Category: Article

The Tyneside Keels

Most Tynesiders are familiar with the “The Keel Row”, a popular song dating back to the early 18th century and perhaps the oldest in Tyneside’s song anthology. But what was a keel and why is the name so special?


Weel may th’ keel row that maw lad’s in!


Before the mid 1800’s, the River Tyne was neither dredged nor equipped with the staithes and chutes necessary for loading colliers that carried the coal to ports around Britain and beyond.  The shallow river shoreline meant that ships had to anchor in deeper water, mid-river. It was then the job of the keels to ferry the coal from shore to the waiting ships.  A humble task to be sure, but for over six hundred years, keel boats performed an important part in the success of Tyneside’s coal industry; the men who manned them forming colourful communities that were largely closed to outsiders.

Keels provided a critical transportation link for the coal industry, enabling mine owners to sell their product to customers around the world.  The first written record of coal keels on the River Tyne was made in 1266 and for the next five centuries, mention of the humble keel boat continues to pop-up in various official records, clear evidence of their continuous use on the river.  By the late 18th century there were an estimated 500 keels working on the River Tyne, employing close to 2,000 men.  But the advent of steam-driven tugs able to tow a number of unmanned keels at a time, as well as improvements to the river allowing ships to quickly load from shore-based coal staithes, spelled the decline of traditional keel boats and the men who crewed them.  By the second half of the nineteenth century, the last of the Tyneside keels had disappeared, taking with them an unbroken tradition stretching back at least 600 years.


“As aw was gawn thro’ San’get aw he’rd th’ lasses sing-


Keelmen and their families lived in tightly knit communities centred mainly around the Sandgate area of Newcastle.  The crew of a typical keel was usually comprised of family members, close friends or neighbours and it was common practice for jobs to be passed from father to son; outsiders would find it difficult to enter the trade.  A fitting example of the closeness of the keelmen and the bond they had with their community, was exhibited in 1701 when the Keelman’s Society opened a hospital on Newcastle’s City Road, built with money raised through weekly contributions from their wages. The Keelman’s Hospital building is still standing to this day, although sadly, it remains unoccupied. 

Courtesy Newcastle City Library

Keelmen were comparatively well-paid, earning between 11s 8d and 13s 4d for each trip, in addition to a beer allowance, called a “can”.  To get an idea of their value, this was roughly equivalent to three to four times the daily wage of the average tradesman at the time.  However, work in the winter was often scarce and even in summer, a successful round-trip was still dependent on fair weather that would otherwise prevent ships from entering the river.  


“He wears a blue bonnet, a bunch of ribbons on it, He wears a blue bonnet, a dimple in his chin.


The colourful shore attire of keelmen was unique and quickly identified them as such.  They wore a short blue jacket over a yellow waistcoat, the jacket coming down to within an inch or two of slate-grey trousers which hung on their hips, leaving a margin of white shirt between the two.  Topping off the ensemble, was a black silk hat with a flat brim, adorned with two black ribbons each tied in a bow with a streaming five- or six-inch long tail.   

Despite the finery they’d exhibit while ashore, it was a hard life and the job was not one for the weak or feeble.  They were reliant on wind and tides, the vagaries of which could easily strand a boat and its crew overnight, forcing them sleep on deck or huddle for shelter in the sparse cabin on the aft deck.  Each round trip would take 12 to 15 hours to complete and unless the wind and tide worked perfectly in their favour, the heavy keel would have to be rowed to its destination.  A collier would typically carry 25 keels of coal, loading four keels at a time, two each side, with trimmers working in the hold making sure the cargo was level and would not cause any instability once the ship was at sea. As soon as they were alongside, the keelmen would begin the backbreaking work of unloading their cargo – a little over 21 tons of coal – this being the standard load of a keel as regulated in 1635. In fact, a ‘keel’ load became an official measure, each ‘keel’ amounting to eight Newcastle chaldrons which, as a consequence, led to all coal keels being built to the same size. 

Courtesy Newcastle City Library

Like the coal-industry itself, the Tyne keels have given us several archaic dialect words.   

The crew of a keel were known as bullies, meaning comrades or brothers, reflecting the tight bond that existed between keelmen and probably stemming from the Anglo-Saxon word, billig, meaning beloved or denoting those that are on an equal footing.  The word is not strictly Northumbrian however, and was in common use especially among seafarers.

In addition to a skipper and two bullies, a keel would also employ a boy who was simply known as peedee, or as it was sometimes spelled, P.D.  This was a Northumbrian dialect wordprobably derived from the French word petite, meaning small. 

On the stern deck of most keel boats was a small cabin, known as a huddick or huddock.  It would contain a stove for heating or cooking as well as providing shelter for the crew.  It’s another word which seems to be uniquely Northumbrian and is thought to derive from the Dutch word hut, meaning steerage.

General Plan of a Keel Boat

Although keels were equipped with a lug sail and were handy sailboats despite their ungainly shape, each boat also had two long oars; one located on the port side for propulsion and one on the stern which acted both as a rudder and a means to propel the boat using a technique known as sculling.  This was a skill that required the long stern oar to be moved back and forth in a wide sweeping motion and fittingly was known as a swape, a wordcoming directly from the Anglo-Saxon and meaning, to sweep.

Some of the keelmen’s wives and daughters worked as keel deeters, the name given to those who kept the grimy boats clean.  This word was derived from the Saxon word, dihtan of the same meaning.

The word keel, however, has a much longer pedigree and may well be the granddaddy of all Northumbrian dialect words.  Its origins date back to the 6th century writings of the Anglo-Saxon historian, Gildas, who tells us of the arrival of the English at the behest of the war lord, Vortigen, to help him in his battles with the Scots and Picts.  Gildas, highly resentful of these pagan English interlopers wrote, “Then a litter of cubs issuing forth from the lair of the lioness of Beornicas, in three cyuls, as it is expressed in their tongue, in ours, long-ships.”  As Gildas wrote entirely in Latin, the English word, cyuls stands out and at once becomes the oldest recorded word in the English language.  

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.”

What’s Gannin’ On?

Site Update – Dialect Word Glossary

In a recent site update we’ve added a Glossary of Northumbrian Words, an ever expanding list of words and phrases from our Northumberland and Durham dialects. Many of theses words are highlighted in our published stories and poems, allowing readers to click on a word and find its meaning. However, the Glossary is now being expanded to include new words, together with their etymology if known and an example of the word usage. You can access it from the Main Menu or by clicking here.

Tynedale Voices Needed for Local Language Study 

An international research project is asking people in the Tyne Valley to record their dialect to help in a study of the local language.

Mirjam Schmalz, of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and Sandra Jansen, of the University of Paderborn, in Germany, have jointly spent the last few years undertaking a linguistic study in the North of England after meeting through a Northern English workshop held once every two years in Europe.

Residents who wish to provide assistance should email Mirjam at mirjam.scmalz@ez.uzh.ch.

Newcastle University Student Seeks to Record Dialect

A study by Newcastle University student is looking for people over the age of 70 and who speak Geordie, to record their speech.  Participants will be required to record their experience of growing up in Tyneside and provide written answers to questions about themselves (e.g. age, gender, activities). There is an optional requirement to perform a hand-grip strength test. Each session will be carried-out in a quiet and convenient location and is expected to take about 90 minutes.

For further information contact Heike Pichler (Newcastle University) by e-mail (heike.pichler@ncl.ac.uk) or phone (0191 208 3519).

England’s Oldest Recorded Word

Picture above: Keelmen Heaving In Coals By Moonlight by J.M.W. Turner, 1835





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!

The Dialect Project at The Word

by Richard Barber, Former Arts and Heritage Officer, The Word

From about 2014 to 2016 I had the good fortune to be involved in the development of a new building in South Tyneside which was planned to replace the old Central Library and which became The Word, the National Centre for the Written Word.  Built on the Market Square in South Shields, it opened in October 2016 and by April 2019 we had had over one million visitors.  The Word has quickly become one of the most recognisable cultural venues in the North East.  As Arts and Heritage Officer, one of my roles has been to develop creative responses to the written word which aim to get more people visiting and involved arts and heritage at The Word.

In another stroke of good luck, in late 2015 or early 2016, I was talking to Tom Kelly who had just co-written ‘Geordie the Musical’.  We talked about language, in particular our language, the North East dialect.  In his early working life Tom had a job in ‘the Yards’ and after I left school I worked in ‘the Pit’.  We laughed a lot as we swapped stories about the characters involved, in how the work was often awful but agreed that the sense of solidarity was something that shaped us and that many of the terms and sayings we had heard everyday were now being lost.  As industries withered or were lost forever and folks grew older some of those dialect words were drifting away from common usage. The rise of social media platforms and 24-hour Global TV has an effect of course but, as we found out, they can also be a force for saving and recording the heritage our language and interest in dialect heritage is strong.

Richard Barber (right) with Tom Kelly at the opening of the 2019 Dialect Word Exhibit

So here, in an affable conversation between two likeminded souls, the idea of the ‘Lost Dialect’ exhibition to be staged at The Word when it formally opened in October 2016 was formed.  It was originally planned to form a short, three-month long exhibition.  At that point we didn’t think it would hold the interest of many people but thought it was worth a try. However, it has proven so popular that it has now had four refreshes and continues to attract audiences interested in their heritage and who want to offer their own stories and their own terms for things and places. It turns out there is a lot of pride in the dialect of the North East! Not only that, though local pride means so much, media attention has been very good with regular features in local press, local TV coverage and Tom even featured on Radio Four’s Front Row.

In those early days, as the building was being constructed, I made as many links as possible, exploring what other institutions had been involved with.  The work of the late Bill Griffiths, an academic at Northumbria University in the 1990’s, working with Bill Lancaster, is arguably preeminent on the landscape of recording the dialect of the North East and some specific communities within it. Before his death, Bill Griffiths produced a series of books published by Northumbria University Press culminating in A Dictionary of North East Dialect (2005). The books proved to be popular with both academics and the public, a rare occurrence in my experience. I managed to set up a series of meetings with Bill Lancaster who was very supportive of the ideas we were pursuing. I also established links with Newcastle University, with Karen Corrigan, who has been responsible for the excellent ‘Talk of the Toon’ website. This all expanded my understanding of the work and time dedicated to research, recording and sharing the understanding of the dialect of North East England and how vast and complex the dialect world is when trying to capture slight differences between geographical communities.  As a ‘Sanddancer’ (from South Shields for those who aren’t familiar with the term) I was struck by the comment that ‘somewhere along the Coast Road, travelling from South Shields towards Sunderland, people stop saying “daint” (for don’t) and start saying “dinnet”’; and similarly, somewhere along the Tyne towards Gateshead that same word turns into “divvent”, perhaps the most dominant term in the North East! So, there are differences and yet dialect is such a force for unity and pride, which was consistently and constantly expressed in our exhibition at The Word. 

…somewhere along the Coast Road, travelling from South Shields towards Sunderland, people stop saying ‘daint’ (for don’t) and start saying ‘dinnet’; and similarly, somewhere along the Tyne towards Gateshead, that same word turns into divvent

The most important part in all this has been Tom’s invaluable role and creativity in envisioning, writing and designing an easily accessible gateway into thinking about dialect words. The original exhibition had three interactive components fitted into a small 3m x 4m exhibition that has attracted tens of thousands of visitors since opening.  The space was dressed with old images of the pits and yards taken from the library image archive. On one touch screen you could choose from twenty North East folk songs recorded by Benny Graham and filmed by Unified Media and Gary Wilkinson – a kind of ‘human jukebox’. This proved so popular that we had the songs put onto CD, selling about 150 copies in The Word gift shop and providing one of the most moving scenes I have seen in my working life! A frail woman in a wheelchair, perhaps in her 80’s, was being pushed by her son and was soon sat in front of the Benny Graham juke box.  As the son chose a song and the music and voice of Benny came on screen, the woman became animated and then started to sing along. The man started to cry and, when asked by staff if everything was ok, explained that his mother had advanced dementia and that he hadn’t heard her speak coherently for a while never mind sing! The raw emotion of this has stayed with me ever since and still moves me when I think about it – the power of creativity!

The second touch screen had a simple word quiz, put together by Tom using Bill Griffiths’ dictionary as a reference.  In short, the viewer is presented with a word and three possible answers on screen. You choose an option and get a red cross for the wrong description or a green ‘tick’ is shown for choosing the correct response.  Ten questions are presented in all and a summary ‘out of 10’ screen at the end tells the viewer how well they have answered the quiz. The quiz takes its questions randomly so each time the viewer has a different experience. It proved entertaining and was great for getting people talking to one another, debating possible answers. And, lastly, an old fashioned but well-liked part of the exhibition was the opportunity to write your own word using pencil and paper – actually, writing it on a luggage label and tying it up on our specially installed ‘washing line’!  This proved so popular we gathered in over 2500 labels with favorite words and sayings on which have since been catalogued and published in a booklet. 

We realised that the exhibition was very male orientated, having come from the experience of and reflecting the language of the yards and the pit.  So in the next iteration, we looked at where the majority of women spent their time when the men were in the yards and the pits.  We looked to explore home and working life for women and looked at street games with an emphasis on the lives and routines of girls.  The Exhibition Pod was redressed with new imagery of women in the workplace and the word quiz expanded to include more words. With an actor, known locally for his appearances in pantomime at Customs House and one of our café staff who is a qualified cook, we made a dialect version of a cookery show. Filmed in an old room in South Shields Museum for effect, we took three recipes from Bill Griffiths’ book ‘Stotties and Spicecakes’, which once again proved very popular – very funny, entertaining and educational at the same time. We also made a film of children skipping to old rhymes and a new piece written specially by Tom for the filming. The video was filmed at a summer play scheme in a park and later at a school, whose pupils were later invited to The Word and met by the Mayor of South Tyneside for an official unveiling of the new version of the exhibition.

I don’t think we have reached the end just yet. The dialect work is still proving popular and just seems to keep on going. We are hoping to do another project in 2020, this time with artists developing work with community groups in our community library hubs.  Local people will do their own research and explore their interests in dialect, then, alongside the artist, create their own exhibition which will be staged at The Word over the summer period.

For my part, it’s been a privilege to work with Tom on what has been a very popular exhibition of which I’m very proud.

May 2019

Richard Barber was born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear.  Leaving school in 1979, he started work at the Westoe Colliery, serving his time as an apprentice fitter in; what his dad called, ‘a job for life’.  He eventually left the pit in 1986 to enter Sunderland Polytechnic where he studied youth and community work.  Richard went on to work with various youth and community projects in Hull and spent a further ten years with the Save the Children Fund.  After gaining an MA in Sociology and Social Policy from Durham University, he returned to his hometown in 2001 to work in the culture and leisure department for the South Tyneside Council.  Most recently, he has specialized in arts and heritage projects at The Word, emphasising community involvement and the use of culture in the regeneration of the area.

The WORD BANK OF LOST DIALECTS will be exhibited at The Word in South Shields until September 15, 2019. For further information visit The Word website by clicking here.

What’s in a name? GEORDIE

The origin of the nickname ‘Geordie’ (or ‘Geordy’ as it was formerly spelled), is the subject of several theories, all of which rely on conjecture with little or no definitive proof.  

While the moniker is freely ascribed to anyone from the North East by those outside of the region, as we North Easterners all know, the name ‘Geordie’ only applies to those from Newcastle in particular and Tyneside in general.  It becomes even more confusing when the word is universally used to describe our dialect, a habit practiced as much by locals as it is by outsiders despite the very obvious differences between the Northumbrian, Tyneside and Wearside idioms for example.

Dave Harker, a local historian and author of 13 books as well as numerous articles on North East history and culture, has extensively researched the evolution of the name. The resultant paper provides an extraordinary account of the many instances where the nickname, ‘Geordie’ has been commonly used, starting in the early 1600s and continuing to modern times. His characteristic penchant for detail is both fascinating and persuasive.  Did the nickname really arise from Newcastle’s support of King George III during the Jacobean uprising for example?  Or was it adopted by those coal miners who used George Stephenson’s safety lamp, itself popularly referred to as a ‘Geordy’?  Whatever one believes, Dave’s research will lead us to seriously reconsider the popular theories that have been generally accepted over the years.  

Published in two parts by the North East Labour History Society in its journal, North East Labour History, the articles can be read by clicking on the respective links below each of which will open a pdf copy of the entire magazine.  To read the article simply go to the indicated page number. 

Issue 44, page 169. Part 1 covers the period from 1600 to 1880.
http://nelh.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/North-East-History-Issue-44.pdf

Issue 45, page 187. Part 2 covers the period 1880 to present times.
http://nelh.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/North-East-History-Issue-45.pdf

The Rags to Riches Poet

Thomas Wilson (1773-1858)

There aren’t many poets who can claim a rags-to-riches story quite like that of Thomas Wilson, who rose from a humble beginnings as a trapper-boy in a coal mine to become one of the North East’s greatest dialect poets and a highly successful businessman.

Thomas Wilson was born on December 14th, 1773 in Low Fell, a small, isolated village on the outskirts of Gateshead, then located in County Durham.  The Gateshead Fell as it was then known was moorland, crossed by the main Durham to Newcastle highway and sparsely populated by tinkers, gypsies and squatters with only the occasional stone house breaking up the otherwise remote landscape.  It was unsuitable for much more than the grazing of cattle and sheep, but as a place where coal had been mined since the 15th century, Gateshead Fell did not escape the attention of speculators and investors eager to cash in on the burgeoning demand for the abundant mineral.  By the time Thomas Wilson was born at least five working pits had been established on the Fell.

Map of Thomas Wilson’s house in Low Fell, Gateshead, circa 1858.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. maps.nls.uk

Following in the footsteps of his pitman father, Thomas started working as a trapper-boy when he was eight-years of age, most likely at the nearby Derwent Crook colliery.  Employing young children, both boys and girls, was not uncommon at this time; for not only was it a source of cheap labour for the mine owners, but the smallness of children enabled them to easily navigate the narrow, low passages underground, this being particularly useful in ‘putting’ loaded tubs or corves from the coal face to bank, where they would then be hauled to the surface.

As a trapper-boy, Thomas’ job would have been to sit by one of the ventilation doors situated along the tram-way, opening and closing it for passing coal tubs.  Their shifts were generally 16 hours or more and it was a job that could be dangerous.  ‘Putters’, older boys responsible for moving the corves between the coalface and bank, were paid by the tub so speed was essential.  Trapper-boys too slow or too clumsy to avoid the heavy tubs would regularly sustain broken limbs or head injuries from lumps of falling coal; deaths were not uncommon.  And, of course, the threat of explosion was never far away.  In July, 1819 at the nearby Sheriff Hill Colliery, two men and thirty-three boys were killed in a deadly explosion of firedamp.  The youngest boy was only seven years old.

“I would wish you to understand that the small education which a working young man gets at school only enables him to move in the right direction; the rest must all depend upon himself…”

By the age of 19, he had worked his way up from a trapper boy to a hewer, a job that entailed backbreaking work in the dark, cramped and dusty confines of the coalface.  Because of the physical demands, his shift would have been reduced to eight or ten hours.  And so it was, that during these years when he was not working or sleeping, he was able to attended a school in nearby Carter’s Well, run by a Samuel Barrass, himself a former pitman who had been forced to “gain his bread in another way” after a pit accident damaged one of his legs.  There is little doubt that Thomas Wilson considered himself extremely lucky to avail himself of such an accomplished teacher.  He attended day school when he was able but pursued his education primarily through Mr. Barrass’ evening class – after “the labour of the day.”  In a speech to Members and Friends of the Gateshead Low Fell Reading Room in 1854, he spoke of his former teacher with a fond regard:

“He was a self-taught man … but a never-tiring industry being combined with his good natural abilities, he made himself a good mathematician, and an intelligent, well-informed man.”

Thomas would eventually leave the mines for good to work as a teacher in the nearby village of Wrekenton.  But in 1799, at the age of 26, he gave up teaching for good in order to work with a Newcastle underwriter as a clerk.  It was in 1803 that fortune smiled upon him when he obtained a position at the corn merchants, Losh, Lubbin & Co, also in Newcastle.  He must have shown a remarkable flair, for after just four years he was offered a partnership in a newly formed company, Losh, Wilson and Bell. 

A Tyneside Chemical Factory in the Early 19th Century
(Courtesy, Newcastle City Library)

Founded by William Losh, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, the newly-formed company became the first outside of France to use what was called the Leblanc process for the manufacture of alkali, also known as soda ash; a vital chemical used in the making of glass, bleach, soap and chlorine.  The factory was built on the site of the former Walker Colliery on the north bank of the River Tyne, where a briny burn provided the essential salt for the manufacture of the alkali.  It eventually became a leading producer of the chemical.  Their success subsequently led to a new business venture with the opening of the Walker Ironworks on land next to the factory.  Over the succeeding decade, both businesses would grow to become industrial giants.

Thomas Wilson married in 1810 and built a new home, aptly named Fell House, on the site of his parent’s cottage in Low Fell.  He eventually made his way into local politics and served as an alderman on Gateshead council for many years.

St. John’s Church, Low Fell (1824)

He began to write poetry in the 1820’s, the most acclaimed of which, The Pitman’s Pay, was first published in three sections between 1826 and 1830 in Mitchell’s Magazine.  An anthology of his work, The Pitman’s Pay and Other Poems, was published in 1843 by William Douglas of Gateshead. 

The Pitman’s Pay relates life in a pit-village and features some colourful characters, no doubt based on actual of Low Fell figures.  It was obviously a subject with which Thomas would have been all too familiar and he tells his rich story over 344 verses in remarkable detail.  Some of the terms used are now long forgotten, such as his reference to Gaudy Days for example, which he defines as follows:

“There are certain days of the year when the young men and lads refuse to work and insist on a “Gaudy Day”: for instance, the first morning they hear a cuckoo and when the turnips and peas are at maturity.  They call these periods “A Cuckoo Mornin’,”, “A Tormit (Turnip) Mornin’,” and a “Pea Mornin’.”  At such times they frequently adjourn to a neighbouring public house, where they enjoy themselves during a good part of the day.”  

The poem was extremely popular and widely read.  It was also translated into a play and performed at theatres throughout the North East. 

Thomas Wilson never forgot his humble beginnings nor the education that had enabled him to find a better life away from the daily drudgery and dangers of the coal mine. He generously donated to local schools and churches and in 1841 built a school and reading room in Low Fell (left).

Throughout his life he lectured and preached, praising the benefits of a good education, while urging working-class parents to encourage their children to read books and expand their knowledge in order to escape the poverty in which many found themselves.

Thomas Wilson resided at Low Fell House until his death in 1858 at the age of 85.  Some years earlier, he had reminded an audience of his devotion to education in a speech presented by his son:    

“A man should learn everyday: his education should only cease with his life.”

The entire poem, The Pitman’s Pay can be seen here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Pitman%27s_Pay

and a short abstract with word annotations can be found on this site by clicking here:
The Pitman’s Pay (Extract) https://northumbrian-words.com/2019/04/01/the-pitmans-pay-extract/)

References:

Address to Members and Friends of the Gateshead Low Fell Reading Room
Thomas Wilson, March 1854

The Pitmen’s Pay and Other Poems
Thomas Wilson, 1843

North East Dialect: The Texts
Bill Griffiths, 2000: Centre for Northern Studies, University of Northumbria at Newcastle

Tyneside.  A History of Newcastle and Gateshead From the Earliest Times
Alastair Moffat and George Rosie, 2006: Mainstream Publishing

History of Low Fell
M. Hope Dobbs, 1966 (With updated information by Sid Atkinson, Chairman of Gateshead and District Local History Society):
www.gatesheadlibraries.com/gateshead-local-history-/a-history-of-low-fell

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
www.gracesguide.co.uk

Mapping English

The Improbable Legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Nephew

Louis-Lucien Bonaparte was born in 1813 in Worcester where his father, a brother of Napoleon, had been imprisoned following his capture by the Royal Navy while on his way to America after falling-out with his powerful brother.  At the age of one, his parents returned to their Italian estate where Lucien grew up.  He studied chemistry and mineralogy in Italy before serving in various elected positions with the French government.  Louis-Lucien was awarded the title of  ‘Prince’ by his cousin and thus became a member of the French aristocracy under the Second French Empire.  In the early 1850s, at the end of France’s Second Republic, he returned to England where he took up residence in London and became immersed in his love of modern languages; researching and publishing books and guides on European languages and dialects at his own expense. 

“Scholastic interest in (dialects) grew throughout the 19th century prompted by the academic advances in the study of Old English and consequent realisation of the ancient pedigree of much dialect vocabulary. … The intention was presumably to show how sonorous and effective the varieties of local dialect could be as spoken – and literary? – languages.”

Bill Griffiths
North East Dialect: The Texts, Centre for Northern Studies, University of Northumberland, 2000.

Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte was an accomplished linguist who was extremely knowledgeable in just about every European language as well as many of the dialects, particularly in the Basque language in which he was a recognized expert. He was extremely well-connected counting Gladstone as a friend and occasionally dining with Queen Victoria at her Windsor residence. Although Louis-Lucien’s private income started to dry-up after the fall of the Second Empire, in 1883 he was granted a civil list pension for his work on English dialects. He died in Fano, Italy in 1915 and was buried in St Mary’s cemetery in Kensal Green, London.

His dialect studies draw upon both written texts and the results of field work, which consisted of the direct interrogation of native speakers. The written versions were generally produced by collaborators who had been expressly instructed to record only those forms that were contemporary, not deliberate archaisms and those that were native to their region.

In 1862 he published a compilation of 24 dialectal translations of the Old Testament passage, The Song of Solomon, which he commissioned from local dialectologists from throughout England and southern Scotland.
According to a register of his known works, six Biblical translations were commissioned in the Northumbrian dialects, four of which appear in The Song of Solomon:
The Song of Solomon in the Durham Dialect as Spoken at St. John’s Chapel by Thomas Moore, 1859
The Song of Solomon in the Northumbrian Dialect by Joseph Philip Robson
The Song of Solomon in the Newcastle Dialect by John George Foster, 1858
The Song of Solomon in the Newcastle Dialect by Joseph Philip Robson, 1859  

Two other translations are also noted in the register:
The Book of Ruth in the Northumberland Dialect by J. P. Robson, 1860
The Song of Solomon from the English Translation into the Dialect of the Colliers of Northumberland but Particularly Those Dwelling on the Banks of the Tyne by J. P. Robson, 1860.

The Song of Solomon was published in 26 different dialects from throughout England and southern Scotland.

The translations were featured in the play, Geordie: The Musical, written by Jarrow playwright Tom Kelly and originally performed at the Customs House Theatre in South Shields. In the scene below, an enthusiastic Tommy Armstrong, (Micky Cochrane) responds to Oxford student, John Thompson (Adam Donaldson), and translates The Song of Solomon into three Northumbrian dialects. The audience shows its delight as Tommy Armstrong easily slips between dialects.

Excerpts from the Song of Solomon in Northumbrian Dialects:

Weardale Dialect
2.8       T’voice uv me beloved! Behowld, he cumeth lowpin attoppa t’moontens, skippin atoppa t’hills.
2.9       Me beluved’s leyke a roe er a young hart: behowld, he stands ahint our wo, he lewks furth at t’windows, showen hissel through t’lattice.   

Newcastle Dialect
2.8       The voice o’maw beluived! seesta’, he comes lowpin’ upon the moontins, skippin ower the hills.
2.9       Maw beluived is like a roe or a young hart: seesta’, he stan’s ahint wor wa’, he luiks oot at the windis, showin’ his-sel thro the lattis.

Northumbrian Dialect
2.8       Wheest! It’s the voice o’maw luve!  Leuk! Thunder he cums lowpin’ upon the moontins, an skurryin ower the hills.
2.9       Maw troo-luve’s like a buck or a leish deer: assa! he’s stannin ahint wor wa’; he’s leukin’ oot o’ the windors, an showing’ hissel’ thro’ the panes.

St James’ Bible
2.8       The voice of my beloved!  Behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.
2.9       My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, showing himself through the lattice.

References:

Out of The Confusion of Tongues: Louis-Lucien Bonaparte (1813-1891).  British Library.
The Song of Solomon in Twenty-Four English Dialects: compiled by Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte, 1862
Several of these publications, including the Song of Solomon in Twenty-Four English Dialects, can be viewed on Google Play Books.