Vol 1 – No. 2 – April 1887 – The Black Gate

The Black Gate in 1877

The Black Gate in 1887The Black Gate, the principal entrance to the Castle of Newcastle-on Tyne, was built by King Henry III. in 1248, about seventy years after the completion of the keep and other parts of the fortress by Henry II. It still stands, at least the lower part of it, a splendid specimen of the beautiful architecture of the age which produced it. The upper portion, the work of later times, is scarcely less interesting, telling, as it dues, the story of the varied fortunes of the gateway after the close of its military career. In its original condition it must have formed a noble spectacle, as pleasing to the eyes of its friends as it was formidable to those of its foes.

Around the platform of the castle, an area of three acres, the enclosing curtain wall was drawn, with gates and posterns at various points, and here, at the northern angle, towered up the massive form of the main gateway, known in later days as the Black Gate. Outside the wall on this side was a fosse or moat, and access to the gate was by a drawbridge, defended by a barbican, impregnable we may well consider this entrance to have been. Say that an enemy had forced the barbican, driving back its defenders, and had crossed with them the drawbridge before it could be hoisted, there were the two portcullises of the main gate to bar his further way, while the defenders hurled down upon him, through the openings for the purpose in the vaulted arch above, the heavy missiles or molten lead held in reserve for such emergency. Even could he have passed the portcullises, and penetrated the curved way, with high massive walls on either side, he would have come upon another gateway to be carried before he found himself within the castle yard.

This second gateway stood at the further end of the present narrow curved street within the Black Gate the street is commonly called the Castle Garth but no trace of the gateway now exists. On either side of it stood one of the castle prisons. That on the north-east side was called the “Great Pit”; that on the opposite side the “Heron Pit” There is some interesting information concerning the prices of material and the wages of working men of the period in the accounts of repairs to these prisons in the reign of Edward III. Candles, we learn, were 1½d. per pound; “trees of great timber,” for joists, were 2s.; and great trees of 44ft., for sills, were 3s. 4d. each. “Estlandbord” (Baltic timber), for flooring, was 3d. per piece. The blacksmith received (id. per stone for working Spanish iron, bought of Adam Kirkharle, into bolts, bands, crooks, staples, manacles, and fittings for the stocks. Carpenters’ and masons’ wages were 2s. 6d. per week in November, reduced to 2s. Id. in March; labourers received 1s. 9d. per week in the former, reduced to 1s. 6d. in the latter month. The timber was bought of John Wodseller, and was landed at Gaolegrip (now the Javel Group) in the Close. Sand was brought from the Sandgate, and lime from the “lyme-kilnes,” and both were led by “Adam the lym-leder.”

After the completion of this work, there is very little mention in history of the Black Gate until the reign of James I. By this time the whole castle had fallen into a miserable state of dilapidation. The only houses in the castle yard were a herald’s house, the gaoler’s house, and two houses near the Black Gate. The keep was used as a prison, “wherein,” as a grant of King James puts it, “is kept the sons of Belial.” One Master Alexander Stevenson, a page of the king’s bedchamber and “a Scottish man,” we are told, “begged the castle of the king,” and obtained a lease of it, with the exception of the keep and Moot Hall, for fifty years at forty shillings rent. He began to build, upon the ruins of the Black Gate, the upper portion with the square mullioned windows still to be seen, and the building was completed by one Pickle, who kept a tavern in the Gate House. Jordan, a Scotchman, and a sword-slipper to trade, built a house on the south side of the gate, and Thomas Reed, a Scotch pedlar, took a shop on the north side. Soon the vicinity of the Castle Garth became a thriving business place, principally inhabited by tailors and shoemakers, as it continued down to quite recent days. On Stevenson’s death, his uncompleted lease came into the possession of one Patrick Black, and it is from him that the gateway probably derives its name.

In 1732, the Black Gate had again fallen into a state of great decay, caused by the neglect of the Newcastle Corporation, which had, after many attempts, obtained a lease of the Castle Garth. This lease came to an end in the year named, and another was granted to Colonel George Liddell, afterwards Lord; Ravensworth. In 1739, part of Stevenson’s work, on the eastern side of the gate, fell with a great crash, and was re-built in a mean way with brickwork. From this time the building seems to have been let off in tenements, and to have gradually fallen into the wretched state in which it remained until 1884, when the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries restored it and adapted it for use as a museum. Our illustrations show it as it appeared before and after this restoration.

A visit to the Black Gate is a rare treat to those who delight in relics of past times. The outside aspect of the ancient tower is full of interest. There before us we still see the work of Edward III; then above that the portions added by Masters Stevenson and Pickle the whole surmounted by the red-tiled roof so judiciously added by the Antiquaries. Under the archway we see the beautiful trefoil arcades, and the vaulted chamber on either side. Then, inside, there is glorious store of antique wealth. Relics of all periods, from the Stone Age to the age of tinder boxes and sulphur matches, are here gathered together. Roman altars and inscribed stones, with which, by means of drawings, scholars in all parts of the world are familiar, and which they would sacrifice much to look upon in their reality, stand here, close by the very doors of the people of Newcastle. Verily the Black Gate is “rich, with the spoils of time”.

R. J. C.

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