Until the mid-18th century Newcastle remained largely confined within its medieval framework, and as late as the 1 745 Rebellion the town walls were repaired for defence. After 1750, however, the pace of growth and change in the town, as in the county, quickened. In 1763 the wall along the Quayside was pulled down, and the corporation began to light the main streets at night with oil lamps, and set up a night patrol. New residential squares for the wealthy began to change the character of the town. As early as 1 736 Bourne noted the movement away from the Close and Sandhill to houses in Pilgrim Street and Westgate, described as ‘a Street more retired than any other in this Town; there being no Artificers or Mechanicks in this Street, nor any Market. It is chiefly inhabited by the Clergy and Gentry’. In the 1780s Clavering Place (where Clavering House, built C. 1784, still survives) was built on the site of the White Friars, and Hanover Square extended, creating a pleasant quarter with fine views up the river. Now much changed, it was described by R. J. Charleton in the 1880s as ‘a quiet old-fashioned nook . . . looking more like part of some sleepy cathedral city than of a busy manufacturing to’n’. Charlotte Square was built near Blackfriars and outside the town walls new houses were constructed in lower Northumberland Street, backed by extensive gardens. Off Northumberland Street the elegant rows of Saville Place and Saville Row were built about 1788.
Traffic coming over the Tyne bridge still had to pull up the tortuous Side to reach the upper town, and access from Pilgrim Street was difficult. The lower part of the Lort Burn in the Side had been paved over in the 1690s, but the rest of the Burn remained a nauseous sewer and tip in the centre of the town. Plans were developed by the corporation in the 1760s, but they were delayed by the crisis of 1771. On Sunday night, 17 November 1771, an intense rainstorm to the west raised the level of the Tyne dramatically, and all the Tyne bridges, except Corbridge, were swept away, including the old bridge at Newcastle and the Close and Sandhill were flooded. The new bridge cost the corporation over £30,000, and it was not until its completion in 1781 that other improvements could be considered. Between 1784 and 1789 parts of the Lort were filled in, and Dean Street was built over it. At the top a new cross road, Mosley Street, was constructed to join Pilgrim Street to the main centre of the town, and traffic-flow was now easier between the bridge and the Bigg and Groat Markets. In Mosley Street a Theatre Royal was built in 1788, and in 1810 the street was extended by building Collingwood Street to join Westgate, and fashionable display windows were put in the shops in these streets.
There were numerous other improvements. In the east of the town the elegant St. Ann’s church, now rather neglected by visitors, was built in 1768 to cater for the Sandgate populace. The old All Saints’ church was pulled down and the present church, by David Stephenson, completed by 1796. In 1783-4 a new White Cross in Newgate Street and Gale Cross in the Side were built by Sir Matthew White Ridley. New Bridge Street was built in 1812 and between 1795 and 1811 the gates of the medieval town were pulled down, except for Newgate, which survived until 1823.
The Georgian improvements were not just in the physical fabric of the town, but also in the whole social and cultural life of the wealthier sections of Newcastle society. In 1736 a series of public concerts was started by Charles Avison, organist at St. Nicholas’s The gatherings of town and county society that were held during Race Week became more frequent, first during the Assize Weeks and then more regularly. From 1736 to 1776 the assembly rooms for receptions, balls and card-playing were in Ridley Court, off the Groat Market. The stocks of the assembly rooms in December 1762 included 26 packs of cards and a wine-cellar of 10 bottles of Lisbon, six Port, 16 Mountain, and six Rhenish, though tea was the main drink taken. Lord Chancellor Eldon, previously John Scott of Newcastle, recollected these assemblies: ‘. . . so we always danced from the large room, across the stairhead, and into the other room. Then you know, Ellen, that was very convenient, for the small room was a snug one to flirt in. We always engaged our partners for the next ball, and from year to year. We were very constant’. In 1776 the new Assembly Rooms in Westgate were opened.
Newcastle had had a newspaper (the Newcastle Courant) since 1712, and by 1802 there were five. It became a centre of printing and publishing (especially religious tracts and children’s books) , culminating in the illustrations of Thomas Bewick, who published his History of British Birds in 1797 and 1804. Education also improved: in 1749 the Free Grammar School of Queen Elizabeth, founded in 1540 and refounded in the Elizabethan charter of 1600, was at a low ebb, with very few pupils, but the new headmaster, Hugh Moises, revitalised it, and from it came Lord Eldon, his brother, William (later Lord Stowell) , Lord Collingwood, and others. There was also a number of good private academies, such as that started by Dr. Charles Hutton in Westgate in 1760. The growing professional and middle classes in the town—teachers, manufacturers, clergymen like William Turner the Unitarian minister, and the medical men who were replacing the old barber-surgeon craft guild—began a number of literary, scientific and humanitarian societies. In 1793 the Literary and Philosophical Society was founded, and in 1813 the Society of Antiquaries.
Apart from providing building and labouring work, many of the civic improvements must have meant little to the Newcastle poor and working classes clustered in shabby housing in Sandgate and the lanes round Newgate. The town population grew to 28,000 in the 18th century, and there were acute problems of poverty and disease. The seasonal nature of the coal trade left the keelmen unemployed for three to four months each year, and many were unable to claim poor relief since they had not been born locally and their seasonal employment did not qualify them as residents. Severe winters could lead to great distress, and when the acute winter of 1 740 was followed by steep rises in bread-grain prices the urban mob rioted on 9 June, and the corporation agreed to regulate prices. A fortnight later rumours spread that ships were going to take the grain to other ports to get higher prices, and many shops refused to sell at the controlled Cale Cross, the Side prices. On 25 June a large crowd marched to the Guildhall. In a clash with a town official, a pitman was killed, and the crowd attacked the Guildhall, ejecting the officials, throwing stones ‘like cannon shot’ through the windows, ransacking the town records, and taking nearly £1,400 out of the ‘public hutch’ or chest. The following evening troops arrived from Alnwick and arrested 40 rioters, seven of whom were later transported.
Society’s outlook was that poverty and great inequality were inevitable—and even radicals accepted this—but within the norms of the age the ruling group in the town often tried to relieve poverty and suffering. During the severe winter of 1 728 the Newcastle magistrates collected £362 18s. Od. (X362.90p) for the relief of the poor, and in the winter of 1740 Blackett gave £350 to the needy (and became known as Father of the Poor), while Alderman Ridley allowed the poor to take coal from his heaps. During the 18th century new almshouses were set up in addition to those already in the Manors, and several charity schools were founded. All these charities gave some help, but when John Wesley came to Newcastle in 1742 his message of religious salvation found a ready audience amongst many of Newcastle’s poor, and a Methodist meeting-house was set up in 1745, The improvements in medical knowledge were reflected in the Infirmary for the poor founded in 1751, the Lying-in (maternity) hospital in 1760 and the Dispensary for free medicines in 1778. There was also charitable self-help from the poor themselves: working the keels was punishing, and there were many older men no longer fit, so in 1699 the keelmen organised a fund (based on a deduction from wages), and the Keelmen’s Hospital was built to house 50 ex-keelmen, and the fund also provided out-relief. The Newcastle ruling group were, as ever, quick to sense any threat: the keelmen’s fund was administered by the Hostmen in case the keelmen should use it to finance industrial action.
One aspect of Newcastle life which showed few signs of change was its government. Although the Hostmen had lost their monopoly control of the Tyneside coal industry in the later 17th century (see Chapter XX), the oligarchy of leading Newcastle-based mine-owners, merchants and coal-shippers continued to rule the town under its old constitution. A small group of families intermarried and handed down town office like family heirlooms. The group altered. as old families declined, or became county gentry, and new merchants established themselves, often marrying the daughters of the oligarchy. In the first half of the Hanoverian period the dominant family were the Blacketts, who had purchased Newe House in Pilgrim Street as their town residence. Coalowners, landowners, merchants, and lead-mine owners, the Blacketts played a leading role until the 1770s. Sir Walter Calverley Blackett was mayor five times between 1 734 and 1771 and M.P. in seven parliaments.
The great Clayton dynasty in the town was founded by Nathaniel Clayton, son of a Yorkshire rector. A merchant, he was sheriff in 1715 and mayor in 1725 and 1738. His son, William, was mayor in 1750, 1755, and 1763, and William’s close relative, Robert, was mayor in 18049 1812, and 1817. Robert’s brother, Nathaniel, purchased the office of town clerk for X2,100 in 1 785 and held it until 1822. Robert’s sons were both sheriffs, in 1817 and 1818, and Nathaniel’s famous son John succeeded his father as town clerk in 1822 and held the office until 1867, over 150 years after the first Nathaniel became sheriff.
Nicholas Ridley was the son of an old landed family at Willimoteswick in the Tyne valley, who became a merchant, sheriff in 1682, and mayor in 1706. His son, Richard, was mayor in 1713, and his grandson, William (who was mayor in 1733, 1751 and 1759, and M.P. from 1747 to 1774) married the heiress of Sir Matthew White of Blagdon, another leading oligarch. Their son, Sir Matthew White Ridley was mayor in 1774, 1782 and 1791, and M.P. from 1774 to 1812, and the Ridleys are still at Blagdon and prominent in county politics. Other leading families in the later Georgian period were the Brandlings, Cooksons, Surtees, and the Bells of Woolsington.