River Tyne 1823: class battles

Tyneside history: A legacy of struggle

David Douglass reviews: Joseph M Fewster, 'The keelmen of Tyneside: labour organisation and conflict in the north-east coal industry 1600-1830', The Boydell Press, 2011, pp232, £60

There will be few Tynesiders who do not know the local song, ‘Weel may the keel row’, which celebrates the life and labours of the ‘keel lads o’ coaly Tyne’. Most will also know perhaps, what the keel was and what the keelmen did.

More than that only regional historians will know - and not many among them either. Most local histories make a nod in the direction of the keelmen, and some will enumerate the long list of strikes and riots which raged along the river from the 1600s to their demise in the 1860s; though usually without detail of what the strikes were about or how the men were organised.

The keelmen, who worked on the boats (keels) carrying coal along both the Tyne and Wear, left a rich legacy of music and song. It was legendary for its powerful dialect, the form of which was said to be distinctly their own. This has been a matter of conjecture for some time, some saying it was ‘Scottish’ or ‘Scotto-Geordie’. I personally have resisted these descriptions, believing them to be based on a misunderstanding of the ethnic composition of Tyneside/Northumbria and its dialect, which was almost identical to what came to be called ‘La’lands’, or ‘Scots’.

With this work, we at last get some colour and facts to bolster the assumptions and vacuums of previous historians. Joseph M Fewster for the first time is able to demonstrate that indeed near enough half of the Tyneside keelmen not only came from Scotland (though where exactly is only hinted at - “the borders”, “Tynedale” and “Reddesdale”, all of which are more Northumbrian than ‘Scottish’ anyway), but actually still declared themselves to be ‘residents of Scotland’.

In a word, they were migrant workers, heading home for the winter months and returning to work the keels in the summer. They were described as the ‘young’uns with families’ and seemed to work as offshore oilworkers do today, with long spells on and off the rig. This subject may not be as fascinating to others as it is to me, but the discovery seems to beg more questions and impose more assumptions.

The keelmen were highly skilled workers who not only learned to master the weird (dangerous) and unique craft, but also navigate the river Tyne, which in those days was undredged and peppered with sandbanks, many of them moving, and numerous wrecks and obstructions, together with rapid and turbulent stretches of water. The skill to carry this off could only be developed from years of local experience and knowledge, by men to all intents and purpose ‘local’.

The Tyne keel was oval in shape, 42 feet long, 19 feet wide and cumbersome. It was skulled by a single, huge oar, which itself was more than 20 feet long, and manned by two men and a boy on the port side, while the skipper in unison with the crew managed a shorter oar which also served as a rudder. As it hit shallower water, it was propelled by long poles walked along the side of the craft pushing off the river bed. When the vessel managed to skull to the river entrance, where the water was deep enough to accommodate the seagoing colliers, the coal was hand-filled from the keel through ports in the ship’s side and stowed aboard. The loading itself was a task of monumental skill, with both vessels rising and falling on the heavy swell and winds.

The author does not tell us why this large group of migrant workers came to Tyneside, or how they could from scratch learn to master such a specific and awkward craft, as well as gain the almost unique local knowledge needed to carry the shifting and dangerous cargo through the wrecks and obstructions, unloading them by hand in tidal waters given to lethal swells at the mouth of the river.

Class and ethnicity

We know that this was the most tightly guarded skill in the coal trade, with keelmen and their families living in discrete communities, intermarrying within it and passing on skills from father to son. In the absence of any explanation to the contrary, I believe these workers and their migration between what became ‘Scotland’ and ‘Northumberland’ probably predates the border and the Normans, and they considered the lands in which they worked as much their own as the ones further north, in which they chose to spend the winter months with their families.

Such migrations during harvest times - and those following the great fleet, as it landed catches from Peterhead to Whitby, gutting and curing fish, and involving armies of fisher lasses from right along that coast - was a fairly common phenomenon. The coal industry started to become a real industry way back in the 1100s with the keel becoming crucial to the export of the fuel, particularly to London. This was in all probability before the ‘English’-based Normans seized Northumberland from Scotland’s sphere of influence, or ‘the lion’ had tried to seize it back again in 1174 and, forced to accept defeat, Scotland lost its southern territory. By 1384, when Richard II was ensuring that Tyne keels conformed to taxable specifications, the trade was already long established. So the proposition is far from fanciful.

To many readers such speculation over ethnicity and migration will be irrelevant, as it is the class strength and powerful industrial intervention of the workers as an organised body which is of key interest. The men clearly had one of the earliest ‘trade unions’ (those who are hog-tied by the definition of Beatrice and Sydney Webb will not like that term, but in practice that is what they were) - in existence since at least the early 1600s.

However, the ethnic question leads to a second interesting observation. The last surviving feature of this dynamic group of workers is the Keelmen’s Hospital - still standing in all its glory on the Newcastle side of the (new) Tyne Bridge, just up from old Sandgate, where the keel and maritime community lived. Attempts to get it established from the early 1600s could be seen as an early example of community self-help and self-organisation, in the style of the later miners’ welfare clubs, retirement and convalescent homes, sports and educational facilities. Both were driven by the necessity that nobody else was going to provide them, but in this case there was a more compelling reason.

As a large bulk of the keelmen were classed as ‘non-resident’, since they described their homes as being further north in Scotland, neither they nor their families could rely on the parish for relief in times of hardship, injury or death of a breadwinner. The keelmen as a community felt this huge injustice and devised a grand scheme to establish a hospital, and a convalescent and retirement home. It was not to be that simple, and the scheme was wracked by controversy, strikes and disturbances, acts of parliament and countless petitions.

The author spends the best part of three chapters on the issue - from 1700, when the plot of land was first bought, through its construction to the near total eclipse of the skill in the late 1860s. At root was the organisation of the men themselves and their decision to impose a levy both for their society and for the hospital, together with the demand that the council - and more importantly the ‘hostmen’, who owned the coal trade and licensed the keels - to likewise pay a levy per keel. This to the owners was vexatious because (a) it empowered the workers and granted them a de facto closed shop and (b) it imposed regulations on the volume carried and stopped the keels carrying more coal than was safe. The hostmen had previously been able to dodge tax on the coal and avoid paying the keelers what they were due.

Eventually though, the keelmen made a lethal mistake in allowing “men of good standing, authority and principle” - ie, the hostmen themselves and the likes of magistrates (most of whom were coal-owners) - to become the trustees and governors of the facilities and funds, thus losing control of the product of their own endeavour and sacrifice. The governors wasted no time in imposing rules preventing men of “bad behaviour and standing” - ie, union activists, strikers and rioters - from using the facilities they had paid for, and even from working. This led to mass disturbance, petition and counter-petition, and argument in the houses of parliament. Daniel Defoe became a tireless fighter for the workers against the monopolisers of privilege and wealth, and suffered massive abuse and slander as a result. The issue was never seriously resolved, although over many years the hold of the magistrates and masters was subject to more public scrutiny and legal regulation.

Not ‘Geordies’

The question of political allegiance and the Jacobites is briefly touched upon. Tynesiders, contrary to the designation ‘Geordies’, were never such (ie, supporters of King George). In fact they leaned heavily toward the Jacobite cause, which Northumberland had joined from the earliest times. Indeed the rebellion of 1715 had initially been meant to start with a Northumbrian rural march on Newcastle and rising by the ‘toon’ populace.

Fewster points out by contrast that hundreds of keelmen had signed a petition promising to defend the city against them, although how general that sentiment was we do not know. But the destination of the march was changed from Newcastle to Kelso - an easier start for the rebellion.

As for the demonstration of 1750 by keelmen, miners and sailors declaring Charles Stuart king and Newcastle Scottish, the author declares it to have been no more than a drunken prank. General Wade, on the other hand, dared not move his troops from Newcastle in 1745, because he did not trust the keelmen. In 1746, when rumours were rife of plans to ‘seize Newcastle’, magistrates did not dare act on information against two leading keelmen for fear of setting “the keelmen in motion, who are too ready to rise and become tumultuous upon the least pretence”.

Fewster sets aside a chapter apiece on the most important strike movements: 1710-38, 1740, when there were riots, 1744-50, 1809, 1819 and the ‘long stop’ of 1822, when the keelmen were badly defeated. The Keelmen’s repeated attempt to find justice by petition to parliament and challenges via the courts and the Lords are recorded. Despite the investment of large amounts of funds and enthusiasm by libertarian lawyers and politicians, these were repeatedly defeated in the interests of “free trade, commerce and profits”.

One of the most interesting chapters deals with the community’s resistance to being pressed into naval duties and the battle, both political and physical, against the press gangs - one the keelmen, almost uniquely among the nautical trades, won. The penultimate chapter deals with the death agony of the trade on the back of modern technology, and river improvements, both of which robbed the coal trade of its dependence upon the keelmen to transport the coal down river. The final chapter deals with a review of the long and vexed relationship between the city magistrates and the keelmen community.

During the strike of 1710 over newly imposed wage rates and fees for shipment of coals and ballast returning, “The keelmen proceeded to block navigation in the river ‘in a riotous and tumultuous manner’ and threaten to ‘pull down houses and to commit other great disorders’ unless their grievances were addressed. The magistrates were insulted and ‘opposed in a hostile manner’ when they read the proclamation against riots.”

As has occurred throughout history, troops and navy forces were sent for, almost as a matter of course - the city chiefs demanding that navy ships should remain at Shields to contain the river men. There are never enough volunteers and ‘noodles’, as they are locally called, to take on the keelmen, let alone put down the workers’ actions in pit, sea and river trades:

“Any keelmen who attempted to work were soon intimidated. A mob of more than one hundred women, armed with sticks and clubs, threatened to kill the crew of a keel laden with lead if they proceeded further. Several men boarded another keel and confined one of its crew in the stocks in Sandgate. Another man was beaten and condemned to death by a keelman posing as a judge … One boasted that they would ‘turne levellers’ and seize provisions that came into market.”

In May 1719 acting (unusually) in concert with the Sunderland keelmen to jointly leave off work without an overall increase in their wage scales, the strikers “disregarded the proclamation against riots and, as the civil authorities were powerless to curb them, continued to act ‘in a riotous and dangerous manner’”. What is impressive during all of these actions is the resolve that, whatever the outcome of the particular demand, none of them would return to work unless all imprisoned men and women from their communities were released from jail. In one case a ship with impressed men had already put to sea and was engaged in battles with the Dutch, while the entire river was at a standstill demanding their immediate return. As luck would have it, both these respective battles were victorious and the men were not only released, but received a share of the bounty from the captured vessel far in excess of their wage for keeling.

Ongoing struggle

Some core issues recur again and again - ‘truck’ demands to be paid in coin and not kind, or beer; against the overloading of vessels shipping more chaldrons than they were paid for; for payment for having to return with a full vessel when weather would not allow loading at sea or for shipmen of ballast on the return trip. These demands were almost always conceded, only over time to be eroded and then resurfacing.

The great risings of 1740 had at their core an extreme winter, in which trade along the coast came to a stop. Continuous rain in August and September 1739 had devastated crops, and by March of the following year supplies were nearing exhaustion. The rich bought up stores of grain and food, speculators cornered supplies and forced up prices, and the poor began to starve and freeze in great numbers. Food riots by miners, keelmen, wagoners and their communities seized grain and provision stocks, and with great maturity sold them at customary prices to repay the merchants. Large numbers of women blocked the movement of grain destined for ships and export, while attempts to arrest ‘ringleaders’ were easily repulsed. At length, with delegates elected from the pits, wagon ways and keels, and the magistrates acting as arbiters, the merchants were forced to produce invoices and sell the grain and provisions at cost price.

Space does not allow for blow-by-blow accounts of all the strikes and riots and I can only heartily recommend that you buy the book and read it from start to end.

Alongside the raging battles over wages and conditions, a growing demand was for the restraint of the ‘staiths’ or ‘spouts’ - a new technology which, fed by railway lines, led chaldron wagons to the river to load the coal loose into shallow colliers directly. Steadily the numbers of spouts grew, displacing the men’s labour and obstructing the river, as they thrust out to meet the waiting vessels. Between 1837 and 1845 the quantity of coals capable of loading further downstream into deeper water, and directly into vessels, and coals loaded into shallow vessels directly upstream, grew by multiple progression. Steam tugs started to force themselves upon the trade, towing a number of keels behind them, loading directly from spouts or even by traditional drops, but eradicating more and more of the keelmen’s highly tuned skills. With the coming of the Tyne Improvement Act and the dredging of more and more of the river, bigger vessels could proceed further, to be loaded without the need for the keel or her crew.

The last hunting ground for the keelmen had been those further upstream beyond the bridges. The old Tyne Bridge, with its low arches preventing the dredging of upstream areas, had allowed the above-bridge keelmen to cling on, but the old bridge was demolished and replaced by a swing bridge in 1876, opening the way for extensive, deep dredging of the upper river. As the author notes, “Steam power, both on land and water, played a large part in the demise of the keelmen”, the last of those remaining in the hospital declaring: “Its them steamers that’s bust up the keelmen” - “It’s a bonny bad job, but it cannot be helped.”

The keelmen, a feature for 400 years and probably more, who stamped an indelible mark on the character, culture and dialect of Tyneside, were no more. But their hospital - a monument to their collective endeavour and the common working class cause - remains.