Tag: tyneside

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.”

In Search of Geordie

This 25-minute film by Scott Dobson and Dick Irwin was made in 1975. It features some memorable footage of theNortheast during which we are entertained by several colourful Northeastern characters speaking in their wonderful dialect. This film is courtesy of the Northeast Film Archive whose catalogue can be viewed at: http:/www.northeastfilmarchive.com

Thor’s Nowt See Queer As Folk

It wez one of me mam’s favourite sayings, whenever somebody said or did owt that wez a bit unusual. “Eee ower Andy,” she’d say te us, “Ye knaa, there’s nowt as queer as folk!” Aa can still hear hor noo and ye have te knaa that it’s as true the day as it wez back then when things aal seemed a bit simpler. Anyway, Aa came across the words te this song by a Newcassel fella caalled, Harry Haldane. Whey, that’s wasn’t his real name mind, that wad have bin, Oliver Heslop who was quite an important fella in his day. Ye can read more aboot here if yer a mind. Divvent understand the wards? Whey, if yer just click on the highlighted wards it’ll tak yer tee a dictionary.  But if yer want to see the entire song in plain English, then click here: There’s Nothing So Strange As Folk

THOR’S NOWT SEE QUEER AS FOLK
By Harry Haldane

D’ye think a chep’s see daft as buy a pig iv a poke?
Whattivor ye may think, thor’s nowt see queer as folk.
Thor’s some sees things asquint, an’ some get aal askew,
An’ mair an’ mair ye’ll find, as life draas on, it’s true,
Thor’s nowt see queer as folk!

Thor’s some gans fair an’ square, and some gans cruck’d, hoot shaff!
Man, some ye canna please, an’ some dis nowt but laugh;
Thor’s some hes been te skeul, an’ still gets ne mair sense-
It’s aal as clear as clarts, an’ nowt but common sense, —
Thor’s nowt see queer as folk!

Yen chep hes cheek for owt, another dorsn’t try,
An’ some climbs te the top, an’ some gets a go bye.
Tiv yen the wind’s aal foul, his marrow finds aal fair;
Yen chep’s a happy bloke, an’ mevvy disn’t care.
Man, thor’s nowt see queer as folk!

Some hes the corse o’ greed, an’ some spends aal they make,
Some thinks o’ nowt but sel, some dis nowt for their cake;
Thor’s other some that’s this, and other some that’s that.
It’s like a pot that’s broke, ye canna put it pat,
‘Cas thor’s nowt see queer as folk.

Tiv some misfortun’ comes an’ bricks them fairly doon,
They find the shouther caad, an’ mony a freezin’ froon;
But then thor’s lightsome hearts, that comes an dis the friend,
An’ straits misfortun’s cruck an’ helps poor sowls te mend.
O, thor’s nowt see queer as folk!

Aa’ve havered on for ‘oors, an’ sair ma heed aw’ve wrout,
An’ tewed te mak it oot wiv mony an’ anxious thout?
But noo aa’l gie’t aal up, Aa canna ravel’t oot,
Wor life sure is ne joke, whativvor we may doot!
Man, thor’s nowt see queer as folk.

Picture courtesy of Newcastle Library.

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.

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.

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'.