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Designed by architect William Newton, this Georgian building was completed in 1776. The building was funded by members of the nobility, gentry and prominent citizens who raised £6,700 to establish a venue for 'elegant recreation' and entertaining prestigious visitors. 




The fashion for assemblies started between 1710 – 1720.  At first, they were meetings for conversation cards and tea.  They could be given as private parties or public ones.  Public assemblies were soon expanded to include dancing.  In the 1720s they were still a new craze, as popular and controversial as bicycling in the 1880s or jazz in the 1920s.  Daniel Defoe was suspicious of them, but John Macky approved of them and wrote in 1721 “These assemblies are very convenient for young people; for formerly the country ladies were stewed up in their fathers’ old mansion houses and seldom saw company, but at an assize, a horse race or a fair.  But by means of these assemblies, matches are struck up and officers of the army have had pretty good success where ladies are at their own disposal; as I know several instances.”


Assemblies were one of the main manifestations of polite society and a means of education in its ways.  The ladies and gentlemen of a town were visibly on show at them.  They trained young people in the social virtues, and older people too, if they were anxious to acquire them.


Despite fears that assemblies would lead to intrigues, immorality, or marriage to the wrong sort of young man, they led often enough to marriages to the right sort to become acceptable.  At a period when arranged marriages were on the wane, and private parties for members of both sexes relatively rare outside London, they provided a means of bringing suitable couples together.


First Assembly Rooms in Newcastle stood on opposite side of road to present one opened 1716. Balls, Plays, assemblies held here until 1736 when new Assembly Room opened in Groat Market.


In 1776 present Assembly Rooms were built by William Newton (architect of St. Ann’s Church, Fenham Hall and Charlotte Square). Built on part of Vicarage Garden and the lease of 999 years required an Act of Parliament.


“Finest building of its kind and period in Britain. Interior remarkable for rococo decoration, the superb chandeliers of locally made glass and its acoustics for chamber music. Are comparable with those at Bath and more elegant and spacious than those at York” (Allsopp and Clark). Note stone facade but plain brick sides.


The architecture of the OAS is of a central pediment on 6 Ionic columns with lower side wings, all very high-quality masonry, the sides are brick. The central door was blocked and the double side doors under the canopy inserted in alterations around 1900.The covered-in portico was added after the 1914-1918 war. 


The gate piece is late 18th century or early 19th century.  The urn finial is of cast iron and the lamp holders are wrought iron copies of the originals.


The ground on which the building was erected was leased under an Act of Parliament which enabled Dr Fawcett, the Vicar of Newcastle (probably priest in charge of St John’s) to grant a lease of part of his garden for 999 years at an annual ground rent of £20.00.  The ground rent was redeemed and the freehold purchased in 1923 by the then proprietors.


The foundation stone was laid by William Lowes Esq, a recently retired Newcastle attorney, in the presence of a great company of ladies and gentlemen.  A plaque with the following inscription was put under the stone: -


In an age

When the polite arts

By general encouragement and emulation

Have advanced to a state of perfection

Unknown in any former period

The first stone of this edifice

Dedicated to the most elegant recreation


was laid by William Lowes Esq on 16 May 1774


The present OAR were formally opened on August 19th 1776.


It originally cost £6,700 to build; Newcastle Corporation contributed £200.00.  234 shares of £25 each were issued.  Subscribers were representatives of the nobility, gentry and merchant classes including the Duke of Northumberland, Sir Thomas Clavering, Sir Matthew White Ridley (whose town house was almost opposite) and members of almost every family of position and influence in the area.


The OAR played an important part in the development of social culture among the inhabitants of the North of England and the traditions of the building lent a glamour to all its gatherings.  Many brilliant and important events, both national and local have taken place within its walls.


William Newton, the architect, died in 1797 and is buried in the trinity Chantry of St Andrew’s Church where his gravestone is just visible under the organ.  So, he is almost within viewing distance of his finest creation.


On the ground floor the part of the building to the right-hand side of the front, and running the full length of the side of the building was built as a Freemason’s Temple and referred to as the Temple Room.


Research produced no specific reason for part of the New Assembly Rooms (as they were then known) being allocated for use as a Freemasonry Temple.  It is reasonable to assume that as Sir William Lorraine was one of those responsible for the building of the New Assembly Rooms and bearing in mind his position in Freemasonry, he could well have influenced his associates who would probably have been Masonic themselves, to include a Masonic Temple.


The Assembly Rooms were first used during Race Week June 24 1776 by a numerous and brilliant company, who it is recorded expressed great appreciation of the elegance of the rooms.


The assembly was opened by Sir William Lorraine Bt who was accompanied by Mr Bell and Sir Matthew White Ridley and Miss S Allgood.  Many guests would no doubt have arrived in sedan chairs all ready to dance cotillions, quadrilles, and country dances – or play cards, gamble, be seen out in society and introduce their children to prospective husbands and wives.


The window on the staircase offered a good view, to those outside looking in, of the magnificent dresses of the ladies as they walked upstairs.  Not all occasions were attended by the nobility and Newcastle’s great and good.  Ladies who were unable to attend sometimes offered their ticket to their maid and lent them a gown to wear.  All events were not as civilised as they should have been, the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms were taken over by a new owner in 1825 and he put up new regulation ‘taken from those at Newcastle’ and they stated as follows:


  1. No lady to be admitted in a nightgown

  2. No Gentleman to be admitted in boots.


In the early years of its existence the ‘New Assembly Rooms’ were organised by a committee delegated by the Subscribers, these were:


  • John Hall

  • William Cramlington

  • Richard Churcher (Alderman and Sheriff)

  • Ralph Herron (Gentleman)

  • Miles Monkhouse (Wine Merchant)

  • Thomas Gaull (Wine Merchant)


Whilst all events provided much pleasure and happiness, the business was not profitable and the Committee were usually in debt.  For example, the accounts for the year ending 18 June 1785 show that it had been necessary for the Committee to borrow £300 in one instance which was repaid. On 23rd April 1787 the Committee had to borrow £1000 from Miss Dorothy Cresswell in order to clear accumulated debts.


The painting in this room is by Downman and given to the proprietors by the artist at the beginning of 19th century.  It represents a scene from The Merry Wives of Windsor.  They depict Sir John Falstaff, Mrs Ford and Mrs Page. Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare.  It is said that Stephen Kemble, the actor depicted in the painting did not need any padding to enable him to play this part. 


In 1974 the painting was restored at a cost of £2,000 to clean off the accumulated dirt and smoke damage.


Unfortunately, the painting was damaged by a small boy throwing a knife at it when the room was used for a wedding reception.


The Spring Assizes of 1878 were held in the Assembly Rooms while courts at the Moot Hall were being remodelled.  During the Great War, rooms were occupied by the military.


Card playing was an important part of any social occasion - gentlemen who did not wish to dance and chaperones for young ladies spent their time playing faro and picquet, loo, whist, cribbage and backgammon.  In the case of the men, gambling on cards and backgammon was very common and popular.  It enabled non-dancers to sit down and be happily and sociably occupied.  They played games such as Rouge et Noire, Loo, Brag, Hazard, Assassin (an earlier form of Blackjack), Vingt et Un and Lonsquinet – all of which involved gambling – and a board game called EO – of which there is a splendid example of the board up at Alnwick Castle.


Elizabeth Montagu


An important member of local society, Elizabeth Montagu of Denton Hall would not have approved of the card playing facilities – she complained that in Bath “the morning conversation was ‘How de do’? and the afternoon conversation was ‘What is Trumps?’  To provide intellectual stimulation she started afternoon salons where card playing was not allowed and intellectual subjects were agreed for discussion.  One of the regular attenders was a man called Bernard Stillingfleet who ignored the dictates of fashion according to Beau Brummell that only white stockings could be worn, and continued to wear his more practical blue stockings.  The fashion-conscious card players of Bath sneered at all those who chose intelligent conversion as ‘blue-stockings’ and it has stuck.  Elizabeth Montague was an old lady when the OAR were opened but would probably still have attended some events as this was where the elite of the town met and socialised.


Bluestockings - also blue-stocking, 1790, derisive word for a woman considered too learned,




Mackenzie tells us in his History of Newcastle 1827 that ‘The interior is said to be more commodious than any other building of the kind in the kingdom except the House of Assembly at Bath’.  He goes on to tell the reader of the ‘great ballroom with its 7 very large and brilliant glass chandeliers.  There are card rooms, a saloon room where hangs the much-admired picture of Sir John Falstaff by Downman.  The room for private assemblies is used as the tea room at the guild and assize balls.  The room is very spacious and often used for public dinners.  In the lower storey is the supper room, which is equal in length and breadth to the great ballroom which is 32 feet high.  There is also a subscription newsroom which houses a well-chosen collection of books.


The New Assembly Rooms were much in demand for regular social events including dancing ‘Assemblies,’ which were strictly supervised by a Master of Ceremonies who would carefully control the minuets and gavottes according to rigid protocol.  Woe betide anyone who transgressed in any way as the Master of Ceremonies would admonish such persons regardless of their rank.  It must have been a wonder experience to dance to the music of the orchestra in the Musician’s Gallery in the vat ballroom under the brilliant light of the famous crystal chandeliers.  The 10,000 pieces of hand cut crystal of the chandeliers would fill the room with thousands of refracted lights which would reflect in the jewellery of the ladies present, so making every ball held here a truly ‘glittering occasion’.


Legend has it that on December 31, 1777, a rowdy group of wealthy patrons were celebrating the New Year. The drink flowed and the behaviour became increasingly bawdy, until one of the young men ordered his wife to dance naked for his boorish friends. This being the eighteenth century, a wife was little more than her husband’s property, and she did as he demanded. Sadly, the shame and humiliation was too much for her, and she threw herself from the musician’s gallery in the ballroom. This might sound a little melodramatic to us, but social standing was everything to the upper classes.  Staff at the Assembly Rooms have heard the rustle of a taffeta ball gown, and the Grey Lady often announces her presence with the scent of lavender.


Towards the end of the 18th Century orchestras began to move down from the gallery and be placed on a raised platform at one end of the ballroom, as in Newcastle. 


The seven cut glass chandeliers, each made of 10000 pieces of glass, were made in Newcastle and have been lit by candles, gas and then electricity.  The glassworks of Tyneside founded by Huguenot refugees along the close and on the banks of the Ouseburn were a thriving industry in the early days of the OAR and held an international reputation for fine craftsmanship and quality.  The OAR chandeliers are the only surviving single complete set of five known to be made in Newcastle.  The remaining four were sold over the years to various parts of the world or have simply disappeared.  The cost of installing the Chandelier system in 1774/1776 was six hundred guineas which was approximately 10% of the total building cost which amounted to £6,700.


The Duke of Sussex laid the foundation stone of the Lit&Phil on 2nd September 1822. The Royal Duke was the guest of John George Lambton and was brought to Newcastle in the Lambton carriage.  Travelling down Gateshead High Street the streets were thronged with people who removed the horses from the carriage and pulled it themselves down the High Street and Bottle Bank at an erratic and breakneck speed to the Tyne Bridge – it must have been the most thrilling moment of the Duke’s life - where Newcastle people joined in.  He was taken to the Mansion House on the Close for lunch then to the Lit and Phil to lay the stone where the streets were thronged with people.  Afterwards there was a grand dinner in the Old Assembly Rooms where there were 35 toasts and 53 speeches, (the record states that ‘various other toasts were drunk’ – probably not the only things which were drunk) and ‘the hilarity of the evening prolonged to a late hour’.


On March 20th 1823 a most splendid fancy dress ball and supper were given by 47 gentlemen bachelors of Newcastle to the ladies and gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood, when 467 ladies and gentlemen ‘attired in all the splendour, brilliancy and variety that taste could devise or money purchase’ crowded the suite of apartments.  Those assembled, presented an entertainment that was never before seen in Newcastle


The visit of the Duke of Wellington who came to Newcastle in 1827 was celebrated by a Grand Ball on 28th September, when 691 of the nobility and gentry of the north attended.  The Duke stayed until the early hours, the departed for Ravensworth Castle, where he was the guest of the Rt Hon Thomas Henry Lord Ravensworth.  The Ball was opened by Lord Ossulstone and the Marchioness of Londonderry. 


The Coronation of Queen Victoria on June 28th 1838 was honoured here and the meeting which resulted in the formation of the Literary and Philosophical Society was held in the Assembly Rooms on January 24th 1793.


His Majesty King Edward was entertained here when visiting Newcastle to open a wing of Armstrong College and to open the Royal Victoria Infirmary.  King George V and Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales were entertained to lunch here when they came to open the Tyne Bridge in 1928.


Charles Dickens


One famous person who performed here was Charles Dickens.  Dickens achieved lasting fame as an author but he himself would have preferred to be an actor manager.  Early in his life he had been offered an audition at a London theatre, but a head cold kept him away; it’s a cause of some speculation whether the common cold is to be thanked for giving us Dickens the famous author rather than Dickens, an actor who would only have been famous in his day!  With this love of theatre, he often organised amateur dramatics and, occasionally, took these on tour and in 1852 he brought his little company (which included the author Wilkie Collins) to Newcastle and Sunderland.


They played in the Old Assembly Rooms in Newcastle, putting on a play “Not so bad as we seem” and a farce “Mr Nightingale’s Diary,” and the next day he acted in Sunderland from whence he wrote to John Forster (a close friend and later biographer, who was from Wallsend) on August 29th.  “Into the room at Newcastle they squeezed six hundred people, at twelve and sixpence into a space reasonably capable of holding three hundred.”  


Full evening dress, white ties and tails, long gowns and elbow gloves were worn for state gatherings as the Edwardian Ball, Holly Ball and the Braes of Derwent Hunt Ball.  Musical concerts, especially by the Newcastle Chamber Music Society were held here and among some of the famous musicians who performed here was Sir Charles Halle.


At the turn of the century and in the twenties, the OAR was still the favourite spot for formal dinners, dances and concerts even though the New Assembly Rooms were built in 1898 up at Barrass Bridge as part of the Grand Hotel – now part of Newcastle University.


Change of Fortunes


The final record of the indebtedness of the Subscribers Committee was in 1922 when, after owning the building from 1776 the Subscribers succeeded by their descendants, owed the sum of £6,500 to Barclays Bank Limit’s branch on the Quayside Newcastle.  The building was put up for sale and it was sold in 1923 for £6,500 which was paid to Barclays Bank to clear the debt.


The property was bought by the newly formed company, ‘The Newcastle Old Assembly Rooms and Crown Hotel Company Limited.’  After it was purchased every major band in the district played at the OAR and thousands of local people enjoyed the regular dances. 


During the First World War the building was taken over by the Army and when the war ended in 1918, and the Army eventually left, the building was decorated and all damage by the Army’s occupation was rectified by the Ministry of War at a cost of £25,000 so that the new owners had a reasonably well cared for building in which to carry on business.


The premises were in constant use until 1939 when the lower ballroom was taken over by the Salvation Army who created the ‘Red Shield Club on the ground floor for servicemen to have a bed for the night or a place to pass the time while waiting for trains.  They provided supper of sausage and mash, bread and butter and a pint pot of tea for ninepence (4 new pence).  After the war was ended, the place was returned to the Company’s management and once again the OAR became a venue for various social functions, regular dances, evenings being enjoyed by those attending Masonic Ladies Nights and celebrations of other organisations as well as regularly held Whist Drives and Dances.


Unfortunately, the hotel side of the business in Clayton Street did not prosper and on 27th August 1967 the Company was obliged to go into voluntary liquidation and the hotel closed.  With bookings at the OAR up until New Year’s Eve the Company carried on with OAR part of the business but the doors were closed to the public for the first time in its history on 1st January 1968.


During the years the old building was owned by the Newcastle Old Assembly Rooms and Crown Hotel Company Limited it seems little attention had been paid to the care and maintenance of the property.  Decoration had been inferior and it is clear that little or no work had ever been done regarding the dry rot and woodworm damage to the main joists and flooring if the lower part of the building.  Bars had been installed and they were of poor quality, the workmanship amateurish and not in keeping with the grand style of the building.


The building was put up for sale with an asking price of £150,000 but there were no offers forthcoming so after a year on the market it is understood that an offer of £75,000 would be considered but still no one was interested in buying the property.


A great number of prominent men and women of Newcastle, Durham and Northumberland formed the ‘Friends of the Old Assembly Rooms’ in order to see if the building might be saved.  The organisation, headed by the Duke of Northumberland carried out an expert inspection of he premises and published a detailed report on the findings of the inspectors.


The City Council was approached with a view to the City buying it but Alderman Arthur Grey is quoted in the local press as saying ‘there was no money for such a project and there was no reason why the Council should undertake the liabilities of the liquidator.’ 


Eventually the OAR was bought for an unspecified amount by Telegraph Northfield Properties Ltd but it seemed that the amount of money needed to rectify the bad dilapidations was more than the buyer had anticipated.  At this time a board had appeared in the forecourt with a notice that the building was to be demolished and the land was available as a development site.  This would have ended the story of OAR after two centuries of high-level social life in Newcastle.


It was at that time in 1973 that the Michaelides family intervened and rescued the grand old building.


Michaelides Family


In 1968 the Michaelides family with a great many years of experience in the hospitality business, having been in this country since after the War owned and operated a business in Northumberland Street, Michaels Club.  This was burned down when the adjoining building caught fire (Callers) and it left the Michaelides considering their future.


The Michaelides brothers Michael and Homer could not have known the mammoth task they had undertaken when they bought the building.  They had two options, they could just patch it up and make what they could out of it as the former owners had done or they could renovate the old place completely, they decided on the latter course.


When the Michaelides family took over the building it had been empty for 6 years.  Vandals had smashed the windows, leaking gutters had damaged the elegant ballroom and most frightening of all dry rot had got such a hold that growths could be seen sprouting from the wood. 

Redecoration and carpeting throughout the building cost many thousands of pounds as did the refurbishing of the ancillary parts of the building, offices, kitchens, staff rooms, and toilet areas.  The poor-quality bars installed by former owners were replaced by bars designed to fit in with the general style of the rooms. 



Made from 10,000 hand cut Newcastle crystal of graded pieces, the Chandeliers were not given the consideration which they deserved when the old building was for sale in the 1967/73 period and the liquidators saw fit to sell some of the collection piecemeal to raise part of their costs.  One thousand pieces of the irreplaceable crystal drops were missing when the place was bought by the Michaelides family. The brothers advertised in the local press and on the radio and this brought much of the missing crystal back.  People came with brown paper bags and carrier bags filled with the crystal drops.  The refurbishing of the chandeliers alone cost £26,000 and it was found that instead of the metalwork of the chandeliers being painted cast iron, they are solid brass silver plated.  It was through their efforts the only complete collection of beautiful Newcastle made hand cut crystal chandeliers exist in their original setting. 


When all work was completed the OAR, resurrected by the Michaelides family at their own expense, was once again opened to the public in 1974 and became the centre of Newcastle social life once again.


In 1976 the brothers opened a casino downstairs – Casino Royale


The Old Assembly Rooms had been owned and operated by the Michaelides family for more than 45 years as one the city centre’s premier events venues, hosting weddings, proms, parties and conferences.  Michael and Homer Michaelides saved the derelict building from closure in 1974 and Homer’s son Antony Michaelides took over running the venue in recent years, overseeing a £1.1m transformation of the rooms in time for the grand building’s 240th birthday in 2016.


However, in 2019 the OAR closed its doors after the owners decided to retire.  The venue, which was only recently marketed as being for sale with a £4.2m guide price has been sold to new owners.


The current owners are Frazier Hurts Limited, a private limited company


The ground floor has been converted into a nightclub – China White and the upper floors were renovated in 2023/2024


Notes written by Pat Lowery in October 2022 with additional information provided by Marion Anderson, Leisure in Britain and the Old Assembly Rooms history document.

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