Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Benwell Towers (NZ211645)

Benwell Towers, c.1900 
(source: Newcastle City Library)

Readers of a certain age will know Benwell Towers without knowing it, as it were. For between 1989 and 2006 the rambling, crenellated creation in 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 village of Benwell was swallowed up by the sprawl of 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.


  1. There is definitely a huge tunnel inside Benwell Towers. Seen it and been in it. I went to the no longer there Pendower school that looked over the Mitre as it was then and as a whole class project we done some study of the place and our teacher managed to arrange a tour for the class. We already had knowledge of the tunnel and most of us had took torches but unfortunately a few feet into the tunnel was boarded up and the manager told us that further down the tunnel was boarded up also and that's as far as he would venture. Thats as close as we got but it definitely exists. We were led to believe it probably went down to the banks of the river tyne originally..... ???

    1. Thanks for that, Anonymous. Yes, I've heard persistent rumours about tunnels going here, there and everywhere around this place - including an escape route down to the Tyne, and some wide enough to take a horse and carriage! A dowser acquaintance has told me that he has traced many of these, too. Would love to hear of any more such tunnel tales...

    2. While at Rutherford School in the late 60's, three of us were allowed to have a look down this tunnel, as part of a project. The Mines Rescue Service owned the site....the tunnel could be filled with smoke, and then the 'rescuers' in full breathing apparatus had to move loose masonry from a to b as a training exercise.

    3. Well, I've not heard that story before. How interesting! Thanks Anonymous.

  2. My Dad Fred Taylor was assistant Station Officer at Benwell The tunnel was at one time used as a practice gallery so the Rescue men could replicate situations. My dad had attended lots of pit disasters including Easington and Wheetslade. He ended up as Superintendent Mines Rescue at Winscales in Cumbria,