The Streets of Newcastle – The Bigg Market

Bigg Market, Newcastle, 1820

When Grainger Street was extended along the line of St. John’s Lane to the Central Station, several houses in the Bigg Market were pulled down. In this way the ancient hostelry of the Fighting Cocks which gave its name to the pant that stood just in front of it, disappeared. On the same side were the Unicorn and the Golden Lion—ancient inns both of them; these also have disappeared. Gone, too, is the Old Turk’s Head, nearly opposite the Fighting Cocks, and described by Mackenzie as “a very commodious, well-conducted house, having the largest public room in the town attached to it”. With these old inns have disappeared also from the neighbourhood those ancient stone steeps provided for the help of travellers in mounting their horses. Gone also are the tubes for extinguishing the flambeaux, or links, which at one time it was the custom to carry for the assistance of pedestrians on dark nights. The last of these useful tubes in Newcastle was to be seen some few years ago at the right hand side of the door of a private house afterwards converted into Dickinson’s tobacco establishment. In this respect, at any rate, “the light of other days” has vanished from the Bigg Market for good and all.

The Fighting Cocks Yard, Bigg Market, Newcastle, 1846Old Inns, Bigg Market, Newcastle, 1843The name Bigg Market simply means that, when it was given, this was the market for the sale of bigg, a particular kind of barley, properly that variety which has four rows of grain on each ear. It is now out of cultivation in England, and almost so in Scotland. But the street was also at one time called the Oat Market. It is now devoted to the sale of live poultry, rabbits, eggs, bacon, and butter on the mornings of Thursday and Saturday. There was a market for poultry also near at hand in the High Bridge at one time; “there are still,” Dr. Bruce tells us, “some remains of the piazza in which it was held.” This mart was called the Pullen Markets.

On the right hand, as we go down the street, we come to the Pudding Chare, near the corner of which stood the famous book shop of the Charnleys. The word chare, as we know, means simply a narrow lane. It is derived by some from the Saxon “cerre,” diverticulum, the turning or bending of a way. Brockett derives it from the Saxon “cyrran,” a turning. Others have it that it is simply the corruption of the word “ajar,” partly open. The story has often been told of the witness in a criminal case tried at one of our assizes, who said that “he saw three men come out of the foot of the chare.” Quoth the judge, pityingly, “Gentlemen of the jury this evidence is worth nothing. The witness cannot be in his right senses. How can a man, much less three men, come out of a chair foot?” But the jury assured my lord that they knew exactly what the witness meant and the case proceeded.

At one time there was a fine view of St. Nicholas’ Church from the Bigg Market. But the authorities chose to erect a huge Town Hall just in front of the grand old church. A terrible eyesore it has always been to many amongst us native and to the manner born. Its merits were some years ago tersely summed up in the satirical words: “We’ve got a corn market where we shiver with cold; a hall where we can’t hear anybody’s speech; and an organ that won’t play.” To erect the Town Hall the Corporation had to knock down Middle Street, Union Street, &c., and so went by the board some interesting specimens of old Newcastle. There were two rows of timbered and gable-ended houses. “They were low,” says the Rev. Dr. Bruce, “and perhaps, according to our modem notions, inconvenient, but they were highly picturesque.” As to the hall itself, the worthy doctor dismisses it with the dry remark that it is “a huge pile of buildings of modern erection, which greatly impedes the traffic of the street, and almost wholly obscures the view of St. Nicholas’.” The doctor is not alone in his evident dislike to the building. Several of our local satirists have had a shot at it now and again, just as an elder bard had lamented the destructiveness of the Corporation: –

Oh, waes me for wor canny toon,

It canna stand it lang –

The props are tumbling one by one,

The beeldin’ seun mun gan.  

A poet thus criticises the internal arrangements: –

A fine new Toon Hall there’s lately been built, Te sewt mountybank dansors an’ singors; It’s a sheym the way the munny’s been spilt, An wor Cooncil hez sair brunt their fingurs; For the room’s dull an cawd, tee, an’ ghostly an’ lang, An thor fine organ’s not worth a scuddick; An’ if frae the gallery ye want te heer a fine sang, Wey, ye might as weel be in a keel’s huddick.

Another critic is impressed with the appearance of the building from the north. “Looked at from the Bigg Market, the entire pile has a most mean and beggarly appearance. A terminating tower has been erected at the extreme north, which suggests the idea of a pigeon-ducket. An aperture has been left apparently for a clock, which would certainly be of considerable use in that quarter. But our Corporation always ‘finds it much easier to project than to carry out.” This critic is some what severe, but certainly the Bigg Market end of the New Town Hall is — well, not very impressive!

A third writes on the same subject as follows: –


Aloft I raise my head in air,

High o’er Bigg Market and its pant,

Proclaiming to the world my want

As down I look on Pudding Chare –

A want so plain that all may see;

And as they gaze, the passers-by

To fish’s head without an eye

Compare the empty pate of me!  

How many thousand pounds were spent

On me is more than I can tell;

But this I know, and know too well –

The public use which I was meant

To serve, I am not like to meet.

There is not left, it seems, so much

Remaining in the old town’s hutch

As would the builder’s work complete.  

Ten thousand’s gone, there can’t be got

A hundred pounds the clock to buy;

An idle, wasted thing am I,

And on this busy town a blot.

‘Tis true I am “a thing of beauty,”

But I shall have no “joy for ever,”

If I, a silent tower, am never

Allowed to do my proper duty.  

Is there no councillor will rise

And in the Council Chamber ask

Why I’m not made to do my task

In all men’s ears, to all men’s eyes?

I fain would strike and show the hour –

Not made for ornament alone,

Like many another handsome drone: –

Save from that fate

The Town Hall Tower

Having, then, this huge building in front of us, we must perforce tarry yet in the Bigg Market, whilst we look ahead and see what is before us, “in the mind’s eye, Horatio.” It stands, as we have said, on the site of what once was Middle Street. To our right is the Groat Market; the Cloth Market is on our left. Middle Street had formerly three names. Its upper part was called Skinner Gate; its lower parts Spurrier Gate and Saddler Gate. Bourne says of it :”It is a street as it was in Gray’s time, where all sorts of artificers have their shops and houses.” In particular, shoemakers much affected this street in former years. On the left hand of Middle Street was the Old Flesh Market, which consisted mostly of low old houses. The butchers were wont to erect their shambles here, each Friday night, for the next day market.

Cuthbert Ellison, founder of the great local family of that name, lived and pursued his calling of a merchant hereabouts. In the closing days of February, 1556-57, he was bidding farewell to municipal honours (he had been Sheriff and twice Mayor), and dividing his worldly goods among his family. “To my son, Cuthbert Ellison, my house, with the appurtenances, in Newcastle, in the Bigg Market, wherein I do now dwell.” “To my daughter, Barbara Ellison, my house, &c, in the Middle Street of Newcastle aforesaid.” So runs the record. A dozen years later, Barbara became the wife of Cuthbert Carr, of Benwell. She was married from the family dwelling place, and they had high festivities there, ending in a quarrel between some of the guests, and a charge of defamation in the Ecclesiastical Court at Durham.

Of the Old Flesh Market, Bailie writes : — “The market for all kinds of flesh meat, held here every Saturday, is probably the largest and best stored single market of any in the kingdom. A stranger is struck with surprise when he views the long and extended rows of butchers’ stalls, loaded with meat of the richest and most delicious kinds; the mutton, beef, &c., being mostly of the Scotch or Northumbrian breeds, and, gathered on the rich pastures of the graziers in the vicinity of Newcastle, possess a flavour unknown in the more Southern counties.” Mackenzie rarely indulges in humour he respects the dignity of history too much for that; but he unbends for once in mentioning the locality in the following delicious note: — “The Corporation has named this street the Old Butcher Market; but this appellation has been generally rejected, because it is in reality the Old Flesh Market, having for ages been used for the sale of flesh and not of butchers!”

Writing on this subject in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle recently, Mr. Alderman Barkas tells us: –  “A large portion of the old buildings which formed Middle Street and Union Street were pulled down to make room for a new Corn Market, which was built by the Corporation in 1830 at an expense of about £10,000. Prior to that date Mr. Richard Grainger, who found Newcastle crumbling bricks and left it stone, offered the Corporation the freehold and exclusive use of the newly built Central Exchange Art Gallery, on condition that it should be used as a corn market. Mr. Grainger, I am informed, also promised to rebuild the front elevations of the houses in the Groat Market and the Cloth Market in a Gothic style of architecture, and remove all the old buildings in Middle and Union Streets, and thus open a magnificent area in the centre of the town. This, as it now appears, generous offer on the part of Mr. Grainger was rejected in the Council by 32 votes to 17, after a long discussion, and during the mayoralty of Mr. Joseph Lamb, October 4, 1837.”

Elsewhere in the same journal Mr. Barkas said:— “A new Butcher Market was opened on the 28th of February, 1807, and from that time the Flesh Market was known as the Old Flesh Market. Market Lane, now a cul de sac in Pilgrim Street, led into this new Butcher Market, which extended from the foot of Market Lane to the large open space in front of Watson’s foundry in the High Bridge, and down to Mosley Street, near the old Theatre Royal, and would thus cover a great deal of ground.”

The Old Flesh Market, Newcastle, 1820The sketches which accompany this article will enable the reader to form some idea of the ancient appearance of the Bigg Market and its neighbourhood. Fighting Cooks Yard is shown in the first of these sketches, while two other old inns which stood alongside it — the Unicorn and the Golden Lion — are represented in the second. Both sketches were made or copied by Mr. R. J. McKenzie. The views of the Bigg Market and the Old Flesh Market as they were seen in 1820, are copied from T. M. Richardson. Pudding Chare will be noticed on the right hand of the first, with the old houses opposite which then formed Union Street. As for the Old Flesh Market, we may gather from Richardson’s sketch of it that it must have been in his time one of the most picturesque corners of old Newcastle.

Near the Grainger Street end of the Bigg Market, and on the left hand side going to St. Nicholas’ Church, a handsome gateway (shown in Richardson’s sketch) led into Farrington’s Court. The Farrington Brothers were cabinetmakers, and for many years had their showrooms and workshops here. The brothers were excellent specimens of the old tradesmen of Newcastle, men of great honesty and integrity. They were both bachelors, and the latest surviving brother, when on his death-bed, sent for Mr. Fenwick, attorney, to make his will. There were present at the time the doctor, the attorney, and his old foreman, Mr. Kinnear. When asked to whom he intended to bequeath his property, he told the gentlemen present that, as he had no near relatives, they had better divide it amongst themselves, which was accordingly done.

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