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Durham University

Cities in History: Archives and Traces, 1100 –1700

Newcastle vs John Overing (1672)

The National Archives E 134/24Chas2/Trin5 & E 134/24Chas2/Mich35 &

The Mayor and burgesses of Newcastle here challenge the legal right of the residents of North Shields (specifically John Overing) to keep a ‘common’ brewing house, i.e. to brew beer for public sale. North and South Shields were either side of the River Tyne, near its mouth, and harboured most of the ships involved in the coal trade, which could make it no further up the silted river. There were strong commercial stakes in the business of brewing - tens of thousands of ships needed supplying annually - but it was also a matter of principle for Newcastle that its liberties were confirmed. This dispute is another with a long history. A number of fourteenth-century disputes between Newcastle and the bishopric of Durham centred on their competing control of trade on the south banks of the river, and these continued to simmer. In the late 1640s and 1650s, disruption to the coal trade and the replacement of Newcastle town government following the siege of 1644 sparked a renewed challenge to the town’s liberties, which gained its voice in North Shields baker Ralph Gardiner’s polemical England’s Grievance Discover’d (1655).

This particular case turns on the memories of Newcastle and North Shields residents about the enforcement of the town’s liberties over the Tyne. Witnesses called on behalf of Newcastle remember that the port of Newcastle extends from ‘a place called Hedwin-streames westward upp the sayd River at a place called Sparrhawke Eastward upon or near the Barr upon the Sea being Fowerteene Miles in length’ - in modern terms, from a shallow section of water near Wylam right out to a bar of sand outside the river’s mouth. Most witnesses are retired Newcastle ‘keelman’ (boatmen who moved coal for a living) who were also ‘present at the renewing of the markes and boundes of the extent of the priviledges of the said Mayor and Burgesses’, a water-borne beating of the bounds. Eighty-six year-old William Wright claimed that ‘about Fifty yeares agoe [i.e. in the 1620s] he was an Assistant in laying the bounder stone at Hedwin Streames which then had the armes of the Towne of Newcastle ingraven thereupon’ (see the picture of the surviving eighteenth-century stone with the town’s arms).

The keelmen also confirm that Newcastle brewers enforced their monopoly on Tyneside beer: one adds that he once tried to bring some illegally imported beer back into town on his boats, but the brewers confiscated it and ‘disposed thereof by drinking of it, and giving of such beere and Ale to strangers passing to and from the New Key’. Overing and the North Shields brewers countered (through the witness Anne Cliffe in particular) that North Shields was a town distinct from Newcastle, and that ‘the severall trades of Shipp Carpenter, Anchorsmith Butcher Cooper & Baker have beene constantly & yet are used & exercised in the towne of Northsheeles ... publiquely & peaceably without Interruption or Restraint’ from Newcastle.