Newcastle in Charles II’s reign had changed in several ways since the late middle ages. It still bore many of the features of a medieval town, such as its walls with the gates locked at night, but the religious houses that had occupied so much of the upper medieval town were no longer there. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries these had been mostly sold by the Crown. Black Friars had been leased to nine of the guilds, some of which built halls onto the friary, and parts of the building can still be seen today. Grey Friars and St. Bartholomew’s nunnery came into the hands of the wealthy Newcastle merchant, Robert Anderson, who build ‘a princely house’ and gardens. This house, known as Newe House and later Anderson Place, was situated at the top of Pilgrim Street, described in 1649 as ‘the longest and fairest street in the Town’.
Newcastle was a leading provincial city, or in Gray’s words, ‘the Eye of the North, the Harth that warmeth the South parts of this Kingdome with fire; An Aegypt to all the Shires in the North . . . for bread’. In 1635 Sir William Brereton simply thought it ‘beyond all compare the fairest and richest towne in England’, though he added that the streets were ‘so steep as horses cannot stand upon the pavements—therefore the daintiest flagged channels are in every street that I have seen: hereupon may horses go without sliding’. In 1547 the population was about 10,000. By 1665 it was about 13,400, despite a series of severe plague outbreaks in the century between. The 1635-36 outbreak took over 5,000 lives in Newcastle, and fear of plagues and ‘sweating sicknesses’ was great. When Ambrose Barnes was a merchant’s apprentice and news was brought that a servant was sick, his master is reputed to have got up from dinner, rushed to North Shields and sailed off to Hamburg the same day, leaving Barnes to run affairs.
The commercial and mercantile centre of the town had now definitely moved down on to the Sandhill and Quayside, though the road north of St. Nicholas’s was still the main internal marketplace. On the Sandhill the medieval Guildhall or Exchange, damaged by fire in 1639, had been largely rebuilt in 1655-58 by Robert Trollope. The original contract was for £2,000, but Trollope eventually charged £9,774, which an embarrassed Corporation had to finance by public loans. Around the Sandhill and in the Close next to it the rich merchants like Sir John Marley, William Blackett, and Mark Milbank had their ‘stately houses’. The surviving glass-fronted houses on the Sandhill probably date from this Restoration period. The leading merchants were extremely wealthy: in 1644 Marley was said to be worth £4,500 a year, whilst Sir Nicholas Cole was described as ‘fat and rich, vested in a Sack of Sattin’. The inequalities of wealth in Restoration Newcastle can be seen from the Hearth Tax on households with three or more hearths, collected in 1665. Forty-one per cent. of households in the town were exempt, but this overall figure hides local variations. The richest ward, Pink Tower, which included the Sandhill and east end of the Close, had no exemptions, and over one-fifth had more than six hearths. Although the eight central wards of Newcastle had only 18 per cent. of the households, five out of the six aldermen that can be identified lived in these wards around the Side, Sandhill and St. Nicholas’s. The figures also reveal the social stratification within the merchant community: the Hostmen who can be identified had an average of 5.7 hearths, whereas the non-Hostmen merchant adventurers averaged 4.3. But the mayors and governors of the Hostmen averaged 8.4, and Marley, Shafto and Milbank had over ten.
The Quayside, running right along to the Sandgate, was a bustling place with ‘two cranes for heavy commodities, very convenient for carrying of corn, wine, deals etc.’ to and from the ships from Amsterdam, Hamburg and the Baltic. The houses on the Quayside itself were well-to-do, but behind them in Pandon and below All Saints’ were the dense households of the poorer classes. The densest and poorest area was the suburb of Sandgate, just outside the east wall of Newcastle by the river. Gray wrote: ‘without this gate [are] many houses, and populous, all along the waterside; where shipwrights, seamen and keelmen most live’. Most of the Sandgate houses had only one hearth and 79 per cent. of households were exempted from the Hearth Tax, but there was a lot of suspicion of the collectors, who had to enter houses. It was a period of trade recession and high unemployment, and the collectors were cursed and stoned. The tumult was only controlled when the Mayor, William Blackett, ordered that the tax only be collected from those willing to pay.
The Restoration had returned the government of Newcastle to the royalist group of Hostmen led by Sir John Marley. Non-committed merchants like Blackett and Milbank were able to continue, but Puritans fell under a cloud. Ambrose Barnes, a leading Puritan merchant who had become an alderman in 1658, fell from favour in 1660, and he even contemplated migrating to the Dutch colony of Surinam, where he had business investments. Under the Clarendon Code not only were Puritans and dissenters excluded from town office, but their religious meetings were illegal. The town serjeants spied on the dissenters’ meetings held near the White Friars Tower under Richard Gilpin, and in a raid in August 1 669 found a congregation of fifty to sixty. Barnes several times found his house in the Close, near to the river, useful for getting across to Gateshead in a boat, while writs were served in Newcastle.
With the accession of James II in 1685 a new toleration seemed to appear. James ordered a new common council of broader religious persuasion. Barnes again became an alderman, and his Memoirs comment: ‘Men were at a loss to see how suddenly the world was changed, the cap, the mace, and the sword, one day carried to the church, another day to the mass-house, another day to the dissentingmeeting-house’. The toleration was, however, only a step towards the promotion of Roman Catholics in town government. In his last year Charles II had imposed a new charter on the town that gave royal control, but he died before it could take effect. Now James tried a similar policy. In December 1687 he rejected the elected Corporation and demanded named Catholics be elected. Sir William Creagh was appointed mayor, and he agreed to surrender the old charter. At the guild in 1688 the electors refused to accept this and elected William Hutchinson, a leading dissenter, as mayor. In November the town welcomed the accession of William of Orange as King, and James II’s flight. Down on the Sandhill a new statue of James II on horseback was pulled down in May 1689, and seven years later ‘the Metal yt was left of the Horse part’ was used for a set of bells for All Saints’ church.