By Leona Skelton
As I exited the last of the ridiculous number of roundabouts that dot the road into South Shields, and drove onto the Mill Dam, on Saturday afternoon, 1st March 2014, the vast expanse of water laid out before me promptly grabbed and then monopolised my attention, almost sending me together with my beloved 1.6 Astra sxi directly into a lamppost! Reluctantly, I parked up before resuming my appreciation of the incredible view down onto the riverside. The Customs House is situated in a perfect geographical setting in which to engage, educate and entertain audiences with the Tyne’s phenomenal story. Indoors, The Customs House provides an intimate, down to earth and aptly modest venue for a locally themed theatre performance. However, the building has inherited a slightly sinister history; built in 1848 near the now demolished South Shields River Police building, it was used by the river police officers as a morgue for the many bodies found in the river – the Tyne’s unfortunate victims.
The Custom House Theatre, South Shields.
Meandering among the swollen and chattering crowds in the foyer, I wondered how many of these locals’ working, and by extension social, lives had been dominated by this mighty river. I also experienced a tinge of sadness, wondering if any of the older members of the audience had worked shoulder to shoulder with my own grandfather, who was a fitter and turner at the Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend. I resisted the immense temptation to start asking random strangers what the Tyne meant and means to them, and tried to pretend that I was just there to see a show.
A deliberately smoky and industrial-smelling atmosphere greeted me as I located my seat, which was directly next to the audio-visual technician (wow!). How would I stop myself from regressing 20 years in age and reaching over to fiddle with one of the plethora of switches, dials and buttons, all flashing on the deck beside me like a rather enticing fairground ride? Little did I know how successfully and completely the show was about to divert my mind from any trivial thoughts of the tech guy’s equipment…!
The Geordie accents of the cast members were strong, the stories and place names were intimately familiar and the music was quintessentially of the Tyneside variety. But I was not prepared for how effectively and poignantly the cast conveyed the depth of meaning which Tynesiders have attributed affectionately to their river over the centuries. The Tyne, the production argues, provided a focal point for the whole region and, of course, was appreciated greatly as the prerequisite of the enormous development of industry and trade which provided livelihoods for so many. The storyline, of a recently bereaved brother and sister who read the bequeathed life story of their late father in an attempt to understand his working life around the river, before sending his ashes down the Tyne to the sea in a plastic boat-shaped container, conceptualises Tynesiders as ‘sons and daughters’ of the Tyne, who is respected as a mother, a provider of life and a powerful, regional, unifying force. In the production, the river is referred to frequently as ‘she’ and as the story progresses through the ages, the majority of the details and anecdotes taken from the twentieth century, it successfully develops a profoundly positive, and extensively personified character of ‘Tyne’, which is the name of the production.
Tyne Ferry Landing, South Shields. Photo by George Robinson, from Geograph UK
As well as having underpinned and facilitated much of the industry which employed Tynesiders, the river shores also offered spiritual, and even sacred, locations for deep contemplation, after work, particularly at times of crisis or stress. Although it was undeniably filthy, black and full of pollutants, an element of the Tyne’s history for which the production doesn’t express any remorse, the river provided for local people a sense of connection to the sea and to the domestic and foreign ports from which the vast numbers of ships docking in the Tyne had travelled. The production argues, quite persuasively, that Tynesiders were explicitly aware of how much they owed to the Tyne and of the large extent to which their lives, livelihoods and physical environment had been shaped by this powerful river. There were some interesting musings on the wonder of the movement of the water itself from upstream locations down to the estuary, and of a continuous life cycle and flow from upriver to the sea, which some Tynesiders, it is claimed, conceptualised as a reflection of their own life cycle. The storyline purposely highlights the large extent to which the river also provides strong intergenerational connections for many families.
The production excelled in its provision of a deeply insightful appreciation and celebration of the river’s relatively recent past, providing true anecdotes from people such as women who painted ships during World War Two, working men who ice-skated on the river from Newcastle up to Ryton, as well as those river police officers who collected dead bodies from the estuary. I could see the tangible results of this story-telling in the form of heartfelt tears rolling down the cheeks of several of the audience members sitting near to me – a clear sign of the large extent to which local people have invested deep emotions and significant meanings in the river as it wove itself inextricably into the lives and livelihoods of those, past and present, who were proud to make its banks their home.
So, back to the project and back to an environmental historian’s perspective. How can this play contribute to my current task? The answer is, I think, largely in terms of the fourth chronological element of my project: the Tyne’s future. Born out of Michael Chaplin’s book, Tyne View: A Walk around the Port of Tyne, first published in 2013 as an amalgamation of the stories and memories collected by an artist, a photographer, a writer and a poet as they walked up and down the entire Tyne estuary in 2012, the play ‘Tyne’ is an important expression of current meanings which this new and different, clean and post-industrial river, has for local people. The ‘Tyne’ play puts the spotlight on the departure of young Tynesiders’ attitudes and values, in relation to a clean river in need of their protection from harm, compared to those of older generations, who recall their memories of the industrial Tyne with affection and who somewhat lament the river’s deindustrialisation, which brought severe employment challenges, and the consolation prize of regeneration with its tourist river cruises, art galleries and music halls. Initiatives such as the Clean Tyne Project’s educational programmes, which are rolled out in primary schools across the region, and the familiar, visual impact of the quaysides and river itself as bustling and popular tourist locations, are currently shaping the next generation’s relationship with the river as they prepare to step forward and shape the Tyne’s future themselves. Conservation and careful management of the river’s eco-system are central to this new direction, firmly planted in the hearts and minds of the riverbanks’ youngest residents.
The production did not tell the Tyne’s story from an environmental perspective, though perhaps that was never its creators’ intention. It neglected to tell the stories of how humans have manipulated, undermined and fundamentally damaged the natural functions and characteristics of the river and its resources over the centuries. It also left out the stories of how desires to protect the river from ‘harm’ have been expressed and developed over time, from their roots in the form of the weekly River Court in seventeenth-century Newcastle to the complex, protective arsenal of legislation which grew from the nineteenth century onwards. The play is a profound, but primarily social history, which seeks to reconnect local people with their industrial heritage as the generations who were directly involved in it pass on. The play uses the river as a focal point and provides some fine insights into the meanings associated with it. On the other hand it tells a one-sided story which arguably cheats the river of the right to express the extent to which it was abused at the hands of industrial development, from which it is currently recovering, and would need to continue to recover for at least several more centuries in order to regain a full bill of health. Good play, though, an afternoon very well spent, and, thankfully, the Astra is still in one piece!