Gateshead Borough on the south side of the River Tyne is the home to over 200,000 people and includes the towns of Whickham, Blaydon, Winlaton and Ryton as well as Gateshead and its suburbs. It is quite a diverse area with a heavily built up centre comprised of blocks of flats and busy roads, while the south west of the borough has much open rolling countryside.

Throughout its history the town of Gateshead has lived in the shadows of the commercially powerful and historically wealthier Newcastle, but despite this strong competition Gateshead has managed to rigidly hold onto its own identity and refuses to become a mere suburb of the Geordie capital. Today Gateshead is widely famed as a venue for top level International Athletics and is also the home of the famous Metro Centre shopping and leisure complex, which is undoubtedly the biggest modern tourist attraction for visitors to the region


The town of Blaydon lies on the western fringe of the district of Gateshead but is separated from the rest of the borough by the River Derwent which enters the Tyne nearby.

Blaydon is of course internationally known as the subject of the Geordieland `National anthem' `The Blaydon Races', which was originally a Victorian Music Hall song written by Gateshead's Geordie Ridley (1835-64).

The first public performance of the song by Ridley was on the fifth of June 1862 at a testimonial for the great Tyneside sporting hero Harry Clasper which was held at Balmbra's Music Hall in Newcastle. The song was composed as an advertisement for a Geordie Ridley concert to be held at Blaydon and describes a coach journey from Newcastle to Blaydon.

In Ridley's time `The Blaydon Races' song was nothing like as well known as it is today and it was only at the beginning of this century that it was made popular by a Tyneside comedian called Scatter.

In 1862 the Blaydon Races were to be held on an island in the middle of the River Tyne at Blaydon but they were called off when a heavy storm made it impossible for the horses to plodge their way across to the race course. This storm is recorded in the last verse of the `Blaydon Races' but most of the events referred to in the song actually took place in 1861. The last Blaydon Races were held on the 2nd September 1916 but had to be abandoned when a riot broke out following the disqualification of a winning horse.

Aw went te Blaydon Races,

'twas on the neenth o' Joon,

Eighteen Hundred and Sixty Two,

on a summer's afternoon,

Aw teuk the bus frae Balmbra's an'

she was heavy laden,

Away we went alang Collingwood Street,

That's on the road to Blaydon.


Oh me lads ye shud a' seen us gannin',

Passin' the folks upon the road,

Just as they were stannin'

Thor wes lots o' lads and lasses there,

All wi' smilin' faces,

Gannin' alang the Scotswood Road

Te' see the Blaydon Races.

We went past Armstrong's factory,

and up te the `Robin Adair',

Just gannin' doon te' the railway bridge,

The bus wheel flew off there.

The lasses lost their crinolines off,

An' the veils that hide their faces.

An' aw got two black eyes and a broken nose

In gan te Blaydon Races.

When we gat the wheel put on away we went agyen,

But them that got their noses broke,

they cam' back ower hyem.

Some went te the dispensary,

an' others te' Doctor Gibb's,

An' some sought oot the infirmary

to mend their broken ribs.

Noo when we gat te Paradise

thor wes bonny game begun,

Thor wes fower and twenty on the bus,

Man hoo they danced and sung

They called on me to sing a sang,

aw sung them `Paddy Fagan'

Aw danced a jig and swung me twig,

That day aw went te Blaydon.

We flew across the Chine Bridge

reet into Blaydon toon

The bellman he was callin' there

they call him Jacky Broon,

Aw saw him talkin' te some chaps,

an them he wes persuadin'

Te' gan an' see Geordie Ridley's concert,

In the Mechanic's Hall at Blaydon.

The rain it poor'd doon aal the day

an' myed the groond quite muddy,

Coffy Johnny had a white hat on,

They were shootin' "whe stole the cuddy?"

There wes spice staals an' monkey shows,

an' aad wives sellin' ciders,

an' a chep wiv a hapeeny roondaboot,

shootin "now me boys", for riders.


Across the River Derwent to the east of Blaydon is the town of Whickham which is centred around the attractive village of Whickham and its parish church of St Mary in the cemetery of which we find a memorial to Harry Clasper (1812-1870), one of Tyneside's greatest sporting heroes .

Today the sporting greats of Tyneside tend to be footballers, but in Victorian times rowing was the great cult sport of the area and Harry Clasper, a pitman from Dunston on Tyne was one of the greatest of British oarsman. Harry who constructed his own boats was a regular champion of all the major regattas in the country and competed as a sculler or in fours and pairs with his equally talented brothers.

In 1845 Harry constructed a boat called The Lord Ravensworth to compete against the best British oarsman in the coxed fours of the Thames Regatta. Accompanied by three brothers (one as coxswain) and his Uncle Ned Hawks, Harry's team were victorious by one and a half boat lengths to claim the championship of the world

When Harry died in 1870 his loss was lamented by all Tyneside and his funeral procession was attended by an incredible130,000 people who crammed the Tyne bridges and the banks of the river to watch as his coffin was carried on board a steam tug to Derwenthaugh near Blaydon from where it was taken ashore for burial at Whickham.


Although there are no coal mines in this area today, the Whickham district has played a very important part in the mining history of North Eastern England as coal mining is recorded in the district as far back as the fourteenth century. At this time the local mines belonged to the bishop of Durham and were reputedly the largest in Europe. In a later century Queen Elizabeth I obtained the coal mines in the Whickham area from the Bishop of Durham in a `Grand Lease' which lasted for ninety nine years. The Queen passed the rights to the Earl of Leicester from whom it ultimately passed into the hands of a group of wealthy Newcastle merchants known as the hostmen.

Later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most of the coal mines in the Tyneside area were owned by a group of wealthy landowners called the Grand Allies which included the Bowes family who lived near Whickham. Originally from Teesdale, the Bowes family came to be associated with the area after Sir William Bowes of Streatlam married Elizabeth Blakiston of Gibside in the Derwent Valley near Whickham.

Many of the mines in the Whickham area owned by the Bowes family were linked together by what is now the world's oldest existing railway at Tanfield. TheTanfield wagonway crossed what is now the world's oldest railway bridge at Causey Arch near Beamish. The wagonway led to coal staithes at Dunston on the River Tyne.


The town of Dunston, between Whickham and Gateshead is located at the point where the little River Team enters the River Tyne adjacent to the impressive pier like structure of Dunston Coal Staithes which is reputedly the largest wooden structure in Europe and possibly in the world.

Constructed in 1890 by the North Eastern Railway Company for the purpose of loading north Durham coal into ships, the staithes protrude into the River Tyne for 1709 feet and run parallel to the river bank forming a large tidal basin in which ships once moored. Several railway lines ran along the top of the coal staithes from the river bank and rose at a gradient of 1 in 96 from the western to the eastern end of the staithes. This enabled locomotives to shunt coal wagons to an appropriate height for loading ships anchored alongside the staithes.

Coal wagons fitted with trapdoors were shunted along the staithes and lined up with hoppers in the staithes floor. Gangs of men called Teemers would then release these trapdoors and teem the coal into the hoppers. This was not an easy task as often the coal would jam or freeze in the wagon or hopper so that men would have to jump in to free the coal and run the risk of falling through. Sometimes accidents of this nature would happen and the men could sustain serious injuries.

The hoppers in the staithes were linked to coal chutes called spouts and the teemers had the task of adjusting these spouts according to the height of the ships they were loading. The spouts were adjusted by means of a hand windlass and can still be seen on the staithes along with conveyor belts added at a later date, which were used on occasions when the ships were too high for the spouts to reach. Once coal or coke had been loaded from the shute into the holds of the ships, gangs of men called Trimmers were set to work to level out the coal in the ships for stability.

At the peak of its career in the 1920s Dunston statithes were shipping an average of 140,000 tons of coal per week on vessels bound for both London and the continent but by the 1970s this figure had fallen to 3000. In 1980 the staithes were finally closed. They remain today as a listed building and as the most important monument to the once busy days of the Coaly Tyne.


From the earliest times Gateshead has been at the head of an important road or `gate' from the south and this would suggest that the name of the town is a reference to its location at the head of the `gate'.

There is however an alternative suggestion that Gateshead means `Goats Head' - a headland frequented by wild goats and this is supported by the Venerable Bede who described Gateshead under the Latin name of Ad Caprae Caput meaning Goat's Head. Bede referred to Ad Caprae Caput as the site of a monastery belonging to an an abbot called Utta in 653 AD who is described as a `truthful and serious man'. We know virtually nothing else about Gateshead in Anglo-Saxon times.

Whatever its origins, Gateshead is certainly the site of an ancient throughway, and in Roman times a `street' ran here between the Roman forts of Concangius (Chester-le-Street) and Pons Aelius (Newcastle). The Roman road may partly have followed the course of the modern Gateshead High Street. It crossed the Tyne by means of a Roman bridge upon which some say there was inscribed the emblem of a goat's head !.

No evidence has been found for the existence of a fort at Gateshead in Roman times, but Roman coins and artefacts were discovered in the vicinity of Church Street and Bottle Bank in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. If there was some kind of Roman outpost fort associated with the Roman bridge the most likely setting would be on the site of the Gateshead parish church of St Mary close to the edge of the Tyne.


In Norman times Gateshead passed into the hands of the Prince Bishops of Durham who for centuries virtually ruled the land between the Tyne and the River Tees. The first Norman Bishop of Durham was William Walcher of Loraine who upset the locals of Gateshead when one of his men murdered a popular Anglo-Saxon noble called Liulf of Lumley in 1081.

The bishop realised that the activities of his men were beginning to get out of hand and called for a meeting with his people to try and make amends. For some reason the bishop chose Gateshead as the site for this meeting which suggests Gateshead may have been a place of importance in Norman times.

Whatever his reasons for choosing Gateshead, the bishop was not successful in his attempts to make peace. An angry mob had assembled to drown out the words of the bishop. A cry of "good rede short rede slea ye the Bishop" was heard as the mob sallied forth. The bishop took refuge in a church but the mob set alight to the building causing the bishop to flee once again. He was set upon by the mob and brutally murdered. Later the bishop's mangled body was found on the site by the monks of Jarrow who conveyed it first to their own monastery and then to Durham for a private internment.


In the twelfth century Gateshead became a favourite place of residence of Hugh Pudsey, a powerful Prince Bishop of Durham, who was attracted by the extensive hunting forests in the vicinity of Gateshead and Heworth.

Despite this attraction the bishop instigated the clearance of some of these forests which continued into following centuries. As the forests were cleared subsequent Bishops of Durham gradually lost interest in Gateshead's hunting grounds. They may have preferred to see the use of the forest timber in the construction of Tyneside pits which were an increasing source of wealth for the bishops.

The Prince Bishops seem to have taken only minimal interest in Gateshead as a port, preferring Stockton on the River Tees and the accessible natural harbour of Hartlepool. Nevertheless they had certain rights to allow ships to trade from the south side of the River Tyne and were determined to protect these rights despite strong opposition from the merchants of Newcastle who wished to control the trade on both sides of the Tyne.


Newcastle's wealthy merchants continuously tried to restrict trade on the south side of the river and several attempts were made to annexe Gateshead as a part of Newcastle. On each occasion the king came out in support of the Bishop of Durham. However in March 1553 John Dudley Duke of Northumberland, (who virtually ruled England during the reign of the boy-King Edward VI) finally annexed the town of Gateshead to Newcastle. The annexation only lasted a few months with Gateshead returning to Durham with the accession of Queen Mary to the throne.

In 1574 another attempt was made by Newcastle to annex Gateshead but the Gateshead people fiercely petitioned parliament against such a possibility claiming that the merchants and poor people would suffer from the annexation. This petition was successful but Newcastle was not to give in and in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I Newcastle finally gained control of Gateshead's coal trade in a grand lease of ninety nine years. The coal mines of Gateshead were worked very heavily during this period and all the wealth from these mines went into the pockets of the Newcastle merchants and not to the bishops of Durham


Despite the early development of coal mining in the Gateshead area, Gateshead seems to have remained a rather small place which in the eighteenth century was still little more than a large village, noted for `oak trees and windmills'.

As late as 1834, Mckenzies History of Durham records that the Windmill Hills, near the town were `studded with corn mills which seen at a distance, impart a lively and picturesque effect to the landscape'. A Tyneside song further proclaims;

The Quayside for sailors,

The Castle Garth for Tailors,

The Gateshead Hills for Millers,

The North shore for Keelers.

This idyllic rural situation was however beginning to change as industrialisation brought about a continuous increase in Gateshead's population with an increase from 8,597 to 108,024 between 1801 and 1901. As a result the riverside area of the town became increasingly overcrowded and this was a contributing to a great disaster in the nineteenth century which affected the neighbouring town of Newcastle as well.

At one o' clock on the morning of 6th October, 1854 a fire was discovered close to the River Tyne in a worsted factory in Hillgate, Gateshead (also known as Hellgate!). The fire quickly got out of control and spread to an adjacent warehouse containing huge stores of salt, iron, lead, manganese, nitrate of soda, guano, arsenic, copperas, naphtha, and 3000 tons of Brimstone.

Enormous blue flames began emitting from the building as it caught fire and large crowds began to gather in both Gateshead and Newcastle, to see the spectacle. Boats on the River Tyne were said to be alive with spectators.

At around quarter past three that morning, disaster struck; the whole building suddenly exploded, sending off flaming debris in all directions, the sight of which was described by onlookers as `like flying fish'. The explosion was heard far off in Berwick upon Tweed and houses were damaged as far up the Tyne as South Shields. The glow from the fire could be seen in northern Yorkshire, many miles to the south.

The flying debris caused ships and boats in the centre of the River Tyne to catch alight, but worse still, caused a second huge fire to break out on the northern bank of the river, which ultimately destroyed many of the medieval buildings on the Newcastle quayside. Hundreds of people were made homeless by the event which was known for many years after as `The Great fire of Newcastle and Gateshead'.

The Great fire destroyed nearly all of the few historical buildings that existed in Gateshead and this is possibly one of the reasons why Gateshead has its greater share of the less attractive modern concrete buildings, than its famous city neighbour across the Tyne.


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