Digging into Northumberland Park's history

A DIG this summer will aim to uncover the secrets of a 900-year-old hospital beneath a popular Victorian park on Tyneside.

Northumberland Park, North Shields which marks its 125th anniversary with a family fun day. Michael Coates is writing a book on the park

A DIG this summer will aim to uncover the secrets of a 900-year-old hospital beneath a popular Victorian park on Tyneside.

When Northumberland Park in North Shields was created in 1885, it is believed that the walls of St Leonard’s Hospital were still standing.

Stone coffins and a 15th century grave slab from the medieval hospital have been on show in the park for many years.

Now a community archaeology project will start with trial trenching in the summer to see what remains of the hospital.

That could lead to a two-year dig as part of restoration plans for the park, given to the town by the Duke of Northumberland.

The hospital is documented in 1293 but is believed to pre-date 1120. It is thought that it was under the supervision of the monks of Tynemouth Priory, and also had links to St Bartholomew’s nunnery in Newcastle.

Tyne Wear county archaeologist Dave Heslop will give a public talk about the history of the hospital on March 17 at 6pm in the Linskill Centre, in Linskill Terrace, North Shields.

People will be able to volunteer for the project in a variety of ways including digging, research, interpretation, recording finds and consolidating of remains.

Michael Coates, chairman of the New Friends of Northumberland Park, said: “For over 50 years I’ve been visiting Northumberland Park and wondering about the significance of the stone coffins and what else might lie beneath the ground. I am delighted to be part of this exciting project to reveal the secrets of St Leonard’s Hospital.”

The archaeological project will feed into restoration plans as part of North Tyneside Council’s application for £2.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enhance the park.

Following the archaeological works, the council will work with volunteers and the Friends on ideas to interpret the history of St Leonard’s for visitors.

The investigation will hope to discover if, as local folklore maintains, St Leonard’s was a leper hospital. Mr Heslop said medieval hospitals helped the poor and the sick, buried the dead and gave hospitality to travellers. He said: “In 1885, a tiled floor was uncovered and reburied so hopefully that is still there. Human remains were also found and have been uncovered during park work over the years.”

These are believed to be from a cemetery attached to the hospital, with the last burial recorded in 1708. But Mr Heslop said there was no intention to uncover burials, and if graves were encountered then digging would stop at that spot.

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