County Durham

Gateshead Parish Church, County Durham

One of the most historic buildings in Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s “sister city” across the south of the river, St Mary’s Church dates to at least 653 AD when it was a monastic centre, sometimes called “Gateshead Monastery”. It seems likely that the building reused some Roman stonework. Little or nothing survives from this early structure, although the stones seem to have been reused once more. The majority of the church today is 12th-13th Century in date. The earliest Norman rector recorded was Robert de Plessis in 1242 implying the church was already up and running by then.

In 1340 the Bishop of Durham gave permission for a sealed cell to be built next to the church to house an “anchoress” – that is a female hermit who would have been a teacher to local children. In this building, known as The Anchorage, Gateshead’s first school was founded – it stayed in operation until 1870 when a purpose built school was constructed nearby.

In the 16th Century St Mary’s Church was the administrative centre for Gateshead and seat of the unusual “four and twenty” – a group of 24 leading citizens who were responsible for local legislation. The four and twenty became so powerful that it took an Order for Cromwell himself to disband them in 1658 when they disagreed with the new Puritan minister of the church, Thomas Weld.

Until 1825 St Mary’s was the only Anglican church in Gateshead – so all births, marriages and deaths had to take place here. This exclusivity really made St Mary’s the heart of the town. Sadly, when other churches were built in Gateshead it spelled the death knell for St Mary’s as a functioning church – it’s small size and awkward elevated position above the Tyne meant it was less attractive than some other churches in the area and it soon became redundant.

In 1979 a fire destroyed much of the building and it lay dormant for many years before renovation finally began. It opened as an auction room and then a few years into the 21st Century became the Gateshead Heritage Centre, a far more appropriate function for this venerable and interesting building.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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