Tag Archives: industry

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

The Oldest Geordie: Environmental History of the River Tyne

Rivers are at the heart of defining the identity and lifestyle of many cities around the world, and that is nowhere stronger than in Newcastle on Tyne in the Northeast of England on the banks of the River Tyne. The people who live on the banks of the Tyne are fiercely proud of their river. Once the river was an industrial powerhouse of the British Empire, and by the 1880s the Port of Tyne exported the most coal in the world, and the river was amongst the world’s largest shipbuilding and ship-repairing centres.

There has been much consideration of how the River Tyne has shaped Tyneside and Tynesiders, but very little appreciation of the enormous extent to which people have shaped the river. To bear out this invisible history of the river, historian Leona Skelton, a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, has worked on a research project that challenges us to think from a river’s perspective and to include in our river histories the flow pathways which rivers ‘wanted’ to follow, regardless of the changes that humans have forged upon the river. On episode 69 of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast Leona challenges us to look at a river as an historical actor with its own agency.

Leona’s Research was part of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded environmental history initiative “The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures”, that focuses on environmental connectivities that have emerged in Britain since industrialisation.


Further reading and resources
Archer, D., Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the River Tyne (Ovingham: Daryan Press, 2003)

Chaplin, M., Tyne View: A Walk around the Port of Tyne (2012).

Charlton, B., Upper North Tynedale: A Northumbrian Valley and its People (Northumbrian Water, 1987).

Cioc, Mark, and ebrary Academic Complete. The Rhine: An Eco-biography, 1815-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Levine, D., and Wrightson, K., The Making of an Industrial Society: Whickham, 1560-1765 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Mah, A., ‘Memory, Uncertainty and Industrial Ruination: Walker Riverside, Newcastle on Tyne’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 34, no. 2 (2010), pp. 398-413

Marshall, M., Tyne Waters: A river and its salmon (London: H F & G Witherby, 1992)

Rennison, R., Water to Tyneside: A History of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company (Newcastle: Newcastle & Gateshead Water Company, 1979)

Blog of Leona Skelton


Music credits

So Cold” by @nop, available from ccMixter

Clash” by zorza, available from ccMixter

Healing” by Stefan Kartenberg, available from ccMixter

Exploring environmental History podcast


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

Tidal Power: A Question of Scale?

By Alexander Portch

Whilst the remarkably well preserved site of Nendrum Monastery on the western shores of Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland may feature the earliest known example of a tidal mill in the world – and, by extension, effectively the starting point for the process of technological evolution that has resulted in today’s tidal energy devices like barrages, lagoons and tidal stream turbines[1] – it suffers from an issue encountered frequently in archaeology: namely that of incomplete evidence and the need to interpret what survives, with the likelihood that any interpretation will be fraught with inaccuracy and conjecture.

This may be familiar to viewers of Channel Four’s Time Team (now sadly also confined to the depths of the past) where, almost on a weekly basis it seemed, entire settlements were reconstructed in astounding detail seemingly on the basis of little more than a handful of pottery shards, the occasional pit, and perhaps the odd wall or two. Admittedly it is in fact possible to say a great deal about a site even if the items listed above comprise the sum total of all features and objects uncovered; not least the fact that a structure existed, its likely whereabouts and possible form and function, and – using the pottery – a likely date for its occupation. The pottery could even hint at possible trade links with faraway places. In order to present this assemblage and any resulting interpretations to a lay audience, however, some form of visual reconstruction is usually necessary and this is where imaginations begin to play a more prominent role, as demonstrated by the often spectacular 3D (re)creations of roundhouses, Roman villas and other assorted ancient monuments, through which Tony and the team could stroll at their leisure.

It is quite likely that many of these efforts are reasonably close to the truth, and even if they fall short of the mark, they do at least succeed in providing entertainment for some, and even inspiration for others (myself for one). Thus, the numerous reconstruction illustrations encountered in the museum at Nendrum Monastery, including a rather impressive physical model of the whole site, served to provide valuable insights into what the location may have been like throughout the duration of its occupation. This included the tide mill, which, despite its sophistication was also a wonderfully simple way of extracting usable energy from the regular rise and fall of the water in the Lough. Such mills may well also have existed around the shores of the Severn Estuary throughout the latter half of the 1st millennium AD; although, as yet, no examples have been identified.

What did exist in more recent times, however, were far larger and more complex structures, such as those at Berkeley and Westbury-on-Severn, both in Gloucestershire. These were certainly in operation from the 18th century, and possibly earlier. Whilst the basic mode of operation differed little from the early medieval tide mills of Northern Ireland, including Nendrum, involving the impounding of water at high tide within a pond, and its subsequent release through waterwheels as the tide ebbed, they also made full use of more modern forms of milling technology, such as vertical wheels, and gearing mechanisms. The latter could enable multiple millstones to be operated by only one or two wheels, whilst simultaneously providing the necessary power to hoist sacks of grain into the upper storeys of the building.

In the case of the example at Berkeley much of the machinery remains in situ within the building (so I have been informed), now derelict following the demise of the last commercial enterprise there in 2004. This may, however, have little to do with tidal power as the mill was converted during the 20th century, first to steam power and then to electricity, whilst the millpond and tailrace have since silted up. In order to fully understand how such facilities operated, therefore, and, in turn, their significance within the context of local communities for whom the tidal cycle of the Severn may have functioned as a focus of livelihood and identity, it seemed necessary to see a tide mill as it might have existed a century or more ago.

There are presently only five restored tidal mills in the British Isles. This may seem like a good number for those who are unfamiliar with such features, as I was only two years ago; however, considering that more than 700 mills were once in existence around the Atlantic coasts of Europe, including many in the British Isles,[2] the remaining examples can hardly be seen as representative. Nonetheless, those that do survive have been restored with care and attention to detail, enabling at least two of them to function once again as they may have done during their working lives. The closest mill to Bristol, where I am currently based, is that at Eling near Southampton which, until it closed for refurbishment earlier this year, produced its own flour on an almost daily basis. Beyond that, the other options were either an expedition to the coast of Suffolk and the working mill at Woodbridge or the slightly more accessible example at Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire. From an archaeologist’s perspective the choice wasn’t difficult to make, and without further delay I headed west.

Carew Cross

The 11th century Carew Cross stands, tall and imposing, facing the eastern entrance to the castle (with the well-positioned Carew Inn visible behind). Photo: Alexander Portch.

The castle at Carew has stood on its promontory overlooking the nearby Carew River, a tidal arm of the Cleddau Ddu, since the beginning of the 12th century when the Norman rulers of England sought to extend their influence into Wales; however, a defensive settlement has been shown to have existed there from the Iron Age. The nearby Celtic cross, one of the finest in Wales, may even hint at the location’s status as a royal centre for the Welsh Kingdom of Deheubarth prior to the arrival of the invaders from the east. It is also likely that a mill existed nearby to supply the castle during the medieval period; however, documentary records for a tide mill date from the 16th century with the present structure being of 19th century construction.[3]

Carew Castle

The West Range of Carew Castle, with its two 13th century drum towers, occupies a commanding position overlooking the still waters of the impounded mill pond. Photo: Alexander Portch.

The building comprises four floors, in addition to the under storey which houses the two vertical waterwheels, and functioned primarily as a corn mill, grinding grain into flour. After a relatively long period of use (longer than most modern power stations at least), the mill ceased operation in 1937 until its restoration in the 1970s. Initially the machinery was put back to use for demonstration purposes; however, now it stands dormant – clean, tidy, well-organised, but too fragile to resume operation. Recent feasibility studies have investigated the potential for breathing new life back into the now arthritic cogs, wheels and gears, in addition to the possibility of installing a modern turbine for generating electricity but, much like the great majority of tidal energy proposals, it remains little more than a report rather than any determined action.

Carew Mill

Carew tidal mill, visible in the distance from a vantage point high up in the nearby castle. Now largely abandoned (with the exception of the occasional wedding party and the regular stream of visitors and re-enactment groups) the castle now provides the ideal habitat for a diverse range of flora and fauna, including more than half of the species of bat found in Britain. Photo: Alexander Portch.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the mill at Carew is the causeway linking the mill building on one side of the river channel with the far bank and housing both the wheels beneath the building, and the sluice gates which allow water to enter during the flood tide. In effect this is a barrage. A very small barrage, at least in contrast to those proposed for the Severn, but a barrage nonetheless, and probably not much smaller than the Annapolis Royal tidal barrage in Nova Scotia.[4] It comprises a solid wall built laterally across the width of a river, thereby effectively cutting off an arm of the waterway from the “natural” operation of the tides. The tides do still affect the millpond created by this structure, but they now rise and fall at the whim of the mill owner or operator (presently the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority). Essentially this could be seen as merely a small-scale version of what might have come to pass on the Severn if a barrage had ever been built. And on that basis, would it have been such a bad thing? At Carew during my visit it was the mill pond that provided the most conspicuous habitat for wading birds, including shell duck and heron, sustained no doubt by the schools of fish that could be seen swimming in the relatively clear waters. The flow of the incoming tide was also discernible, whilst the scent of the salty waters still pervaded the air.


The causeway at Carew Castle Tidal Mill: an early tidal barrage? Source: Alexander Portch

But then, the Carew River has no tidal bore, which would be entirely eradicated by a Severn Barrage, and its populations of fish are almost certainly less substantial and diverse than the much larger and more complex Severn. Five hundred years ago the mill pond causeway may have been relatively expensive and could have taken months to build, but that contrasts starkly with the billions of pounds and close to a decade required for the Cardiff-Weston barrage proposals of recent years. In many respects the issue of tidal power is very much a question of scale. Small-scale developments, in terms of size of the buildings and structures, the geographic space they occupy and influence, and the time they take to build have generally been more popular and successful; as demonstrated by the many hundreds of tide mills, the few successful examples of tidal barrages and the current trend towards investment in small-scale tidal turbines and tidal lagoons. Meanwhile, despite the unwavering faith of some its advocates, the comparatively massive Severn barrage continues to flounder. A large-scale fish in a relatively small sea.



[1] http://powerwaterproject.net/?p=562

[2] W.E. Minchinton, ‘Early Tide Mills: Some Problems,’ Technology and Culture, 20:4 (1979), 777 – 786.

[3] For more on the cross, tide mill and castle see: J.R. Kenyon, ‘Carew Cross, Castle and Mill,’ Archaeological Journal, 167 (2010), 29 – 33.

[4] http://www.nspower.ca/en/home/about-us/how-we-make-electricity/renewable-electricity/annapolis-tidal-station.aspx

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

Reflections on the ground and the grid: framing infrastructure and connectivity

By Paul Warde

In a collection of autobiographical interviews, Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney refers at one moment to ‘no longer being part of the ground, but part of the grid’. He was thinking about the changes in farming since his childhood, brought up as the eldest son of a cattle trader and smallholder in County Derry. It’s one of those comments that we can instinctively understand, and we know Heaney as perhaps the pre-eminent poet of the ground: of the bog bodies, the ‘narrow ground’ of Irish sectarianism, of his farming childhood.

And yet… what is the difference being evoked here: between ‘the grid’ and ‘the ground’? Heaney did not grow up on some kind of subsistence holding. His father may have largely plied the fairs and farms of Derry, but the cattle he traded were destined for British markets and he also sometimes took the ferry across the North Channel. Many of the objects and machines that Heaney writes about do not belong to some ur-world of ancient farming practice, but came with mechanization and are the output of late nineteenth and twentieth century factories. Having once worked at the Ulster Folk Museum I am familiar with this stuff myself, having a particular fondness for the planes made by Alexander Mathieson & Son at their Saracen Works in Glasgow until 1966 (my grandfather had a set of their tools for his cabinetmaking). It’s hard to imagine that my grandchildren will view anything I get from Screwfix today in the same light. The tools of two or three generations ago were factory-made, smelted and wrought in a coal-fired world that wrecked people’s lungs, dissolved our buildings, choked plantlife and acidified watercourses. And yet, retrospectively, they seem to belong to a somehow more human world, as things that still extended our capacities rather than supplanted us. And in that, them having a poetics is entirely justified. Is there a poetics of the mobile phone or the microwave? Or is this a blinkered view of past technology, and connections lost – the conceit of every generation confronted with the shock of the new?

So what’s the difference between the ground and the grid? In some ways, it seems to me that project The power and the water turns around this distinction: examining both the reasons why we recognise it, but also its complications. Our connections with the basic utilities for life – and by extension nature itself – have been repeatedly re-wrought since the Industrial Revolution. How, and with what consequences? When did this process begin, is it continuous or episodic, and how are certain ‘expected connections’ hard-wired into us during this process? The difference between a world of ground and grid can’t just lie in new connections with outside markets, or the use of technological aids or external power sources; steam power has been around for three centuries, for example. Commerce, on a greater or lesser scale, for much longer. For Heaney there was certainly, I think, an issue of the value of weightiness, living on the land but also where tools and machines were things that could be propelled by hand or that the hand can know. Even when fired by coal we feel their work partakes of our life. And indeed isn’t coal, which you have to shovel into an engine or a boiler, still open-handed ground in all its mineral certainty? All qualities that the grid, the tablet and mobile phone don’t have, even if somewhere down the wires is a power station immolating a million tons of coal dust. Heaney’s poetic objects are freighted: their mass can breach time, whether back to an ancient Danish bog, or the yard – the haggard – of an off-the-grid farm in the 1940s. In Heaney, even souls have body: an extraordinary lightness, and yet still belong to that material world that weighs into us. In contrast, the grid is somehow completely intangible. A nothing.

Of course, what sustains modern grids and infrastructure is far from intangible: it has a massive ecological footprint, it involves enormous quantities of concrete and minerals. And yet, in everyday life, in the life we take in hand, it’s not there. You can certainly feel the power when you stand next to an enormous transformer field, or the connector at Hinkley B nuclear plant that conveys the electricity from the power station’s dynamos out to the grid: the largest plug you will ever see. But how many people have ever seen these things? Of course, we can ask the same of a river. It is not hard, standing at a river’s mouth, to think of the soft stream in the hills which becomes the mighty Tyne. But how many people think of this when they turn on a tap or run the washing machine? Did industrialisation and deindustrialisation respectively bring people closer to, or distance them from their rivers – in the case of the Tyne a flow whose notions of greatness we attach to it are surely connected with the mining and heavy industry that stood along it? These questions can, perhaps, be answered as matters of fact and knowledge: what do you think are the sources of the water and power you use? But they are also part of our imaginative infrastructure, or put another way, a kind of structure of insight that everyday life drills into us.

These questions put me in mind of Melanie Challenger’s 2013 book On Extinction, in which she begins looking out her window over heathland in Cornwall, and pondering the death of the tin mining industry. A book you might expect to be about species – and that takes us from Cornwall to Antarctica to northern Canada and back to good old Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire – is as much an inner journey, understanding extinction as being about what we choose to remember. We all and everything will be extinct; in that sense, extinction is completely unremarkable; it’s just death. So to think about extinction is a choice of words, a way of talking about the past and relating to it in the present. This seems interesting to me as a way of thinking about the changes that encompass our industrial heritage: the soughs of Derbyshire and the lost shipyards of the Tyne – to the environmental impact of industrialisation, and what rewilding might mean in the future. Are there distinct or common ways of grappling with extinction that are, so to speak, connected to our habitual connections and associated expectations?

In 1979 the art historian Rosalind Krauss wrote an essay on grids in modernist painting, describing an aesthetic that was ‘flattened, geometricized, ordered… antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature’. For Krauss, the modernist grid mimicked the logic of modernist society, producing a valueless, purely functional and exchangeable (or interchangeable) space. This argument puts me in mind of Robert Sacks’ book on Human territoriality, and J.C.Scott’s famous Seeing like a state. Scott essentially reverses Krauss’s thinking to argue that modernist infrastructure was in many ways an aesthetic choice imposed on the world, rather than the aesthetics being a response to mass production and industrial society. But all these treatises have something in common: they associate modernity, the grid, with the abolition of place. Modernity brings about a state of connections that are so complete and effortless their effects are to disconnect, leaving people with an unsavoury sense of dependence on forces that you cannot influence (you cannot even pray to them, or give libations and sacrifices). In fact, a state of being that may be enabling, yet disempowering.

Of course connections to grids – electrical, water and other – were often and still are seen as hugely welcome, markers of civilization – that word still certainly being used in interwar Britain – and opportunity: Here the grid has both ‘a vigorous free spirit and a propensity to control’ in the words of another art historian, Hannah Higgins. So it could be that rather than imposing some order on history, we will find ourselves writing the history of paradoxes.

Ground is what we feel beneath our feet: it steadies us, is as irreducible as nature (irreducibility being the very definition of nature according to Kant). Grid in contrast is at once rigid and boundless, entirely abstract. But such antimonies aren’t necessarily between hand and network, natural and artificial, or say, face-to-face relations and impersonality. At least, maybe the history that moves us from a world that seems more grounded to one that appears, Matrix-like, to emanate from the logic of the grid itself, is not so much a descriptive history of ‘material flows’ and their consequences, but a history of how we have imagined the (literally) unsettling experience of changes to our environments. Confronted with actual locations these oppositions – ground/grid, personal/impersonal, real/abstract – become ways to describe aspects of the experience, not a way we can absolutely categorise places. Indeed ‘The environment’ for me is a way of describing that very awkwardness; a word that describes everything outside yet connects it, in an act of solipsism, to ourselves; a way of talking about nature that makes it ‘of us’, and that connects it to abstraction. But it’s not something that we generally feel. Can you feel the environment in your bones, or wherever you do the feeling thing? As we currently think about the concept, I doubt it. The age of ‘environment’ is not age of connection, but more of a sensibility that we have got ahead of ourselves; something that demands policy, although for uncertain ends. It is, perhaps, the perfect idiom for what some of us now call the Anthropocene, time strung between the ground and the grid.

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: http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/m/ 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://www.portoftyne.co.uk/business-divisions/marine-and-environmental- services/shipping-movements/shipping-history/ 

A day at the Barmoot (a short tale of tea, cake and gentlemen of the Wapentake)

By Carry van Lieshout & Georgina Endfield

When we met lead mining history expert and former engineer Dr Jim Rieuwerts at the end of last year he invited us to attend the 2014 Barmoot.

The Barmoot is an ancient court that deals with lead ownership in the mining districts of Derbyshire. It had been in existence from 1288, but Great Barmoot Courts became especially busy by the 16th century as the lead industry expanded. The courts consisted of the Barmaster, a steward and a jury made up of local miners, and their function was to collect the royalties due on lead as well as resolving disputes between miners about ownership of specific veins. At the height of the lead mining industry there were several Barmoot courts meeting a couple of times a year, but nowadays the court sits once a year in Wirksworth and is mainly ceremonial (although last year they had an actual case! – see the Derby Telegraph http://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/ruling-decades-ancient-mining-court/story-18755029-detail/story.html)

So it was that on the 9th of April we made our way to Wirksworth to see this illustrious court in action. After arriving early we went to suss out the location of the court – off a side road (Chapel Lane) in one of the oldest parts of the town. It was a slightly masonic looking building decorated with lead mining symbolism.

Barmoot court in Wirksworth

The Barmoot court in Wirksworth. Photo: Georgina Endfield

The plaque over the door reads:

This Hall was built by the direction
of the Right Hon. Charles Bathurst
Chancellor of his Majesty’s Duchy
and county palatine of Lancaster in the
LIV year of the Reign of his Majesty

The building doesn’t have many more uses besides hosting the annual Barmoot, although the local band’s drum kit and an electronic organ left behind after band practice suggests that this old building has moved with the times. As the building was still closed, we made for a local café for tea and pikelets, anticipating that the Barmoot may be a lengthy affair. Intriguingly, we spotted a group of suited-up men who also made their way to the café and half-jokingly we speculated on whether they were the jurors or just the local solicitors on a cake break.

At a few minutes before noon we made our way back to the court building where we met with a local historian (doing research on the history of Georgina’s old house – it’s a small world up here!) and Jim, who was one of the jurors. We also met George Jaramillo, a PhD student from Edinburgh who is working on the lead mining communities of the Peak District. We chatted while the jurors were getting ready in a backroom (they were served the traditional meal of cheese and ale – the miners used to come from far to attend long meetings. As far as we understand, clay pipes and tobacco are still provided as was the old custom).

The Barmoot started off with the jurors filing into court benches on the side where they, fairly squashed it has to be said, remained for the proceedings. In walked the gentlemen we had spotted in the café! Next, we all rose as the steward, the barmaster, and a local solicitor representing the Queen (as the official Lord of the Field) came in, accompanied by the announcer who would proclaim the cases. This was a very masculine affair. While in our own studies we have unearthed some very powerful women in the lead mining industry and lead trade, to our knowledge, women have not acted as jurors.

In front of the jury was the official lead measuring dish, dating back to 1509 and used to determine the duties due to the Crown and Church, placed here, as the inscription says, in 1513, “so as the merchantes and mynours may make the tru mesure at all tymes.” Later discussions confirmed this as the original dish.

Lead measuring dish at the Barmoot

Lead measuring dish at the Barmoot. In the right corner a plague with the names of the former and present stewards and barmasters. Photo: Georgina Endfield.

After a short introduction the jurors were sworn in and the court started. As there were no actual cases to deal with this year, the meeting came to an unexpectedly speedy close though Jim (who was chosen as foreman of the jury) reminded all in attendance that the Court building was built in 1814 as per the plaque, and thus was 200 years old this year. In response to a smart quip from one of his juror colleagues, Jim confirmed that he was considerably younger!

The jurors signed their attendance and there was an opportunity for the few curious attendees like ourselves to take photographs.

We had a quick chat with Jim and some of the other participants after (who were off to have their proper lunch in Rowsley) and then spent some time in Cromford vising the Cromford sough tail, the site of the conflict between Cromford miners and Richard Arkwright. Fuelled by more tea and cake we planned out the location and programme of the Derbyshire team fieldtrip in October, where the full Power and Water team will be able to enjoy these fantastic locations.

Cromford Sough Tail

Cromford Sough Tail. Photo: Georgina Endfield.


Co-production of knowledge: shaping the research framework of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site

By Carry van Lieshout and Georgina Endfield

The Silk Mill Museum

The Silk Mill Museum. Source: Wikipedia


The Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage site stretches along the river Derwent in Derbyshire, and incorporates the early industrial mills of this area. These include the Silk Mill in Derby, were John Lombe introduced water-powered silk spinning, as well as Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford, considered the birthplace of the factory system that allowed water-powered continuous production. Arkwright’s technology as well as his model of worker’s settlements were copied along the course of the river and beyond, as the mechanisation of cotton production spread out over the world. Because of the central role many of these mills played in the Industrial Revolution, a 15 mile stretch of the Derwent Valley was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. The site is managed by the Derwent Valley Mills Partnership, which also produces books and educational material about the mills and the valley’s wider significance.

The Derwent Valley Mills Partnership is currently planning its new research framework, funded by English Heritage, and has organised 4 workshops to develop research objectives on a series of broad themes. The author’s of this blog post, Georgina and Carry attended the first one of these workshops on March 17. While preliminary meetings had identified a range of topics or questions that have either received little attention or could benefit from more analysis, these topics needed to be brought together into narratives in order to form a coherent research strategy. This strategy will essentially be a synthesis of current views of research priorities and will be useful for future projects or funding applications. While most of the broad themes were not specifically sough related, our input is allowing us to shape their research strategy by contributing cutting edge views from the field of environmental history and by offering power and water as potential narratives to study this area.

The workshop was held at the Silk Mill in Derby. This mill had originally been constructed by George Sorocold and became the first mill in England to use water power to mass-produce silk. The Silk Mill is currently being reinvented as a venue for co-production, creativity and knowledge exchange, based on the principles of the Enlightenment, and its combination of large open spaces, river views and interesting nooks and crannies make it an inspiring venue for a meeting.  Fuelled by regular biscuit breaks and a lunch trip to a very pleasant local deli, we participated in a broad ranging set of discussions with our focus group.

Flip chart

Our focus group at work. Photo: Carry van Lieshout

The group was a mix of academics from a variety of universities and disciplines, local historians, representatives of diverse museums, conservation societies and researchers from the other mills. We split into groups to tackle the 3 themes of the day: Changing Interpretations of the Derwent Valley, Industry and Trade before the Factory System, and the Enlightenment. The format was that each group would come up with 3 Research Objectives for each theme, each of which would combine several of the research topics. The projected outcome at the end of the series of workshops will be a Research Agenda and Strategy for the Derwent Valley Mills Heritage Site in book and web form. An earlier example of such a research strategy document for East Midlands Heritage, which this process was based on, has been successful in identifying viable projects and guiding funding applications. The wealth of untapped resources and narratives that could be studied in the context of the Derwent makes us hopeful that this series of workshop will do the same!

Inspiring the next generation of Environmental Historians at the University of York

By Leona Skelton

Having spent a large proportion of my time analysing the volumes of the Tyne Improvement Commission (up to 1939, so only 3 decades to go!), and one week in late January at the National Archives in London, I emerged last Tuesday, 18th Feb, from a quiet, focused and highly productive world of research to discuss my Tyne project with several environmental history MA students at the University of York. Thankfully, I hadn’t forgotten how to teach, or indeed, how to talk at all. I delivered the seminar alongside the course leader, Professor David Moon, an environmental historian who has worked extensively with us on our previous AHRC-funded projects, ‘Local Places, Global Processes: Histories of Environmental Change’ and its follow-on, ‘The Places that Speak to Us and the Publics We Talk With’.

Preparing for the seminar provided an opportunity to take a few steps back and organise the copious amount of archival material I have thus far amassed. I prepared some power point slides, and divided the Tyne’s story chronologically into four sections: The Pre-Modern River, 1500-1800; The Industrial River, 1800-1975; The Kielder Scheme and Regeneration, 1975-present; and the Tyne’s Future. I also presented a few slides on the existing literature, emphasising how different and exciting forms of media are currently enabling a diverse range of people to engage with the Tyne’s history.

  • Tyne View: a walk around the Port of Tyne, was published in 2012 to tell the story of an epic walk along the Tyne’s tidal section, from South Shields to Tynemouth via Wylam Bridge, by four locals (a photographer, a writer, an artist and a poet). The successful book contains an exciting mixture of social history, photography, illustrations, interviews with locals and poetry.
  • Tyne View’s author, Michael Chaplin, has written a theatre production called ‘Tyne’, which celebrates the history of Tyneside’s great river using dramatization and a combination of music, images and stories written by several local writers. I am delighted to have a ticket to see the production at the Customs House, South Shields, on Saturday 1st March (watch this space for my critique!).
  • Sting’s recent album, ‘The Last Ship’, released in late 2013, provides a deep insight into the river’s industrial past, with clever lyrics describing intimate details from working lives, providing a direct line to the industrial Tyne. My favourite song is ‘Skyhooks and Tartan Paint’ – listen to it online and I guarantee that it will make you smile. If you need any Geordie to English translations, you know where I am!

I was delighted to meet such an enthusiastic group of students, who had prepared exceptionally well for a consequently fruitful and mutually beneficial seminar discussion. They were particularly interested in how my research findings could be used to inform and shape future Tyne policies as a result of working hard during the research project to build relationships with relevant governmental bodies, local charities and water companies. We discussed my invitation to join the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee to plan their 25 year anniversary celebrations, which will take place in summer 2014, and their kind offer to demonstrate their important debris collection work on the river to all ‘Power and  Water’ team members at our Team Project Meeting in Newcastle in early June 2014.

We also discussed the Dunston Staiths Restoration project, which is going to use recycled wood, collected from the river and provided free of charge by the Clean Tyne Project, to restore the UK’s largest timber structure. Dunston Staiths were built originally in 1893 to facilitate the discharge of coal from the railway to keel boats. Once completed, the restored staiths, which will be open to the public, will form an important part of future generations’ education and heritage, as well as making an important contribution to tourism.

We discussed the complex relationship between the Tyne and human activity, in terms of what we have done to the river and what the river has done to us as a two-way, symbiotic process. The subject of unintentional, positive impacts of human activity on rivers was raised, and we discussed the example, highlighted by T. C. Smout and Mairi Stewart in their The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History (2012), of ducks having flourished by eating the worms which fed on sewage and the organic discharges from breweries and distilleries and then subsequently plunging into rapid decline when the sewage was redirected from the Forth to treatment works to improve water quality (pp. 166-167). We also discussed Smout and Stewart’s example of how the removal of the mills upriver changed the Forth’s flow, which reduced the numbers of dragonflies and frogs (p. 174). I am going to keep my eyes open for similar processes in the Tyne’s history.

The students asked if the River Tyne has accumulated any nicknames. This is something which I have not considered thus far; if people have used affectionate or derisory nicknames when referring to the river, this could provide a useful route to understanding how the meaning of the river changed from generation to generation. The archives are full of derisory descriptions of the river, such as ‘cursed horse pond’, ‘simply a creek’ and ‘open sewer’, but an actual personifying ‘name’ for the river is a different concept entirely. I will look into this matter further.

The seminar was a great idea, suggested by David Moon, and proved to be a roaring success. I hope that the students took as much from the seminar as I did. I would like to thank the University of York, Prof. Moon and his MA students for the warm welcome I received last week and on behalf of the Power and the Water team, I wish them the best of luck with the rest of their environmental history course.


Read David Moon’s response to Leona’s reflections on inspiring environmental history students

Getting a feel for the landscape: the Peak District

By Carry van Lieshout

Peak District

Landscape of the Peak District.
Source: wikipedia

My first two months working on the project started off with several expeditions to the Peak District. These included a visit to the Mining Museum at Matlock Bath, where I stocked up on books and explored inside the Temple Mine; a talk on the geology and mineralisation of the Peak District at Buxton; and a visit to the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO Heritage site to see Richard Arkwright’s cotton mills, the first of which made use of the Cromford Sough. These fieldtrips also allowed me to visit the lovely Chatsworth estate, where I learned about water landscaping and enjoyed the autumn colours.

Arkwright Masson Mills

Richard Arkwright and Co, Masson Mills, Derbyshire. Source: Wikipedia

Getting a feel for the physical landscape and the sites I will be researching provided a good background to help me get stuck in the literature on soughs and the history of Derbyshire lead mining. Much of the work on soughs is written by geologists who surveyed the mines in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were still active as fluorspar mines. They collected a wealth of knowledge about the physical characteristics of the soughs, but no environmental history drawing out the connections between trades and people that these features represent. At same time, and still ongoing, I am reading about the social history of the Peak District, especially its mining industry and the mills and cotton legacy along the river Derwent.

On 12 November Georgina and I had the honour to meet Dr Jim Rieuwerts, who has been researching Derbyshire mines and soughs for 60 years and is still going strong. Jim imparted some of his encyclopedic knowledge on everything related to the history of Derbyshire lead mining to us, and proved great company to boot. He was very supportive of our project and suggested several cases of conflicts surrounding the soughs that we can use as case studies to look into the different stakeholders involved. In the afternoon we took Jim to the University of Nottingham’s Special Collections for him to see an early eighteenth-century document he hadn’t been able to access before, which made the trip useful for him as well. Jim was an absolute wealth of information and I am still following up on leads that came up during this meeting.

On 3 December Georgina and I visited the Peak District National Park Authority’s office in Bakewell, where we met Ken Smith and John Barnatt.  The PDNPA have agreed to collaborate on the sough-strand of the project (together with the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO heritage site). Together we identified which soughs would be useful for them to know more about. As there are current issues around the implications of soughs around the Lathkindale Site of Special Scientific Interest and how they affect the water level of the river they are keen to hear about its history and how changes in water levels affected local people. This site was on our list of conflicts from Jim so it will definitely become one of our case studies. Ken and John also showed us some of their collections. The PDNPA has conducted research into landscape changes over time in the Peak District, and has tons of information available which they were very happy to let us have access to. I did not realise that institutions like these did so much original research so this was a great discovery for the project!

The last week before Christmas will be spend on identifying appropriate archival sources for the soughs conflicts that we aim to focus on, and I am looking forward to get into the archives in January.