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 improved 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 known 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.
Throughout the 20th century changes to the church continued to be made. In 1910 the tower was strengthened and architects Oliver, Leeson & Wood made some improvements to the church. However by the 1950s with much of the local resident population diminished due to slum clearance, there was talk of the church being closed. As time went on and congregations continued to dwindle, church services finally ceased in 1979. Later that year a fire swept through the church severely damaging the chancel and destroying the stained glass and much of the interior.
In 1985 the North East Civic Trust undertook basic repairs and Phillips Auctioneers subsequently bought the building, installing a new entrance and a mezzanine floor. In 2000 the building was leased to Gateshead Council who re-opened it as Gateshead Quays Visitor Centre. With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, in 2004 Gateshead Council purchased the building from Phillips Auctioneers and it was renamed Gateshead Visitor Centre with an in-house tourist information team and craft outlet.
Thanks to £1.2 million pound of funding from Gateshead Council, the European Regional Development fund and the heritage lottery fund, the building was transformed. Additional features such as the mezzanine floor were removed and the interior can now be seen again looking very much as it did 50 years ago. Gateshead Heritage @ St Mary’s received an official royal opening on Thursday 29 January 2009 with a visit from HRH the Earl of Wessex. In 2012, the building was renamed once again, to St Mary’s Heritage Centre, and we continue to celebrate over 900 years of St Mary’s history and the heritage of Gateshead.