COAL TO KEEL: CARRYING COALS TO NEWCASTLE
Newcastle Tour Company offers some fabulous tours – some on foot, some in vehicles and some by public transport. However, one of the best ways to enjoy & experience this fantastic region is by bike! Explore our Newcastle cycling tours in all their glory by taking a peak on our cycling tours sections which include our Posh Parks & The Toon Newcastle Cycling Tour or our Quay To Sea Tyneside Cycling Tour. One of our personal favourites has to be our Coal To Keel: Carrying Coals To Newcastle Cycling Tour – and this blog post will tell you all there is to know about it:
Over the centuries coal was king in Newcastle, giving rise to the famous idiom “carrying coals to Newcastle”, which roughly translates to the modern equivalent of “selling snow to eskimos”. The coal industry dominated and shaped life in the North East and although now almost completely gone, its heritage is ever-present and our full day Coal to Keel cycling tour explores its various facets.
The Durham & Northumberland Coalfields
The region’s riches are buried below ground and date back millennia. The Northumberland and Durham Coalfields were created ca. 360 – 290 million years ago: Imagine a warm tropical climate rather than the harsh north-eastern coastline of England. Back then, the region was astride the equator and submerged beneath a shallow tropical sea.
Ages of deposition of shells and other marine life on the seabed formed layers of limestone, which were overlaid by vast amounts of mud and sediment from large river deltas and swamps with dying trees and plants from forests creating the vital coal measures. This cycle repeated over millions of years creating a nice “layer cake” of alternating limestone, sandstone, coal and shale.
This “black gold” had been mined since Roman times and medieval bell pits, i.e. primitive bell-shaped holes dug from the surface into the ground, can still be found all across the region. If you roam the Alnwick Moor near Edlingham, for instance, you’ll find over 100 pits dating to the 16th and 17th centuries.
This “carboniferous capitalism” really started to take off in the 18th century and would reach its peak in 1913 employing over ¼ million people, producing 56 million tons annually which equated to about ¼ of the output of Britain at the time and with over 400 pits across the region.
Life for coal miners was precarious with harsh working conditions and the frequent danger of mining accidents. There was danger from gas explosions, flooding or collapsing roofs. The North East Mining Institute lists 85000 deaths between 1873 and 1953 and as many as 1800 in a single year.
Measures to working conditions safer also originated here: in 1815 the Cornish chemist Humphry Davy and local enginewright George Stephenson invented a Miners’ Safety Lamp independently from one another and improved safety by protecting the naked flame from coming into contact with dangerous explosive gasses.
The tragic Hartley Pit disaster in 1862 saw the loss of 204 men and boys as the beam of the pit’s pumping engine broke and fell down the shaft, thereby blocking the only exit route. A change in legislation henceforth required all collieries to have at least two independent means of escape.
The Power of Steam
In turn, the need for coal was the driving force behind much technological innovation. The invention and subsequent development of the steam pump by pioneers such as Thomas Savery in the 17th and Thomas Newcomen and James Watt in the 18th century allowed improved water drainage from the mines and for mines to be sunk deeper. The development of railways is inextricably linked with the need to transport all of this coal too.
Some of the greatest railway pioneers such as George and Robert Stephenson, William Hedley and Timothy Hackworth were all from the North East and all actively involved with the railway developments of the region’s coal mining industry. Like a giant spider’s web coal was carried via bridleways and rail tracks to the River Tyne with Newcastle’s virtual monopoly on the shipping of coal bringing great wealth to the town.
17th century colliery railways were called “Newcastle Roads”, initially built of wood and later of iron with wagons first pulled by horses and later by steam engines. Better and faster railroads allowed for coal mines to be opened further afield.
The Whickham Grand Lease Way from Dunston Haugh to Lobley Hill is the world’s first successful railway, dating to ca. 1621. Though rail transport had been invented in the Midlands around 1600, all earlier attempts to implement it, had collapsed for economic reasons; only the Tyne worked on a sufficient scale. It is not only the first but the best documented and most visible of those railways built before 1660.
World’s Oldest Railway
The heritage railway of Tanfield Railway was built during the 1720s to transport coal reliably and cheaply from inland collieries in Co. Durham to the Redheugh Staiths on the Tyne. It is allegedly the World’s Oldest Railway with the stunning Causey Arch Bridge being the oldest surviving single-arch bridge in the world. In the 19th century the building of the 2.2 mile long Victoria Tunnel, an underground waggonway from the Town Moor north of the city underneath Newcastle down to the River Tyne near Ousburn was equally impressive.
The financing of these expensive waggonways was driven by a cartel of wealthy coal-owning families known as the “Grand Allies”. George Bowes, one of the largest coal owners and richest men of England in his day founded this “Grand Alliance”, among others with the Wortley Montague and the Liddell families.
They gathered enormous wealth through the coal trade. Gibside, Bowes grand Georgian estate in the Derwent Valley is now held by the National Trust. The spectacularly landscaped parkland with its “long walk” connecting a Palladian-style chapel with the towering Column of British Liberty on the other side, a walled garden, Banqueting House, Stable Block and the picturesque ruins of the Gibside Hall and the Orangery make for a great day out.
Once the coal arrived via the waggonways on the Tyne it was loaded onto boats at the staiths, pier-like runways that were used to tip tons of coal into cargo holds. The Tyne was once lined with these wooden structures but today, only one remains. Dunston Staiths opened in 1893 by the North East Railway Company, was built to allow large quantities of coal arriving by rail from the Durham Coalfields to be loaded directly onto waiting colliers ready for their journey to London and abroad.
At its peak ca. 5.5m tons of coal were moved this way each year. This local landmark is a Scheduled Monument and is believed to be the largest timber structure in Europe.
In the chain of the coal trade the next profiteers were the so-called “hostmen” of Newcastle. Again, they were a cartel of local businessmen who formed a monopoly to control the export of coal. They acted as middlemen between the mine owners and visiting merchants. The term is derived from the medieval practice of “hosting”, i.e. providing the visiting merchants with accommodation and introducing them to local traders to bargain coal deals.
Keelmen of the Tyne
The famous “keelmen” would have been easy to recognize for centuries on the Tyne in their bright yellow waistcoats, blue jackets and straw boaters. Working with the tide, they manned the keels, all of which were loaded and off-loaded by hand. Their long, oval shaped shallow keel boats, powered by sail and operated by a skipper, two mates and a boy called a “pee-dee” would have been a common sight. They ferried the coal on to the larger collier ships downriver to be exported.
They were a close-knit community that lived in the densely crowded Sandgate area of Newcastle. They led harsh lives, were tough and were renowned for their rowdiness and hard-drinking lifestyles.
The Tyneside Keelmen were employed by the Newcastle Hostmen and were often in dispute with their employers and strikes were frequent. Being a keelman required hard physical labour and each team was paid by “tide”, irrespective of the distance they travelled and of how much load they took. The hostmen would, for instance, deliberately overload the keels in order to avoid custom duties which meant hard work for the keelmen for the same pay.
A great reminder of the keelmen’s heritage is the Keelmen’s Hospital in the Sandgate area. Completed in 1701 and financed by the keelmen themselves, who paid a penny per tide from the wages of each crew. It is one of the earliest examples of a privately funded charitable foundation for old and sick keelmen and their families. Sadly, the keelmen, who had been part of the fabric of Newcastle for centuries were gradually replaced by technical innovation with the invention of hydraulic cranes and mechanised loading of the new staiths during the 19th century.
Fabulous Newcastle Cycling Tours
After decades of decline Wearmouth colliery in County Durham closed in 1994 and the last colliery to close in Northumberland was Ellington in 2014. The North East has moved on and is still in the process of finding new and alternative ventures to replace its heavy industrial past but taking a trip down memory lane to explore the history of the region’s coal mining heritage from coal to keel is a fascinating and intriguing adventure.