Heritage: Tram trip down Gateshead High Street 100 years ago

A century or so ago, a tram ride along what was said to be the country’s longest High Street would have been an event in itself

A view along Gateshead High Street
A view along Gateshead High Street

A century or so ago, a tram ride along what was said to be the country’s longest High Street would have been an event in itself.

Everything from traders, workshops, and pubs to churches, theatres and early department stores made for a crowded and entertaining bustle.

Now that trip down Gateshead High Street has been re-created, from its junction with Sunderland Road to the terminus near the High Level Bridge.

What could be seen at, and nearby, the tram stops is portrayed through archive pictures from the Gateshead Libraries’ collection in an exhibition at St Mary’s heritage centre overlooking the Tyne.

Gateshead and District Tramways was set up in 1880, relying on steam power before electrification in 1901.

Near the High Street terminus was the Half Moon pharmacy – an important port of call at a time when there was just one doctor for every 2,500 people.

Such pharmacies sold a variety of tonics and cures, although many of the ingredients would be illegal today.

Advertised on the exterior of the Half Moon premises is a beef and malt “wine” for invalids.

Snowball’s store on the High Street had been opened in 1850 by William Snowball, and was enormous by the standards of the day, selling household goods and furnishings.

In 1889 it employed more than 200 people.

Emerson Shepherd started a small shop in 1906 and from that developed a chain of stores opened in Coatsworth Road and Dunston, Felling, Birtley, Ashington and Hebburn.

In 1934 an extension to Shepherds’s town centre store in Gateshead gave it a total floorspace of 100,000 square feet.

The route took in the first theatre in Gateshead. This was the Theatre Royal, converted from a Wesleyan chapel.

It was the scene of a tragedy in 1891 when a false fire alarm during a performance of the pantomime Aladdin led to eight children and a young door keeper being crushed.

Woolworth’s store was built on the site in 1923.

At the Sunderland Road junction, the King’s Theatre opened in 1905, with accommodation for 2,000 people.

It was converted into the Empire cinema in 1915 and became the Essoldo in 1950.

Swinburne Street, off High Street was where the police station was located.

Its cells were described at the time as “lighted and ventilated, the warming can be regulated to any temperature.”

The cells were “cleanly whitewashed and present as comfortable an appearance as is desirable that such places should be.”

The street was also home to the free library, which opened in 1885.

When the post of librarian was advertised, it attracted 138 candidates.

One of the terraces off the High Street was Bolivar Place, built by the Gateshead Friendly Society.

It was named in honour of Simon Bolivar, who fought for South American independence which led to the creation of Bolivia in 1825.

Simon Green, Gateshead central services librarian, says: “We decided to look at eight tram stops and what could be seen from them and within walking distance.

“This was a bustling centre on which people converged.

“It was a hive of activity.”

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