Picture above: Keelmen at Shields (courtesy Newcastle Library)
Most Northumbrians will be familiar with the word keel. In all likelihood they will have grown up hearing the words of the iconic Tyneside song, ‘The Keel Row!’ while those who travel through the east side of Newcastle can see the fine old Keelman’s Hospital that sits on City Road. Although the common meaning of the word defines the fundamental spine of a ship, on Tyneside it referred to a boat called a keel, a wide, squat vessel that was sailed and rowed to transport coal from the shallow riverbank to ships moored on the river in deeper water. Keels, together with their hard-working, hard-drinking crews, largely disappeared in the late 19th century as the river was modernized to allow collier ships load alongside newly-built coaling staithes, maneuvered with the help of steam-powered tugs.
Its origins however can be traced back to the Angle language of the 6th century where it first appears in the book, ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ written by the monk Gildas around 540 AD – about a century after the first arrival of the Angles in Kent. In it Gildas writes, “Then a litter of cubs issuing forth from the lair of the lioness of Barbaria in three cyuls as it is expressed in their tongue, in ours (sic) long ships.” Remarkably, the ancient Angle accent has also been retained, and can be heard in the way Tynesiders pronounce the word. As Oliver Heslop (1844-1916), the Newcastle-born lexicologist and author of ‘Northumberland Words’ noted, “In the Tyneside pronunciation of keel… a fractured vowel sound is heard. This can hardly be better rendered than by the phonetic form – kyul – given by Gilda.”
“These boats (keels) are strong, clumsy and oval and carry twenty tons apiece; they are navigated by a square sail but generally by two very large oars, one on the side plied by a man and a boy and another at the stern by a single man serving both as oar and rudder.”Richard Oliver Heslop
Keel boats are inexorably associated with the River Tyne, and for the word to have survived in the Tyneside vernacular for over 1300 years is a testament to the legacy of the Northumbrian dialect. Although now defunct as a type of vessel, the word keel commands special recognition as the earliest recorded word in the English language.
Given the word’s history and longevity, it is perhaps fitting that one of Tyneside’s oldest songs was written about a keel. ‘Weel May the Keel Row!’ is often referred to as ‘Tyneside’s National Anthem’. First published in Ritson’s ‘Northumberland Garland’ in 1793, it is believed to date back to before 1760. The song was also well-known beyond the banks of the Tyne, its strong beat making it a popular sea-shanty, as well as a marching tune of which Rudyard Kipling wrote, “The man who has never heard the Keel Row rising high and shrill above the rattle of the regiment going past the saluting-base, has something yet to hear and understand.”
The popular version of the song – as it would have sung on the streets of Newcastle – was published in Allan’s ‘Tyneside Songs’:
As aw was gawn thro’ San’get, thro’ San’get, thro’ San’get,
As aw was gawn thro’ San’get aw he’rd th’ lasses sing –
Weel may th’ keel row, th’ keel row, th’ keel row
Weel may th’ keel row that maw lad’s in!
He wears a blue bonnet, a bunch o’ ribbons on it,
He wears a blue bonnet, a dimple in his chin;
An’ weel may th’ keel row, th’ keel row, th’ keel row
An’ weel may th’ keel row that maw lad’s in!