As in many large towns and cities, the history of Newcastle upon Tyne's public parks is closely linked to its industrial history. Newcastle's public parks are particularly linked to the history of coal mining and the industries that developed as a direct or indirect result of the mining industry. The city's historic parks also remain as windows on past landscapes of wooded valleys, pastures, and the parks designed to show off the wealth of the 18th century coal barons. The ‘Coaly Tyne' is a phrase from a traditional Geordie song. It was published in broadsheet form around 1800 to 1825. The second verse of this version describes Newcastle upon Tyne and the surrounding area around that time:
What though with Dust, of her rich Mines,
Her Waves they sable be;
No greener Banks, nor fairer Maids,
On any Stream you'll see:
For pleasant Seats, and noble Streets,
Where Freedom glows, sing then my Muse -
The Coaly Tyne for me!
There is evidence that coal may have been mined in Newcastle in Roman times. It was not until the 18th century, however, that people started to use coal in large quantities. The development of steam-powered machinery from the early 18th century rapidly increased the demand for coal. Newcastle had coal, and was close enough to the sea to export it quite easily and rapidly to other parts of Britain and abroad. The steam engines helped to increase coal production. Water could be pumped from the deeper mines, enabling the miners to work previously inaccessible seams. Other heavy industries developed as a result of the mining, such as mechanical engineering.
The men who owned the mines, engineering works, factories and ships grew rich and spent some of their profits on houses, creating gardens and landscaped parks. The town grew rapidly as the number of workers needed increased.
A petition for parks
The crowded living conditions for the workers and their families in Newcastle upon Tyne eventually led to 3,000 men petitioning the town council in 1857 for a public park "for the purpose of health and recreation."
Twenty-six years later, the workers got their green area for recreation on the northern side of the town centre: Leazes Park. An artificial lake formed the focal point when it first opened. The attractions of a bandstand, palm house, aviaries and tennis courts were added over subsequent decades.
Coal barons and industrialists
In the meantime, by the mid to late 1870s, Sir William Armstrong (later Baron Armstrong) had opened up his park in Heaton, to the east of the town centre, for the public to use for recreation. He had inherited the property from his friend and business partner, Amourer Donkin (born 1779, died around 1855) who had bought Heaton Hall and its park around the late 1830s.
Heaton Park had been designed or re-designed in the late 18th century for the owner at the time, Matthew White Ridley. The Ridley family had been one of the prominent Border Reiver clans in earlier centuries. The Ridley and White families had owned most of Heaton during the 18th century, including the many coal pits from which they derived part of their wealth. Their influence and power had been strengthened by marriages between the two families, joining together the land that they owned in Heaton. They had been able to purchase the Heaton Estate, including Heaton Hall (built 1713), after it had been confiscated from the previous owner who had supported the Jacobites in the 1715 rebellion.
Eighteenth century landscaping
Richard Woods (born 1716, died 1793) may have been the designer who landscaped Heaton Park for Matthew White Ridley during the 1760s. The garden temple in Heaton Park was probably built as part of that phase of landscaping. It was built on an artificial mound that has shallow steps either side, winding up to the top of the mound. Paths radiate out to other areas of the park from the base of the mound, and to the north east of it there was a lake (no longer existing). The temple itself was removed in the late 19th or early 20th century and was placed in the grounds of the Ridley family's country estate at Blagdon.
Romantic ruins of past barons
Heaton Park was planted densely with trees around the boundaries. The land drops steeply from the southern boundary down towards the large grassed area visible in the photographs above and below.
The remains of a fortified house, possibly built sometime between the 12th and mid-13th century, stand near the north-eastern current boundary of the park. The ruin is known by two names: the Camera of Adam of Jesmond, or King John's Palace. A stone well head is also named after King John.
The generous industrialist
Lord Armstrong donated some land, which had originally been part of the Heaton Estate, to the people of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1887. It was named after him in recognition of his generosity. Armstrong Park adjoins the southern end of Jesmond Dene which had been donated to the city by Lord Armstrong four years earlier. The wooded east side of the dene had been called Bulman's Wood in the mid-19th century.
In 1878, Lord Armstrong gave a bridge to the people of Newcastle. The road that crossed the dene before the bridge was very steep because the sides of the valley are steep. A local story tells of how his wife, Margaret, was distressed at the sight of horses struggling to pull carts and carriages as they out of Jesmond Dene. William Armstrong’s solution was to build a girder bridge to cross the dene. It was named after him in recognition of his generosity.
Not long after the bridge was closed to traffic, local artists and craftspeople started to display their work on the bridge on Sundays to sell to people strolling across it. The Armstrong Bridge Arts and Crafts Market has become a weekly event, and helps to encourage people to visit Armstrong Park and Jesmond Dene.
A much older attraction to visitors is situated to the north of the Armstrong Bridge, on the western side of Jesmond Dene. Saint Mary’s Chapel was built in the early 12th century, and became a major site of pilgrimage throughout the medieval period. Although it has been a ruin for several centuries, it is still a sacred place to many people as well as an interesting feature of the park.
The Newcastle City Council website includes additional information about the parks mentioned in this article.
The SiteLines web site includes a searchable database of the online records from the Tyne & Wear Sites & Monuments Record (Historic Environment Record). There are records for various public parks in Newcastle upon Tyne, and for the features within them (some of which pre-date the creation of the public parks).