Why did Newcastle lose between one quarter and a third of its architectural heritage in the post-war years? A simple answer is often given: T. Dan Smith, Labour leader of the City Council (1960-1965), not only destroyed significant portions of our architectural heritage for political reasons but did so while lining his own pockets.
But as I tried to show in Four Visions of T. Dan Smith, the answer to this question is much more complex than conventional wisdom has often suggested. For politician and writer Chris Foote-Wood, Smith, “the most charismatic political leader the North-East has ever produced”, is not such a villain after all. Newcastle, however, for better or worse, still lives in the shadow of T. Dan Smith. Nobody since has had such a great effect on the landscape, society and minds of North East England.
Debates about Smith’s legacy usually begin and end with architecture. For some, the monuments to progress erected throughout and following his reign continue to wound our civic pride. The fine buildings that once existed in their place, years before reinforced concrete became architecturally fashionable, are today mourned and their loss is seen as a local tragedy. The journey over the Swan House Roundabout, past the City Library and Pearl on New Bridge Street and towards Eldon Square – what some might call the Dan Smith corridor – is best ignored and forgotten, a relic of a past, corrupt age. The sooner these buildings disappear, the better.
As you will see, many of the Victorian buildings below were, in fact, demolished years after Smith left the city council. But this is not to say that Smith’s plans, ideas and influence didn’t play a role in the many subsequent changes to Newcastle’s cityscape.* What we can all probably agree on is that the loss of many of the Dobson-Grainger buildings below is sad, and that Newcastle would be all so superior if it had retained Eldon Square and the Royal Arcade among others – the jewels in its crown – if not the reasons for why the buildings were demolished in the first place. On the legacy of T. Dan Smith, however, this should not be the last word.
Here is a collection of “Now and Then” images which will be updated in small doses as I discover new material. (If any readers have any pictures that they wish to share please comment and send away.)
The Royal Arcade (1832) and Swan House Roundabout (1969)
The Old Town Hall (1863) and No. 1 Cathedral Square (Jobcentre Plus) (1973)
The Pearl Assurance House (19th Century, 1971)
Kelmsley House, Westgate House (1972) and Vita Student Newcastle (2016)
Newcastle City Library (1881, 1968, 2009)
YMCA Building (1900) and Eldon Square Shopping Centre Entrance (2016)
Old Eldon Square (1840) and Eldon Square (1976)
At least we still have Grey Street (1836).
*See John Pendelbury on the legacy of Smith and Wilfred Burn’s 1963 plan to transform the city centre: Conservation in Newcastle upon Tyne City Centre 1959–68, an in-depth look at the architectural history of the period which may help to untangle some of the myths referenced above.