Why did Newcastle lose between one quarter and a third of its 19th century architecture in the post-war years? A simple and flawed answer is often given: T. Dan Smith, Labour leader of the City Council (1959-1965), 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 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 modern buildings below were, in fact, built years after Smith left the city council. But this is not to say that his plans, ideas and influence didn’t play a role in the many changes to Newcastle’s cityscape.† What we can all probably agree on is that the loss of many of the Victorian buildings below is unfortunate,‡ and that Newcastle would be all so superior if it had retained Eldon Square and the Royal Arcade – 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)
The Douglas Hotel (1877), Baron House (1971) and Hampton Hilton (2015)
Old Eldon Square (1840) and Eldon Square (1976)
*There is also the counter argument that the modern buildings above should be celebrated – a notion which is worth investigating. I touch upon Smith, the visionary and utopian, briefly in Four Visions of T. Dan Smith.
†How far they did is an interesting question. See John Pendelbury on the legacy of Smith and Wilfred Burns’ 1963 plan to transform the city centre and their “conscious policy of conservation”: Conservation in Newcastle upon Tyne City Centre 1959–68, which may help untangle some of the myths and false narratives referenced above.
‡My use of “all” here is probably too strong, however, even Foote Wood follows this line of thinking in T. Dan Smith: Downfall of a Visionary.
§I am open to Foote Wood’s notion that “Eldon Square secured Newcastle’s position as a major shopping city, and the Central Motorway resolved much of its traffic problems.” This would make a great essay question: did the actions of Smith and subsequent councils ensure prosperity for Newcastle in the post-industrial period? Discuss.