Newcastle – St Thomas

One of my jobs on this Sabbatical is to write an essay on John Wilson Carmichael. He was a nautical painter whose work still sells well, see this art dealer’s website. I am more interested in his etchings of the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway; if anyone is interested I’ll post a copy of my essay on the blog (if my tutor’s nice about it!). On Tuesday 6 May I went to the Hancock Library at the Great North Museum to look at his etchings “Views on the Tyne” – here is one of them on the Newcastle Libraries flickr site. After that, and a coffee, Julie and I walked into the centre of town, and I went to have an explore of St Thomas. Just beside Haymarket Metro station, with a church website.


The first Chapel of St Thomas a Becket was a pilgrim chapel built on the old bridge over the Tyne. It may have been built as an act of penance by Hugh de Melville (one of the knights who murdered Thomas). Many years ago I went to the Precentors’ Conference at Canterbury Cathedral – a Cathedral precentor is the ‘pre-cantor’, the one who sings first – and their conference was always excellent. The highlight of the Canterbury one was a candlelit walk round the Cathedral, with lay clerks of the choir providing the music, incense adding to the atmosphere, and an opportunity to pray at the place of Thomas’ martyrdom (one of those special spiritual moments in life).

dobson st thomasThe present church was built between 1827 and 1830. The architect was John Dobson, who built a lot of Newcastle, including Grainger Market and Central Station. The picture above has been scanned from John Dobson, Newcastle architect, 1787-1865, by Tom Faulkner and Andrew Greg, Newcastle: Tyne & Wear Museums Service, 1987. Dobson used John Wilson Carmichael “to work up his perspective drawings into dramatic and effective watercolours. “The perspective of St Thomas’s Church of c.1827 is the first surviving drawing of the partnership of Dobson and Carmichael, and in this the talent of an accomplished landscape watercolourist is more evident” (page 10).” Dobson gets his blue plaque.


I failed to photo the doors, which are a 1996 addition, to quote their website “designed to make the building more open to passers by and carry a proclamation to the city (Amos 5:15): “Hate Evil, Love Good – Do Justice at the Gate”. Very good sentiments, but still far too many people walk past. How does the church really open itself up to the thousands who walk past, or sit on the grass and the benches eating their lunch


When you do walk in, it is such a disappointment. Need I say more? Lots of grotty noticeboards, a shop on one side that needs a makeover, a plastic coffee bar on the left. Hideous plastic chairs around a round table. The prayer area has another circle of mixed chairs. The nave altar – I assume this is some sort of Easter message – and when you turn round and look west …


I know, it is so much easier to criticise than it is to do anything about it. They are planning to reorder the North Vestry and make it a room that can be rented out. Their heating has failed, so they are looking at eco-options for new underfloor heating. They want to remove some pews, add in loos (including an accessible one) in the North Aisle, and refurbish the kitchen.

They recognise, to quote a notice “We have a gem here, and nobody realises! Did you know that we are only the place outside of London to have a memorial to the George Cross Island Association, the Malta Window? That we were the first place in the UK to a woman presiding at Communion? [Our non-conformist friends might argue with that!] That the historic Victoria Tunnel passes underneath the church? [That is superb – look it up]. We plan to produce new literature to encourage many more groups to visit and appreciate our wonderful oasis in the centre of Newcastle.” My plea to them is – do the job properly. Look at the quality of Blackwell’s bookshop across the road, your bookshop needs to be as good. Look at the quality of a Costa, your coffee needs to be as good. Look at the publicity produced by the University, your publicity needs to be as good. That is not easy when our budget is always smaller than everyone else’s – but there should be money around for such a historic church in such a wonderful setting. I tried to give them £10 in a Gift Aid envelope – and had to hand it to the shop attendant when it wouldn’t go in the donation box (“where there is no vision the people perish” Proverbs 29.18).


DSC07961What do we have at the moment? A very professional leaflet about the Harrison and Harrison organ of 1961, complete with the wonderful line “By 1961 the winds of change were blowing through the rather stuffy halls of the English organ establishment” (sounds like the start of a Cecil B. DeMille film). The first organ was an Elliot and Hill, 1832 – “The instrument is on the largest scale and possess the latest and most scientific improvements and its superior, it is believed, is not to be found in any parish church north of the City of York” (Newcastle Courant). Originally blown by hand, in 1872 there is a note that the Vestry Clerk was instructed to contact the Water Company to enquire about the possibility of metering the supply to the water engine. By mid 1879 “the hydraulic blowing apparatus being inefficient” meant that the bell ringer, Joseph Robson, was paid 2/6 per service for raising the wind by hand. A Vincent organ was installed in 1901, another new one in 1931, and the current one in 1961. “It was regarded as controversial.” There is nothing on their website to suggest it is ever used for recitals, or for more than accompanying one service a week (no mention of a choir or a Director of Music). The church music scene across the country has changed in my lifetime.

The stained glass is rather uninspiring – and looks odd because the balcony divides the north and south windows in half. Apparently they are by the studio of George Joseph Baguley (1834-1915), who was also churchwarden here for 43 years.

DSC07956The most striking window is that installed in 2000 by Helen Whittaker in memory of the Malta convoys pin WW2. Do have a look at her website and perhaps download this pdf about these windows. The photos are much better than this one!

I have a link to the Malta Convoy’s through HMS Barham, though only because we share the same name. She was sunk on 25 November 1941 off Malta – full story and pictures here. Gareth and I went to the service in Westminster Abbey in November 2011 when the last few  survivors processed the standard for the final time to the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. The Nave was full and you could have heard a pin drop as six old men came forward – another occasion I will never forget. The HMS Barham Association also has a website.

I wish the good folk of St Thomas well. For the next post we’ll photo the war memorials around the church.


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