A brief history of the buildings now owned by Newcastle Arts Centre

Westgate Road was named after the “West Gate” in the city walls. It is the oldest named street in Newcastle and runs along the course of Hadrian’s Wall. Indeed the Arts Centre itself stands on the site of a Roman Milecastle. Since Roman times, the road has played a vital part in the history and development of the city. The fortunes and functions of the street have varied widely, ranging from “a street more retired than any other in the town, there being no artificers or mechanics” (Bourne 1736) to a “centre of business and commercial enterprise” by the late nineteenth century.

In recent years many long-neglected buildings have been restored, and the historical importance and quality of this area is once more being appreciated.

In its heyday, Westgate was a street of wealthy merchants’ houses standing in orchards and gardens. It has also been a centre for merchants and craft guilds, recreation and entertainment, with Taverns, Theatres and Assembly Rooms. The transition of Newcastle from a feudal medieval town to a pioneering industrial city all happened around Westgate Road with the Castle, the Cathedral, the Parish Church of St. Johns, the Assembly Rooms, Stephensons’ Locomotive Works and the Literary and Philosophical Society all within sight of each other.

The “West End” is today an increasingly creative leisure and recreation area of the city where the arts, crafts and entertainment flourish side by side.

Newcastle Arts Centre
67 to 75 Westgate Road

Newcastle Arts Centre is housed in a block of listed buildings near the Central Station. The Company has re-established shops, offices and workshops, and built an Arts Centre from a derelict section of Westgate Road. The buildings consist of 18th Century merchants houses and later property that is bordered on Westgate Road by the line of Hadrian’s Wall and on Pink Lane by the line of the City Wall.

Number 67 Westgate Road was the 18th Century home of Lord Ridley’s family, the ground floor of which was later converted into a shop. Behind this, Woolf’s Store was built in 1912, and this elegant arcade which parallels Forth Lane, a route between Westgate Road and Pink Lane is the main exhibition space of the Arts Centre.

The Centre has established studios and conference rooms, used for all kinds of creative activity and are the venues for events organised by more than 80 groups and community organisations..

Behind numbers 69 to 75 Westgate Road there was once a courtyard known as Pearson’s Court which has since been built over. The overbuilding has been removed to make Black Swan Court as a part of the Arts Centre. Shops and offices on Westgate Road have been restored and improved, and at the back of the courtyard the buildings have been converted into studios and workshops for artists and craft workers. During 1982-84 the foundations of a Roman Milecastle and several abandoned wells were excavated by our staff and a large find of medieval pottery was recovered. Archeologist Jenny Vaughan is currently preparing a report for the Society of Antiquaries on the pottery.

University Chambers
67 Westgate Road

Although only known as “University Chambers” during the first half of the twentieth century, 67 Westgate Road, the oldest building within the Arts Centre complex, was for over 400 years owned by University College Oxford, during which time it was leased to various people. It is very likely that the land itself was part of a number of deeds presented to the University in 1447 by Alice Bellasis, the daughter of Sir Robert Hansard,…”in consideration of masses to be said… for her soul after her death and for the souls of her kinfolk.”

Before being occupied by the most famous of its residents, the Ridley Family, the land, on which at the time stood two houses, was leased in 1693 by William Metcalfe. A member of the Company of Hostmen, which under a charter granted by Elizabeth the First held a virtual monopoly over the coal industry of the area, he was made a Freeman of Newcastle on the 20th May 1698, the same day on which Matthew White, the future father-in-law of Sir Matthew White Ridley, also became a Freeman of the town. It was William Metcalfe who almost certainly converted the original two houses into a single property, forming the basis for the building as it stands today. The current house is in a style that dates it to about 1725.

Leased from University College by Sir Matthew Ridley, 67 Westgate Road was to become the Newcastle residence of the Ridley family for approximately 100 years, and therefore the hub of political and commercial life in the centre of Newcastle. From Matthew Ridley, who became Mayor of Newcastle in 1733 at the age of 21, via Sir Matthew White Ridley I and Sir Matthew White Ridley II, there was formed a dynasty which saw 100 years as Governor of the Merchant Adventurers, 89 consecutive years of Newcastle parliamentary representation and 7 terms of office as Mayor. Grandfather, Father and Son were also all involved in the formation and command of various civil defense forces, from the “White stocking regiment” of 1740 to the “Loyal Association of Newcastle Voluntary Infantry” which was formed in 1798 and disbanded in 1813. Extending their influence over Newcastle life even further, Sir M.W.Ridley I was a major partner in the bank of Ridley, Cookson and Co. which was known as “The Old Bank”. On his death, his son continued the family influence within the Bank.

The famous engraver, Thomas Bewick, was employed by Ridley and Cookson to make the plates for their banknotes. Cookson, who also owned property in Westgate Street, employed Beilby to engrave his finest glass.

But, as with all powerful families, in the true tradition of soap operas, there were the inevitable scandals. Sir Matthew Ridley was married twice, in itself not scandalous even in the early 18th century, but curiously his first wife Hannah Barnes was never acknowledged as his wife during her lifetime. More fuel is added to the fire by the fact that on her death in 1741 her brother published “an angry account of her sufferings”. His son Sir M.W. Ridley I surpassed his father when in 1798, ( the same year he survived a run on the Ridley, Cookson and Co. Bank), he was charged and found guilty by a jury of his peers of “Criminal Conversation” with another mans wife, a euphemism for adultery. The husband of the “licentious, wanton woman” received £400 damages, a sum which would be expressed in tens of thousands in todays terms. Even so, the social standing of the family was not affected, a fact which may have been aided by the lack of publicity given to the case in the local newspaper of the time.

Although Westgate Road was almost totally composed of the residences of “the important and well to do” we find rather unusually that the neighbours of the Ridley family for over fifty years, from approximately 1780 until 1830, were Coachbuilders. This was actually at 71 Westgate Road (69 did not exist at that time) and the workshops were within the courtyard of the present Arts Centre. The original proprietors were the Brewster family and they were followed by the Wilkinson brothers, William and Edward. It would appear that both families were of “good” if not important social standing, John Brewster being a warden of All Saints Church and his sister Ann married Nathaniel Surgeon, who actually was a surgeon. Oliver’s survey of 1830 shows 75 Westgate Road as the property of Mrs. Ann Surgeon. The Wilkinson brothers went on to merge with Angus, at which time c.1831, they moved to the Bigg Market. They were at that time one of, if not, the leading coachbuilders in Newcastle, the Angus family being one of noted landowners and gentility.

The court became known as Pearson’s Court in the early 1800’s when 71 Westgate Road became the property of Robert and Elizabeth Pearson, although they themselves lived at 73 Westgate Road which for a number of years was owned by Isaac Cookson. Robert Pearson was a Tea-dealer and Dry-salter who, if Oliver’s Survey is accurate, also owned in 1830 all of the tenements in the court, therefore making him a wealthy man. The end of the Napoleonic Wars were celebrated with famous illuminations of 1000 lamps decorating the outside of his home. He died in 1836, the same year as Sir M.W.Ridley II.

The courtyard also housed a number of tenements which were run as lodging houses. The first mention of these appears in 1827 but it is almost certain that they existed a number of years previously. The number of occupants of the court peaked in the 1850’s with the 1851 census showing 100 men, women, and children in lodgings within Pearson’s Court. Occupations of the lodgers covered Labourers, Shoemakers, Stonemasons, Bakers, Engine Fitters and Pipemakers, as well as others.

It was in the early 1840’s when the character of this area of Westgate Road began to slowly change. Although it remained as predominately private residences for another 30 years, the occupants were more often than not involved in trades, such as the Teasdale, Moffat and Lockerby families of Drapers, who occupied 71, 73 and 75 at various times during that period. By 1841 the Ridleys had also moved out of 67 to be replaced by a Boys’ Boarding School run by Thomas Fairweather although he was only to remain there for just over 10 years, when the most obvious pointer to the change in character of the area occurred with 67 Westgate Road becoming the offices and warehouses of W.H.Holmes Glassmerchants.

Although there would appear to be no definite record of when 69 Westgate Road was built, it is first listed in the directories in 1858. It is noticeable how the courtyard and coach access obviously influenced the type of occupant. J.Kyle (builder) was the first of these, from 1858 until the late 1860’s, when he was replaced by Atkinson & Co. ale stores, and then Johnson & Co. wine merchants.

By the 1880’s the change from residential to commercial was complete, with the tenements in Pearson’s Court now being converted into warehouses, predominantly by W.H.Holmes, whilst 71, 73 and 75 now all housed offices and shops. The firm of W.H.Holmes was to remain on the premises until the outbreak of World War Two, a period of approximately 85 years.

New commercial occupants made some structural alteration to the site. In 1912 Woolf’s Department Stores erected an early concrete and steel building in the former gardens of No. 67. This forms the main public area of the Arts Centre, housing Performance and Exhibition spaces.

The 1920’s brought to the block, now known as the Arts Centre, occupants who mirrored the growth of the entertainment industry, especially the movies. The Ideal Film Renting Co. Western Import Co. (Films), Butchers Film Services, Andersons Variety Agents, and Theatre Equipment Co. Ltd, all appear during this decade. There was also British Screen Productions for a period of time at 55 Westgate Road. Yet it is a reflection of the times that by early 1930’s, with the onset of the depression years, all had departed. By comparison, a large number of the other occupants such as Woolf & Co. (Picture framers), W.H.Holmes, Quin S & Son (Bedding Manufacturers), Anglo-Scottish Rubber, Crosby & Sons (Confectioners), W.F.Hamilton (Insurance), Drybroughs (Brewers) and Williamson, Inglis & Parks (Drapers) all survived the depression. In fact Woolf & Co. and Quin S & Son both continued well into the late 1960’s.

In 1935 Quin S & Sons considerably altered 69-75 by building over the courtyard, and substantially rebuilding and extending the structures at the rear of the courtyard as showrooms and warehousing. In 1981, Newcastle Arts Centre Ltd. acquired the property once owned by Woolf’s store and Quin S & Sons, and dismantled most of the 1935 constructions to restore and remodel the courtyard. When Newcastle Arts Centre acquired the site, the courtyard had been lost under overbuilding and one aim of the reconstruction was to refocus the activity of the site around the courtyard. This was renamed Black Swan Court, after an ale house originally at 69 Westgate Street. But, although we have chosen to name our bar and courtyard after a long lost nineteenth century bar, we did not account for the fact that the street was renumbered in the 1860’s, and the original Black Swan was in fact next door to the Literary and Philosophical Society.

A look back to the making of Newcastle Arts Centre (click here)

55 Westgate Road

See our 55 Westgate Road page for a full history of the building!