1976: Historic Newcastle, by Frank Graham

This book was brought home for me a few years after publication, I think after a civic gathering of some sort in Newcastle, the books having been bought for attendees. On the front cover flap, Frank Graham describes it as ‘a fitting climax to our effort to promote the history and culture of Northumbria. We hope the £12,000 spent on this book will be appreciated by those who study its contents.’

I remembered Historic Newcastle as a sort of scrapbook of pictures of old buildings with minimal text. As a child, I was a little disappointed by the emphasis on areas of the city with which I didn’t have a strong relationship. The Quayside and the environs of St Nicholas’s Cathedral were some distance from Eldon Square Shopping Centre and the adjacent streets which we visited regularly from Darras Hall. There were accounts of the bridges, though – that for centuries the ‘Tyne Bridge’ was the name given to the bridge which crossed the Tyne at a low level where the present Swing Bridge stands, and the modern Tyne Bridge opened in 1928 is a usurping latecomer, was always dissonant to me in my younger day. Although the illustrations of the city wall and its towers were involving, they were difficult to relate to the city that I knew. Even the position of Newgate, which the bus from Ponteland drove past on its way to Eldon Square bus station, was difficult to associate with the top of Newgate Street, then dominated by the multi-storey car park and bus bays on its eastern side created as part of the Eldon Square development, which have since proved ephemeral compared with other features of the city.

The scenes which lingered most im my memory were painted with force and feeling. Emerson Charnley’s engraving of H. Perlee Parker’s ‘Newcastle Eccentric Characters’ (1820) shows the regulars at Hell’s Kitchen tavern in Groat Market ‘where Thomson House now stands’ – a gathering of ‘tramps and cadgers’ surrounding Blind Willie the fiddler, on the site where Newcastle’s newspapers would later be produced. Were the journalists, printers and advertising folk of Newcastle Chronicle and Journal Ltd haunted or inhabited by the spirits of their predecessors?

Another such image was one of Ronald Embleton’s more energetic historical tableaus, ‘The Black Boy’, showing members of the late eighteenth-century Swarley’s Club drinking there, along with Richard Swarley, the pub landlord. The two most prominent, shown stanfing and toasting each other, were two leading figures in Frank Graham’s Northumbrian pantheon, the engraver Thomas Bewick, whose name I already knew forty years ago, and Thomas Spence, who was unfamiliar to me. Graham expounds:

Thomas Spence was a radical reformer of great significance, famous for his novel methods of propaganda, a trenchant writer, the “inventor” of “land nationalisation”, and a man of great political integrity. His name should be better known in Newcastle. (p 24)

As a child interested in the history of royalty and aristocracy, fascinated by genealogies and titles but inclined, somewhat whiggishly, to see the postwar settlement into which I had been born as the culmination of centuries by which education and technology had led with goodwill-infused inevitability to a crowned social democracy, this indication of Graham’s more revolutionary sympathies was startling. It was still a few years before Frank Graham published P.M. Ashraf’s biography of Spence. That “land nationalisation” is in quotation marks suggests that while Graham might have had some sympathy with this interpretation of Spence’s work, he was aware that it wasn’t strictly accurate – H.T. Dickinson’s article on Spence for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) rejects the notion that Spence called for nationalization of land, as Spence saw the parish as the communal unit.

Returning to it now, Historic Newcastle is an argument conveyed through association of picture and text, a reminder to a city whose leaders were fixated on retail developments that for most of its history Newcastle’s wealth had come from work alongside its river. Embleton’s ‘Keelman’, first seen in Geordie Pride (1974), appears again, but the painting which best conveys the humanity alongside the Tyne, suggesting smell and sound as well as sight, is George Balmer’s ‘The Grey Horse Inn’, a nineteenth-century oil painting of an early modern building, looming over the vessel-thronged water. Eldon Square itself is commemorated in a page showing an engraving by John Knox from McKenzie’s History of Newcastle (1827), probably based on the original plans as the square was not then complete. Graham draws attention to the institutions and homes of influential Tynesiders which stood in the square, before noting that almost all of them had been demolished to build the shopping centre, and finally regretting that Lord Eldon, who “contributed so little to the city” is commemorated in Newcastle “more than any other citizen”. He might be pleased that the pub by Grey’s Monument called the Eldon in the 1970s is now the Charles Grey. Other connections are left unsaid, the history of infirmaries built by public subscription between the mid-eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, culminating in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in 1906, isn’t connected to the National Health Service, though perhaps that is an intrusion of central government into local collective effort. Thomas Spence, after all, believed in the parish as the essential civic unit.

It’s because so much is left undeveloped that Historic Newcastle feels open ended. Towards the end of the book, there is criticism for new structures – including the Scotswood Bridge – and reproductions of prints of lost buildings, including the then-recently lost Orphan House, founded by John Wesley in 1743 but demolished for Eldon Square Shopping Centre (which Graham, being no friend of Eldon, avoids naming as such on all possible occasions). Graham criticises aspects of modernity which he does not like, but offers no remedies. Those are for the reader to decide upon. They are left on the last two pages to contemplate engravings showing the launch of the East Indiaman Blenheim; the Rocket and other works of George Stephenson and his successors; homes on Castle Garth Stairs; the Close, showing the Cooperage; an old tower in Armstrong Park; the head of the Side at the beginning of the nineteenth century; the old Cale Cross; and lastly the Literary and Philosophical Society building.

Perhaps that final illustration indicates Graham’s hope for a culturally literate society with a sense of collective identity. A few pages earlier (p 69), Graham reproduced a print of W. and T. Fordyce’s publishing establishment in Grey Street, c. 1850, a large bookshop arranged to modern eyes like an old library. Page 77 shows Fittler’s engraving of the river god Tyne from Somerset House, with an explanation on page 78, tracing the use of the image as a bookseller’s and printer’s mark on Tyneside, from John Brand to Moses Aaron Richardson to Andrew Reid, and finally to Frank Graham himself.* There’s some self-mythologizing here, but the assertion of one’s place in the literary craft tradition was genuine enough. Likewise Graham notes – and context suggests regret – the abandonment of the old Mansion House by the reformed Newcastle Corporation following the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835, its conversion into a timber warehouse and destruction by fire. There is a page of engravings of neoclassical shop facades far more elegant than the giant retail bunker offered by most facades of the new Eldon Square. Reconnection with culture and collective self-knowledge was the implied future.

*The carving made for Richardson’s shop remained with Andrew Reid and their successors, being loaned by Elanders UK to Newcastle Central Library in 2009, where it at the time of writing remains on display. The Journal, 8 May 2009

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