The Hospital at the West Gate

Medieval Foundation

The Hospital of St.Mary the Virgin was in existence in the old town of Newcastle in the years 1183-4. So much is confirmed by an ancient ‘Charter of Hugh Puiset, Bishop of Durham to the brethren of the Hospital of Newcastle, confirming to them all land, tenures and alms which were reasonably granted to them or which they might with the help of God in future acquire.’ (c.1183-4)1 This Charter can be found in the Tyne and Wear Archives on permanent loan 1 from the Trustees of the Hospital. We do not know the exact date of the foundation, but it is believed that about 1155, one Aselack de Killinghow built a Hospital,’in his own grounds, in the West Gate, within the old town of Newcastle’.

The word ‘Hospital’ is used in its ancient meaning, that of a charitable institution, giving refuge, hospitality, maintenance and education to the needy, aged or infirm or young people. The original site was near where the Stephenson Monument now stands, towards the foot of Westgate Road.

Newcastle was then only a small town, but various other benefactors gave lands and properties in and around the town, by way of endowment to the Hospital and it seems that even in these early days, prominent members of the community were concerned for the welfare of the elderly and the poor. From the beginning the residents of the Almshouse seem to have been known as the Brethren and remained so until recently, when Trustees decided that ‘Resident’ was more appropriate.

During the reign of Edward I [1272-1307], we are told that a Town Wall was built as a defence against the marauding Scots, cutting through the courtyard of the Hospital in the West Gate and dividing its buildings, leaving some of them outside. A petition was made to the King, by the Master and Brethren in 1290, and a formal royal consent was given to allow a small postern gate to be made at the West Spittal Tower ‘for the convenience of the community and the Brethren’.

Royal recognition and Council patronage

In Letters Patent of 1368, King Edward III confirmed the holding of lands by the Master and Brethren of the Hospital2. From the record books of the Town Council it is clear that in the 14th century, the Council were the patrons of the Hospital and that there was a very close and real connection between the Council and the Hospital, which was to become important during the Reformation when, unlike many religious houses, it was not sequestrated, doubtless because of that Council patronage. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the Hospital is said to have had a Master and Chaplain and to have had ‘six poor Beadsmen in the Almshouse and to have lodged all poor and wayfaring people, being destitute of lodgings’.

The Hospital, the Crown, the Council and the (Royal Grammar) School

We have an extensive paraphrase of Letters Patent given under the Great Seal of England on 27 May 1612, whereby King James I, ‘after reciting or taking notice that there had long existed in the Town of Newcastle, in a street called West Gate, a hospital called the Hospital of St. Mary the Virgin’, laid down various regulations for the better governance of the Hospital. These Letters Patent state, not only that the Mayor and Burgesses of Newcastle should be the ‘Undoubted Patrons’ of the Hospital, but that they should have, from time to time, the presentation and institution of the Master and, further that some parts of the endowments should be used for the purpose of education.

Hence it was in the time of King James I, that the connection with the School, later to become the Royal Grammar School, first appears. This school had been housed initially in a building in the Cathedral Churchyard and is thought to have been founded at the expense of Thomas Horsley, Mayor of the town on five occasions between 1514 and 1533, In 1607 the Mayor and Council moved the School to the Hospital in the West Gate, so beginning a lengthy association. The Chapel of the Hospital was used for the schoolhouse and the dormitories and other buildings previously used by the Brethren, were used to house the Master and staff. The Brethren were left to occupy an almshouse adjoining the school gateway, probably an ancient almonry of the Hospital, but were later moved to a house in Pudding Chare, nearby.

About this time also, from records which still exist, we know that the Chapel of the Hospital was also used as the Election House in which the annual election of the Mayor took place, for which purpose the School was closed for the day. To this day, the custom is maintained when the Lord
Mayor after election visits the Royal Grammar School and asks the Headmaster to grant the students a day’s holiday.

The Master of the Hospital was often also the Headmaster of the School. Frances Gray held both offices from 1629 to 1642. The most famous holder of the two posts was undoubtedly the Reverend Hugh Moises, who became Headmaster of the School in 1749 and Master of the Hospital in 1779 and remained so until his death in 1787. There are many illustrious names in the School rolls about this time: Cuthbert Collingwood, later to be Admiral Lord Collingwood was there, and also John Scott, later Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor of England.

Records are somewhat scanty between the time of the Letters Patent of King James I, and 1864, but there are original Leases in existence in the Archives3 of the Spittal House 3 School and Election House, from the Master and Brethren of the Hospital to the Mayor and Burgesses of the Town. These appear regularly every few years. There is a reference in an Act of the time of King George III, dated 1786, to power being given to the Mayor and Burgesses to acquire lands from the Master and Brethren for road widening and town improvements.

The move to Rye Hill

From the nineteenth century onwards there is more accurate and comprehensive documentation. The year 1834 saw sanction being given for the sale of land from the Master and Brethren to the newly formed Newcastle and Carlisle Railway Company for the construction of what was later to become the Central Railway Station.

The year 1846 however saw the first of many private Acts of Parliament regulating the affairs of the Hospital, dividing the income between the Almshouses and the Grammar School, providing for the transfer of the Hospital and the School to a new site to be bought out of accumulated surplus income, and providing also for the building of a new Church.

A site between Rye Hill on the east and Maple Terrace on the west was bought and the School built fronting to Maple Terrace and the Almshouses fronting to Rye Hill, both opening in 1858. At the same time the church seating 500 people was built adjoining the Almshouses and consecrated in 1859 as the Church of St.Mary the Virgin. The Master of the Hospital was the Vicar and certain pews were allocated to the Brethren.

Changes in Governance

The first Commissioners [Trustees] were appointed following The St.Mary’s Hospital Act of 1888. These Trustees were responsible for the management of the Hospital properties and investments and for the division of net income between the Church, the School and the Almshouses. For the first time there was a small educational endowment for girls. The same Trustees were also charged with the managing and running of the Almshouses.

Under this Act the Trustees were: the Bishop of Newcastle, six persons nominated by the Council of the City, one by the Education Authority and there were to be three co-optative Trustees, elected by the nominative Trustees. The Act also made provision for the appointment of Governors of the
School and made some slight alterations in the division of income. A further Act of 1927 made amendments to the division of income and empowered the Charity Commissioners for England and Wales to make amending schemes as might be necessary, from time to time.

So far the story has followed the history of the Hospital, under the patronage of the Town Council and later the City Council, governed by a Master of Arts and usually a Clerk in Holy Orders. The Brethren were appointed by the Council. They were to be ‘poor and indigent men, single or unmarried, of advanced age over the age of 50 years’: at no time was there any sectarian restriction. The Brethren did not need to be members of any particular religious persuasion.

The School and the Hospital

The School meanwhile, from the time of its foundation, had likewise been closely associated with the Town and City Council and only a few years later, with the Hospital. The purpose of this history is not to give the history of the School, which is found in other books, but it suffices to say that, what had first been known as the Free Grammar School established in a building in St.Nicholas Cathedral Churchyard, had continued and had become in 1600 a Royal Foundation, under a Charter of Queen Elizabeth I, about the time of its removal to the Hospital buildings in the West Gate. Again, on the removal to Rye Hill and Maple Terrace the Almshouses were back to back with the School and the Church of St. Mary the Virgin overlooked them both.

Separation of Hospital and School and the closure of the Church

During the ninety years following the 1888 Act the Minutes of the Meetings of the Trustees give a complete story. For the first time there are complete and accurate records. Here in the Minute Books is the ‘memory’ of the Hospital. The Brethren, of an average then of more than 70 years, continued to live and die in the Rye Hill Almshouses, tended by a series of dedicated Matrons. The Royal Grammar School continued to grow in numbers and stature and in 1906 was moved to new and larger premises in Jesmond. The Rye Hill area declined and population movements were such that the Church was no longer fully used. The Benefice was united with that of St.Matthews, and St.Mary’s Church was closed [1961]. The City Council acquired the School buildings and later the Church, which was demolished and the present College of Arts and Technology, which now surrounds the Rye Hill Almshouses on three sides, was built. The City Council thought that they would probably need to buy the Rye Hill Almshouses to complete the new College and the Trustees of the Hospital were offered a site at Benwell so that the Almshouses could be moved. The Trustees bought the Benwell site in 1969 but financial consideration prevented the Council from buying the Rye Hill Almshouses.

Lands belonging to the hospital at Fenham were sold for a building estate and the proceeds of the sale invested as part of the new permanent endowment. New Leases of the investment properties were arranged from time to time thus helping to maintain the income and to try to keep pace with inflation. The Douglas Block, between Grainger Street, Westgate Road and Neville Street, part of which formed the site of the original almshouses, was demolished and rebuilt. One of the early stone gate posts of the Hospital is retained to the north eastern corner of the new building. Meanwhile the advent of modern central government policy in welfare and in housing, particularly for the old and needy, had made it desirable for registration of the almshouse part of the Hospital as a Housing Association, and this was done, enabling the Trustees to apply for and obtain grants and loans for modernisation and improvement of the Rye Hill Almshouses and the building of additional almshouses on the Benwell site.

The Rye Hill Almshouses, or Homes as they are now called, were modernised with the aid of a Housing Corporation Grant and loan in 1979-80 and now each flat has a living room, separate bathroom and kitchen and gas central heating.

Thomas Horsley House

Between 1970 and 1979 the Trustees sought ways and means of fully developing the Benwell site. Various schemes were produced by the architects, Mauchlen, Weightman and Elphick, but because the Hospital objects were and still are restricted to the provision of homes for single economically or socially needy men over the age of 50, it was felt that an additional forty almshouses would be adequate. However, the building of this number would not use the Benwell site to the full and so ultimately an approach was made to Anchor Housing Association who agreed to combine with the Hospital in a composite sheltered housing development on the site, designed by the Hospital architects and so that, outwardly the site would present the appearance of one development.

Work started in 1980 and was completed in 1982. The City Council approved and welcomed this combination of a City medieval charity with a modern 20th century housing association.

The Hospital block of forty flats, Warden’s house and Common Room is to be known as ‘Thomas Horsley House’, the Trustees having decided that this name would preserve the memory and link with the founder of the Royal Grammar School who had been five times Mayor in the 16th century and would certainly have been elected to his position as chief citizen in the Chapel of the hospital, and have been closely associated with the Hospital during his many years in office. Records of his time are few and often confusing. We cannot be sure that he was instrumental in preserving the Hospital from the clutches of King Henry VIII. As Mayor during many of those difficult years he must have played a vital part.

The Hospital in the 1980s

This story would not be complete without mention being made of a radical change in the constitution of the Hospital which was considered during the 1970s and came into fore in 1979, as a result of the Local Government Act of 1972, which provided that all Local Acts of Parliament should lapse at the end of 1979, unless specifically kept in force by Parliament.

Now, as the various Acts affecting the Hospital passed in the 19th and 20th centuries had all been Local Acts, and also there had been numerous schemes made by the Charity Commissioners under the powers given to them in the 1888 Act, it was apparent that the Charity Commissioners would need to make a new Scheme for the administration of the Hospital.

The 1972 Act gave an opportunity for the Charity Commissioners, at the request of the Trustees, the Governors of the Royal Grammar School and the City Council, to make the New Scheme which came into force on 2 April 1979 and now governs the affairs of the Hospital4.

That old Hospital Charity was divided into two new Charities. The almshouse section became ‘The Hospital of St.Mary the Virgin (Rye Hill and Benwell)’ which will now be referred to as the ‘Almshouse Charity’. The income producing investments and properties of the old Charity were placed in the hands of a new charity known as ‘St.Mary the Virgin Estate Management Charity’, now referred to as the ‘Estate Management Charity’.

Formerly, the Royal Grammar School had had no official representation on the body of Trustees managing the old Charity, although the School was entitled to a major proportion of the net income. In practice, one of the Governors of the School had often been appointed as one of the co-optative Trustees, but this was not a strict requirement of the old Acts. By the division of the old Charity into two new Charities this anomaly has been overcome. The new position is as follows:

The Estate Management Charity

This is administered by a body of seven Trustees: one appointed by the Bishop of Newcastle upon Tyne, two appointed by the Almshouse Trustees, two appointed by the Governors of the Royal Grammar School and two co-optative Trustees, appointed by the nominative Trustees.

They are responsible for the management of the income producing lands and investments of the old Charity, or the permanent endowment, as it is called. After defraying the expenses of management and insurance, the Trustees pay out of the net income: a religious endowment towards the stipend of the vicar of St.Matthew and St.Mary, Newcastle upon Tyne, a small endowment to the Governors of the Royal Grammar School, to be applied by them in advancing the full time further education of male or female pupils under the age of 25, and thereafter the residue of the net annual income is paid as to 53% to the Governors of the Royal Grammar School and 47% to the Almshouses Trustees.

The investment properties of the Estate Management Charity consist of Baron House in Neville Street and property in Northumberland Street, Newcastle; Coney Street, York and Units on the Belmont Industrial Estate, Durham. There are also a number of investments in securities standing in the name of the Official Custodian for Charities on behalf of the Trustees.

The Almshouse Charity

The Rye Hill Homes and the new Thomas Horsley House at Benwell are managed by the Almshouse Trustees who are a body of ten. One of the Trustees is appointed by the Bishop of Newcastle upon Tyne and following amendments to the Scheme, two are appointed by the City Council and the remaining seven are co-optative Trustees appointed by the nominative Trustees. These Trustees have charge also of some investments, in the name of the Official Custodian for Charities, which represent accumulated surplus income of the Almshouse Charity.

That the two Charities continue to promote the objects and intentions of the original founders is surely a tribute to all those who have been and are now responsible for the conduct of the affairs of the Hospital over some 800 years.

John Gofton 1982

  1. Hospital of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ref.CH.BM, Tyne & Wear Museums, Archives, Blandford House, Blandford Square, NE1 4JA
  2. In those days the Statute of Mortmain prohibited the holding of land by a charity without royal licence.
  3. locus cit.
  4. There have been subsequent modifications to the 1979 Scheme in 2000 and 2006.