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13 November 2014

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You are in: Tyne > History > Local History > A hidden historic gem

Trinity House, Newcastle. Photo: Trinity House

Trinity House is based on Broad Chare

A hidden historic gem

Tucked away on the Newcastle quayside, just a stone's throw from the River Tyne, is a maritime organisation that goes back more than five centuries. Trinity House.

These days it's quite an event to see a ship sail right up the River Tyne to the Newcastle and Gateshead quaysides.

After all, if it happened all the time the Gateshead Millennium Bridge would be permanently tilted!

But, in the past, the river was once a hive of activity and transport on the waterway was vital to the area's prosperity.

River Tyne c 1910. Photo: Getty Images

The Tyne was a busy river

And it's in this context that the historic maritime organisation Newcastle Trinity House first emerged - more than 500 years ago.

Safety at sea

The Guild of the Blessed Trinity of Newcastle upon Tyne, as it was then known, officially came into being in 1505, to support Newcastle's maritime community.

It secured a plot of land on Broad Chare on the Newcastle quayside, just a stone's throw from the River Tyne, and ordered the building of a hall, chapel and lodging rooms for its brethren.

More buildings, including alms houses for seafarers in need, were added in later years.

Chapel at Newcastle Trinity House

The chapel is still used

Very quickly the brethren began to take on professional as well as charitable responsibilities, working to improve safe navigation at sea and on the River Tyne.

Although Newcastle-based, the House became responsible for a large area of coastline stretching from Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north all the way down to Whitby to the south.

It installed navigation beacons and lights along the coast and reminders are still visible today – the most prominent being the high and low lights at North Shields.

Such work cost money, of course, and a series of royal charters - the first granted by Henry VIII - allowed the House to levy a charge on ships entering local ports to raise funds.

Echoes of the sea

Fast forward five centuries and Trinity House is still based in the same place on Broad Chare. But even though it's been there so long it still remains something of a well-kept secret.

Banqueting hall at Trinity House. Photo: Trinity House

The banqueting hall

The entrance to the main building is in a small courtyard tucked away off the street and inside it's like an Aladdin's cave of treasures from past centuries.

From books and paintings to booty brought back from voyages across the seas, the artefacts bring the region's maritime heritage to life in rich detail.

Everywhere you look there seems to be a reminder of the sea, from the image of a ship on the ceiling rose in the banqueting hall to the busty south sea maidens in one of the light fixtures.

The Trinity House coat of arms pops up everywhere too - on carpets, stained glass windows and even on the back of a huge, decorated turtle shell that hangs from one of the walls.

There's even a secret doorway hidden behind a bookcase in the Master's Room – although that's a bit more The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe than Aladdin.

Decorated turtle shell. Photo: Trinity House

A huge, decorated turtle shell

Looking forward, looking back

Whichever literary allusion you settle for (Doctor Who's tardis is another possibility - it's surprising how many rooms there are) there's certainly a lot to look at inside and one of the main functions of the organisation in the 21st Century is to preserve its remarkable heritage and traditions.

But it's not all looking back.

Newcastle Trinity House still has a professional function and is one of only three licensing authorities in the UK with the power to examine and license deep-sea pilots.

And the brethren still provide assistance and consultancy to the maritime community, especially in the north-east of England.

Keeping one eye on one the past and one on the future could be just the right attitude to keep Trinity House in the heart of Newcastle for another 500 years.

Trinity House is a working organisation and viewing is strictly by appointment only. If you'd like to find out more about the brethren and how to get in touch with them visit the Trinity House website:

last updated: 20/01/2009 at 14:42
created: 19/01/2009

You are in: Tyne > History > Local History > A hidden historic gem

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