Friends in High Places Bear Gifts: The Hall Beams, 25th May 2016


When I crossed over to Wates’ Site Office in Westward House to return my PPE kit after my tour with Conal on Wednesday 19th May, I bumped into Amy, Wates’ Receptionist.  It’s always good to see Amy – she’s a lovely lady – but that day she was particularly excited.  “Wait a minute,” she said.  “I’ve got a present for you!”  She then bolted upstairs to the top floor of Westward, where I now know Guiseppe has an office.  When she returned, she had a big smile on her face and was treasuring two shuttlecocks in her hands.  It was one of the most unexpected ‘gifts’ I’d ever received but I was happy to accept them, realising that they must have come from somewhere on site.  It took a while for the ‘story’ behind them to finally surface.

Old cork-tip feather shuttle-cock: Church High archeo-toy 1
Old cork-tip feather shuttle-cock: Church High archeo-toy 1.

These items – which came to be known as archeo-toys between Guiseppe and myself – hold a special place in my heart.  Survivors from a past time, these quirky little objects – of no intrinsic value in themselves – serve as a reminder to us all that nothing remains ‘lost’ forever.  They brought to mind a book called ‘The Buried Things of Life’ by Simon Goldhill, where he explores historical narrative, which is, after all, all this blog really is.  He muses that ‘When it comes to telling the story of the past, it is in the nature of things that things are buried, disburied and re-buried.’  As he observes, ‘Things require people to make them talk.’   Which is where I come in, I guess.  I share his fascination with the way simple objects can make ‘the invisible visible.’  The last time I saw a shuttlecock like this in School was ‘in the old days’, before the Sports Hall, when girls used to lug heavy weighted badminton net posts upstairs into the Hall in order to make a second venue for PE lessons.  Which is exactly where they were found, of course.   

At this time, the Hall's original hammer-beamed ceiling was checked out for damp.
At this time, the Hall’s original hammer-beamed ceiling was being checked for damp.


The shuttlecocks, of course, came from Giuseppe.  His Clerk of Works photographs for GDST and Wates eventually provided that missing piece of the jigsaw.  At the time, he had literally been up in a high place.  At the top of a scaffold tower checking out the Hall roof.  I smiled when my eyes lighted on the download.  A game had begun.

Some of Giuseppe's photos download on their side and I had to turn my head to work out what this one was: then the penny dropped.
Some of Giuseppe’s photos download on their side. I had to turn my head to work out this one: then the penny dropped.

On page 21 of ‘A History of the Church Schools Company 1883-1958’, a key element of the spiritual ethos which drove Canon Emery and his founding colleagues is made clear : ‘To be educated in a beautiful building … has an educational value not to be easily assessed or lightly ignored.’  The beauty of the Arts & Crafts style natural wood ceiling in the Hall at Newcastle High must have surely proved inspirational to many a girl since it was designed by Oliver & Leeson in 1888.  I know I have lost count of the times visitors to School have taken a deep intake of breath on entering the Hall and looking up.

Looking up at the Hall roof is still an awe-inspiring sight even now for me.
Looking up into the Hall roof is still an awe-inspiring sight.

This history also tells us the Education Committee took the business of making new buildings for those schools who had flourished and outgrown their original homes very seriously indeed.  This was the situation which befell Newcastle High School in the late 1880s and the beautiful purpose-built Oliver & Leeson designed Tankerville Terrace school was the end result.  The building’s high quality was clearly acknowledged at the time as the  history records (page 34): ‘The new building at Newcastle was no doubt a success, for the British Association applied to the Council for permission to meet in it in 1889.’

Church High School Hall c 1935 with the Jubilee table and chair.
Church High School Hall c 1935 with Jubilee table and chair.

It is likely the Tankerville building’s Arts & Crafts influence is attributable to R J Leeson.  Norwich-born Leeson was articled to an architect in London (where the movement prevailed) before moving north to go into partnership with Thomas Oliver in Newcastle in 1879.  I’ve always loved all the natural wood in the Church High Hall (see research document on the Heritage website) but the darkness of the stain on the beams has always made the ceiling hard to photograph.  However, from Giuseppe’s vantage point looking down on them from the scaffold tower, the dark beams look spectacular.

Eastern side of Hall ceiling looking south.
Eastern side of the Hall ceiling looking south.

The upper-side of the beams have boxed-channels cut into them which cannot be seen from down below.  Ideal for catching and trapping high-flying shuttle-cocks undoubtedly.  Originally, the Hall was illuminated by natural light from four dormer windows and by gas lights suspended from the ceiling.  No doubt the channels once housed gas piping in the way they did electrical wiring until 2014.

Newcastle High School Church High School
Channels cut into the beams are ideal traps for shuttlecocks.

The hammerbeam roof, a decorative design typical of English Gothic Architecture revived by the Arts and Crafts Movement, is perhaps “the most spectacular endeavour of the English Medieval carpenter.” 


The Church High hammer beam roof in its full glory.
The Church High Hall hammer beam roof in its full glory.

As can be seen from Giuseppe’s photographs below, the Newcastle High Hall roof was made up of single pairs of hammer-beam trusses.

Newcastle High school church high school
The apex of the roof:  crown and hammer posts of the Newcastle High Hall roof trusses looking north towards the stage.
The truss crown posts aligned between the rafters (above) and the hammer beams and posts (below).
Truss crown posts aligned between the rafters looking north towards the stage (above).  A line of hammer beams & posts (below).

high-places-20Viewing the beams in the other direction, from west to east, you not only get the full effect of the rafters but also the aisle plates too.

The south end rafters and aisle plates from the ground looking east.
The rafters & aisle plates looking east at the Hall’s south end.

Giuseppe’s photograph of the east rafters at the very centre of the Hall drew my attention to something I had never noticed before.

At the centre of the eastern rafters a lined wooden opening I had never noticed before can be seen.
At the centre of the east side there is a lined wooden opening.

At first, I assumed it was the site of one of the old dormer windows, but, if you look closely at the 1935 image, these are positioned in the far corners of the roof.  I now know it is part of the original Victorian ventilation system, something I’ll explore more fully in a future post.

The fascinating ventilation shaft.
Intriguing ventilation shaft high in the roof.

However, the most unexpected and fascinating discovery came to light in a photograph Giuseppe took of the apex of the south wall.

Traces of old paint at the apex of the Hall's south wall.
Traces of old paint high at the apex of the Hall’s south wall.

Hidden high up in the triangular area of wall between the roof’s crown and aisle plates, traces of old paint still remain.  Giuseppe’s close-up shots make it clear that the Hall was once painted blue.

The Hall's dark-stained, red wood hammer beams must have once looked magnificent against plaster painted sky blue.
The Hall’s dark-stained, red wood hammer beams must have once looked magnificent against plaster painted sky blue.


Church High has always been a bright, vibrant and colourful place, so I don’t know why I was surprised to see this really.  It is only in very recent years that the walls of the Hall have been painted white.

Most recently, the walls of the Hall have been painted white.
Most recently, the walls of the Hall have been painted white.

However, one of my favourite photos in my personal archive (a group shot of my first Lower V [Year 10] form in front of the south end Honours Boards) shows the Hall walls were light peach in 1988.

The Hall was painted a warm peach colour in 1988.
The Hall was painted a warm peach colour in 1988.

Since the Hall, with its highly polished parquet floor, was likely to have also been this colour when I joined Church High in 1985,  it’s hardly surprising I still think of the place suffused with a warm glow.  The real ‘gift’ here, of course, was Giuseppe’s photographs of the beams in their original state.  The fact he wanted me to have them for posterity is the reason we got talking in the first place.  I remain forever grateful he thought of seeking permission from Paul Hunter, the Contract Administrator, so that I could share them online too.  It’s a crying shame all that beautiful wood would very soon be white.

Churchie Bear sitting on his Church High chair shows off the old shuttlecock in my warm dining room.
Churchie Bear sitting on his old Church High chair poses with that feather shuttlecock.


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