Exterior view of Bessie Surtees House from Watergate lane
Exterior view of Bessie Surtees House from Watergate lane © Historic England Archive J890156
Exterior view of Bessie Surtees House from Watergate lane © Historic England Archive J890156

Bessie Surtees House

A Jacobean home with a romantic history, Bessie Surtees House now contains offices, an exhibition space and splendid period interiors that are open to the public and free to visit.

On this page:

Permanent exhibition of the Bessie Surtees story

These two five-storey 16th and 17th century merchants' houses are fine examples of Jacobean domestic architecture. The Surtees house is best known as the scene of the elopement of Bessie with John Scott, later Lord Chancellor of England.

You can explore an exhibition illustrating the history of the houses on the first floor.

Free school visits

Bessie Surtees House is also available for free self-led school visits during standard opening hours. For booking enquiries, please contact the site on 0191 403 1635.

Download the Historic England Teacher's Kit for Bessie Surtees House.

More about Historic England's education resources and Heritage Schools programme.

Opening times

Bessie Surtees House is closed to the public until further notice. 

For enquiries, please ring 0191 403 1635

History of Bessie Surtees House

The two buildings now known as Bessie Surtees House stand on a stretch of Newcastle riverfront that has been used as a quayside since Roman times, when the first bridge was built over the Tyne. By the 16th century the commercial importance of the area was well established and many prominent merchants owned property here. The two buildings, originally numbers 41 and 44 Sandhill, were known respectively as Surtees House and Milbank House. Other houses further east along Sandhill are of a similar date.

Earliest record of the house

The earliest reference to a house on the site of Surtees House is from 1465. The property was recorded as being owned by Robert Rhodes, a rich lawyer. Carvings on the fireplace in the principal first-floor room of the house record a wedding in 1657. The groom was Thomas Davison and the bride a daughter of Ralph Cock, mayor of Newcastle in 1634. The couple's family owned the house until 1770, when it was sold to Snow Clayton, a merchant.

Bessie's elopement

One of his tenants was Aubone Surtees, whose daughter Bessie is said to have eloped in 1772 from a first-floor window with John Scott, a coal merchant's son. They ran away to Scotland where they were married (and were remarried in Newcastle after the families were reconciled). Scott eventually became a successful lawyer and, as Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor of England.

The site of Milbank House was occupied in the second half of the 15th century by Thomas Hanson. The ownership descended to Mark Milbank, who married Dorothy, another daughter of Ralph Cock.

Decline and restoration

From the late 18th century the richer merchants of Newcastle moved from the busy quayside to the more fashionable suburbs. The houses were divided up and let, and subsequently entered a period of slow decline.

The houses were eventually united by John Clayton, who owned Surtees House from 1880 and later bought Milbank House. In 1930 they were bought by SR Vereker, later Lord Gort, whose wife was descended from the Eldons. He employed an engineer, RF Wilkinson, to restore the houses using 17th century architectural fittings salvaged from properties which were due to be demolished.

Bessie Surtees House was bought from the Gort estate by Newcastle City Council in 1978 and leased to English Heritage (now Historic England) in 1989. The rooms on the first floor are now open to visitors, while the rest of the building is used as offices.

Architectural features

The buildings are rare examples of Jacobean domestic architecture, built towards the end of the timber-framing tradition. Both are five storeys high and had shops or stores at ground level with living accommodation above.

Milbank House was constructed in the 16th century but was refronted in red brick in the early 18th century. Its original timber-framed structure is now concealed behind a Georgian facade with elegant sash windows and shutters.

You can still see the timber-framed window through which Bessie Surtees eloped. A cast iron plaque below tells the story.

Surtees House is a 17th century structure with overhanging storeys above the ground floor. It has retained its original facade, featuring plasterwork decorated with classical details. The interior, in particular the principal room on the first floor, has fine carved oak panelling, elaborate plaster ceilings and carved fire surrounds.

Further Reading

  • Heslop, D, McCombie, G and Thomson, C, 'Bessie Surtees House - two merchant houses in Sandhill, Newcastle-upon-Tyne', Archaeologia Aeliana, 22 (1994), 1-27
  • Polley, R, Bessie Surtees House (English Heritage guidebook, London, 1997)

Note: The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002-6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.

North East Office

  • Address

    Bessie Surtees House,
    41 - 44 Sandhill,
    Newcastle upon Tyne,
    NE1 3JF