Many of our large towns and cities are products of the "industrial revolution" of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but Newcastle upon Tyne has a long and proud history, documented since Roman times.
The Romans realised the military value of the site in its command of the Tyne crossing: they built a bridge guarded by a fort - called "Pons Aelius" - in about 122 AD. which formed a vital part of the frontier defence system which we know as Hadrian's Wall.
After the departure of the Romans in the early fifth century, for six centuries there is little record of the story of the town, though archaeological excavation in the area of the Keep provides evidence of continuing occupation by Saxons.
After the Norman Conquest, the strategic importance of Newcastle's site was again realised, along with its relative proximity to Scotland, its control of the river crossing and its possibilities as a port. All these made fortification imperative and in 1080 Robert, Son of Williarn I, had built a wooden fort - the "New Castle". The existing Keep dates from 1172-77 and the Black Gate from 1247. The town walls were added in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Behind the protection of these fortifications Newcastle developed as a merchant and trading community, the most significant commodity in the medieval period was wool, but markets in many other types of goods - cloth, fish, hide - also developed.
The growth of the town was aided by royal favours and charters: in 1216 the burgesses gained the right to have a mayor and in 1400 the town became a county of itself, with its own sheriff. Much care was also taken to suppress the aspirations of other rival, communities along the Tyne. Newcastle became one of the great provincial centres of medieval England.
"Coals to Newcastle" - the phrase indicates the dominating importance of the coal trade to the town. By the end of the fourteenth century the "sea coal" trade to London and other ports had been established, although coal mining had begun much earlier. Newcastle's chartered control of the river meant that even coal mined outside the town boundaries was shipped through its port, greatly increasing revenue. Between 1565 and 1625 the coal trade increased twelve fold, a growth which saved Newcastle from the slump which affected other towns as the wool trade declined.
There was a brief halt to the town's continuing rise during the Civil War. Royalist Newcastle was besieged for three months in 1644 and fell to the Earl of Leven's Scottish army. (It was from this defence that Newcastle was said to have been granted its motto by Charles 1: "Fortiter Defendit Triumphans' (Triumphing by a bold defence). Critical damage was done to the coal trade during the Civil War, but prosperity was regained remarkably, quickly after Restoration. According to Hearth Tax Returns of 1663-65. Newcastle was the fourth largest provincial town in terms of population, after Norwich, York and Bristol.
From the late seventeenth century, other trades and industries joined coal as producers of wealth, whether or not the factories were actually in Newcastle - iron, salt and glass for example. The town became a regional centre: a commercial infrastructure was developed which was not present in other north-east towns: an Assay Office from 1702, Carr's Bank (probably the first outside London) in 1755.
Only a prosperous town could support many charitable institutions such as the Infirmary (1752): only in a wealthy and confident society could artists and craftsmen such as Thomas Bewick (wood engraver), William Beilby (glass engraver) and David Stephenson (the architect of All Saints Church) flourish. The intellectual and social climate was also propitious - the Assembly Rooms of 1776 and the Literary and Philosophical Society of 1793 are good examples. The Newcastle Gazette (1710) and the Newcastle Courant (1711) were the first newspapers published in the north of England.
There was of course another side to this coin. Much of the older part of the town was squalid and many townspeople did not share in the general prosperity. As early as 1722 Daniel Defoe commented on the "prodigious number" of poor in Newcastle. The town walls had last been used defensively in 1745 and from the 1760's parts were demolished. Wealthier citizens began to desert the centre of town for the cleaner, healthier suburbs: Westgate was the first of these.
The city centre was largely rebuilt from the 1830's led by a partnership of Richard Grainger (developer), John Clayton (Town Clerk) and John Dobson (architect), though other architects such as Thomas Oliver were involved. Many of Newcastle's finest buildings and streets -Grey Street, Grainger Market, and the Theatre Royal date from this period.
In the nineteenth century new industries developed: locomotive building by the Stephensons for example, while other industries such as shipbuilding were greatly expanded. But the most significant enterprise was that begun by W.G. Armstrong at Elswick building armaments and ships, which became by far the largest employer in the area, with a whole suburb housing the men. Newcastle became the centre of the inventiveness and commercial enterprise towards the end of the century with men such as J W Swan (electric light) and Sir C A Parsons (steam turbines, electricity supply).
Industrial growth expanded the city: new suburbs developed, such as Jesmond and Heaton, while urban transport encouraged movement away from the city centre with suburban railways and street tramways. The population of Newcastle increased from 87,784 (185 1) to 266,671 (1911) while the land area expanded with the incorporation of Walker, Benwell, Fenham and part of Kenton in 1904.
Growth as a commercial and entertainment centre continued with the opening of large department stores such as Bainbridge's and Fenwicks and theatres such as the Empire. Intellectual developments included the Durham College of Medicine (1832), the Mining Institute (1852), and Durham College of Science (1871).
Tyneside as a whole was seriously affected by the inter-war depression as the staple industries on which it depended - coal, chemicals, ship-building and engineering declined. Newcastle perhaps suffered less than most towns because its service industries were more highly developed and its economy more broadly based.
Since the last war there has been further industrial decline, reflected in the city's participation in central government's Inner City Partnership and Enterprise Zone Schemes. Traditional forms of employment have largely been replaced by more retail and service industries. The City's status as a regional centre has been retained.
The City's reputation as a regional shopping centre has been enhanced by the development of shopping precincts such as Eldon Square (opened in 1976), Eldon Gardens (1989) and Monument Mall (1992).
The Gateshead Millenium Eye Bridge was dropped into place in 2001 by 'Hercules', a Giant floating crane on a barge as big as a football pitch. The Pedestrian Bridge links Newcastle and Gateshead.
Road transport to and from Newcastle has been improved with the opening of John Dobson Street in 1970 (the first new major street in the city centre for over 100 years), the Central Motorway East in 1973 ) and the Western By-pass in 1990.
Further improvements in transport came with the opening, in 1980, of the Tyneside Metro, a rapid transport system which connects towns on both sides of the River Tyne with Central Newcastle.
In the 1990's the inner city is being revitalised under the Newcastle Initiative Scheme, designed to regenerate selected areas of the city and establish Newcastle as a vibrant and stylish regional capital. Grey Street, one of the finest streets in Europe, and the historic Quayside have both been re-vamped. Frontages have been cleaned and interiors restored making the whole area a desirable one for business, residential and recreational use. Further west an Arts and Leisure Centre has been created together with the development of the Theatre Village and China Town area.
(full acknowledgment to Newcastle City Councils' web site for lots of the above history.)
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