Science site's secret past uncovered

History lessons took on a Victorian criminal twist when a group of Newcastle schoolchildren played detective to learn about their neighbourhood’s rich and colourful past.

Pupils from schools in the Gallowgate area of the city have been working with local historian Neil Tonge on a project to explore the fascinating social history of the area and learn about what is planned for its future with the development of the Science Central site.

The living history project was organised by Newcastle Science City’s community workers as part of a programme to ensure the heritage of the area is understood and preserved for future generations as preparations begin to transform the site into a new science hub.

Historian Neil worked with 180 children aged between eight and 14 from Our Lady and St Anne’s RC Primary School, St Paul’s CE Primary School, Hawthorn Primary School and St Cuthbert’s RC Secondary School to explore the Gallowgate area’s close connection with crime and punishment – having once accommodated the city’s gallows.

Pupils used historic documents from Tyne and Wear Museums and Archives to investigate real life crimes of children who lived in the area in 1873 and how they were punished.

Drama and scriptwriting students from Northumbria University led by Fiona Macpherson, their programme leader, used this research to create an inter-active performance to bring to life the stories of the past, with the pupils playing the role of detectives and magistrates in a courtroom-style drama. This was performed to all participating schools from December 6 to 8 at the Mining Institute, Neville Hall in Newcastle.

And teacher Debbie Pickering of Our Lady and St Anne’s RC Primary said the effectiveness of the performance had a marked impression on the participating pupils.  

She said: “This was one of the best living history events I have been to. The pupils were totally captivated and learning throughout. They were still enthusiastically discussing various elements of the experience all the way back to school.” 

Neil said: “The youngsters’ enthusiasm for this project has been absolutely overwhelming – it has really captured their imagination and fired their interest in the history of their neighbourhood.

“The Gallowgate area has a fascinating past and it’s really important as it moves into a new chapter of its history that this is preserved and understood. This is just the start of a whole programme of community engagement work that will also investigate the rich industrial history of the site, exploring its energy solutions of the past and future – including Newcastle University’s geothermal borehole that is currently being drilled in the search for hot water to fuel the site.”

The Gallowgate area once housed North Elswick Colliery, rows of workers’ homes, and more recently was the home to the Scottish and Newcastle Brewery. It is now the site of Science Central – the largest city centre development in over a decade – which will become a futuristic science park over the next 20 years.

Newcastle Science City is part financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), managed by the Department for Communities and Local Government, securing £2.3million of ERDF investment. The ERDF Competitiveness Programme 2007-2013 is bringing over £300m into the North East to support innovation, enterprise and business support across the region.