Past Masters | Living North

Past Masters


Image of historic photograph of Newcastle city and Tyne river
Did you know that self-raising flour was invented in the Bigg Market? Or that Roman troops from North Africa used to live in Benwell? How about the almighty punch-up on the quayside over a war between Russia and Japan? We took a tour around Newcastle to t

For most people, the phrase ‘walking tour’ is down there with ‘Jedward extravaganza’ and ‘three-hour endoscopy’ on the Big List Of Things Which Sound Tedious. These people, however, are absolute philistines. To prove this, we met up with 26-year-old local history buff, tour guide and Newcastle University graduate Alex Iles for a private tour of the city’s under-appreciated historical highlights.

Alex set up Iles Tours (which is soon to become Explore Newcastle) after getting a bit fed up of being unemployed post-uni, and I meet him outside St Nicholas Cathedral on a blustery, overcast Tuesday. By the time we’ve gone a dozen steps into the nave, Alex, who’s wearing sensible shoes and an even more sensible jumper, is barrelling through a potted history of the cathedral and its quirks – the only cathedral which has more memorials in it is Westminster Abbey – before we stop at the far end, in front of a 15th century Flemish brass of a bloke called Roger Thornton.

‘“With a ha’penny and a lambskin, Thornton entered the Westgate,” goes an old poem about him,’ says Alex. ‘It’s a nice little romantic Dick Whittington story, but the truth of it’s a little bit different. He was the third son of a Northumberland noble. His dad gave him a little bit of starting money and sent him to Newcastle and told him to become a merchant. He started in wool and hide, but he had a little bit of bad luck.’ Strikes meant that his wool started rotting on the quayside, so he went into lead and coal and became a multi-multi-multimillionaire. He was so wealthy that when the Percy family revolted against Henry IV, he armed the city’s militia and rebuilt parts of the city walls out of his own pocket. ‘The best way to explain it today would be if Newcastle was under attack and the Chamber of Commerce bought Challenger II battle tanks and said, “Right we’re defending the city,”’ Alex says. 

It all went well – the city was defended, Thornton got the Percys’ lands, and he went from strength to strength, becoming MP and later mayor of Newcastle, siring 14 children, and leaving enough money to Blackfriars and St Nicholas’ to ensure the priests prayed for his soul every day for 10 years after his death.

‘Roger Thornton is one of the great industrial guys: he’s not only a merchant, he’s also an on-call warrior if need be, and he’s also involved in the religious aspect of life,’ says Alex. ‘People like Roger Thornton were really confusing to Medieval society: there were those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked. He was kind of all three.’

We head out of the cathedral and toward the castle keep, where cobbles on the ground show the outline of the first Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall, also known as Pons Aelius. It was built by Belgian troops, Alex explains, and Newcastle was home to soldiers from across the empire: Spaniards and Greeks lived in this garrison, and there were North African troops in Benwell. Later on in the Roman Empire, Britons from near Manchester and Liverpool lived here too – they worked as arcarni, or native scouts who guided the Europeans around and helped them cross the wall on espionage missions to see what the Picts were up to. Later, Alex says, ‘there was a church and conferencing centre – maybe similar to how the Sage in Gateshead is used today.’ Then came the Normans, William the Conquerer’s eldest son Robert Cutterhose, the wooden castle (which burned down) and the new castle (which didn’t) to shore up the north against Scottish invasion.

Walking up Westgate Road toward the station, Alex explains that in the mid- to late-1700s, Collingwood Street was the hub of commerce and provincial, entrepreneurial banking in the city, which financed trade, industry and innovation. At that time, Alex says, ‘Newcastle was supplying up to 80 percent of London’s coal needs. If you imagine all the industry in London and the South East relying on Newcastle coal, you can really get a sense of the wealth and the power that was coming back up here. In fact, during the Civil War, Newcastle was a priority target because if Newcastle falls, you lose the coal supply for London and London freezes.’

Given its fame, the Lit and Phil might sound like a My First Historical Tour kind of stop-off, but, as Alex points out, it’s been such a cornerstone of science and tech in Newcastle that there’s a shedload of good stories here. ‘You couldn’t get a university education unless you were a member of the Church of England. It was against the law,’ Alex says. ‘Literary and Philosophical Societies were set up so non-conformists, Catholics, members of other faiths and atheists could get a university education.’ The number of people who did so is huge, and includes Sunderland-born Joseph Swann (pictured), inventor of the lightbulb, who demonstrated his invention at the Lit and Phil in 1879 to a crowd of 700. Unfortunately, in probably the facepalm moment to end all facepalm moments, he forgot to patent it. Thomas Edison didn’t. Mosley Street, though, was the first street in the world to be lit by electric lights, so glory-hog Edison can swivel on that.

After a quick stop in the station – the first building to use curved steel, bent on huge rollers, for its ceiling – we stop in the Bigg Market to talk about 9 October 1854. It was, Alex notes, a ‘pretty big day’. It was the day Newcastle burned. ‘All caused by a someone across in Gateshead at a rope twinery leaving a fire unattended. His building went up, and when it went up it went next door to the chemical warehouse.’ Those fighting the fire pumped water from the Tyne into the building, and, when the burning sulphur met the freezing water, the whole building detonated. ‘Pieces of masonry were found in Gosforth the next day, and most of the Gateshead quayside was found in Jesmond. The explosion was heard in Sunderland, and miners two miles underground came up to see what the noise was,’ says Alex. ‘So yeah, it remodelled the quayside.’

Next is High Bridge Street – once literally a bridge over the Lort Burn, a river which still runs under Grey Street and Dean Street – and a plaque remembering engineer and arms manufacturer William Armstrong. History buffs will know him already – invented the incredibly innovative Armstrong field gun which needed 19 patents to go into production, built loads of ships, donated a lot of land to become city parks, had a really cool house, related to Pointless presenter Alexander Armstrong, etc – but given his frantically productive life there’s always more to know. Having made 3,000 guns for the government and been given a million quid and the title of Lord Armourer of the country, he moved into building warships – like, a lot of warships. So many warships, in fact, that during the Russian-Japanese war of 1908-09, both fleets had been built on the Tyne. The workers at shipyards in the east and west of the city took umbrage at the fact that the ships they and their fathers had built were being destroyed, as they saw it, by their rivals in the other shipyards. So, they had a massive punch-up: ‘People were so passionate about the time that they’d put into the ships that they fought on the quayside over it.’ The papers called it the Newcastle Civil War.

We follow High Bridge Street and then cross Pilgrim Street, taking in the vast Art Deco, Portland stone frontage of Carliol House, once home to the North Eastern Electric Supply Company (Nesco), and Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company (Disco). ‘It’s amazing for so many reasons,’ Alex says. Disco’s forerunner and inspiration, Charles Parsons, invented the steam turbine, which meant generators went from producing about 7.5kw per hour – about enough to boil two and a half kettles – to about 200,000kw per hour by the end of Parsons’ career. The first steam turbine power plant in the world was built on Forth Banks; now, they’re everywhere.

After a brief interlude in which Alex was distracted by a billboard for Guy Ritchie’s forthcoming and outrageously historically inaccurate interpretation of the Arthurian legend (‘No, no, no… oh and he’s wearing a visor! No. Just no’), we head to our final stop: the tech hub at Campus North. It echoes a lot of the themes of Roger Thornton back in the 1400s: innovation, new commerce, and interconnecting disciplines. Here, people work on artificial intelligence, virtual reality, apps and other new tech: ‘They have these tech spaces where local people can come together, set up, create their apps, create their businesses and the whole point of it is collaboration.’

That’s the point of getting to see a city you know from a different angle: wherever Newcastle’s future lies, seeing its mutations, its spasms, and its revolutions shows its resilience. ‘Newcastle’s history isn’t just about coal and the past and people like Roger Thornton,’ says Alex. ‘Every single time Newcastle has lost its major industry, it’s regrown itself.’


10 Newcastle Facts to Save Any Dying Conversation

Running dry at the pub with your mates? Struggling to woo a potential partner? Losing the will to live at a family get-together? Drop one of these red-hot truth-bombs and watch the chat light up


Denton Chare, that faintly dodgy alleyway parallel to Collingwood Street, is a favourite of Hollywood location scouts

‘Apparently, it looks like 1920s and 1930s New York and Boston.’ 

About half of the Roman Empire’s lead came from the Pennines

‘People depict Britain as the backwater of the Empire and that no-one wanted to go there; Britain was important because it had materials that the rest of the empire had to rely on.’

Archaeologists found a 5,000-year-old Neolithic canoe under the old Post Office building near the cathedral

‘There was a canoe that had been specifically made to be buried, it was a votive offering, which is a sacrifice where you take an item and ritually kill it. You’d take a canoe that had never been used and bury it as an offering to appease the gods of the river.’

George Stephenson nearly blew himself up

Having worked up a prototype of his safety lamp, Stephenson went into the pit, found a seam which was spewing methane, and stuck his lamp in to see if would explode and kill him. ‘It was basically a case of, “If this works, I’m proven. If it doesn’t, I’ll die.” That shows you his mind.’

He massively confused Parliament too

‘When he went down to London to speak in Parliament as a consultant, they thought he was speaking Latin because they couldn’t understand his accent. That tells you something about the Westminster elite at the time.’

Lucozade was originally intended to treat shellshock 

‘Frederick Pybus was a surgeon at the RVI who had gone off to the First World War, and he saw so many soldiers being diagnosed with what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that he came up with Glucozade – the principle’s the same as if you’re in shock and someone gives you a sweet, milky tea.’ 

Self-raising flour was invented in the Bigg Market in 1880

By Be-Ro, who sound like someone who would have briefly dated Britney in the mid-00s.

The word ‘hoy’ comes from the Dutch ‘gooi’, meaning ‘to throw’

It probably comes from Newcastle’s businessmen trading coal with the Dutch in the Middle Ages.

By the time the Roman Empire started to collapse, soldiers in Britain hadn’t been paid for 10 years 

Sadly, they were here roughly 1600 years too early to join Unison.

Published in: June 2017

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