Tag: durham

Lost Words Writing Competition

GADGIES, hinnies, lads and lasses, are invited to put pen to paper for a geet canny writing competition.

The Word, National Centre for the Written Word, at South Shields, is calling on adults and those aged from 12 to 19 to submit short stories which celebrate the North East dialect.

“It’s quite clear to us that our dialect is as relevant and important to us now as it has ever been…”

Tania Robinson, Head of Culture at The Word, National Centre for the Written Word

And there will be cash prizes for the winners of the adult category with vouchers for the best entry in the junior section.

Earlier this year The Word unveiled its Word Bank of Lost Dialects – a collection of 2400 words and phrases donated by the public, which would once have been part of everyday language in the shipyards, mines and in street games and social gatherings.

Competition entrants are encouraged to use the Word Bank (which is available online by clicking here) to construct a contemporary short story between 500 and 1000 words in length.

The competition opens on 28 October and closes on 28 February 2020 and the winning entries will be announced at a celebratory Wor Dialect Day event during The Word’s WRITE Festival in June 2020.

Tania Robinson, Head of Culture at The Word, National Centre for the Written Word, said the competition is a continuation of the venue’s mission to “celebrate the words, sayings and expressions that are unique to us here in the North East.

“We were amazed and delighted with the response to our Word Bank of Lost Dialects project,” she said.

“It’s quite clear to us that our dialect is as relevant and important to us now as it has ever been and we hope as many people as possible will take part in the competition – and bring these unique, funny and much-loved words to a wider audience.”

“Our dialect is as important to our heritage as Hadrian’s Wall or Durham Cathedral.”

Andy Bogle, The Northumbrian Words Project

The Word’s dialect short story competition, alongside celebratory events and new commissions scheduled for Wor Dialect Day, is being funded by and delivered in partnership with The Northumbrian Words Project, which aims to instil a sense of pride in the use of dialect by encouraging people to embrace its heritage.

Andy Bogle, of The Northumbrian Words Project, said: “Our dialect is as important to our heritage as Hadrian’s Wall or Durham Cathedral.

“We should not allow it to die and the only way that’s going to happen is for us to understand its ancient roots and to lose our fear of using it. We are therefore delighted to be able to encourage its use by supporting The Word in launching this dialect writing competition.” 

As well as funding support from The Northumbrian Words Project, the adults’ category of the competition will also be in partnership with Morpeth-based Northumbrian Language Society, which promotes, preserves, researches and publishes work about the North East dialect.

The young writers’ category, targeting 12-19 year olds, will be will be delivered in partnership with New Writing North, which runs young writers’ groups across the North East.

Competition Details

To enter the competition, click on the appropriate category below:

Adult Category

Youth Category

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.”

A New Book On North-East Music History

Tyneside Song by Dave Harker


In his latest book, Tyneside Song, author and historian, Dave Harker draws together work on a collection of fascinating people – a contrast to his other books on individual North-East performers and song-makers. Here we meet fiddler-singers Blind Willy Purvis and Bobby Nunn, pioneer documenter of North East instrumental music Robert Topliff, the great song collector John Bell, bagpipe-maker Robert Reed, printers John Marshall and the Fordyce brothers, concert hall proprietor John Balmbra and James Catnach from Alnwick, who became a famous London ballad printer. Dave vividly shows singers and songwriters facing difficulties in their own lives and engaged with the struggles of their audiences in a fast-changing industrial society. He reproduces many original songs and illustrations providing a wealth of historical contextualisation that allows readers to experience, explore and interpret the rich material. Dave’s eight books on North East culture constitute the best account we have of regional song in nineteenth century Britain. 
Vic Gammon

Dave Harker was born in Guisborough in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1946. He won a scholarship to Guisborough High School and went on to study at Jesus College, Cambridge where he gained a BA and later, a PhD. He was a Senior Lecturer in Trade Union Studies at Manchester Polytechnic later becoming a Senior Lecturer in English. Always active in social organisations, Dave built two miner’s support groups in 1984-85 and in the 1990s, was an officer with the National Association of Teachers (Further Education Branch). He was the founding secretary of the North West Retired Members branch of the University and College and Union and an officer of the Manchester Trades Union Council. Dave moved to Newcastle in 2015 where he has become an active researcher and chronicler of North East history. Their Geordies and Ours is a definitive essay on the origins of the nickname, Geordie and can be read on this site by clicking here. His many published works include:

The Gallowgate Lad – Joe Wilson’s Life and Songs
Cat-gut Jim The Fiddler – Ned Corvan’s Life and Songs
Billy Purvis – The First Professional Geordie
Gannin’ To The Blaydon Races – The Life and Times of George Ridley
Songs and Verses of North-East Pitmen c.1780-1844
Songs From The Manuscript Collection of John Bell
George Ridley – Gateshead Poet and Vocalist

Tyneside Song is available for £20.00 directly from Dave Harker. To purchase a this or other books by Dave, please contact him by clicking here.


For a many a yor, wu worked in wor shifts
At the pit, up the lonnen, a short waak from wor place.
Nae buses or nowt came by in them days
Thor was just me and wor Jimmy, tegither.

The overman shoots, “Git yersels in the cage!”
An’ wu dropped like a rock te the bottom.
Where the darkness and heat made it feel just like hell, 
As wu waaked to coal fyace tegither.

Eight hoors wes spent layin’ doon on wor sides
As wu hacked and wu hewed at the coal fyace.
With flickerin’ lamps and sweat soaken sarks
We loaded the tubs up, tegither.

Aa’ divvent remember the roof cavin’ in
Or the stones that clattered aroond us.
The dust clagged wor eyes and it blackened wor lungs
As we lay on the tramway tegither.

Aa whispered to him, “Howay bonny lad,
It’s the end o’ wor shift, wu’ll gan hyem noo.”
But his eyes stared at nowt as Aa clutched his cold hand.
Me and Jimmy, me marra, tegither.

Andy Bogle

The Fitter’s Lament

The above image shows what remains of the Middle Docks in South Shields. Two or three ships would be moored alongside this quay with several more dry-docked for various repairs.

Several years ago, the BBC produced a series of radio ballads, one of which was called “The Ballad of the Big Ships.” The broadcast contained songs and interviews with former workers from Tyneside and Clydeside shipyards. One particular interviewee relates how, when he left school, he went to the local employment office where he was asked what he wanted to do for a living. The lad answered that he wanted to be a vet and work with animals. The careers counsellor informed the lad that being a vet was not a worthwhile occupation and that he needed to get himself down to the ‘yard’ and sign on as an apprentice fitter where, after four years of training, he’d have a job for life. The interviewee continues how he was laid off at the age of 45 when the shipyards closed. He ends the interview saying, “Aa’ve been out of a job now for years. Aa mean, who needs to employ a fitter?”

In recognition of that man and the thousands like him who toiled in the harshest of conditions, I wrote these verses.

Oh Aa think them days is ower now, when we built ships o' steel,
Ye nae langer heor them rivet guns; thor layin' doon nae keels.
Noo the yards are virry dark,
An' the fitters have nae wark,
An' the river seems sae quiet in the mornin'.

Aa remember the Clan an' Port Lines, Ellermans and Strick,
For Shaw Saville we built the Northern Star, ee she was such a bonny ship.
Noo they make 'em from tin cans,
In Korea and Taiwan,
An' the river flows sae quiet in the mornin'. 

Wye it seems like yesterday but it must be fowty yors,
Since Lord Louie brought the Kelly in, te aal them Geordie cheers.
Aye, that ship is still the pride,
O' the people o' Tyneside,
Noo the river is so quiet in the mornin'.

From Vickers doon to Hawthorns and from Redheads up to Swans,
The cranes stand stark an' idle; the ships wu built are gone.
Aye, the slips are now all bare,
For nae one wants them any mare,
An' the river flows so quiet in the mornin'.

At the Labour Club Aa sup me pint and taak o' days gone by.
The pride and skill in what we did brings tears intu me eyes.
But the ghosts o' ships so fine
Are still sailin' from the Tyne,
But the river flows so quiet in the mornin'.