17 Tweed Street, Berwick

Berwick Through Time

Why is 17 Tweed Street so different from other houses in the street? Part of the answer lies in the history of the site, which dates back to the 16th century.

The story begins with a soldier named William Dixon/Dickson, a gunner or 'cannoneer' who was redeployed to Berwick from France after the fall of Calais in 1558.  On his arrival he was in his early 30s and ready to set up his own household. But housing in the town was scarce and his pay was only 10d. a day, so along with several of his regiment he built a house of his own using whatever materials he could find. The Calais gunners had been offered what is now the west side of Tweed Street (then called Windmill Hole) and William chose the plot which is now no. 17. A survey of 1562 records that

'William Dickson holdeth at will one tenement containing in length 14 yards and in breadth 8 yards. It is worth per annum 12d. He hath builded upon it 3 couple roomths.'

The house described here, of three bays based on two A-frames or crucks set up on the ground, would have looked something like those in the picture below. Although built cheaply it would accomodate his family until they were either posted elsewhere or could afford a more substantial house.

Detail from Winter Encampment at Sassenheim, 1573. Hatfield House Archives CPM/1/39

In 1578 William's son, William jr., had survived infancy and was in his mid-teens, possibly already planning his career as a gunner. William sr. purchased a grant for his plot, making it effectively a freehold property and thus worth redeveloping with a more permanent house (even though the house could be demolished for military reasons, as for all houses outside the fortifications).

The new house was probably built using mud walls on a stone base. It would have been single storey with a garret and a thatched roof, similar to those recorded in Windmill Hole by the Buck brothers 160 years later.  

Small single-storey houses in Guisnes Row appear in the left foreground, in front of the larger houses in Castle Street. Detail of ‘The South View of Berwick Upon Tweed’, Samuel Buck c.1743-5. Pen, ink and wash over graphite.  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

In 1666 a William Dixon was still living in Castlegate Ward in a house with one hearth and in January 1805 another William Dixon was born to ‘Robert Dixon, Master Gunner... & Margaret his wife’ in the same area. The census return of 1841 lists Robert, Margaret and William living in the same position on the street as Dickson’s original plot of 1562, and William was still in residence in 1871. By this time the threat of warfare had long passed and much of the street had been redeveloped as two-story stone houses or tenements, often linking two or more of the original plots. However the Dixon's three centuries of family ownership, very rare in a small urban house, meant that the site retained its individuality long enough to be redeveloped separately in the 20th century.

This research was part-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

About the author 

Catherine Kent

Dr Catherine Kent has a background in architecture and enjoys unpicking the history of buildings and landscapes. She is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of History at Durham University.