The Bonny Banks of Benwell

There is a place in Newcastle’s West
Lately it has had bad press
Though people there think it’s the best
The bonny banks of Benwell

Now Benwell folk don’t have a lot
You won’t see them out on their yachts
But they’ll give you all that they’ve got
On the bonny banks of Benwell

Benwell’s changed throughout the years
They’ve knocked down houses beyond repair
And the outside netty you won’t find there
On the bonny banks of Benwell

Words & Music by Wilf Mitford

Credits : Recorded and Produced by Mick Sweeney at the Cluny Studio, Newcastle upon Tyne in April 1992.  Julia Mitford, Lead Vocals; Wilf Mitford, Guitar. 

The recording of this song is very much an abridged version.  When we sang it live there were many other verses which I’ve included below.  First, I’ll explain the background of the song and the references in the abridged version, then I’ll take you through the additional verses.

Dad wrote this song at a time when Benwell was in the news for all of the wrong reasons when the ‘Tyneside Riots’ broke out.  He and Mum bought their first ever home in Benwell and lived there with their dog Rusty.  It was an affordable area for them and Mum had been raised around Newcastle, with Dad growing up just over the river in Gateshead.  They both came from working-class families, raised through sheer grit, hard work, and a determination to better themselves.  Getting their first home, with a mortgage, was the first step in our family becoming middle class.  They often talk about how they had no furniture at first and used to sleep on the floor.  My Aunty May loaned them money for their first settee (sofa) and my Granda painted all of the doors, windows, and frames of the house for them as he worked at the paint factory.

So it’s safe to say both Mum and Dad had a fondness for Benwell.  This made it all the more tragic when in 1991 riots broke out across Tyneside with a focus on Benwell in the news.  Thankfully by this stage Mum & Dad were settled in Cramlington.

Around this time it became common to see houses boarded up with metal doors & windows after being burnt out.  The terms ‘ram raids’ and ‘joyriders’ became the norm in newspaper coverage as young people took to the streets with homemade firebombs, bricks and stolen cars.  In the aftermath, it became such an undesirable place to live that houses were sold off by the council for as little as 50p as part of a scheme I’ve more recently heard referred to as ‘homesteading‘.  People were attracted by the low price to invest their money in making a home.   This must have worked as prices as I write this in 2022 are upwards of £120,000. 

I had completely forgotten that Dad had written, and we had performed, the extra verses you can see below.  In the 1990s we regularly played at a venue called The Bond, a Methodist Church known as much for its imposing building as its community events.  We always got a great reception, and so Dad wrote the event into this song knowing it would get a great reaction from the audience. The last 5 verses are of course all about us!  You’ll also notice Dad’s cheeky humour in verses 4 & 6 when he refers to wildlife after dark and mating calls.   It was also a way to make it more of a positive song about Benwell given the original was so focussed on the riots which was really such a short period in Benwell’s rich history.

A few explainers;

  • belah = below
  • clarts = mud (or worse!)
  • in the pink = in good health

Here’s the bond version….

Belah the West Road in Newcastle’s West
There’s a place, some say, that is the best
Built on a hill, yes you have guessed
The bonny bonny banks of Benwell

Though the people of Benwell divvent have a lot
Wey ye nivor see them out sailin’ on their yachts
But if your need is such, they’ll give ye aall they’ve got
On the bonny bonny banks of Banwell

Mind Benwell has changed ower the years
They’ve knocked hooses doon that w’beyond repair
And the ootside netty you’ll not find there
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

They’ve even got a wildlife park
Mind at this point I should remark
There’s a diff’rent kind of wild life after dark
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

This park is south of Pipe Track Lane
All kinds of plantlife it does contain
But mind the clarts when it starts to rain
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

It’s home to many species of bird
Too beautiful to describe in words
And at night the mating call is heard
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

If you’re the type that likes a drink
There’s plenty of pubs to keep you in the pink
Mind not too much or your wallet will shrink
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

If you’re not the type that gans t’the pub
Ye can gan to the Bond Friendship Club
Where ye’ll get a cup of tea and plenty of grub
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

And for those that like to have a good sing
In the middle of autumn of early spring
They have a folk group that really swings
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

They sing local songs and have a bit of crack
And their young fiddler will make your feet tap
And they’re always welcome to come back
To the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

Their youngest member has a voice that’s great
Her vocal talent will captivate –
all those present, so don’t be late
O the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

And sometimes her mam will recite a poem
By the group’s guitarist, so it’s not her own
And she’ll only do this when she’s miles from home
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

Their guitarist also writes tunes and songs
Which he hopes everyone will sing a long
And divvent worry if ye get it wrong
On the bonny bonny banks of Benwell

Extra resources

To see some historical photos of the West End of Newcastle in the 80s and 90s I would recommend looking at Mike Pinder’s photographs which capture this moment in time beautifully;
Pinder, M. (2020, Aug 7).  Newcastle’s West End: Elswick to Newburn – in pictures. The Guardian  www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/aug/07/newcastle-west-end-elswick-to-newburn-in-pictures

There’s a great article in the Chronicle from 2007 where they interview a ‘homesteader’ who has just sold his house for £145,000! 
McDonald, L (2007, Jan 7). Our home cost just 50p, now it’s going for £145,000. The Guardian 
www.theguardian.com/money/2007/jan/07/houseprices.communities 

You can read more about ‘The Bond’ in this historical booklet;
St James’ Heritage & Environment Group (2018). Remembering the Bond: The Story of the Bond Memorial Methodist Church, Benwell.
https://stjameschurchnewcastle.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/remembering-the-bond.pdf

Creative Commons License
Bonny Banks of Benwell by Wilf Mitford is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://mitfordmusic.wordpress.com/.

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