A brief history by Bill Frizzle, Senior Steward, Goldsmiths Company, 2009 - 2010
There must have been craftsmen in precious metals in Newcastle in medieval times. The first reference to Goldsmiths in Newcastle appears in the Pipe Rolls of 1185/86. Although a Company of Goldsmiths probably existed in Newcastle prior to 1423, there is no direct evidence of its existence and none of its member's work is known of.
A paten in Ryton Church, dated 1664, and a Communion Cup & Cover, by Valentine Baker, now residing in the Treasury at York Minster, are believed to be the oldest pieces of Newcastle silver.
At so remote a period as AD 1249, King Henry III commanded the Bailiffs and good men of Newcastle to choose, in full court, by the oath of four and twenty burgesses, four of the most prudent and trusty men of that town for the Office of Monyers there, and four other like persons for the keeping of the Kings mints in that town; also two fit and prudent Goldsmiths to be assayers of the money to be made there, and one fit and trusty clerk for the keeping of the Exchange, and send them to the Treasurer and barons of the exchequer, to do what , by ancient custom and assize, was to be done in that case.
15th century engraving of the goldsmith, and patron saint of goldsmiths, Saint Eligius in his workshop
A Royal Ordinance by Edward I, in 1300, laid down the Sterling Standard (0.925 in our decimal world) of purity for both the silver coinage of the Realm and all wrought plate produced in it. This was a higher standard of purity than that of European countries and the fact that standards were identical for the silver coinage and for wrought plate was to have consequences in later years, particularly at the end of the 17th century.
Among the Newcastle goldsmiths at this time, there were probably practising craftsmen, but there is no record to indicate whether they were aware of the 1300 Statute or felt themselves obliged to send a representative. As a result of disputes among local tradesmen, echoes of which reached London, a Commissioner of Star Chamber appointed 2 officials, in 1515, to travel to Newcastle in order to examine witnesses on both sides. The craftsmen resented the claim by the Merchants to a monopoly on the buying and selling of merchandise, seeing no reason why they should limit their activities solely to making goods of their trade, and not retail other commodities, as had their fathers. Among those questioned were John Langton, baker, and his brother William Langton, goldsmith, who testified that "their father, John Langton, baker, bought and retailed, for 30 years, lynt, tar and soap with other merchandise"
Although oppression by the powerful Company of Merchants Adventurers was foiled by the intervention of Star Chamber, disputes such as this, induced craftsmen of various trades, to unite into guilds in order to protect their interests. The goldsmiths, being too few in numbers to compose an independent guild, joined the plumbers, glaziers, pewterers and painters to form an Associated Company and on 1st September 1536 received assent from the Mayor to their Ordinary. Of the original members of the company, 5 were goldsmiths and, by the end of the 17th Century there were 13, the most well known being Francis Batty, who later became the 1st Assay Master, and Eli Bilton.
An Act of Parliament in 1702 established the Newcastle Assay Office. It laid down the usual conditions, specifying marks, records, assay methods etc. and constituted the Goldsmiths as an Independent Company.
The Act definitively specified what marks had to be stamped upon plate, these were:-
By another Act of Parliament (Henry VI) it was ordered how silver should be touched in Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Newcastle etc.
Relations between the Newcastle goldsmiths and those of the London Company was rarely cordial. Early Statutes rarely took notice of the fact that silver was produced in the provinces, though many regulations governed the manufacture of plate in the Capital. Responsibility for maintaining standards lay with the Wardens of the powerful London Goldsmiths, but because of the vagueness of the Statute wording and the inconvenience of travel (a tedious journey of 7 days, riding 220 miles Northward) the Wardens rarely took it upon themselves to check on country craftsmen.
After the setting up of the provincial offices, the London goldsmiths did not interfere for three quarters of a century. Although they were unhappy about the situation, the establishment that had the responsibility for the standard of wrought plate, rested with the local Assay Masters and Wardens. This did not mean that Newcastle were isolated from the Capital, the first two Assay Masters went in person to the London Hall to receive instruction, and when in need of advice relating to the conduct of the Assay Office, the Wardens or Assay Masters wrote to the Clerk of the London Company. The London Company were concerned regarding provincial plate and it was in their power not only to reprimand, but to impose penalties.
One or two Newcastle youths were apprenticed to London goldsmiths: others, having completed their apprenticeship in the north, migrated south to set up their own businesses in the Capital. One of those who made only temporary stays in the Capital was Isaac Cookson, a member of a prosperous family with interests in lead mining in the Tyne Valley. After his apprenticeship to Francis Batty concluded in 1726, Cookson decided to broaden his skills by going to London for about a year to work as a journeyman for the leading silversmiths in the Capital. Legend has it that he worked for several months for the great Huguenot silversmiths, Paul de Lamerie, but it is almost certain that he did spend some time with the celebrated English craftsman George Wickes, one of the founders of the dynasty which became Garrard & Co. who have been Crown Jewellers since 1831.
At all events Cookson profited from the times spent in London and the skills he acquired and he quickly established himself as the leading craftsman in Newcastle. He was very much in demand for the creation of church plate on a large scale, as well as secular pieces, large and small, the baluster tankard was deemed as being a modest, but workmanlike piece. He kept a large workshop which was kept fully employed and apprenticeships to him were, understandably, keenly sought after. Two of his apprentices were John Langlands in 1730 and John Goodrick in1743. Both must have profited from the 7 years spent under Cookson for each of them, when out of his time decided to remain in Cooksons employment as a journeyman and, by the time of Cooksons ultimate death in 1757, they were his leading and experienced assistants and well qualified to acquire and succeed to the goodwill of the business, which they duly did as from 1755. The partnership of Langlands and Goodrick was not of long duration as Goodrick died of a malignant growth in April 1757 aged only 30. Langlands, thereafter traded on his own for a number of years but, as successor to Isaac Cookson, and trained by him, he did not lack for custom. He maintained a sizeable workshop and had, over a number of years, a number of apprentices. With the vogue from 1770 for engraved and bright cut silver, he became a major customer of the Beilby – Bewick workshop.
In 1773 Newcastle's authority to assay plate was threatened. The Goldsmiths Company of London, whose members regularly became Sheriffs and Lord Mayors of London, opposed a petition from the goldsmiths of Sheffield and Birmingham to establish Assay Offices in those towns, they suggesting that the Provincial Offices "were carelessly and irresponsibly managed and did not afford the protection due to them". The Newcastle Goldsmiths took exception to this, and Mr. Matthew Prior, the sworn Assay Master, was summoned to London to represent the provinces. He was examined by a Select Committee to give evidence before the House of Commons on the subject. Being asked if he knew whether his scales were good ones, he professed his conviction that they were remarkably true. "What would cast(test) them?" His shrewd answer was "Why Sir, they would be cast (tested) by one of the hairs on the back of my hand!"
The Committee concluded "that the Assay Office at Newcastle upon Tyne had been conducted with fidelity and skill". Though the outcome was favourable, the incident had, at the time, a very real threat to the existence of the Assay Office and the livelihood of the local goldsmiths who showed their gratitude to Prior by paying, not only his expenses, but an extra 5 Guineas "for his trouble in going to London on ye Assay Office Business." No doubt, over the years, Prior regaled his drinking companions with the tale of his confrontation with the Parliamentary Committee, and his repartee, but, 20 years later after his death, the incident was still remembered. The potential disaster had been averted by the shrewdness of Matthew Prior, but it was not forgotten.
The goldsmiths separated themselves from the other companies in 1716. From 1702 to 1884, the Newcastle Goldsmiths Company flourished and Newcastle became an important centre for the assaying and hallmarking of plate, Goldsmiths at York, Durham, Sunderland, Whitehaven, Darlington, and in one instance, Edinburgh, sending their wares here for assay.
The London Company displayed considerable jealousy of the Provincial Companies and further attempts to acquire jurisdiction over, or abolish, the Provincial Offices were vigorously pursued, but all failed.
Meanwhile, trade flourished. With the Restoration of the Monarchy after the Civil War and the return of prosperity there was a great demand for silverware throughout the country.
In 1696 legislation was passed that was to have considerable effect on the history of silver manufacture in Newcastle. To protect William III new coinage and prevent coins and chippings from disappearing into the goldsmith's crucibles, the standard of silver was raised from Sterling to Britannia standard, 8 penny weight higher and, at the same time the system of assaying and hallmarking, which had been voluntary and informal, was made compulsory as from 1697. This was the only standard of purity allowed by law until 1720 when the law was relaxed and Stirling, once again, became an accepted standard, but Britannia remains to this day.
This legislation confined the compulsory system to the Goldsmiths Hall in London. This caused enormous hardship to silversmiths all over the English provinces, facing costs, delays and risk in sending parcels of wares to London. Following an outcry, the system was modified and Assay Offices were opened Exeter, Chester, York and later, Newcastle in 1702. That Act provided the Newcastle silversmiths to be incorporated as a separate Guild Company, which still exists today, and is alone of the Guild Companies of Newcastle having been created by Act of Parliament.
The Company's most precious record is a circular copper plate on which the maker's marks were impressed, of those who were entitled to have their gold and silverware assayed at Newcastle upon Tyne. The plate is 8.3/4" in diameter (22.5mm) varying in thickness from 3/16" to nearly ¼ inch (5 to 6 mm). It contains 296 marks emanating in concentric circles from the centre, some of which are badly struck and indecipherable. The plate is held in the Laing Art Gallery for display purposes and now has its own display case.
The decade following the accession of Queen Victoria saw great changes nation wide in the demand for, and the availability of silver articles. In 1840 the electroplating process had been patented by Elkington and within twenty years the manufacture of silver plated articles was in full swing. This, naturally, lead to a contraction in the demands of the craft in the provinces, particularly the development of the railways meant that articles manufactured in the major craft cities of London, Birmingham and Sheffield became easily available all over the country to provincial retailers. Taken together, these factors led to a diminution on the quantity of silver articles manufactured in the provinces and assayed at the Offices, such as York, Chester, Exeter and Newcastle.
The business of the Assay Office thus declined until the Company decided there was too little work to warrant the upkeep of the place. At the 1884 Annual meeting the Wardens proposed that the Government stamps should be returned to the Inland Revenue and this was carried unanimously. The stamps were duly surrendered and the local dies defaced, the local press sadly noting the extinction of a "time honoured Institution. Although, through the centuries, the London Goldsmiths had tried to control the manufacture of silver in the North and to close the Assay Office it was a decision made by the Newcastle Goldsmiths themselves.
From 1850 onwards the quantity of silver assayed at the Newcastle office never exceeded 10,000 ounces and steadily declined from that figure, a significant factor being the retirement, in 1866, of John Walton, who had been the principal user of the Newcastle office. By this date Reid & Sons and Lister & Sons were the principal retailers in town, but what they sold was less and less was made in their workshops and a greater portion was brought in from the national manufacturing centres . By then the amount of silver being submitted for assay at Newcastle had dwindled to a mere trickle of what it had been 70 years earlier. It not being economic to continue assays in the town, the office closed in 1884. Thus came to an end of true Newcastle silver which had certainly been continuous since 1660 and could be traced even further back than that. In its prime, the many craftsmen had produced a large quantity of silver articles for assay in the town office during its 180 years of existence. This was all a distinct contribution to the cultural heritage of the town and accounts for the enthusiasm with which Newcastle silver is now collected.
What became of all the plate that must have been made by the northern goldsmiths at the latter end of the 16th Century, or the greater part of that made at any time prior to 1702, is a mystery. Probably, the unsettled state of the Borders in the 16th and 17th Centuries will partially account for the greater part of the plate, and what survived may have been melted down to provide funds for the civil strife of the 17th Century or the Jacobite risings of the 18th Century. The secular plate of this period is exceedingly rare, scarcely any existing.
After the Assay Office closed, the Company requested the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries to undertake the safe custody of the books, documents and belongings of the Company with the proviso that they could be inspected by the members at any time and returned to the Company when, and if, necessary.
In 1897 the Society of Antiquaries promoted and staged a 3 day exhibition of Newcastle plate at the Black Gate Museum. The 300 articles, exhibiting the work of some 41 goldsmiths, was gathered from all parts of the North East from ecclesiastical sources, private collections and the Newcastle Guilds. The event was well documented by the local press including the Newcastle Daily Leader and the Newcastle Daily Journal on 20th May.
Examination of the current Minute Book (Vol. IV) 1868 reveals the transactions carried out at the Annual Meetings (usually April/May) giving the names of those in attendance and absentees, the election of Wardens, the amount of plate broken down as not being of standard, and the letter chosen for the year.
Strangely, no meetings were held in 1912 / 1913 / 1914 and 1915 possibly due to the impending Great War, but a meeting was held in August 1916.
Curiously, no more Annual Meetings were recorded until, after an absence of 20 years, a meeting took place at the Runnymede public house in Westerhope and only 2 members, William Wakenshaw and Norman Reid were in attendance when the latter was confirmed as Warden. It was rumoured that the 20 year gap was due to the deaths in the Great War of 2 sons of Wardens who were devastated by their loss.
By November 1936 matters looked brighter when 6 were admitted followed by a further 2 the next year. Few meetings were held during WW2 due to abnormal conditions created by the World War some members being in the forces and others doing "long hours of war work". A steady flow of members continued afterwards and in May 1945, Mr C Hetherington was welcomed back after 3 years as a P.O.W.
In 1945, with victory assured in WW2, the Company requested the return of their property from the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries. The Minutes of the 1946 Annual Meeting disclose that only a very small part of the artefacts were returned and the Stewards again wrote for the remainder.
A letter from the Society stated they could not trace the Company property and the matter was held in abeyance at that time. Further periodic efforts were unsuccessful until 1973, when the Senior Steward, Mr Cecil Hetherington, reported that, after 85 years, 21 books and ledgers, 2 oak chests containing scales, money bag and over 400 pieces of leaflets and correspondence had been found in the Black Gate Museum.
Dr. Margaret A V Gill, B.A.,Ph.D., Assistant Director of the Laing Art Gallery studied and researched the recovered material and books and published a book on the subject entitled "MARKS OF THE NEWCASTLE GOLDSMITHS 1702 - 1884" an offprint from the Archaeological Aeliana, (Fifth Series, Volume 2)
In the late 1950's attendances were low and it was proposed to advertise future meetings in the local press. It was also agreed to open the Company to all Freemen. This proved to be beneficial and popular and the Company enjoyed a resurgence for the next 30 years. In 1979 Mr Cecil Hetherington retired as Senior Steward and he was succeeded by his son Ken, with WG Frizzle Junior Steward and J T Maule as Deputy/Reserve.
Earlier, the long record of any family connection with the Goldsmiths industry in Newcastle was the Langlands family, who continued in the trade for over 60 years, but were overtaken by Messrs Reids & Sons whose association in the industry extending over 120 years and over 5 generations including those in the business to the present day. Two remaining daughters of the Reid family sold the business to the Northern Goldsmiths in 1967.
Today, as both the Goldsmiths and Colliers are open Companies, they hold a Joint Annual Head Meeting, usually in the 3rd Wednesday in April, in the Merchant Adventurers Hall in the Guildhall. There are 23 members at present.
"An Alphabetical Catalogue of the Goldsmiths of Newcastle upon Tyne from the Incorporation of the Goldsmiths Company in the year 1536 down to the close of the 18th Century." by J C Hodgson M.A., F.S.A. (overprint from the Achaelogical Aliana 3rd Series Vol. xi and xvi)
"The Copper Plate of the Goldsmiths Company of Newcastle upon Tyne" By J. W. Clark, L.D.S., R.C.S. Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. Overprint from Archaelogical Aliana, 4th Series Vol.xivii
"English Goldsmiths and their Marks" By Sir Charles J Jackson and Rev. J R Boyle (A.A. Series II, Vol. XVI 1894)
"A Handbook of Newcastle Silver" By Margaret A V Gill B.A., Ph.D. (I.S.B.N. 0 85983 0446 1978)
"An Illustrated History of English Plate" (1911) By J C Jackson
"Touching Gold and Silver - 500 Years of Hallmarks", Catalogue of an exhibition at Goldsmiths Hall, Foster Lane, London EC2 7th to 3oth November 1978.
"The Goldsmiths of Newcastle" By J R Boyle, F.S.A.
Photographs of some of the articles in the possession of the late Mr Joseph W. N. Petty, Collector and Historian.
A. R. Bainbridge