A fluted Roman Doric column with statue on top. The pedestal of the column lacks a conventional base and therefore seems to rise from the ground somewhat abruptly. On the capital there is a balcony with railings surmounted by a high pedestal on top of which is a twice life size standing figure of Earl Grey, bald-headed, pensive and wearing court dress. Grey faces south down Grey Street. The shaft and pedestal of the column have become blackened by pollution and now contrast with the white of the pedestal and statue above. A 1995 survey found that the column sits on relatively shallow but secure foundations and sways up to 30cm in a high wind.
Although the monument has long been a cherished icon of Newcastle it was some time before it won its way into local affections. It was in fact North Shields that first proposed to commemorate the author of the Great Reform Bill, not Newcastle. In June 1832 a public subscription was started for a column designed by the Newcastle architect John Green Junior, on 'a Mound in or near the Area of Northumberland Square, North Shields'. This was to have a 'Colossal Statue of the Noble Earl, in his Parliamentary Robes, holding his Magna Charta in his Hand', and medallions of Lords Brougham, Althorp and Russell (other heroes of the movement for parliamentary reform) on the base.(2) 'Instead of expressing our grateful Joy in the childish Barbarism of wasteful and dangerous Illuminations, which blaze for an Hour and are forgotten for ever, let us erect a Monument that shall commemorate to future Ages our Gratitude to the Friend of the People! the Prince of Patriots! and the Honour of Northumberland, EARL GREY!!!'(3)
Two years later there was a proposal for a statue on the site of the present Grey's Monument in Newcastle, but this was for an ideal figure not a statue of Grey, as an 'Isometric Plan of the Improvement of Newcastle as proposed by Mr Grainger, June 14th 1834' makes clear.(4) Interestingly, when at last a Grey monument in Newcastle was mooted, in October 1834 (after the North Shields scheme had been abandoned), the proposal was still not taken up with any great enthusiasm. The necessary funds proved hard to raise and it was two years later, on 14th September 1836, that a column designed by John Green's brother, Benjamin was finally agreed to by the Town Council. As the Tory Newcastle Journal at the time sneered, 'Whence all this ingratitude and lukewarmness on the part of the reformers towards the great father of their long cherished principles.'(5)
The slowness to realise the scheme seems to have been due to the fact that although the recently reformed council had a large Whig / Liberal majority, there were those who favoured other sites, for instance the Town Moor, or preferred some other, more utilitarian kind of monument such as a mechanics institute.(6) Also, there were those who had reservations about Grey, whose popularity, which had never been great, quickly disappeared once the euphoria over the passing of the Great Reform Bill faded.(7)
Even when in place, the monument - crowned with a twice-life size statue of Grey by the distinguished London Sculptor Edward Hodges Baily - by no means found universal approval. Despite the flattering image of it created by contemporary artists such as T.M. Richardson Senior and J.W. Carmichael, it received considerable criticism in the press. 'This column was erected to Earl Grey, who, in order to aggrandise his own family, deceived the whole nation, to whom he promised real reform' was the verdict of one radical paper.8 Furthermore, neither the ceremony at which the foundation stone was laid on 6th September 1837, nor the ceremony on 24th August 1838 at which Baily's statue was winched into place were well attended; even Grey himself, still living, was not present on either occasion.
Reservations about the monument continued into the second half of the century. When, for instance, the idea of a Stephenson monument (TWNE38 q.v.) was being considered in 1857, one local writer commented 'the monument to Earl Grey is, to my mind, a huge mistake; you place an aged nobleman, dressed in court costume, on a high pillar, and, without a hat upon his bald head, expose him to the pelting of every storm that Heaven sends.'(9) The inscription on the base with its implicit suggestion that Grey's career had always been marked by consistency and high principle was added in 1854. The text was probably written by Grey's friend, the Rev. Sydney Smith, the Liberal writer and celebrated wit, whose support Grey had rewarded in 1831 with the canonry of St Paul's.(10)
The turning point in popular feeling towards the monument came in the late nineteenth century. Guide books suggest that from at least the 1870s sightseers began ascending the 164 steps to enjoy the view from the gallery, just as in our own time the writer Tony Harrison did when he came to write his celebrated 1960s poem 'Newcastle is Peru'.(11) However, although the monument eventually found a place in people's hearts, interest in the person whom it commemorates gradually waned.
One of the rare moments in the twentieth century when the significance of Grey's achievement was noted and the monument was invested with overtly political significance, albeit briefly, was in 1932. The inscription on the north face of the pedestal celebrating the centenary of the Great Reform Act was added at the instigation of Sir Charles Trevelyan of Wallington, formerly a minister in Ramsay Macdonald's government. The words for this, penned by Viscount Grey, the former Foreign Secretary, were formally proposed and endorsed at a meeting at the City Hall, Newcastle, on 6th June 1932. Grey, Sir Charles and his brother, the distinguished Whig historian, G.M.Trevelyan, used the City Hall meeeting to contrast what they saw as the traditions of evolutionary democracy in Britain which the Reform Bill had inaugurated with the situation in contemporary Germany, where the extremes of Nazism and Communism were threatening the Weimar Republic.(12)
Apart from the addition of this inscription the monument has changed comparatively little in physical terms. The railings protecting the base with four lamps at each corner disappeared at the start of this century(13) and in July 1941 Baily's statue was struck by lightning which caused the head to fall into a ladies outfitters in Grainger Street. The monument remained headless until 12th January 1948, when a replica weighing 303 kilograms was carved for it by Roger Hedley.(14)
Perhaps the most significant change to the monument occurred in the late 1970s when a Metro station was built beneath it and the top ends of Grey Street and Grainger Street were pedestrianised (completed in 1983). The main effect of this was to give it a prominence in people's lives which it previously had never really had. The newly constructed low platform at the base became Newcastle's main meeting place and speakers' corner and various groups began to make requests to use the monument for stunts. For example, in 1986 the Northumberland National Park Fell Rescue Team made an unsuccesful bid to be allowed to abseil down the column three hundred times.(15) The building of the Metro station and the pedestrianisation also meant that local people tended not to refer to 'Grey's Monument' anymore, but simply to 'The Monument', the name of the new Metro station. As a result Grey on his lofty perch found himself even more ignored by passers-by than before.
Following the construction of the Metro station there were calls for the monument 'to be spruced up': in 1982, 1994 and 1998.(16) However, surveys - notably that conducted by English Heritage in 1995 - found that the cost of cleaning and repairs would be considerable, the reason being that previous renovations had replaced the original Pennine stone of the column with softer sandstone which has reacted badly to pollution.
A small plaster model of the figure of Grey, probably one of the thirty miniature casts of the statue which Baily made for sale as souvenirs in May 1838, is currently owned by R.D.Steedman's antiquarian booksellers, 9 Grey Street. It is invariably on display in the shop window.(17)
Charles, Earl Grey (1764-1845) was born into the Northumbrian aristocracy. After education in London and abroad, he was elected to represent Northumberland in Parliament, making his maiden speech at the age of 22. In 1806 he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. Later, as Leader of the House of Commons he guided legislation abolishing the slave trade through Parliament and gave support to the movement for Catholic emancipation. The main cause with which he is associated is that of parliamentary reform; he made it a point of honour to refuse to be part of any government which opposed it.
Following a period of unrest in 1830 he was asked to form a government and he made the passing of the Great Reform Bill his central mission. After this was achieved in 1832 he retired two years later. How genuinely radical his intentions were at any stage in his career has been the subject of debate. Revisionist historians have argued that the true purpose of the various reforms he instituted was to reduce radical influence and thereby protect aristocratic privilege.(1)
Incised on south face of base below column in gilded lettering: THIS COLUMN WAS ERECTED IN 1838 / TO COMMEMORATE / THE SERVICES RENDERED TO HIS COUNTRY BY / CHARLES, EARL GREY K.G. / WHO, DURING AN ACTIVE POLITICAL CAREER OF / NEARLY HALF A CENTURY / WAS THE CONSTANT ADVOCATE OF PEACE / AND THE FEARLESS AND CONSISTENT CHAMPION OF / CIVIL AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY. / HE FIRST DIRECTED HIS EFFORTS TO THE AMENDMENT / OF THE REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE IN 1792 / AND WAS THE MINISTER / BY WHOSE ADVICE, AND UNDER WHOSE GUIDANCE, THE GREAT MEASURE OF PARLIAMENTARY REFORM / WAS, AFTER AN ARDUOUS AND PROTRACTED STRUGGLE / SAFELY AND TRIUMPHANTLY ACHIEVED / IN THE YEAR 1832.
On the north face: AFTER A CENTURY OF CIVIL PEACE, / THE PEOPLE RENEW / THEIR GRATITUDE TO THE AUTHOR / OF THE GREAT REFORM BILL / 1932.
PMSA recording information