A wander round the origins of town of Morpeth

Early Morpeth photo.'Part of Wood's map of Morpeth
Early Morpeth photo.'Part of Wood's map of Morpeth

This week’s Morpathia article by ROGER HAWKINS looks at Early Morpeth, a walk around the old town.

A TYPICAL medieval town plan has a street down the middle with burgage plots going off each side, more or less at right-angles. Morpeth began like that, on an east-west axis.

Later, however, when Oldgate, the Market Place and Bridge Street had filled up, it extended northwards along Newgate Street, giving the town its peculiar dog-leg layout.

Every tradesman wanted a stall on the street so the frontage was the most valuable part of a burgage. Its length was less important as long as there was enough room for ordinary domestic needs – a drying area, a few sheds and workshops, and perhaps a fenced-off piece with well-tended grass where the goodwife could spread her linen to whiten in the sun.

A stable was desirable and a bit of garden ground, but the most essential thing in the long yard behind the house was the midden. Our 12th century predecessors didn’t have water-borne sanitation.

Old maps enable us to trace the layout of the medieval town. In Morpeth, John Wood’s town map of 1826 is the earliest to show the burgages in any detail. It is commonly thought that Oldgate was the earliest part of the town and this may be true.

But a study of the charters and the ancient burgage plots leads me to believe that the northern boundary of the original town was Bakehouse Yard, and from there through T&G Allan’s passage, which, however, isn’t quite on the same alignment.

The burgages in Oldgate ran north and south. The southern ones were about a furlong in length and went back to the river, but the northern ones ended at an arbitrary boundary and were only about half as long.

Looking at the knot of buildings on the corner with the Market Place, I suspect that all the plots there were originally aligned north-south.

I think, though it cannot be proved now one way or the other, that the short east-west plots fronting onto Market Place and the bottom of Newgate Street, from Subway up to Rickard’s, came later and replaced the earlier ones. Either way, they once again demonstrate the importance of frontage.

The same applies on the other side of the street. Joe’s Pet Supplies is probably the sole remnant of a north-south burgage that originally took in all the properties up to and including T&G Allan’s.

The Market Place presents a puzzle. Roger de Merley III, who inherited from his father Roger II in 1239, gave his free burgesses a charter confirming the privileges his father had given them. In a passage that even John Hodgson found obscure, Roger gives them a place to set up stalls for the sale of meat and fish.

Hodgson’s translation is ‘the place they formerly used as a market’.

Does that mean that the market was originally somewhere else, such as Oldgate itself, or had they been using the present Market Place unofficially and now he was making it official?

My preferred candidate for the eastern boundary is an ancient routeway – probably older than the town itself – formed by Cottingwood Lane, Wellway and Sanderson Arcade.

Wellway was called Union Street in 1826, of which you can just make out the word ‘Street’ on the map.

New Sanderson Arcade is the current embodiment of what old Morpethians knew as Bell’s Yard, called Bell’s Entry on the map. In my view, this old and well-used pedestrian routeway was the boundary of the original town and formed a convenient short-cut round the side of the built-up area. It was so well used that people carried on going that way when the town was extended eastwards, just as they do today.

To be more precise, I think that on the north side of Bridge Street the town extended as far as the Jewellers’ Guild and perhaps as far as Iceland on the south. My reason for thinking so arises mainly from what exists, or used to exist, on the ground, helped indirectly by charter evidence.

Our earliest charter does not specify the number of burgages in the town, but the one for the eastward extension does, and the numbers tie up quite nicely with the number of plots on the eastern part of Bridge Street, beginning at Brumell and Sample’s.

If so, then New Look marks the north-eastern corner of the original town. But we must not imagine it being occupied by buildings. In the 12th century, it was just the bottom of the yard where the people in the house where the jewellery shop is now had their midden.

To walk the boundaries of the original town:

l Start in Bakehouse Yard. The burgages fronting onto Oldgate are long and original, Post Office Yard being the easternmost. Bakehouse Yard itself probably did not exist in the 12th century, but was part of the open field, or culture, extending up the west side of Newgate Street.

l Visit the Millennium Green. This beautiful garden has been created by joining up the bottom ends of the short plots facing onto Newgate Street and the Market Place.

l Cross Newgate Street and go down by T&G Allan’s, pausing only to admire Mr Webley’s pictures. Now follow the alleyway behind the bus station. The old landmarks have gone, but you are still following pretty closely the northern boundary of the original built-up area.

l Turn right into Sanderson Arcade, keeping to the right-hand side. You are now in what was Bell’s Yard, ill-famed among respectable people until it was cleared in the 1960s. But it was a short-cut and a secondary school pupil, late for school, might well take a chance and run through it – head down.

Bell’s Yard took its name from a family of 19th century wine and spirit merchants, but the route you are following is at least as old as the town itself. For over 800 years, it has been the short-cut from the south side of the town to the north, avoiding the Market Place. The 12th century town was on your right, and on your left, where Marks and Spencer now stands, was another culture.

l Enter the covered arcade. This is not quite the original line, which went through a carriage arch immediately west of Brumell and Sample’s and came out opposite Iceland. East of Iceland was another culture, called Berehalgh – the haugh where barley grew.

l Find your way to the back of Iceland and follow the river round to Oldgate.

You have now made the circuit of late 12th century Morpeth.

Sources: John Hodgson, History of Morpeth, 1832, is available in the County Library or at Appleby’s. For 19th century maps of Morpeth, see the Northumberland Communities website.