St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle upon Tyne

Sorry it’s been a while!  Hoping to get a little more time to keep these old stories coming.  The following is an account of one of the great Newcastle landmarks.  Published in September 1889 it describes the magnificent St. Nicholas’ Cathedral.  It really is fascinating to read about the history of a place you see so often and maybe take for granted.  You might walk past an old building like this every day, maybe on the way to work and never think to go inside.  It really might be worth taking the time to stop and have an explore!


The Roman Station of Pons Ælii and the Saxon town of Monkchester had both gone down before the arrival in this country of William the Conqueror. When that monarch reached the banks of the Tyne, he found the Roman bridge in ruins and impassable, and provisions for his army could not be found nearer than Tynemouth.

St. Nicholas' 1
St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1889


The New Castle upon Tyne fortress and town was founded by his son, Robert Curthose. This was in the year 1080. There is every evidence that the growth of the new town was rapid, and its early prosperity great. The church of St. Nicholas, the earliest ecclesiastical establishment within the walls of Newcastle, is said to have been founded by St. Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury, in 1091. Although no very satisfactory proof of this statement is attainable, it is certain that the town would, soon after its establishment, require a church, and as we know that St. John’s, the second church in Newcastle, was built whilst the twelfth century was still young, there is every reason to believe that the date ascribed to St. Nicholas’ is approximately correct. No part of the church built in those early times exists now. It probably soon became too small for the needs of the inhabitants. The builders were again at work about the year 1250. In the churchyard are three or four stones, moulded in a way which indicates that they have formed part of some structure erected about this time. They had afterwards been used up as old building material, and were taken out of the walls during the restorations of a few years ago. Then we are told that in 1216 the church was consumed by fire. Certainly about that period some rebuilding was carried out. If the reader will go into the nave of the church, and will examine the easternmost pillar on the north side, he will find that an older pillar is encased in the present one. This older pillar is clearly part of a nave, with aisles, built in the early part of the thirteenth century. The walls above the present arches of the nave and below the clerestory windows were built at the same time. The arches themselves are much later, but they have been inserted in the older walls.

St. Nicholas' 2
The Castle Garth, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1889


The nave and transepts were rebuilt in 1359. As I have just mentioned, the older nave walls were partly preserved, the new arches being pierced through them; and this accounts for what is one of the most remarkable features in this church, viz., the great width of the aisles as compared with that of the nave. Ten years later the chancel was in course of re-erection. The old chancel had been taken down, and the new one commenced, without the permission of the Bishop and Prior of Carlisle, who were rectors of the church. They sent a proctor to Newcastle on their behalf. He, on his arrival, found a priest, named Roger de Merley, sitting near the new choir, and “hammering and working on a new stone.” The proctor commanded the workmen to desist, and threw pebbles at the new work, and at what remained of the old, in evidence of his authority.

Another hundred years passed by, and Newcastle numbered amongst its people one Robert de Rodes, a lawyer, a man of wealth, and one who stood high in the esteem of the Bishop and Prior of Durham. To him we are indebted for the glorious steeple of this church. Aloft in the vault of the tower we have his coat of arms, and the legend

“Orate pro anima Roberti be Rodes.”

(Pray for the soul of Robert de Rodes.)

Except to a few conventional architects, this wonderful steeple is an object of universal admiration. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. Scotland has two or three towers crowned in a slightly similar, but much inferior way, and the steeple of St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East, London, built by Sir Christopher Wren, has a very poor imitation of this lantern at Newcastle.*

* Church bells were of service in times of old to guide the belated wayfarer to his home in the night. In Mr. North’s “Church Bells of Leicestershire,” published in 1876, there is mention of grateful bequests to parish churches by testators who had been befriended by the belfry when their road was lost in hours of darkness. The church of St. Nicholas was not only of service in this way, but also as an inland lighthouse. Pennant speaks of the pathless moors of this neighbourhood in the past century; and many a traveller who traversed them hail reason to thank the lantern of St. Nicholas in the nights of old. In the second week of November, 1567, an item of 3s. occurs in the books of the Town Chamberlain, “paid for 4 lbs. of waxe maid in candell for the lanterne of Sancce Nycholas churche, and for the workynge.” So, too, in December next, 1s. 6d. went for “waxe wrought in candell for the lanterne.”

Left: Cover of the Font

Right: Pew Standards, St. Nicholas’ Church, Temp. Charles I.

When we enter the church by its west door, the first object to strike our attention is the font, which is plain and rude in design, but is surmounted by a truly magnificent cover. The basin bears the arms of Rodes, as well as those of an old Durham county family, the Bainbriggs. Robert Rodes, who died in 1474, had no children. A niece, Alice Rodes, was his heiress. She afterwards married one Richard Bainbrigg, said to have been a member of a family of that name settled at Snotterton, in the parish of Staindrop. In right of his wife he acquired the estate of Wheatley Hill, in the parish of Kelloe, and his descendants remained there for several generations. I believe this font was erected by the niece of Robert de Rodes and her husband, as a memorial of the man to whom Newcastle owes its most splendid architectural achievement.

Turning into the south aisle, we find at its west end a remarkable slab, fixed to the wall, which has borne a now almost obliterated representation of the Crucifixion of the Saviour. On the upper part of it is a fragment of an inscription, which, with great difficulty, may be read as follows:

Our lady prest is bon to say,

At the lavatory evy day;

meaning that the priest of a chantry dedicated to the Virgin was required every day to say solemn dirge and mass at the altar for the soul of George Carr, and for his wife’s and children’s souls. The lavatory means the water drain near the altar, usually called the piscine.

Before we leave this part of the edifice we must notice the recesses in the wall of the south aisle, which, doubtless, were intended for the tombs of benefactors to the church.

The chapal in the same aisle was formerly the chantry of St. Margaret, founded in 1394 by Stephen Whitgray, who, more than once, had represented Newcastle in Parliament. It is now known as the Bewick Porch, for here, from 1636 to 1859, the Bewicks, of Close House near Heddon-on-the-Wall, were buried, and here are the monuments of some of them. But into this chapel are gathered the earliest memorials of the departed now existing in the church. Besides several fragments, there are three mediaeval grave stones of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and of beautiful designs; but, as was usual in those days, without any inscriptions. Here, too, is the recumbent effigy of a knight, clad in chain mail, cross-legged, and with his feet resting on a lion. There is every reason to believe that this is the effigy of Peter le Mareshal, who was sword-bearer to Edward I., and who was buried in this church on the 18th September, 1322. Edward II., who was then at Newcastle, paid for a cloth of gold to cover Mareshal’s body on the day of his interment.

We proceed towards the east end of the church, and turn into the south transept. Here, on our right, we have the quaint and singular monument of the Maddisons, adorned with many effigies, representing and recording three generations of the same family. On the opposite side of the transept are two windows, architecturally the best in the church.

We now enter the south aisle of the chancel, and immediately beyond the vestry door we have the monument of thn Halls, a less pretentious, but very similar one to that of the Maddisons. The Halls and the Maddisons were related by intermarriages, and were amongst the wealthy merchants of Newcastle during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Before we proceed further, we may glance at the new features which have been recently introduced into the church the reredos, the stalls, the screens, and the bishop’s throne. These all embody much excellent design, almost faultlessly executed; but they are none the less sadly out of character with the edifice into which they are introduced, and display an entire absence of that modest sense of fitness which almost invariably characterized the work of the architects of the middle ages.

If, now, we pass behind the reredos, we see a large painting by Tintoretto of “Christ washing His Disciples’ Feet.” Then, proceeding along the north aisle of the chancel, we enter the north transept, where we find an interesting monument of Thomas Surtees, the last representative of a family which owned the manor of Gosforth from the time of Henry II. Here we may descend into the crypt, formerly one of the chantry chapels, afterwards a receptacle of human bones, and now occupied by organ-blowing machinery.

Many stirring events have been witnessed in this church. Courts of justice were held here in the reign of Edward I. In 1313, penance was performed by one Nicholas le Porter at the doors of this church, he standing unshod, bareheaded, and clothed only in a linen gown, for having dragged certain persons from sanctuary in the church of the White Friars. Here, too, in 1417, Matilda Burgh and Margaret Usher did penance for having approached the shrine of St. Cuthbcrt at Durham dressed in men’s clothes. Treaties of peace between the commissioners of England and Scotland were solemnly signed and sealed here in 1451 and 1459. Here, in 1550, John Knox, the great Scottish reformer, preached before those who sat in judgment on his heresies, he undertaking to prove that the sacrifice of the mass was idolatrous. Bishop Toby Matthew preached here before James I. Here the famed Alexander Henderson preached to General Lesley and the leaders of the Scottish army the day after the battle of Newburn. And when, during the siege of Newcastle in 1644, the same Lesley threatened to fire his cannons at the steeple unless the town would capitulate, Sir John Marley sent all the Scotch prisoners into the belfry, and told the besiegers they might fire away if they desired their countrymen’s destruction. Charles I., during his imprisonment in the town, attended service here, and was insulted by the Scotch preacher’s choice of a hymn, but the people sympathised with the King, and sung another for which he called*.

*The remarkable incident of 1646 is thus related in Sir William Dugdale’s “Short View of the Late Troubles in England” (1681): “A rigid Presbyterian preacher, besides many rude and uncivil expressions in his sermon before the King, called for the 52nd Psalm to be sung by the congregation, which beginneth thus:

Why dost them, tyrant, boast abroad,

Thy wicked works to praise?

Whereupon his Majesty instantly stood up, and called

for the 56th Psalm, beginning thus:

Have mercy, Lord, on me, I pray,

For man would me devour.”

Afte the battle of Dunbar, the Scotch prisoners were lodged for a single night in this church.

No account of this famous church can be considered complete without some reference to Ben Jonson’s enigma. The poet had come this way in 1618, on the occasion of his Scottish tour. Gray quotes in his “Chorographia” the following lines as having been written by Jonson concerning the steeple of St. Nicholas’: –

My altitude high, my body foure square;

My foot in the grave, my head in the ayre;

My eyes in my sides, five tongues in my wombe:

Thirteen heads upon my body, foure images alone.

I can direct you where the winde doth stay;

And I time God’s precepts thrice a day.

I am seen where I am not, I am heard where I is not.

Tell me now what I am, and see that you misse not.

“If Jonson wrote the riddle,” says Mr. Clephan, “some other pen than his own must subsequently have made the lines to halt. They are of the ‘peculiar measure’ of the obliging rhymer who is said to have gone all lengths to please his friends; they present sundry openings for conjectural revision; and we may venture to suggest that at the close of the last line save one, the words were originally written, not ‘I is not,’ but ‘I wis not.’”


A journey along the River Tyne around 1830

The following images are the reproduced engravings of J.W. Carmichael (1800 – 1868) which depict views of places along the River Tyne from Bardon Mill to Tynemouth.  They were re-published in the 1969 book “Pictures of Tyneside” (which I found in a second hand book shop for a fiver!).  The original copper plates from the first edition in 1830 were found in 1966 from which these prints were taken.  They beautifully depict everyday life at various location along the Tyne.  With the advent of photography this wonderful art form went into decline.

1 Bardon Mill
Bardon Mill
2 Beaufront
3 Dilston
4 Aydon Castle
Aydon Castle
5 View from Bywell Castle
View from Bywell Castle
6 Bywell from the River
Bywell from the River
7 Prudhoe
8 Ryton
9 Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne
10 Gateshead
11 Gateshead
12 Sandgate Shore
Sandgate Shore
13 North Shore
North Shore
14 North Shore
North Shore
15 Ascension Day
Ascension Day
16 Dent's Hole
Dent’s Hole
17 Dent's Hole
Dent’s Hole
18 View from St. Anthony's
View from St. Anthony’s
19 Felling Boat Landing
Felling Boat Landing
20 Bill Reach
Bill Reach
21 Walker Quay
Walker Quay
22 Carville Shore
Carville Shore
23 Willington Quay and Howdon
Willington Quay and Howdon
24 Jarrow
25 West Entrance to Shields Harbour
West Entrance to Shields Harbour
26 North Shields, Peggy's Hole
North Shields, Peggy’s Hole
27 North Shields
North Shields
28 North Shields
North Shields
29 North Shields
North Shields
30 North Shields
North Shields
31 Tynemouth Priory
Tynemouth Priory
32 Tynemouth Cliffs
Tynemouth Cliffs
33 Tynemouth Bar
Tynemouth Bar



Katy’s Coffee House, Newcastle

Entrance to the Side from Sandhill, Newcastle with Katy's Coffee House, the Lort Burn etc

On the site now occupied by the Royal Insurance Buildings stood, till the autumn of 1843, one of those quaint overhanging structures in which Newcastle was formerly so rich and of which even now, despite the energy of Town Improvement Committees and the desire for more showy premises and larger rents on the part of property owners, the city possesses some excellent specimens. The building to which I refer was known for more than 120 years as Katy’s Coffee House. Not that Katy herself lived so long, for she died in 1767, at the age of three score years and ten; but there was about her and her management of the house half tavern, half club an individuality and character which fastened her name even on the very building itself. That building was long since destroyed; but the name remains, for who; Novocastrian has not heard of Katy’s Coffee House?

In the stirring times of the great national struggle between the people of England and their king, in the seventeenth century, this house was the residence of Alderman Thomas Bonner, a merchant who was thrice Mayor of Newcastle, and a zealous Puritan. He was chosen Mayor for the first time on the 2nd October, 1648. The Common Council Books record that on this day “Thomas Bonner, Esq., Mayor elected, coming from the Spittle to go to his dwelling-house upon the Sandhill, the Serjeants carrying torches lighted in their hands, one Edmund Marshall [doubtless an over-zealous Royalist, a genuine Church and King man] threw a long stick at the said lighted torches, and struck divers of them out; and, it being dark, stones, &c., were flung.” The new Mayor had clearly stayed late at the Spittle. But his was then the ascendant party, though its ascendency was a thing of recent date, and there had doubtless been rejoicing amongst the aldermen quiet, sober rejoicing, though, as befitted Puritans.

But distinction awaited the new Mayor in the near future. Just a fortnight after his election, Oliver the Protector reached Newcastle on his way back from Scotland. Here, writes one of Cromwell’s generals, “we were received with very great acknowledgments of love; stayed three days, partly to give our army a little rest, also for the having our train come up to us from Berwick.’

A contemporary writer says that the army, coming hither, “was entertained with great guns, and ringing of bells and feasting.” “The 19th,” says the general just quoted, “we were very sumptuously feasted by the new Mayor of Newcastle,” in his old house on the Sandhill of course. During the repast, tradition tells us, “the town’s waits or musicians” cheered the company with their harmonic strains. The Lort Burn, then an open stream, flowed down the lower part of the Side, past the Mayor’s door, and across the Sandhill into the Tyne. Opposite Bonner’s house it was spanned by a narrow bridge, whereon the musicians stood whilst displaying their skill.

Bonner’s first mayoralty was inaugurated by a riot on the Sandhill. His last mayoralty was terminated by a riot at the Spittle. The Restoration came during his term of office, and Sir John Marley, who had been under a cloud since the memorable siege of 1644, was now once more to the fore, and, as he was the last Royalist Mayor when the first Charles’s sun was setting, he was chosen for the first Royalist Mayor when the sun of the second Charles was rising. But, as the biographer of Ambrose Barnes tells us, “the worthy Mayor of Newcastle (Thomas Bonner, that is, of the Sandhill), making scruple to surrender the staff to Sir John Marley, who was thought a fit person to succeed him, was so pushed and bruised in the Spittle, that he was carried out in his chair half dead, such was the violence of the faction.” The riot proved fatal to our worthy. He died “of the hurt he received in the Election House,” and was buried on the 12th October, 1660, that is, just eleven days after the riot. Barnes’s biographer tells us that Bonner, as Mayor, ” to this day never had his equal in the town.”

Bonner had been dead more than half a century before Katy’s arrival on the Sandhill. She came in the early days of George I. Not more than twenty summers had passed over her head when she assumed the management of what became by her prudent care a prosperous and respectable Coffee House. Hers was a house frequented by the ancient dignitaries of Newcastle, who went in and out at her front door, boldly and unashamed. Here lawyers met their clients, and hero valuable properties were sold by auction but “by inch of candle.” Katy, whose real name, by the way, was Kate Jefferson, maintained the fame of her house a full half century, and died, a spinster, on the 10th day of January, 1767. A spinster she could only have been by her own fixed and resolute determination. What stories Katy could have told, and doubtless did tell, to her customers stories not only of the overtures of seekers after a single landlady of a successful house, but stories of the many odd and ordinary, good-humoured and ill-humoured characters who had frequented her house during her fifty years of mistress-ship! What would we not give for Katy’s autobiography!

A contemporary newspaper, recording her death, says: “The great resort of company to her house did not prevent her industry in other respects, particularly in spinning, in which she excelled. One web, of nineteen yards, she brought to the fineness that she refused to take half-a-guinea a yard for it, which was offered her by a lady. But it is to be observed that she worked on the web no less than twenty years.”

The accompanying view of Katy’s Coffee House as it is supposed to have appeared about 1640 is reproduced from Richardson’s “Table Book”

J. R. Boyle, F.S.A.