LYING on the ancient road from Newcastle to Berwick, Morpeth has seen countless traders, armies and travellers passing through in both directions. It was raided by the Scots, burnt by King John and its Norman castle was all but destroyed in one of the last full-scale sieges of the Civil War.
Despite this record of strife and mayhem, it developed into a thriving market and manufacturing town, a tourist destination and the county’s administrative centre.
Newminster Abbey was founded in the first part of the 12th century on the south side of the River Wansbeck and the town was granted a royal charter by King John to hold markets and fairs in 1199. The town’s clock tower, built between 1604 and the 1630s, is unusual in being one of only eight bell towers not associated with a church.
In 1847 Morpeth became one of the stopping places along the Newcastle and Berwick Railway, and developed as a hub for new railway lines with three separate companies vying for routes. The Blyth and Tyne Railway opened a line to Bedlington in 1857, the Wansbeck Railway opened in 1862 and the North Eastern Railway in 1872.
In 1851 the town had a population of 4,339 at a time when Newcastle’s population was still only 4,400. As important industries such as tanning leather declined in the 19th century, some workers found employment in the business of market gardening.
One highly successful grower was Robert Whinham who produced the ‘Whinham’s Industry’ gooseberry, which became one of the best-selling gooseberries in the world. Around 1,900 Morpeth growers were sending out around 200 tons of this fruit countrywide by train. Bushes produced in Morpeth were sold to growers in the United States, Holland and New Zealand.
From the 1860s the town’s fame grew as the location of the Morpeth Olympic Games, the most famous athletics and wresting event in the North of England, and it continued – with breaks only during the wars – until 1958.