Benwell – St James

Newcastle West is a funny Deanery. For those of you not versed in Anglican structures, a Diocese is divided into Archdeaconries,  then into Deaneries, then into Benefices, then into individual parishes. So, for example, Matfen, Ryal and Stamfordham are one benefice, in the Corbridge Deanery, in the Archdeaconry of Lindisfarne, in the Diocese of Newcastle. Ponteland is a parish by itself (so no benefice), Newcastle West Deanery, Archdeaconry of Northumberland, etc. (Reminds me of my Diary in about 1976 when I was 14: “Peter Barham, 76 Wimpole Road, Barton, Cambridge, England, Europe, Earth, somewhere to the left of Mars …).

Newcastle West Deanery stretches from the fields of Milbourne almost to the centre of town – I think we terminate with the Big Lamp (St Matthew’s) but they (like some other clergy/parishes) don’t seem to have anything to do with the Deanery. It is difficult out here in leafy Northumberland to feel we have much to do with inner-city Newcastle. We have a wonderful banner in St Mary’s depicting all the churches of our Deanery – see – but most of them I have never been in. The clergy who do meet together (as opposed to those who stay away) get on well, occasionally some bright spark tries to “Develop Deaneries”, and life goes on as it always has done – with us trying to keep our own parishes alive, which takes most of my energy.

(I should say that Suffolk Deaneries were no livelier – Lavenham Deanery was a banana-shaped area of the County with no obvious geographical thread, where the number of stipendiary clergy had more than halved and the retireds outnumbered us. Every Deanery meeting was a whinge along the lines of “in my day …”. Thingoe Deanery was Bury St Edmunds and the doughnut of parishes around it – as the Cathedral’s rep I took the flack for everything. “If people worshipped with us rather than driving past en route to the Cathedral …”).

Just occasionally something happens which surprises cynical old me. Catherine at Benwell wrote to all Deanery parishes asking us if we could help with her roof fund. At the beginning of last year she was awarded £129,000 from the HLF, and needs another £80,000 in matched funding. We put out her “Please buy a slate” leaflets and quite a lot of our folk did. Then my lovely folk at Milbourne organised a charity evening at The Highlander and raised a bit more. (Quick plug for the Highlander’s charity meal – £10.95 for a two course meal, sell it to the punters at £15, add a raffle – and you can raise a few hundred without a huge amount of work. – they say they cater for “funerals of any size” (I want a post-service bunfight for a 5′ 6″ male …)).

Then Sheila suggested we had an afternoon out. We did all the jokes – “First prize, an afternoon in Benwell. Second prize, two afternoons in Benwell” – and hired the minibus. We loaded my ladies into it – I couldn’t help thinking of the “how many elephants can you get in a mini?” joke – and hit the road. Sunday 20 May was a beautiful afternoon, and 22 of us had a wonderful time. Several folk who came had been baptised, confirmed or married at St James, and they were so pleased to be back. Judith gave us a guided tour of churchyard and church, Catherine told us about the project, we enjoyed evening prayer together, and the tea was scrumptuous. The Benwell folk said how grateful they were for our support and prayers – I have no doubt we benefitted just as much.

The only pain was that my camera battery expired after half a dozen shots. The church is open on a Tuesday afternoon so I went back – and I was so glad I had done. There was such a buzz about the place. School children in the building, lunch and tea being served in the Hall, people finding out about local history, a guided walk … .

To cut a long story short – the church building is huge and needs a fortune spent on it. The churchyard has been derelict and vandalised for many years. You either set fire to the lot, or you do something about it. The St James Heritage and Environment Group – – has been formed and the work they have done is incredible. The graveyard has been cleared – no mean task – some monuments have been mended, flowers have been planted, the place looks cared for. Inside there are displays of local history and some great art. They have been working with the community and bringing life back. I have no doubt that the church community has benefitted too – great to see they had 20 people studying Mark’s Gospel during Lent. Just one comment – there is nothing on the “Heritage and Environment” website to make any link with the worshipping community of St James, no mention of the fact that services do take place there, no link to the Diocesan website, no photos of the Archbishop of York’s recent visit … . The Church annual report gives a good plug to the Project – a little more needed in the other direction … .

St James was built as a Chapel of Ease in 1833 – similar to the position with my church at Milbourne. A large parish, so the chapel built to serve a population that lived some distance from the parish church. At that time Benwell was a largely rural area of farms, big mansions and private estates, with a population of about 1,000. In 1847 William Armstrong – he of Cragside – extended his armament works in Elswick, and the housing required crept up the hill. There are various photos of Benwell over the years at – including some of the trams that used to run past St James.

The land for the church was given by John Buddle “The King of the Coal Trade” – the History and Environment Group have produced an excellent leaflet about him. He was born near Tanfield in 1773, and started work at Wallsend Colliery in 1792 as underviewer to his father. When his father died  he became manager of the colliery at the age of 33. In 1801 he was appointed viewer of Benwell Colliery, and purchased a thirteenth share in the colliery at a cost of £2,700, becoming a director with a salary of £100 a year. Within ten years he was managing large modern collieries and earning a salary of £1,200. In 1819 he was appointed as General Manager are Colliery Agent to Charles Stewart the third Marquis of Londonderry. He went on to develop the port of Seaham, etc. etc. etc. He died at 38, leaving an estate of £150,000 (about £12.5 million today).

Buddle did a huge amount of work making mining safer. He improved ventilation, introduced daily inspections of all the workings before work started, pioneered the use of barometers to assess the risk of gas, and was one of the major supporters of Sir Humphrey Davy’s lamp – he trialled it in Hebburn in 1815. Buddle was a Unitarian but, to quote the leaflet “sometimes attended the Church of England services because he liked the music”. St James sits on a coal seam – so Buddle is buried in coal. (There is another excellent leaflet – “Waiting at the Pit Head : Coal mining disasters on Tyneside” – absolutely frightening, human life was cheap).

The church was built by John Dobson. Born in 1787 in North Shields, at 15 he became a pupil of David Stephenson (the leading architect-builder of Newcastle, who designed All Saints’ church). By 1811 he was working with Sir Charles Monck who designed Belsay Hall. Over the years he was involved in much of the architecture of Newcastle – but we’ll just concentrate on Central station. He died in 1865.

St James was extended in 1864 to his design when the Chancel and South Aisle was added, then (1884/5) the tower was added. The North Aisle was added in 1903 – you can see how the parish population was growing, the church could now seat 1,200 – and in 1980 the South Aisle became the Hall. Most of the windows are by Wailes, some by Barnett. Apparently – quoting the website – “The church bells are still in use, although less frequently than in the past.  This is a rare peal of bells by Charles Carr of Smethwick, of which the tenor bell weighs 15cwt.  Charles Carr made church bells and gun barrels, including its largest bell for the Roman Catholic cathedral in Demerara in the West Indies, and bronze guns for the King of Siam.” (Is being Dean of Demerara Cathedral the sweetest job in the world?).









Back outside, one of the graves they found when they restored the churchyard that of Bishop Arthur Thomas Lloyd, the third bishop of Newcastle. On Tuesday I chatted to the lady who unearthed it, she said she found the mitre – though she didn’t know what it was, she knew it was someone important. He now has his own leaflet. Born in Berkshire in 1844 he served his curacy as his father’s curate. He went on to be Vicar of Aylesbury, then spent many years as Vicar of St Nicholas – the Newcastle Daily Chronicle said he took a church which was “a somewhat dilapidated and shabby structure” leaving it “restored and beautified”. He became Suffragan Bishop of Norwich, then came back to Newcastle. He was only bishop for 4 years, but many thousands of people turned up for his funeral. He had died in London on 29 May 1907 and his body was brought back to Newcastle by train. His funeral was held in the Cathedral, then he came to Benwell for burial.

I have no doubt that Bishop Lloyd would be impressed with what is going on in Benwell – I certainly am. It is marvellous seeing what happens when the church and community come together.

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2 Responses to Benwell – St James

  1. ann cooper says:

    you learn something every day about benwell i was born in newcastle genral hospital lived in park road love my newcastle

  2. Ross Buddle Atkinson says:

    John Buddle is my 4th Great Grand Uncle. His sister Eleanor is my 4th great grand mother. I have learnt something new about John Buddle (Jnr) here today.

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