History of Newcastle, British Heritage
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne is a city defined by industry, work and toil. But most of all it is a city whose identity has been carved into the side of a lump of coal. Like many of Britain’s workhouses, the Industrial Revolution irreversibly cemented the city’s reputation as one of heavy industry, of the pit and the shipyard. It is something that never changed, even when the overwhelming sea change in Britain’s economy in the 1980s witnessed primary industries like coal, iron and steel collapse under Margaret Thatcher’s watch and were replaced by the service sector. But Newcastle is a city of icons: think of it and you think of coal, Newcastle Brown Ale, of football fans in black and white striped shirts and of the arc of the Tyne Bridge framing the skyline – or maybe even the Hairy Bikers and Ant and Dec, to show deference to contemporary pop culture.
The Romans were the first to settle in Newcastle but it wasn’t so much for the fields of fossil fuels that Emperor Hadrian parked his troops there, rather the location on the Tyne was ideal for a bit of fortification. Hadrian was big on that, what with his wall that all but bisected the UK along its waist, from Seggendunum on the River Tyne to the mouth of the Solway Firth. The most formidable fortification in Europe at the time, Hadrian’s Wall has yet to cede completely to the ravishes of time, with its remnants still clearly visible in areas of Newcastle, particularly the west end.
The Anglo-Saxon period followed the Romans’ exit. The visits from Vikings reprised the tumult of the Roman conquistadors. Unrest was about to get worse after William The Conqueror’s ascent to power in the aftermath of that 1066 scrap at Hastings. Northumbria became a bit of a de facto battlefield as the Anglo-Saxon natives rebelled against the Normans. By 1080, the civilisation on the River Tyne, then known as Monkchester (denoting the monastic and Roman visitors), was levelled. Sitting on the North-eastern shoulder of England, this land helped secure Northumbria. William The Conqueror’s son, Robert Curthouse, built a new castle. In doing so he built Newcastle, or at least inspired the name. It would become a seat of crown power in the years that followed under King William II.
The castle’s design would change and so would Newcastle. The castle was renovated under King Henry II in the last quarter of the Twelfth Century, and again in the middle of the Thirteenth when the dual-towered and imposing figure of the Black Gate augmented the castle’s defences. This was an age when defences were necessary: Newcastle’s merchants evacuate themselves to safety, confining themselves within the castle’s walls when the Scots’ raids became more frequent. in 1174 the Scottish King William The Lion was held prisoner at Newcastle for his contribution to the previous year Battle Of Alnwick rebellion against Henry II. In the Wars Of Scottish Independence, Newcastle stood firm, witnessing in process the source of Scotland’s subjugation as the Stone Of Destiny and her defender William Wallace passed through under the possession of King Edward I. The latter, hung drawn and quartered in London, had a section of his dismembered body on display in Newcastle.
By the Fifteenth Century, a county corporate and a hub of England’s medieval textiles trade, Newcastle was an economic and political hub for Northumbria. The middle ages were a boon for Newcastle’s nascent coal industry. The north-east of England was rich in coal, and in Newcastle, it soon overtook textiles as the town’s primary industry. With a royal charter granted the quayside a monopoly over coal trade in the area, Newcastle usurped neighbouring North Shields to dominate the coal trade. The Newcastle Hostmen formed the cartel that had a stranglehold on the industry; their grip tightening during the Reformation as the monastic influence on the town diminished. Through Newcastle’s toil the Hostmen grew rich. Through the Crown’s intervention, Newcastle had held the economic trump card over neighbouring towns like Sunderland, places that shared mineral wealth but were now facing barriers to trade. If anyone wants to mark on the calendar just exactly when the rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland was sired, a rivalry now exhibited largely through pub jokes and the antipathy between the cities’ football teams; it was the 1530s.
From the medieval textiles and leather trade, now to coal: Newcastle was primed for the restorative effects of the Industrial Revolution. But first, religion and not industry was to undergo a revolution, sending constitutional shockwaves throughout Britain. Just as Newcastle had oft-occupied the frontline during wars with Scotland, fending off Danish Vikings and the violent toing and froing between Anglo-Saxons during the city’s formative years, England’s split with Rome sculpted Newcastle too. Half-a-dozen religious buildings closed for business under Henry VIII’s watch. With land turned over to commerce, Newcastle’s faith was now in commerce. By the 17th Century coal had outstripped wool as the city’s chief export. Such was Newcastle’s importance, Charles I’s court saw the industry as an opportunity to swell the crown’s purse through taxation of the coal in favour for securing the Hostmen’s control of the market.
While the Reformation helped Newcastle build some serious financial muscle to flex, it also brought with it the violent spillover from the English Civil War and the Bishops’ War in Scotland. During the latter in 1640, the Scots took the city, shutting down trade and draining hundreds of thousands of pounds from the economy as they fed and watered their troops. The English Civil war came two years later with Newcastle as a focus for Charles’ defence of the north-east and its precious coal reserves. Of course, Parliamentarian forces strangled the coal trade out of Newcastle. Fuel shortages were rife. But those were the least of the problems as war continued.
A three-month seige in 1644, saw an invading Scottish army of some 40,000 men eventually overpower Royalist forces. Northumberland was relinquished to the Scots as both English and Scottish politics of radical religious and parliamentary reform led the country on the path through war to Regicide. Indeed, Charles was held prisoner at Newcastle in 1645.
After the dust settled, with the new broom of the system sweeping through the country after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Newcastle’s attention turned back to coal, and to industry. The city’s population in the 1750s had risen to over 20,000. The previously walled city was no longer on the defensive as rope making, glass blowing, textiles and iron and steel works supplemented a thriving coal industry. Industrialisation was transforming cities like Newcastle: populations were swollen further, rail links connected the city with the rest of the country. Old working practices were rendered obsolete. The keelmen who had skillfully manoeuvered coal down the Tyne were supplanted by the huge wooden structures of the coal staithes which were used to transport the coal onto ships for export. Such was the scale of coal production, the Dunston Coal Staithes, built in 1890 by North Eastern Railway Company were said to be the largest wooden structure in Europe. In 2003, they were devastated by a suspected arson attack.
Contemporary Newcastle was taking shape, moulded by the pit. The River Tyne was the life giver to the city’s economy. Bridged seven times, it is the iconic Tyne Bridge that remains the most famed, opened in 1929 by King George V. Perhaps one of the most striking feats of the Inter-War years, the Tyne Bridge inspired the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and was a rare act of optimism at a time when the world’s economy was in the doldrums. When the Second World War brought the Luftwaffe’s bombs upon the nation’s industrial heartlands Newcastle was no different. 141 died in the bombings. Post-war saw the world change. Global economics’ influence grew. With the decline of British manufacturing, with industries like shipbuilding all but sinking, Newcastle suffered like its cousins in Glasgow and Belfast, having to reinvent itself in the service sector and retail. But no matter the modernisation that continues at pace, the dockland regeneration programmes and the luxury flats that have sprung up in the 21st Century, Newcastle, the old ‘Toon’ as it were, is still to wipe the soot from its work clothes.