Mechanical Ballet: Shipping and the Port of Tyne

By Marianna Dudley

There was a term for the precise movements of the cranes and containers we saw during our tour of the Port of Tyne, though I didn’t know it at the time: ‘mechanical ballet’. Cranes lifted shipping containers from the boat guided by the accuracy of the human eye in the crane – the driver who sits alone, and without a toilet, for twelve-hour stretches in the cab high above – and dependent on the strength of machinery to place them on the truck beds below. A delicate, powerful, and hypnotic dance, with the port and river as the stage. Is it the humans, or the machines, who are the protagonists?


Cranes at Port of Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

This question is explored in Terminal (2009), a short film by Jörn Wagner. Without narrative, it captures the movements of a busy port, a never-ending choreography of loading and unloading. It is described as ‘depicting a human-created world void of humanity’ as ‘machines seem to move of their own volition’. It is a beautiful visualization of the enormous scale of operations at ports such as the Tyne.

However, the lack of humans in the ‘ballet’ doesn’t chime with my own observations of port life (made during a Power and the Water project visit to the Port of Tyne, Thursday 5 June 2014). People give the machines scale, and, often, movement. Without them, a port resembles an ordered Lego set, everything brightly and primary coloured. To ignore the humans that drive the machines does a disservice to the long history of the docks, organized labour, and working class port culture. My grandfather was a docker in Liverpool, and his stories – unloading the first crates of bananas post-WWII; accidents with the menacing hooks that dockers wielded like an extension of their limbs – were in my mind as I watched the crane make its manoeuvres.

The advance of technology has almost – but not completely – mechanized the port. The crane drivers do an immensely skilled job. They are the prima ballerinas of the dance, with lorry drivers and engineers on the ground making up the corps de ballet. People are still needed, but they must work in sync with – and reliant on – the power of the machines, unlike real ballet dancers, who rely solely on their steely, strong bodies and each other to glide and jump across the stage. A parallel could be drawn here, however. The port has mechanized in modern times due to technology. Ballet in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first has developed a taste for leanness and strength that pushes dancer’s bodies to breaking point, and which has come under recent scrutiny in the Channel 4 documentary Big Ballet. Among other things, modernism rejected history and ornament, and believed that design and technology could transform societies. The modern working port, and the modern dancer’s body, are (post) modern models of strength, efficiency, and (arguably) beauty.

To many inhabitants of the city of Newcastle, there is also tragedy in the port’s history. In 1881, the Tyne was second only to the Mersey in the quantity of goods exported from Britain, and was responsible for 1/9 of the total of UK port exports. In 1923, 22 million tonnes of coal were shipped from the Port of Tyne. Today, the Port of Tyne does not feature in the top ten busiest UK Ports. The idiom ‘like carrying coals to Newcastle’ may still be in common use but in reality, mounds of coal imported from Russia line the dockside, bound for the domestic market.

However, the Port isn’t dead. In 2011 (the last available figures from the Port of Tyne website), 450 men brought 5.3 million tonnes of goods through the port in 2011. The dynamic of the human-river-machine network here has fundamentally changed, but, crucially, it remains.


Ship repairs yard, Port of Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The Port of Tyne is responsible for navigation on the tidal river (from Wylam to the sea) and publishes a shipping history of every ship loading and unloading in the port. Name, origin, destination, agent and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) numbers – the unique seven-digit number assigned to ships under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) – are all detailed. SOLAS was first passed in 1914 after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, to ensure standardized provision of lifeboats and other safety equipment on board ships. IMO numbers have been operational since 1987 as a prevention against marine fraud, and are the maritime equivalent of a car number plate.

The Port of Tyne shipping list is more than a schedule. It is a functional choreography of the mechanical ballet that unfolds 24/7 on the docks. To take one example, the Hydra, sailing under the Dutch flag, arrived from Anchorage in Alaska on 7 June, 2014. The ship paused at the dock, was unloaded by men and machines, and sailed on 10 June for Peterhead, Scotland. This is one scene from an act of thousands, all unfolding in the Port of Tyne and dispersing around the globe. From the Bahamas, Stavangar, Panama and Gibraltar, the ships docking at Port of Tyne maintain a connection between the northeast and the international endeavor of maritime trade, as they have for centuries of trade on the river.

Taking the wheel on the Tyne

Project member Jill Payne taking the wheel on the River Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

These connections have shaped the city and its people. Steve and Dave, captain and first mate of the Clearwater Clean Tyne vesselwhich clears the river of debris, first went to sea in the merchant navy. As they took us on a trip downriver, they reminisced about tours of eastern Africa and Brazil, while gamely letting Jill, Carry and I take the ship’s wheel. The Port of Tyne is a mechanical ballet with performances and protagonists that are local and global. What holds it all together is not just the complex computer systems registering cargo, or the network of trains and trucks dispersing commodities across Britain, but the river, and the people of the port.

Just don’t tell the lads they are ballerinas.



(i) Thanks to James Wright, Environmental Officer for Port of Tyne Authority, for his presentation and guided tour of the port facilities.
(ii) Stephen Moss,‘Tamara Rojo: Ballet Dancers don’t enjoy the pain. We’re not masochists’, The Guardian 13 June 2011; Big Ballet, first broadcast 6 February 2014, Channel 4 (UK)
(iii) See, for example, The V&A’s guide to modernism: modernism/
(iv) Proceedings of the RiverTyne Improvement Commissioners’ (1881)
(v) Stafford Linsey, ‘The Port of Tyne’, in David Archer (ed.), Tyne and Tide: a celebration of the River Tyne (2003), 172-189.
(vi) Department for Transport, ‘UK Port Freight Statistics: 2011 Statistical Release’ (September 2012)
(vii) httkp:// services/shipping-movements/shipping-history/