History of Newcastle



The city of Newcastle was founded at the lowest place the Tyne could be easily crossed. In 1080 the Normans built a wooden fort to safeguard the crossing. They also erected a wooden bridge. (The ‘new castle’ was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century). Soon a little town grew up in the shadow of the new castle and was named after it.

In the Middle Ages towns often grew up by castles because the garrisons provided a market for the townspeople’s goods. Newcastle prospered partly because of the wars between the English and the Scots. There was much traffic through Newcastle and travellers spent money there. Newcastle also became a busy port. In the Middle Ages the main export was wool. (Wool was by far England’s most important export). Hides, grindstones and lead were also exported. Newcastle also famously exported coal, from the 13th century onwards. Much of it was exported to London where it was used in many industries. Imports included alum and luxuries such as spices and wine.

Newcastle also had a shipbuilding industry in the later Middle Ages. The first record of a ship being built there was in 1294. There was also a rope making industry (ropes being essential for sailing ships). There was also a leather industry. There were skinners, tanners, saddlers. Wool cloth was manufactured in Newcastle. First it was woven. Then it was fulled. In other words it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. When it dried the wool was dyed. There were also the same craftsmen you would find in any medieval town such as butchers, bakers, brewers and smiths.

In the Middle Ages there were 2 fairs in Newcastle. Fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they would attract buyers from all over Northumberland and Durham. In the late 13th century century walls were built around Newcastle – a sign of its growing importance. There were 7 main gates and 19 towers. The church was very important and powerful in the Middle Ages. There were 4 churches in Newcastle. From the 13th century there were also friars. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. In Newcastle there were Franciscan friars (know as grey friars because of their grey costumes), Dominican friars, (known as black friars), Carmelite friars (white friars), Trinitarian friars and Austin friars. There was also a Benedictine nunnery in Nun Street. There were also several ‘hospitals’ run by the church. In them monks cared for the sick and the poor as best they could. Newcastle had a mayor as early as 1216. In 1400 it was made a county in its own right separate from the rest of the county. By then Newcastle had a population of around 4,000. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time it was a large town.


In 1539 Henry VIII closed the friaries. In 1540 he closed the nunnery. However Henry also founded a grammar school in Newcastle which was incorporated in 1600. In the 16th century exports of coal boomed and it overtook wool as the town’s main export. It is estimated that in 1500 about 15,000 tons of coal were exported from Newcastle each year. By the mid 17th century that had soared to around 400,000 tons a year. By 1600 the population of Newcastle had risen to about 10,000. By the standards of the time it was a large and important town.

In 1635 a writer called Newcastle ‘the fairest and richest town in England inferior for wealth and building to no city save London and Bristol’. In 1642 came civil war between king and parliament. Newcastle sided with the king but after the battle of Marston Moor in 1644 a parliamentary army laid siege to the town. Newcastle surrendered in October 1644. In 1658 a new Guildhall was built and in 1681 the Hospital of the Holy Jesus (an almshouse). In the late 17th century coal exports continued to boom so did the shipbuilding industry. Rope making also flourished. Lime was made in kilns for fertiliser. Salt was made from seawater. The water was heated in pans to evaporate it and leave behind a residue of salt. From the late 17th century there was a glass making industry in Newcastle. By the early 18th century there was also an iron and steel industry. Another industry was clay pipe making. At the end of the 17th century the travel writer Celia Fiennes described Newcastle as a noble town. She said it resembled London more than any other town in England. The streets were broad and the buildings were tall and made of brick or stone.


By the mid 18th century the population of Newcastle had risen to around 20,000. In the later 18th century the city spread beyond the walls and suburbs were created. In the last part of the 18th century work began on demolishing the walls and the gates since they impeded traffic. Although there was much poverty in Newcastle in the 18th century (as there was in all cities) there were some improvements.

In 1711 Newcastle gained its first newspaper. In 1736 an assembly room was built where balls were held and card games were played. In 1751 an infirmary was built. In 1777 a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. In 1755 Newcastle gained its first bank. After 1763 the streets inside the walls were lit by oil lamps and night watchmen patrolled the streets. (Although it is unlikely they were very effective). A customs house was built in 1766. The Theatre Royal was first built in 1788. In 1773-81 a new bridge was built over the Tyne after the Medieval one was destroyed by a storm. In the 18th century private companies began providing piped water but only a small number of people could afford it. For the well off life in Newcastle was more comfortable and more refined than before. In the later 18th century the salt industry in Newcastle declined but a pottery industry began to flourish.


In 1801, at the time of the first census Newcastle had a population of 28,000. It grew rapidly. The population of Newcastle reached 53,000 in 1831. The boundaries were extended in 1835 to include Byker, Westgate, Elswick, Jesmond and Heaton. The population of the borough reached over 87,000 in 1851. By 1901 it had risen to 215,000. In the years 1825-1840 the town centre was rebuilt. This was mostly the work of three men, John Dobson, an architect, Richard Grainger, a builder and John Clayton the town clerk. All three have streets named after them. Dobson designed Eldon Square and Grainger built it 1825-31. A man named Thomas Oliver designed Leazes Terrace. Grainger built it in 1829-34. Dobson designed and Grainger built Grey Street in the 1830s. It was named after Earl Grey prime minister 1830-34. (Earl Grey’s monument was erected in 1838). Grainger also built the market named after him. A new Theatre Royal was built at that time. Leazes Park was laid out in 1837. The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Mary was built in 1844. Like all 19th century cities Newcastle was dirty and unsanitary. An outbreak of cholera in 1832 killed 306 people. Another outbreak in 1848-49 killed 412. The worst outbreak was in 1853 when 1,533 people died. However there were some improvements in Newcastle during the 19th century. After 1818 the streets were lit by gas. In 1836 a modern police force was formed. In 1858 a Corn Exchange (where grain could be bought and sold) was built. So was a Town Hall. In 1838 a railway was built from Newcastle to Carlisle. It was followed by one to Darlington in 1844 and one to Berwick in 1847. In 1849 a railway bridge, High Level Bridge, was built over the Tyne to connect Newcastle to London. Queen Victoria opened central railway station, which was designed by Dobson in 1850. In 1862 a memorial was erected to Stephenson. A swing bridge was erected in 1876. Hancock Museum opened in the present building in 1884. The first public library in Newcastle opened in 1878. From 1879 horse drawn trams ran in the streets. The first public park in Newcastle, Leazes was opened in 1873. In the 1870s the rest of Town Moor was laid out as parks. Brandling Park opened in 1880. A new diocese was created in 1882 and the Church of St Nicholas was made a cathedral. In the early 19th century an alkali industry flourished in Newcastle but it had died out by the end of the century. The pottery industry and the glass industry also declined. During the 19th century shipbuilding continued to be important. So did the iron industry. Mechanical engineering also prospered in Newcastle.


Electric trams began to run in the streets of Newcastle in 1901 but they were in turn replaced by buses. Laing Art Gallery was built in 1901. Shipley Art Gallery opened in 1917. The first cinemas in Newcastle opened in 1909. Redneugh road bridge was built in 1900. King Edward VII railway bridge was built in 1906. Hatton Gallery was founded in 1925. The suspension bridge, Tyne Bridge, was erected in 1928. John G Joicey museum opened in 1934. Discovery museum opened as a museum of science and industry in 1934. It was renamed in 1993. In the 1920s and 1930s the council built the first council houses in Newcastle. Many more were built after 1945. Shefton Museum opened in 1956.

The Museum of Antiquities opened in 1960. In the late 1960s Eldon Square was redeveloped. A new Civic Centre was built in 1968. In 1969 it was given a Civic Trust award. Two sculptures were made by the David Wynne, the River God Tyne and Swans in Flight. Newcastle Arts Centre was built in 1988. Monument Mall shopping centre was built in 1992. In the 20th century coal exports declined dramatically. The last coal mine within the boundaries of Newcastle closed in 1956. Shipbuilding also dramatically declined. During the 1930s Newcastle suffered from mass unemployment. However, after 1945, as manufacturing industry contracted new service industries grew. More and more people were employed in public administration, retail and education. Newcastle University was formed in 1963. Newcastle Polytechnic was founded in 1969. It was made a university in 1992. A new Central Library was built in 1968. Newcastle Military Museum was founded in 1983. Stephenson Railway Museum opened in 1986.


The Life Science Centre opened in 2000. The Millennium Bridge was opened in 2001. The Baltic Art Centre opened in 2002. Today the population of Newcastle is 259,000.