A brief History of Newcastle upon Tyne

Newcastle has been a significant centre of population since Roman times. The Romans, realising the military value of the site and its command on the Tyne crossing, built a bridge guarded at its northern end by a fort – “Pons Aelius” – in about 122AD. This formed a vital part of the frontier defence which we know as Hadrian’s Wall.

After the departure of the Romans in the early fifth century there is little record of the history of the town, though recent archaeological work in the area of the Castle Keep has provided evidence of continuing occupation of the site. After the Norman Conquest, the strategic importance of the town – then known as Monkchester – was again realised. Fortification was imperative and in 1080 a wooden motte and bailey castle was built by Robert, son of William I. This was the “New Castle”. The existing stone Keep dates from 1172-77 and the Black Gate from 1247. The town walls were added in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and were described in the sixteenth century as surpassing “all the waulls of the cities of England and most of the cities of Europe” in their “strength and magnificence”. The walls were last put into a state of defence in 1745 at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion.

As the perceived danger from the north of the border diminished, the walls and fortified gates fell victim to progress; those along the Quayside were demolished as an obstacle to trade in the 1760s. Those to the north and east of the centre disappeared with the formation of the new streets of the expanding town.

Behind the protection of these walls, Newcastle developed during the Middle Ages as a merchant and trading community; the most important commodity in the period was wool, but markets in many other types of goods developed. The growth of the town was aided by royal favours and charters. In 1216 the burgesses gained the right to have a mayor and in 1400 the town became a county with its own sheriff. Much care was also taken by the burgesses to suppress the aspirations of other – potentially rival – communities along the Tyne. Newcastle’s control of river trade, which did not end until 1850, brought vast wealth.

Much of this wealth was derived from the coal trade. The phrase “taking coals to Newcastle” indicates the dominant importance of this product in the town’s economy. By the end of the fourteenth century the sea coal trade with London and other ports had been established. Newcastle’s control of the river, founded on royal charters, meant that all coal mined on both banks of the Tyne was shipped through its port. Between 1565 and 1625 the coal trade increased twelve-fold, saving Newcastle from the slump which affected other towns as the wool trade declined.

There was a set-back during the Civil War when the town was besieged for three months. It fell to a Scottish army in 1644 and the coal trade was severely disrupted. Prosperity was regained remarkably quickly after the Restoration: by the mid -1660s Newcastle was the fourth largest provincial town in England in terms of population. In this period other industries and trades such as iron, salt and glass joined coal as producers of wealth.

During the eighteenth century Newcastle increasingly dominated the region. A commercial infrastructure developed which was not present in other north-east towns. There was however another side to the town’s prosperity. Whole areas of the town near the river were squalid as increasing population put pressure on available housing. As in other towns, those who could afford to do so left the centre in the latter part of the eighteenth century, either for country estates or for newly developing streets of imposing Georgian houses outside the walls of the city.

Stimulated by new industries, Newcastle entered its greatest period of population growth, from 35,000 in 1821 to 88,000 in 1851 to 266,000 in 1911. Locomotive construction by the Stephensons began at Forth banks and shipbuilding expanded. By far the most significant enterprise was that begun by W.G. Armstrong at Elswick, building armaments and ships on what had been a green river bank. Whole suburbs of terraced housing for the workers were developed east and west of the town centre. By now Newcastle had long outgrown its medieval core, and new suburbs such as Heaton and Jesmond developed rapidly.
Eventually, Walker, Benwell, Fenham and part of Kenton were incorporated into the city in 1904.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century a new phase of development began in the city centre, mainly banks and other commercial enterprises, however in addition, shops developed on a massive scale. The city’s regional position as a shopping centre was confirmed as Fenwick’s department store expanded and the remainder of Northumberland Street changed from residential to shopping use.

The opening of the Tyne Bridge in 1928 caused the centre of the city to move northwards and upwards by revitalising Pilgrim Street and making the Quayside more of a backwater.
The new bridge emphasised Newcastle’s retail and cultural dominance of the north-east region. With the decline of industry after the First World War, the commercial and retail facilities of the city were its salvation: although there was poverty in Newcastle, it was not on the scale of other Tyneside towns.

The 1950’s was a period of slow recovery from the war but the 1960’s and 1970’s saw another period of massive development, with huge areas of old property being swept away to create the new Eldon Square shopping centre, Central Motorway development, and some of Newcastle’s most disliked buildings.

In recent years there has been an emphasis on regeneration and as a result people have been attracted back into the city centre as a place to live. Many redundant commercial buildings have been converted into desirable apartments, hotels and leisure facilities. In the last decade the City’s international reputation as a vibrant, attractive and exciting place to visit and live has continued to grow and develop. It is certainly the case that the profile of Newcastle upon Tyne is now of world renown; it will doubtless continue to evolve to meet the needs and desires of its residents and visitors.