Heritage: Restoration hopes for Tyneside Georgian gem

A new report highlights North Shields architectural showpiece, Northumberland Square, which borders the library

Northumberland Square in North Shields
Northumberland Square in North Shields

Re-creating the world of Jane Austen just over three years ago in the unlikely surrounds of North Shields’ 1970s library was one of the more successful events to be staged at the venue.

Young actor Oliver Ashworth, playing Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, appeared fully clothed in the fashion of the times and enticed a packed female audience by gradually removing each item of dress while its function was explained.

But immediately outside the glass and concrete library is a scene with which Mr Darcy would have been entirely familiar.

For Northumberland Square, which the library borders, is the most complete Georgian square on Tyneside.

Indeed, according to a new report, it is the nearest example Tyneside has to the celebrated Georgian squares of London, Bath, Edinburgh and Dublin.

Work began on Northumberland Square in 1810, just three years before Pride and Prejudice appeared.

It predates Grainger Town in Newcastle and, with Howard Street which forms the main approach to the square, was a flagship development of the “new town” of North Shields.

A 17th Century map shows the town crowded along the riverfront, with the land above devoid of buildings.

But in 1763, building began on land owned by the Reverend Thomas Dockwray, vicar of Stamfordham in Northumberland.

Dockwray Square was the first development of the ‘top town’ and lasted for 150 years before being demolished in 1960.

Howard Street, with its listed buildings by architect John Dobson followed, so called from the family name of the landowner the Earl of Carlisle.

North Shields library viewed from Northumberland Square
North Shields library viewed from Northumberland Square
 

Unlike Dockrway Square, Northumberland Square has survived, although was forced to battle it out with 1960s and 1970s concrete creations around its edges.

A character appraisal of the Northumberland Square conservation area has been carried out by North Tyneside Council and its partner Capita.

Such an exercise is key to any future approach for heritage funding for restoration works in the conservation area.

With development hampered by a railway tunnel running under the southern fringe of the site, the southwest of the square was not complete until the building of the 1970s library.

The appraisal describes the library as “ particularly unfortunate. Its bulk does squat, rather unkindly, in the corner of the square and its materials and design are uncompromising.”

Around the fringes of the square, says the appraisal, “there has been considerable 20th Century development, much of it undistinguished and visually over-dominant.”

An example is nearby Stephenson House. “This intrusive five-storey flat-roofed office block is a typically ill-mannered late 20th Century intrusion which pays little attention to its surroundings.”

From the same time bracket, the adjoining Unicorn House and Northumbria House offices and the “overwhelming” Beacon shopping centre also come in for criticism. “Such buildings do not respect the area of which they are part,” said the appraisal.

Around the square, what had been front gardens for each property have now become blank forecourts.

The green space at the centre of the square was originally gardens which served as a place of ornamental walks for use by residents of the adjoining grand terraces.

Despite losing original features, “the central gardens of the square are a rare tract of large green space in the town centre and should be prized,” the appraisal continues. It goes on: “The grandness and status of the area’s layout and many of its buildings create a prestigious feel to the place, of an urban quarter of considerable status, which has slipped from grand civic to jaded municipal over time.”

However, in 2012, the new Friends of Northumberland Square began improvements by installing an interpretation board on the site.

Graham Sword, council senior manager for planning, building control and public protection, said: “The square is an important example of a Georgian set-piece development which is relatively still intact.”

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