I stumbled across The Bessie Surtees House in Newcastle upon Tyne quite by accident. Prior to finding this museum I had visited the Discovery Museum, and after that I was in search of something a little off the beaten track, something a bit more culturally enriching and away from the hordes of kids on school holidays.
From the outside, the Bessie Surtees House really does not look like much (especially if you are not familiar with Jacobean domestic architecture). In fact, the dark walls and small dark windows make the building look quite uninspiring and uninviting.
However, I am always of the belief that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And this time the saying rang true. A green sign on the façade of the Bessie Surtees Museum caught my attention and persuaded me to literally take a step back. Upon doing so, I immediately saw another sign, a plaque in fact, situated near to the door of the museum. It read:
“From the above window on Nov 18th 1772 Bessy Surtees descended and eloped with John Scott later created 1st Earl of Eldon and Lord Chancellor of England.”
As soon as I read this, I was curious – who was this Bessie Surtees? I simply had to enter and find out.
I entered and immediately observed the low ceiling and dark wooden interior. Small boards tell the story of the two houses, both merchants’ houses dating from the 16th and 17th century. This makes the Bessie Surtees House by far one of the oldest houses I’ve ever seen still in a good structural condition.
Furthermore, I learned that the Bessie Surtees House was built in an area where affluent and well-established merchants once resided. This was an excellent choice of location purely because of the quayside and the access to the sea and the harbour.
According to historical records, the earliest reference stating that a house stood in this vicinity is from 1465. A rich lawyer, Robert Rhodes, was the first owner of the house. The house was later sold to Snow Clayton who was a merchant. One of his tenants was Miss Bessie Surtees. As the story goes, Bessie eloped with her lover John Scott through one of the windows of the house in 1772. The couple were then married in Scotland, but later remarried in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Inside the house rooms contain only a bit of furniture but this makes the experience really special since it allows you to absorb the structure and design of the building – the magical relief ceiling (a copy of the original) and the Jacobean windows, doors and fireplaces. Although there are only three main rooms where you are allowed to enter, you will quickly get a feel for what it was like to live in a 16th century house. Even the doorframes are so low that you have to bend down to enter adjoining rooms.
Albeit small, the Bessie Surtees House is definitely worth visiting if you have an appreciation for history, architecture and design. It is a real hidden gem of Newcastle and one of those undiscovered, non-touristy museums, ideal for culture lovers and for those seeking out real-life, historic stories.
Read more about the Bessie Surtees House here.