The Streets of Newcastle – Grey Street

Grey Street, Newcastle-on-Tyne, 1889Grey Street is generally regarded as a noble monument to the genius of Richard Grainger. To trace its origin we must go back in thought to the spring of 1834, for then it was that Mr. Grainger entered into arrangements with the representatives of Major Anderson for the purchase of the celebrated Anderson Place, at a cost of £50,000. Other property, including the old theatre in Mosley Street, probably cost him about £45,000 more. Having made this costly venture, his next step was to lay his plans for projected new streets before the Town Council; and this was done on March 27th of the above named year. He desired to remove the Butcher and Vegetable Markets, then comparatively new, and to build on the site a magnificent thoroughfare which should connect Blackett Street with Dean Street. Many were the difficulties he had to encounter. The owners of the threatened property, and other persons who had invested their money in the neighbourhood, sang out lustily against any change being made. Grainger was not disposed to yield to this clamour if he could possibly help it. Accordingly, he exhibited his plans in the Arcade on the 29th of May. They were eagerly inspected by the public, and obtained such general approval that about five thousand signatures were appended to a memorial in their favour. A counter-petition only obtained some three hundred signatures. Expressions of approval were also obtained from a parish meeting in St. Andrew’s, the Chamber of Commerce, and other bodies. The Council met on the 12th of June to consider the whole question, when, by twenty-four votes against seven, it was resolved to treat with Grainger. On the following 15th of July, sanction was formally given to the plans. Great were the rejoicings when the news was made known. The parish churches rang out merry peals; Mr. Grainger’s workmen were regaled in the Nun’s Field; in fact, the town was en file.

Then Grainger set to work with all his characteristic energy. He began to lay out his new streets on the 30th of July. The levelling of the ground was a most expensive undertaking. Nearly five trillions of cubic feet of earth had to be carted away, at a cost of upwards of £20,000. In the course of the excavations, portions of an ancient crucifix and a gilt spur were found, as well as a quantity of human remains, on the supposed site of the burial ground of St. Bartholomew’s Nunnery. The work was not without its perils. On the 11th of June, 1835, for instance, about three o’clock in the afternoon, three houses on the south-west side of Market Street suddenly fell with a tremendous crash whilst in course of erection. The buildings had nearly reached their intended height. At least a hundred men were at work upon and immediately around them, several of whom were precipitated to the ground with the falling materials, and were buried in the ruins. Many more had almost miraculous escapes from a similar fate. As soon as the alarm had subsided, the other workmen, upwards of seven hundred in number, devoted themselves to the relief and rescue of the sufferers. Of those disinterred, one, the foreman of the masons, died in a few hours; four were dead when found; fifteen were got out alive, but greatly injured, and two of them died, making seven in all. Grainger himself had a narrow escape. He had inspected the houses but a few minutes before; when they fell, he was standing upon the scaffolding of the adjacent house.

Let us see if we can realise something of the general appearance of this locality before Grainger converted it into a palatial thoroughfare. The higher part of what is now Grey Street was a place of solitude and retirement. Waste ground surrounded Anderson Place. One of our local poets has recalled the time when Novocastrians could: –

Walk up the lane, and ope the Major’s gate.
Pass the stone cross, and to the Dene we come,
Then, halting by the well where angels wait
To bathe the limbs of those in palsied state,
(So saith the legend), gaze in musing mood
On the time-honoured trees where small birds mate.
Unlike the nuns, build nests and nurse their brood,
And prove that Nature’s laws are tender, wise, and good.

Outside the Major’s boundary there was plenty of life, and plenty of noise, especially on Saturday nights. Itinerant vendors indulged in their quaint cries. Women and children (mostly the latter) sang: –

Silk shoe ties, a penny a pair:
Buy them, and try them, and see hoo they wear.

Others made known their vocation by the cry: “Good tar-barrel matches, three bunches a penny.” The air re-resounded with the invitation : “Nice tripe or mince tonight, hinnies; gud fat puddins, hinnies, smoking het,” concerning which savoury viands the lines recur to the veteran’s memory: –

And now for black puddings, long measure,
They go to Tib Trollibags’ stand;
And away bear the glossy rich treasure,
With joy, like curl’d bugles in hand.

The side adjoining Pilgrim Street was devoted to the sale of poultry and eggs; that opposite, and therefore nearer the Cloth Market, to the stalls of the greengrocers. The intervening space was given up to the butchers, whose shops ran in rows from north to south. These shops had stone fronts, with tiled roofs, and an overhanging canopy in front.

Such, then, was the general character of this part of the good old town in the past. We may turn now to its features in the present. Let us start from Blackett Street, and walk quietly down to Dean Street. At once our attention is arrested by the noble column usually known as the Grey Monument. On October 6th, 1834, a public meeting was convened to consider the propriety of commemorating, by the erection of a statue, the services rendered to the cause of Parliamentary Reform by the then Earl Grey. William Ord, Esq., presided, and the idea was unanimously approved. A sum of £500 was subscribed in the room. On February 13th, 1836, a model of a Roman Doric column by John Green was adopted, to cost £1,600; and it was resolved to commission E. H. Baily to provide a suitable statue of the earl, at a further cost of £700. The construction of the column was entrusted to Joseph Welch, builder of the Ouseburn Viaduct, and Bellingham Bridge across North Tyne. The foundation stone was laid by Messrs. J. and B. Green, architects, on September 6th, 1837, and the column was finished on August 11th, 1838. Baily’s statue was placed on the summit thirteen days later.

The monument is 133 feet high, and contains 164 steps in the interior. A glass bottle, containing coins and a parchment scroll, was deposited in the foundation stone. The scroll records: “The foundation stone of this column, erected by public subscription in commemoration of the transcendent services rendered to his country by the Right Hon. Charles Earl Grey, Viscount Howick, Knight of the most noble Order of the Garter, and Baronet, was laid on the sixth day of September, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-seven, by John Green and Benjamin Green, Esqrs., Architects. Building Committee: The Rev. John Saville Ogle, of Kirkley, in the county of Northumberland, Clerk, A.M., Prebendary of Durham; Edward Swinburne, of Capheaton, Esq.; Thomas Emerson Headlam, of Newcastle-on-Tyne, Esq., M.D.; John Grey, of Dilston, Esq.; Thomas Richard Batson, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Esq., and Alderman; Armorer Donkin, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Esq., and Alderman; Ralph Park Philipson, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Esq., and Town Councillor; John Fenwick, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Esqr.; James Hodgson, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Esq., and Alderman; Emerson Charnley, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Esq., and Town Councillor.”

On the exterior of the column is cut the following inscription: “This Column was erected in 1838, to commemorate the services rendered to his country by Charles Earl Grey, K.G., who, during an active political career of nearly half-a-century, was the constant advocate of peace and the fearless and consistent champion of civil and religious liberty. He first directed his efforts to the amendment of the representation of the people in 1792, and was the Minister by whose advice, and under whose guidance, the great measure of Parliamentary Reform was, after an arduous and protracted struggle, safely and triumphantly achieved in the year 1832.”

Near the Monument is the Victoria Room, formerly used as a music-hall. In its early days, political meetings were occasionally held here, whereat Thomas Doubleday, John Fife, and Charles Larkin were usually the chief speakers. Later on, an effort was made to popularise cheap Saturday and Monday evening concerts in this room. Amongst others who took part in them were Mr. William Gourlay, the talented Scotch comedian, who sang comic songs here when the theatre, a little lower down Grey Street, was not open; Mr. Fourness Rolfe, also of the same theatre; the sisters Blake; and Miss Goddard, afterwards Mrs. Gourlay.

At the corner of the little lane just a step or so further down Grey Street, the Newcastle Journal had its printing and publishing offices at one time. Mr. John Hernaman was the editor of this paper for some years, and got into several scrapes owing to the violence with which he attacked his political opponents. On one occasion he fell foul of Mr. Larkin, who, in return, made mincemeat of him (metaphorically) in a scathing pamphlet, entitled, “A Letter to Fustigated John” the word “fustigated” being an old synonym for “whipped.” It was, in fact, Mr. Hernaman’s unpleasant experience to have to endure corporal chastisement more than once in the course of his journalistic career. One of his whippings occurred at the Barras Bridge. In another case, several Sunderland men came over to Newcastle to avenge themselves for what they considered an unfair criticism on certain of their transactions. They suddenly burst in upon the editorial presence, and asked Hernaman for the name of the writer of the objectionable article. The latter declined to furnish them with any information on the subject. On this refusal, he was attacked with walking sticks and horsewhips. The case came up in due time at the Sessions, where the defendants were “strongly recommended to mercy on account of the very great provocation they had received.” They were each called upon to pay a fine of £50. Fortunately, the days of such journalistic amenities in Newcastle may be safely enough regarded as over now for good.

Across the way is the Central Exchange Hotel, with its handsome dining-room, its rooms for commercial travellers, &c.; and on our left hand there is another of a similar character, also devoted to commercial men and their customers, named the Royal Exchange. The latter is at the corner of Hood Street, so called after an alderman of that name. In this street is the Central Hall, used for Saturday evening concerts, teetotal gatherings, and revival meetings. It was originally a Methodist New Connexion chapel, in which Joseph Barker used at one period of his career to hold forth to large congregations.

Passing Hood Street and Market Street, we come to the Theatre Royal, the successor of the establishment in Mosley Street. The portico of the Theatre Royal is a striking feature of the street, though unfortunately it remains incomplete to this day. The design is taken from the Pantheon at Rome. Six noble Corinthian columns, with richly executed capitals, support the pediment, in the tympanum of which it a sculpture of the royal arms, the work of a Newcastle artist who died all too soon for the ripening of his fame. This work of his has often won the approval of critics in such matters. It is here that the Theatre Royal front has been suffered to remain unfinished, for it was originally intended to place a statue of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s famous portrayal of that great actress), on the top of the pediment. The building was opened in 1837, under the management of Mr. Penley, with an address from the pen of Thomas Doubleday, the “Merchant of Venice,” and an ephemeral afterpiece. The house has remained a popular home of the drama ever since. Most of the great players of their day have fretted and strutted their little hour on this stage; and some of them laid the foundation of their future fame and fortune here. Macready (who first appeared in the old theatre at the foot of the street, of which his father was manager for about twelve years) was always a Newcastle favourite, alike in his youth and in his prime. He says himself of his first appearance here: “I was warmly received, and the partiality with which my early essays were encouraged seemed to increase in fervour to the very last night, when I made my farewell bow to a later generation.” The great tragedian appeared on March 15th, 1850, as Cardinal Wolsey (in “Henry VIII.”) and as Lord Townley (in the “Provoked Husband,” by Vanbrugh and Cibber). After playing these parts, Macready delivered his farewell address to his Newcastle friends. In the course of it he said: “When I retrace the years that have made me old in acquaintance and familiar here, and recount to myself the many unforgotten evidences of kindly feeling towards me, which through these years have been without stint or check so lavishly afforded, I must be cold and insensible indeed if time could so have passed without leaving deep traces of its events upon my memory and my heart. From the summer of 1810, when, scarcely out of the years of boyhood, I was venturing here the early and the ruder essays of my art, I date the commencement of that favourable regard which has been continued to me through all my many engagements, without change or fluctuation, up to the present time.”

Samuel Phelps and James Anderson, two of Macready ‘s trusty lieutenants in his great Covent Garden enterprise, have frequently played here with acceptance. So has Charles Kean, who, by the way, was hissed in Hamlet on his first appearance in that character in Newcastle, and cut up by the newspapers afterwards. He went, much astonished, to the manager. “Good gracious, Mr. Ternan, they’ve hissed me; what on earth have I done ?” “Well, Mr. Kean, you’ve cut out altogether the lines beginning,” &c. “Good gracious!” rejoined the discomfited tragedian, “who could ever have thought they would know Shakspeare so well down here!” “Oh, yes, Mr. Kean,” answered Ternan, quietly, “they know their Shakspeare here, I can assure you.” Ternan was a very able Shaksperian actor himself.

George Bennett and James Bennett were, among other popular tragedians, here in their younger days; and Barry Sullivan was always a warm favourite. Of comedians, Charles Mathews, Buckatone and his celebrated Haymarket company, Sothern (Lord Dundreary), Toole, and others, have fulfilled successful engagements in the Theatre Royal. Salvini has acted on the Royal boards also, as have Madame Ristori and Madame Sarah Bernhardt. Of our own queens of the stage since 1837, nearly all have appeared here at one time or another; but it is such an invidious task to pick and choose amongst them, that we are fain to shrink from it altogether. It would be very unfair not to make mention of the many years of managerial toil given to this stage by the late Mr. E. D. Davis, for, by common consent of all qualified to judge, he was ever, as actor, as artist, and as manager, a gentleman. Since his retirement, this house has been under the direction of Messrs. W. H. Swanborough, Glover and Francis, Charles Bernard, and Howard and Wyndham, who are the present lessees. Be the day far distant when the Newcastle drama, with all its honourable records, shall, to use Lord Tennyson’s words:

Flicker down to brainless pantomime,
And those gilt-gauds men-children swarm to see!

Probably this house held its largest receipts on Sept. 20, 1848, when Jenny Lind appeared in “La Sonnambula.” The prices were: Dress boxes, £1 11s. 6d.; upper boxes and pit, £1 1s.; gallery, 10s. 6d. The receipts amounted to upwards of £1,100. Sims Reeves and Madame Gassier, Grisi, and Mario, and all the great operatic stars have appeared here. Sims Reeves, indeed, came out on the Newcastle boards. Our sturdy fathers hissed him too. They stood no nonsense in those days, either from a Charles Kean or anybody else.

The Theatre, Grey Street, itself, and indeed all the streets and buildings in Newcastle, presented a strange appearance on the morning of March 3, 1886, owing to a great fall of snow on the previous day and night. Our artist’s sketch of the scene will convey a better idea of it than any mere description.

Great Snow Storm, March 3, 1886 - Scene in Grey Street , NewcastlePassing by Shakspeare Street, we find ourselves about to cross the High Bridge, which is another intersecting thoroughfare, running from Pilgrim Street to the Bigg Market. There is nothing specially remarkable about it, save that at least one somewhat remarkable man of his day has associated his name with it. James Murray, for so was he called, studied for the ministry, but he could not obtain ordination to any pastoral charge by reason of his peculiar views on church government. He came to Newcastle in 1764, and found friends who built him a chapel. And here he remained, preached, and laboured, until his death in 1782, in the fiftieth year of his age. The titles of some of his published discourses afford some indication as to his character. Amongst them are “Sermons to Awes.” “New Sermons to Asses.” “An old Fox Tarred and Feathered,” and “News from the Pope to the Devil.” On one occasion he gave the authorities a fright, and seems to have got frightened himself into the bargain. Thus runs the story. He announced his intention of preaching a sermon from the text, “He that hath not a sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” Those responsible for the peace of the town, knowing their man, grew rather afraid when they heard of this ominous text. They sent some of the town’s sergeants to form a portion of the congregation. All passed off quietly, as it happened; but then it occurred to Murray that he had better find out how he really stood in regard to the powers that were. Forthwith he went up to London, and called on Lord Mansfield, the then Chief-Justice. He obtained for his application the conventional reply: “Not at home.” “Tell him,” was the sturdy rejoinder, “that a Scotch parson, of the name of Murray, from Newcastle, wants to see him.” He was admitted. What passed at the interview? We can only guess from the judge’s last words, quoting a simile in the Book of Job: “You just get away by the skin o’ your teeth.”

In 1780 the year of the Gordon riots in London, so vividly depicted in Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge,” the year when there was danger of a general attack on the Roman Catholics Murray was to the fore again. In that year there was a contested election in Newcastle. Murray proposed a sort of test, or pledge, to each of the candidates aimed, of course, at the religionists, with whom he had waged a life-long war. Sir Matthew White Ridley would have nothing to do with it. Even Andrew Robinson Bowes, who was never in the habit of sticking at trifles, vowed that “he would be blessed” only that was not quite the exact word! “if he gave anything of the sort.” The third candidate, Sir Thomas Delaval, gave the required pledge; but he was unsuccessful at the poll.

We might add more concerning this curious cleric, but content ourselves with relating two anecdotes which reveal him on his better side. The first is, that, being on the highway leading to Newcastle on a rainy day, he overtook a labouring man who had no coat. He himself had two. He took one off, and put it on the wayfarer’s back, with the remark: “It’s a pity I should have two coats and you none; it’s not fair.” The second refers to an incident which occurred in his chapel here. A Scotch drover turned into the place one Sunday rather late, and was content to stand. Nobody offered him a seat. Murray waxed wroth. “Seat that man,” thundered he; “if he’d had a powdered head, and a fine coat on his back, you’d have had twenty pews open!”

The remainder of Grey Street, though made up of noble buildings, calls for little notice. In 1838, one of them was occupied by a Mrs. Bell, who kept it as a boarding house. One of her boarders was Mr. James Wilkie, who at the time held the office of house-surgeon and secretary to the Newcastle Dispensary. In a fit of temporary insanity this poor man threw himself out of an upstairs window, and injured himself so dreadfully that he died shortly afterwards. This victim of an o’erwrought brain had been connected with the institution for fifteen years. That he was held in general respect in Newcastle may be gathered from the fact that about a thousand persons followed his coffin to its grave in Westgate Hill Cemetery, where a monument was erected to his memory.

Amongst other establishments on the east side of Grey Street is that of the Messrs. Finney and Walker, whose premises were for many years the publishing office of the Newcastle Chronicle. Opposite is a noble pile, now the Branch Bank of England.

Nobody can take a thoughtful glance at the thoroughfare we have been traversing without admitting that it is a masterpiece of street architecture: a monument to the genius of the two men principally concerned in designing and erecting it John Dobson and Richard Grainger.

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