Newcastle is situated on the north bank of a shallow gorge on the River Tyne. It is believed that the Romans first built a bridge on this site. Newcastle was the lowest point downstream at which the River Tyne could be bridged. Another bridge was built here in 1250.
In the 17th century nearby coal deposits encouraged the development of the glass industry. There were also local salt deposits and local people were also involved in the manufacture of soap. Coal, salt, soap and glass were transported from the town by coastal vessels and by the beginning of the 18th century Newcastle was the most important town in the North East.
The coming of the railway further increased the importance of the town. This included the Newcastle & Darlington Railway, Newcastle & Carlisle Railway and the York & Newcastle Railway. Robert Stephenson built the high level bridge between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead in 1849. Stephenson's bridge carried both the railway and a roadway over the River Tyne.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne was a commercial as well as an industrial centre. The population grew steadily throughout the 19th century, going from 33,000 in 1801 to 109,000 in 1861. The prosperity of 19th century Newcastle is reflected in the architecture of John Dobson (1787-1865) and John Green (1787-1852).
(1) Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)
Newcastle is a spacious, extended, infinitely populous place. It is seated upon the River Tyne, which is here a noble, large and deep river, and ships of any reasonable size may come safely up to the very town. as the town lies on both sides of the river, the parts are joined by a very strong and stately stone bridge of seven very great arches, rather larger than the arches of London Bridge; and the bridge is built into a street of houses also, as London Bridge is. They build ships here to perfection, I mean as to strength and firmness, and to bear the sea; and as the coal trade occasions a demand for such strong ships, a great many are built here. In Newcastle there is considerable manufacture of wrought iron.
From a walled medieval town of monks and merchants, Newcastle has been converted into a busy centre of commerce and manufactures inhabited by nearly 100,000 people. Newcastle is in many respects a town of singular and curious interest, especially in its older parts, which are full of crooked lanes and narrow streets.
As you pass through the country at night, the earth looks as if were bursting with fire at many points; the blaze of coke-ovens, iron-furnaces, and coal heaps reddening the sky to such a distance that the horizon seems to be a glowing belt of fire. From the necessity which existed for facilitating the transport of coals from the pits to the shipping places, it is easy to understand how the railway and the locomotive should have first found their home in such a district.
In the north-eastern corner of England lies the great carboniferous deposit which supplied in 1845 eleven-twelths of the entire mass of coal burned in the grates and furnaces of the kingdom. Between the Coquet and the Tees run the Tyne and the Wear, draining the broadest and richest portions of the coalfield, and on their banks lie scattered the oldest, deepest and the most extensive pits. Like almost all coal deposits, the strata forming the Newcastle field "dip" to a common bottom, somewhat in the manner of a basin, and of this basin, the centre, and therefore the deepest point, lies the sea coast hard by Sunderland.
The houses of the pit village may, be divided into three classes. Those of the lowest class usually contain only one room; those of the second contain a large room and an attic. The best houses consist of two rooms on the ground floor, with generally an attic over one of them. In all cases, the sitting room door is the street door.
More than one half of the pit population virtually live - each family - in a single room. Here is bedroom and kitchen - here the men and the boys, on their return from the pit, wash their almost naked bodies, too often in the presence of growing-up daughters and sisters and here too the women dress and undress. The men say they cannot wash upstairs, as the water would plash through the frequently warped flooring down upon the furniture, and perhaps the bed below.
When a young couple get married they generally go to a furniture broker in Newcastle or Sunderland, with perhaps £10 of ready money, obtaining a considerable part of their purchases upon credit, and paying for it by installments.
(4) Sir John Walsham, Report on the Sanitary Condition of Newcastle (1839)
There is a considerable number of lodging-houses in Newcastle, some of the rooms of which are frequently occupied by from 15 to 20 persons each. In these houses the most deplorable scenes of profligacy and depravity are met with, both sexes being crowded together in a manner injurious to both health and morals. A medical gentleman told me that in the common lodging-houses where travelling vagrants are often attacked with fever, etc., and in many cases die, the beds are the very next night occupied by fresh inmates, who of course are infected with the same disorder.