Newcastle upon Tyne

Roman Origins : Pons Aelius, Condercum and Segedunum

Benwell, in the western suburbs of Newcastle upon Tyne was the site of a fort on Hadrian's Wall called Condercum but the later name of Benwell is of Anglo Saxon origin deriving from Beonnam-Wall meaning a placewithin the wall Today most of what remains of the fort at Benwell is largely buried beneath modern housing, but the defensive Roman ditch called the `Vallum' can still be clearly be seen along with the nearby ruins of a Roman temple dedicated to a local god called Antenociticus.

From Benwell the Roman wall continued east, towards the fort near the river at Newcastle called Pons Aelius. Between Benwell and Newcastle City Centre Hadrian's Wall more or less ran along the course of what is now the Westgate Road. This road is built along the site of a Roman defensive ditch situated just north of Hadrian's Wall

In Roman times the fort of Pons Aelius at Newcastle was probably not as important as that at Benwell, although it had a significant role in guarding a Roman bridge across the Tyne. Pons was the Latin word for Bridge, so Pons Aelius was the name of both the fort and the bridge at Newcastle. In fact Pons Aelius can be translated to mean `the Bridge of Hadrian', as Aelius, was the family name of the Emperor who gave his name to the Roman Wall.

The Roman bridge at Newcastle was built of timber on stone piers and may have continued in use for many centuries. Records suggest that the bridge may still have stood in Norman times and if this is so then it was not finally destroyed until 1248 during a raging fire. It is highly likely that a medieval bridge which replaced this burned structure still utilised the Roman foundations.

Initially the Roman bridge and fort at Newcastle formed the eastern terminus of Hadrian's Wall but later the wall was extended three miles further to the east where a fort called Segedunum was built at what we now know as Wallsend.

The fort of Segedunum was strategically located at the point where a short northward flowing section of the River Tyne suddenly turns east towards the sea. East of here the Tyne provided a natural continuation of Roman defences. This is demonstrated by the fact that one of the defensive walls of Wallsend fort actually extended into the River Tyne itself.


In Anglo-Saxon times the vicinity of the old Roman fort at Newcastle came to be known as Monkchester after a small community of monks who settled in the area. The later name Newcastle did not come into existence until Norman times when Robert Curthose, eldest son of William the Conqueror built a castle here on return from a raid into Scotland. Naturally Robert called the building his `New Castle, and the name has stuck ever since. Robert's castle was built right on the site of the Roman fort of Pons Aelius.

A medieval walled town grew up around this new castle which became an important stronghold in the northern defences against the Scots. Its military importance stimulated trade and commerce and the expanding town of Newcastle developed into a major sea port. By 1300 Newcastle's importance was such that it was permitted to appoint its own mayor and a century later the town became a county in its own right, independent of Northumberland which lay outside its walls.

Rope making, shipbuilding and glass making were among the early trades to develop in Newcastle but without a doubt the most important of all the industries of the town was the mining and export of coal. The Tyneside pits were among the first to be worked in England and for centuries Newcastle was the most important exporter of coals to London. Thus we have the familiar modern phrase `To carry coals to Newcastle', an expression of something which is quite needless.


The `New Castle' of Robert Curthose was built of earth and timber and was situated on a defended plateau overlooking the River Tyne. It seems to have performed its defensive role well until 1095 when it was seized by Norman barons under Robert De Mowbray Earl of Northumberland, during a rebellion against King William Rufus. The king sent north an army to quash this rebellion and the castle of Newcastle was forced to surrender.

In 1172 during the reign of King Henry II the castle at Newcastle was rebuilt in stone by Mauricius Caementarius and most of the stonework of the present keep still dates from this period. Later in about 1250 a barbican was added to the castle called the Black Gate which can still be seen today. The Blackgate was converted into a house in 1618 by the addition of a roof and windows which can be seen in the accompanying drawing. In Victorian times the building was cut off from the castle keep by the construction of a railway which runs between the two.

The Blackgate

The Blackgate photographed by David Simpson


In 1265 the burgesses of Newcastle decided to supplement the defences of the castle with the building of town walls to protect them from the raids of invading Scots. When completed the walls extended for over two miles around the town and were never less than 7 feet thick and up to 25 feet high. The castle and its Black Gate were not part of the town walls but were enclosed within them.

The Newcastle town wall consisted of six main gateways called Sand Gate, West Gate, New Gate, Pandon Gate, Pilgrim Gate, and Close Gate along with seventeen towers and a number of smaller turrets built as lookout posts situated at intervals between the towers and gates. During the reign of Henry VIII the famous antiquarian John Leland described Newcastle's defences as "far passing all the waulls of the cities of England and most of the cities of Europe" in their strength and magnificence.

Today the most impressive surviving section of the old town wall is to the west of the city centre. It can be found in the vicinity of Stowell Street where the remains of four towers may also be seen. A smaller section of wall survives near Forth Street behind the Newcastle Central Station but nothing remains of the walls to the north of Newcastle. To the east only the remains of three isolated towers remain. One tower in the vicinity of City Road has a small gateway called the Sally Port from where defenders of Newcastle would Sally forth against the enemy.


The oldest part of Newcastle is the Quayside, which was until the nineteenth century, the commercial hub of all Tyneside. Most historical of the buildings in this area of the town are the keep of the Norman castle and the adjacent fourteenth century church of St Nicholas with its famous lantern tower. Until the onset of Victorian developments these two buildings were the two most prominent buildings in the townscape of Newcastle upon Tyne.

In 1882 when the diocese of Newcastle was created from the northern portion of the diocese of Durham, St Nicholas church became a cathedral-church and Newcastle subsequently gained the title of a city. However for most of its history Newcastle has been a town and despite its Victorian rise in status, Newcastle is still commonly known to its residents as `The Toon'.

Staying on the Quayside not far from the cathedral is a road called the Sandhill where some of the oldest remaining houses of the Newcastle Quayside can still be seen. They date from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and were once occupied by wealthy Newcastle merchants.

In one of these houses there once lived a certain Bessie Surtees who in 1772 defied the wishes of her wealthy merchant father and secretly climbed from an upstairs window to elope with a humble young man called John Scott. Scott went on to become a wealthy peer, acquiring the barony of Eldon near Bishop Auckland and later in 1801 he became the Lord Chancellor of England.

Lord Eldon of course gives his name to Eldon Square, the modern commercial centre of Newcastle upon Tyne. Bessie Surtees' house in Sandhill is marked by a plaque which commemorates the famous elopement.


At the western end of the Newcastle Quayside is a street called Sandgate which once entered Newcastle by the Sand Gate of the town Wall. This street is however better famed as the one time home of that famous Newcastle community, the Keel Men, who were unique to the region. These were the highly skilled boatmen, who handled the movement of coal from the riverside to ships on the River Tyne. The keelmen took their name from their small vessels called Keels which could carry around 20 Tons of coal.

The word keel was the first English word ever to be written down (recorded by a Welsh chronicler in the sixth century). Its etymology is explained by R.J.Charleton in his `History of Newcastle Upon Tyne' (1882). He reminds us that when the heathen Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, they sailed across the sea in boats called Ceols which;

"after all these centuries... are still to be seen (on the Tyne) as though endowed with the enduring and persistent characteristics of the race that built them".

Charleton claims that the design of the Keel was very similar to that of the Anglo-Saxon Ceol. The earliest recorded use of Keels for transporting coal on the Tyne is in the early 1300's and it is possible that at this time the Keelmen had already established a community in the Sandgate district.


Sandgate of course lay outside the town walls of Newcastle and the Keelmen regarded themselves as the residents of an almost separate town. Intermarriage was a general rule among the Keelmen and they even dressed differently from the other residents of Newcastle both at work and in a social context. A distinctive blue jacket was worn by the keelmen along with a yellow waistcoat, belled trousers and a black silk hat tied with a ribbon. In fact so keen were the Keelmen to preserve their own identity that they even employed their own tailors.

The Keelmen were as tough, hardworking and as militant as the miners of Northumberland and Durham had to be in the nineteenth century. Like the miners, their toughness may well have been a reflection of their place of origin. In the seventeenth century many of the Keelmen originated from the Scottish and Northumbrian border valleys, like Redesdale and North Tynedale and were often descendants of famous Border raiders or Reiver clans like the Armstrongs, Charltons, Robsons, Turnbulls, Grahams and Dodds.


With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century and the development of coal staithes as an alternative method of loading collier ships, the Keel men's trade gradually declined until it became virtually non-existent. The keel community of Sandgate, once the most populous part of Newcastle, was also sadly to die.

All that is left to remind us of this bustling Quayside community today are the unique and distinctive collection of Sandgate folk songs, the most notable being the `The Keel Row' of which Rudyard Kipling wrote while in India:

"The man who has never heard the 'Keel Row' rising high and shrill above the sound of the regiment..... has something yet to hear and understand";

The Keel Row is undisputedly a Tyneside song but the song does seem to have a slight Scottish influence - perhaps a reminder of the keelmens' Border origins.

As aa cam' thro' Sandgate,

Thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate,

As aa cam' thro' Sandgate'

Aa heard a lassie sing:

Weel may the keel row,

The keel row, the keel row

Weel may the keel row

That ma laddie's in.

He wears a blue bonnet,

Blue bonnet,blue bonnet,

He wears a blue bonnet,

An' a dimple on his chin.

An' weel may the keel row.....etc


All views of the Newcastle riverside, are of course dominated by the seven famous bridges across the Tyne, which link the city to Gateshead on the south bank of the river. From west to east they are; the Redheugh bridge, King Edward VII bridge, Queen Elizabeth II bridge, The High Level bridge, the Swing bridge, the George V bridge and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. The George V bridge is more familiarly known as the Tyne Bridge.

The Tyne bridge is still by far the best known feature of Tyneside. Opened in 1929 by King George V and built by Dorman Long of Middlesbrough, it served as a model for the similar, but very much larger Sydney Harbour Bridge which was also built at Middlesbrough.

Lowest of the bridges is the Swing Bridge of 1876, which leads directly into the heart of the Newcastle Quayside below the castle keep. Designed by the famous Tyneside engineer William Armstrong (1810-1900), it is located on the site of the Roman and medieval bridge. During the construction of this swing bridge, two Roman altars were dredged from the river dedicated to the gods Neptune and Oceanus. They would have belonged to a shrine built to protect the Roman bridge of Pons Aelius from the tidal Tyne.

The King Edward bridge was built in 1906 by Cleveland Bridge of Darlington, while the Redheugh and Queen Elizabeth II bridges are more modern structures, the former built of concrete the latter a steel structure used by the Metro system.

Oldest of Newcastle's Tyne bridges, is the High Level Bridge which was erected in 1848 to the designs of Robert Stephenson, it comprises two tiers for road and rail. One of the best views of Newcastle can be obtained from on board a train, as it crosses this bridge on the main London to Edinburgh line.

The most recent of the bridges is of course the beautiful Gateshead Millennium Bridge which is for the use of cyclists and pedestrians only. Opened in September 2001, the whole bridge can be tilted by 40 degrees to allow ships and boats to pass underneath.


With the exception of Armstrong's lower level Swing Bridge all the Tyne bridges take you high over the old quayside and into the modern heart of the city, which lies a little further to the north.

Here we find the Eldon Square Shopping complex, the busy Northumberland Street, the Civic Centre, the University, the Polytechnic, the busy offices and institutions, the banks, museums, libraries, markets, restaurants, night clubs and theatres which make up this vibrant regional centre.

The city life of Newcastle is centred around its fine city centre streets, which in many ways set it apart from most other northern cities which grew so rapidly during the industrial revolution. The classical features of Grainger Street and Clayton Street, are of particular note but most impressive is Grey Street, once described by the Prime Minister, Gladstone in 1862 as `our best modern street'. Sir John Betjeman went further and wrote;

"As for the curve of Grey Street, I shall never forget seeing it to perfection, traffic-less on a misty Sunday morning. Not even Regent Street, even old Regent Street London, can compare with that descending subtle curve"

Grey Street is named after the British Prime minister Earl Grey (1830-34), whose monument stands at the head of the street. Earl Grey, a Northumbrian by birth, was the Prime Minister at the time of the Reform Bill of 1832.

Newcastle book


Aal Aboot Newcastle by David Simpson

ISBN 978-1901888751 Published September 2012

Available from Amazon

Buy this book from Amazon here

Newcastle is not your average northern city. Visitors and locals are often surprised by what they find, whether it be the elegance of Grey Street, the unexpected timber-framed merchants' houses of the 1650s Sandhill, the charming cathedral church of St Nicholas or the magnificent Tyne bridges. Newcastle was a major medieval town, a place of trade and industry long before Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool rose to significance. For centuries the formidable medieval walls defined this town. Amongst the best in Europe, some impressive sections of this wall remain, recalling the town of old. Other reminders are the 'new castle' with its keep and Blackgate, the historic streets with their ancient names and the age old phrase of pointless pursuit: 'coals to Newcastle', recalling the lucrative trade that made Newcastle the 'spacious, extended, infinitely populous place' of Daniel Defoe's time. Officially Newcastle has only been a city since 1882 and the home to the beloved Newcastle United for ten years less than that, but both are still affectionately 'the Toon' in the hearts of the Geordies. In truth Newcastle has come a long way from its quayside origins as the town (or toon) that hugged the steeply rising banks of the Tyne for centuries. As late as 1830 this riverside area was still the hub of the town, enclosed within the walls that stretched up the hill. Here within the northerly sections of the wall there was still much open space where a friary and nunnery had once stood. A decade later these open spaces had been filled with grand new streets of classical design courtesy of the builder Richard Grainger. A new monument dedicated to Earl Grey formed part of this scheme. It became the focal point for the new town, with Blackett Street, its backdrop, running along the course of what had been the northern edge of the town wall. The old northern fringe of Newcastle was now the very centre of the town and within a century this centre had shifted further into Northumberland Street, beyond the walls. The evolution, growth and development of Newcastle is a fascinating story and is explored in this book through the streets and famous buildings. All of the major suburbs of the city feature in the book from Gosforth and Jesmond in the north, Walker and Byker in the east to Scotswood, Denton, Benwell and Elswick in the west.



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