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Researching Newcastle Cathedral’s Ledger Stones

Alice Massey, the Cathedral’s Project Support Officer, writes…

When I first visited Newcastle Cathedral, long before I started to volunteer or work with here, I was really interested by the ledger stones dotted around the floor. The most asked questions, which I myself also had were, are there bodies underneath the stones and who were the people they mentioned?! Of personal interest to me was also to find out did the Johnson stone I saw have anything to do with my in-law Johnson family?

Johnson ledger stone

I joined the Cathedral’s Community History Group in 2018 and can now answer the first question no, the bodies are no longer within the Cathedral and the stones are not even in their original positions.

According to the Cathedral Archaeologist, Dave Heslop, who works with the group, the ledger stones have moved several times. This has been laboriously tracked by him and other cathedral volunteers looking carefully at the current positions and referring to the only map to produce a plan and “Roll of Burial Places” produced by Charles Hutton in 1769.

I have since learnt that most of the 130 ledger stones currently visible on the floor of the church are in the western arm. This was a deliberate decision taken in 1783 to remove floor level burial markers from the eastern arm. It is clear that little care was taken during the process of moving and in many instances the stones were greatly reduced in size to fit new locations, often to distant parts of the building. Sadly, a number have become illegible as a result of people walking over them or the surface of the stones splitting and losing the top layer. As a result, many no longer bear the names of the individuals to be remembered on the monument. This was a key driver to the re-ordering of the floor as with all that wear and tear, many are quite serious trip hazards but also, in their own rights, far too valuable to be left like that.

I set about finding out more about the individuals remembered on the stones and had more time to do this in greater detail during the start of the lock down. At that time I obviously couldn’t visit the library or our local archives so I wasn’t expecting to find out too much as I started to Google the dates on my first research stone for Nicholas Ridley born in 1647, died in 1710. This was under the carpet between the pews, so I had to rely on the information given in an inventory of the stones – but that is a teaser for my next blog when I hope to go into more details on this gentleman and what his life can tell us about the times he lived in!

Not coming from Newcastle originally, nor having studied much local older history, I was pleased to find my Geordie husband’s father‘s old history book on the growth and achievements of Newcastle upon Tyne by one of the old history masters, S Middlebrook  from the Royal Grammar School. This has given me a wealth of background information and opened my eyes to all sorts of history perhaps I should have known more about. In my defence I am a Scot by birth and schooling so have a slightly different perspective on our nation’s history.

Free and searchable online resources

There are a huge number of out-of-copyright books, including many of the 18/19th century histories of Newcastle that have been digitised and made searchable. These are available for free via sites like Google Books or Rather helpfully these platforms offer a keyword search function which is handy if you’re looking for a known name. A guide to some of these would include:

History and Antiquities of the Town of Newcastle upon Tyne, by John Brand (1789)

Volume One is available through Google Books and can be downloaded here. Volume Two is available through Google Books and can be downloaded here.

Shrines, Monuments, and Monumental Inscriptions, formerly in St. Nicholas Church, most of which have been removed by the late alteration in the inside of that edifice. This can be found on page 276 (in the book rather than the download).

A Collection of Armorial Bearings, Inscriptions, etc. in the Church of St. Nicholas, Newcastle on Tyne, by M A Richardson 2 vols. (1820)

Volume Two is available through Google Books and can be downloaded here.

Descriptive and Historical Account of the Town and County of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by Eneas Mackenzie. Originally published by Mackenzie and Dent, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1827)

Available to read online here.

This contains historical and contemporary accounts of the religious, civic, educational and cultural buildings and institutions of the city in the early nineteenth century.  This is a wonderful resource for all sorts of aspects on local history, but it is pages 256- 275 that concentrate on the ‘St Nicholas’ church: Monumental inscriptions’ and particularly the ledger stones.

Local records; or, Historical register of remarkable events, by John Sykes, Local Records Vol. I (1866)

Available to read online here.

The following is a quote from page 331-333: “The following particular account of this dilapidation is from Alderman Hornby’s MS. notes to Brand’s History of Newcastle. In the year 1783, a plan was proposed, which was carried into execution in 1784 and 1785, for removing the place for public service to that part of this church which is east of the cross aisle. The old pews were entirely re moved, and the new ones made uniform, and of oak. The organ was brought to front the east, and the west end of the church was separated by an inclosure, as in cathedral churches. The old stalls which were formerly in the choir, were placed in St Mary’s porch, which was fitted up for daily prayers, and the inclosure of St. George’s porch removed, and a gallery for the grammar school boys, and below it seats for the charity children, were fixed in its room. In doing this, it became necessary to take up all the grave stones in the east part, and a resolution was taken not to permit any burials there in future. Those who had burial places were mostly satisfied with others assigned to them in that part where the old pews were removed from; but by these means, you are informed of the deposit of remains as in that place, which lie in other parts of the church.

It also gives details of many large and of blue marble stones being sold by the churchwardens ‘to a person [Christopher Blackett, Post-master] who was building a house in the New Street [Mosley Street] and who buried them in the foundation’. There are further comments about the fate of other monuments, so it is an intriguing account well worth looking at if you wish to start researching yourself.

Newcastle Society of Antiquaries

A final and also very important source of information that takes a little more searching or knowing what you are looking for is within the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries where I found the content list search but you may find other search areas!

I found some really helpful documents (see below) as well as some weird and wonderful ones, but do go and take a look and see what you can find.

If this has got you interested in knowing more, the Community History Group is still looking for new members so please do get in touch by email.

More suggested reading

Specific ledger stone resources

C C Hodges, ‘Remarks on two medieval grave covers from St Nicholas’s Church, discovered in June 1886’, Archaeologia Aeliana Series 2, (1887), 130-4. Available to download here.

Hunter Blair, C. H. (intro.), Newcastle upon Tyne Records Series vol. IV: Northumbrian Monuments and vol. V: Durham Monuments, E E Dorling, Article published 2019 via Archaeology Data Service, Archaeologia Aeliana, 2, 213-218. Available to download here.

C H Hunter Blair, ‘The Renaissance Heraldry of Northumberland’, Archaeologia Aeliana 4, VIII (1931).  Newcastle upon Tyne, in the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, pp. 81-98. Available to download here.

H L Hicks and C H Hunter Blair, ‘Renaissance monuments in the cathedral church of St Nicholas’, Archaeologia Aeliana 4, XVI (1939), 1-30. Maddison, Hall, Hamilton and Weldon. Available to download here.

Peter Ryder, ‘Medieval Cross Slab Grave Covers in Northumberland, 2: Newcastle and South East Northumberland’, Archaeologia Aeliana 5th Series Vol. XXX (2002), pp. 93-95, 125-127. Available to download here.

Family history resources

The North East Inheritance Database is the portal that gives free access to digitised probate records if you’re going down the family history route or want access to wills, inventories etc.

Specific areas of research for background studies

Richard Welford’s books and articles on Newcastle are not all available but his Men of Mark’ series is a must.

For Newcastle guilds Rebecca King’s PhD ‘Aspects of Sociability in the North East of England’ is great, available via Durham E-Theses.

Ralph Jackson’s diary is a wonderful account on apprenticeships -an important aspect of life in the 16/17 and 18 centuries. It has been transcribed and can be viewed free as pdf files here.

An excellent digital library well worth exploring is the HathiTrust. I found a really useful overall account of apprenticeship from Denman & Dunlop, English Apprenticeship.