Under the letterhead of the City Road Preserving Works, Colonel J.D. Mitchell wrote to Councillor D. Adams on the 20th March 1924 inviting him to luncheon at the Newcastle Rotary Club ‘to discuss my proposals for the formation of a ‘Newcastle Society’ which would have for its objects the artistic and practical development of the City…by the united efforts of its citizens’.
The aim of this new civic society was ‘to promote a wider concern for the beauty, historical interest, amenity, healthfulness and development of the city’ with the motto ‘Pulchra Petendo Consequemer’ or, loosely speaking, ‘Beauty only comes with effort’ – a wise warning to enthusiasts.
How often must the seed of such an enterprise have been sown at a good luncheon? What a fair wind did the Rotary Club and then later the Chamber of commerce blow into the sails of the small group of well-connected enthusiasts who formed the Society so long ago. For the Society seems instantly to have sprung up with leading citizens at its helm; Sir Theodore Morrison as its first Chairman, Colonel Mitchell its first Secretary and, after its inaugural meeting, joined by Sir Joseph Reed, Sir Charles Parson, Sir William Nobel and the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Councillor, later Sir Stephen Easton.
Early meetings in 1924 were much pre-occupied with constitutional matters, the membership and structure of committees, the means of securing new members and whether to set up a junior membership, but the agenda of issues to be tackled becomes quickly urgent as the various committees considered the protection of historic monuments, the control of advertising and litter, the abatement of smoke pollution, how to manage the motor car and where to site the new Town Hall.
It is clear that the Society’s style of operation was never one of polarised single-issue politics, or angry protest, but always one of the rational debates with those who had the power or influence to get things done. Indeed, at a meeting of the Council of the society in December 1924, The Lord Mayor taking the Chair, declared, apparently without irony that ‘the Society was not out to dictate but to co-operate with the Corporation’. No wonder, since most of the early active members were established figures lending their weight to ‘improving the facilities for trade and industry’, as well as decently trying to ensure an improvement in health through smoke abatement, and the visual appearance of the City through control of advertising and the planting of trees.
There was a leavening of professional people, lawyers, architects, antiquarians of some distinction.
The Town Planning Sub-Committee was chaired by R Burns Dick, a Newcastle Architect with wide experience of Civic Design in the North East who early in 1925 was appointed, at the instigation of the Society, as Architectural Consultant to the City over the approaches to the new Tyne Bridge.
The Historic Monuments Sub Committee was chaired by Dr C H Hunter-Blair a noted local antiquary whose active span continued into the 1960’s.
Dr Dunn who was involved in a national campaign for improvement in smokeless fuels and low temperature carbonising was chairman of the Smoke Abatement Sub Committee.
There was an underlying professionalism in the Society’s work effectively promoted by many active and influential members of the industrial and cultural community: it was both what you know and who you know in the effective harness.
Some little vignettes emerge from the archives of the Society’s early public activities and events:
A presentation by R Burns Dick of the Corporation proposals (his own perhaps) for a new road parallel with Pilgrim Street but to the East, to relieve traffic generated by the Tyne Bridge. This anticipates John Dobson Street by 50 years, threatens the demolition of Royal Arcade but still wins the endorsement of the Society at the end of the evening.
155 people attend a guided walk of the City Walls conducted by Dr Hunter-Blair to promote the Society’s campaign for the proper disengagement of the main structure from the accretion of subsequent structure and debris.
A lecture delivered after the AGM of May 1925 by Miss Rosaline Masson of the much older Cockburn Society of Edinburgh on ‘Civic Societies and their sphere of influence’ followed in the autumn by a public lecture on ‘The Responsibility of Citizens’ by Professor AJ Fergusson.
As the City Council was unwilling to prosecute illegal advertisers under the Regulation of Advertisements Bye-Laws, the Newcastle Society conducted firm and persuasive discussions with specific companies; Raleigh Bicycles and Bryant and May matches agreed to remove advertisements from the Keep, and the Station portico, festooned with electric advertisements was cleaned up. An interview with Mr T Bartlett, Billposter, seems however to have been fact-finding rather than coercive.
All these records are not only recorded in the First Minute Book of the Society but are well covered in the newspaper articles throughout the early years. There were more newspapers at the time, seven regularly carried reports about the Society’s activities and events and appeared well disposed towards the work being done.
In a wireless broadcast in 1926 entitled ‘Canny Newcassel’, the chairman emphasised that,
‘The spirit in which the Society has been conceived and in which it endeavours to work is not one of fussy or aggressive interference, or of anxiety to propound or urge extreme or fantastic schemes; but is one of moderation and helpfulness’.
It was not long before the Newcastle Society turned its mind to the County of Northumberland, its natural hinterland. It seems that the proposed overhead distribution of electricity in Rothbury may have sparked off the decision to form a County Section. The North Mail in an article on the 18th of April 1928 asks ‘Is Rothbury within the Sphere of influence of the Society’s operation? the question arises in connection with the proposal to erect electricity poles in the attractive Northumbrian resort. Can the Newcastle Society protest and has it a locus-standi?’
The Society decided that it should be represented at the Commission of Enquiry and took an active part in pressing for the cables to be laid underground. Clearly however the question “whether the Society’s constitution allowed intervention in matters so distant from Newcastle” had disturbed the confidence of its Council because during the summer of 1928 letters were sent out to 200 “selected persons likely to be interested in supporting a County Section over the signature of the Duke of Northumberland as Patron and Col. Sir Francis Blake who was to the first Chairman of the County Section.
A well-advertised lecture in January 1929 by Professor Patrick Abercrombie on “The Preservation of Rural England” was used as the occasion to announce the launch of the County Committee and a fortnight later the Duke of Northumberland took the chair for a great gathering of those who had responded to the letter. The list of those who attended is a roll call of County landowners stirred to preserve the beauty of the land they cherished and or which they had significant stewardship.
It should be noted that even here before the resolution to form the County Section was put to the vote the question was asked whether the new Committee should become a branch of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. It has taken 65 years to decide the question then put by Lady Trevelyan. In fact, affiliated status was agreed with CPRE in May 1929: we were never to become a County Branch.
Although the initial records of the County Section refer mainly to advertisements, the siting of petrol stations, and repeatedly, to the problem of litter, bigger issues were very soon on their agenda.
By 1929 the society had become ‘The Northumberland and Newcastle Society’ to take account of increasing development of the county.
The threat of quarrying for Whinstone on the Roman Wall sill came to a head in 1930 and was closely linked to a demand for an accelerated road building programme. The distinguished architect and antiquary Mr Honeyman reported to the Society that the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act and the Rural Amenities Act were quite inadequate to prevent the proposed quarrying destroying the Wall itself (Walltown and Cawfields Quarries are stark reminders of the damage done) Pressure grew for new legislation culminating in the 1936 Roman Wall and Vallum Preservation Act. CPRE and the Standing Committee on the National Parks soon joined forces with the Northumberland & Newcastle Society on this issue.
The recognition of the Roman Wall as “an area suitable for a National Park” came from Carr Bosanquet, first of three generations of Society members in 1930, picking up the Government’s interest in National Parks, at that time being examined by the Addison Committee (1929-31). It was Bosanquet who encouraged Professor G M Trevelyan to buy Housesteads Farm in 1930 and to give it to the National Trust, thus securing this most popular stretch of the Wall for the continuing public enjoyment and initiating the acquisition by the Trust of several farms along the Wall corridor. Trevelyan was in any case Chairman of the National Trust’s Estates Committee but here his heart was deeply engaged in protecting a threatened landscape and historic monument of national importance.
Since its formation, the Society has engaged in many campaigns but ‘moderation and helpfulness’ have, indeed, become our watchwords so that, at times, we may even appear to do good by stealth. Regrettable, however, a civic society like ours is still needed.
Today, there is probably no other amenity group in Britain which can claim to concern itself with both an historic regional industrial capital, like Newcastle, and a huge county, of unsurpassed beauty, which stretches from the Tyne as far as the Tweed.