John Clayton (town clerk)

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John Clayton (10 June 1792 – 14 July 1890) was an antiquarian and town clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, during the nineteenth century. He worked with the builder Richard Grainger and architect John Dobson to redevelop the centre of the city in a neoclassical style, and Clayton Street in Newcastle is named after him. He did much to preserve the remains of Hadrian's Wall.

Early life and career[edit]

John Clayton lived most of his life in the public eye. Son of Nathaniel Clayton (Town Clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne from 1785 to 1822), he was educated at Kirkoswald School in Northumberland and received classical education at Uppingham. He began work in the firm of solicitors that had been established by his father Nathaniel in the Bigg Market in 1778, and which became Clayton and Dunn, and qualified as an attorney in 1815. John become Under-Sheriff in 1816 before succeeding his father as Town Clerk in 1822, remaining in post until 1867. He never married, but shared the family's townhouse in Fenkle Street, Newcastle, with his unmarried brother and legal partner, Matthew.

As well as his work in the city, Clayton was a keen antiquarian, and his dedication to Hadrian's Wall proved invaluable to its later preservation. He was born 10 June 1792. Four years later, his father purchased the Chesters Estate, through which Hadrian's Wall runs, and which contained the site of Chesters fort.

While landscaping a parkland setting for his home, The Chesters, Nathaniel Clayton levelled out and grassed over much of the Roman fort. While doing so he collected various antiquities, but there is no evidence that he took a great deal of interest in the Roman history of his estate. However, from an early age John took a passionate interest not only in the fort of Chesters and its immediate surroundings, but in Roman remains in the nearby countryside.

From 1834 he began buying land to preserve the Wall, at a time when what is now a World Heritage Site was little understood and being unthinkingly vandalised by quarrying and removal of stones for reuse. He even had some restoration work carried out on parts of the Wall.

Clayton's enthusiasm helped preserve that central stretch of Hadrian's Wall that includes Chesters (Cilurnum). Housesteads and Vindolanda. He carried out some of the first archaeological excavations on the Wall. His first published work, in 1843, was his excavation of the commanding officer's bath-house at Chesters. He was involved in excavations most years for the next half-century, both at Chesters and elsewhere along Hadrian's Wall, namely Cawfields (Milecastle 42), Castle Nick (mc 39) and Housesteads Crags (mc 37), Housesteads and Carvoran. His archaeological work continued into his later years, and he was in his early nineties when he uncovered the spectacular sculptures of the temple to Mars Thincsus at Housesteads.

Clayton also brought early tourism to the Hadrian's Wall area and is to be thanked for establishing Chesters as an archaeological site open to visitors. A small garden pavilion on the estate was used to display his archaeological collection as well as other 'casual finds' and purchased acquisitions at Chesters for visiting friends and enthusiasts. Following his death in 1890, his nephew Nathaniel commissioned and had built a permanent museum which was completed in 1896 to house the Clayton Collection.

It is privately owned but curated by English Heritage[1] on behalf of the collection’s trustees and has now been refurbished to bring it up to 21st-century standards of conservation, display and interpretation. However, great care has been taken to respect its character and to retain the feel of a 19th-century gentleman antiquarian’s collection.

Grainger’s plan for Newcastle[edit]

In 1834 Richard Grainger presented a comprehensive development plan to the Town Council for the land covered by the Anderson Place estate. John Dobson had already submitted a similar plan to the council ten years previously and been rejected, so Grainger needed someone with influence to encourage the council to accept the new plan. He was advised to move his legal account to the solicitor’s firm run by John Clayton, the town clerk. Clayton became Grainger’s advocate and adviser, and the council adopted his scheme within two months. Grainger’s scheme transformed the centre of Newcastle, but without Clayton’s influence and advice it might well have been rejected, as Dobson’s was. One of the three principal streets built under Grainger’s scheme was named Clayton Street in his honour.

An anonymous quotation made about Clayton at the time, may be unfair, but gives an indication of how some people regarded him:

Has all the craft and subtlety of the devil. Great talents, indefatigable industry, immense wealth, and wonderful tact and facility in conducting business, give him an influence in society rarely possessed by an individual. Was unanimously re-elected Town Clerk because the Clique had not a man equal to supply his place. Can do things with impunity that would damn an ordinary man. A good voice, speaks well, and never wastes a word. Has a careworn, but sly countenance and spare person – limps in his gait from an accident – and loves the ladies.

Grainger’s financial difficulties[edit]

In 1839 Grainger paid £114,100 for the Elswick estate to west of Newcastle intending to build a railway terminus there surrounded by factories and houses. The expense of buying the estate almost bankrupted Grainger and by 1841 his creditors were demanding payment. Grainger was saved from bankruptcy by John Clayton, who worked very hard in persuading Grainger’s creditors to accept gradual repayment. Clayton had difficulty in persuading Grainger to restrict his expenditure, as correspondence between them shows. Clayton even intervened in a dispute between Grainger and his son Thomas and persuaded them to compromise.

On Grainger’s death in 1861, he left debts of £128,582 and his personal estate amounted to only £16,913. Grainger’s debts included £30,000 owed to Clayton. A letter to Grainger’s executors shows that Clayton agreed to forego the £30,000 owed to him as well as the interest arrears on the debt.

Clayton died on 14 July 1890. The gross value of his estate was a remarkable £728,846.


It can be said that John Clayton was invaluable to Richard Grainger in two ways. Firstly, he ensured that Grainger’s scheme for Newcastle would be accepted by the council. Secondly, when Grainger was in extreme danger of being made bankrupt, Clayton was successful in allaying the fears of his creditors and persuading them to be patient. This meant that Grainger died with his good name intact.[2]


  1. ^ English Heritage – Chesters Roman Fort
  2. ^ Lyall Wilkes; Gordon Dodds (1964). Tyneside Classical, the Newcastle of Grainger, Dobson and Clayton. John Murray. 

J S Johnson, MA, DPhil, FSA, (2001), Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Chesters Roman Fort (English Heritage Guidebook), London: English Heritage.

External links[edit]

The Romans Cause a Wall to be Built, by William Bell Scott (1857). Scott's painting, set at Housesteads Roman Fort, commemorated John Clayton's efforts to save Hadrian's Wall by giving the central figure, the centurion, Clayton's likeness.