Benwell Towers, c.1900
(source: Newcastle City Library)
Readers of a certain age will know
without knowing it, as it were. For between 1989 and 2006 the rambling,
crenellated creation in Benwell Towers Newcastle’s
West End was the ‘youth club’ from the BBC children’s
TV series Byker Grove. As fascinating
as that simple fact may be, the overall history of the mansion (and the site)
is, in fact, far more interesting…
In the long centuries before the
was swallowed up by the sprawl of village of Benwell Newcastle,
the previous incarnations of the grand old building existed as far back as at
least the early thirteenth century. This original erection was a three-storied tower
house belonging to the priors of Tynemouth –
and with it there persists all sorts of rumours of underground catholic escape
tunnels! All goes quiet until the 16th / 17th centuries,
when a manorial wing was added to the tower. Further additions and alterations
followed in the eighteenth century – the work of the building’s long-term
owners, the Shafto family – during which time the great landscape gardener,
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, may have had some input.
In the 1770s the manor house changed ownership and ultimately suffered for it, falling into general decay by the early 1800s. Colliery owner, Thomas Crawhall, took possession at this time and decided on a complete re-build, turning to famous local architect, John Dobson, for inspiration – all of which led to the pleasing asymmetrical hotch-potch of masonry we see today.
In 1882, the site entered another phase of use, being gifted to the religious authorities as the bishop’s residence for the newly-created Diocese of Newcastle. In fitting with its new-found status, a fancy new Perpendicular-style chapel was added.
During WWII, the building was pressed into service as a fire station, and, thereafter, as a training centre for the National Coal Board from 1947 (including the HQ of the mine rescue service). For many years the edifice was known widely as The Mitre public house and restaurant – the writer spending his underage drinking years there in the early 1980s.
Only after its closure as a pub did it achieve national fame via Byker Grove, Ant and Dec et al. After a decade and a half’s use at the hands of the Beeb it once more fell into disuse, its owners finally putting it up for sale a few years ago. It has recently found yet another new owner and seems destined to reopen as an Islamic school and community centre in the near future. All in keeping with its eclectic history, I suppose.