We loved this portrait of ‘Old Judy’, keeper of the Newcastle upon Tyne town hutch, and thought we’d take a closer look at both the hutch and Old Judy for our latest blog.
The ‘town hutch’ was a strongbox, a sturdy wooden chest located in the Guildhall (also known as The Exchange) in which the Corporation officials kept the money the town paid in their dues (the Newcastle upon Tyne one has a hole in the lid to admit the money – a similar idea to the money boxes and piggy banks we all owned as children).
The Newcastle hutch had eight locks – the Mayor had the key to one and seven chamberlains the others, and the hutch could only be opened in the presence of all the key-holders (or with their explicit consent if they couldn’t be there). But when these illustrious officials were absent, the hutch was guarded by the formidable Old Judy.
In the early nineteenth-century Judith Dowlings (also Downey or Downing) was the keeper or guardian of the town hutch and wielded a stout stick, which she was not afraid to use in its defence to keep away anyone she thought should not be near, including unwary boys loitering nearby. A newspaper report written in 1863 quoted the Handbook to Newcastle-on-Tyne by the historian Dr John Collingwood Bruce, which wryly noted that ‘some shoulders still ache at the thought of her’. Presumably that is the same stick which Old Judy has hold of in her portrait.
In 1816 the artist Henry Perlee Parker settled in Newcastle upon Tyne (he stayed there until 1841 when he moved to Sheffield) and painted some of the local characters, including Old Judy, people that history would probably otherwise have forgotten all about. Her portrait was executed at some point in the first four years of his residence in Newcastle. We’ll take a look at some of his other paintings in due course – including one in which Old Judy makes another appearance. Both the town hutch and Henry Perlee Parker’s portrait of Old Judy, a half-length in oils on canvas, were moved to the new offices of the Newcastle City Treasurer when the hutch ceased to be used – fittingly Old Judy could gaze down from the wall and keep a watchful eye on the hutch she had so formidably guarded for so many years. Her portrait is now held by the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.
As Judy Downey her death is immortalised in a verse of The Newcassel Props by William Oliver. The earliest date we’ve found for this ballad in 1827, which puts Old Judy’s demise prior to that date.
But when maw lugs was lectrified
Wiv Judy Downey’s deeth,
Alang wi’ Heufy Scott aw cried,
Till byeth was out o’ breeth;
For greet and sma, fishwives an’ a’,
Luik’d up tiv her wi’ veneration –
If Judy’s in the Courts above,
Then for au’d Nick there’ll be ne casion.
Newcastle Courant, 20th November 1863.
Header image: Street Scene, Newcastle upon Tyne; British School; National Trust, Cragside
The Newcastle upon Tyne town hutch can be seen in the Discovery Museum.