Introduction to Gateshead History

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The Borough of Gateshead has a rich and varied heritage. The town can trace its origins back to Roman times; Roman coins were discovered in Church Street in 1790 and recent archaeological excavations in the Bottle Bank area have revealed evidence of a Roman road and buildings. The area around the present Swing Bridge was a logical crossing point of the Tyne gorge and it is believed that the bridge stands on the site of the first bridge built by the Romans – the Pons Aelius. During construction of the Swing Bridge in 1875 an altar dedicated to Neptune was dredged from the river.

Medieval Gateshead was confined to the land east and west of the bridge crossing and extending south along Bottle Bank and there are surviving fragments visible today. Two of Gateshead’s oldest buildings are to be found in this area. St. Mary’s Church (now a Visitor Centre) is a Grade I listed building with Norman origins whilst St. Edmund’s Chapel , originally part of the ‘Chapel and Hospital of St. Edmund, Bishop and Confessor’ dates back to 1248.

The post medieval period featured power struggles between Newcastle and Gateshead over control of the increasingly valuable coal industry. However, prosperity was interrupted by the Civil War and the Scottish invasion of 1640. The Battle of Newburn Ford was fought on 28 August 1640 when a small English force attempted to stop a much larger Scottish force from crossing the Tyne and attacking Newcastle from the south.

Gateshead Borough was largely rural but coal mining grew in importance from the sixteenth century and over the coming centuries much of Gateshead’s landscape became scarred by the effects of mining, criss-crossed by wagonways and mineral railways taking coal from the pits to the river. Although the last pit in Gateshead closed in the 1970s there are a number of reminders of its mining past. Dunston Staiths were the largest and busiest single coal-shipping point on the Great Northern Coalfield and are the only remaining substantial staiths in the region. The Tanfield and Bowes Railways, which run through the borough, both transported coal from nearby collieries to the River Tyne. The oldest section of the Tanfield (c1647) had over 300 years of coal traffic when closed in 1964 whilst the Bowes Railway (1826), designed by George Stephenson, included steam and gravity powered inclines.

Gateshead, in common with much of the Northern Region, played an important role in the Industrial Revolution. Fuelled by the local coal, a variety of new industries developed, in particular chemicals, iron founding and locomotive manufacture, that radically changed the face of the town. The arrival of a host of new workers caused rapid population increase and between the beginning of the 19th century and the outbreak of the First World War, Gateshead was transformed from a small riverside market town into a sprawling industrial borough.

Many buildings and places bear witness to the borough’s pioneering industrial past such as Path Head Water Mill and Winlaton Cottage Forge , the only surviving link with the powerful Crowley family which dominated the iron manufacturing trade in the North-east for hundreds of years.

The wealth derived from industry and coal mining led to the development of a number of grand houses within landscaped estates. Two notable examples are to be found in the Derwent Valley. Gibside Hall was inherited by George Bowes in 1721 who laid out pleasure grounds, extended the hall and erected a series of structures to form one of the finest planned landscapes in the region. Axwell Park, developed by Sir Thomas Clavering, seems to have been a conspicuous attempt to compete for status and prestige with George Bowes.

Further links between the borough and historical figures of note include Sir Joseph Swan who invented the first electric light bulb and Charles Parsons who built the world’s first turbine generator. An experiment involving Swan, Parsons and the firm of Clarke, Chapman and Parsons in 1886 saw skaters on Swan Pond in Gateshead Fell witnessing one of the first attempts at outdoor electric lighting.

Other notable figures who have been connected with Gateshead include the engraver Thomas Bewick who lived in the town from 1812 and acclaimed stained glass artist William Wailes who lived at Saltwell Towers, within what is now Saltwell Park.