Throwback: Around the Side

I had a change of scene the last time I was in Newcastle, for the Collingwood Society talk – instead of my usual route to Broad Chare past St Nicholas’s and down the Side, I went down to the castle and the Castle Stairs, another interesting way of cutting through places older than the elegant Grainger town.

The usual way is for a reason, though, and was one of my first ever bits of Age of Sail exploration – it was in a house at the top of the Side that Collingwood was born and grew up, close to the quayside and the Tyne, and in a street at that time “from one end to the other filled with shops of merchants, goldsmiths, milliners, upholsterers, &c.”.

The building on the site now is Edwardian, but it’s marked with a commemorative plaque and bust.

Collingwood’s birthplace
Collingwood bust

Although the buildings are much grander than they would have been in the 18th century, the setting of the street is still very distinctive, pushing up from the river to the upper town in a way that would have been even more obvious before the great bridges were built to fill the gaps.

The Side

The lower part is now dwarfed by a railway bridge. Dean Street, branching off halfway up, was built in the late 18th century to give an easier route than the steep, narrow top of the Side – there’s more history of the area in this article

Below the railway bridge

Not far from the bottom of the Side are two much older houses, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, and now known as Bessie Surtees’ House after a later inhabitant.

Bessie Surtees’ House plaque

John Scott was a schoolmate of Collingwood’s at the Newcastle Grammar School, although a few years younger.

Bessie Surtees’ House

At the top of the street is the church of St Nicholas, now the cathedral of Newcastle, which in the 18th century was still part of the Diocese of Durham.

St Nicholas’ Cathedral

This is where Collingwood was baptised and married, and although he was buried in London a monument was erected to him here.

Collingwood memorial
Collingwood memorial bust

And running from the cathedral back towards the station is Collingwood Street – probably the only city where this is more prominent than its Nelson Street!

Collingwood Street

Collingwood Society: Lt Quilliam


This month’s Collingwood Society talk was about John Quilliam, the First Lieutenant on Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar – there being, apparently, a Quilliam Society in the Isle of Man.

His background seems to have been quite colourful – he was born in 1771 on a farm at Marown on the Isle of Man, and was eventually one of six or seven children. His parents had been up before the church court for witchcraft – telling the future by ‘turning the sieve’, and putting a curse on a neighbour – and his mother was later up again for fornication, accused of having a child that wasn’t her husband’s. She said that it was his, and punishment was set aside until it could be proved or otherwise – although by that time he seemed to have taken a second wife anyway.

The first record of Quilliam in the Navy is as a supernumerary – carried only for his food, and not officially even part of the Navy – on board Lion in 1791. By 1794 he had been rated an able seaman on board Triumph, and was soon a quartermaster’s mate – a rise that suggests he may have already had some seafaring experience. In 1797, as a master’s mate, he was present at the Battle of Camperdown, and was made an acting lieutenant, and shortly afterwards, having served for 6 years aboard navy ships, he sat and passed his lieutenant’s exam and became third Lieutenant on Ethalion, where he gained prize money of more than £5000 for his part in the capture of the Spanish treasure ship Thetis, making him a rich man by the standards of the time.

On of the themes of the talk was the various major events with which Quilliam was involved – he can be known to have been present at the mutiny at Spithead, for example, because Triumph was one of the ships from which representatives put their names to a message to the mutineers at the Nore, asking them not to use violence. After Camperdown, the next major event at which he was present was the Battle of Copenhagen, where he served as first lieutenant on Amazon, and took command after the captain was killed, having withdrawn and put the ship in the line of heavy fire in response to the signal which Nelson didn’t see – ironically, as it was apparently made to allow the ships to withdraw out of danger if necessary.

A story of how he attracted Nelson’s attention by replying ‘middling’ when asked by an unknown voice how he was getting on in the badly damaged ship during the battle is sadly apocryphal, but they may have met after the battle when Nelson is known to have visited one of the other damaged ships – in any case, they did meet, and his next posting was as first lieutenant on Victory, where he was involved during the Battle of Trafalgar in steering Victory after the wheel was shot away, and another story is told that when the admiral’s flag was lowered after Nelson’s death he raised it again, saying that he didn’t want either to encourage the enemy or discourage their own men by letting them know what had happened.

After the battle he was briefly made commander into a bomb, and by the spring of 1806 he had been made post into the San Ildefonso, one of the Spanish ships taken at Trafalgar – an order signed by Collingwood. He was then flag captain to Admiral Stopford in Spencer, before being appointed to the frigate Crescent – with the speaker interestingly seeing frigate command as a step up from his previous postings, as being more independent. As a captain he’s known to have been interested in both the welfare of his men and the science of sailing ships, and two letters were read out reflecting this, one about improvements he wanted to have made to his ship.

At the end of the war he retired and went back to the Isle of Man, where he had already bought property – asked if he had married, the speaker said cautiously that he had ‘had a woman in tow’!

The stained glass window at the top of the post was unveiled last year in the church where Quilliam was buried – we had a bit of a discussion about whether it showed *the* famous flag hoist, but it definitely does.

I’m always interested into finding out about new people – and seeing the very different backgrounds they came from – so I really enjoyed that. Plus I got to see my first sunshine for a week, since Edinburgh had been sitting under solid cloud and rain – and I’m always glad to see the Tyne.

Hiding in plain sight

I’ve always been the kind of person who looked at buildings – the fancy windows and old signs and roof decorations that you never see unless you look up.

Even so, I was surprised recently to realise that although I must have looked at this a thousand times (several times a day for 250 days a year for four years, anyway!), I’d never realised that the hall and offices were perfect Georgian.

I think it might be partly because although it’s the old High Street of the village, there’s nothing else Georgian there – a medieval church and a 16th century house, but everything else is Victorian or later.


It still surprises me, because I did always know that the Victorian parts of the school and the newer parts were different – as a child it was the mock baronial parts that fascinated me. I was convinced that it should have secret passages, and I remember that we read a book where an old building had stepped gables just the same.


And then a few days later I took a slightly different route from usual to deliver an exam, as the usual shortcut was blocked by building works, and found myself walking past this late 18th century wellhead, tucked among far more recent buildings.



Of course, having found one, I found another a day or two later, not far up the road.



I think the moral of this story is that history is everywhere – or that you don’t need to go far to have adventures!

Berwick and Paxton House

A couple of weeks ago now I went with the Collingwood Society to visit Paxton House – who first got in touch in the Collingwood festival year to say that they had a portrait of Collingwood, and didn’t know why! They still don’t – there’s no direct connection – but it’s a lovely house from the right period, and as well as the portrait they have connections with two admirals, as we found out.

I went down quite early in the morning to prowl around Berwick, where I hadn’t been for a while – there’s a nice lot of history about it, and I like it. I started off walking around the walls, which are mostly Elizabethan, as are the fortifications on the coast side.

Berwick town walls

The church down here was built during the English Commonwealth, although it was changed later – it felt (and smelt!) to me more like a Scottish than an English church, when I went in.

Holy Trinity Church

The barracks, though, are early Georgian, from 1717-21, and some of the earliest to be purpose built. They now belong to English Heritage, after being the home of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers for years – I didn’t have time to visit properly, but would like to.


They do have a very impressive gate, as well as an impressive courtyard inside.

Barracks gate

This is the powder magazine for the barracks, built away round the back, and with thick buttressed walls and a high outer wall to keep out intruders.

Powder magazine

The walls on the river side of the town are 18th century, rebuilt on the medieval line, and coming up back up towards the bridges and the centre of the town there are a lovely line of Georgian houses just inside the wall.

18th century fortifications


Houses on the walls

The guardhouse was originally on the main street, but was moved away, closer to the barracks, when the main street was widened in 1816.

Georgian guardhouse

This is my favourite of the Berwick bridges, the old bridge built in 1634 to replace a wooden bridge which was in poor repair and felt to be inadequate after the Union of the Crowns. (I do have a soft spot for the Royal Border Bridge too.)

Old bridge

And an unexpected find just down from the bus stop, on the wall of what is now the Wetherspoon’s pub! (The bus came, so I slipped back and took the photo while waiting for the train home, as you can see by the clock.)


Paxton is only a few miles from Berwick, but back over the Scottish border – I kept forgetting that I wasn’t still in England, though. We gathered in the tearoom, which obviously wanted us to feel welcome.

Collingwood cheese

We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, sadly, but the outside was impressive too – one central block for the family, and a kitchen wing on one side and stable wing on the other.

Paxton House
Kitchen wing

The house was built around 1760 for Patrick Home, and then sold to his cousin Ninian in 1773. Patrick had lived at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and one of the exhibits in the house is a fabulous costume he wore in some kind of extravanganza there. Ninian had lived in the West Indies, and returned there later, but he had the house furnished with Chippendale furniture, as well as having two ceilings designed by Robert Adam.

As well as all the grand exhibits, each room had a little teddy bear furnished in appropriate costume – apparently they were a trail for children, but I had great fun spotting them too! Some of them were beautifully dressed, but my favourite by far was the bear in dressing gown and nightcap in one of the bedrooms.

The house later passed to the Milne family, and we were shown documents from the archives relating to two admirals – David Milne, who served in the Mediterranean at the same time as Collingwood, and his son Alexander, who worked for several years in the Admiralty, despite changes of government.

We were trying to find a connection to the Collingwood family which might explain the portrait – one possibility is that both Milnes were born at Inveresk, where Alexander Carlyle, who was married to Sarah Collingwood’s aunt, and was one of Collingwood’s regular correspondents, was the minister.

Another naval connection was a portrait of Samuel Brown, who designed the Union Chain Bridge over the Tweed, not far upstream from Paxton, as well as introducing chains instead of hemp ropes for ships’ rigging. I think he was another family connection, as although Wikipedia says he married a Mary Horne, the Edinburgh Annual Register thinks she was Mary Home.

The setting of the house reminded me of Abbotsford – and reminded me that I was in Scotland after all – and we had a bit of time for wandering afterwards where I went down to the Tweed, but although the old boathouse was interesting, there isn’t a view as far as the bridge.

Boat house

It was a good day out – and one of the first really nice days of the year, which helped!