Different fates for three of our ‘new towns’

In the Middle Ages, both Morpeth and Warkworth were established as new towns.

By Roger Hawkins
Sunday, 14 April, 2019, 13:42

In both cases there was a pre-existing village, in both a castle was built by the Norman lords, and later a bridge, and in both a body was set up to give the residents a degree of self-government.

Though now lost, the original village of Morpeth is assumed to have been near St Mary’s Church.

We do, however, have an approximate date for creation of the new town; in about 1188, Roger de Merley II issued a charter “to my free burgesses of the town of Morpathia”. Morpeth market followed in 1199.

We see the results of Roger’s actions to this day. Our map shows the Market Place and the burgage plots very clearly, some of them still surviving as long gardens.

Notice how the far ends of the burgages in Newgate Street, that go back to Cottingwood Lane, were developed for suburban villas.

While the new town at Morpeth was built at a distance from the old village, at Warkworth the two were contiguous.

A castle was certainly in existence there by 1157 or thereabouts, so the new town was perhaps laid out at about the same time.

As at Morpeth, the evidence is clear on the ground. The medieval burgage plots lie very obviously on either side of the main street.

The plots on the east side are short and largely infilled, but those on the west are so long that they are cut in two by a footpath called Ember.

On a recent visit to Warkworth, the proprietor of the Jackdaw Tearoom told me that many of the frontagers on the east side of Castle Street still own the land on the other side of Ember.

A road with wide grass verges runs along the river bank all round the village, known as The Stanners on the west side and The Butts on the east.

Notice that, as at Cottingwood Lane in Morpeth, development had taken place along The Butts at the far ends of the long burgages.

Unlike Morpeth, Warkworth was not incorporated; the burgesses were never a legal person that could own land and sue and be sued.

In 1899, when the relevant volume (Vol. 5) of the County History was published, it consisted of 77 reputed burgages or house plots.

The officers of the borough were appointed annually at the Court Leet. The head man, though officially called the grieve, was addressed as “Mr. Mayor”.

The burgesses had a common pasture or moor, said to have been given to them by Sir Hugh de Morwick, which lay on the north side of the river, and west of the road.

The lesser officials included the moor-grieve, ale connor or taster, bread weigher, and town’s herd.

That, then, was the new town at Warkworth in the 12th century.

But the lords of the manor then created a second one on the other side of the river. In medieval Latin documents it is called Nova Villa, but more commonly New-town.

It lay along Beach Road, the road off to the right immediately after you cross the bridge. The cemetery, which is marked on our map, lies at its western end.

An inquisition post mortem of 1249 shows that New-town was already in existence by that date.

In 1293, the then lord of the manor, Robert fitz Roger, claimed the right to hold markets and fairs there. And in another inquest, of 1310, while Warkworth was described as “a borough from old time”, the other was described as a new borough.

New-town came into being because of a natural harbour that existed on the north bank of the mouth of the Coquet.

How it arose, and what happened to it afterwards, is explained in a survey made in about 1567.

It was thought good, it says, that “those persons which sholde trade ther traffique by sea as maryners or fishermen ... sholde inhabyte and dwell together, evene so was sett forth one parcell of grounde for theme to inhabit upon, as this daye called the Newe-towne”, the object being that the sea-going people, “sholde always be nere the haven, and see ther ships”.

By the time of the survey, however, New-town no longer existed: “althoughe not inhabited, the grounde or rigge therof is now used or occupyed by the burgesses of Warkeworth ... in like sorte as they occupye their burrowe garthes.”

What happened to it is hinted at in a reference to a “parcel of grounde nowe called th’old haven”.

Until the Coquet changed its course in 1765, there was a slake or area of mud-banks at the eastern end of New-town, which was used as a haven for fishing boats.

At the far end of Beach Road, just beyond the Coquet View Caravan Park, is a low-lying marshy area, almost certainly the Old Haven.

It follows that the caravan site, or somewhere near it, is where the sailors and fisherman could “see their ships” from the comfort of their own homes.

So New-town existed for no more than about 300 years. It was there in 1249, but by 1567 was uninhabited.

The one-time harbour where merchant ships loaded coal, grindstones and other commodities, had became a mere “parcel of ground.”