A History of Newcastle Under Lyme

By Tim Lambert

Newcastle Under Lyme in the Middle Ages

The ‘new’ castle which gave the town its name was built by the Normans. Originally it was made of wood but it was later rebuilt in stone. We are not sure why it was called the ‘new’ castle. Presumably, there was an older castle or fortress nearby. During the 12th century, a town grew up by the castle.

In the Middle Ages towns sometimes grew up by castles because they offered protection and because the garrison provided a market for the townspeople’s goods. Newcastle Under Lyme may have been a new town, deliberately created by the Lord of the Manor. At any rate, the town was first mentioned in 1162 and by the early 13th century Newcastle was prospering.

In 1251 it was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). From that date, Newcastle had a mayor. From 1354 Newcastle sent MPs to parliament.

By the 14th century, there was an iron industry in Newcastle making things like nails. However, Newcastle Under Lyme was a small town in the Middle Ages, even by the standards of the time. It probably had a population of about 800.

By 1277 Dominican friars came to Newcastle Under Lyme. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. They were called black friars because of their black cloaks.

Newcastle Under Lyme 1500-1800

In 1590 Newcastle was given a new charter. This time it was incorporated (in other words it was given a corporation that had stronger powers than the old town government).

In the 17th century, an industry making felt hats grew up in Newcastle. There were felt makers and hatters. Another industry was making clay pipes (for smoking). In the 18th century, there was a pottery industry in Newcastle Under Lyme but it failed to ‘take off’ in the 19th century. The age-old industry of ironworking continued.

An anvil

In the 18th century, Newcastle Under Lyme was an important coaching town. It was on the main road from Liverpool and Manchester to Birmingham and London. Many stagecoaches stopped at Newcastle and the tradesmen in the town benefited from the traffic. From 1799 the streets of Newcastle Under Lyme were lit by oil lamps.

Newcastle Under Lyme in the 19th century

In 1801 the population of Newcastle Under Lyme was just over 4,600. It would seem very small to us but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized town. Newcastle grew very rapidly in the 19th century.

However, the town did not become a manufacturing centre. In the early 19th century Newcastle Under Lyme remained a market town. Although nearby towns developed a pottery industry that did not happen in Newcastle. In the 19th century, there was still an iron industry and a brewing industry in Newcastle. In the early 19th century there was a silk weaving industry in Newcastle. However, it declined later in the century. Even the traditional industry of felt hat making and clay pipe making died out. Newcastle Under Lyme developed into a dormitory town for the nearby towns.

There were several improvements in Newcastle Under Lyme in the 19th century. From 1819 it had a supply of gas for lighting. The railway reached Newcastle in 1852. The first cemetery opened in 1866 and the first public library opened in 1876. However, like all towns in the mid-19th century Newcastle Under Lyme was dirty and overcrowded. There were outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and 1849.

Newcastle Under Lyme in the 20th century

In 1901 the population of Newcastle Under Lyme was 17,000. By 1971 it was 70,000. The huge rise in population was partly due to boundary extensions. The boundaries were changed in 1932 to include Chesterton, Wolstanton, and Silverdale. The first council houses were built in 1915. More followed in the 1920s and 1930s. After 1945 the council demolished some slums and many more council houses were erected. A museum opened in 1941.

A Covered Market opened in 1963. The High Street was closed to traffic in 1968. The Roebuck Centre opened in 1984.

In 2023 the population of Newcastle Under Lyme was 123,000.