Granted its first Royal Charter in 1173, Newcastle-under-Lyme is one of the oldest County Boroughs in the country. The town takes its name from the Norman castle constructed here in the mid-12th century by the Earl of Chester, which was overlooked by the lyme forest to the north west in the hills on the Staffordshire-Cheshire border.
The area had long been settled, however, and many of the villages in today’s Borough are found in the Domesday book of 1086, Britain’s first census, twenty years after the Norman invasion, which rapidly dismantled the local Mercian Saxon nobility.
The ‘old castle’ was situated at Chesterton to the north of today’s town centre – a fortified Roman camp dating back to at least 80AD on the strategically important road from Ratae (Leicester) to Deva (Chester), which helped the legions pacify the restless local British tribes.
Unlike neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent - with its six smaller, constituent towns - Newcastle was never really a pottery centre. Instead, it was always a market town, with an industrial heritage of metalwork and coal mining dating back to Roman times.
The castle, held until the end of the 14th century by the powerful John o’Gaunt, father of Henry IV, fell into neglect during Tudor times, its sandstone scavenged for buildings in the expanding town, and all that is left is a length of wall near St Mary’s school and the remains of the mound in Queen Elizabeth’s gardens in Pool Dam.
During the Civil War, wedged between Royalist strongholds to the east and west, Newcastle sided with Cromwell’s parliamentary cause. One of the leaders of the New Model Army, Major General Thomas Harrison hailed from the town. As a signatory to Charles I’s death warrant, he was condemned to death on the royal restoration.
History has it that he was arrested in Merrial Street, one of three main thoroughfares, adjoining the High Street and running alongside the old Ironmarket - all of which date back to the early 14th century. The origins of the Guildhall – Newcastle’s signature landmark – go back further, to the town’s guild of ironsmiths in the late 13th century.
From its Roman roots, Newcastle has always been a key staging post on the route north to Manchester and Liverpool. In the 18th century, the first Staffordshire turnpike road passed through ‘Castle – along the current route of the A34 – giving rise to a crop of inns and pubs that can still be seen today in the Georgian town centre.
By the First World War, brick and tile making, fed by still abundant reserves of Etruria marl, joined coal and iron as the dominant industries. Only one brickworks still survives – in Chesterton. Old-fashioned iron forging largely ended in the 1930s, though tanks were made at Apedale in the Second World War. Steel-making, too, came to a halt with the closure in 1978 of the blast furnaces at nearby Shelton Bar.
In 1998, the last pit in the huge Staffordshire coalfield – Silverdale colliery – closed, meaning that Paul is the first MP in Newcastle’s parliamentary history not to have a working mine in the constituency.
In place of the smoke and coal dust, the pit dangers and disasters, Newcastle has attracted a mix of retail, distribution and light industry, plus cutting edge medical science and technology at Keele University.
The challenge remains, however, to encourage a greater mix of skills to accompany the real strides in education locally – most recently with a modern, new college – in order to cement a virtuous circle of aspiration, achievement and 21st century success.