The following is taken from Volume 1 of the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend and was published in June 1887. I love this one as I used to work in Thornton Street and The Forth Hotel (https://www.theforthnewcastle.co.uk/) is one of my favourite drinking establishments. It constantly amazes me how places change over time. Hope you enjoy! JPM
No locality in Newcastle has excited more interest among the inhabitants than the open space called the Forth. It was for ages a playground for old and young; there the children used to bowl their eggs at Easter; and there Ned Corvan’s songs was a lamentation for the loss of the Forth. That famous trysting-place, together with the Spital, has long since disappeared. The very site of it is now but dimly remembered, even by the oldest inhabitants of Newcastle. Nevertheless, the interest in the subject is still great enough to justify an attempt to give people now living the best idea possible of the appearance and situation of the Forth. No sketches exist of the enclosure, the citizens used to enjoy the ancient game of bowls in summertime. Political meetings in later days were sometimes held in the enclosure. Only of the most pathetic as far as we are aware, are in existence. The only approach to anything of the kind is contained in Buck’s “View of Newcastle,” published in 1745. A rough outline of part of that “view” is here printed. A cross in the outline indicates the Forth Tavern and the trees surrounding it. We give also a tracing from Oliver’s Plan of Newcastle, published in 1830. This tracing shows that the Forth joined the Cattle Market, and was situated between the (Gunner lower, which was removed in 1885, and the Infirmary, which still stands in the place it occupied in 1830. Neville Street, the Central Station, and the North-Eastern Railway, in fact, have taken the place of the once popular resort. Besides these outlines we have pleasure in presenting our readers with three sketches of the old Forth Tavern, taken from original drawings preserved in a book that belonged to the late John Waller. The original drawings were made in 1843, shortly before the place was pulled down and the entire locality transformed. It was in this tavern and under the verandah in front of it, that the citizens were accustomed to gather of an evening, there to watch the sports which were proceeding on the green sward of the Forth itself. The view of the west end of the tavern shows the steps which led up to the terrace overlooking the Forth Walk. Mr. M. A. Richardson published in 1848 Alderman Hornby’s “Extracts from the Municipal Accounts of the Corporation of Newcastle.” To these accounts he appended some historical notes, one of which furnishes the best description extant of the ancient playground of the Newcastle people.
Mr. Richardson’s History of the Forth
The Forth has probably been in use as a place of recreation from a very early period, and that, too, countenanced by the governing body both in purse and person; our mayors and aldermen of the earlier days of Queen Elizabeth do not appear to have thought it beneath their dignity to witness and reward the exertions of “the fellyshpe of a shyp [of] Albroughe, dansyng in the Fyrthe,” or even the pranks of a “player,” who, it is gravely stated, was rewarded “for playing with a hobie-horse in the Firthe, before the maior and his brethren”; and, though it is not specially mentioned where the ceremony took place, yet we can hardly doubt that the bearward of Lord Monteagle, “him that had the lyon,” and the “tumbler that tumbled before Mr. Maior and his brethern,” one and all exhibited the capacities of themselves or of their respective charges in the presence of these worshipful sightseers in this ancient place of recreation. In all these things we can discover a simplicity of manner, and an unbending of the sternness of justice at particular seasons, which cannot fail to impress us with a very favourable idea of the kindliness and easy intercourse of the magistracy with the commonalty at the period in question.
Archery, too. it would seem, has been practised here by the stalwart youths of the town, for in July, 1567, we have a charge “for making up the buttes in the Fyrthe.” It seems probable, in fact, that the Forth has also been the campus martius of the town, or, at least, one of the places appropriated to the purposes of military array.
On 25th Sept., 1657, the Forth and paddock adjoining were ordered to be leased out under the common seal at a rent not exceeding £20 per annum, for 21 years, the lessee to let it to those only who should be bowling green keepers, with a clause to permit all the liberties, privileges, and enjoyments formerly used there; amongst these occur “lawful recreations and drying clothes.” It is thus mentioned in a survey of crown lands, &c., in and about Newcastle, taken 29th Oct., 1649: “Item, one parcell of pasture grounde, called by the name of the Frith, lyeing on the west parte of Newcastle, conteynyng by estimacon 4 acres and one rood, and worth per annum 42s. 6d. Both this and Castle-Leazes or Castle-Fields hath been time out of mynd in the possession of divers persons residing in or neare unto Newcastle, and (as we are informed) holdeth the same of the crowne in fee farme. Therefore, we have not valued the same, but leave them to better judgements.” Mention occurs of the Forth in an old rental of the sheriff of Newcastle which appears about the age of Car. 1. “The Forth and Gooden-deane letten to Thomas Cook.”
About 1657, a bowling-green and house for the keeper, was made by contribution in part of the Forth; around which on 29th July, 1680, the Corporation ordered a wall to be built, and lime trees brought out of Holland to be planted therein. On 25th Sept., 1682, there was an order of the same body “to make the Forth House suitable for entertainment, with a cellar convenient, and a handsome room, &c.” On this occasion there was erected a stone inscribed “Nicholas Fenwicke, esq. maior, Nicholas Ridley, esq. sherriffe, anno Domini, 1682.” In Brand’s time it was affixed to the west end of the house, but was afterwards built into the parapet over the piazza.
The Forth Tavern from three prospects
A keeper of the bowling-green was retained till about the middle of the last century. Whether bowling was practised here previous to 1657, we have not been able to discover, but it is mentioned in 1690, and Thoresby, the historian of Leeds, who visited the town on 19th May 1703, especially mentions having “walked to the very curious bowling-green, built at a public charge, and where the best orders are kept, as well as made, that ever I observed.”
“It was an ancient custom,” says Bourne, “for the mayor, aldermen, and sheriff of this town, accompanied with great numbers of the burgesses, to go every year at the feasts of Easter and Whitsuntide to the Forth, with the mace, sword, and cap of maintenance carried before them.” They then unbent the brow of authority, and joined the festive throng. On the north side of the bowling-green was the tavern, with a balcony projecting from the front, and a parapet wall, whence the spectators, calmly smoking their pipes and enjoying their glasses, beheld the sportsmen below. On Easter Tuesday, 1808, the holiday people assembled here were disturbed in the enjoyment of their annual amusements by an affray of a rather serious nature between some boys and a party of recruits of the Wiltshire Militia. The boys, according to annual custom, were amusing themselves with a game of football in the interior of the Forth, when the soldiers, no doubt for the sake of fun, interrupted them in their diversion, by running after them and tripping up their heels. The boys being reinforced by their friends, and encouraged by another party of military, set upon their opponents manfully, and with stones, brickbats, and other missiles, kept up such a determined discharge, that they compelled their antagonists, though superior in numbers, to seek safety in precipitate retreat. Luckily the scene of action being near the Infirmary, the wounded were conveyed thither. Two men received severe but not dangerous wounds on the head; the other accidents were mostly slight. At Easter-tide, too, the children used to go to the Forth to “bowl their eggs.”
It seems pretty certain that the practice of several of the incorporated companies, of convening at the Forth and Forth-hill on their head meeting days, which during the latter half of the seventeenth century had become quite usual, was the traditional observance of a much earlier custom, and must, we think, have been derived from the assembling themselves together in former times of the body of burgesses, for the celebration of their processions and Corpus Christi plays. From the deficiency of very early records, and the paucity of the information given by those which do exist, we have not been able to trace any earlier mention of the custom than 1647, when the Cordwainers are enjoined to hold their head meeting on the Monday after Corpus Christi Day “in a place called the Forth, without the walls of our town, before 9 of the clock in the forenoon.” The Smiths, on 23rd June, 1739, require that their company, which “heretofore usually on the head meeting day have gone to the Forth-hill to call the roll and gather in their fines,” shall in future appear at their meeting hall for the same purpose. The Coopers, who had also met here for the adjustment of their business at seven in the morning, also discontinued the custom 7th June, 1710; and the Cordwainers, after the repair of their ancient meeting house in the Black Friars in 1728, in like manner abolished the practice from 30th September that year. Scattered over the records of the incorporated fraternities are many amusing entries relative to these meetings, whereby we observe that they did not neglect creature comforts, or spurn the aid of the drinking glass or of the fragrant weed. The companies brought their muniment chests to the place of meeting, called over their respective rolls, and fined not only those who were absent, but such as misbehaved themselves whilst there. We have an unfortunate wight so punished for calling one of his brethren “three times a knave att the Forth-banck.” As might be expected, the proximity of a tavern and a bowling-green tempted many from their sterner duties; so we find that while one slips away to enjoy a pipe, a second is detected “playing at bowels” in the green, while “the twelve,” or committee of his company, were waiting for his presence in order to the due despatch of business, which was frequently further retarded by others neglecting to bring the company’s box. After these disputes were over, they incontinently entered the adjoining tavern, and, in repeated draughts, would reward themselves for their continence during the bygone hour; a procedure no doubt often hastened by unpropitious weather to the satisfaction of all, especially as the cost was defrayed at the common charge “the raine causeing them in.”
As we have indicated, the Forth or Forth-field appears to have been used as a public drying ground, as also for the sweetening and airing of clothing of other descriptions. In 1685, the Cordwainers occur conveying thither “to aire” the cloaks, pall, and other burial paraphernalia of the fraternity, an economical expedient which in the following year is called “sunning.”
The Forth, especially so called, was of square form, enclosed by a low brick wall, within which was a broad gravel walk, shaded by two rows of lime trees, planted at equal distances. Bailey informs us that these limes, which formed a kind of Lyceum for the inhabitants in their morning and evening walks, were subsequently cut square over at about fifteen feet from the ground; for years they shot out afresh, but by the latter part of the last century were going fast to decay; that at the time he wrote (1801) the constant exercising of troops on the green, and putting horses and cattle on the neighbouring field, had greatly impaired the beauty of the place, and entirely subverted its original and peaceful intention; but the Corporation prohibited these trespasses on the quiet enjoyment of the inhabitants, planted many young trees, and put the whole into excellent order, rendering it the most convenient and delightful promenade in the vicinity of the town. As such it was the daily resort of the inhabitants whose leisure permitted their making use of its pleasing features; while on Sundays, between and after Church hours, it was crowded with a brilliant and gaily dressed throng.
After 1840 the Forth declined; the green, which had been surrounded by a railing, and kept in a state of exquisite verdure, was broken in upon, and a footpath formed from one corner to the other by idle people as a short cut from gate to gate; the seats, which were placed all around the enclosure for the convenience of the delicate and invalid, fell into decay, and were either torn up for firewood or intentionally removed; and the trees, dying one by one, were cut down and not replaced. Subsequently, the railing was overthrown, and “the green” so completely disappeared that hardly a blade of grass was discernible, and the interior of the Forth became a miry plunge.
The open summit on which it was seated, the delightful views formerly to be had from it of the fine vales and extensive tracts of fell country in the distance, with its immediate contiguity to the western suburb, gave it all the advantages that could be desired for an evening resort in summer; but, from many manufactories and other works having sprung up in its vicinity, the smoke rapidly destroyed the vegetation. Bourne, writing in 1735, tells us that the Forth is a “mighty pretty place, exceeding by much any common place of pleasure about the town. On the east side of it you have a prospect of part of the town’s wall, through which is the common passage to and from this place, under a shady walk of trees; on the west you view the grounds of the village of Elswick, which have a gentle ascent to the village itself; a place at the proper season of the year much frequented bythe town’s people, for its pleasing walk and rural entertainment. From this quarter we view also, as we do on the south, the banks of the River Tyne, together with their villages.” In Bourne’s time there was nothing to hinder an uninterrupted view of the country south and west; but now the very scenes upon which he expatiates are wholly shut out from obser vation, and covered with modern dwellings.
The last tree, extending its gaunt leafless arms over the neglected swamp, as if pointing out deploringly the melancholy condition into which the place had fallen, was removed in November, 1842, when the workmen were engaged in cutting away the western side of the enclosure, for the purpose of adding to the ground occupied by the Cattle Market. On this occasion the wall was set into a line with the end of the tavern; the old gate, which had posts to prevent the ingress of horses, was removed, and a new one built up against the house; while among the mass of soil removed were found a great number of cows’ horns.
It may be implied that there was not any tavern in the Forth previous to the year 1657, as in 1651 we find the whole fraternity of Smiths indulging in thirty-pence worth of “beare in the Foorth,” a sum which includes the cost of “fetching it,” a charge that would hardly have occurred under other circumstances. The same remark may possibly apply to expenditure of this kind at an earlier date.
The enclosure appears originally to have been effected by a wooden railing, which we have reason to think was erected for the first time in 1654. Mention of the Forth wall first occurs in 1681, when, or in the preceding year, it was originally built. Considerable renovations also took place in 1731, and the succeeding year. A “seat in the Firth” is first mentioned in 1681, after which period down to the close of the century, it occurs being kept in repair, or at least some acknowledgment made, by the company of Smiths.
A Book with a History
The book from which our views of the Forth Taven are taken belonged to the late Mr. John Waller, proprietor of the Turf Hotel, Newcastle. It is a copy of Mackenzie’s “History of Newcastle,” bound in two volumes, and interleaved with rare engravings and original sketches of old buildings, many of which have now disappeared. The work has twice passed through the hands of Mr. Robert Robinson, of the Bewick’s Head, Pilgrim Street, in the course of his business. It is Mr. Robinson himself who relates the history of this literary treasure. The book originally belonged to a gentleman named Bacon, who was for half-a-century the respected agent of Messrs. Cookson, in the Close, and who resided not far from the office of the firm. Mr. Bacon amused himself for many years by collecting local engravings, &c., to illustrate the text of the historian. Furthermore, in 1843 he employed a scene-painter at the Theatre Royal to make drawings for him of old and picturesque buildings and places in Newcastle. When he had completed his task, Mr. Bacon informed two or three old friends, collectors like himself, that he intended to present the result of his “labour of love” to the Literary and Philosophical Society. These old friends heartily approved of his scheme. Urged by them to quit the Close for a more pleasant part of the town, Mr. Bacon took a house in Derwent Place, sent his book to a bookbinder to be bound, and then died. The gatherings of many years were shortly afterwards sold by auction by the late Mr. George Hardcastle, of Sunderland, in a room in the Royal Arcade. Endeavours were made at the time to get the Mackenzie volumes from the bookbinder, in order to present them to the Lit. and Phil. But the auctioneer would not assent to this proceeding, got possession of the books, and sold them with the rest of Mr. Bacon’s collection. The sale took place about thirty-six years ago, to the best of Mr. Robinson’s recollection. Mr. Robinson bought the Mackenzie lot, which he sold afterwards to the late William Sidney Gibson, the author of the “History of Tynemouth Monastery,” &c. On the death of that gentleman the work fell a second time into the hands of Mr. Robinson, who sold it to Mr. Ketelle, musicmaster, at whose death it came into the possession of the late Mr. Samuel Neville. When Mr. Neville’s library was dispersed, it was secured by the late owner, Mr. Waller. Such is the history of one of the most curious and interesting works extant.