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’.
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.