Sarah's Saltwell Secret!

Sarah's Saltwell Secret!

Property Sarah Mains 21st September 2017

At the turn of the 19th century, Gateshead, with the exception of a couple of industrial hubs at Sherriff Hill and the quayside, was mostly made up of substantial agricultural estates. 

The largest of these was Saltwell Estate which consisted of around 500 acres of land between Team Valley, Bensham and Low Fell.  In 1805 this estate was broken up into a number of smaller areas including Saltwell Cottage. 
Newcastle born William Wailes who was one of the19th century’s leading stained glass designers bought this area of land in 1850.  He lived in South Dene Towers before it was demolished which was on the site now occupied by Gateshead Crematorium.  

By 1856 Saltwell Cottage had become the Saltwellside estate and Wailes commissioned the design of a grand Victorian mansion for his family to live in.  He employed builder George Brown and this was probably his biggest project.  He began work on the mansion in 1859 and continued until 1871 when Saltwell Towers was finally complete. 

Saltwell Towers (listed grade II) was a large mansion of striking design with red brickwork and Gothic turrets, but its dramatic exterior masked what was essentially a flawed building.  It was built without foundations, with only basic sanitation and a variety of miss matched roofing levels and guttering.

While Brown was building Saltwell Towers, Gateshead was expanding and industrialising.   As a result, the air pollution, poor social conditions and general shortage of clean drinking water in the town led to concern about public health and gave rise to calls for the creation of a public park.

William Wailes’s dream didn’t last long and he sold Saltwellside Park and Towers for £35,000 to the Gateshead Corporation in November 1875 when he ran into financial difficulties.

In 1876 garden designer Edward Kemp was invited to submit designs to the Corporation for the existing gardens and an area of open fields to the north. Kemp's plans were implemented over a period of years by borough surveyor James Bowyer at a cost of around £11,000.

In the Spring of 1876 there was a buzz in the year as the Park was prepared for its grand opening.  The hedges enclosing the four fields were rooted out and the whole area was ploughed by a steam plough.  The town Surveyor ordered one dozen metal plates marked "please keep off the grass"; and police supervision of the Park was arranged. The formal opening was planned for Whit Monday, but it never actually went ahead.  Nonetheless, the public were allowed to use the park by the end of 1876 and it became the People’s Park. 

In its early years, Saltwell Park showed signs of being transformed into a zoo. In June 1877 the park was home to swans, peacocks, peahens, pheasants, bantam cocks, bantam hens and ducks.

In 1880 the Chief Constable of Gateshead, John Elliott paid for the construction of an aviary, supplied birds, and in the same year he built a monkey house and provided monkeys. These, however, were not a success and in October 1880 the male monkeys were ordered to be removed ’forthwith’.

Around this time, Lord Ravensworth also presented two deer to the Park and it may have been one of these which involved the Corporation in litigation and expenses of £650 when a visitor to the Park in 1889 was attacked by a stag.

Wailes carried on as a private tenant in the Towers at a cost of £140 per year until his death in 1881.  While Wailes was prepared to put up with the building problems, others were not, and there were continuing complaints about the sanitation, heating and the inconvenient size of the larger rooms. 

The first tenant after Wailes was Hugh Clayton Armstrong, a Newcastle timber merchant who surrendered his tenancy when his original five year lease was up. At this time, Joseph Ainsley Davidson Shipley, a Newcastle based solicitor, approached the Council with a view to leasing the Towers. 
Shipley lived in the mansion until his death in 1909 and the following year, the Towers was leased to John Henry Rowell, a local brewer, for five years for an annual rent of £120 and the Council agreed to have electricity installed  at a cost of £445. 

After Rowell died in August 1913, his widow kept the tenancy on until 1915 after which the house was used temporarily as a billet for soldiers and then, between 1916 and 1920, it was used as an army hospital attached to the nearby Whinney House Hospital.

There was only to be one further documented tenant and this was Harold Svendsen, a garage owner who moved into the house in 1920, again on a five year tenancy, but within two years had left, unable to pay the rent. 

Around this time, Sarah’s Great Grandma went to live in the Towers to work as a nanny to care for the two sets of twins who lived there.  She had been known to say it was a wonderful place to live and it was a very happy time in her life.  

Sarah’s Great Grandma met her husband to be John Roberts while she was working  there.  John ran a business with his sister supplying agricultural feed.   John was described as having perfect manners, very articulate and quite well to do.  Even his own family nicknamed him Lord John. 

John’s sister lived in Balmoral Terrace which was her week day town house and she spent the weekends with her younger brother who lived at the building which is now the Shepherd and Shepherdess at Beamish. 

John married Sarah’s Great Grandma at Lamesley church and they moved to John Street and raised their own family there.  There are memories that there was a family rift on John’s side as it was seen that he had “married out”, meaning he had married out of his class, but this didn’t stop him marrying the love of his life.

It is believed that they called their children Brenda and Pat after the children she looked after at Saltwell Towers. Sarah’s Great Grandma worked all the hours she could and Brenda, her first born became fretful, so much so, the doctor took her away and gradually weaned her back to the family once she was settled.

As business became more prosperous John tried allsorts to get Sarah’s Great Grandma to move to a new house but she liked the community she lived in and her neighbourhood and wanted to stay where she was. 

Just a life was treating them well, John died suddenly at the age of 42 from a heart defect.  Unbeknown to them, Brenda, their first born had the same defect and she tragically died at the tender age of 16.  Sarah’s Mam was born the same year and was named Brenda after her.

Attempts to lease Saltwell Towers following Mr Svfendsen’s departure were unsuccessful and the house remained unoccupied for over ten years.  Eventually, and after some debate, it was decided to turn the house into a museum.   

On 8 July 1933, Saltwell Towers opened up as the Gateshead Municipal Museum and it was re-named several times to Gateshead local and Industrial Museum, Saltwell Towers Museum and Saltwell Park Museum. 

Saltwell Towers had dry rot and a serious damp problem that was first identified in 1932. It never really got fixed and was only superficially resolved for the opening a year later.
The condition of building gradually declined and gradually the rooms that held the exhibits were systematically closed, due to a fear that the ceilings would collapse.  

In February 1969 the Saltwell Park Museum’s closure happened quickly and very suddenly and the collection that remained in the closed building could not be moved to safer storage for another five years in 1974 when Tyne and Wear Museums was set up.

In 1999 the Towers was refurbished as part of a £9.6 million restoration project, funded collaboratively by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Gateshead Council and re-opened in 2005 as a café and visitor centre which plays host to around two million visitors each year. 


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