Oystershell Hall, Newcastle

Although considered something of a gastronomic indulgence now, Oysters were once staples of the English diet. In 1910 the British Government estimated that the oyster trade was the most important industry in the world and in Victorian metropoles oysters were sold freely on the street. Pubs even offered them gratis to entice punters through the door. Their wide availability meant it was not unknown for local authorities to designate them a ‘poor food’, exempting them from taxes to keep them affordable.[1]

Britain’s relationship with the oyster stretches back at least as far as the Roman occupation. A boom triggered by increasing populations, intensifying poverty and the advent of rail transportation began in the 1830s and continued through the middle of the century.[2] Although there are no records of oyster production in Newcastle and its environs there are certainly indications of consumption. Paneling recently lifted off the front of a barber shop in South Shields revealed the ghost sign of for the West End Fish Mart whose primary offering was oysters.

oyster market london

Working class Londoners queue up to buy oysters.

Another relic is Oystershell Lane. The street—near St. James Park—was swallowed by the expanding Scottish and Newcastle Breweries reducing it to an internal service road in their vast complex. Oystershell Lane lay dormant until the demolition of the breweries and disappeared completely when the site was leveled. As part of the development of Newcastle Science City Oystershell Lane seems to have been resurrected as one of the paths cutting through the new park.

Oystershell Lane presumably took its name from a quite remarkable building that once stood at the edge of a garden on the adjoining Bath Lane. Oystershell Hall was an ordinary dwelling, save for the fact that the whole building was covered with oyster shells from the ground to the top of the chimney (with the exception of the roof). They were fixed on the building with the inside of the shells facing out. It was resplendent in sunlight and the concave shells produced a brilliant effect that turned the house into a local curiosity. Oystershell Hall was surrounded by orchards and well-tended gardens looked after by Mr. Moat, the local gardener who also owned the house.

oystershell hall

Sketch of Oystershell Hall from the memory of John McKay.

According to the recollections of John McKay who visited Oystershell Hall, it was pulled down sometime between 1850 and 1860 and seems to have been largely erased from the record. Miraculously this marvelous piece of Geordie architecture did not make it into any of Pevsner’s guides, or anyone’s guides as far as I can tell.

 

[1] Drew Smith, Oyster: A Gastronomic History (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2015).

[2] Robert Neild, The English, The French and the Oyster (Quiller Press, 1995).

 

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