Exploring a maritime powerhouse of its day

Captain Ray Nelson with Rotarians and guests in the Banqueting Hall at Trinity House, showing the Carmichael painting The Battle of Cape St Vincent, the Charles I chair and a window blocked by a painting.
Captain Ray Nelson with Rotarians and guests in the Banqueting Hall at Trinity House, showing the Carmichael painting The Battle of Cape St Vincent, the Charles I chair and a window blocked by a painting.

Morpeth Rotary Club

A group of 25 from Morpeth Rotary Club was welcomed by fellow member Captain Ray Nelson, who is Deputy Master of Trinity House, Newcastle.

Anya Goeing organised the trip, the second of two heritage visits in the summer.

Until about 1850 Trinity House controlled everything on the river, but then the Aldermen of Newcastle began to make changes. It had lost most of its powers by 1900.

It had some responsibility for smaller ports until they became independent in the early 1900s. Until 1992 it looked after offshore buoys from Holy Island to Blyth, but they went to the General Lighthouse Authority. Its role now is the examination, re-examination, annual assessment and licencing of deep sea pilots.

Trinity House Newcastle is run by ‘The Brethren’. At first the fraternity was run by the church, and the first building on the site in Newcastle was a chapel. From the first Royal Charter in 1536 allegiance moved to the monarch. The site was given to the Brethren in 1505 for the rent of a red rose, to be paid yearly on the Feast of St John the Baptist.

The land it owns includes the site of the Live Theatre and Broad Chare Inn. Any income goes to pay for maintaining the Grade I listed building. It has no state funding.

The first stop was the banqueting hall, dated 1721. Its most impressive feature is a beautiful painted plaster ceiling of a compass rose with a sailing ship at the centre.

The room has large oil paintings by John Wilson Carmichael, commissioned in 1826. One is the Battle of Cape St Vincent and shows action by Morpeth resident Cuthbert Collingwood in 1797 when Captain of HMS Excellent.

There is a chair said to have been made for King Charles I. The Brethren had escorted him to Shields in 1633. Lino from 1860 shows in one corner, but the rest is covered by a specially made carpet.

The second Carmichael shows the Bombardment of Algiers in 1816 by a joint British and Dutch fleet. This was Carmichael’s first major work and cost 40 guineas.

The room had two tall windows looking towards the river, but in 1753 the view was obscured by the re-building of the schoolhouse. The Master did not like the outlook and had the windows replaced by paintings of British sea victories over the French in 1759.

A block of black oak over the fireplace has a depiction of the Stuart Coat of Arms. The Newcastle Lord Mayor’s oar mace is on display. It was symbol of his authority over the river and as an Admiralty Judge. The Mayor used to have an official barge.

The visit moved to the boardroom, built in 1790 and restored with donations from the Wilkinson family.

It has a Rubins style painting called The Four Continents, hung in 1802. The original is in Vienna. There is a Carmichael painting of the High and Low Lights at North Shields, which were owned by Trinity House. The picture was refused on delivery in 1851 until the artist painted out a feature that was no longer there.

There is a large model warship made of bone by French prisoners of war. It was loaned to an exhibition in the 1950s and the rigging was ruined. It took 600 hours to repair.

Royal Charters are held from 1636, from Queen Mary, King Edward, Charles I, Charles II, James I and James II. The Elizabeth I Charter has been lost.

The first school started in 1712. The most famous pupil was Collingwood. He was given Honorary Membership of Trinity House in 1806, and visitors were shown a letter from him on HMS Hero saying he was pleased to accept. This is the headquarters of the Collingwood Society.

The school taught maths and English, and later navigation. The first teacher was paid £12 a year, but was allowed to take private pupils he could charge for. The Master’s Room has a list of Masters from 1565.

A mariner could become a Younger Brother if he had a Master’s Certificate and had served as a Chief Officer for a year. An Elder Brother had to have a Master’s Certificate and have served in command for a year. A Master and Deputy are elected each year.

The house is not normally open to the public, but a visit can be requested. Officers of any Royal Navy ship in the river are invited in, and they invite the Brethren to their ships. The first lady member is in training.

The library has many valuable works, and there is a constant process of conservation and repair. It has Captain Cook’s original Journal and a copy of an early East Coast of America Pilot’s Book.

Nelson’s Table is made of wood brought back to Britain from the West Indies by Nelson. It had been given to his prize agent Alexander Davison, of Swarland Hall.

The group went through a secret door in a bookcase and into the chapel, consecrated in 1605.

It had no pews or furniture then. It has wooden panelling from 1536. The chapel was re-roofed in 1648 and is in the style of a lower deck on a wooden sailing ship. Roof timbers are from trees planted between 1190 and 1200.

It has a capacity of almost 100 and is used for services at Christmas, Remembrance Day and Trinity Sunday. It is open to anyone for the Christmas carol service.

It is the oldest chapel that has been in continuous use, though not by the public, in Newcastle. The oldest stone dwelling house in Newcastle is at the edge of the site on Dog Bank.

The visit ended in the entrance hall, which has seagoing trophies from all over the world.