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.
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