Newcastle Upon Tyne: The Architecture of An Historic City

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Newcastle has a very diverse architectural history; it began as a Roman fort and the Romans built the first bridge over the Tyne, which they named Pons Aelius. In the Middle Ages, Newcastle’s position on the river gave it a strategic advantage, and th

Newcastle has a very diverse architectural history; it began as a Roman fort and the Romans built the first bridge over the Tyne, which they named Pons Aelius. In the Middle Ages, Newcastle’s position on the river gave it a strategic advantage, and this prompted Richard I to build a castle here, hence the name ‘New Castle.’ The castle keep still survives, though much of it was destroyed to make way for the Victorian railway that cuts through the city.

Initially Newcastle had a medieval plan. It was surrounded by town walls and divided by narrow, winding streets called ‘chares’. However, Newcastle experienced rapid growth during the Industrial Revolution and the wealth generated by the industries was spent on architecture. Newcastle became a regional capital with elegant and sophisticated buildings.

This new architecture was executed in the Neo-Classical style, which was based on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. William Stokoe designed the Moot Hall (1810), which was one of the first Neo-Classical buildings in Newcastle. This was the county court for Northumberland. It’s a very competent Classical design, rigidly symmetrical with severe Greek motifs, such as the powerful portico that stands forward of the main block, supported on plain columns. The Greek style of Classical architecture was very severe, so it was seen as being suitable for solemn public buildings. In fact, Newcastle gaol was located in the basement.

The first Newcastle architect to study in London was David Stevenson, who trained at the Royal Academy. He had a thorough knowledge of Neo-Classicism and designed All Saints’ Church, just east of the Tyne Bridge. This was built in the Classical style, but obviously the ancient Greeks and Romans did not build churches because they were not Christians, so Stephenson had to adapt the Classical style to this new purpose. The tower in particular was Stevenson’s own invention.

In 1812 the Literary and Philosophical Society built their headquarters in the Greek style. The building is a very pure Greek design, plain and severe. It was designed by John Green and Benjamin Green. The Lit and Phil was the centre of Newcastle’s intellectual culture. The Greek style was associated with the Greek philosophers, so it was seen as being suitable for an intellectual institution.

Grainger Development 1834-40

These buildings were isolated moments of architectural sophistication, but Newcastle still had an essentially medieval plan. This impeded trade and progress. Complete renewal was needed. In the 1830s a speculative builder called Richard Grainger came forward with a vision for Newcastle. He transformed the city. Grainger laid out stately Neo-Classical streets like Grey Street, Grainger Street (which he named after himself) and Clayton Street. So Grainger created a Neo-Classical core that was almost unique in England.

The centrepiece is Grey’s Monument, designed in 1838 by Benjamin Green. It consists of a single Doric column with a statue of Earl Grey, which was made by the same artist as the statue of Nelson on Nelson’s column. This was the focal point of Newcastle’s new urban centre.

Grey Street, Grainger Street and Market Street converge to form a triangle. The Classical style does not cope with corners very well, so as a solution Grainger built the Central Exchange. The three corners terminate with drums surmounted by domes. They are braced with strong colonnades and topped with huge bronze Prince of Wales feathers. The building thus resolves the difficulties of the triangular site. This was designed by John Wardle and George Walker.

One of Grainger’s first major schemes was Eldon Square (1825-31) a sedate Classical quadrangle designed by John Dobson. This is how it looked originally. It consists of a central block with perpendicular wings framing a courtyard. Two sides of it were demolished in the 1960s.

Grainger’s greatest triumph was Grey Street, which presents a sweeping vista.

The principal event is the Theatre Royal (1837) by John and Benjamin Green, who had designed the Literary and Philosophical Society’s building. It has an opulent portico striding forward. It is a very decorative design, much more so than anything else on Grey Street, but arguably that is appropriate for a theatre.

Most of the buildings in the Grainger scheme were by Walker and Wardle, but John Dobson was responsible for some of them. Dobson was Newcastle’s most famous architect. The climax of Dobson’s career was Newcastle Central Station (1846-50), which has an almost metropolitan grandeur. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner said it was better that any station in London. Again, the Classical style was based on the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. This makes reference to Roman architecture, with huge round arches based on the Roman Triumphal arch and the heads of Roman gods carved into the keystones. This is Newcastle’s supreme Classical statement.  These buildings established the Classical style, which came to dominate Newcastle architecture for at least a century.

Gothic Revival

A consequence of the continued popularity of Classicism was that the Gothic style was rarely used in Newcastle except for churches. Newcastle is lucky to have a church by the leading light of the Gothic Revival, Augustus Pugin. He designed St. Mary’s R.C Cathedral (1842-4). The funds ran out as it was being built and the tower and spire were left unfinished. The tower was eventually completed by the local architects Dunn and Hansom (1872).

As the Gothic Revival entered the ‘High Victorian’ phase (c.1850-70), architects began to study French and Italian models, and exotic motifs began to appear in British architecture. The influential critic John Ruskin drew attention to the buildings of Northern Italy with his publication The Stones of Venice (1851-3) and this was a major influence on British architecture.

High Victorian Gothic is rare in Newcastle. An exception is Neville Hall (1869-72), which was built by the North of England Mining Institute. It was designed by Archibald Dunn, whose father Matthias Dunn (c.1789-1869) was a member of the Mining Institute, which was how Dunn got the commission. Dunn was one of the architects whom Ruskin inspired to tour Europe, sketching examples of architecture. Neville Hall has multicoloured stonework, or polychromy, which is derived from the architecture of Venice. It has a Venetian balcony.

Dunn formed an architectural partnership with Edward Hansom. Dunn and Hansom were really disciples of Pugin, the messiah of the Gothic Revival. They became the leading Catholic architects in the North of England. This is St Michael’s R.C. Church at Elswick in the industrial west end of Newcastle. The design is typical of Tyneside churches: the effect is derived from bold composition and dramatic massing, which suits the industrial landscape that surrounds it.

Renaissance styles

By the 1870s, the orthodoxy of Gothic and Classicism was breaking up and architects experimented with new styles. Grainger Street had been laid out as part of the Grainger scheme and originally terminated at the Bigg Market. However, Grainger Street was extended in 1869 so that the town centre would have a direct link to the station. The redevelopment was largely carried out in the Italian Renaissance style, which was fashionable in the 1870s.

For example, the Victoria Buildings (1872-4) in Grainger Street were designed by a fairly obscure architect called Matthew Thompson. This was built by the builder Walter Scott as his own office. This is in the Italian Renaissance style. The central bay culminates with a scrolled gable, which is a direct quotation from Renaissance buildings.

The Italian Renaissance style was used for banks and insurance companies. A good example is the National Provincial Bank, on the corner of Dean Street and Mosley Street (1870-2). This was designed by the specialist bank architect John Gibson. Sir Charles Barry used the style extensively for London clubhouses like the Reform Club. Gibson had been an assistant of Barry, so he was obviously influenced by his mentor.

A major example of Italian Renaissance influence was the bank of Hodgkin, Barnett, Spence, Pease and Co., designed by the versatile architect R.J. Johnson. Hodgkin’s bank is based on the palazzo model, making a deliberate allusion to the powerful mercantile families of the Renaissance such as the Medici. Hodgkin’s bank presents a relatively subdued façade articulated with rusticated elements imparting a sense of impregnability.

Other Renaissance idioms were being used. One of the more short-lived styles to impinge on Newcastle was that of the French Renaissance, which had a sporadic influence on British architecture in the 1870s and 80s.

In Newcastle, the Union Club (1877) in Westgate Road and was executed in François Ier style. It was designed by M.P. Manning. Oriel windows and elongated chimneys impart an informal feeling that was eminently suitable for a club house. This building was extremely important within the cultural networks of Newcastle because its membership included some of the most influential and powerful people in the city, including Lord Armstrong.

This extension of Grainger Street coincided with the vogue for the French Renaissance style. A lot of commercial buildings sprang up here. An example is the Newcastle and Gateshead Gas Company Offices in Grainger Street (1884-6). This was designed by John Johnstone. The elevations abound with rounded oriel windows and the roof is clustered with finials, dormers and the distinctive mansard roofs that were the mainstay of the style, named after the 17th century architect François Mansart (1598-1666).

A building that exemplified the eclecticism of the period was the Police Court on Pilgrim Street (1874). This was demolished in the 20th century, so I can only show this architect’s drawing. It was designed by John Lamb who was the borough surveyor for Newcastle. This building tried to fuse the Italian and French Renaissance styles. The main block had Italianate elevations that culminated in Renaissance-style dormers. Above this, however, the roofline is arrayed with French elements, including mansard roofs and an octagonal tower. 

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