The ancient town and county of Newcastle-upon-Tyne is interwoven with the political, ecclesiastical, military, and social records of the country. Shaven priests have chanted their psalms in its streets; grim soldiers have bivouacked in its impromptu barracks; kings are associated with its history, sometimes as conquerors, sometimes as captives; scholarly men have in quiet pursued their labour in seclusion at one period; fierce mobs have rejoiced, after their fashion at another, the while the red wine ran like water through its gutters. Truly, a wonderful microcosm is this good old town and county of ours. Now, its history is written in its streets; and yet it is not too much to say that many of its inhabitants know comparatively little about them. It may not be amiss, then, for us to survey, with the mind’s eye, and with the aid of patient historians of the past, some of the more interesting highways and by-ways whose pavements we so often unthinkingly tread.
We shall find much to interest, something to amuse, not a little to appal, in the record we propose. Old traditional forms may seem to start again into shadowy life. Roger Thornton, for instance, Newcastle’s great benefactor in the middle ages, cannot be forgotten as we wander up and down the Westgate or study the busy life of the Sandhill. Eldon, Stowell, and Collingwood will revisit us again. Friars of all colours, black, white, and grey, will return to the scene of their former labours. The ancestors of our county families of today will look pridefully on the quaint old shops and warehouses where they laid, by honest toil and skill, the foundations of their families’ prosperity. In the mind’s eye we shall note honest sportsmen carrying along our ancient streets the heads of foxes slain within one or other of the four great parishes of Newcastle, to nail them to the church door, and receive for so doing a shilling a head. We shall discover that the great ones of the past were very human; that Bishop could wrangle with Mayor, and Mayor with the Queen’s Justice of Assize; and that even the sacred person of the Town Clerk could not escape buffets at times. We shall note, moreover, that in the olden days kind hearts beat under sober coats, as well as under the gay trappings of others in authority. Unfortunately, we shall find also that the charities founded by these benevolent ones have, in some cases, been swept away for good and all. We shall wend our way in the company of pilgrims to the shrine of the Virgin at Jesmond, and anon watch a melancholy procession set forth with a criminal from the Castle, by way of the Back Row, to the West Gate, there to be unceremoniously done to death. Another grim procession shall we note from time to time on its way to the Town Moor, and so giving cause for the ugly name of Gallows’ Gate. Again, we shall find that our citizens of old were not averse to hard blows, and that their Mayors had enough to do to keep them in good order. We shall peep, too into the books of the incorporated companies, and remark their quaint devices for the due ordering of trade. As we stand on the site of our ancient markets, we shall note how Acts of Parliament sought to regulate their prices in the days of old, and how unavailing all such interference was.
Especially shall we observe how certain districts of Newcastle scarce known to ears (and noses) polite were of brave reputation in the olden time. In the neighbourhood of Pandon was the burial place of the Northumbrian kings, “an acre sown with royal seed.” Royalty had its temporary abode in this district when going to and from Scotland. Charles I. was for nine months a prisoner in Pilgrim Street, whence he unsuccessfully endeavoured to make his escape, and where at last he was given up to the Scots for £400,000, whilst playing at chess. Oliver Cromwell dined at Katy’s Coffee-House on the Sandhill, when going to or returning from Scotland. James II’s statue was unceremoniously kicked into the Tyne on the arrival of William of Orange, while the coronation of George IV. was celebrated by a drunken saturnalia. We shall see, too, how the town has been gradually changed in character — by water (as at the time of the great flood in 1771); by fire (as in 1854); by the enterprise of builders; by corporate negligence; and by the advance of civilization.
In fine, it is impossible to wander through the streets of Newcastle without coming upon suggestive contrasts of the past and present. Here the Britons have congregated to stem the tide of invasion, and to receive the blessing of the Druids. Saxons and Danes have contended here. The polished Romans have left their impress here, deeply marked. The cannon of Newcastle has thundered against the legions of the Solemn League and Covenant; and fierce was the fight between the combatants. Those times are past and gone now; yet still we may not unprofitably consider from month to month, as we propose to do,
The memories and things of fame.
That do renown this city.