A History of Newcastle Upon Tyne

By Tim Lambert

Newcastle in the Middle Ages

The city of Newcastle Upon Tyne was founded at the lowest place the Tyne could be easily crossed. In 1080 the Normans built a wooden fort to safeguard the crossing. They also erected a wooden bridge. (The ‘new castle’ was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century).

Soon a little town grew up in the shadow of the new castle and was named after it. In the Middle Ages towns often grew up by castles because the garrisons provided a market for the townspeople’s goods.

Medieval Newcastle prospered partly because of the wars between the English and the Scots. There was much traffic through Newcastle and travelers spent money there.

Newcastle also became a busy port. In the Middle Ages, the main export was wool. (Wool was by far England’s most important export). Hides, grindstones, and lead were also exported. Newcastle also famously exported coal, from the 13th century onward. Much of it was exported to London where it was used in many industries. Imports included alum and luxuries such as spices and wine.

Newcastle also had a shipbuilding industry in the later Middle Ages. The first record of a ship being built there was in 1294. There was also a rope-making industry (ropes being essential for sailing ships). There was also a leather industry in Newcastle. There were skinners, tanners, and saddlers.

Wool cloth was manufactured in Medieval Newcastle. First, it was woven. Then it was fulled. In other words, it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. When it dried the wool was dyed. In Newcastle, there were also the same craftsmen you would find in any medieval town such as butchers, bakers, brewers, and smiths.

In the Middle Ages, there were 2 fairs in Newcastle. Fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they would attract buyers from all over Northumberland and Durham. Furthermore in the late 13th century walls were built around Newcastle – a sign of its growing importance. There were 7 main gates and 19 towers.

The church was very important and powerful in the Middle Ages. There were 4 churches in Newcastle. From the 13th century, there were also friars. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In Medieval Newcastle, there were Franciscan friars (known as grey friars because of their grey costumes), Dominican friars, (known as black friars), Carmelite friars (white friars), Trinitarian friars, and Austin Friars. There was also a Benedictine nunnery on Nun Street. There were also several ‘hospitals’ run by the church in Newcastle. In them, monks cared for the sick and the poor as best they could.

Newcastle Upon Tyne had a mayor as early as 1216. In 1400 it was made a county in its own right separate from the rest of the county. By then Newcastle had a population of around 4,000. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time, it was a large town.

Newcastle in the 16th Century and 17th Century

In 1539 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Newcastle. In 1540 he closed the nunnery. However, Henry also founded a grammar school in Newcastle which was incorporated in 1600.

In the 16th century exports of coal boomed and it overtook wool as the town’s main export. It is estimated that in 1500 about 15,000 tons of coal were exported from Newcastle each year. By the mid-17th century that had soared to around 400,000 tons a year.

By 1600 the population of Newcastle Upon Tyne had risen to about 10,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town. In 1635 a writer called Newcastle ‘the fairest and richest town in England inferior for wealth and building to no city save London and Bristol’. In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. Newcastle sided with the king but in 1644 a parliamentary army laid siege to the town. Newcastle surrendered in October 1644.

In 1658 a new guildhall was built and in 1681 the Hospital of the Holy Jesus (an almshouse).

In the late 17th century coal exports continued to boom so did the shipbuilding industry in Newcastle. Rope making also flourished. Lime was made in kilns for fertilizer. Salt was made from seawater. The water was heated in pans to evaporate it and leave behind a residue of salt. From the late 17th century there was a glass-making industry in Newcastle. By the early 18th century there was also an iron and steel industry. Another industry in Newcastle was clay pipe making.

At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes described Newcastle Upon Tyne as a noble town. She said it resembled London more than any other town in England. The streets were broad and the buildings were tall and made of brick or stone.

Newcastle in the 18th Century

By the mid-18th century, the population of Newcastle had risen to around 20,000. In the later 18th century the city spread beyond the walls and suburbs were created.

In the last part of the 18th century work began on demolishing the walls and the gates at Newcastle since they impeded traffic.

Although there was much poverty in 18th century Newcastle Upon Tyne (as there was in all cities) there were some improvements. In 1711 Newcastle gained its first newspaper. In 1736 an assembly room was built where balls were held and card games were played.

In 1751 an infirmary was built in Newcastle. In 1777 a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. In 1755 Newcastle gained its first bank.

After 1763 the streets inside the walls of Newcastle were lit by oil lamps and night watchmen patrolled them. (Although it is unlikely they were very effective).

A customs house was built in Newcastle in 1766. The Theatre Royal was first built in 1788. However, in 1773-81 a new bridge was built over the Tyne after the Medieval one was destroyed by a storm.

In the 18th century, private companies began providing piped water but only a small number of people could afford it. For the well-off life in Newcastle was more comfortable and more refined than before.

In the later 18th century the salt industry in Newcastle declined but a pottery industry began to flourish.

Newcastle in the 19th Century

In 1801, at the time of the first census Newcastle Upon Tyne had a population of 28,000. It grew rapidly during the 19th century. The population of Newcastle reached 53,000 in 1831. The boundaries were extended in 1835 to include Byker, Westgate, Elswick, Jesmond, and Heaton. The population of the borough reached over 87,000 in 1851. By 1901 it had risen to 215,000.

In the years 1825-1840 the centre of Newcastle was rebuilt. This was mostly the work of three men, John Dobson, an architect, Richard Grainger, a builder, and John Clayton the town clerk. All three have streets named after them. Dobson designed Eldon Square and Grainger built it 1825-31.

A man named Thomas Oliver designed Leazes Terrace. Grainger built it in 1829-34. Dobson designed and Grainger built Grey Street in the 1830s. It was named after Earl Grey prime minister 1830-34. (Earl Grey’s monument was erected in 1838). Grainger also built a market named after him.

A new Theatre Royal was built at that time. Leazes Park was laid out in 1837. The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Mary was built in 1844.

Like all 19th century cities, Newcastle was dirty and unsanitary. An epidemic of cholera in 1832 killed 306 people. Another epidemic in 1848-49 killed 412. The worst outbreak was in 1853 when 1,533 people died.

However, there were some improvements in Newcastle during the 19th century. After 1818 the streets were lit by gas. In 1836 a modern police force was formed. In 1858 a Corn Exchange (where grain could be bought and sold) was built. So was a Town Hall.

In 1838 a railway was built from Newcastle to Carlisle. It was followed by one to Darlington in 1844 and one to Berwick in 1847. In 1849 a railway bridge, High Level Bridge, was built over the Tyne to connect Newcastle to London. Queen Victoria opened the central railway station, which was designed by Dobson in 1850.

In 1862 a memorial was erected to Stephenson. A swing bridge was erected in 1876 and Hancock Museum opened in the present building in 1884. The first public library in Newcastle opened in 1878. From 1879 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Newcastle.

The first public park in Newcastle, Leazes was opened in 1873. In the 1870s the rest of Town Moor was laid out as parks. Brandling Park opened in 1880.

A new diocese was created in 1882 and the Church of St Nicholas was made a cathedral. Newcastle became a city. Also in 1882, a drapers shop in Newcastle became the first shop in the world to be lit by electricity.

In the early 19th century an alkali industry flourished in Newcastle but it had died out by the end of the century. The pottery industry and the glass industry also declined. During the 19th century, shipbuilding continued to be important. So did the iron industry. Mechanical engineering also prospered in Newcastle.

Newcastle in the 20th Century

Electric trams began to run in the streets of Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1901 but they were in turn replaced by buses.

Laing Art Gallery was built in 1901. Shipley Art Gallery opened in 1917. The first cinemas in Newcastle opened in 1909.

Redheugh Road Bridge was built in 1900. King Edward VII railway bridge was built in 1906. Hatton Gallery was founded in 1925 and the suspension bridge, Tyne Bridge, was erected in 1928.

John G. Joicey Museum opened in 1934. Discovery Museum opened as a museum of science and industry in 1934. It was renamed in 1993.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the council built the first council houses in Newcastle. Many more were built after 1945.

A new Civic Centre was built in 1968. In 1969 it was given a Civic Trust award. Eldon Square Shopping Centre opened in 1976. Furthermore, two sculptures were made by David Wynne, the River God Tyne, and Swans in Flight.

A new Central Library was built in 1968. Newcastle Arts Centre was built in 1988 and Monument Mall Shopping Centre was built in 1990.

In the 20th century, coal exports declined dramatically. The last coal mine within the boundaries of Newcastle closed in 1956. Shipbuilding also dramatically declined. During the 1930s Newcastle suffered from mass unemployment.

However, after 1945, as manufacturing industry contracted new service industries grew. More and more people were employed in public administration, retail, and education. Newcastle University was formed in 1963. Newcastle Polytechnic was founded in 1969. It was made a university in 1992.

Meanwhile, the Newcastle Military Vehicle Museum was founded in 1983. Stephenson Railway Museum opened in 1986.

Newcastle in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, Newcastle is still thriving. The Life Science Centre opened in 2000 and the Millennium Bridge was opened in 2001. In 2023 the population of Newcastle Upon Tyne was 300,000.