The Sandhill cannot be omitted in any view of the streets of Newcastle. Its name explains itself. Before the Tyne was embanked by the quay, this place was nothing better than a hill of naked sand, where the inhabitants used to assemble for purposes of recreation.
There is an ancient plan of Newcastle by Speed, whereon only one public place is marked on the Sandhill, namely, the Maison de Dieu. This house, founded by the munificent Roger Thornton in 1412, has already been described in the Monthly Chronicle. The Merchants’ Guild used to hold their courts at “The Maison Dieu Hall” on the last Thursday in every month, their head meeting day on the Thursday after Mid-Lent Sunday, and went in procession on Corpus Christi Day, after high mass was done, to assist in the performance of their mystery-play, “Hogmagog,” the Mayor, Sheriff, and Aldermen, with their officers, having first attended upon the holy sacrament.
The Sandhill had its tragedies also, and notably in 1464. The Battle of Hexham leaves its grim traces in Newcastle records. In this disastrous battle were taken — amongst many others, “knights, esquires, and other men” — the Lords Ros, Molins, Hungerford, Findern, with two others (who would appear, according to the Arundel MSS., to have been Edward Delamere and Nicholas Massam). “Their heads were out off,” says the Year Book, 4 Edward IV., “at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in a place called Sandhill; and they lie in the Friars Minors and Augustine.”
Adjoining the Maison de Dieu stood the Exchange, also built by Roger Thornton, according to Bourne, and occupying the site on which now stands the Guildhall. It was “a square haul place for the towne,” says old Leland, who visited Newcastle somewhere about the year 1540; but it was pulled down in 1655, and the present Exchange and Guildhall were erected by Robert Trollop, of York. His covenant for expenses amounted to £2,000; but Bourne was informed that the actual cost would be about £10,000. Some local wag wrote a doggerel epitaph on Trollop, which read as follows :—
Here lies Robert Trollop.
Who made yon stones roll up;
When death took his soul up,
His body filled this hole up.
On a line with the Guildhall was the passage from the Sandhill to the river known as the Water Gate; though in the Common Council Books of 1649 it is called the Windowes Gate. Nearly opposite to the Water Gate was the once famous Bella’s Coffee House, which in 1648 was the house of Thomas Bonner, then Mayor. In his year of office, a riotous affray occurred, thus recorded in the Common Council Books: — “Thomas Bonner, Esq., Mayor-elected, coming from the Spittle (October 2) to go to his dwelling house upon the Sand-Hill, the Serjeants carrying torches lighted in their hands, one Edmund Marshall threw a long stick at the said lighted torches, and struck divers of them out, and it being dark, stones, &C., were flung,” and so forth.
Katy’s Coffee House was another famous place of resort with our forefathers. It stood on the east side of the Sandhill, on or near the spot now occupied by the Royal Exchange buildings. The Lork or Lort Burn flowed past it. This burn ran down the Side, and over the Sandhill into the river. The street was thus divided into the Side and the Flesher Row, in the latter of which the butchers conducted their business, as well as in the Butcher Bank. Over the Lork Burn and opposite Katy’s a small bridge was thrown, and here, it is said, the town’s waits, or musicians, used to stand and play whilst Oliver Cromwell was entertained at dinner, either on his progress to or his return from Scotland.
A guest of another sort had been welcomed on the Sandhill a little earlier. In 1617, James I., on his way to Scotland, was met here by the Mayor, Aldermen, and Sheriff; and, after an oration from the Town Clerk, “was presented by the Mayor, in the name of the whole Corporation, with a great standing bowl, to the value of an hundred Jacobuses, and an hundred marks in gold; the Mayor carrying the sword before him, accompanied by his brethren on their foot-cloths. On Sunday, May 4th, following, his Majesty, with all his nobles, dined with the Mayor, when it pleased the King to be served by the Mayor and Aldermen. The King left the town on Monday, the 5th of May.” (Brand.) Thus was the first James ministered unto. His son, the first Charles, was caught in an unsavoury sewer, in an attempt to escape from his Scotch custodians. The second Charles we may still gaze upon in effigy as we pass the Exchange, habited as an ancient Roman. Let us conclude the record as it concerns this family, by adding that James II. had also his statue on the Sandhill, “on the south side of the bull-ring, and opposite to the court stairs.” It was cast in copper, and stood on a white marble pedestal; and, according to Bourne, it cost the town £1,700. In May, 1689, when William and Mary had been crowned about a month, away went this fine statue into the river. It was, however, fished up, and rendered of some use, as witnesses this extract from the Council books: — “April 1, 1695. All Saints’ parish humbly request the metal of the statue [of James II.] towards the repair of their bells. Ordered, that All Saints’ have the metal belonging to the horse of the said statue, except a leg thereof, which must go towards the casting a new bell for St. Andrew’s parish.”
Another house on the Sandhill of some note in its day is the Bee Hive. At one time it must have been occupied by well-to-do people, as its marks of ancient grandeur attested. There was, for instance, a large wainscotted room on the first floor, wherein was a very curious carved chimney-piece. This was presented by the owner, Ralph Naters, to the Corporation, and placed by that body in the oak room of the Mansion House. Other houses were remarkable for their excellent carvings also. There was Number 33, for instance, which boasted of a mantelpiece of most elaborate carving, bold in proportion, and in high sculptured relief. In the centre the royal arms were placed; and, arranged in separate compartments, were to be seen the four elements personified, with representations also of Samson slaying the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and David cutting off the head of Goliath. The carving was of the time of Charles II. Tradition hath it that this house was at one time the town residence of the Earls of Derwentwater; another tradition gives them a “local habitation in Westgate Road.”
Among these interesting buildings is that known as the Old Custom House, now a public-house, with one entrance from the Quayside and the other from the Sandhill. So far back as 1281, we find that the keeper of the “cockets” at Newcastle charged a duty of 6s. 8d. upon 300 woolled skins, the same sum upon a sack of wool, and 13s. 4d. upon a last of leather. In 1440, Robert Rhodes (a benefactor of St Nicholas’ and All Saints’ in his time) was made comptroller of the customs and subsidies of the King in the port of the Tyne. The new Custom House was built in 1765. It is curious to learn that an Independent congregation once worshipped in the Old Custom House Entry, having separated from “the church of Silver Street,” at the time of the pastorate of the Rev. James Shields (1765-85).
The old house to the left of our engraving was that of Surtees the banker, associated in local history with the names of its “Bonnie Bessie,” and her faithful swain, John Scott, afterwards first Earl of Eldon. The story of the elopement hence will have to be told another time.
On more than one occasion coronation festivities have been celebrated on the Sandhill. When the second George was crowned in October, 1727, the bells were rung, the magistrates donned their scarlet gowns, and went from the Guildhall to church, music playing and cannon firing, “accompanied by the Common Council, clergy, and gentry.” Then they dined sumptuously, and returned to the Guildhall, where the healths were a second time drunk of the King, Queen, and Royal Family, “with many other loyal toasts,” the cannon firing at each health. “A conduit ran wine all the time for the populace.” A great “bonefire” was burnt, the ladies had a ball in the evening “at the Mayor’s house,” and the proceedings concluded with “rejoicings, bonefires, illuminations, ringing of bells, and all other demonstrations of joy.”
An alarming bread riot occurred some thirteen years later. Provisions were very dear. The militia were called out; at their head Alderman Ridley announced that the corn factors had set a certain fixed price on their grain; and the tumult was stayed for the time. But for a time only. Some of the factors vanished from the town; the rest kept their shops closed. “The pit-men, keelmen, and poor of the town,” accordingly plundered the granaries, and stopped a vessel about to sail with a load of rye. This was on the 2lst of June, 1740. On the 25th, the militia were disbanded. As a consequence of this strange step, an immense multitude assembled on the Sandhill the very next day, whilst the Mayor and Aldermen were consulting in the Guildhall on the steps to be taken in the emergency. The mob became unruly. They were fired upon; one rioter was killed, and several others wounded. The Guildhall was thereupon invaded; most of those assembled there were wounded; the court and its chambers were ransacked. Many of the public writings and accounts were destroyed, and a very large sum of Corporation money was carried off. Then the rioters traversed the streets, and “threatened, with horrid execrations, to burn and destroy the whole place.” The military were summoned from Alnwick; forty of the rioters were arrested, whilst the others were suffered to disperse; and at the next Assizes six of the ringleaders were each transported for seven years. This riot is said to have cost the Corporation £4,000.
In 1745, war was proclaimed on the Sandhill (amongst other places) against France, “the Mayor and Aldermen attending in their scarlet gowns, accompanied by their proper officers.” In April, 1749, there was a general thanksgiving for the peace which followed, and wine again ran from a fountain on the Sandhill for a considerable time. Three volleys were fired from the Exchange by three regimental companies. Wine again flowed from a Sandhill fountain in November, 1760, “when George the Third was King.” Mayor and magistrates were to the fore “in their scarlet robes, preceded by the town’s band of music and the regalia,” and attended by the colonels and officers of the two regiments of Yorkshire militia then stationed in Newcastle. “Many loyal healths were drunk” ; there were the usual “joyful acclamations”; and the rejoicings concluded with a ball and illuminations. The pillory was brought into use in 1766, when one Jean Grey, convicted of perjury, was paraded there for an hour, pursuant to her sentence. In 1768, a too adventurous sailor was killed here by an infuriated bull which the populace were engaged in baiting.
The coronation of George IV. was celebrated in grand style on the 19th July, 1821. Strangers poured into the town in thousands to take part in the rejoicings. Royal salutes were fired from the Castle; flags and colours were everywhere displayed; and the church bells rang their merriest peals. In honour of the occasion, the Mayor (Mr. George Forster) was invested with the gold chain and medallion still worn by our chief magistrates on state occasions. Everywhere there were mirth and jollity – of their sort. An ale-pant ran in the old Flesh Market (which was next to the Cloth Market); it was demolished whilst the beer was running. A similar fate befel the Spital ale-pant; indeed, the mirth and jollity were not without their attendant disorder in all parts of the town. It is, however, with the proceedings on the Sandhill on this day that we have at present to do.
In the centre had been erected an elegant pant, twelve feet high, which was surmounted by a handsome crown. From this it was intended to supply the populace with wine. The Mayor and magistrates went dutifully to St. Nicholas’ Church, where Vicar Smith preached them a sermon. This done, they returned to the Sandhill, and appeared at the great window of the Town’s Court to drink the king’s health, to the accompaniment of a royal salute from the Castle. This was to be the signal on which the wine was to flow with regal lavishness from the pant. It speedily became a pant of Pandemonium! Fair it was to look upon in the early day, being painted to resemble stone, and displaying full gaily its showy cupola of copper bronze, and its crown and crimson velvet cap of State turned up with ermine. But the Sandhill had its thirsty souls then, as indeed it has now. One of them climbed to the top of the pant, sat down on the cupola, and placed its crown on his own head. This served to amuse the waiting multitude while the magistrates were at their devotions. When the signal was given that the wine should flow, off came the crown from the adventurer’s head, and away into the river it was speedily kicked. The original idea was that the Mayor and Corporation should drink the Royal health at the pant; but this they found it impossible to do by reason of the surging crowd. The wine, however, poured forth its ruby stream at the signal from the Castle; and then ensued an indescribable scene. Hats, caps, vessels of all descriptions were brought into requisition; and might was right that day. Amongst other things, a man got upon the tub set below the spout, and endeavoured to wrench the latter off. The reeling mob would not have this. They tore off his upper clothing; they did not even spare his “unmentionables.” The wine ran for about an hour, and then it “gave out,” as our American cousins would say. Forthwith, the mob began to throw about the pots and the soaked hats and caps. Finally, they tore down the pant bodily.
The Sandhill has, to this day, a peculiar character of its own. Its open-air public meetings each Sunday morning may be regarded as so many self-acting ventilators for the diffusion of the grievances and the crotchets of those who are not much in the habit of troubling church or chapel with their attendance. Much sound sense and much nonsense, too, have been talked at these meetings. Eccentric preachers, such as David Davies, the best known of them all, can there discourse at length on things in general. The teetotallers are ever in earnest here, though it is long since they lost the services of Tommy Carr, a Tyneside philosopher whose racy utterances it was impossible for anybody to resist, so redolent of the native Doric were they. Thus the historic ground trodden by kings and king-makers in the past has become the open-air conference room of the toiling masses of today!