Gateshead Fell formed part of the endowment of the Bishopric of Durham and long ago was one of the Bishop of Durham's hunting forests, but it cannot have been very suitable for this, as the main road from York passed along the ridge of the hill, and went down steeply to the bridge across the Tyne where the Swing Bridge now stands.
In the Middle Ages when the judges came to Newcastle to hold the assizes, a grand procession came to meet them at the place where the Old Cannon Inn now stands. There was a well beside the road called the Chill Well, which in later times had the inscription
"As cold water to a thirsty soul,
so is good news from a far country."
The procession was formed by the Sheriff of Newcastle, who came to escort the judges into the city, accompanied by representatives of the King of Scotland, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Durham, the Prior of Tynemouth and the Baron de Umfraville. Of course all these grand people did not come themselves. They sent their bailiffs, who managed their estates in Northumberland where they held their own law courts, and came to present to the judges their claims to be exempt from the King's courts. No doubt the bailiffs each brought a train of horsemen and made as much show as they could, so this was a colourful occasion at the beginning of the history of Gateshead Fell; but we have not come to Low Fell yet, for the meeting took place on Sheriff Hill.
Gateshead was a very small place at the south end of the bridge across the Tyne. From the days of the Romans onwards there has been a series of low level bridges at that point, until the great advance in engineering in the 19th century made it possible to build the High Level bridge from the summits of the steep banks on each side of the river.
Gateshead was not a royal borough with a charter from the king. It was one of the Bishop of Durham's boroughs. The people of Gateshead had no mayor and corporation. They were governed by a bailiff whom the bishop appointed. They were called borough-holders, not freemen, because they held their property as tenants of the bishop. Beyond the little town lay the cornfields and meadows, in which the borough-holders had shares. The names of the fields still survive in some places, the Windmill Hills, the West Field, Shipcote (the sheepfold). Beyond the cultivated land lay the open fell, and the borough-holders had a right to pasture a certain number of cattle and sheep on this common land.
Trinity Church in Gateshead High Street is now to be taken down because it is in the commercial centre of the town and there are few resident parishioners.
[Trinity Church was eventually converted into a Community Hall for the use of inner area residents and is still active. St. Edmund's Chapel is now the principal church of the Gateshead Team Ministry, St. Mary's having been destroyed by fires in 1979 and 1983.]
On this site by the side of the old main road there was once a small almshouse or hospital as it was called then for a chaplain and three poor men. Very little is known about it, except that the inmates were in a poor way in 1248 and they appealed to Bishop Farnham of Durham to help them. The Bishop founded a new chapel for four priests, one of them to be the warden; the dedication was in honour of St. Edmund the Archbishop and St. Cuthbert. St. Edmund the Archbishop was a former archbishop of Canterbury who had recently been canonised, of course some time after his death, so this dedication was topical. In the chapel there was a chantry chapel of the Holy Trinity, which carried on the memory of the previous almshouse. About two hundred years later the nuns of the convent of St. Bartholomew in Newcastle suffered great losses by fire, and were given in compensation the chapel of St. Edmund the Archbishop in Gateshead under the obligation to keep up the building and pay the priests. At the reformation the chapel was dissolved with the rest of the property of the convent. The name of Nuns Lane is a reminder of this old chapel.
Higher up the hill on the Old Durham road there was another small hospital or almshouse for three men and three women and a priest as master called the Hospital of St. Edmund the King and Martyr. This saint was a Christian Saxon king who fought against the heathen Danish invaders and was defeated and killed by them. It has caused a great deal of confusion to local historians that there should be two chapels so near together in honour of two different saints with the same name. In the 15th century the Bishop of Durham gave the master of the hospital licence to dig for coal in the land belonging to the hospital, and to carry the coal across the bishop's land to the staithes on the Tyne. This is interesting as an early mention of the coal trade. The coal would be won by opencast working. After the reformation the hospital and chapel were allowed to remain for the convenience of parishioners of Gateshead as it was half a mile from the parish church (and also up a very steep hill, but this was not mentioned).
[The Parish Church of St. Edmund was demolished, following severe damage by gales, in 1968. The site is now occupied by Gateshead Rectory. The Hospital of King James relocated to purpose built flats and bungalows in Sunderland Road in 1974 where it still remains.]
It was refounded as the Hospital of King James I of England in 1610/11, when King James VI of Scotland and I of England was on the throne. The present church of St. Edmund the King is on the site of the old hospital. Its further history does not concern us here. The two points to be noticed are that digging for coal had begun on the Fell in the 15th century, and that there were people living on the Fell in 1545 who did not want to go all the way to St. Mary's, the parish church, but preferred St. Edmund's chapel, because it was nearer to their homes.
In the 18th century Gateshead Fell was still an open moor, and on it there were a good many squatters, tinkers, gypsies and other wanderers who built themselves hovels out of any materials that came to hand, hence the name of Sodhouse Bank. But there were also authorised enclosures and stone built houses. William Bell and Jane his wife had a bakery where the present Wesleyan Manse now stands on the north side of Church Road. There were two cottages attached to the bakery in one of which the Bells lived. When John Wesley came to preach in the north, in the latter part of the 18th century, the Bells became his followers and added a building to the bakery as a chapel.
Wesley often rode along the highway which is now the Old Durham Road, but was then the only main road, and he greatly admired the view from the top of the Fell. Two rooms in the meeting-house were known as Wesley's rooms, and on one of the small panes in a window there was written with a diamond "God is Love". J. Wesley 1771". There are also several other names and texts dated 1770. The pane of glass is preserved in the Wesleyan church in Low Fell opened in 1883. A very old inhabitant can just remember the old stone meeting-house with its red tiled roof.
As the chapel and the bake-house satisfied both the spiritual and the material needs of the neighbourhood, Low Fell may be said to have originated in 1770. It probably received an increase in population after the great flood of the river Tyne on 17th November 1771, when three arches of the Tyne Bridge of Newcastle were swept away. It was a mediaeval bridge with houses on it like London Bridge. As the lower parts of Gateshead and Newcastle were flooded and many houses destroyed, it was natural that people should move out to the lower western slopes of Gateshead Fell, where they would certainly be safe from flooding.
At the beginning of the 19th century, when there was widespread enclosing of commons, an act was passed in 1809 for the enclosure of Gateshead Fell. One sixteenth of the land was to be allotted to the Bishop of Durham as lord of the manor, one-sixteenth to the freemen and borough-holders of Gateshead. A new parish was to be formed and one acre was allotted for a church and churchyard. The rest of the Fell was to be divided between the owners of estates upon it, and all cottages prejudicial to the division were to be removed. The persons who received allotments of land were permitted to win stone for building on it from suitable places.
The Low Fell recreation ground at the corner of Church Road and Kells Lane used to have a small valley running across it, which has now been filled up. My father told me that this was the last trace of the quarry from which the original builders got the stone for the house in which I am now writing, and the other old stone houses in Kells Lane and Church Road.
[This refers to the grassed and play area at the junction of Kells Lane and Engine Lane, diagonally opposite to her family home, Home House.]
The division of such a large extent of land, and the claims of the various persons interested took up a good deal of time, and the final act confirming the arrangements was not passed until 1816. It was some years before anything was done about the church but the matter was taken up by the Hawks family who owned large ironworks on the Tyne. The church was completed and opened in 1825, the Rev. William Hawks was the first rector, and the rectory was built for him by his father, Sir Robert Shafto Hawks.
[The Rectory, Hawkesbury House, is at the top of Kellfield Avenue and is now a residential care home.]
The church stands on almost the highest summit of the Fell, Sour Milk Hill. An attempt was made to change the name to Hawksbury Hill, in honour of the benefactor, but this name has long been forgotten. The spire of St. John's church on Gateshead Fell is a landmark seen for many miles in Northumberland and Durham, and from the sea; it is even said to be seen from the Yorkshire coast beyond the Tees.
The Hawks family made other benefactions to the church. Lady Hawks gave the communion plate, and the rector's blind brother David gave the church a good organ and was himself the organist.
The name of Hawks is locally pronounced Harks, and the workmen of the iron-masters Hawks, Crawshay and Company left a tradition behind them. I don't know whether it survives now, but the story of "Harkses' men at the Battle of Waterloo" cheered many a dull family gathering in my young days. One of my uncles told it very well. Of course it had to be in the broadest dialect.
When Boney came back from Elba twenty-four men from Harkses enlisted under their foreman Ned White and went out to Belgium with the Duke of Wellington. When they got to Waterloo the Duke sent for Ned White and told him to take his company and shift them Frenchies off yon hill. Ned replied that he didn't need to take the whole company, but the Duke insisted that he must. So Ned went back to his men, and asked his second in command how many it would take to shift them Frenchies off yon hill. "Mebbees six," said the other. "Well," said Ned White, "Aa'll take twelve just to yumour th'aad man." When they got near the hill they met Boney riding along on his lily-white horse, and he asks them: "Wheer be gannen?" and Ned White he says, "To shift them Frenchies off yon hill." And Boney he turns his horse and gallops up to the Frenchies shooting: "Gan back, lads, gan back! Heor's Ned White o' Harkses and his fower and twenty men, and ye haven't a happeth o' a chance. Gan back!" And se arl the Frenchies ran away and Ned White and his men won the Battle of Watterloo."
"But, Uncle John," someone would object, "Ned White had only twelve men with him, not twenty-four."
"Oh, Boney was too proud to admit that. Of course he pretended that it took twenty-four men to defeat him and not twelve."
To return to topography, St. John's church stood by the Great North Road on the top of the hill. From the church a lane went westward down the steep hill. It used to be called Meeting-House Lane, because it went past the Wesleyan chapel, but after the church was built it began to be called Church Road. It went down to a lane roughly parallel with the main road, going south down hill to the village of Lamesley, about 2 miles away. The quarry from which the freeholders got stone was at the junction of the two lanes, and next to the quarry there was a colliery.
At the present day (1965) there is a violent controversy about a new main road north. The A1 which was once the Great North Road is chockablock with lorries, cars, motor cycles, buses and every sort of miscellaneous motor traffic roaring along day and night. Something must be done. There must be a by-pass at least. A hundred and forty years ago or so, in the 1820s, there was a similar problem. The making of roads had been immensely improved. There was, of course, only horse traffic, but coaches, carriages and even carts and waggons could travel much faster than in the 18th century. The question began to be asked: "Why should coaches have to labour up the long hill from Newcastle to the top of Gateshead Fell, and then go down the steep descent to the Coach & Horses inn just before Birtley, while those coming from the south had to climb and descend the hills in reverse? There must be a new road with better gradients. But there was one great difference between then and now. At present, while everyone agrees there must be a new road, nobody wants it to be anywhere near his house. When any line for the new road is proposed, the people who live near that line raise furious protests. All their quiet will be lost, they will not be able to sleep with the thunder of the traffic going on all night, their wives will not dare to go to the shops, their children will be killed on their way to school. There is a great deal of truth in all this, but on the other hand there must be a new road, and it must be near the present road, - it cannot be carried out into the open country or it would not be used - motor drivers of every sort of vehicle would say that they couldn't waste time in going so far out of their way.
But in the 1820s it was very different - then everyone was anxious to live as near the new road as possible. There were sometimes traffic accidents then, but not on anything like the scale of the present day, and to live near a main road was a great advantage. Mr. Edward Steele, the colliery manager, built a large house at the corner where Church Road entered Lamesley Lane and where the quarry and the colliery were, traditionally with the intention of making it an inn on the main road. But it was decided not to follow the line of Lamesley Lane, which would still mean a long steep climb out of Gateshead, though not for such a distance as on the old road.
So the new road, now the A1, after climbing the steep hill from the old Tyne Bridge bent westward and then due south, along the side of the hill on a gradient, which was almost level. The first toll-house on this new turn-pike road was at Shipcote, where there used to be a one-storey stone house which was once the toll-house, and afterwards became the home of a market gardener who grew early spring hyacinths in his greenhouses, on the site where Dr. Durant later built his house, The Crossways.
The new road left the old main road at Potticar Lane. Work on it began 6th December 1824, and the first mail coach passed along it on 16th June 1826. This was just when the supremacy of the mail coach began to be threatened, when George Stephenson's first steam train ran from Stockton to Darlington.
The meeting between the judges of assize and the representatives of the lords of the franchises to claim their right to hold their own courts had long ceased to be held, but it was still the custom for the High Sheriff of Northumberland and the under sheriff to come in procession to meet the judges, followed by a train of the gentlemen of the county on horseback or later in their carriages. It is said that a popular sheriff might be followed by as many as 500 gentlemen's carriages. The meeting-place was now the Cannon Inn at Sheriff Hill.
A local rhymester in 1751 wrote verses describing the welcome to the judges with "bells, trumpets, and cannons loud", and the inn seems to have been named after the cannon, and had a small wooden cannon as a sign. After the opening of the new main road, the New Cannon Inn was built at the foot of Buck Lane, now Beaconsfield Road, and the Sheriff's procession met the judges there as they travelled north with equal pomp, until the opening of the railway gave the judges an easier method of travelling.
After the opening of the new road there were a number of important changes in Gateshead. In 1832 there was the first Parliamentary Reform Act, carried in the House of Commons by one vote, and forced through the House of Lords by the threat of the creation of new peers. By this act Gateshead obtained one representative in the new parliament; hitherto the county of Durham had only four M.P.s altogether, two for the county, and two for the city of Durham. Then in 1835 there was the Municipal Reform Act, which aroused much more excitement and dissension in the town than parliamentary reform, and several virulent pamphlets were published. However, in the end Gateshead was included in the act, and obtained a mayor and town council. The chief effect on Low Fell of these changes was that when the boundary of the new parliamentary constituency and the new municipality were established, the boundary of the borough was fixed by law, as it always had been by custom, to include Low Fell, and Boundary Cottage was built at the place where Lamesley Lane crossed the new Durham Road and went down Chow Dene Bank. The Thomas Wilson Working Men's Club is now on the site of Boundary Cottage.
Thomas Wilson is the name of the best-known character who was a native of Low Fell, though his fame did not spread beyond the district in which he lived. He was born on 14th November 1774, in Low Fell. His father was a miner, or as the local usage then was, a pitman. The change has come about in my lifetime, and I remember how it used to puzzle me at first, as I had always thought of miners as gold-miners - "a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine". However we must say miner and not pitman, just as we must say negro and not nigger. There was no restriction on child labour in the eighteenth century, and Thomas Wilson went to work in the pit when he was eight years old. He must have been a clever child who had already learned to read and write. He worked in the pit until he was nineteen, and then began to teach in a school at Galloping Green about a mile from Low Fell. It must have been just such a little village school run by the schoolmaster for his own profit as the one in which Thomas Wilson had been taught as a small child. After some years of teaching in this and other schools, where the pay was probably even less than he could earn in the pit, he got a post as a clerk in a Newcastle firm. He was a very good mathematician, but not one of the first rank, at least if the old joke is true that really great mathematicians like Newton and Einstein are quite incapable of simple addition. After several years of experience with different firms in Newcastle, he was taken into partnership with William Losh and Thomas Bell, forming the engineering firm of Losh, Wilson and Bell, and also the chemical firm called the Alkali Company, in the year 1805, the year of Trafalgar.
William Losh, the senior partner, belonged to a wealthy coal owning family, the best known member of it being his brother James Losh, who kept a diary, from which extracts have been published. During the Napoleonic war there were many fluctuations and alarms in business. In 1811, an important Newcastle bank broke, and the position of the firm of Losh, Wilson and Bell became precarious. James Losh made anxious entries in his diary, and complained of being so much harassed by his brother's affairs, - wishing him to get out of the company altogether; but the partners came safely through their difficulties and by 1826 James Losh noted that he was at present almost dependent on Losh, Wilson and Bell. Although James Losh like Thomas Wilson had literary aspirations and wrote for the local press, he never mentioned Wilson as an acquaintance in his diary, at least in the parts that have been published.
Thomas Wilson prospered. He married and had children. He bought a house with large grounds on the land between the New Durham Road and Lamesley Lane, which was now called Kells Lane, because Mr. Kell, the first town clerk of Gateshead Corporation built himself a house there. Thomas Wilson's house faced onto Weathercock Lane, which connected Kells Lane with the new road, and his ground extended to Lowrey's Lane, the next street connecting the two roads. Wilson's house was called Fell House, or Low Fell House, and had of course a gate opening onto the main road as well as the entrance from Weathercock Lane. An aged inhabitant can just remember this gate, the garden wall and the rather neglected grounds that could be seen through the gate, but in the 1890s a row of five shops was built along the Durham Road on this ground. The upper part of the garden and the last remains of the buildings are now in process of being removed.
[Fell House was situated on what we now know as Lowrey's Lane Car Park, the entrance and frontage of the grounds extending from Sunlight Cleaners to the Superior Chop Suey House Takeaway.]
Thomas Wilson wished to help children to get a better education with less difficulty than he had known and also to encourage adult education, therefore as soon as he was in a position to do so he set to work to establish a reading room and school in Low Fell. On the opposite side of the new Durham Road to Fell House there was a level open piece of land, with the Crown Inn on its west side.
[The Crown Inn is now Bar Mondo.]
This open space was then called the Garth, though that name has been forgotten now. The site next to the Crown was bought from William Laing in January 1841. Money was raised by two issues of five shilling shares, which produced two-thirds of the amount required, and the remaining third was raised by public subscription. The chief organisers in the project were Thomas Wilson and Mr. Hetherington, the landlord of the Gateshead Arms. It may be remarked that there was a staircase leading from the reading-room to the Crown Inn, but this was subsequently closed. The architect was Thomas Oliver of Newcastle, and the builder Thomas Liddell of Low Fell. There was a grand opening dinner on 9th November 1841. The building contained a reading room, lecture room and schoolroom. Seven trustees, headed by Thomas Wilson, were appointed to manage the use of the building for its proper purposes. Even after the first Education Act was passed, the schoolroom was still used as the Low Fell school until 1878, when a school in Kells Lane was completed and the children marched in a procession to their new quarters. But this is getting too far ahead, and I must return to Thomas Wilson. In recognition of his public spirit a local sculptor was commissioned to execute a marble bust of him to stand in the reading-room and a public subscription was raised to pay the sculptor, Mr. Dunbar. Wilson became famous for his poems and songs in the Tyneside dialect. Long afterwards a visitor to the reading room was shocked to see that, as it was a wet washing day, the caretaker's wife had fastened her clothes-line to the wall on one side and tied the other end of the line round the neck of the bust! But he thought the old man himself might have laughed, as his best-known song is "Upon a Weshin' Day", and begins:
Of a' the plagues a poor man meets
Alang life's weary way,
There's nyen amang; them a' that beats
A rainy weshin' day
And let the day come when it may,
It a'ways is maw care
Before a break maw fast, te pray
It may be fine and fair.
For it's thump! Thump! Souse! Souse!
Scrub! Scrub away!
There's nowt but glumpin' i' the house
Upon a weshin' day!
Mr. John Oxberry who was deeply interested in local history and several other admirers of Thomas Wilson, arranged to have the bust cleaned and restored, and it is now in the reference room of the Gateshead Central Municipal Library, with a picture of his house and a brief biography.
Thomas Wilson lived to be 84; he died on 9th May 1858; and was buried in the cemetery of St. John's Church, Sheriff Hill. The school children assembled at the Institute before following in the funeral procession, and each was given a bun. Those who lived to be old used to declare that it was the very wettest day they had ever known. The representatives of the original shareholders who took up the two issues of 5 shilling shares in the Institute continued to appoint trustees to let the rooms to various organisations and applied the proceeds to the upkeep of the building. In course of time the purposes for which the building was founded were supplied in other ways. The school children were transferred to the school in Kells Lane. Then at the beginning of this century municipal libraries began to supersede such semi-private ones. Among the tenants were the Salvation Army and St. Helen's Church Institute, which was here for 30 years. Other tenants were various brass bands, the Sunbeam Rechabites' Tent (a Temperance Organisation), and the Thomas Wilson Club. The last-named would have liked to buy the building, but in 1923 Lloyd's Bank made an offer to the shareholders which they accepted, and the building is now one of three banks near each other on the west side of the road, Lloyd's, Martin's and the Midland. A public clock which had been presented to the institute by an American gentleman, Mr. Cutter, who settled at Fountain House in Low Fell, just beyond the Midland Bank, was transferred to the outside of that bank, where it still functions, on the sale of the institute building.
[[Fountain House has been re-named "The Great House", Midland Bank is now an Insurance Office of Northern Counties Guarantee Corporation Ltd.; the clock is no longer there.]