There’s a persistent urban myth that Newcastle United wear black and white stripes thanks to the Dominican Order. A Dutch priest, Fr Dalmatius Houtmann OP, was an early supporter of Newcastle East End FC, a Victorian football team that played just over the railway lines from St Dominic’s Priory Church. In his full Dominican habit, Fr Houtmann was a conspicuous figure on the touchline for East End’s matches, and according to one theory they became known as “the Magpie’s team” for this reason. Upon the unification of East End and West End the new Newcastle United team adopted the black and white that would become so synonymous with the city – and the club are still known as “The Magpies”.
However, although Fr Houtmann was certainly an early supporter, the origin of the famous stripes are contested – some say they derive from the arms of the Cavendish Dukes of Newcastle, or the black and white “shepherd’s tartan” of Northumberland. Still, this vignette does tell us something about the deep 800-year association of the Dominicans with the city of Newcastle.
From the early years of the 13th century, orders of friars established themselves in England. Newcastle would eventually have five friaries within its walls – including Franciscan, Carmelite, Augustinian and Trinitarian – with the Dominican “black friars” establishing themselves in 1239 at a friary paid for by a wealthy Newcastle merchant, Sir Peter Scott, near the north-west corner of the town walls.
There they stayed until the 16th century – even hosting a summit between King Edward III and Edward Balliol in 1334. But in 1536 the Newcastle friaries were dissolved and sold to the town corporation, which demolished the Blackfriars’ church and turned the chapter house and cloisters into workshops and guild meeting rooms which stand to this day.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Order returned to Northumberland, where they ran two missions near Hexham from 1721 to 1827. After the death of the pioneering Fr James Worswick, who went to Newcastle in 1798 to build up the first Catholic church in the city since the Reformation, the Dominicans were invited to take over his parish church of St Andrew on Pilgrim Street. This re-established the Order in Newcastle during a period of remarkable Catholic growth on Tyneside, with booming industries drawing in migrants from all over these islands, especially Ireland. And it was the pennies of the Irish poor of Heaton, Shieldfield and Byker that would build the priory church of St Dominic on New Bridge Street, a vast Romanesque basilica which was dedicated with great ceremony on September 11 1873. Cardinal Henry Manning’s homily in praise of the “Dominican devotion to dogma” was followed by the grandeur of Haydn’s Imperial Mass.
Of the great industrial cities of the North, Newcastle is unusual in having been an important settlement for almost 2,000 years. The future Pope Pius II, passing through the town on a diplomatic mission to Scotland in the 14th century, noted that Newcastle had been “founded by Caesar”; and the first Tyne crossing built in the 2nd century under Hadrian, and named Pons Aelius, made it the only bridge outside Rome named after a Roman emperor.
The deep history of Newcastle – its modern name derives from the “New Castle” erected by Robert Curthose in 1080 – makes it a palimpsest of overlapping eras. The chancel of St Dominic’s Church itself is built over the Roman Wall, and the Shieldfield district it dominates was the usual mustering ground for English armies heading north, and the site of Charles I’s year-long captivity by the Scots in 1646.
The interior of the church is rich with historical detail too. There are the great Frosterley marble columns with their carved heads of Dominican saints – including Pope Pius V, Catherine of Siena, and Thomas Aquinas himself, with a 3D star on his forehead to represent the divine light of inspiration (which to me made him look like a caricature 1950s doctor with a head mirror). There are also the forbidding gothic choir stalls which once adorned the chancel of Peterborough Cathedral overlooking the tomb of Catherine of Aragon; as well as the memorials to Sir John Fitzgerald, a rare Catholic lord mayor of Newcastle in 1914, and the gallant Tyneside Irish Brigade who fell in such tragic numbers on the Somme in 1916.
The very richness of the decor – the Minton tiles in the sanctuary, the grand alabaster pulpit with scenes from the life of Dominic, even the antique chasubles with their impaled arms of both City and Order – speak of the confidence of Victorian Catholicism and the love Catholics felt for their churches.
In the Lady Chapel there is a vast painting by the Spaniard Enrique Dastis of the Virgin presenting the rosary to St Dominic, but the characterful faces of the gathered angels and saints were modelled on actual parishioners. This tells us something of the vibrancy of parish life, where high theology was tempered by zealous pastoral work in what has always been a poor district of the city. Indeed, one historian of the parish in the 19th century wrote that St Dominic’s was “not just a religious centre but one with dances, plays and various associations binding the community together”.
That sense of community first attracted me to the place as a student living in nearby Sandyford. I discovered later that my grandfather – himself descended from a long line of recusant Catholics, and whose grandfather ran a pub on Byker Bank – was baptised at St Dominic’s in 1912. Here was a real “united nations” parish, kaleidoscopic in its diversity, with a rich cultural life centred on the choir and recitals on its powerful “Father Willis” organ (which had once been played by Edward Elgar no less), and which accompanied the first Latin Mass I ever attended. (“St Dom’s” even attracted Basil Hume, who grew up nearby and fancied the Dominican life, but it was felt by the local friars that he didn’t quite have the intellectual candlepower to join “the learned order”, so he settled for the Benedictines instead.)
When I first sat in that great Victorian space St Dominic’s was still a priory, home to a religious community that included Fathers Colin Carr and John Farrell, fine preachers in the tradition of the Order, but also two Dominican brothers with wonderful names: a canny auld Geordie, Br John Baptist Watson, and a hearty Irishman called Br Columba Rabbitte. The parish priest at the time was a man who came to be a great friend, Fr Tom Kearns, who’d left a high-powered career in Dublin for a late vocation as a Dominican priest, and one with such great pastoral gifts that he made lasting friendships wherever the Order sent him.
So the Dominicans’ recent departure from Newcastle has grieved me. It was also a surprise as the Order doesn’t seem short of vocations, and Newcastle remains one of the country’s most thriving university cities. But the Dominicans have come and gone from Newcastle over the centuries, and I hope it isn’t long before the men in black and white make their return to a city they know so well.
Dr Dan Jackson is the author of the bestselling recent book The Northumbrians: North East England and its People, A New History (Hurst)