From Mansion House to Assembly House to Art House
55 Westgate Road was the home of Newcastle Arts Centre’s office, Details art material’s store, and a picture framing department from 1982 until 2000. In 2001 the building became vacant except for the office of Newcastle Arts Centre Trust awaiting a complete overhaul and restoration.
The site of the present 55/57 Westgate Road has seen a wide range of occupants, and this stretch of Westgate Street was certainly occupied from the 15th Century. The building has been rebuilt at least once and ‘recased’ twice. The early cellars are built from stone and provided the foundations for a timber framed building with brick infill. The house was recased in brick in the late 17th Century and recased in stone in the 1770’s. The front wall is 3 walls thick faced with a grey millstone grit that is much harder than the local dune sandstone. By contrast the delicate doorway is made from a very fine sandstone which suggests that it may have been a special commission or salvaged from another building.
In the 1680’s it was the home of an Irish Roman Catholic, Sir William Creagh. He was made Mayor and Freeman of the City by Royal Mandate, this being part of James II’s efforts to assert the power of the Crown – at the expense of Newcastle’s privileges and independence. The King removed the incumbent Mayor and officials, ordering the electors to choose Creagh and other Royal nominees. The electors refused, on the grounds that they were “papists and persons not qualified”. This action had no effect, Creagh and his cronies simply assumed office. However, his period of power was short lived. Resentment at royal interference in the city’s politics, Creagh’s religious sympathies and factional rivalry among the ruling elite combined to remove him. Thus, when William of Orange landed in England in October 1688, Creagh was removed from office and his political career came to an end.
From 1716 to 1736 this was know as the Assembly House (at the same time playing host to a school, for young ladies!). These public assemblies for dancing and card playing were a new feature of northern society and at first appear to have encountered considerable opposition – as objectionable on moral grounds. The Newcastle Courant advertised “Plays, Masquerades and Assemblies – every night during the races” and “a raffle for 12 fine fans… at half a crown a ticket”. These were, no doubt, occasions when the habitual peace and tranquillity of the street were somewhat disturbed…” a fit of dissipation seized it, and instead of the usual sleepy repose, there was a clattering of carriages, and flaring on links and sounds of music and revelry upon the midnight air” (Charlton). for more Click Here
In 1735 the celebrated Newcastle Composer Charles Avison performed his first subscription concert here and the building now has a City plaque to commemorate this event.
Soon 55 had returned to a more conventional role as the home of leaders of the community. It was owned for a while by Lady Winsor ( daughter of Lady Clavering who had lived next door) and used to oversee her coal enterprises, and was the home of Geoffrey Fawcett Recorder of Newcastle. The house was considerably rebuilt twice before 1780 . Most of this still remains above and behind the Victorian shop front and is reflected in the fact that it is a Grade II Star listed building. The interior in particular contains some rare and elaborate “Imperial” plasterwork in a Northern version of the Italian style.
During this time the historian John Brand and the eminent Newcastle architect William Newton, lived in this section of Westgate Street for a time but we do not know in which house.
It is possible that this house continued to be used occasionally as an assembly house up to the opening of the Assembly Rooms in 1776 that were designed by William Newton and stand opposite 55 & 57 Westgate Road. Newton was also responsible for Charlotte Square and later lived there.
The house became the home of William Peters, an eminent lawyer active at the time of the ‘Great Reform Bill’, and the last man but one in Newcastle to wear a “pigtail” , a copy of the Magna Carta once owned by him is now in Harvard University Law Library. Subsequently, the Misses Clayton, sisters of the celebrated John Clayton, lived here. In the 1870’s it housed the Northumberland Club, but No 57 reverted to a private home and became the birthplace of Sir William Hume ( July 1879), a leading heart specialist and father of Cardinal Basil Hume.
In 1885 Henry Walker & Son converted the ground floor of 55 Westgate Road into a shop, and this was followed by the addition of workshops over the garden to the rear, which have since been demolished to reveal the original elevation (1987). Walker & Son were Hardware manufacturers and inventors of the pneumatic cash transit system used extensively in early department stores. A photograph shows this company was still trading in 1956 at this location while Westgate Road was still a busy street. In 1925 Walker & Son invited Architects to visit this building. In 1957 the ground floor of 55 suffered a ‘make over’ by the Northern Gas Board with chimneys cut through and suspended ceilings installed.
The attempt to modernize Newcastle in the 1960’s with a massive redevelopment plan that stalled with the property crash of 1974, placed much of Westgate Road under severe planning blight which, together with the building of Eldon Square Shopping Centre, moved the focus of the City north.
The result was a period of rapid decline and the accidental preservation of many historic buildings which are now regarded as a valuable heritage.
Today the building is in a sound condition awaiting internal restoration of the revealed historic fabric and careful conversion to bring the building alive.
The chimney stacks have been taken down and rebuilt with new stone cornices and reclaimed chimney pots; the roof has been painstakingly re-roofed with Westmoreland slate to the front elevation and Welsh slate to the rear. New sun pipes have been installed to let the natural light through to the upstairs while bespoke timber rainwater gutters and cast iron down pipes were fitted along with new dormers and conservation roof lights.
Structural and restoration repairs have been carried out to the brick and stonework, replacing, cleaning, repointing and rebuilding all defective areas. New openings have been formed along the rear elevation, which had previously been bricked up and new stone lintels fitted.
New underground drainage and bird repellent systems have been put in place to preserve and improve the life of the building together with new stone steps and steel handrails along the rear elevation.
The interior in particular contains some rare and elaborate “Imperial” plasterwork in a Northern version of the Italian style which require structural repairs. Plastering, decoration, are ongoing.
Throughout the building, the existing sliding sash windows are being restored and where necessary supplied and fitted new ones also employing skilled carpentry techniques on period skirting, architraves, doors, mouldings and frames.
Other internal structural alterations have taken place; new steel work, raising the timber floors so that the cellars below can be utilized as well as forming a new courtyard garden with new openings. Enabling works are also in place to provide for a disabled lift.
Phase one of the restoration work is complete and ultimately the building will restored to its former glory with residential and public spaces.
Northern Counties Archaeological Services
Main Roof Timber repairs and treatment:
Decorative Plaster Co Newcastle
Restoration Carpentry and decoration:
Newcastle Arts Centre
Illustration of ‘ the Assembly House’ on the Corbridge map of 1721 showing the building prior to modernisation in the 1770’s.
This drawing made in 2005 shows the proposed restoration of the 1770’s south elevation that was hidden when Walkers Factory was built in the Courtyard. Originally the view from the splendid Venetian window would have been across a large courtyard and garden to the City walls and the rural Tyne valley. This Georgian elevation will be restored with the interior.
First floor ceiling of No.55
55 Westgate Road rear, July 2010
55 Westgate Road rear, July 2010
The venetian and radial window at the rear were made of oak in the 1770’s we have fully restored them at Newcastle Arts Centre using salvaged oak to match the original.
An 1842 drawing showing the building as ‘modernized’ in 1770’s.
The 1770’s doorway and the 1885 shop front – note that the brickwork is now faced with stone and the floor has been lowered to ground level.
55/57 Westgate Road before restoration.
55 Westgate Road main stairway
55 Westgate Road main stairway