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Credit - Steve Brock of Newcastle City Council.
Credit - Steve Brock of Newcastle City Council.

Iconic Keelmen’s Hospital set for new future

9 July 2024

Newcastle city landmark to be given new lease of life as affordable housing, taking it back to its roots

Keelmen’s Hospital is a landmark building to many in Newcastle city centre, which has sadly been vacant and unused for 15 years. Now it is to be given renewed purpose on the high street as affordable housing, thanks to support from The Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) and Historic England working with Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust.

The keelmen of Tyne and Wear were a group of men who worked on the keels, flat-bottomed boats that carried coal from the banks of the shallow Tyne out to ships that were too large to sail up the river. As a result, these keelmen were integral to the effective running of the coal industry.

The magnificent Grade II*-listed Keelmen’s Hospital was constructed in 1701 at a cost of £2,000, and for 180 years it operated as an almshouse for retired and sick keelmen and their families. Unusually, the hospital was paid for by the city’s 1,600 keelmen themselves, who set up a charitable trust and agreed initially to pay one penny a tide from the wages of each keel crewmember.

The eventual decline in guilds meant the decline of the original use of the building, and it later served as council housing for 90 years. Most recently, it was converted into student accommodation, but this use ceased after 30 years.

The building has been unloved and unused since 2009 and is on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register. But, thanks to a partnership project between Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust and Newcastle City Council, a new proposal is now on the cards to save this important heritage building at risk in the heart of Newcastle.

Earlier this year, with funding and technical advice from Historic England, Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust and Newcastle City Council commissioned a feasibility study to explore how it could be returned to its usage as affordable housing.

Now, with a further £36,539 of development funding secured from The Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF), plans for the restoration of this fantastic building can progress, enabling it to return to its original usage. The ambition is to bring it back into community use, building on its proud heritage and creating affordable new homes in central Newcastle.

In the spirit of the city’s keelmen who rallied together to build the hospital as accommodation for the elderly and sick of their fraternity, it will bring the historic building back to its roots as social housing for the community. The current proposal is to convert the building into 20 one-or two-person flats, with the potential for specialist uses, including co-housing, specialist care support and sheltered housing.

Martin Hulse, Manager of the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust, said: "Keelmen's is a beautiful building that is so quiet and peaceful in the centre of the city. The proposal to revert it back to affordable housing seems appropriate and achievable. The Trust considers it to be the most significant 'At Risk' building in Newcastle. This is a huge challenge but with support from the AHF, Historic England, Newcastle City Council and National Lottery Heritage Fund then we are confident that this can be delivered."

Matthew Mckeague, CEO of The Architectural Heritage Fund, said: "The AHF is about bringing new life to old buildings and giving them a purpose in their communities. Many of our high streets have taken some hard knocks over the last few years and a lot of our work is looking at how we can help reimagine and reshape them in the 21st century.

"The Keelmen’s Hospital is a great example of how we can work with the history of a building and give it new life and at the same time make an impact that will improve our high streets for everyone. We are delighted to support the wonderful work of the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust as it begins this journey to transform this important city landmark back into use."

Maria Carballeira, Partnerships Team Architect at Historic England, said: “We are really pleased to be co-funding this project to regenerate the Keelmen’s Hospital, as well as offering specialist advice. The project is an exciting opportunity to show how the reuse of historic buildings can provide much needed affordable housing, whilst contributing towards net zero.”

Funding for the work was announced as part of a round of Project Development Grants to community-focused projects that will regenerate historic buildings and contribute to the transformation of high streets and town centres in England. This is part of a one-off extension of the Transforming Places through Heritage (TPtH) programme, made possible by support from Historic England. The grant was one of 20 awarded in March to projects across the UK, totalling £735,041.  

Transforming Places through Heritage was made possible with funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The 3.5-year, £15.4 million programme, supported projects led by charities and social enterprises with the potential to contribute to the regeneration of high streets and town centres in England.

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