Tag Archives: Industrial heritage

New Book by Leona Skelton: Tyne after Tyne: An Environmental History of a River’s Battle for Protection 1529–2015

Book cove In March 2017 Leona’s Skelton’s book on the history of the River Tyne was published by White Horse Press.

Over the last five centuries, North-East England’s River Tyne went largely with the flow as it rode with us on a rollercoaster from technologically limited early modern oligarchy, to large-scale Victorian ‘improvement’, to twentieth-century deoxygenation and twenty-first-century efforts to expand biodiversity. Studying five centuries of Tyne conservatorship reveals that 1855 to 1972 was a blip on the graph of environmental concern, preceded and followed by more sustainable engagement and a fairer negotiation with the river’s forces and expressions as a whole and natural system, albeit driven by different motivations. Even during this blip, however, several organisations, tried to protect the river’s environmental health from harm.

This Tyne study offers a template for a future body of work on British rivers that dislodges the Thames as the river of choice in British environmental history. And it undermines traditional approaches to rivers as passive backdrops of human activities. Departing from narratives that equated change with improvement, or with loss and destruction, it moves away from morally loaded notions of better or worse, and even dead, rivers. The book fully situates the Tyne’s fluvial transformations within political, economic, cultural, social and intellectual contexts. With such a long view, we can objectify ourselves through our descendants’ eyes, reconnecting us not only to our past, but also to our future.

See more details and order the book on the White Horse Press Website.

Read also a blog by Leona on her new book on the publisher’s website.

Podcast: Environmental history of a hydrological landscape: the soughs of Derbyshire

Under the Peak District of Derbyshire is an subterranean network of drainage tunnels, the so-called soughs that were used to drain the lead mines of the region.

Up till the 16th century most lead mining In the Peak District done on the surface and miners followed horizontal seams. By then the surface seams were exhausted and miners had to sink shafts to reach rich underground seams. By the 17th century most mines were down to the water table. To prevent the mines from filling up with water drains or ‘soughs’ were cut through the hills to a neighboring valley. The construction of soughs changed the hydrological landscape of the Peak District, both below ground and above. In some cases the soughs not only drained mineshafts but also the small rivers above, which as a result were dry most of the year. The construction of soughs also reduced the flow of watercourses powering the mills of the early Industrial Revolution. This led to legal conflicts between sough builders and others who relied on the availability of water. Petitions were submitted to the courts and many of these court cases rumbled on for decades.

During the 20th century the soughs were largely forgotten but recently the soughs have been rediscovered for their industrial heritage on the one hand, and their detrimental effect on the hydrology of the landscape, pitting heritage values versus ecological restoration, creating a new battle ground of interests.

This edition of the Exploring Environmental History podcast examines the environmental history of the Derbyshire Soughs with Carry van Lieshout, a historical geographer at the University of Nottingham. She works on a research project that investigates the environmental and cultural history of the Derbyshire soughs in order to inform understandings of this largely forgotten cultural landscape and to develop management and conservation strategies for underground heritage.

Further reading

From Lead to Tail: an Environmental History of the Derbyshire Soughs. Poster presented by Carry van Lieshout at the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal, July 2014.

Peter Coates, Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?), The Power and the Water blog, 5 Nov. 2014.

D. Ford and Rieuwerts, J., Lead miners’ soughs in Derbyshire, Geology Today, 23 (2007): 57–62. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2451.2007.00604.x


Music credits

Like Music (cdk Mix, 2013 & 2014)” by cdk, available from ccMixter

Watch the video visualisation of the introduction of the podcast:

Exploring environmental History podcast


This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

From One Big River to Another: Local Musicians Muse on Life, Death and Rebirth (?) on the Tees and Tyne

By Peter Coates

I’ve just revisited an e-mail that Jill Payne sent the project team a few days before we met up in Newcastle earlier this year. She reminded us that Chris Rea’s song ‘Steel River’ echoes the sentiments of Jimmy Nail’s lament to the working Tyne, ‘Big River’. (I remember seeing Rea in concert in Newcastle City Hall circa. 1974, when he was the support act for Lindisfarne at one of their famous Christmas concerts.) In fact, Rea anticipated Nail’s emotional mood by a decade: whereas ‘Big River’ was released in 1995, ‘Steel River was the opening track on the 1985 album, ‘Shamrock Diaries’ (though its best-known track is arguably the second, ‘Stainsby Girls’).

Rea hails from Middlesbrough and his river is the Tees, but the scenario and message are identical – a stark and painful contrast between the thriving industry on its banks in the 1960s, when Rea was growing up there, and the late 1980s, when a post-industrial river was clean enough for salmon to return but meaningless to those who once worked in the steel mills (the industrial and chemical sector whose thirst for water lay behind the decision to dam the North branch of the Tyne in 1974, but which was largely moribund by the time Kielder reservoir and dam were opened by the Queen in 1982). Here’s the third and final verse of ‘Steel River’ that Jill pasted into her e-mail.

They say that salmon swim in steel river
They say it’s good to see them back again
I know it hurts to see what really happened
I know one salmon ain’t no good to them
They were born and raised to serve their steel mother
It was all they taught and all they ever knew
And they believed that she would keep their children
Even though not a single word was true
Say goodbye steel river.

‘Pure magic’, reads one of the comments that accompanies the version of ‘Steel River’ posted on YouTube, ‘makes me proud to come from Teesside…listening to this takes me back to the days when we were a thriving industry, the world needed Middlesbrough’s steel to exist’. ‘This song says it all’, comments another viewer (62,136 views to date): ‘it tears my heart out’. ‘It is physically impossible for anyone born in these environs not to cry when local boy Chris Rea’s paean to this lost world…strikes up on the jukebox or radio’, reflects Daniel Gray (Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels Through England’s Football Provinces [Bloomsbury,2013, 18).

Most of the other comments strike more or less the same note. But there’s one that’s a bit different, a bit less lachrymose, and a bit more hopeful: ‘This [song] is an inspiration for every Briton who can recall that the country was once great. Let’s get back to making lots of stuff out of steel – but perhaps we can clean it up just a tad better than before. Salmon is still compatible with steel-making’.

River Tees

River Tees looking towards Middlesbrough. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regenerating a river: how the future of the River Tyne could be its past

By Erin Gill

I’m not the first – or even the thousandth – person to feel that there is something genuinely thrilling about the view from Newcastle’s quayside across the River Tyne to the enormous, undulating Sage Gateshead. It’s a view that is supported, rather than undermined, by the much older architecture of St Mary’s church, which is immediately adjacent. The view is enhanced further by the way both buildings are framed by the glorious bulk of the Tyne Bridge and by the double curve of Gateshead Millennium cycle & footbridge.

Seeing it again recently with colleagues from the Power & the Water environmental history network, I felt a surge of gratitude toward the many individuals – none of whom I know – who made this ambitious plan for the Gateshead riverside a reality. My guess is that a good many of them were – or are – employees of Gateshead City Council or other organisations currently under pressure as England operates under the grip of public sector ‘austerity’.

The renewal of the Gateshead portion of the Tyne riverside isn’t something that was bound to happen. It takes a city – or two, perhaps a whole region? – filled with determined and rather ambitious people to turn an urban regeneration project of this scale into a lasting success. I have lost count of the number of times people I know from the North East have told me what a wonderful place the Baltic-Sage-Millennium Bridge-Newcastle Quayside area is. They usually add that when they were young (or when their parents were young – it depends on the age of the speaker) that the area was too rough for them.


‘You didn’t go down there.’

Their comments have made me wonder about the now-erased urban industrial waterfront. I particularly wonder about its decline. My friends’ comments suggest there might have been a time after the waterfront’s heyday as an industrial workspace, when it was in decline and when it became less a place of work and more one of malicious mischief, a place of danger after dark, and sometimes during the day. Is this accurate?


Newcastle and river Tyne

Newcastle castle keep across the Tyne to Gateshead, 1950s.
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Tyne Bridge

Sage Gateshead with Tyne Bridge in foreground. Photo by Christine Matthews, Geograph










I wonder also whether I have understood the regeneration story correctly. First was Gateshead Millennium Bridge, beautiful to look at, but even more exciting to use. Designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre, it opened in 2001. Next was Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, creating a new use for a derelict flour mill. Completed in 2002 it was first imagined by public sector body, Northern Arts, in the early 1990s. Then in 2004, the stunning Fosters & Partners-designed concert hall, Sage Gateshead, opened. Gazing at it initially from the Newcastle side, I was reminded that the North East is a region that has a history of ‘big’, ambitious structures – from the Tyne’s many bridges to Durham Cathedral to the now Grade II*-listed Byker housing estate, completed at the end of the 1970s.

Given the enormous scale of Sage Gateshead, it’s a good thing that Fosters’ design proved so successful. The Sage looks ‘made’ for its setting. By contrast, the architectural horror that is the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead and several of the identikit blocks of flats recently built on both sides of the Tyne in the vicinity of the Baltic do not inspire. Too much more of this type of mediocrity and the Tyne riverside running through Newcastle & Gateshead risks looking as awful as London upstream from Vauxhall Bridge.

Having created a cultural zone on the Gateshead side, complemented by the social zone of Newcastle quayside with busy nightlife and handsome Victorian municipal architecture, is there anything missing? I wonder if the time has come for the Tyne’s industrial heritage to be made more visible. Not with some twee quayside museum. That wouldn’t do, and surely has been considered and rejected already. I’m imagining something that says: “this was a big and mighty working river, a liquid highway. Today, it may be a river of leisure, but not long ago it was a river of graft.’

Dunston Staithes

Part of Dunstan Staiths, Gateshead. Photo: Erin Gill

The ideal opportunity is already there, on the riverside: Dunstan Staiths, that incredible wooden structure a bit upriver from the Sage, also on the Gateshead side. It was built as the final link in a network that allowed coal mined in the North East to be transported by rail and loaded onto ships. From Dunstan Staiths coal was carefully cascaded into waiting boats. Now standing mute, Dunstan Staiths is a testament to the North East’s history as the source – for a short time – of the world’s coal. There were dozens of these huge wooden structures along the river. Only Dunstan Staiths remains, and it only partially. Can it be revived and protected in some imaginative way? Now that the heart of Newcastle’s and Gateshead’s urban riverside has been re-cast as a cultural and social space, can’t the next project remind residents and visitors of the past? Of the machines, the pollution and the toil of working people.


Art, Sustainability and Heritage: A Walking Tour with Power and the Water

A field report of the Water and the Power team’s visit to the Dunston Staiths is available on the website of the Jetty Project. The piece recounts how the team members were dragged along for some exercise, art and industrial heritage during their busy team meeting in early June. They were shown the restoration efforts of the Dunston Staiths, the largest wood structure in Western Europe, and the former industrial banks of the River Tyne.

Read the report at http://jetty-project.info/field-notes-4th-june-2014/

Dunston Staiths

The Dunston Staiths. Used to load coal in ships until the 1980s. Photo: M. Dudley

A visit to the South Western Electrical Historical Society

By Kayt Button

The changes brought about by the introduction of electricity over the past hundred and fifty years or so or have totally transformed our everyday lives. From the homes we live in, appliances we use, our systems of communication, and types and methods of working.

Housing of the South Western Electrical Historical Society

Housing of the South Western Electrical Historical Society in an electricity sub-station (Photo: Kayt Button)

After a series of scientific discoveries from the late 1700’s through the first part of the 1800’s supplying electricity commercially began as an entrepreneurial venture for the scientifically forward thinking. Investing in electricity generation through steam engines or other power sources and profit on their investments by charging local people for electric lighting, and later, supply of electrical power. In my quest to find out as much about the early history of electricity from the 1850’s onwards, I came across the South Western Electrical Historical Society. After some communication with Peter Lamb, the society secretary, I visited the museum.

Exposition space

Exposition space of the the South Western Electrical Historical Society (Photo: Kayt Button)

The museum is located in an unused part of an electricity substation, courtesy of Western Power Distribution. The museum contains an exhibition room, where artefacts are displayed, a meeting room, two archive rooms and an office. The exhibition room contains may artefacts described as “What your Grandparents Used”. The room is crammed full of all types of appliances and equipment and although I could have spent a good few hours just browsing and taking in the written information, I wanted to look at the archive material.

I had already read a great write up on the early days of power in the south west, by Peter Lamb and after seeing how much written material there was at the society, alongside the wealth of knowledge of the people there I was thrilled. There are already a large number of individual town histories researched and recorded for the South West of England, as well as the supporting documentation for them. Alongside this I discovered Garke’s Manuals of electricity which document everything that occurred in the electrical industry at the time. With adverts and sponsorship, it is a series of books I am looking forward to investigating further alongside the many other documents and maps available at the museum.

Finding a group of such knowledge people has been a real pleasure, and not just because of a very delicious lasagne pub lunch! I am looking to work further with everyone at the museum to use the South West of England as a case study looking at the changes to electrical power over the past century and a half. Their website address is www.swehs.co.uk to find out more about them.

Connecting with the ‘Jetty’ project

By Leona Skelton

Dunston Staiths

Dunston Staiths, source: Wikipedia

I met up with Dr Angela Connelly on Tuesday 8th April in Huddersfield, halfway between her home and mine, for what proved to be a very fruitful session. Angela is also an AHRC-funded Post-doctoral Research Assistant, based at Manchester University, working on the art and sustainability ‘Jetty’ project, led by Professor Wolfgang Weileder at Newcastle University. (For the project website, go to http://jetty-project.info/) In a nutshell, this interdisciplinary project aims to connect the debates of fine art and urban design by investigating how a contemporary public artwork can meaningfully contribute to the lives of local people, the urban environment and local ecology. At the heart of the project is Dunston Staiths, on the south bank of the Tyne. (A staith, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an elevated landing stage at a wharf that is used for transferring goods from railways cars to boats.) The largest timber structure in northern Europe, Dunston Staiths is currently undergoing extensive restoration before eventually opening to the public. As I drove Peter Coates over the Redheugh Bridge from Gateshead to Newcastle in November 2013, he was instantly transfixed by the magnificent view of it down to our left! I think he was slightly more impressed by the Angel of the North, however.

As well as conducting archival research into the construction of Dunston Staiths by the North Eastern Railway Company in 1893, Angela is working closely with the Tyne and Wear Preservation Trust, which owns the staiths; the Royal Geographical Society; English Heritage, which listed the Staiths Grade II and is overseeing the restoration; and Durham Wildlife Trust, which has conducted an in-depth survey of the wildlife currently flourishing in the new environments of the salt marshes and mudflats around the Staiths. The Trust’s discovery of species such as Golden Plover, Redshank, Teal, Lapwing, Dunlin, Curlew and Cormorants highlights that human activities, such as constructing a large staith in a river, can have unintended, but nevertheless positive impacts on wildlife. A similar situation was highlighted by T.C. Smout and Mairi Stewart in The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History (2012), with reference to ducks having flourished by eating the worms which fed on sewage and the organic discharges from breweries and distilleries; these waterfowl subsequently plunged into rapid decline when the sewage was redirected from the Forth to treatment works to improve water quality (pp. 166-167). I mentioned in an earlier blog that I would look out for similarly positive effects on wildlife in and around the Tyne, and now I have found one, thanks to Angela and the Jetty project. As environmental historians, we should remain mindful that human activities do not necessarily work to the disadvantage of wildlife; sometimes they can invent new, different and welcoming habitats in which rare species can thrive, albeit unintentionally.

Angela has also been involved in research into the local communities, which will be affected by the opening of the Staiths to the public. The area has not attracted large numbers of tourists since it hosted the National Garden Festival at Dunston Staiths in 1989, as part of the wider regeneration of the river, which I was lucky enough to attend as a five-year old girl. (Unfortunately, you’re not lucky enough to see the highly amusing photo of me enjoying the festival with none other than Pudsey Bear himself!)

Regrettably, the Staiths are still unsafe, having been derelict since they were abandoned in the 1980s, and the restoration is still very much in its infancy. Angela has been working with the Royal Geographic Society to create a structured art walk from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, near the Millennium Bridge, along the river to Dunston Staiths, passing several sculptures and outdoor artworks along the way. She has kindly offered to take ‘Power and Water’ project members on this inspiring walk during our forthcoming project team meeting in early June 2014. A local model-railway enthusiast called David, who possesses a wealth of knowledge on the Staiths in their original format before they suffered fire damage during dereliction, will also be joining us for the walk and we look forward to meeting him too.

All in all, a mutually beneficial and productive meeting. Making connections with other relevant arts and humanities research projects is certainly to be encouraged.

Oh, go on then, you can see the Garden Festival photo…

Leona at Dunston

Me, visiting the Garden Festival at Dunston Staiths, aged five. Photo: Leona Skelton