Yard’s change from slum to ‘place to be’

The growth of medieval Morpeth, based on John Wood's town map, 1826.
The growth of medieval Morpeth, based on John Wood's town map, 1826.

In about the year 1810, William Bell, wine and spirit merchant, opened his shop in Bridge Street, Morpeth. So, whatever it may have been called before, the yard behind the shop now became Bell’s Yard.

William died in 1827. Elizabeth, his wife, carried the business on, but in 1840 she sold out to a Mr Roberts.

It is far fayrar Towne then Alenwike.

John Leyland

Mrs Bell appears to have left Morpeth, but her two grown-up daughters, Isabella and Catherine, stayed on. They died in 1845 and 1847 respectively, and are buried in Morpeth churchyard.

Her son, George Adam, emigrated to America, became a successful New York businessman and founded an insurance agency, George A. Bell & Son, which is still in business, but is now based in Pleasantville, NY.

Although the family had all either died or left Morpeth by 1850, the yard behind the shop was still called Bell’s Yard more than a century later, and is represented now by Sanderson Arcade. The covered arcade is not quite on the original line, however, since Bell’s Yard opened onto Bridge Street through a carriage arch next door to Brumell and Sample.

The history of Bell’s Yard/Sanderson Arcade goes back long before 1810 to the time when Roger de Merley II founded Morpeth, c.1188.

Tradition says that Oldgate was the first part to be laid out, but if so, it quickly expanded eastwards into the Market Place and Bridge Street. The red lines on the map show the town as it was then.

The northern boundary was where Bakehouse Yard is now, followed, with a bit of a dog-leg, by the passage under T&G Allan’s, and then along the walkway behind the bus station. I take it that the eastern boundary was what later became Bell’s Yard.

Regular beaten tracks formed along those northern and eastern boundaries. It must often have been quicker to cut behind the long burgage plots, rather than going through the main streets of the town.

Roger de Merley’s son, Roger de Merley III, succeeded in 1239. He extended the town, giving the burgesses 46 tofts in what is now Bridge Street, 30 on the north side and 16 on the south. The probable boundaries of this area are shown in green on the map.

His second extension, of 43 tofts and ‘half an acre in free burgage’, ran northwards from the Market Place to create Newgate Street, ending just short of Bullers Green. The back boundary of these plots, where it ran along Wellway, is marked in mauve.

Morpeth’s main streets now took on their distinctive L-shape, with Oldgate, the Market Place and Bridge Street as the base, and Newgate Street the upright.

In 1540 or thereabouts, their appearance gave such a good impression to visitors that John Leland wrote: “The Towne is longe and metely well buyldyd with low howfys; the Streets pavyd. It is far fayrar Towne then Alenwike.”

The L-shape lends itself to short cuts. People like to take the quickest way between any two places, and the town centre is riddled with lanes and alleyways leading from one part to another. Of these, the most important are still the ones following the ancient boundaries.

They were not always fragrant. In the Middle Ages, and long afterwards, the yards behind the shops and houses were used for all manner of necessary purposes: washing hanging out, hens scratching, horses in stables, pigs in their sties, and middens. The waste products of human and animal life had to go somewhere, though no doubt the smell was tempered by the presence of hedgerows, trees and flower-filled verges.

Bell’s Yard/Sanderson Arcade, forms the bottom end of a yet more important local routeway known in the 19th Century as the ‘Back Way’. This was not an official name, and was sometimes applied to King Street (now Stanley Terrace), but normally it meant the north-south route formed by Cottingwood Lane, Wellway and Bell’s Yard.

Back Way was always given over to humble and even despised uses. It was where cattle were driven to or from Cottingwood Common.

Cattle and sheep were also ‘agisted’ on the North Field after the harvest, and stayed there until the grass was ‘hained.’

And while pigs get no mention in the old documents, it would be surprising if in medieval times they too weren’t taken up to Cottingwood to feed on the acorns. If so, you can imagine what Cottingwood Lane would be like.

Tanning, a particularly offensive industry, was carried on all along the Cottingburn. A brick-yard and a brewery stood on the other side of the Lane, and the Poor House was where the road into Dawson Place is now. Vagrants and the wandering poor had to come into Morpeth by Beggar Lane and Cottingwood Lane so as not to offend the inhabitants of Silver Street.

Like many of the other yards, Bell’s Yard filled up with houses, and by the 20th Century had become a slum. In 1935, the Medical Officer of Health asked Mrs Dorothy Robson to investigate. She was accompanied by Mr R.J. Taylor, later the MP for Morpeth.

Bell’s Yard contained: “very old, broken-down tenements, six storeys high, but only five could be used because there was no roof....In one of these (were) a husband, wife and seven children living in one room with the ceiling sagging and discoloured from the weight of the pigeon droppings.

“There were thirty or forty of these one-roomed hovels....On the other side of the narrow street, right opposite, were earth closets, one for every five families, and one tap served the lot.

“Mr Taylor said to me, ‘You are very plucky to tackle this Mrs Robson....Did you notice most of them were clean, but I’ll bet they fight a losing battle against vermin’.”

Then and later, if pupils from King Edward’s or the Girls’ High School took a shortcut through Bell’s Yard, they put their heads down and ran.

When the area was redeveloped as the Back Riggs Shopping Centre, the name of Bell’s Yard was dropped, you might even say suppressed. The only survivals were the carriage arch on Bridge Street and the Comrades Club. It stood where Waterstones is now, and Waterstones’ shop front marks pretty closely the old building line of Bell’s Yard.

During the planning of Back Riggs, a consultant’s report said that shops higher up Newgate Street would tend to close, and this happened. Even so, with its Co-op store, tax office, health food shop and cafe, Back Riggs, presented no threat to the shops further down Newgate Street, but this changed radically when the new Sanderson Arcade opened, with its High Street names and glamorous shops.

What a transformation. What was once a medieval back yard, and then an appalling Victorian slum, is now where everybody wants to go, and Newgate Street is in a slow decline.

Sources: John Hodgson, History of Morpeth, 1832. Pru Heathcote, Service not Self, based on the Memoirs of Dorothy Robson, 2014. For old maps of Morpeth, visit communities.northumberland.gov.uk