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The Keelmen of Tyneside

The Keelmen of Tyneside: Labour Organisation and Conflict in the North-East Coal Industry, 1600-1830

Volume: 13
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    The Keelmen of Tyneside
    Book Description:

    For hundreds of years the keelmen, the "keel lads o' coaly Tyne" celebrated in the north-east folk song "The Keel Row", ferried coal down-river to the estuary and cast it aboard ships bound for London or overseas. They were "the very sinews of the coal trade" on which the prosperity of the region depended. This book charts the history of the keelmen from the early seventeenth century to the point where technological advances made them redundant in the course of the nineteenth century. It describes how the importance of their work placed them in a strong position in industrial disputes, especially since they could shut off the coal supply to London. It examines their numerous turbulent battles with rapacious employers and unsympathetic magistrates (often themselves involved in the coal trade), their struggles against poverty and eventually against redundancy, and their attempts to gain redress in Parliament and in the law courts. The book also describes the squalid conditions in Sandgate where, as recounted in the folk song, many keelmen and their families lived with a reputation for independence and savage roughness but exhibited impressive solidarity both as an early industrial labour organisation and as a tightly-knit, mutually supportive, and highly self-reliant community. The book will be of interest to social and economic historians, labour historians, maritime historians and all interested in the history of the North East. JOSEPH M. FEWSTER was, until his retirement in 1997, Senior Assistant Keeper in Durham University Library.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-950-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-vii)
  5. List of abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  6. Glossary
    (pp. ix-x)
  7. Introduction: The Keelmen and their Masters
    (pp. 1-11)

    An ancient building, once a hospital, overlooking Newcastle Quay, and a few folk songs such as ‘The Keel Row’, are now the only mementoes of the keelmen, a group of workers who for hundreds of years played an essential role in the coal industry of Tyneside. Although historians have often shown interest in this colourful, cohesive and often turbulent workforce, this is the first full-scale study of these workers. The saga of their struggles against poverty and grievances connected with their employment adds a new dimension to the history of the north-east coal trade, and provides a particularly good example...

  8. 1 Early Troubles, 1633–99
    (pp. 12-20)

    In the latter part of the sixteenth century, as supplies of wood diminished and demands for coal as an alternative fuel increased, the rapidly expanding industry brought an influx of workers into Tyneside. The population of Newcastle, estimated at 10,000 in the mid-sixteenth century had doubled by about 1760 and the growth continued with increasing rapidity thereafter. In the early part of the period, many of these workmen hailed from areas notorious for lawlessness, and, as a report to the central government in or about 1638 pointed out, their presence in or near Newcastle was a source of anxiety for...

  9. 2 The Keelmen’s Charity, 1699–1712: Success, Conflict and Collapse
    (pp. 21-39)

    At the best of times the keelmen lived at subsistence level and variations in trade or even a prolonged spell of unfavourable weather could plunge them into distress. There were always many among them stricken by old age, accident or sickness, as well as widows and orphans, and as neither the parish nor private charity rendered adequate assistance, the keelmen determined to provide for their poor themselves. In 1699, representatives of the keelmen declared in a petition to the Hostmen’s Company, that on account of the ‘pinching want and extremities’ from which they often suffered, they were willing that four...

  10. 3 The Keelmen’s Charity: Attempts at Revival, 1717–70
    (pp. 40-49)

    If the keelmen attempted to carry on the charity without the Hostmen or magistrates, it soon became clear that they had no hope of success. By about 1717, some skippers and keelmen, fearing that the hospital was ‘in all probability agoeing to decay without some immediate repair’, petitioned the magistrates to request that a society, supported by a subscription from those keelmen who wished to benefit, be established under the governorship of the Mayor and settled by Act of Parliament.¹ The petitioners clearly did not expect all the keelmen to participate. The magistrates took no action and the matter dropped...

  11. 4 The Charity Established
    (pp. 50-60)

    In or about 1786, an ‘acting committee’ of keelmen, led by John Day and Henry Straughan, assisted by William Tinwell, a schoolmaster who had succeeded Alexander Murray as secretary of the Hospital Society in 1785, began to consider a new plan.¹ It was calculated that a halfpenny per chaldron from the crews of 355 keels each carrying eight chaldrons of coal and working on average 160 tides per year would yield £946 13s 4d, and an additional sum from keels loaded with materials such as ballast, stones and lead would bring the total to approximately £1,000 per annum.² Judging by...

  12. 5 Combinations and Strikes 1710–38
    (pp. 61-86)

    While disputes over the charity were embittering relations between the keelmen and their masters in the early eighteenth century, the men were suffering from a number of serious grievances in connexion with their employment, most of which arose from the unsatisfactory state of the coal trade. Over-production and a saturated market led to cut-throat competition among the Tyneside coal owners, while increasing shipments from Sunderland as well as from a few minor ports in Northumberland, none of which was hampered by imposts such as the Richmond shilling on each chaldron of coal exported from the Tyne, posed a further threat...

  13. 6 The ‘Villainous Riot’ of 1740 and its Aftermath
    (pp. 87-97)

    The winter of 1739/40 was marked by a frost of extreme severity which continued unabated for three months. Virtually all trade along the east coast came to a standstill and there was widespread distress among the poor. The coal industry, already disrupted by bad weather during the summer and autumn, was now crippled by the prolonged frost. According to the Newcastle Courant of 26 January, coal in Newcastle had for some time past been ‘as scarce as money’, and had not Alderman Ridley given away small coals to all who fetched them, ‘great numbers of poor families in Sandgate and...

  14. 7 The Strikes of 1744 and 1750
    (pp. 98-108)

    It has already been shown how the coal owners’ difficulties tended to result in hardships being imposed on the keelmen. Competition between the coal owners became extremely fierce in the early 1740s as Matthew Ridley, who had succeeded his father as one of the principal coal owners in the area, remained outside the Grand Alliance, and rivalry between the various parties resulted in losses for all. ‘But in truth this has been the worst year I ever saw’, Ridley declared of the 1744 season, ‘the coal trade having met with many repeated obstructions, & the ugly differences among the persons...

  15. 8 The Appeal to Parliament
    (pp. 109-116)

    Towards the end of 1767 the north-east coal trade was in depression. Prices were very low, most of the staithes were full as contrary winds had interrupted sailings for much of October, and in several places the workmen were ‘uneasy’.¹ The new year did not bring improvement. A correspondent in the Newcastle Journal declared that the trade was in a ‘most languishing condition’ through ‘clogs and abuses’ at Billingsgate, ‘where those Harpies, the coal buyers, crimps, &c … are making immense fortunes on the wreck of every branch of trade in these parts’.² They exacted an illegal premium of sixpence...

  16. 9 A New Threat
    (pp. 117-123)

    In June 1771 there was widespread industrial unrest across the north east, mainly on account of the high price of corn and other provisions. On 10 June the keelmen assembled and refused to work. Some pitmen soon followed their example and proceeded to recruit the men of every colliery in the region. The Wearside keelmen also stopped work.¹ By 22 June the Wearside men together with most of the pitmen had resumed their labours, but the keelmen on the Tyne continued their strike and, as usual, forcibly obstructed any working keels and beat and abused their crews.² As the strike...

  17. 10 The Impressment of Keelmen
    (pp. 124-131)

    The right of the Admiralty to impress men to serve in the Royal Navy when need arose was derived from ‘a prerogative inherent in the Crown, grounded upon common law and recognized by many Acts of Parliament’. This pronouncement of the legality of impressment made by Sir Michael Foster, Recorder of Bristol, in 1743 was never overturned.¹ Even in peacetime sufficient volunteers could not be obtained to man the ships of the navy, and on the outbreak of war the need became acute. To meet the demand, press gangs organized by the Admiralty’s Impress Service would descend on seaports or...

  18. 11 The Strike of 1809: The Keelmen Prevail
    (pp. 132-139)

    Although masters and men were united in opposition to the demands of the impress service, the unanimity did not extend to the question of the keelmen’s wages. The continuing rise in prices during the war involved them in increasing hardship, the more so since their employment was in many cases being curtailed. In a petition of 29 August 1809 to the Mayor, Joseph Forster, himself a fitter, and the rest of the trading brethren of the Hostmen’s Company, the keelmen argued that even if they had constant employment with as much work as they could do throughout the year, ‘the...

  19. 12 The Strike of 1819: A Partial Victory
    (pp. 140-148)

    After the turbulence of 1809 the keelmen settled into a state of apparent tranquillity. They did not join the seamen in their great strike of 1815, much to the relief of the authorities, who had feared that the great bodies of keelmen, pitmen and waggonmen, thrown out of work by the strike, would join the seamen.¹ The prospect was alarming, but, although the strike lasted for six weeks, such a junction of forces did not take place. Keelmen, pitmen and seamen tended not to interfere in each others’ industrial disputes.² Indeed, stoppage of the coal trade on which so many...

  20. 13 ‘The Long Stop’ of 1822: The Keelmen Defeated
    (pp. 149-166)

    On 1 October 1822, many keelmen employed above the bridge stopped work and obstructed any crews about to depart. Nathaniel Clayton, one of the coal owners, ordered the staithman at Dunston to find out why the stoppage had occurred and expressed willingness to redress any well-founded complaint.¹ Discontent spread rapidly, however, and by the following morning the whole workforce had joined the strike. A committee of the coal trade agreed that each fitter should order the men to work and ascertain the reason if they refused,² but the strike continued and next day the men presented a petition to the...

  21. 14 The Keelmen Go To Law
    (pp. 167-176)

    As we have seen, the idea that the keelmen should seek a legal remedy against the spouts emerged during the latter part of ‘the long stop’. According to the evidence of a keelman, several years later, Thomas Clennell and other magistrates, presumably in an attempt to break the impasse during the strike, encouraged the keelmen to raise money to bring their case against the spouts to trial at law.¹ The Keelmen’s Address of 4 November 1822 implied that they had taken soundings of legal opinion, and their offer on 28 November to drop the question of the spouts ‘for the...

  22. 15 The Decline of the Keelmen
    (pp. 177-186)

    During the eight years of the legal proceedings following ‘the long stop’ the use of spouts and drops continued to erode the employment of the below-bridge keelmen. At Wallsend staithes, for example, where 60 keelmen had once been employed, the number had fallen to 24 by 1828, and scarcely any keels were being used there by 1842.¹ The increasing use of steam-powered tugs to tow large ships to and from the below-bridge staithes made the menace of redundancy ever greater for the keelmen. Between 1814 and 1822 fifteen such tugs had been introduced on the Tyne and numerous others were...

  23. 16 The Magistrates and the Keelmen
    (pp. 187-196)

    The keelmen were undoubtedly the most turbulent section of the workforce on Tyneside and since many of them lived, often in a ‘necessitous and rude condition’, in Sandgate, just outside the walls of Newcastle, the preservation of public order was a constantly recurring problem for the City’s magistrates, the Mayor, Recorder and Aldermen. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to review their efforts to deal with this large body of robust men ever liable ‘to rise and become tumultuous upon the least pretence’.

    As the Duke of Northumberland once remarked, ‘any interruption of the coal trade must be attended with great inconvenience...

  24. 17 The Keelmen and Trade Unionism
    (pp. 197-204)

    The foregoing account of the many instances of collective action by this body of proletarians from the mid-seventeenth century onwards raises the question whether they have a place in the history of trade unionism. Information about combinations of such labourers for increased wages or redress of grievances in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is not plentiful, but the activities of the keelmen are unusually well documented. In their classic History of Trade Unionism (1894) Sidney and Beatrice Webb defined a trade union as ‘a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their...

  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-212)
  26. Index
    (pp. 213-222)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-223)