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By Geoff Nicholson


            In 1841 Gateshead must have had the air of boom town.  Its population had increased from 15,000 in 1831 to 19,000.  Ten years later it was to become 25,000, a two-thirds increase in only twenty years.  After many years of being confined almost entirely to the High Street and the alleys leading off it, what was later to be infamously called the “dirty lane leading to Newcastle”, Gateshead had begun to expand onto West Street and over the Windmill Hills towards Bensham.


            The old parish of Gateshead was centred on the mediaeval St Mary’s Church, which had yet to be partially destroyed in the Great Fire of thirteen years later.  Expansion of the population of Gateshead Fell, caused partly be the increase in demand for the products of its quarries, had made it necessary to cater for those who lived there by the formation of the parish of St John’s, Gateshead Fell, in 1825, and that was well-established by 1841.  With that and with the Chapels of Holy Trinity, established in the upper part of the High Street in 1837 and St Edmund, opened in 1810 at the foot of Old Durham Road, the 19th century expansion of the Established Church was well under way.  Methodism had been established on Gateshead Fell since Wesley visited it in 1743, a Meeting Room being established for the budding congregation in 1754, after Wesley had again visited it.  By 1841 there was a complete Circuit centred on Gateshead and a major Chapel in Ellison Street with other meeting places at Wreckenton, Pipewellgate, Sheriff Hill, Carr Hill and Windy Nook.  The New Connexion secession from Wesleyanism also had a presence, at Sheriff Hill (Sodhouse Bank) and at the Bethseda Chapel in the Barn Close.  Primitive Methodism had come and, effectively, gone in Gateshead by 1841.  An embryonic organisation had been nipped in the bud when the local treasurer absconded with the funds and Gateshead was included, temporarily, in the Newcastle Circuit.  Independent Methodists, similarly, had come and  gone.  Presbyterians were well established, at Half Moon Lane, although also riven by their own internal dissensions.  There was no Roman Catholic church in Gateshead at the time.


            Housing conditions in the town centre, and especially along the riverside in Hillgate and Pipewellgate, were atrocious.  Much of the accomodation in the lower part of the town was in lodging houses, occupied by itinerant labourers, many of them Irish in origin.  The rooms were filthy, overcrowded and airless.  The only sewer was the River Tyne itself, with every little gulley and channel acting as a tributary to it.  The nearer one got to the river the more burdened the gulleys were with raw sewage.  At one time it was quite a subject for debate as to whether it was safe for a butcher to operate at the bottom of Bridge Street, close to the end of what is now the Swing Bridge, when there was so much sewage constantly flowing past the shop door!


            There was no shortage of industries to employ all the labourers and others who thronged Gateshead.  Coal mining was taking place in the Team valley (Derwent Crook) and on Gateshead Fell (Isabella Pit at Sheriff Hill) and right in the centre of Gateshead a new pit was being sunk at Oakwellgate, which was to open with great rejoicing in 1842.  The   chemical industry already dominated east Gateshead, with Clapham’s soap and soda works at Friar’s Goose and the South Shore Works, which had just been sold (in 1840) by its founder, Anthony Attwood, to Christian Allhusen (known to generations of Gateshead people as “Ally Hoosen”), who was also to make soda, though with a greater range of products, especially when he took over the neighbouring whale oil plant of Doubleday and Easterby.


            One of the oldest industries of Gateshead was that of stone quarrying.  The fine sandstone to be found on Gateshead Fell was ideal for building purposes and was to be used in the next few years from 1841 for the massive redevelopment of the centre of Newcastle.  The harder beds of the same stone were suitable for making grindstones, and as far back as the 17th century a well-known “riddle” ran: “What three things are to be found all over the World?”  Answer: “A Scot, a rat and a Newcastle grandstone!”.  It is only through Newcastle’s dominance of all trade on the Tyne that Gateshead’s exports became classed with those of its neighbour.  The riddle would have been more correct if it had referred to “a Gateshead grindstone”!


            Of the many engineering works in Gateshead at the time, mention must be made of those of Hawks (to the east of Hillgate: foundry, anchors, chains, edge tools etc) and Abbott (Oakwellgate: anchors, chains, chain cables, nails, etc; Abbotts were eventually to make steam locomotives, hydraulic presses - and tintacks).


The spirit of the times could be summed up by the dawning of the railway age.  Although in the country as a whole, the full extent of the “railway mania” was not to be felt until a few years into the 1840s, Gateshead was already in the thick of it.  Indeed it was the situation with respect to the railways that gave Gateshead people reason to hope that the historic dominance of their town by neighbouring Newcastle might be at an end.  By 1841 Gateshead had not one but two railways runing into it.  The  Newcastle and Carlisle Railway had a terminus at Redheugh which, for one glorious year had been its only terminus at the eastern end of its line.  Since 1839, though, it had also run down the north bank of the Tyne and into Newcastle, a forerunner of things to come.  Newcastle, however, had no share in the Brandling Junction Railway, which ran down from collieries in the Tanfield district to Redheugh Station and then on, right through the centre of Gateshead and ultimately to Monkwearmouth.  With the cavalier attitude to finance whch became typical of some railway entrepreneurs, the Brandling Junction although outwardly successful, could only show a profit in 1841 as a result of what would now be called “creative accounting” and was soon in difficulties, but in 1841 that was not generally known and Gateshead faced the advent of the railway age with confidence.


This, then, is the bustling town whose population the census enumerators set out to record after census night, Sunday 6th June 1841.  They found 19,843 people there, most of them dependant in some way upon the industries mentioned here.