While there is no documentary evidence about Alnwick before the Norman Conquest, it is thought that it began as a rural settlement probably around the ninth century.
Its Anglo-Saxon name means “the farm by the Aln”. The Barony of Alnwick was founded by King Henry I in about 1100 and given to the Norman Vescy family. Their first building was the castle; probably originally a timber building, but by 1135 this had been rebuilt in stone. Shortly afterwards, the town was established around the present Market Place.
Hotspur Tower Alnwick
At the same time, Baileygate, now Bailiffgate was developed to provide accommodation for the people needed to service the Castle. Extending west from the Castle, it leads to Canongate, the way of the Canons of Alnwick Abbey who attended to the spiritual needs of the population. All that remains of the Abbey in Hulne Park is a fourteenth-century gatehouse. Further into the park, the ruins of the thirteenth-century Hulne Priory include the church, chapter house and living quarters, as well as a fourteenth-century pele tower.
Towards the town, Bailiffgate adjoins Narrowgate in which the red brick facade of Dorothy Forster Court covers a stone-faced sixteenth-century house. Bow Alley, recently restored, marks the site of the Bow Burn which provided water for the nearby townsfolk. In what was once the narrowest part of the Great North Road there are more old houses, and two inns with historic connections. Ye Olde Crosse has a shield set upside down in the wall carrying the coat of arms of the Vescy family. Known also as the ‘Dirty Bottles’, the legend is explained on a plaque in the window as a warning! The former Black Swan Inn, identified by its stained glass windows, was visited in the eighteenth-century by the Scottish poet Robbie Burns.
The oldest houses in Alnwick can be seen where the street begins to widen out and Bondgate begins. The fifteenth-century former Alms Houses bear a plaque representing the crest and lion rampant of the Percys, and the crossed crosiers of the fifteenth-century abbots.
On the opposite side, Paikes Street, formerly Peikes Hole, leads into the Market Place, originally a grassy triangle with traders’ stalls which were later replaced by small buildings. A horse market took place on the hill nearby, a corn market on the site of St Michael’s Pant, and fish and meat were sold around the square and on what is now known as Market Street. The butchers’ Shambles were said to be “exceedingly offensive” on account of the slaughtering which took place there, and the deposits of dung! The sixteenth-century “Little House on the Lord’s Waste” stood on the comer of Paikes Street, part of which may be incorporated in the present building opposite the Town Hall.
In 1297 Edward I granted a charter for a weekly Saturday market and an annual week-long fair. A “watch and ward” was organised for those attending the fair as well as stall-holders who had “valuable commodities exposed for sale” to protect them against “the cupidity of lawless border thieves and marauders”. A toll was paid on commodities brought in from the surrounding countryside with, for example, payment of “one penny for each basket of eggs, poultry and butter”, and one halfpenny for “every five sheepskins”.
An open-sided market building was constructed where country folk sold their wares. The
eighteenth-century Shambles was replaced in 1826 by the Northumberland Hall. Its arcade of shops is still referred to as ”The Shambles”. A brewhouse originally occupied the site of the present Town Hall which today is still owned by the Freemen of Alnwick.
Although the Castle was well fortified, the unwalled town was exposed to attack by the Scots. In 1433, Henry VI granted a license “to enclose, wall, and embattle it”. Documents show that shortage of funding delayed building work, and the date of completion of the wall with its four towers is uncertain. The only remaining part of the fortifications is Bondgate Tower, which has stood the test of time despite the volume of traffic passing through and the occasional scraping by vehicles too high or too wide for the opening.
Bailiffgate, Walkergate, Canongate and the south side of the tower where houses had been built were outside the town wall. The houses at that time would be small, single storied, probably thatched, and with a garden or croft. In 1545 the population was approximately 2,200. By 1821 this had increased to 5,927.
Other changes took place due to the effects of the Union of the Crowns in 1603, and the Industrial Revolution which had begun in the mid-1700s. The former brought border warfare to an end so there was no further need of the town’s fortifications. While some parts seem to have been in existence in 1681, lack of maintenance resulted in ruin, and the stone was probably used to build or repair local properties. Long burgage plots of land led from houses with narrow frontages on Bondgate, Market Street and Clayport, some reaching as far as Green Batt, and eventually filling up with smaller houses to accommodate the growing population. The town houses in the market place and a house in Clayport with coach arch and pillared porch date from the beginning of the 18th century.
The advent of stage wagons for the carriage of goods, followed by stage coaches in the 1780s and 1790s, brought increasing economic benefits to the town. Coaching inns with teams of horses were established, the proprietors handling the business except for mail which, after 1784, was transported by the fast coaches of the Post Office. The Black Swan was a coaching and posting inn and housed the local excise office. By 1827, coaches between London and Edinburgh, and the Royal Mail were using The White Swan Inn as a staging post. The town was supplied with gas, and piped water in addition to that still available from several pants and pumps. Sewerage was installed by 1868 when privies were abolished. Carts took away ashes and refuse daily, so middens were no longer
required. Pavements and highways were improved, streets widened and better lit, and provisions for extinguishing fires lessened the danger to life and property.
The population continued to grow, and at the time of the 1851 Census had reached 7,319. There was severe overcrowding in the tenements which had developed in the back streets of the town. At the same time, many fine public and commercial buildings provided new facilities for the townspeople.
Work was available in factories, corn mills, breweries, tanneries, a foundry, and in the production and selling of a variety of commodities. In 1872, a gunsmiths’ business was established in the town whose owner was joined the following year by his brother. A passion for angling led to a change of direction for the Hardy Brothers, and they gained worldwide recognition for the manufacture of fishing tackle. Their firm became the largest employer in the area.
At the beginning of the First World War, 85 out of 88 eligible men were called up to serve, and female labour was introduced in 1916. A depot and barracks for the 4th Northumberland Fusiliers existed in the town in 1914. After the outbreak of war, the 16th Battalion arrived in Alnwick to be accommodated in a hutted camp on pasture land opposite the Castle. One of the huts, converted and until recently used for living accommodation, still stands near the top of Clayport at the west end of town. A memorial to those who failed to return from the war was erected alongside the main route into the town. A Remembrance Day Parade to the War Memorial around 1930 is depicted on one of the films in the Bailiffgate Museum.