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Morpeth, Northumberland

Historical Description

Morpeth, a market and union town, a parliamentary and municipal borough, and a parish in Northumberland. The town stands on the river Winsbeck, adjacent to the N.E.R., at the junction with it of the Wansbeck Valley railway and of the Biyth and Tyne railway, 15 miles N of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The name was originally Moor Path, was afterwards written Morepath, and there is evidence that the town is situated on what was once a mooiland road. The place was of small note, not more at best than a village, in the times of the Saxons and the Danes, but it rose to some consequence and became the seat of a barony immediately after the Norman Conquest. The barony belonged to the Merleys or De Merlais, passed to the Greystocks and the Dacres, went by marriage of the heiress of the Dacres to Lord William Howard, known as " Belted Will," and has descended from him to the Earl of Carlisle. A castle was built on what is now a tree-fringed mound, by William de Merlai in the twelfth century, was dismantled in 1215 by King John, underwent speedy restoration, remained a place of strength till the time of Charles I., was seized in 1664 by the Scots and held by them for twenty days against a siege by a body of the king's forces, and is now represented by a fine massive gatehouse, which has been restored, and a few broken walls. A Cistercian abbey was founded at Newminster, about half a mile to the W, in 1138, by Sir Ranulph de Merlai; gave entertainment to Edward I., Edward II., and Edward III.; was given at the dissolution to Henry Grey; and is now represented by only a ruined arch. Excavations of the site in 1870, and again in 1878, resulted in the discovery of some interesting portions of the original building and various stone coffins. The town drew prosperity from the castle and the abbey, and it was described in 1540 by Leland as " long and metely well-builded, with low houses," and as " a far fairer town than Alnwick." It suffered great devastation by accidental fire in 1689, but it speedily recovered from the disaster, and it has in recent times undergone much improvement. Horsley, the author of " Britannia Romana,"' and Lord Collingwood were residents; Turner the early writer on botany, Gibson the herbalist, and Morrison the Chinese scholar and missionary, were natives; and the Earl of Carlisle takes hence the title of Viscount.

The town lies embosomed in a green valley, has beautiful, diversified, and picturesque environs, and is seen to great advantage from a terrace or public promenade, tastefully formed along the bank of the river. It consists chiefly of two spacious and well-built streets, with a highly picturesque market-place, and it extends into the township of Bullers Green, which forms a northern suburb, and is incorporated with Morpeth. A handsome bridge, after designs by Telford and erected in 1831, crosses the Wansbeck on the S side of the town. A very picturesque old bridge stood near the site of that bridge, which belonged to a community of monks who levied toll at its N end, and was wantonly destroyed about 1835. The monks' toll-house still stands, has a picturesque belfry, has been successively a chapel, a chantry, and a free school, and belongs now to the corporation. The town-hall was built in 1869-70 at the cost of the Earl of Carlisle, and replaces the former one designed by Sir John Vanbrugh. It is a substantial building, and has on the ground floor a butter, egg, and poultry market, and a corn exchange. The hall will hold 300 persons, and there are chambers for the meeting of the town council, the local board of health and other public bodies, and a library and reading-room for the members of the mechanics' institute. The clock tower, containing a peal of bells, in Oldgate Street, was originally a jail, and is surmounted by two little figures in ancient costume. The tower was restored in 1887 and the bells re-hung. Gates stood formerly at all the entrances of the town on the Scotch side, but they have been destroyed. The county jail stood on the N outskirts, was built in 1822-29, at a cost of more than £80,000; but with the exception of the fine gate tower, which is used as the chief constable's offices, has been pulled down and a new police station erected on its site. The county lunatic asylum stands on a slight eminence about half a mile to the NE, is a beautiful and spacious brick edifice, with tastefully disposed grounds, and commands an extensive view over the surrounding country. It was opened in 1859, extensive additions were made to it during 1885-89, and two wings were added to the infirmary in 1893. The workhouse, in lieu of a previous insufficient one, was built in 1866. The parish church, or St Mary's, stands on a ridge called Kirk Hill, about half a mile from the town, is chiefly Decorated English, has been well restored, comprises a nave of 5 bays, 60 feet by 46; a chancel, 41 feet by 19, and a W tower; has a fine Jesse window, with fragments of ancient stained glass filled in by "Wailes; and contains sedilia, a piscina, and a hagioscope. The churchyard is entered by a lych-gate, erected in 1862, and contains a restored old cross, and a lofty monumental cross to the Rev. J. Bolland. St James' Church stands in the centre at the town, was built in 1846 by Ferrey, is in the Lom-bardic style and cruciform, with a central tower and an apsidal choir; and contains a stone pulpit, good glazing by Wailes, and some rich carving. There are Presbyterian, Congregational, Primitive Methodist, Wesleyan, and Roman Catholic chapels. The free grammar school was founded in 1552 by Edward VI., was long held in the old chantry at the quondam old bridge, is now held in commodious buildings erected in 1859; a new school-room was built in 1889; has about £200 a year from endowment (applied towards maintaining scholarships at the school and three exhibitions), and numbers among its pupils the third Earl of Carlisle and the fourth Lord Widderington, who here contracted a friendship which resulted in the rescue of the latter from the scaffold after the rebellion of 1715. There are a borough school for girls and infants in Well Way, a mechanics' institute, established in 1825, possessing a library of about 4000 volumes, and a dispensary opened in 1817.

The town has a head post office, a railway station, four banks, two good hotels, and several inns; is a seat of petty sessions, head of a county court district, and a polling-place; and publishes a weekly newspaper. A weekly market is held on Wednesday, and was formerly one of the largest for cattle in England, but has suffered serious diminution in favour of Newcastle. Fairs are held on 25 March, 25 Oct., and on the first Wednesday in May and Nov. Races are held on Morpeth Common in April. The weaving of flannel, the manufacture of agricultural implements, brick and tile making, iron and brass founding, mailing, brewing, and corn-grinding are carried on. The town is a borough by .prescription; is governed by a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors; and sent two members to Parliament prior to the Reform Act of 1832, but now sends only one. The municipal boundaries, which were extended in 1889 under a Local Government Board Order, include the greater part of Morpeth township and part of Newminster Abbey township; and the parliamentary boundaries include the entire townships of Morpeth, Newminster Abbey, Hepscott, Morpeth Castle, Tranwell and High Church, Cowpen, and Newsham and South Biyth, and the parish of Bedlington. Population of the municipal borough, 5219. Acreage of the parliamentary borough, 17,119; population, 40,235.

The township comprises 563 acres; population, 5841; of Ahe ecclesiastical parish, 6607. The parish contains also thetownships of the parliamentary borough, as above-mentioned,except the last three. The living is a rectory in the diocese of Newcastle-on-Tyne; gross value, £1040 with residence. Patron, the Earl of Carlisle.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyNorthumberland 
Ecclesiastical parishMorpeth St. Mary 
Poor Law unionCastle ward 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Morpeth from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Northumberland is available to browse.


Online maps of Morpeth are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following newspapers related to Northumberland online:

RegionNorth East
Postal districtNE61
Post TownMorpeth