The Freemen of Newcastle upon Tyne

The Moor

In many respects the prime value of the Freemen's rights is that they protect the open space, a wonderful asset for the City and its residents. This has been their main consideration over the last 250 years. Had there not been dual control over the Moors there can be no doubt, as highlighted by the schemes mentioned earlier, that the land would have been developed. It is an underlying principle of the Town Moor Act 1988 that the public of Newcastle should have the right of "air and exercise" on the Moor.

The Moor: Past, present and future...

The Town Moor was part of the Town and the ancient grazing rights belonged to individual Freemen. It was probably part of the manor of Newcastle and thus included in the grant of the town to the Freemen by King John. It was evidently part of the property of the Freemen in the reign of Henry III, who granted permission to dig coal there, however the grazing rights probably go back to long before the Conquest. The Nuns Moor was purchased and added to the Town Moor after it had come into private ownership by royal grant after the dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.

There is a tradition that the Moor was given to the Freemen by Adam of Jesmond (sometimes confused with Sir Adam de Athol) however it may be that he only granted some grazing rights within the Manor of Jesmond.

In 1770 the Freemen suggested that the Moor (referring to an area on the southwest side of what is now Barrack Road and Ponteland Road) which was very rough and undrained, should be improved. Then in 1771 the Common Council, without consulting the Freemen, enclosed and purported to let this part of the Moor. The Freemen defending their rights, entered and took possession of this land. The Lessee, Joshua Hopper, supported by the Council, commenced a law suit for trespass. The action was tried on 10 August 1773, interestingly it began at 7 o'clock in the morning! Counsel for the Freemen, Serjeant Glynn, the Recorder of London having admitted trespass, was called upon to justify it. When he closed his speech Counsel for the Corporation, on being asked if he did not mean to make a reply made the memorable response, "How can I reply? - he has pounded me in a common and I cannot get out!"

A compromise was effected and the Town Moor Act was passed in 1774, at the expense of the Corporation, establishing for ever the right of the Freemen to the grazing on the Moor, without prejudice to the ownership. The management of the Moor was set out in that Act. It was slightly modified by the Newcastle upon Tyne Improvement Act 1870 which gave statutory recognition to the Stewards Committee of the Freemen as the body to represent the Freemen in connection with the Moor. These two Acts established the governing and use of the Moor and constitute the "dual control" which was perpetuated in the 1988 Act. The City Council hold the legal ownership of the freehold and the Freemen have an absolute right to herbage so mutual agreement is required on nearly all matters relating to the land. The Freemen's rights are called "sole or several pasture".

Modern Times

For approximately 50 years the Freemen and the City Council have operated a Joint Committee to look after the management and improvement of the Moor and this system operated well and to the satisfaction of both parties. Unfortunately, owing to Council re-organisation this ceased to exist in 1998. A Town Moor Joint Consultative Committee was subsequently formed to debate matters relating to management and use of the Town Moor.

The Town Moor is not technically a common in law at all, however it is within the definition of common land in the Commons Registration Act, and therefore registered under it. The public had no rights in common land until the Law of Property Act 1925 when they were given rights for access for air and exercise. The Freemen have never raised any objection to the use of the Moor by the public who have always enjoyed the right of air and exercise and indeed this principle is enshrined in the 1988 Act.

When the government of the City was transferred to the Council elected by ratepayers, the rights of the Freemen over the Moor were expressly retained. The Council have still tried from time to time to gain sole control of the Moor. The attempt in 1773 has already been mentioned. In 1861 a scheme to buy out the Freemen was proposed but was withdrawn in 1863 in the face of local indignation, not just confined to the Freemen. In 1869 a similar attempt was made but again after considerable opposition it was abandoned. In 1910 the Council when promoting a private Bill attempted to reduce the Freemen's interest in the Moor but the clause they proposed was struck out by a Committee of the House of Lords after a Town's Meeting had carried a resolution against the clause. In 1913 the Council purported to deal with the Moor without the consent of the Freemen by letting a portion to Showmen on the occasion of the Temperance Festival. This led to a law suit by the Freemen against the Showmen who were supported by the Council, in which the Freemen were successful. As recently as 1948 a scheme was proposed to destroy the Freemen's rights in the Moor, but common sense prevailed and the scheme did not proceed.

The Freemen have exercised their right to graze cows on the Moor from time immemorial, the right to do so having originated prior to the Norman Conquest. The Newcastle upon Tyne Town Moor Act 1988 states that the Stewards Committee shall decide the number of cows, not exceeding 800, which may be grazed. This number is dependant on the conditions and capacity of the areas available for grazing from year to year. In 2007, 549 cows were grazed.


Town Moor areas, as near as can be determined, are as below:

Area Hectares Acres
Town Moor 133.75 330.49
Nuns Moor (North, Central & South) 144.20 356.29
Hunters Moor 25.57 63.18
Dukes Moor 11.67 28.87
Little Moor 12.39 30.61
Castle Leazes 14.47 35.75
Other (allotments, playing fields, Little Benton and St. James' Park) 46.10 113.92

In many respects the prime value of the Freemen's rights is that they protect the open space, a wonderful asset for the City and its residents. This has been their main consideration over the last 250 years. Had there not been dual control over the Moors there can be no doubt, as highlighted by the schemes mentioned earlier, that the land would have been developed. It is an underlying principle of the Town Moor Act 1988 that the public of Newcastle should have the right of "air and exercise" on the Moor.

There have been some encroachments on the Moor by mutual agreement with the City Council. These have only taken place when the Freemen were satisfied that it was for the benefit of the public and the City. These include the Royal Victoria Infirmary, the former Fenham Barracks, various Parks, the University Halls of Residence, plantations and roads. Land exchange was taken in some instances, however, it must be said that this would be very unlikely to be the case today. Outlying areas are very difficult to manage and their identity lost to the public. (The largest area of 'exchange land', 30 acres at Little Benton, allowed the building of the University Halls of Residence on Leazes Moor.) The total taken out of Town Moor land since 1770 is approximately 210 acres leaving just under 1,000 acres. This is a fine record of preservation bearing in mind the pressures on open space, especially during the post war years.

The Royal Commission on Common land 1955-58 made several favourable references to the condition and management of the Moor in its Report. Describing the Moor as "an interesting example of a large area on the margin of a populous city centre where agricultural and recreational interests have been carefully married". They also stressed the necessity for proper grazing, without which land soon deteriorates and becomes derelict.

This very much agrees with the view of the Freemen as to the future of the Moor. To ensure that this remains a grazed open space it is vital that the 'dual control' system remains in place. The City Council is an elected body and a future Council may view matters in a different light. The Newcastle upon Tyne Town Moor Act 1988 protects the rights of the Freemen to this end and the Freemen are now in a stronger position to protect the open space from development. Various schemes are still proposed from time to time and the Freemen will remain vigilant in protecting the Moors. Changes to the pattern of use of the Intakes have been made, and will continue to be made as people's needs and interests change, but there is a strong determination that the acreage of the Moors will be strenuously defended. There can be little doubt that without their vigilance in the past and their courage to challenge authority there would be no Moors as we know them today. The commitment of the Freemen to protect the Moors, not just for future generations of Freemen, but for the City and citizens of Newcastle is paramount.

Is there another City with such an asset, often referred to as the 'lungs of the City' so close to its centre? It must be one of the finest urban open spaces in the United Kingdom.

Grazing and Land Management

Grazing is kept below the 'environmentally friendly' recommended level to support indigenous species of birds and wildlife. However it must be noted that the Town Moor is grazing pasture and without grazing there would be no open space.

The optimum pH level for grazing pasture is 6.5 and the natural grazing cycle keeps the balance within acceptable levels. However, soil tests are regularly taken to assess potash, potassium and nitrogen levels. Weather conditions can affect the treatment required. The pattern has been that none of the Moor requires annual treatment, over the last 10 years it has only been required, in varying levels, every third year. Pasture topping is kept to the very minimum and usually only carried out towards the end of the grazing season. (Due to Foot and Mouth Disease the pattern had to be adjusted in 2001.) The cow grazing the Town Moor is possibly the most efficient environmentally friendly recycling beast known to man. It mows the sward and returns the waste to the land in an easily absorbed material, sustaining the optimum pH level to support future crops of grass.

Occasionally top soil is imported to repair areas damaged by the holding of an event, these areas are re-seeded using a long term lay mixture containing, early, intermediate and late perennial ryegrasses, providing a balanced growth throughout the season. Also included are timothy, to give extra palatability and white clover to enrich the soil.

The open nature of Town Moor land supports many species not otherwise found in the normal urban City landscape. The Town Moor has a high skylark population and staff have observed a total of 46 species of birds over recent years.

During the grazing season a 24-hour emergency-only call-out is in operation. Contact Mr K. Batey, Town Moor Superintendent on 0779 877 1323.