Delving into the past of town’s fine building

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I had lunch last week in the Café Vault at 29 Newgate Street, Morpeth.

Café Vault is owned and run by Jackie Knight, assisted by her daughter Lauren. It opened in April 2016. The menu is largely Mediterranean, but I had the home-made broth (delicious) followed by a large slice of cake.

When I asked about the history of the building, Jackie found me a leaflet produced by Morpeth Antiquarian Society, compiled by Kim Bibby-Wilson.

In 1851 it was occupied by William Woodman, solicitor; in 1861 by Benjamin Woodman, and in 1871 by Charles D. Forster, articled clerk.

In 1881 it was Hodgkin & Co’s Bank. In 1894 John Hann was the manager, who also lived there. It was later taken over by Lloyds and was a bank until 1901.

By 1929 it was the Inspector of Taxes, and in 1938 the surgery, and presumably the residence, of Dr Stenhouse.

After that it was the social security office. From 1960 to 1983 the owner was Lancelot Robson, estate agent, followed by Dudley Charlton. It was then a solicitor’s office, Harvey Marron's, then Dovetail Pine, Bin 21, before becoming Café Vault in 2016.

Unusually for Morpeth, No. 29 was never an inn or a pub, but it is a large building and often had different uses in different parts.

According to Alec Tweddle’s Town Trail No. 2, a Working Men’s Club occupied the back premises in 1884, and a Gentleman’s Club (it meant something different in those days) took it over from about 1900 to 1920.

The name Café Vault is a bit doom-laden and I wondered how it came to be called that.

It’s simple. No. 29 used to be a bank and the bank vault, or strong-room, is still there. You can actually eat in it if you want to, but that to those who will.

The decor is modern, except for the fireplace. The massive lintel proclaims it to be original, and it reminded me of the fireplaces at Chibburn Preceptory, but the bricks that support it look rather thick, which suggests a later date.

To prove the point, I measured different bricks on their long sides, some in situ and some in photographs.

A traditional brick is 4ins wide, 3ins deep (or high), and 9ins long, so the ratio of height to length is 1:3. In my house, built in 1904, the ratios vary from 1:2.92 for the Bedlington commons, to 1:3.04 for the facing bricks, close in both cases to 1:3.

Bricks in the 18th century were thinner so that the ratio would be greater. Those on the front of No. 29 are 1:4.23, definitely a longer, thinner brick.

The bricks above the fireplace lintel are 1:4.19, and those below 1:3.94, close to 1:4 in both cases, so the bricks are four times as long as high, which suggests that the fireplace is original with the building.

But why did the fire have to sit on a brick shelf some 21ins above the floor? It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a smithy, rather than in a house or shop.

No. 29 is properly known as Robson House, after the late Lance Robson who restored it in the 1960s. Café Vault occupies only the ground floor, the rest is divided into flats.

Pevsner attributes it to the mid-18th century, and the chimney stack on the north gable is supported on two panels of brickwork in a diagonal bond, slanting downwards towards the centre-line, a practice not found in later buildings.

It has three bays on the first and second floors, but the ground floor has five bays, one being the carriage arch into Bakehouse Yard.

Alec Tweddle says that all the arches were open at first, but were later filled in with windows. You can see this in the vertical joints on either side of the stone plinths that the windows stand on.

This suggests that the arcade was meant for a piazza. If so, the ground floor would have been very dark so I should think the change was made early on, perhaps before the house was finished.

After the Town Hall, No. 29 is the finest 18th century building in Morpeth.

Starting at the top, it has a parapet with four ball-and–pedestal ornaments. Below this is a frieze, the top row of which is ‘pulvinated’, i.e. plumped out like a cushion. Below are four capitals, but without either columns or pilasters.

The upper floors are of brick with quoins and architraves (frames) of freestone. The windows on the top floor are four-paned, with the architraves 'shouldered' at all four corners.

The best rooms in an 18th century gentleman’s house were on first floor so its windows are twice as high.

The ground floor is rusticated, that is faced with well-cut stones with exaggerated joints. The masonry is of high quality and the tops of the arches have beautiful ironwork inserts.

We don’t know who designed and built No. 29, nor who it was built for.

Travellers passing north and south between England and Scotland could not fail to see this splendid mansion, but whether it was that of a rich burgess, or the town house of a country gentleman, we simply do not know.

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, 48 pages, illustrated, is now on sale at Morpeth TIC, Newgate News and T&G Allan.