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St John the Baptist Church, Newcastle upon Tyne

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Title: St John the Baptist Church, Newcastle upon Tyne  
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Language: English
Subject: Charles Avison, John Cunningham (poet and dramatist), Grade I listed buildings in Tyne and Wear
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

St John the Baptist Church, Newcastle upon Tyne

St John the Baptist
 St John the Baptist shown within Tyne and Wear

54°58′12″N 1°36′56″W / 54.9701°N 1.6155°W / 54.9701; -1.6155Coordinates: 54°58′12″N 1°36′56″W / 54.9701°N 1.6155°W / 54.9701; -1.6155

OS grid reference NZ245639
Location Newcastle upon Tyne
Country England
Denomination Anglican
Status Parish church
Functional status Active

St John’s Church is a 12th-century church in Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, dedicated to St John the Baptist.


The old church of St. John, believed to date from c.1287, with its low square time-worn tower, standing amongst its green trees, is the pleasantest sight to be seen in Westgate Street. Gray calls it "a pretty little church, commended by an arch-prelate of this kingdom because it resembled much a cross". And a pretty little church it is, its quiet simplicity rendered more charming still by the huge piles of modern buildings which surround and overtop it on three sides. It has no pretension to architectural beauty; there is nothing grand about it; its tower, as we have said, is low and square, with little pinnacles at the corners; its windows have flattened arched tops, far from elegant in design but there is something about it which makes it pleasing. Perhaps it is that it recalls to our mind some little country church, and that its aspect is suggestive of green trees and sunny pastures and quiet sylvan delights, amongst all the turmoil and bustle of the busy streets which run past it.

Over the outside of the large window in the south transept, which looks into Westgate Street, is a stone which has carved upon it the arms of Robert Rhodes, the builder of St. Nicholas’ steeple, and the benefactor of this and all the churches of the town. The stone we see is a copy of the original one placed there in the lifetime of the good lawyer, as were also his arms in the groining of the tower, to commemorate his generosity. The old one was taken down about 1861, when some repairs were being executed, and is now in the castle.[1]


The 15th century font cover and the Jacobean pulpit are fine examples of local woodwork. When the church was restored a new sanctuary was created at the Crossing, which contains a stone altar slab given in 1712 as a reminder of the church revival under Queen Anne. The chancel, now the Lady Chapel, contains a window including the fragments of medieval glass with the earliest known representation of the arms of Newcastle. Further along the wall can be seen a cruciform opening which enabled the anchorite, whose cell was above the present sacristy, to see the altar. The rood and reredos are both the work of Sir Charles Nicholson.[2]

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is buried in the graveyard.

In the quiet churchyard, not far from the east window lies, on the ground, a stone slab, part of a table monument, its four supporting pillars lying half buried in the soil beneath it. This is one of the most interesting monuments in the town. The inscription upon it, though partly obliterated, can be read as follows:

Here lie the Remains of
Of his excellence
As a Pastoral Poet
His works will remain a monument
for ages
After this temporary Tribute of Esteem
Is in dust forgotten.
He died in Newcastle Sep. 18, 1773,
Aged 44.

The history of John Cunningham is a sad one. He was of Scottish extraction, though born in Dublin, and early in life conceived a strong passion for the stage. As an actor he never achieved any distinction, for in figure, voice, and temperament he was quite unfitted for such a profession. At the age of seventeen he wrote a drama called “Love in a Mist,” which was performed a few times. Afterwards he performed at various places, with but indifferent success, amongst others, at York, Newcastle, Alnwick, Sunderland, and Edinburgh. While gaining his living, and but a scanty one it was, as an actor, he still continued to write poetry. It was at Edinburgh that he first came into notice as a poet, and on leaving it he returned to Newcastle, which he had before made his head-quarters while playing in the North of England. One of his biographers says- “He had originally quitted it with regret, and to his last breath he used emphatically to call it his home.” Here he lived for the remainder of his life, writing poems, and playing wherever he could get an engagement in the vicinity. His earnings were scanty, indeed, but his wants were few, and his amiable, simple character, and poetic talent, made him many friends. One of the best and truest was Thomas Slack, bookseller, and publisher of the Newcastle Chronicle. This gentleman, after befriending the poor poet in many ways, at length took him home to his house. Cunningham was then almost worn out with the struggle of life, but his benefactor paid him every attention that his state required. Writing to a friend, the poet says of Mr. Slack:

“His Bounty proceeds from his heart,
'Tis principle prompts the supply;
His friendship exceeds my desert,
And often suppresses a sigh.”

Three weeks afterwards he died, and the monument before us was erected to his memory by that true friend, Thomas Slack.

The poetry of Cunningham is all written in a quiet, lifted strain. Some of his descriptions of natural scenery are very true and very pleasing in their simplicity; there is much tenderness and grace in his pastorals, but he never rises into passion, or allows himself to be carried away by poetic enthusiasm. There is more fire, perhaps, in his eulogy of “Newcastle Beer” than in most of his other compositions. The theme may, to some, appear unworthy of a poet’s efforts, but it must be remembered that in Cunningham’s days Newcastle beer was a great institution, and the great ones of the town did not disdain on occasions to indulge in the local nectar. Often were their servants sent round to see where the beer was in best condition (each house brewed its own then), and acting on their reports, the masters would patronise mine host who had the best on tap.[1]


Part of the graveyard was built over in the 1960s for a hall and meeting rooms; most of the rest has been paved over. There remain (2010) about ten gravestones including the table monument mentioned above.

See also

  • St John the Baptist’s Church web site
  • Photographs here


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