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History and Research: Bessie Surtees House

The two buildings now known as Bessie Surtees House stand on a stretch of Newcastle riverfront that has been used as a quayside since Roman times, when the first bridge was built over the Tyne. By the 16th century the commercial importance of the area was well established and many prominent merchants owned property here. The two buildings, originally numbers 41 and 44 Sandhill, were known respectively as Surtees House and Milbank House. Other houses further east along Sandhill are of a similar date.

Bessie Surtees House

Bessie Surtees House
© English Heritage

History

The earliest reference to a house on the site of Surtees House is from 1465. The property was recorded as being owned by Robert Rhodes, a rich lawyer. Carvings on the fireplace in the principal first-floor room of the house record a wedding in 1657. The groom was Thomas Davison and the bride a daughter of Ralph Cock, mayor of Newcastle in 1634. The couple’s family owned the house until 1770, when it was sold to Snow Clayton, a merchant.

One of his tenants was Aubone Surtees, whose daughter Bessie is said to have eloped in 1772 from a first-floor window with John Scott, a coal merchant’s son. They ran away to Scotland where they were married (and were remarried in Newcastle after the families were reconciled). Scott eventually became a successful lawyer and, as Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor of England.

The site of Milbank House was occupied in the second half of the 15th century by Thomas Hanson. The ownership descended to Mark Milbank, who married Dorothy, another daughter of Ralph Cock.

From the late 18th century the richer merchants of Newcastle moved from the busy quayside to the more fashionable suburbs. The houses were divided up and let, and subsequently entered a period of slow decline.

The houses were eventually united by John Clayton, who owned Surtees House from 1880 and later bought Milbank House. In 1930 they were bought by SR Vereker, later Lord Gort, whose wife was descended from the Eldons. He employed an engineer, RF Wilkinson, to restore the houses using 17th-century architectural fittings salvaged from properties which were due to be demolished.

Bessie Surtees House was bought from the Gort estate by Newcastle City Council in 1978 and leased to English Heritage in 1989. The rooms on the first floor are now open to visitors, while the rest of the building is used as offices.

An early 19th-century etching by Edward Richardson

An early 19th-century etching of Bessie Surtees house, by Edward Richardson
© English Heritage

Description

The buildings are rare examples of Jacobean domestic architecture, built towards the end of the timber-framing tradition. Both are five storeys high and had shops or stores at ground level with living accommodation above.

Milbank House was constructed in the 16th century but was refronted in red brick in the early 18th century. Its original timber-framed structure is now concealed behind a Georgian facade with elegant sash windows and shutters.

The window through which Bessie Surtees eloped with her lover, John Scott, later Lord Eldon

The window through which Bessie Surtees eloped with her lover, John Scott, later Lord Eldon
© English Heritage

Surtees House is a 17th-century structure with overhanging storeys above the ground floor. It has retained its original facade, featuring plasterwork decorated with classical details. The interior, in particular the principal room on the first floor, has fine carved oak panelling, elaborate plaster ceilings and carved fire surrounds.

One of the firebacks on display in the house

One of the firebacks on display in the house
© English Heritage

Sources

Heslop, D, McCombie, G & Thomson, C 1994. 'Bessie Surtees House - two merchant houses in Sandhill, Newcastle-upon-Tyne', Archaeologia Aeliana, 22, 1-27

Polley, R 1997. 'Bessie Surtees House', English Heritage: London

Disclaimer

The text and pictures on this page are derived from the 'Heritage Unlocked' series of guidebooks published in 2004. We intend to review, update and enhance the content in the near future as part of the Portico project, whose objective is to provide information on the history, significance, research background and sources for all English Heritage properties. 

Refurnished room at Bessie Surtees House

The principal first-floor room at Bessie Surtees House, which has been refurnished with Tudor-style furniture
© English Heritage

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