The Lost Workscape of Tyneside – a video

Note: This guest blog is by Hunter Charlton, a 2015 graduate of Bristol University’s History Department. Hunter, who grew up in Bellingham, Northumberland, wrote a final year undergraduate dissertation entitled ‘Landscape and Change: Shipbuilding and Identity on the Tyne’. (If interested, you can access his dissertation through this link:  http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/history/documents/dissertations/2015charlton.pdf)

When I heard that Hunter was planning to make a film based on his dissertation topic, I was keen for the ‘Power and Water’ project to be involved (especially since he’s surfed the Severn Bore on at least one occasion, and tells me that Bristol’s proximity to The Bore was one of the reasons he chose to study here). The project is delighted that it was able to cover the cost of including film clips from the North East Film Archive (NEFA). Hunter’s film is entitled ‘Scorched Earth’.

Peter Coates

 

Scorched Earth

Memory fastens on sight. I learnt this while speaking with Frank Duke, a shipwright who had worked the length of the River Tyne and spent his working life building super tankers. It was not simply the loss of his job, but the changing relationship with the industrial landscape of Tyneside that led him to feel alienated by his surroundings, the past and a deep loss of identity.

Scenes of demolished shipyards, redundant and vast open spaces, haunt the landscape along the Tyne from Hebburn to Tynemouth. As one resident of Wallsend told me, ‘the absence of ruin often demonstrates the ruin’. The last vestiges of the Tyne’s industrial prowess are now in their final stages of decay and a decade has elapsed since the last remaining shipyard on the river, Swan Hunter, closed shop.

The loss of industry’s visual record from the landscape is shocking for two reasons. Firstly, we live in a heritage culture which dismisses monuments of the working class, whether in the form of coal, steel, shipbuilding or engineering works. Secondly, in their transience, industrial ruins betray a sense of permanence granted by the materials out of which they are constructed: concrete, iron, steel and brick.

Every single shipyard I visited was an exhibition in decay. They felt haunted, quiet and beautiful in their contorted state of ruin. Even in the archive footage from the 1980s that I included in my film there seems to be an attempt to eulogise these monumental structures and venerate a dying industry.

Today, as we walk through regulated cities, the site of a ship launch or the view of decaying berths at Hawthorn Leslie are untrammelled in their unique oddness. For someone like myself, born in 1992, who never witnessed these industrial landscapes in their prime, I find the site of industry captivating in its bizarreness. In making a documentary about these themes I wanted to better understand how people adapt to deindustrialised spaces and how such alterations become internalised by communities which inhabit the boundary between “industrial wilderness” and modulated environments.

Hunter Charlton

5 comments

  • Very moving and interesting film. Thanks.
    As someone whose lived in the region on and off for much of my life, it’s the speed that it’s all gone that is so striking. The change is even more dramatic a few miles south on the river Wear in Sunderland, where the landscape by the river is dominated by the Stadium of Light (itself built on the old Wearmouth colliery) and no sign either of the former shipyards.

  • Marianna Dudley

    Like Hunter, I’ve only seen these sites in their post-industrial incarnations. The opening shot of the ship launch is a very powerful reminder of the scale of industry, and its dominance – of landscape, of economy, of community identity. Though towards the end of that particular clip, we can see a close up of the river water around the ship, thick with detritus – and I think this film cleverly and gently keeps the river present in its exploration of the decline of industry, without casting judgement on the loss felt at the removal of the workscape. The final interview clip underlines this especially effectively.

  • Peter Coates

    For those interested in finding more about the lost landscape of Tyneside shipbuilding and its local impact, a good place to start is a six-part special series in the Newcastle ‘Chronicle’ that marked the 20th anniversary of Swan Hunter’s closure, beginning with Kate Proctor’s ’20th anniversary of Swan Hunter closure: Heralding the end of an era’, on 13 May 2013, which can be accessed at http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/swan-hunter-closure-20th-anniversary-3662143.

    And to read a review of interviewee Michael Chaplin’s book ‘Tyne View: A Walk around the Port of Tyne’ (2012), see project researcher Leona Skelton’s evaluation in the journal ‘Environment and History’, 213 (August 2015): 453-55.

    One of the many things that has stayed with me since watching the film is the difference in ship launch ceremony techniques. The first, right at the film’s start, demonstrates protection for a member of the royal family, sealed off within a box from fizzy back spray and shards of glass (and guaranteed first-time success?). The second, unidentified example towards the end shows the unprotected, front-line experience – and just how tough the glass of champagne bottles can be (note the merriment of the onlookers as the bottle bounces back repeatedly before finally smashing against the hull).

  • Andy Flack

    This is really nice. I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, the narrative of ruin that runs through the riverscape illustrates that ruination is multilayered AND multi species. This is not simply a ruined landscape but rather a mosaic of ruins, decaying in different ways and at different speeds. And, indeed, this is not just about ‘nature’ returning to craft and then occupy abandoned spaces. These places are also crafted by people using, exploring, transgressing, occupying spaces. A really striking hybrid space. I was also moved by the ‘ruin’ of individual lives here. This is not just about environmental change. Its also about seismic transformations in lives of people who had built their existences around the industries of the river. Great film – well done!

  • Leona Skelton

    Excellent film Hunter – well done.

    I think you’ve captured the multiple viewpoints very well. As your film makes clear, local perceptions and experiences of this very fast-paced, dramatic and traumatic transformation from a thriving industrial centre to a region suffering from high unemployment and struggling with a serious local identity crisis are not easily simplified. But this film demonstrates why these views shouldn’t be simplified at all. As I discovered over the course of my research, nearly all local people have both negative and positive memories of the industrial era and both negative and positive experiences of the current riverscape and environment.

    I was born in Gateshead in 1984, twelve years after Howdon Waste Water Treatment Works opened to receive the untreated domestic and industrial waste which previously poured into the Tyne estuary through some 270 sewers. I only ever knew the post-industrial river and was constantly bombarded with what now seems like quite a simple environmental argument, at school and the youth groups I was part of, that the decline in industry presented a fantastic opportunity to improve the river water quality, biodiversity of wildlife and plant species and the recreational opportunities for local people. I attended the Garden Festival at Dunston Staiths in 1990 and some of the Tall Ships events with my family. At primary school, I was taken to participate in riverside litter picks and nature walks and to sit at Windmill Hills and draw the new riverscape. ‘Pollution’ was the enemy and we were all going to part of something exciting, new and morally right. But I also used to visit my grandfather at North Shields, who worked as a fitter and turner at Swans (Swan Hunters), and when I saw him in his shed full of lathes, making me very intricate rocking chairs and dolls’ houses, and bursting with pride about his manual skills and his stories of the shipyards, and realised how different he was from my father (his son) who worked as a salesman and who admitted to everyone how much he hated his job, I saw another side of the story.

    The riverscape is celebrated, and rightly so, as an environmental success story, but it’s also very important to respect the fact that for many local people it is now a physically and emotionally painful graveyard of their regional and personal pride and identity. It’s important to celebrate the industrial heritage as we praise the environmental successes and to ensure that they aren’t pitted against each other in the commonly misconceived ‘salmon versus jobs’ dichotomy because they are by no means mutually exclusive. It’s politically and economically possible to develop riparian industries which don’t pollute the river.

    The launching of the Esso in 1969 followed by one year the disbanding of the Tyne Improvement Commission which transformed what they disparagingly called a ‘creek’ in 1850 into a ‘grand and deep’ river through a series of large-scale engineering projects, several Acts of Parliament and huge sums of central government investment. I wonder what the proud members of the TIC would say if they were taken on a riverside tour of the industrial graveyards now.

    Jimmy Nail’s song, ‘Big River’, contains some deep lyrics and if you listen to them carefully, you realise that his definition of a ‘big’ river has nothing to do with salmon, clean water or wildlife, but rather to do with industrial production and the most important line for me is, ‘I want you all to know that I was proud’. By celebrating the Tyne’s industrial heritage, instead of letting it rot away at the many sites featured in the film, we can demonstrate to everyone the strength of the region’s industrial pride and how it continues to shape our present and future.

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