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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Neville Hall: Centre of the Northern Coal Trade

Guest Post By Michael Johnson

The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers was founded in Newcastle in 1866. The renowned engineer Robert Stephenson bequeathed £2000 towards the building of a permanent home for the Institute. A site was purchased in 1867 and building commenced in 1869. Designed by Archibald Matthias Dunn (1832-1917), Neville Hall is an example of High Victorian Gothic architecture. The building presents two faces, each of three main bays, pivoted around a polygonal turret, with a Venetian balcony projecting from the north front and a wide gable thrusting out at the west. The three storeys are treated as separate compositional elements and the attic storey is arrayed with miniature Gothic dormers.

The building of Neville Hall defined Newcastle as the epicentre of the coal trade, the dominant industry of North East England. Inside the building is the Wood Memorial Hall, a library named after the colliery engineer Nicholas Wood (1795-1865). Wood gained experience of mine engineering at Killingworth Colliery under George Stephenson, and assisted Stephenson in the development of his safety lamp and the construction of the Stockton to Darlington railway. 

In 1844 Wood became manager of Hetton Colliery in County Durham. Over the next two decades he became the pre-eminent colliery engineer on the northern coalfield and in 1862 he was elected first President of the Institute. Wood was a supporter of education for the working classes and built several schools in mining villages across County Durham. He was among a number of eminent men who encouraged Durham University to establish a College of Science in Newcastle, which eventually became Newcastle University. The Wood Memorial Hall is dominated by a shrine-like monument to Wood, with a pristine statue sculpted by Edward William Wyon (1811-85). 

The design of Neville Hall is highly revealing. The choice of architect can largely be explained by nepotism. Dunn’s father, Matthias Dunn (c.1789-1869) was a prominent figure in the history of mining and one of the first government Inspectors of Mines. As a founding member of the Institute he was instrumental in securing the prestigious commission for his son.

The Venetian Gothic style used at Neville Hall had the loquacious support of the famous art critic John Ruskin, to whom the separate compositional layers were evocative of geological strata. Arguably, this made the style symbolically appropriate for a Mining Institute, a body concerned with delving into the earth. Dunn was among the legion of young architects whom Ruskin inspired to tour the continent, and he spent his time sketching examples of French and Italian architecture.

A page from A.M. Dunn’s Notes and Sketches of an Architect, showing his sketch of a church in Bologna dated 26 January 1876.

With its medieval associations, the Gothic style could give individuals or institutions a spurious pedigree by evoking historical lineage. By using this style, the proud, self-made men who dominated the region’s coal trade were deliberately cultivating a group persona as gentlemen and intellectuals. Neville Hall thus promotes an image of historical continuity that was intended to challenge the common perception of the industrial nouveaux riches.

Read More of Michael Johnson's Articles On Architecture

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About the Author

Michael Johnson is a lecturer and academic tutor based in the North East of England. He has a PhD in architectural history, and teaches the history of architecture and design at two North East universities. Read more of Michael Johnson's articles on architecture

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