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The Collieries of Wales




The Keelmen of Tyneside
Labour Organisation and Conflict
In the North-East Coal Industry

Joseph M Fewster
The Boydell Press
ISBN 978-1-84383-632-2
rrp £60

There will be few Tynesiders who don’t 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 historian’s will know, and not much among them either. Most regional histories make a nod in the direction of the keel men, some will list the long list of strikes and riots which raged along the river  from the 1600’s to their demise in the 1860’s; though usually without detail of what the strikes were about or the organization of the men was like.

The keelmen left a rich legacy of music and song, legendary in 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’  and ‘scoto-Geordie’ I resisted these descriptions and believed 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 they themselves still declared themselves to be ‘residents’ of Scotland. In a word they were migrant workers, heading hyme for the winter months and returning to work the keels in the summer months. They were described as ‘the young’uns with families’ and seemed to work in the fashion of the offshore oil workers 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, 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 was only able to 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. Its normal cargo was 8 Newcastle caldrons’ 21tons 4 Cwt. 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 and while the skipper in unison with the crew managed a shorter oar which also served as a rudder. As it hit shallow water it was propelled by long poles walked along the side of the craft pushing off the river bed. It at first carried a square rig, but later more sophisticated ‘for and aft’ rig was fitted. When the vessel managed to skull to the river entrance where the water was deep enough to accommodate the sea going colliers, the coal was hand filled from the keel, through ports in the ships side and stowed aboard. The loading itself was a task of monumental skills with both vessels rising and falling on the heavy swell and winds,


The author doesn’t 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 and unload them by hand in tidal waters given to lethal swells at the mouth of the river.  We know that this was the most tightly guarded skill in the coal trade, that keelmen and their families lived in highly specific communities, intermarried within it, and passed the skill 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 following the great fleet as it landed catches from Peterheed to Whitby gutting and curing fish involving armies of fisher lasses from right along that coast, was a fairly common phenomena. The coal industry started to become a real ‘industry’ way back in the 1100’s with the keel becoming crucial to the export of coal 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, lost the southern portion to this present day. By 1384 when Richard 11, is ensuring the Tyne keels conform to a size whereby they cant dodge tax to the crown the trade was already long established. So the proposition is far from fanciful.

To many readers such speculations and interests on ethnicity and migration will be irrelevant as it is the class strength and powerful industrial intervention of the workers as an organized body which is of key interest.  The men clearly had one of the earliest ‘Trade Unions’ (those who are hog tied by The Webb’s definition, wont like that term, but in common sense terms that is what they were) being around at least from the early 1600’s 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 1600’s could be seen as an early example of self help and community self organization, 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 , destitution or death of a bread winner. The keelmen as a community felt this huge injustice and set about the grand scheme, to establish a hospital, convalescent and retirement home.  It would never be that simple, and the scheme was wracked by controversy and strikes and disturbances, acts of parliament and countless petitions. The author spends the best part of three chapters on the issue which rages from 1700 when the plot of land is first bought through its construction nearly to the total eclipse of the skill in the late 1860s.  At root was the organization 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 a) because it empowered the workers organization and granted them a defacto closed shop, but b) because it imposed the law on the number of chaldrons’ carried and stopped them being overworked, or made to carry more coal than they were paid for or was safe for the vessel to carry. For the Hostman this had been a good way of dodging tax on the coal and payment to the Keelers.  At length the Keelmen made a lethal mistake, and in allowing ‘men of good standing, authority and principle’ i.e. the Hostmen and magistrates, most of whom were coal owners, to become the trustees and governors of the organization and fund, lost control of their own endeavor and sacrifice. The governors wasted no time in imposing rules which demanded men who were of ‘bad behaviour and standing’ i.e. union activists, strikers and rioters were not allowed to use the facilities they had paid for, or even that they be prevented from working. It led to mass disturbance, and petition and counter petition, and argument in the houses of parliament. Daniel Defoe became a tireless fighter for the workers against those 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.

The question of political allegiance and the Jacobites comes into brief presence. Tyneside contrary to the designation ‘Geordies’ were never such (i.e. supporters of King George) in fact and 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, how general that sentiment was we don’t know, but the march on Newcastle was changed to Kelso, an easier start to the rebellion. As to the demonstration of 1750 by  keelmen, miners and sailors declaring Charles Stuart king and Newcastle Scottish, the authors declares it no more than a drunken prank but General Wade on the other hand had dared not move his troops from Newcastle in 1745 because he didn’t trust the keelmen. In 1746 when rumours were rife of plans “to seize Newcastle” the magistrates didn’t dare act on information against two leading keelmen for fear of sparking “the keelmen in motion who are too ready to rise and become tumultuous upon the least pretence”.

The author sets aside a chapter apiece on the most important strike movements, 1710-38, the riots of 1740, the strikes of 1744-50. the strike of 1809, the strike of 1819, and the ‘long stop’ of 1822 when the keelmen were badly defeated. The chapter’s in-between record the Keelmen’s repeated attempt to find justice by petition to parliament and challenges in courts and The Lords. Which despite investment of large amounts of their funds and enthusiasm by some libertarian lawyers and politicians were repeatedly defeated in the interests of ‘free trade, commerce and profits’. One of the most interesting chapters deals with communities’ resistance to being pressed to naval duties and the battles both political and physical against the press gangs, one the keelmen, almost uniquely among nautical trades won. The penultimate chapter deals with the death agony of the skill on the back of modern technology, and river improvements, both of which rob 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 and their 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 usual and across the whole history troops and royal navy forces were sent for, almost as a matter of course, the City chiefs demanding that Royal Navy ships always be present at Shields to contain the river. There are never enough volunteers and ‘noodles’ as they locally called to take on the keelmen , let alone joint workers actions of pits, seamen 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 the May of 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 whatever the outcome of the particular demand that they would none of them return to work unless all imprisoned men and women from their communities were released from jail. In one case the ship with impressed men had already put to sea and was engaged in battles with the Dutch while the river stood demanding their immediate return. As luck would have it, both these respective battles were victorious and the men not only released but received a share out of bounty from the captured vessel far in excess of their wage for keeling.

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

The great risings of 1740 had at their core an extreme winter in which trade right along the coast came to a stop.  Continuous rain in Aug and Sept of 1739 had devastated crops, 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, the poor began to starve and freeze in great numbers. Food riots launched by miners keelmen Wagoner’s 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 which was destined for ships and exports, attempts to arrest ‘ring leaders’ were easily repulsed. At length with delegates elected from the pits, the 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 you but the book to read it through.

Side by side as the wage and condition wars raged, a growing demand was for the restraint of the ‘staiths’ or ‘spouts’ as they were called a new technology which fed by railway lines led chaldrons to the river to load the coal loose into shallow colliers directly.  Steadily the numbers 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 down stream 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 toeing numbers of keels behind them and loaded 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 so bigger vessels could proceed further up river 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 and the undredged nature of up stream areas had allowed the above bridge keelmen to cling on, but the old bridge was demolished and replaced by a swing bridge in 1876 together with extensive deep dredging of the upper river. “Steam power both on land and water played a large part in the demise of the keelmen, “Its them steamers that’s bust up the keelmen” declared the last keelmen remaining in the hospital in 1897 “It’s a bonny bad job, but it cannot be helped” by then the keelmen, a feature for four hundred years and probably more who stamped an indelible mark on the character and culture and dialect of Tyneside had gone with only the single trace of their hospital which still stands, a monument to collective endeavour and common working class cause.