A Brief History
St. Mary's Church, a familiar landmark, standing high above the Tyne, has witnessed many changes during its 900 year history. One of Gateshead's last remaining links to its medieval past, until 1825 it was the only Anglican church in Gateshead and was therefore considered as the "mother church" of Gateshead. It was also the only place in Gateshead where you could get married!
Although we have no evidence telling us when the church was first built there are some clues that suggest this is a building whose history stretches back many centuries. For example, a local historian, John Hodgson, who was once a curate at St Mary's, has speculated that as some of the oldest stones in the church are shaped or hewed after the Roman style, they could have been taken from an old Roman building. While this remains guesswork, there are certainly historical records of monastic life in 'Getehed' dating from 653 AD. St. Mary's is reputedly built on the site of Gateshead monastery, although there is nothing to show its exact location.
The Church and its Parish
Records from the thirteenth century list a succession of Norman rectors, the first being Robert de Plessis in 1242. The church was beautified with four chantries in the middle ages. These probably lasted until the sixteenth century, when most such institutions disappeared. Beautiful stained glass windows from this era were however part of the church's treasures which survived into the new Protestant regime.
In 1340, permission was given by the Bishop of Durham to build a sealed cell beside the church to house an anchoress (a female hermit who would probably have had teaching duties). In this building, which became know as the Anchorage, a school was eventually established. Through gifts and endowments, this school provided what was probably the only local access to education for Gateshead's people. It finally closed its doors in 1870, by which time a new 'national' school, also called St Mary's, had been built close by.
St Mary's also provided a site to care for the poor of the parish. Using funds raised from the local parish levy, a poor house was built and was in use in the seventeenth century in St Mary's churchyard.
From the 16th century, St Mary's was the base for the growth of a local type of administration - the select vestry of St Mary's Parish Church, known as the four-and-twenty. As its name suggests, this select vestry comprised twenty- four of the leading inhabitants of Gateshead. They were self-co-opting; not elected by the parishioners and they effectively controlled those aspects of local government - for example the care of the poor and the maintenance of the highways - which government legislation had made a parish responsibility. The minute books of the four-and-twenty survive from 1626, when the body was already well established.
The four-and-twenty met at St Mary's Church each Easter and appointed the various parish officers - churchwardens, overseers of the poor, overseers of the highways, and four parish constables. By 1658 the power of the four-and- twenty was so great within the town that it was necessary to obtain an Order in Council from Oliver Cromwell himself to have them removed from office when they disagreed with the Puritan minister at St Mary's, Thomas Weld.
When new local councils were established in the 19th century, St. Mary's again played its part. On 1 January 1836, George Hawks was elected Gateshead's first Mayor. Early meetings of the new Borough Council were held in the Anchorage at St Mary's Church, until a house in Oakwellgate was rented.
Until 1825 all marriages and burials in the borough had to be performed in St Mary's. In the church grounds, the headstones show how varied the trades and professions in the town were in the 18th and 19th centuries: an inn keeper, a rope maker and a glass cutter lie close to the grave stone of William Hawks. Hawks was an important figure in the development of Gateshead's industrial prosperity and one of several notable residents buried here.
After it ceased to be used as a church, the building was largely destroyed by fire in 1979, it was later restored to became an auction room.