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Alnwick in 1833

ALNWICK or ALNEWICK, a considerable town in the county of Northumberland, 34 miles N. by W. from Newcastle, and 310 N. by W. from London, on the great road to Edinburgh through Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is situated on a declivity on the south bank of the river Aln, over which is a stone bridge of three arches. The town is well laid out; the streets spacious, well paved, and lighted with gas; the houses chiefly of stone, of modern date, and some of them of considerable elegance. The chief entrance to the town is by the four streets, ‘Bond-Gate,’ ‘Narrow-Gate,’ ‘Potter-Gate,’ and ‘Clayport.’ In the first, the ancient gate, from which it derives its name, and which was erected by Hotspur, is still standing. It would have been taken down some years since, (when another gate which had stood till then was removed,) being regarded by the towns-people as a nuisance ; but it was preserved by the then Duke of Northumberland from respect for the memory of its warlike founder. In the centre of the town is the market-place, a spacious area or square : on one side of the square is the town-hall, a large and commodious stone building, surmounted with a square tower : and on another side is an elegant modern structure, erected by the present Duke of Northumberland, the under part of which is used as stalls or shambles for the sale of butchers’ meat, with a fish and poultry market at the east end, and above is a very elegant assembly room, and also a spacious reading-room, which his grace has appropriated to the use of the gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood. The church is a very handsome edifice with a neat tower, dedicated to St. Mary and St. Michael. The living is a perpetual curacy, of which the Bishop of Durham is patron. There are several meeting houses for dissenters, and chapels for the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodists, and Roman Catholics.

The most remarkable object connected with Alnwick is the ancient castle to the N.W. of the town, the residence of the Duke of Northumberland. This had been suffered to go very much to decay till it was completely repaired several years since ; and it is now one of the most magnificent specimens in the kingdom of an old baronial residence. The building is of freestone, and as well as the repairs and ornaments is in the Gothic style, and in excellent taste. The grounds, which are five miles long, and through which flows the Aln, exhibit every species of natural and artificial beauty, including the remains of two ancient abbeys. The interior of the castle is splendid; and the chapel, with its exquisitely painted east window, its ceiling copied from that of King’s College chapel at Cambridge, and its gilded and painted mouldings and stucco work, is an object worthy of attention.

The trade of Alnwick and its manufactures are not very considerable. A woollen manufactory was once established, but the undertaking failed. The market is on Saturday, chiefly for corn ; and there are fairs on the 12th of May, the last Monday in July, and the first Tuesday in October. On the eve of the July fair deputies from the adjacent townships attend the bailiff of Alnwick during the ceremony of proclamation, and keep watch and ward during the remainder of the night.

The municipal government of Alnwick is in the hands of a corporation, consisting of a bailiff, (nominated by the Duke of Northumberland, as constable of the castle,) four chamberlains, and twenty-four common-councilmen. The common-councilmen are chosen from among the freemen of the incorporated companies, and the chamberlains from among the common-council. The freedom is inherited by the eldest sons, or acquired by servitude. Upon taking it up, the candidates are subjected to a ludicrous ceremony of passing through what is called ‘Freeman’s Well.’ This is a miry pool some twenty feet across, and said to be from four to five feet deep in many places. On St. Marks day (25th of April) the candidates, clad in white, with white night-caps, mounted, and with swords by their sides, accompanied by the bailiff and chamberlains similarly mounted and armed, and preceded by music, proceed to this pool, which is said to be deepened and stirred for their especial benefit. They then dismount, scramble through the pool, several, perhaps, being tumbled over in the bustle, and after changing their befouled garments, ride round the boundaries of the town. The tradition is that the observance of this absurd custom was enjoined by King John, as a penalty, it is said, for their carelessness in neglecting to keep up the roads near the town, owing to which he was bemired in a bog in this neighbourhood. The municipal officers have no magisterial authority, the town being under the jurisdiction of the county magistrates ; but they have considerable revenues, part of which has been employed in erecting pumps to supply the town with water, and part is devoted to keeping up three free-schools for the children of freemen, to which other children are also admitted on payment of a small fee. The quarter-sessions for the county are held here in turn with Newcastle, Hexham, and Morpeth ; and there is a county court monthly for the recovery of small debts. The elections for Northumberland took place here previous to the passing of the reform bill ; and it is still one of the polling places for the northern division of that county. It has been said that it once returned members to parliament, but finding their salary burdensome, petitioned to be relieved from the charge.

There are several schools in Alnwick, besides those already mentioned as supported by the corporation. A national school for 200 boys was founded by the late Duke of Northumberland in 1810, on the completion of the fiftieth year of the reign of George III. There is a school for clothing and educating girls, under the patronage of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, and several Sunday schools. A mechanic’s institute was established a few years ago, and the members of the society have lately erected a handsome building.

The situation and strength of Alnwick castle rendered it in early times one of the strongest defences against the invasions of the Scots. Malcolm III (of Scotland )besieged it in 1093 ; but was killed by a soldier from the garrison, who approaching, with the keys on the point of his lance, as if he were going to surrender them, slew the king, and escaped by the speed of his horse. The story that he pierced the king in the eye, and hence obtained the name of Pierce eye (Percy) is a mere fable. Prince Edward, son and heir of Malcolm, attempting to revenge his death, was defeated and lost his life. In 1174 William the Lion, one of Malcolm’s successors, besieged the castle with a large army, but being surprised at a distance from his camp, he was taken prisoner, and his army in consequence retreated. There was at Alnwick an abbey of Premonstratensian canons, the revenue of which, at the dissolution, was about £190. The Earl of Beverley takes the title of Baron from this town. The population of the parish in 1831 was 6,788.