Main Guard Mystery

I’ve always had an inquiring mind; at school I studied science, not history.  But one thing they have in common is the possibility, if not the need, to question what has been understood in the past and to find new answers through original research.  It has been said that one of the wonderful things about research is that if you discover something new, for a moment you are the only person to know that thing.  One of the joys of doing Berwick Time Lines is the greater opportunity to share that new knowledge with other people.

Something that has puzzled me for some time is the Main Guard in Palace Street.  A plaque in the covered entrance explains that “This eighteenth century guardhouse was removed from Marygate in 1815 and rebuilt here.”  What could be clearer?


The Main Guard in Palace Street

In Dr Fuller’s History of Berwick (1799), there is a well-known illustration of Marygate looking to the Town Hall and in the foreground, outside the offices of the Berwick Advertiser, is the Main Guard.  Fuller describes the building thus, 

“It is most incommodiously placed in the High Street, 100 yards distant from the Scotch Gate, the spot where it mould have stood.  It measures 65 feet in length.  It consists of a room for the officer of the guard, a large apartment in the middle of the house for the soldiers, with benches for them to lye upon it. There is likewise a large fire place in it. Besides it has an apartment called the black-hole.”


Berwick High Street looking to the Town Hall with the Main Guard on the left.

That sounds like the Main Guard we know and love, so this confirms the information on the plaque.  Or does it?


Layout of our Main Guard matching Fuller’s description.

There’s only one problem.  The architectural design of our Main Guard is totally different to that shown in Fuller.  Details like the portico with square pillars and arches (in Fuller) as opposed to Tuscan pillars on ours.  The window design and other details are all different too.

This might be attributed to inaccuracy by the artist, Alexander Carse.  However, all the other details of this illustration and of others in the book are accurate and he was a respected Edinburgh artist.  So that leads to only two other possibilities – that the building was altered between 1799 and 1815 or that its a different building.

Before answering that, let’s go back a bit further.  There have been guard houses for the garrison since mediaeval times.  A record from about 1345 itemises the building of “pentices” (lean to buildings with pent roofs) by various gates in town, part of which says:  

And on timber bought for three great chambers newly built above and below the walls for the men of the garrison of the town on their watches to shelter in for fear of the enemy.

Regarding the Main Guard, it seems that this is not the first time it has been on the move!  It is called the Main Guard because it was the “central” control point in the town and the “black hole” was a lock up for miscreants.  Other smaller guard houses existed at all the gates into the town to shelter the soldiers on duty.  For example, where the Old Bridge opens out to the area with seating and a Lowry Trail plaque was once the site of a guard house controlling movement through the English Gate.  One still exists by the Cow Gate. 

In 1672, the Guild Books record that the military took control of the Town House (their Town Hall) as the Guild of Freemen hadn’t rented a suitable building for the use of the guard.  Ten years later, a map shows “The Main Guard on the market place”, in front of the Town House, roughly where the steps lead up to our Town Hall.  


Detail of 1682 map showing “The Main Guard on the market place” (l) in front of the old Town House (k).

But by 1725, the Main Guard is shown on a map in the middle of Marygate opposite West Street.  This is still the case on another military plan dated 1747 but by 1750, it is shown on yet another map as being in the location outside where now is the Berwick Advertiser.  It is this building that is shown in Fuller’s History of Berwick.



Above:  Detail of 1747 map showing The Main Guard (O) in front of West Street.

Below:  Detail of 1750 map showing The Main Guard (K) in the Golden Square area.

I decided to investigate and hidden in the Guild books in Berwick Record Office are a couple of references that explain what happened.  In September 1813, the Guild wrote to the Board of Ordnance:

”… in consequence of a Wish expressed to the Barracks Department by the Inhabitants of Berwick that the Guard House in the high Street should be removed to a less inconvenient Situation the Board had consented the Guard House being provided the New Scite of the Building is upon an open Space near the Saluting Battery; but that the Board cannot permit the present Guard House being pulled down until the Mayor and Corporation in their Official Capacities shall engage to build the new one of the same dimensions, of the same Elevation, and equally servicable in every respect, upon the spot pointed out.”

In July 1814, the Guild agreed to the site in Palace Street being used for the purpose.  Work on the new building must have progressed quickly as by March 1815, the Guild was discussing paving the site of the “Old Main Guard”

So there we have it; our Main Guard was a completely new building – not the old one recycled.  Who knows when the plaque was added – possibly not until 100 years later.  It’s probable that something had been lost in translation as the Chinese Whispers of history are repeated through the years, the original message being the location of the Main Guard had moved – not the building itself.

The Main Guard is now used by Berwick Civic Society who have a permanent exhibition about the history of Berwick and a temporary exhibition each year.  I opens from the end of May until September.


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