Pilgrim Street picture provides echoes from the days when the street was hive of Victorian activity

The image of the hard life in the area of lower Pilgrim Street was sold last week for £200 by Newcastle auctioneers Anderson & Garland

The 19th Century photograph of Pilgrim Street in Newcastle by local photographer Edward Lyddell Sawyer
The 19th Century photograph of Pilgrim Street in Newcastle by local photographer Edward Lyddell Sawyer

Chartered surveyor John Bynon weighed in with some time detective work when a Victorian photograph was offered for auction.

The picture of a grimy street scene in Newcastle, complete with barefoot children, was taken by North Shields-born Lyddell Sawyer, who ran photographic businesses in the North East in the 19th Century.

The image of the hard life in the area of lower Pilgrim Street was sold last week for £200 by Newcastle auctioneers Anderson & Garland.

John spotted the picture in The Journal and homed in on the steps in the centre of the image.

His own photograph of the spot today, near All Saints Church, shows that while all else in the original picture has vanished, the steps have survived as a forgotten and isolated fragment of Newcastle’s past.

Today's view of the surviving steps from lower Pilgrim Street
Today's view of the surviving steps from lower Pilgrim Street

They are part of the layers which time builds up in the cityscape.

John says: “The steps are the last little bit of lower Pilgrim Street. It was once the main thoroughfare to the Quayside and boasted affluent shops and hotel/inns.

“However following the creation of Dean Street this southern end of Pilgrim street went into decline. The shops closed or became outlets for second hand goods and the upper floors nothing more that slum tenements.

“Try walking up these steps running your hand up the rail. It gives you a ‘neck tingling’ feel for our city’s past. Make sure you avoid the bairns at the top of the stairs!”

Eneas MacKenzie, in his history of Newcastle published in 1827, gives an account of the area: “At the foot or southern extremity of Pilgrim Street, two narrow streets branch off in opposite directions. That on the left hand, which leads down a steep hill, is called the Dog Bank, and seems formerly to have been inhabited by Jewish merchants, as it is named Silver Street in some ancient writings.

“It now consists mostly of shops for the sale of furniture and old clothes.

“The other street communicates with the foot of the Side, and is called the Butcher Bank. It was formerly called All-hallow Bank, and takes its present name from the number of that profession dwelling here, and having their shops and slaughter-houses in it. There has long been a daily market for mutton kept in this place.”

John, who hails from Gosforth in Newcastle, has a keen interest in local history which was sparked as a youngster by his family’s paintings restoration business in the Cloth Market in Newcastle, where John would see works featuring local scenes.

The business was set up by John’s grandfather, H Stanley Bynon, who studied fine art at Armstrong College and served in the First World War in France in the Royal Flying Corps.

John’s father, Denis, who also worked in the business, trained to be a fighter pilot in 1944.

John is currently pushing for a commemorative plaque to one of Tyneside’s well-known 19th Century characters.

Lower Pilgrim Street in Newcastle (left); H Stanley Bynon (right)
Lower Pilgrim Street in Newcastle (left); H Stanley Bynon (right)

Thomas Ferens, who was born in Gateshead, was a familiar figure standing on the Swing Bridge across the Tyne, where he relied on the generosity of passers-by.

He was known as Tommy on the Bridge and featured on postcards of the time. He was born blind and partially paralysed and was orphaned at the age of five.

Unable to work, he stood on the Blue Stone on the Georgian Tyne Bridge, which was demolished in 1866 to make way for the Swing Bridge, designed by Lord Armstrong.

The Blue Stone was placed into the pavement on the old bridge to mark the boundary between Newcastle and Gateshead. It is now on show in the Castle Keep.

Tommy then took up his position on the Swing Bridge when it opened in 1876 where he stood from 11am to 4pm every Monday to Saturday.

John says: “He chose this spot to beg because he was under the impression that if he stood on the exact boundary of the two towns he could not be arrested for begging by either the Gateshead or Newcastle Constabulary.

“No visitor left the area without having seen Tommy on the Bridge as the Swing Bridge was the main thoroughfare before the new Tyne bridge was completed.

“Unfortunately, Thomas collapsed, aged 66, at the Gateshead side of the Swing Bridge on New Year’s Day 1907 in the snow.

“He passed away shortly after in the workhouse hospital.

“Mr Ferens may not have contributed to the development of hydraulics or engineering as did Sir W G Armstrong but he was certainly a man who survived against all the odds by being resourceful, clever and without doubt an unfortunate reminder of what the lower classes had to endure in those difficult times.

“I would hope that I speak on behalf of the majority of the citizens of Newcastle and Gateshead who knew of Tommy on the Bridge and would hope that this man can be commemorated with a plaque. I am sure Sir W G Armstrong would not object.”

Tommy Ferens who lived in poverty and used to stand halfway on the Swing Bridge over the Tyne to avoid being arrested
Tommy Ferens who lived in poverty and used to stand halfway on the Swing Bridge over the Tyne to avoid being arrested

At the inquest on Tommy, the coroner said: “For about 40 years, Ferens stood on the bridge and there was no other man of his class so well-known to the public.”

The Swing Bridge is Grade I listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The Port of Tyne has the responsibility for the bridge structure while the land immediately adjacent to the bridge on the Newcastle and Gateshead quaysides is the responsibility of each local authority.

Anneliese Hutchinson, Gateshead Council service director, development and public protection, said: “Unfortunately due to reductions in Government funding we no longer have an allocated budget to install blue plaques, so are unable to react to every request we receive.

“However, if there is sufficient interest from the public to install a plaque for Tommy Ferens, this is something we would certainly consider.”

A Newcastle City Council spokesman said: “ We would be happy to look at the prospect of some sort of interpretation panel on the history of the Swing Bridge, which could include Thomas Ferens.”

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