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Newcastle upon Tyne - History

Updated on September 14, 2015
Great Fire of Newcastle
Great Fire of Newcastle

The Great Fire of Newcastle

There’d been fires throughout Newcastle’s history; the one in 1349 probably gave people something to take their minds off the Black Death. Wooden houses, candles, open fires, blocked chimneys were all troublesome. In modern house fires, most deaths are the result of suffocation from the burning of soft furnishings. In a wooden-framed building, and with few possessions, it was possible, with a bit of luck, to get out in time, which is why not many people (supposedly only two), are thought to have died in the Great Fire of London. The Great Fire of Newcastle in 1854 was different. It was a modern, industrial fire, fought with stunning bravery by firemen from the North Britain Brigade equipped with what would look to our eyes like comedy fire engines; no breathing apparatus, no means of communication.

At about half an hour after midnight, on October the 6th, 1854, Wilson’s worsted factory in Hillgate, on the Gateshead side of the Tyne, caught fire. There’d been a fire there four years before, but the factory was rebuilt in the same spot, where the homes of workers were crowded in among warehouses. The stench of burning cloth and oil would have been foul. After two hours, as the roof collapsed, chemicals in a nearby warehouse in the charge of the County Fire Office, caught alight.

It was known as Bertram’s Warehouse, and held, among other things, iron, manganese, arsenic, alum, guano and brimstone (sulphur). The sky turned purple. The two towns and the river were lit up like a foreshadowing of the Blitz. It was said that it could be seen from Northallerton. A molten river of lead, sulphur and tallow flowed unstoppably from the warehouse windows.

People in their nightclothes had hurried out onto the Newcastle Quayside to watch. Others climbed the rigging of ships. The Newcastle side was crammed with businesses and all ranks of society, shipbrokers and labourers, apprentices, lawyers and shopkeepers living side by side. Ships on the river, the flames towering above the height of their masts, were hastily taken to a safe distance. Small explosions were heard, nothing compared with what was coming. Another warehouse close to the fire also held chemicals; naptha, potash, nitrate of soda. This building was meant to be a fireproof structure. As it turned out, it wasn’t.

There was a sound like a rifle shot, just after three o’clock in the morning, but at that point, the watchers on the Newcastle side were more interested than afraid. Then came the bang. An eyewitness on the High Level Bridge during the subsequent explosion, said that the structure quivered as thought it was made of wire, and seemed to be about to pitch everyone into the filthy water. The vibrations were said to have been felt in Berwick. Great chunks of timber and brick were hurled, coated with flaming sulphur, across the water, carrying the fire to the Newcastle side. Some landed in Pilgrim Street. Within moments of them reaching shopfronts on the Quay, flames were spreading.

The spectators on the Quayside and Sandhill ran about in screaming panic, trying to dodge the deluge of burning materials. Some were struck by debris, others suffocated in the fumes, like Councillor Robert Pattison over in Gateshead. Some were killed outright by shock. Throughout Newcastle, doors and windows were blown out, walls were toppled, gable ends were brought down. Buildings, many very old indeed, a huddle of houses, offices and shops, collapsed all around them, while the timbers cracked like cannon. Public houses, full of flammable spirits, went up. Windows were blown out up the Side, and through the neighbouring streets, for something like a mile around. Sails on ships ignited.

In South Shields, Sunderland and Seaham, the effect was like an earthquake, bringing factory workers and pitmen on nightshift rushing out into the air.

On the Gateshead side, the lodging houses and tenements of the very poor went down as though made of paper. In Hillgate, those still struggling to fight the fire, including fifty soldiers of the 26th Cameronians, were buried by falling buildings. Listed among the victims were Martin Hall and Joseph Todd, Firemen, Thomas Duke, Gateshead Police Force, Ensign Cranborne Paynter who had been leading the troops, and Lance Corporal John Stephenson.
Several young men from prominent local families were up in the tower of Davison’s Flour Mill, near the heart of the blaze, when it collapsed; the mill owner’s son, William was among the dead as was Alex, the son of the architect John Dobson, identifiable only by his keys. It’s not clear now whether they were up there because they’d come to help, or whether they wanted to watch and were trapped by the flames. There was a crater forty feet deep at the site of the explosion. Of the magistrate Charles Bertram, only a snuffbox remained.

The telegraph brought reinforcements with fire engines from Hexham, Berwick and Sunderland. Fireboats from Shields could do little to help. The fire burned for days on both sides of the Tyne. Several of the ancient chares of Newcastle, including Peppercorn and Blue Anchor, were gone, the Quayside blocked with rubble. Grey Street, Dean Street and Market Street were damaged. Many faced ruin.

Possibly five hundred injured people were treated at the Infirmary. Jesmond Cemetery holds some of the fifty three victims. Given the horrific nature of the injuries, and the lack of adequate treatment for burns victims at the time, it’s hard to believe that the toll was not higher. The Hillgate Lodging House, for example, simply disintegrated in the blast, and it seems unlikely everyone inside at the time was accounted for. Mrs Mary Hart, of Church Walk, Gateshead, was one of those listed as ‘not found’. Given the toxic nature of the smoke, in the days when a trip to the gasworks to breathe in the fumes was seen as a cure for consumption, some victims of the Great Fire may not have been aware of what was killing them.

Pamela Armstrong, Dark tales of Old Newcastle, Bridge Publishing, 1990
Thomas Fordyce, Local Records,Volume 3, 1867
Genuki: Victims of the 1854 Fire and Explosion in Gateshead, List of Dead, transcribed by Emily M.C. Middleton.
Illustrated London News, October 14th, 1854
David Simpson, The Millennium History of North East England, Northern Echo, 1999

The Sixpenny Grave

The entry in the parish records in Gateshead, County Durham, reads: ‘Paid at Mrs Watson’s, when the justices sate to examine the witches 3s 4d; for a grave for a witch 6d, for trying the witches £1. 5S.’ This was 1649, a tense year. Charles 1, having lost the Civil War, lost his head. There were witch-hunts flaring up all over lowland Scotland, spurred on, it’s been suggested, by bad weather and outbreaks of plague, as well as by religious and political crisis.

The magistrates over the border in Newcastle on Tyne were so impressed that they thought they’d better have a witch-hunt of their own. They sent to Scotland for a witch-hunter, and fifteen people, one a man, met their deaths as a result.

According to Ralph Gardiner, in his petition to the Government,‘England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal-trade’, 1655, the nameless witch-hunter was later executed, but then the same thing is said of Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, and in reality, he died of tuberculosis at the age of about 28. Since Ralph Gardiner had a well-justified grudge against the authorities in Newcastle, who put him out of business and into prison, it’s just as likely that the Scotsman took his considerable earnings home and lived happily ever after. At one pound for every ‘witch’ convicted, it was quite a haul. A labourer could expect to earn about one shilling a day.

This was not a village spat that got out of hand. Newcastle in the mid-seventeenth century had a population of ten thousand people. It was said to be a fine town of broad streets and stone buildings. Gateshead, on the other side of the Tyne, was considerably smaller, and always in Newcastle’s shadow. There was a thriving trade in coal on the Tyne, 400,000 tons a year carried by sea, much of it to London.

The Newcastle ’witches’ had names; Gateshead’s one unlucky scapegoat does not. She may not have been alone; the reference in the Gateshead parish books is to the trying and examining of ‘witches’, but in the case of Newcastle, not all those accused went to trial, and of those who did, not all were convicted. Perhaps some of Gateshead’s accused were able somehow to convince people of their innocence. If not, they would have been hanged. In Scotland, they would have burned.

There would have been those in the two towns who knew witches didn’t exist. There would have been those who believed in witches but who recognised that the abject people hauled into court were hardly likely to be a danger to anyone, particularly after enduring the conditions in the medieval Newgate Gaol for months. It was wiser not to say so, given the mood of the times.

In August 1650, those found guilty in Newcastle were taken up Gallowgate to the Town Moor. (Gate is a North Country word for road). These days, it’s the home of the football stadium, St James Park. Afterwards they were bundled into a pit in St Andrew’s churchyard. It would have been on the north side, where the disgraced always ended up. The route by which they were taken to their deaths hasn’t changed much. It’s only a short walk from the busy centre of the city to the open moorland, where cows still graze, and the Hoppings, a vast funfair, takes place every Midsummer. Whether there was a carnival atmosphere on the day can only be surmised.

The woman turned up in 1999 during an archaeological dig. She lay just outside the churchyard of St Mary’s, Gateshead, in a shallow grave under the roadway in Oakwellgate. She had been put into the ground naked. She was estimated to be between thirty five and forty, and five feet one inch tall. She had died at some time between 1645-1650, and she was lying north to south, not east to west, like a Christian. There is no mention of a coffin in the online report.

She was promptly dubbed the Oakwellgate witch. Oakwellgate is a medieval road, running down towards the river. The area has changed a good deal; as well as an industrial estate, and the looming structure of the Tyne Bridge, there is the shiny new concert venue, the Sage, on the Quayside. St Mary’s church is now a heritage centre. The archaeologists are careful to say that they don’t know for certain that this is the witch, but it does make a good story. That’s the trouble, though. A label gets put on someone who can’t speak for themselves. She may have been a suicide or some other troubled soul in those hard times. Whoever she was, a small woman in this small town, she was an outcast, buried without dignity.

Sixpence seems a lot for digging a shallow grave, so perhaps she was feared, even in death. Preparing a shallow grave on the road may have been harder work than making a deeper one in the soft soil of an often-disturbed churchyard.

The Newcastle victims had names. They would have known plague, would have lived through the Great Siege of 1644, when the royalist stronghold fell to the Earl of Leven’s Scottish troops, who breached the Town Walls which can still be seen, high and imposing, near St Andrew’s Church. (The Earl said afterwards that he was proud that as his soldiers ransacked the city, they left the better houses alone, only looting the homes of the meaner sort.)

We all think we know the story, we all have a blueprint in our head for a gingerbread house, we could all recognise our own witch if we saw her, but all we do is join the dots to make our own story. Under the earth in a modern city the jumbled bones of those who were not allowed to speak, are the real story.

Maureen Anderson. Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in and around Newcastle. Wharncliffe Books. 2004.
Roy Booth. The Newcastle Witch-pricker and other enormities
Barry Coward. The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714.
Ralph Gardiner. ‘England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal-trade.’ 1655
Jennifer Morrison. Tyne & Wear-HER (5604): Gateshead, OAKWELLGATE, Human burial-Details. The Oakwellgate
Rosie Serdiville & John Sadler. The Great Siege of Newcastle. History Press. 2011.


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