the reputation as Britain’s anvil. ‘Everywhere from the dancing waters of the harbour to the ebb and flow of the throbbing city are industry, resource, and expansion, coal staiths, shipyards, engine shops, dry docks, chemical works, forges, electrical lighting laboratories, warehouses, merchant’s offices, steamships, railway trains, without end, without number ... there is not its like in any thirteen miles of river the world over.' ( R. W. Johnson  1895 ). In the years leading up to the First World War the North East constructed one third of the world’s ships. In 1923, 21.5 million tons of coal were exported from the Tyne. 

Continuity and Longevity

The wholesale collapse of the area's industrial base which resulted from the over concentration of activity in the interrelated mining, shipbuilding, armaments and heavy engineering industries in the inter-war years left a legacy with which the region was forced to struggle for decades. Out of this came a series of innovative initiatives and efforts to modernise both the social and economic structures of the region which have illustrated the spirit of the region. The Byker Wall development is one of Europe’s leading examples of social housing.  The plans in the 1960s and 1970s to create the Brasilia of the Old World sought to transform Newcastle’s city centre but largely left intact the work of Grainger. The last twenty five years have been a story of investment and improvement in one of Britain’s leading cities, bringing with it the spectacular transformation of the Quayside, the regeneration of Grainger Town, continuing investment in the city’s hospitals and universities, and the continued growth of the commercial centre.

Throughout the streets of the town and the surrounding landscapes there is evidence of centuries of the layering of Newcastle’s culture, history and heritage. The city’s identities – Roman frontier, Norman stronghold, Great Medieval town, home of the railways, industrial powerhouse – are widely varied yet it is a story of continuity and longevity, of importance and innovation – unmatched anywhere else in the country. 

Did you know?

In 1923, 21.5 million tons of coal were exported from the Tyne.

Need more information?

The Tyne and Wear Archaeology Service (part of the Urban Design and Conservation Team) is responsible for maintaining and enhancing the Tyne and Wear Historic Environment Record.  There are over 17,000 sites on our database, which include monuments, earthworks, cropmarks, historic parks and gardens, battlefields, industrial sites and 20th century defence sites. We also hold a wide collection of associated historic maps, photographs, archaeological fieldwork reports and reports on historic building recording.

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