Featured as part of our North East History Compendium first, Anthony's piece on Defoe Defoe is now available to read on our website. Anthony's months of research shines through in this brilliant piece on Defoe's personal and professional life living on the banks of the Tyne. Anthony also shines a light on the literary connections between his works and the area he called home for four years.
If you walk along the Tyne, just as you pass underneath the southern end of the Tyne Bridge, you’ll see a blue plaque by the steps leading up towards St. Mary’s Heritage Centre. As the plaque reveals, between 1706 and 1710, the writer, journalist, pamphleteer, and spy Daniel Defoe resided on Hillgate, where, it has been claimed, he started work on his famous book Robinson Crusoe (1719). What follows is an attempt to shed some light on what brought him to Tyneside and the links that he had with the region before, during, and after his stay.
Let us start at the end. Robinson Crusoe is, the British Library asserts, “often described as the first English novel.” It tells the tale of a shipwrecked Yorkshire mariner and is often said to have been inspired by the Scot Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned on an island off the coast of Chile in 1704 before being rescued by the privateer Woodes Rogers in 1709. Selkirk’s story of survival caught the public imagination back in Britain, thanks in no small part to Rogers’ A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712). In fact, not only was Defoe a friend of Rogers, he actually met Selkirk himself in Bristol as well.
Robinson Crusoe’s eponymous protagonist is also said to be based on a certain Dr. Henry Pitman, who was exiled to the Caribbean during the Bloody Assizes in the wake of the Battle of Sedgemoor (1685). Defoe was present at the battle, a 24-year-old volunteer in the Duke of Monmouth’s army that was defeated by the royalists. Unlike Pitman, he avoided capture after Sedgemoor and pursued his craft as a merchant, dealing in many commodities and travelling widely, including abroad.
After going bankrupt in 1692, his primary interest moved from trade towards politics and pamphleteering. However, following the publication of the particularly cutting and satirical The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, he was arrested, prosecuted for seditious libel, and fined and sentenced to the pillory.
After Defoe had his three days in the pillory, he was sent to Newgate Prison in London in May 1703. While serving his time, his financial affairs once again fell into ruin, but he was released in November when a benefactor brokered his release and agreed to pay off some of his debts. This man was Robert Harley MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons and, later, the Earl of Oxford. By 1704, Harley had become the Secretary of State for the Northern Department (which, together with the Southern Department, later became the Foreign Office), but, more importantly, “Harley was perhaps the first political leader in England to realize the power of the printed word and the importance of influencing and controlling public opinion through a regular and well-organized political press.”
Given Defoe’s reputation as a pamphleteer and propagandist, his release clearly wasn’t mere charity but came with the proviso that he would travel around the country while working on Harley’s behalf. Defoe set up A Review of the Affairs of France to keep the public favourably disposed towards the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), and he continued to write it—with greater or lesser degrees of autonomy—while he was in Edinburgh, where, posing as a businessman, he would advocate for the Acts of Union (1706–1707).
There was once a saying that “You must go to Gateshead to hear Newcastle news”, and so, as he journeyed north in September 1706 to Edinburgh, Defoe duly did. His contact on Tyneside was the postmaster John Bell, another agent of Harley’s who was entrusted with distributing the MP’s money. Consequently, Defoe travelled with a largely empty purse, intending to collect credit from Bell. It was for this reason that he wrote to Harley that “I Assure you I have No fear of highway men. Cantabit Vacuus—is my Motto, and if I reach N Castle I shall be in Condition Very Fitt to wait upon Mr Bell” (Juvenal X.22: cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator [the empty-handed traveller will sing in the presence of the robber]).
Defoe, nevertheless conscious of the danger, rode hard and incognito as Alexander Goldsmith. After arriving safely in the North East, he took up lodgings in Hillgate, also known as Hellgate, a street of medieval origin on the south bank of the Tyne. In Defoe’s day, it consisted of quays, small factories, workshops, and tenemented houses. While he didn’t visit every place he recorded in A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–1727), his description of Gateshead must have been based at least in part on first-hand knowledge:
The air in this bishoprick is pretty cold and piercing; and it is well for the poor that nature has supplied them so abundantly with fuel for firing; and indeed all other provisions and necessaries are very cheap here. It seems as if the whole county had been originally appropriated to religion and war; for it is full of the ruins of religious houses and castles. […] [The two sides of the Tyne are] joined by the bridge, which consists of nine arches, as large, at least, as those of London Bridge, and support a street of houses…. The situation of the town is very uneven on the north bank of the river. The lower part of Gateshead, on the south-side of the river, is equally steep; both being unsafe to ride down on horseback. The streets upon the ascent are exceeding steep: the houses are built mostly of stone; some are of timber, the rest of brick.
Defoe’s travelogue was a much later endeavour, however; his present purpose was “to sound the reactions of the North towards the proposed union of England and Scotland and ‘in conversation and by all Reasonable Methods to Dispose people’s minds to the Union.’” Defoe was nonetheless somewhat unclear about exactly what he was supposed to be doing, reflecting on September 30 in a letter to Harley that “I am your Messengr without an Errand, your Ambassador without Instructions, your Servant without Ordrs.”
After spending a few days in Bell’s company and being furnished with a fresh horse by the postmaster, Defoe made his way north towards Morpeth on October 2. His initial impressions of Bell were positive, later describing him as “my Onely Resource” and that “He is a Capable, faithfull and Judicious Gentleman.”
It’s worth highlighting the importance of Bell and his role as both the postmaster and an agent for Harley. “Bell was paid £50 a year for his official work, and like most provincial postmasters, was encouraged to keep an inn with the monopoly of providing mounts for all travellers riding post. He was, therefore, in an unrivalled position for overhearing and reporting to London everything of moment that occurred in his neighbourhood. Moreover, the postmaster could, and did, exercise a long-established practice of opening, detaining or copying letters, with or without warrant.” The potential for him to delay letters would turn out to be a major point of contention between Bell and Defoe.
Unfortunately, exactly what Defoe did for Harley until 1710 has mostly remained “shadowy and unknowable, despite the best attempts of biographers to excavate evidence. Accounts of payments to ‘Alexander Goldsmith’ and ‘Claude Guilot’, Defoe’s code names, remain, but they are itemised only as ‘for her Majesty’s special service’, ‘as of Her M. Royal Bounty’ and ‘for secret services’.” After Harley was forced from office in 1708, Defoe found himself without a benefactor, the promised funding from the Treasury to continue his work, or a government appointment. However, in 1710, Sidney Godolphin was summarily dismissed as Lord of the Treasury, and Harley was back in power.
In light of the tense political situation in London, Defoe was sent north again by Harley “to ferret out the relative strength of Whigs, Tories and Jacobites.” However, by this point, relations between Bell and Defoe had significantly deteriorated. In a letter dated November 21, Defoe, writing as Claude Guilot, informed Harley that after Bell supplied him with £20 of credit, he “Imediately made my haveing that Credit and Waiting there for it Public all Over the Town, Haveing himself Espoused a Contrary Intrest to what he Supposed me Acting for, of which I shall add more largely when I am assured my letters Arriv Safe to your hand.”
Defoe was so concerned about Bell that on December 3, he sent a letter pleading for Harley to respond to him: “Sir, I have been So Anxious About the Safe Conveying of My Letters, haveing Not had the honor of the Least hint from your Self, That I Convey This Enclosed by a Trusty Friend, as well That I May be Sure of its Comeing to your hand, as That I may Reciev if you please One line for my Direction whether to stay here or Returne…. It is a Dissaster to me That I lost the Occasion of writeing by Mr Bell, whose Conduct I Observ’d to you Renders him Suspected to me.”
We can infer something of Defoe’s state of mind from the frequency of his letters despite the fact that Newcastle was at least a 41-hour journey from London by mail coach. Was a residence in Gateshead the ideal place for him to stay that was far enough from Edinburgh to distance himself from disturbances of the public peace but near enough to remain acquainted with news from north of the border?
By this time, however, Defoe’s network of contacts on Tyneside extended beyond the beleaguered postmaster. Indeed, his friendship with Joseph Button, the “Bookseller on the Bridge,” dated back at least to 1705, and the following year, Defoe listed Button as his distribution agent in the city. In his Review in 1711, Defoe wrote of Button that he was “a Man known in this City, and of good Reputation here as well as there.” This relationship continued until at least 1715 (when Button printed Defoe’s The Family Instructor in Newcastle, “albeit not to a very satisfactory standard”). Button himself was closely connected with a certain John (or perhaps Joseph) Saywell, who had a printing business in Hillgate. This wasn’t the first such business in Gateshead, nor even in Hillgate, where a printer named Stephen Bulkley set up shop in the 1650s, and by 1710, Saywell was printing the Newcastle Gazette, the region’s first newspaper.
However, according to Button, Saywell and his business weren’t prospering. Defoe had been in the practice of having materials printed locally before sending them down to London, but in a (badly damaged) letter to Defoe from December 1710, Button informed him of the ongoing difficulties: “As to the Man and boy I can’t tell what to say [on the] Matter if you can get a boy; p[er]haps now this Saywell is bad and lo[w] in Pockett and in debt, [he] wou’d be willing for the Money to Instruct him.”
There is one more local issue with which Defoe became involved that’s worth dwelling on. After years of making voluntary contributions of a penny a tide, the keelmen of Newcastle had built a hospital to support their needy, aged, and destitute. This was completed in 1701, but after a period of mismanagement, they petitioned the Crown for a charter of incorporation so that they could take direct charge of the almshouse. This was opposed by magistrates, hostmen (who had a monopoly on the transport of coal between its producers and shippers), and others who hoped to gain control of the institution and strengthen their grip over the keelmen.
Defoe took the keelmen’s side, believing their “greater independence would curb the high prices on coal caused by the current monopoly.” Writing to Harley in June 1711, Defoe stated that he wished to lay before him a matter “relating to the poor keel men at Newcastle whose oppressions seem reserved for your Lord’s hand to put an end to.” Moreover, in a 1712 pamphlet intended for the House of Commons, Defoe wrote how the 1,600 skippers and keelmen “have suffered great misery and distress, and were exceedingly burthensome to the parishes where they lived, for the support of their poor” while also underlining the precarious position of “the widows and children of such [keelmen] as were dead”.
This was an issue that needed addressing. As Burn notes, “By the 1670s, more keelmen considered themselves settled in Newcastle. No longer were they necessarily young men: when they grew too old to work many would not move away, and when a keelman died, the widow and children would often remain.” Quite how many keelmen and skippers were involved in the petition is uncertain—Defoe later countered his own claim of 1,600—and there was certainly motivation for all parties to exaggerate their numbers to strengthen their position. Given Defoe’s background as a propagandist, one cannot imagine he would have been averse to doing so. Finally, on March 29, 1712, having heard the petitions for and against the claim, the Commons decided in the keelmen’s favour.
It was after Defoe left Tyneside for good that his most famous works were published, but claims to Robinson Crusoe’s local ties were not long in following. In 1831, A New Picture of Newcastle upon Tyne claimed, “During his residence in Hillgate, he produced the universally admired ‘Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’.” In February 1869, the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury reported on the “enormous success” of the pantomime Robinson Crusoe at the Theatre Royal, noting that the original book was “written by Defoe while residing in Pipewellgate.”
However, anyone wanting to visit Defoe’s residence will be disappointed as much of Hillgate was destroyed by the great fire of 1854. As the Durham County Advertiser reported: “[E]very house on both sides of Hillgate, together with those thickly studded on the Church Walk, Bridge Street, Church Street and Cannon Street, as well as many others beyond them have been shattered and damaged to a most serious extent. […] To give some idea of the catastrophe here, the entire of Hillgate at this locality is totally impassable by a heap of ruins upwards of twelve feet deep and several in extent.”
In the 1920s, parts of the area were cleared in preparation for the construction of the Tyne Bridge. In the early 1930s, following the Housing Act of 1930, large areas of slum housing—including Hillgate, Pipewellgate, Bridge Street, and others—began to be demolished to improve the area’s living standards, which previously were “dire”: “Sanitation was medieval at best and industrial and human waste was quite often just thrown into the street.”
While the physical traces of Defoe have gone, the work of William Hilton perhaps offers a clue to his local legacy. Hilton had two volumes of poems printed in 1775/76, and beyond his tragedies such as The Siege of Palmyra, many of the works were about local scenes and issues. One such locale was a tavern called the Robinson Crusoe in Gateshead, and “if strong report say true”, this was the place in which Defoe first put pen to paper on the book.
Can we therefore trace the legend of Defoe starting work on Robinson Crusoe while in the North East to Hilton? In the Preface to his poetry collection, he expressed that “I think it were greatly to be wished that the science of poetry was somewhat more encouraged in the north of England.” While Hilton may have merely been passing on an extant rumour, perhaps it was of his own invention to give greater weight to his desire to foster local poetry. References to this rumour are legion, though now mostly rather dated, so let us end at the beginning with what may have started it all.
“On the sign of Robinson Crusoe in Gateshead” (1774)
Stop, my good friend,—and cast your eyes around
Behold a figure! rarely to be found:
The figure of a man, in veil’d distress,
So loosely garb’d in wild romantic dress;
Yet arm’d—as if he wou’d defiance show,
Is this the fancy of the sage Defoe?
It is the same—And now by memory led,
Robinson Crusoe half the world have read.
See him thus wreck’d upon his desert isle,
Inur’d to patience, and inur’d to toil.
His looks, tho’ chang’d, betray no weak despair,
Chearfulness, and gravity, seem blended there.
We’ll not the Painter’s happy skill define,
But mark the moral meaning of his sign:
Old Time may have to Revelation brought,
Why Selkirk suffer’d, and why Daniel wrote.
And mark my friend, if strong report say true,
’Twas in this place the bold design he drew.
Gateshead, scarce known, the hardy writer chose,
When sorely prest by persecuting foes;
To teach frail mortals, as a friendly guide,
In Providence to trust, whate’er betide.
Anthony Wright is an Archaeology and Ancient History graduate of Newcastle University, now working freelance as a copy-editor and proofreader in Newcastle. His first novel, Caesar's Shadow, was published by Portal Books in October 2020. www.ajpwright.com
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