The Building of Central Newcastle

The Building of Central Newcastle

The Georgian improvements in Newcastle left two parts of the town untouched: the old slums and chares of Sandgate and the Quayside, and the 12 acres of land belonging to the Newe House and Nun’s Field in the upper town between Pilgrim Street and Newgate. The latter area had been offered to the town after Sir Walter Blackett’s death in 1777, but the corporation had not purchased it. Instead it was bought by a wealthy builder, George Anderson, who re-named it Anderson Place. It remained unchanged until building contractor Richard Grainger, aided by architect John Dobson and town clerk John Clayton, developed the site in the 1830s to make Newcastle, in the words of architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘the best designed Victorian town in England and indeed the best designed large city in England altogether’.

The Newcastle of Grainger & Dobson Northumberland
The Newcastle of Grainger & Dobson Northumberland

Grainger, born in a poor family in 1797, became a builder’s apprentice, but rapidly built up his own construction business, helped by £5,000 dowry from his wife. A thrusting entrepreneur; he built a series of residential blocks in the town: Higham Place in 1819-20, Eldon Square and large sections of the new Blackett StEeet in 1824-26, and Leazes Crescent and Terrace in 1829-34. In 1831-32 he built the Royal Arcade in Pilgrim Street, intending it as a new corn exchange, but the town corporation did not agree, and Grainger had to use it as a commercial and shopping centre, which did not succeed because of its distance from the town centre. Until 1834 Grainger was a builder of individual blocks. However, in 1831 George Anderson died, and the possibility of purchase arose, and in 1834 Grainger presented his comprehensive development plan to the town council. John Dobson, the architect, had put forward such plans in 1825, suggesting a large tree-lined square focussing on a new Mansion House and Guildhall, but whilst he got nowhere the more dynamic Richard Grainger was persuasive. The corporation had apparently already discussed improvements in 1832, and close co-operation with them was essential, so Grainger’s legal adviser, John Fenwick, advised him to move his account to the solicitor’s firm run by John Clayton, the town clerk, an interesting reflection on the ethics of town government. Clayton became Grainger’s advocate and adviser, and the scheme was adopted remarkably quickly. Grainger put his plan forward on 22 May 1834, and on 12 July the council voted for the scheme by 24 to seven.

Grainger’s plan was for shopping and commercial development based on three new main streets. The upper Lort Burn was to be filled in, and Upper Dean Street built over it from Mosley Street up to Blackett Street. A second street (Grainger Street) was to run from this junction on Blackett Street to the Bigg Market. The third street (Clayton Street) was to be built from further west on Blackett Street to Newgate Street, and beyond to Westgate, the last section ‘to be built by a Joint Stock Company’. Extending Dean Street northwards meant knocking down the Theatre Royal in Mosley Street and the Flesh or Butcher Market (only established in 1808) which lay behind it, and Grainger had to agree to replace these.

The speed of execution of the plan almost equalled that of its acceptance. Grainger had already arranged the land purchase with Anderson’s executors. He paid £50,000 for this and £45,000 for other necessary property. By 6 August the Newcastle Journal reported that earth from the Nun’s Field was being moved to fill the Lord Burn. Two hundred and fifty thousand cartloads (at 2d. [0.8pl a load) were shifted. By October 1835 the new Flesh Market (now the Grainger Market), containing an incredible 180 butchers’ shops, was finished, as well as the fruit and vegetable market on the other side of Clayton Street. The rest of the scheme was completed by 1839. It employed as many as 2,000 men at one time, and produced not only nine streets, but also 10 inns, 12 public houses, 325 shops with homes attached, and 40 private houses, as well as the major buildings like the Theatre Royal in Upper Dean Street, and the magnificent Central Exchange. The semi-circular interior of this Exchange became a newspaper room, with ‘a spacious promenade’ around it. ‘It is’, writes an 1855 pamphleteer, ‘in the leisure hours of evening, in the Central Exchange . . . that the mind relaxes and is relieved from the fag of business, from the tension and anxiety of commercial enterprise’.

The finest achievement was not an individual building, but the total rising sweep of Upper Dean Street, re-named Grey Street in 1836 in honour of Earl Grey of the Reform Bill. At the summit Grey’s Monument was erected in 1838 as a focus for the entire scheme. Throughout his property development Grainger built to a high standard, and used quality materials, facing his buildings with stone from local quarries at Kenton and Elswick rather than with the painted stucco surfaces commonly used. The buildings had sewers and water-closets, and Grainger had the street lit with gas and the road surfaces macadamised. The total scheme cost some £646,000, and Grainger later told the 1854 Cholera Commissioners that he had decorated the frontages of his buildings ‘because it pleased him to do it, though the cost had probably been not less than £100,000’.

Grainger employed a number of architects on his various schemes. Thomas Oliver designed Blackett Street and the Leazes development, and John and Benjamin Green designed the new Theatre Royal and surrounding buildings. Most notable was John Dobson, already the main northern architect in the 1820s. As well as his many country houses, Dobson remodelled the Guildhall in 1823-6 and designed St. Thomas’s church and St. Mary’s Place. For Grainger he designed Eldon Square, and in the 1830s plan he did the new markets and the east side of Grey Street from Mosley Street up to Shakespeare Street. Dobson has often been credited with much more of the scheme, but a great deal was done by two architects in Grainger’s office, John Wardle and George Walker.

Although Grainger was a wealthy man by 1834, he could not finance this massive property development from his own funds. The construction was financed by mortgages on the security of existing buildings. Each new block completed meant another mortgage to pay off existing debts and finance further development. From 1835 to 1838 Grainger raised £102,457 on successive mortgages. Clayton himself advanced £7,500, and doubtless helped persuade other leading citizens and banks. Robert Allgood put in £9,000, Matthew Clayton £7,100, and Messrs. Backhouse and Co., the bankers, £1 1 ,750. Grainger was very reluctant to sell property and hoped to repay out of rents, but this was a lengthy process and Grainger really depended, like many a modern developer, on the building boom continuing. So by 1839 he was looking for another property coup.

He was also disillusioned by opposition to some of his ideas. As with the Royal Arcade in 1832, so his Central Exchange was rejected as a new corn exchange by the corporation, despite his offer of it ‘at such price as they thought reasonable and (he) would not require payment until the tolls of the market produced the money’. His plans in 1838 for a new Guildhall and Courts at the top of Grey Street were also rejected, and he built the Northumberland and Durham District Bank (now Lloyds Bank) instead. These and other setbacks (like the stopping of Grainger Street’s extension to the new Neville Street) encouraged Grainger to look for a new site where he would have a freer hand.

On 2 January 1839 Grainger purchased the Elswick estate west of the town from John Hodgson Hinde for £1 14,100. Grainger saw the area as the potential terminus for the new railway system, with factories and residential terraces in the vicinity. However, he already had large debts, and the new £103,942 in mortgages to purchase Elswick led to his security toppling in 1841  and his creditors demand­ing payment. He only avoided bankruptcy through Clayton’s efforts, and the creditors were persuaded to accept gradual repayment. Grainger was forced to live modestly, parts of Elswick were sold off, notably the riverside site to Armstrong for an engineering works in 1847, and the rest gradually built up as the Elswick factories grew. At Grainger’s death in 1861 his debts still totalled £128,582, but by 1901 the Elswick estates had been sold to pay them all off, and the rest of the estate was worth over £1,000,000. Dobson died in 1865 leaving a comfortable £16,000, but the cautious and shrewd Clayton left £729,000 at his death in 1890.

In Grainger’s plan Grey Street and Dean Street were to be the main commercial thoroughfare of the town, but this did not last more than 10 years. The coming of the railway in 1849 and the building of Dobson’s Central Station in Neville Street and the High Level Bridge for both rail and road traffic at the head of the Side, shifted attention from Grainger’s axis. By the 1880s the old-fashioned shops of Grey Street with their houses above them were losing prestige to the new shops in Northumberland Street and Grainger Street West (opened 1868), and the shopkeepers petitioned for a rent reduction. Ironically, this very decline has undoubtedly preserved facades that would have been destroyed if Grey Street had remained the main thoroughfare.

The narrow lanes and slums of Sandgate and the Quayside were left out of this central area development. If anything, conditions became worse and more overcrowded during this period, one of rapid population growth and later Irish immigration. Typhus was endemic in these areas, which were also first and hardest hit in any outbreak, such as cholera in 1831, the scarlatina epidemic of 1845-47, and the so-called ‘Irish fever’ of 1846-48. A survey by Dr. D. B. Reid in 1845 found 33 streets near the Quayside without either drains or sewers, and running water was only available in the better parts of the town. In 1853 the cholera epidemic took 1,533 lives, a mortality rate of only one in 189 in rural jesmond, but one in 43 in St. Nicholas’s parish. In October 1854 there was a great fire in Gateshead, which an explosion spread to Newcastle, and the west end of the Quayside and the lanes behind were all burnt out, to be replaced by King, Queen, and Lombard Streets, and new commercial buildings. However, it was not until late in the century that the other slums of riverside Newcastle were pulled down for commercial development and the working population found improved housing in the terraced streets of Scotswood, Elswick and east Byker.