I was not a sickly child but I suffered the various illnesses that inflict the young. The kitchen cupboard contained the standard remedies, prescribed in varying degrees, as determined by my mother’s expert diagnosis – lucozade (only one flavour), glucose powder (by the dessert spoon), Famel Syrup, Owbridges and Milk of Magnesia. When all of these failed, Doctor Gold would be summoned – always a home visit, Gladstone bag and stethoscope in hand.
Milk of Magnesia was the least palatable of these concoctions; I assumed it to be the milk of some exotic animal, alien to Altrincham and best kept at a safe distance. For this reason its memory lingers but, with no great affection. Invented by the English pharmacist, Charles Henry Phillips, a chemistry teacher would later explain, it is simply Magnesium Hydroxide in suspension. This didn’t dispel my notion that, nothing wholesome ever emerged from a blue bottle.
Pure magnesium is a glossy grey solid which burns with a bright white intensity, sufficient to temporarily impair vision. Combine this with racing fuel and the conflagration is almost inextinguishable. As a teenager I witnessed the impact of this lethal combination on more than one occasion. It’s all about chemistry.
And this preamble is simply to explain why my interest was sparked when fellow Blipper, X-Photographer and Triumph Bonneville owner, Len, posted an image of the Magnesia Bank pub, North Shields. There are some odd public house names around Newcastle but why the Magnesia Bank.
Len offered the following explanation: The Maggy Bank is so called due to its former days as a bank; it then became a social club before being converted into a pub. The pub is now a popular music venue. The name “Magnesia” derives from the Magnesia Stair, one of the crowded streets of houses that led down to the riverside, which was south of the current pub near the present day stairs.
Local historian and author of the excellent The Northumbrians, Dan Jackson, made the link with magnesium’s various uses in the local manufacture of metals, chemicals and glass but, I felt there had to be more.
Search for “Magnesia Bank” on Google and most results relate to the pub, restaurant and gig reviews but, delve into the British Newspaper Archive and much more is revealed.
R Brown writing to the Shields Daily News, 12th August 1942, is convinced that a street called Magnesia Bank derived its name from the salt and magnesia works established by Joseph Ogilvie. This opinion is contrary to another local theory that it was named after a nearby magnesia spring. He continues: It was from 1810 known as Thorntree Lane, and only from the latter date known as Magnesia Bank. Thorntrees were popularly in use as gibbets at the time, and it is not impossible that this may have been the scene of many public hangings.
Ogilvie was descended from John Lomax, the first Presbyterian in the borough who arrived from Wooler in 1662 and gathered a Noncomformist congregation at the house of Isabella Green on Thorntree Lane. Lomax lived at the house in nearby Wooden Bridge which would later become the Seven Stars public house – as the third occupier, R Brown in the same letter, surmises that this was the oldest building in Tynemouth (demolished). John “learned” Lomax died on May 25th 1693 and is buried at Tynemouth Priory. In 1787, the Lomax descendant married the Rev. Andrew Ogilvie and it was their son, Joseph, who established the magnesia works from which the lane derived its new name.
Coincidentally, another candidate for the oldest house in North Shields was situated on Magnesia Bank. The Echoes of the Week column by Vigilante in the 18th September 1922 edition of the Shields Daily News quotes historical records of old Shields: ‘It occupied the site and embodies the remains of an old chapel dedicated in honour of St David … The chapel was probably erected at the time when sailors began to come to North Shields probably in the reign of King John or, when the trade of the place had been revived under the fostering care of the Prior of Tynemouth in the time of Henry IV. (In providing a place where seafaring men could make their vows to the Lady of the Sea, the priors would have exacted a good return in the form of fish tithes). In the course of its transmigrations it was used as a dissenting meeting house, and later as a baker’s oven … Inside the oven were the remains of some inscriptions and cherubs’ heads. On the end walls in the upper storey were some curious ornamental figures but so mutilated that their nature could not be made out. The following inscription, cut in large letters in oak above the altar has been preserved – “Si Deus pro nobis quis contra nos”‘. If God be for us, who shall be against us. The reference to the ‘dissenting meeting house‘ suggests that this is the house owned by Isabella Green.
A 1933 image of Magnesia Bank reproduced in the 30th May 1942 edition of the Shields Daily News appears to match the view of the street depicted on The Magnesia Bank pub sign. The accompanying article in the Round the Town column repeats the 1933 discovery of a tunnel which it suggests may have been the crypt of the ancient church of St David. The entrance was ‘in the North wall of premises that were then being used as a washhouse by residents of the bank. What I saw was an aperture, perhaps three feet wide in the stone wall about two feet from the ground. It had the appearance of an old doorway and led into a stone-walled chamber, roughly speaking about 12 feet square, which seemed to have been partly filled up with rubbish. This debris and the want of an electric torch prevented further exploration but one of the residents assured me that when as a youth some 25 years previously, he and other lads belonging to the locality penetrated to the east end of the chamber they found an arched passage which was certainly not a culvert. I was always hopeful that when the houses in the Magnesia Bank neighbourhood were demolished and the bankside cleared of debris the truth about the tunnel would be disclosed, but apparently no one who was engaged in the clearance operations was sufficiently interested to bother about it’. This article does not mention the ghost which long haunted the bank – a ‘figure of a man’ who periodically appeared at the same spot – near the doorway leading to the chamber from which the old tunnel starts (Shield Daily News, 20th February 1933).
All is not entirely lost despite the 1930s slum clearance. An article in the 5th February 1921 edition of the Shields Daily News, entitled Our Local Churches, suggests that the baptismal font (dated 1693) in the nearby Howard Street Presbyterian Church, originated from the St David’s Chapel.
There was history on Magnesia Bank but there was also life. Search the British Newspaper Archive for “Magnesia Bank” and the majority of the news stories relate to brawling, begging, drunkenness and prostitution. All human life was there. In the mid 19th century, the Bank and, possibly some of its residents, were immortalised in song:
In a New Garb, By an Old Tar
The common shores ill ah be cleaned, the streets so nicely swept,
The Causeway and Magnesia Bank ill be in order kept
At the wooden bridge here’ll be pulling down some day
The dark stairs and the baccy shops ill all be cleared away.