Keys to the Past

Local History

Berwick upon Tweed (Northumberland)

View of Berwick across the River Tweed. Photo by Northumberland County Council.
View of Berwick across the River Tweed. Photo by Northumberland County Council.

The Berwick area is dominated by the beautiful town of Berwick-upon-Tweed and the smaller settlements of Tweedmouth and Spittal. The history of the three settlements is interwoven: all exploited the Tweed as a resource for fishing; Tweedmouth later provided a deep water dock for Berwick and was used as a base by the English king to attack and take Berwick from the Scots. In 1657, the Corporation of Berwick purchased the Manor of Tweedmouth and Spittal from the Earl of Suffolk for £570. Inevitably, the archaeological records are more extensive and detailed for Berwick; however, there is much of interest in the smaller towns too.

There are very few known archaeological sites in the area dating to prehistoric times, but there are enough to identify some activity in the area. Graves dating to the Bronze Age have been found in the centre of Berwick and at Cocklaw Hills. Another site near Halidon Hill appears to be a long barrow, a rare find in Northumberland and pre-dating other burials found in the area by some considerable time.

There is also evidence of a number of settlements or farmsteads, now only visible using aerial photography. Some of these settlements appear to be Iron Age in date, such as the cropmark seen on Halidon Hill, which is also the find spot of a macehead, possibly of Bronze Age date. A cropmark at Needle's Eye is a large enclosure with several ditches that is typical of many Iron Age defended settlements. At West Edge Farm, a series of small pits can be seen on aerial photographs forming a boundary-like feature. These so called 'pit alignments' are thought to be territorial boundaries and can be found throughout the Borders area.

Turning to the period of the Roman occupation of Britain, it has to be said that there is little evidence to prove a strong military presence at the mouth of the Tweed. Logic would dictate that, given the presence of a Roman road in a direct alignment with Tweedmouth, it follows that some form of fort or naval base would have stood on the south bank of the Tweed. Although there is no archaeological evidence, it would be contrary to normal Roman practice for a supply route or navigable river mouth to be left unprotected. Despite the Roman native settlement at Springhill being dismissed as the site of a Roman fort, there is no reason to doubt the presence of a fort or fortlet closer to the river mouth. It is clear that substantial troop movements took place along the south bank of the Tweed, with temporary camps having been identified at Norham, East Learmouth and Carham. Whereas the camp at Norham could have accommodated a force of 500 men, the site at East Learmouth was large enough for a complete legion. While it is possible to argue that there ought to be a Roman military presence in the area, the number of finds found in the Berwick area does not support this. Part of a quern was found at Folly Farm in 1963 and another in Berwick on the Ness. In Tweedmouth, a Roman coin dating to the reign of Constantine (AD274-337) was found in a garden. These few objects do not add up to a significant Roman period occupation of the area. However, very little excavation has taken place around the Tweed and there may be much more to discover.

The earliest documentary evidence for Berwick's existence is found in a charter of Edgar, King of Scots, dating to 1095. Other references do exist but they tend to be less reliable. The place name of 'Berwick' has Anglo-Saxon origins but, as yet, no archaeological evidence for this settlement has been found.

The River Tweed was designated as the border between Scotland and England after the battle of Carham in 1018 when Malcolm II, newly confirmed as King of all Scotland, claimed the River Tweed as the boundary of his kingdom, thus placing Berwick inside Scotland. The effect of this act was to add strategic importance to the town and harbour of Berwick, thus prompting its subsequent development as a frontier stronghold. By the time David I came to the throne in 1124, Berwick's growing importance would not only make adequate defensive arrangements a necessity, but it also had the effect of transforming the settlement into one of great political significance. The presence of a castle is first recorded during David's reign and shortly before his accession Berwick had been created a Royal burgh. David's reign was a period of growth and prosperity for Scotland and it would appear that for the next century and a half the town steadily consolidated its position as the most prosperous port in Scotland.

Monastic houses became active in the land market and the abbeys of Kelso and Melrose acquired a number of properties in Briggate and around the junction of Briggate with Waldefgate. By the end of the 13th century no less than 15 religious houses are known to have held property in Berwick: an Augustinian Friary was founded somewhere in the town in 1296; a Carmelite Friary founded in 1270 was located on a site close to, or beneath, the present Governor's House in Palace Street East; the house of the Black, or Dominican Friars was founded by Alexander II (1214-1249) possibly in or before 1240 or 1241, perhaps near Northumberland Avenue; the Franciscan Friary may have been located in the area now occupied by Nos.25-31 Low Greens and the grassed area to the north; the House of the Friars of the Sack, otherwise called the Friars of the Penance of Jesus Christ, undoubtedly existed in the mid 13th century, but were abolished at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and the site was subsequently sold to the Dominicans. Francis Cowe, an expert on Berwick, has suggested the location for this friary as the Chapel of Ravensdale on the north side of Love Lane, once the extreme western end of Briggate. A Cistercian Nunnery, the house of the Blessed Mary and St Leonard, was probably founded during the reign of David I (1124-1153). Traditionally, the house is said to have been situated not far from the battlefield at Halidon Hill and that, in commemoration of his victory, Edward III made a grant to the `nuns beside Berwick', whose conventual church and buildings had been destroyed and burnt during the siege and battle in 1333.

In addition to the religious houses of Berwick, there were also a number of religious hospitals: a Leper House, Maison Dieu, St Edward, St Leonard and St Mary Magdalen. Three major churches were also associated with Berwick and Bondington: St Laurence, St Mary and the Holy Trinity.

The enclosed area of the town in the 13th century extended to some 125 acres, only two-thirds of which were intensively developed. The other third at the northern end of the town lay virtually undeveloped and remained so at the end of the century. The other two thirds was probably developed to varying degrees. The area to the east of Ravensdowne appears to have had little development, if any at all, while Briggate, Marygate and the whole of the Ness were more densely built upon and may have very early occupation levels.

It was at vacant buildings belonging to the Dominican Friars, close to Berwick Castle, that John Baliol was proclaimed King of Scotland in November 1292 after a prolonged debate. Edward I had been invited to oversee the process of accession, and so considered that he was superior to Baliol. So when Baliol entered into an alliance with France, England's enemy, this was regarded as open defiance on the part of the Scottish king. The Sack of Berwick by Edward's invading army on the 30th March 1296 was one of the blackest days in the town's long history. There was considerable carnage and many buildings suffered fire and destruction.

The lack of an adequate defensive system for the town had contributed to its collapse and so Edward set about constructing a system of walls, which were subsequently completed by the Bruce kings after it was retaken by the Scots. Between 1296 and 1482, when Berwick was finally re-captured by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the town had changed hands on no less than 14 occasions. As a result of this prolonged period of conflict Berwick had been reduced to the condition of a poor garrison town. By the time of Henry VIII's accession in 1509, the defences were not only in a seriously dilapidated condition, but the system had been rendered obsolete by changes in military practice and the development of artillery.

During the reigns of Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, the town of Berwick experienced major changes in its form and development. The castle was abandoned as the major defensive structure and the new system of bastion design, pioneered in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century, was imposed on the earlier pattern established by Edward I at the end of the 13th century. One third of the town's area lay outside the massive system of bastions and was therefore regarded as expendable in the event of attack or a prolonged siege. Despite this massive expenditure (it was Elizabeth I's most expensive project of her reign), the population numbered no more than 1500 people living in squalor. Remains of medieval houses have been found in a number of places in Berwick, including Marygate and Woolmarket.

One of the main achievements of the 17th century was the re-building of Holy Trinity Church. It was built afresh, the earlier church being completely demolished, using stones presumably taken from the ruined castle that was now providing stone for any new developments in the town. It is reputed to be one of only two Commonwealth churches in England, the other being Staunton Harold in Lincolnshire.

The Act of Union in 1707 marked the turning point for Berwick and once more trade was able to resume with Scotland's hinterland. With this resumption of trade, prosperity grew and between 1750 and 1850, considerable development took place. It was this development that gives Berwick its architectural character today. A quayside had existed in medieval times but to accommodate new trade, Little Dock was built and the quay extended in 1760.

Another substantial development, which altered the local pattern of street layout, was the establishment of the Berwick Barracks during the second decade of the 18th century. During the second half of the preceding century there had been frequent complaints by the townsfolk about `the billeting of soldiers in private and public houses.' In 1705, the mayor wrote to the town's two Members of Parliament and the governor of the garrison, asking them `to use their influence to have barracks erected here.' Berwick Barracks became the first purpose built barracks in the country. This was the last major and military project undertaken by the Crown in Berwick.

The need to expand an increasing population was met by creating additional housing in the Castle Street area from 1836 and south of the river in Tweedmouth and Spittal, particularly before 1852, when Ordnance Survey plans indicated substantial development in both communities. At Spittal there was an iron foundry in Front Street and at Tweedmouth similar development had taken place at the northern end near Blakewell Street.

Spanning the Tweed, a number of bridges have been built over the centuries linking Berwick with the settlements of Spittal and Tweedmouth. Of these early bridges, four no longer exist and work on the fifth and present Berwick Bridge did not begin until 1611. It went on very slowly and it was not until 1624, that the bridge could be used and it was not completely finished until 1634. Later, two further bridges were added. The Royal Border Bridge was designed by Robert Stephenson in 1846 and it came into use three years later. The most recent bridge was built to relieve the tremendous pressure exerted on the old Berwick Bridge. Known as the Royal Tweed Bridge, it was designed and built by L G Mouchel & Partners between 1925 and 1928. At the time it established two records for the engineers: it was the longest road bridge in Britain (1410 feet) and it embodied easily the biggest reinforced concrete arch, with a span of 361 feet. It also caused a considerable amount of demolition in a large area of Berwick known as Golden Square at the north-west end of Marygate. From the results of a limited excavation at a site in Golden Square, close to the bridgehead, it is possible that some undisturbed occupation levels may lie beneath the road.

It is unlikely that the settlements at Tweedmouth and Spittal could have thrived prior to the 18th century, yet there are some glimmers of life before the Act of Union. The plan form of Spittal in a few places appears to conform to those with medieval origins with a main street and long narrow property strips running of at right angles from it. At the end of these plots, a back lane runs along dividing the plots from the backfields. On this basis alone it is tempting to suggest that the town has medieval origins, or at least has developed from the 16th or 17th centuries. However, the street that conforms to this pattern is Back Street, not the main road, now known as Front Street. The layout of property boundaries on Front Street appears to be more haphazard and could be interpreted differently. The land between Front Street and Back Street incorporating Middle Street has the appearance of a former village green, which has been infilled with later development. This is also a typical medieval form for a village. The area known as Newtown is presumably a later development built to accommodate increasing population numbers at a time of industrial expansion. Only through additional research can we explore the evolution of Spittal and seek to explore where archaeological remains might lie.

However, the name Spittal is often associated with medieval hospitals and we do indeed have some limited information on a hospital here. The leper hospital of St Bartholomew was founded in 1234, but its location is not yet known. It was presumably a healthy distance from the medieval population to prevent the spread of diseases, possibly somewhere near Spittal Hall, with lands extending eastwards along the Tweed Estuary. Further references suggest that a pele tower was built for the protection of the hospital in 1369 and that this tower was still visible in 1612.

The millrace and the railway line formerly located along Front Street in Spittal are associated with the later industrial development of the town, and it is to this period that much of the architecture of Spittal owes its origins. There appears to have been a number of industries. Fishing will have been the mainstay from earliest times, initially to serve a local market, but later to be developed on a commercial scale. By the 18th century, herring fishing was a well established and thriving industry along the whole of the east coast, with catches exported to London and the Continent. A number of the old cottages in Spittal appear to be fisherman's cottages, including a fisherman's shiel on Spittal Point. Also, a collection of Smokehouses on Standstell Road harks back to the 19th century when this form of preservation was popular and the herring industry was still thriving. The fish quay opposite Spittal Hall is marked on 19th century maps, but the industry started to decline in the late 19th century when the port of Leith, near Edinburgh, increased in importance at the expense of Berwick.

Later, coal mining was to leave its mark on the Spittal landscape with 'Old' Berwickhill Colliery to the south-west of the town towards the end of Cow Road on a map of 1828, which also depicts an engine. This exploited the well-known Scremerston coalfield. The Miner's Arms public house on the A1 was presumably built to meet the needs of miners when the colliery was in operation. The exit from an old level from this mine can also be seen on the coast near Hud's Head. It was built to drain the Scremerston Main Seam and later the Cooper Eye Seam. The level is only 18 inches square and is cut through solid rock. Archaeological records on Keys to the Past contain little information on the other industries, but it is clear from old maps and from visiting the town, that many other industries have made Spittal what it is today. The chemical works on Spittal Point appear to be a collection of industrial structures of high archaeological importance, which have the potential to tell us much about the industrial development of the town from the 19th century onwards. These buildings appear to relate to the chemical and manure industries (The North of England Chemical Works, the Rivermouth Chemical Works, Enfield Manure Works, and two other manure works) and appear to have been continuously occupied from at least 1879 onwards, although some of the buildings are of more recent date. On North Greenwich Road a fine house was connected to the early gasworks (The Berwick and Tweedmouth Gas Light Company Ltd) and originates sometime before 1860.

Spittal also has a nonconformist chapel on its main street. The growth on nonconformism was very much linked with the growth of industrialisation. As workers moved into towns for work, they demanded a more egalitarian form of worship than that which was on offer from the Church of England. The chapel in Spittal was built in 1754 as a Presbyterian chapel and rebuilt in 1878 as St Paul's United Reformed Church.

Tweedmouth stands across the River Tweed from Berwick and was used by the English kings as a base to attack Berwick. There are early references to a small castle at Tweedmouth, probably built by an early Bishop of Durham, under whose jurisdiction Tweedmouth lay. The site of this castle is now lost, but may have been located at Knowe Head. Any medieval settlement in Tweedmouth probably lay to the west of St Bartholomew's chapel towards the bridge. St Bartholomew's was built in 1753, but may be on the site of an earlier village chapel known as St Basil's. Tweed Dock was opened in 1876 in order to provide Berwick with a substantial area of deep water for trading ships. Behind this is a disused 18th century brewery and maltings. The majority of historic buildings in Tweedmouth are 18th century in date and, like Berwick, Tweedmouth did not achieve any great prosperity until then. However, there are some earlier examples, such as the 17th century Clifford House on Main Street, now part of the Royal Hotel.

Reference number:N13761

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Please note that this information has been compiled from a number of different sources. Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council can accept no responsibility for any inaccuracy contained therein. If you wish to use/copy any of the images, please ensure that you read the Copyright information provided.