Newark’s Namesake Played a Proud Part in England’s History

History and Landscape
Published January 15, 1998

Newark’s Namesake Played a Proud Part in England’s History

| Published January 15, 1998

Mayor Roy Bird and Mrs. Bird stand on the steps of the Town Hall while a young girl presents flowers to Mrs. Gibson The Newark Public Library

'In the beginning' is the opening phrase not only of this article, but for the following three as well, while we look at our mother city as well as Newark-on-Trent, England, and the New Haven Colony that is now Connecticut, from which Newark, New Jersey, emerged.

In doing so, we will meet Newark's first secular and spiritual leaders, Robert Treat and the Rev. Abraham Pierson, and examine the early village of Newark, considered 'one of the most charming villages of the old British Empire, ' with its church, home lots, streets, greens, mill and ferry. Newark-on-Trent, which our Newark might very well call home, has a well-documented history stretching back over 1,000 years. Archeological evidence shows it was a Roman settlement where agriculture was the primary activity.

This Newark's first recorded settlement was started by the Saxons and matured with the coming of the Danes in the ninth century. About this time, the name NeuWere was identified with the community. Later, it became New Work, and eventually Newark. Newark Castle was built by Alexander, bishop of Lincoln and the lord mayor of Newark from 1125-48. While it served as a defense post, it was also, from the outset, 'a sumptuous, if fortified, palace.' In the English Civil War of 1642-46, the town served as an important Royalist stronghold for Charles I, withstanding three bitter and prolonged sieges by Parliamentary forces. The community was reduced at a terrible cost before surrender came. Newark finally fell to Cromwell's forces. The present ruinous condition of Newark's chief landmark was the result not so much of military attack but its ordered demolition by Parliament. Fortunately, these orders were neither efficiently nor completely carried out. As a result, the region's chief romantic ruin survives.

In the 18th century, Newark-on-Trent more than rebounded from its earlier trials to become prosperous from tanning, milling and brewing. Situated in the heart of one of England's most bountiful agricultural regions, its market center was and remains one of the busiest. Wool and leather manufactures also made it a prosperous place. In 1791, a newspaper noted that, 'so great is the call for new homes in this town that the bricklayers have scarcely time to build them.' Most of the fine brick structures being restored today date from that period. Late in the 18th century, while visiting Newark, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, described the little town 'as one of the most elegant in England.' The 19th century saw the continued growth of the malt trade along with the emergence of engineering and large-scale agricultural developments, both in Newark and its rich green hinterland. As a result, further construction of important Victorian structures continued with buildings such as the Corn Exchange, the Gilstrap Library and the Ossington Coffee Palace. The latter was a gift of Lady Ossington of Ossington Hall, a leading local temperance campaigner. 'It was her intention that the presence of the coffee palace should encourage farmers away from town pubs on market day for non-intoxicating refreshment.' In Lady Ossington's time, Newark had 55 pubs and eight breweries. The poor woman is probably spinning in her grave, for just recently Ossington Hall was restored as one of the region's leading restaurants and pubs. Today, Newark-on-Trent is part of the Newark and Sherwood District in the County of Nottinghamshire, and is a co-partner with 80 other communities sharing expenses as well as benefits of a new regionalization. The old argument of historical integrity and 'it can't or shouldn't be done' has been shattered.

The people of Newark-on-Trent

Although primarily known for its rich agricultural output and several important industries, Newark-on-Trent has also both been host and home to some pretty well known personalities. During the reign of Edward the Confessor, 1042-1066, the manor belonged to Earl Leofric the Grimand, whose countess, Lady Godiva, will always be remembered for riding naked through the streets of Coventry. Just outside the village gates supposedly occurred all the activities of Sherwood Forest. Newark Castle was built and held by the Bishop of Lincoln for 400 years until it was seized by Henry VII for the crown in the 1480s. During the Civil War, its walls were finally breached and Charles I surrendered to Parliament at Kelham, a mile outside town. In the 19th century, Lord Byron's mother rented a house where her famous poet-son wrote his first two volumes. 'Hours of Idleness, ' completed in 1806, and 'Fugitive Pieces,' 1808, were printed in Newark at the S&J Ridge bookshop, now a local greengrocer. In 1828, William Ewart Gladstone arrived in town and successfully ran for Parliament. Years later, he became one of England's greatest prime ministers. Nearby was the family home of Charles Darwin, famous for originating the theory of evolution, and the Victorian writer and illustrator Kate Greenaway, who so loved the region that she once declared, 'Oh, I'll stay in the country, and make a daisy chain, and never go back to London again.'

The buildings

For a thousand years Newark's buildings have been used by the high and lowly alike, by kings and yeomen, merchants, industrialists, poets and peasants. Of all the buildings in town, the best-known structure certainly would have to be Newark Castle, now a ruin and tourist attraction. Once, however, it was a mighty fortification and seat of government. We have already learned that it was a focal point during the Civil War and partially dismantled. In 1216, King John died there. By the 16th century, it became a residence of the duke of Rutland. Continued interest in the dusty old ruin brought excavations in 1992 and 1993. The first work was done on an ancient moat filled in the 17th century. The second traced the old Saxon lines of defense. To promote these activities the Newark Castle Trust was established on the site. The Parish Church of St. Mary Magdalene has been described as 'amongst the finest and largest' of England's parish churches. Early construction dates from 1160, and the central clock and tower from 1227. It was Henry VII who granted six oaks from Sherwood Forest for the tower's construction. Its spire was added in 1330. Its perpendicular-style nave and chances are extraordinary. Behind the high altar is a painting that portrays the Adoration of the Risen Christ by St. Mary Magdalene, hence the name given to the church building. The crypt was used as a burial place from the 16th through 19th centuries. It now houses the church's outstanding ecclesiastical silver collection, one of England's largest. Newark Town Hall, designed by John Carr, is relatively new, completed in 1776. It was conceived as a multi-purpose building with the ground floor consisting of a collection of shops and stalls, and, at one time, several police cells. The next floor up contains the Council Chamber, the Mayor's Parlour, committee rooms, and the ballroom, designed in the 'style of Robert Adam.' The ballroom houses the town's civic plate silver collection, which included two silver gilt maces of the era of Charles II, several silver loving cups and covers, and other assorted bowls of great note. A ceremonial footstool from which the town clerk has read the proclamations of every English monarch since George IV is housed in the Mayor's Parlour. The Ossington, as we noted previously, is a former temperance coffee room envisioned by a local noblewoman. She spared no expense to create an attractive setting, employing a fashionable London architect to design the building and lavishing more than 25,000 pounds on the project. Also important in the 19th century building boom was the Corn Exchange, finished in 1848 by Henry Duesbury. It features Italian Baroque decorations, including carved figures on its turrets representing agriculture and commerce. The building is now the Caesar's Palace nightclub. In 1887, Watson Fothergill designed the Violin School at Kirkgate, one of three British schools that draw students from around the realm and outside Britain. With the exception of the church and music school, the buildings detailed thus far no longer serve their original purposes. In Newark and throughout Britain, structures that otherwise might become derelict and eventually be destroyed often are converted to new uses. The Newark-on-Trent Twinning Association was created in 1984 to promote friendship and understanding with Emmendingen in southern Germany and St. Cyr-Sur-Loire in France. An international festival is in the planning stage.

The Newarks of the World Association was created here in Newark, N.J., in 1987 during the administration of Mayor Sharpe James, who has visited Newark-on-Trent several times. The purpose of the organization is 'to exchange views and visits amongst the namesake towns.' At present, 29 'other Newarks' are scattered primarily throughout the United States, all with some relation to Newark-on-Trent. Reunions have been held in the Newarks of New Jersey, California, Vermont, Ohio and Illinois. In 1995, Newark-on-Trent hosted a splendid world conference. From yesteryear to yesterday, the Newarks of the world possess a rich historical chronicle of English kings, Cromwellian reformers, poets, politicians, regional planners, modern-day farmers, housewives, school teachers, business people and the like, poised at the millenium for more to come.