Sunniside Local History Society

Keelboats on the River Tyne

Keelboats and their strikes 

The Keelmen of the River Tyne and their major strikes of 1819 & 1822

The Keelmen for a long time formed the largest class of our population. They were described as a rough and hardy race of men, exceedingly clannish and very jealous in support of their privileges, they were reputed to be the best paid workers of their time. Keelboats are pictured in action above, one loading coal under a ‘spout’, the pony drawn coal chaldrons can be seen in the background coming down to the loading spout from the coal mines, and returning after emptying.

The word Keel comes from the Anglo Saxon ‘Ceol’ and is a small undecked vessel propelled by oars and at one time common in the north of England. The Keel was especially built to carry coal and was very long and broad, approximately 40 feet long by 19 to 20 feet wide, but it was built shallow without depth. Coal was carried in the open without hatch covers and side boards were used to hold the heaped coal on deck. In certain districts of England any open receptacle made of wood, like a bucket or milk pail, is called a keel. The term is now more usually applied to the lower longitudinal beam at the bottom of a ship, answering to the spine. From the keel the ribs for the framework of the hull are built up. A false keel is an extra, weighted keel placed below the main keel to strengthen the ship and increase its stability. A sliding or drop keel frequently fitted to sailing vessels, consists of a flat board fitted amidships and extending from the deck to the bottom of the main keel; it is held in grooves and is lowered to prevent a vessel making leeway when sailing in a beam wind.

The Keel carried eight Newcastle Chaldrons (coal tubs) which amounted to 21 tons 4cwts., two oars were used to assist propulsion and the Keel was steered by the ‘swape’ oar over the stern of the boat. Poles called ‘puys’ were also used in shallow water and later a single sail was added, but the main force of propulsion was by using the tidal water. The ebbtide to carry coal to the collier and returning empty with the tide. In later years Keels were built with one side slightly flattened to allow easier docking with the collier and to aid easier unloading.

Unloading was often done in darkness by the light of coal fired braziers on the decks of the Colliers. The coal was unloaded from the Keel by the crew shovelling it up onto the dock of the Collier. Other Keels would be waiting to unload and the crews had to help each other. In an agreement of 1827 between Nathaniel Clayton, Hostman of Newcastle and Keelmen, item four of the contract states “said Keelmen shall aid and assist each other in loading the said Keels, also in casting and delivering the same, when two or more Keels are lying alongside of any ship, vessel or quay”.

Some Colliers had removable gates in their sides so that a Keel could be unloaded on each side, others especially built had open rails for coal to be shovelled through. The difference in deck heights from Keel to Collier, the heights from Keel to Collier, the height which the coal had to be lifted, could be as great as eight feet and it required men of great strength and stamina to shovel up the coal.

Each Keel had a crew of three and a boy apprentice called a ‘Pee-Dee’ the Skipper and two Shovelmen had to pay the ‘Pee-Dee’ out of their own wages. Their working clothes identified their trade, these consisted of a flannel suit with short drawers reaching to the knees, buttoned tight at the side and wearing blue worsted stockings.

The wealth of our area depended mainly upon coal, exporting it from the Tyne to London. The season began in March and continued until November with five or six journeys, not many being done in the winter months due to the exposure of the North East coast causing many wrecks.

Keelmen were economically very important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the demands for coal for the developing railway system and the factories of the Industrial Revolution. This in turn causing expansion of existing coal mines, development of new ones and improvement of the wagonways to transport coal down to the river. As an industry there had been Keelmen on the river for about 500 years. In the seventeenth century small Colliers could get up the river to take on coal but the low arched stone Tyne Bridge prevented them going further up river. Keels were used to bring down coal to Newcastle from the Coal Staithes above the bridge. Eventually in the eighteenth century as Colliers were built larger and because of ballast dropped in the river, the Keels had to carry all coals down to Shields at the mouth of the Tyne because ships could not get up the river. Coal was brought to the river by wagonways to their terminals. Later during the eighteenth century dredging began which allowed river access for Colliers up to Wallsend where coal spouts were built. These spouts were wooden chutes built on the river side at a wagonway terminal and the coal was tipped directly from the chaldrons (wagons) down the chutes into the holds of the Colliers and became a major point in the Keelmens strike.

Keelboats and their strikes 

The Keelmen were a united community but were divided in their work by the stone Tyne Bridge (pictured above), because of its low arches only small craft could pass through. Coal Owners from collieries above the bridge formed committees and coal owner from collieries below the bridge formed their separate committees.

Keelmen often spent more time on the river than ashore, rarely moving away for any length of time. In an area of Newcastle called Sandgate there lived about 4000 Keelmen and their families. Keelmens wages were generally better than the agricultural labourer of that period and there was also payment in other forms, i.e. fuel and beer. One other payment shown in the accounts for Newcastle Corporation 1837-8 was “ to Keelmen, for taking dead bodies out of the river £18.13s.0d ”.

Keelmen were a close fraternity of men and it was this fraternity that built the Keelmens Hospital. It was paid for entirely out of weekly subscriptions made by every working Keelman of 1d per tide and collected by appointed Trustees. The hospital was built in 1701 costing £2000 and it had 60 rooms. It was two storeys high built around a quadrangle and was intended for sick Keelmen their children and widows. The hospital was a well cared for, efficiently and strictly run institution funded by Keelmen until the 19th century when subscriptions dropped due to unemployment and eventually the hospital was taken over by Newcastle Corporation at the end of the nineteenth century.

In the year 1704, there were four hundred keels employed on the river Tyne and about sixteen hundred Keelmen, (pictured above is a keel moored at Swalwell). At times the Tyne would freeze over which made the Keelmen’s calling a very precarious one. But they had other troubles besides high winds and a frozen river, the Naval Press Gangs often made their appearance in our villages along the Tyne. The practice of ‘conscripting’ seamen to man the Royal Naval vessels was adopted in every national emergency.

The Keelmen were well known for their strength and endurance and offered a fair field for the inroads of the ‘King’s Officers’. They would carry off any Keelman they came across, by fair means or foul, drunk or sober, at home or at work.

A terrible affray took place on 30th March 1750 at Swalwell above the bridge, between the members of a Press Gang and the local ‘Crowley’s Crew’, a tough bunch of men often used as strike breakers and sometimes accompanied by Lang Jack the Tyneside Sampson of Whickham. When the King’s Officers tried to snatch some local men they received a severe thrashing at the hands of the ‘Crowley’s Crew’. The Officers departed but returned strongly reinforced and this time armed with cutlasses. Several local were badly wounded and one of them a man named Bell was so badly wounded that he died. No one was brought to trial for causing his death which was surely murder, but of course the ‘King’s Officers’ were above the law.

The Keelmen were a tough, hard drinking, hard swearing community, very patriotic about their river and proud of their heritage. It is not surprising therefore that there are many industrial strikes recorded throughout their history. In particular the strikes of 1709, 1710 and 1750 were called “rebellions of the belly”, because the Keelmen were determined to remain on strike to win their case almost to the point of starvation. The strike of 1740 was an example of their determination, when following a bad harvest and a long hard winter conditions were very bad prior to the strike, yet they still fought. In the strike of 1719 striking Keelmen were ‘press ganged’ into the Navy in an attempt to break their strike.

Keelboats and their strikes 

The 1819 Strike

The Keelmens strike of 1819 began on the 27th September without any prior warnings. In a letter to the Duke of Northumberland dated 28th September, the Lord Mayor of Newcastle said, ” Yesterday a strong body of the Keelmen on this river proceeded to prevent and actually managed to prevent the navigation of Keels upon the river. “

The Keelmen issued a Petition ot the 28th September to make their demands of the Coal Owners and Fitters.

First, that the spouts were taking employment away from the Keelmen below bridge. They requested that the Colliers should be allowed to load only six Keels of coal and then return to the mouth of the river at Shields, where the rest of the coal would be loaded by Keel. A Collier is pictured above loading directly from spout, normally it would be loaded from a Keelboat.

Their second request was that a limit of eight Newcastle Chaldrons be loaded into each Keel and that the limit be strictly kept. This amount had often been exceeded in the past and the Keels, which were heavy to control under normal conditions, became very difficult with extra weight, especially in strong tides and stormy weather.

Their third main request concerned the fund for the Keelmen’s Hospital. Every Keelman paid 1d per chaldron of coal transported by Keel towards the fund, but the coal transported directly into the holds of Colliers from the spouts paid nothing and the fund began to deteriorate. An article in the Newcastle Courant on the 2nd October 1819 referred to the demand about the spouts “ the Coal Owners or Shipowners to substitute an expensive manual labour for a cheap machinery which is already erected and in operation; a demand wholly incompatible with all the acknowledged principals of freedom in trade.

On the sole ground, of the spouts being injurious to the navigation of the river could they be interfered with “.

After a General Meeting of the Coal Owners held on 2nd October, Mr John Buddle Secretary to the coal trade on behalf of the coal owners replied to the Petition from the Keelmen. Mr Buddle stated that they could do nothing about the spouts “ any attempt to do so would be a violation of their private property. “

The Coal Owners were therefore rejecting one of the main points of the Keelmen’s Petition. On the other points the coal owners were more were more favourable. They were prepared to contribute £300 to the Keelmen’s Hospital Fund and they were also in favour of tightening up on the limit of eight Newcastle Chaldrons.

Although the strike continued, its importance was overshadowed by the forthcoming Great Meeting arranged for midday on 11th October by reformers. This meeting grew greater publicity than the strike, following as it did the Peterloo massacre and had been arranged to discuss the meeting of Parliamentary Reformers at St Peter’s Field Manchester on August 16th 1818, when as a result of an attack by the military on the crowds a large number lay dead or injured.

The meeting on the 11th October in Newcastle was reported by the Mayor of Newcastle Archibald Reed to Lord Viscount Sidmouth as having been “terminated peaceably.”

However on the 12th October Mayor Reed wrote to the Earl of Darlington, Lord Lieutenant of County Durham. “ The disturbed state of this part of the country render it necessary that the military should be called upon to aid the civil authority”. This letter shows that the Mayor was concerned about the effect the Great Meeting would have on the strikers, especially following the publication of the “Address of the Reformers of Fawdon to their brothers the Pitmen, Keelmen and other Labourers on the Tyne and Wear”. One paragraph began,

“You all know that our oppressors agree in abusing us and that the present dispute is between those who have property and those who want to plunder them. But the cunning, bad men, who spread abroad this falsehood know full well that it is a struggle betwixt what is right and what is wrong; betwixt a starving people and a few shameful, hard hearted Employers, who first plunder us, without right or reason and when we complain send the Military, either to murder us or awe us into slavery.”

On the 16th October the Newcastle Chronicle reported that the Keelmen had threatened to pull down some of the Staithes and as a consequence the Dragoons had been called. Special Constables were sworn in to guard the Staithes and the Military were guarding various 4places along the river. The Chronicle further reported that on Thursday 14th October the Mayor of Newcastle had gone down river assisted by the Navy to try and open up the river, but after he had gone ashore at North Shields the boats had been stoned by the mob on the river bank. The boat crew opened fire in retaliation and one man, Joseph Cleckson was fatally wounded.

It was generally supposed at the time that the mob consisted mainly of Keelmen, but this was not accurate, as most of the Keelmen lived in Sandgate Newcastle and were unable to get down to Shields due to the Military and Special Constables positioned along the river. Settlement of the strike was finally negotiated by Mr Thomas Clennel, Magistrate at Newcastle Quarter Sessions.

The Keelmen accepted the following revised offer: The Coal Owners agreed to pay £300 to the Keelmen’s Hospital Fund and further agreed that an Act of Parliament should be obtained to enable the Hospital Fund to collect one farthing for every chaldron of coal shipped from the Tyne whether by Keel or direct into Collier.

The Keelmen were to receive pay for the amount of coal carried by Keel above the limit of eight Newcastle chaldrons, this pay for the extra coal carried to be back dated to the beginning of the year.

The eight chaldron limit for each Keel was to be strictly kept and Inspectors at Staithes were responsible for maintaining the limit.

Keelmen were to receive a duplicate of their annual bond so that they would then know exactly the terms of their hiring. They were to be paid 2s 6d per Keel if the Keel had to be loaded by hand and this money was to be paid in cash not in drink or anything else in lieu of cash.

Keelmen were to be paid 1/-d per Keel for casting coal up into the Colliers for every foot the coal port was above the gunwhale or upper edge of the ship’s side. This amount was paid by the ship’s Captain and became increasingly important as the Colliers increased in size and the coal had to thrown higher.

£1 was to be paid to the Keelmen at Binding time to assist them with their housing rents.

Newcastle Corporation agreed to employ all the unemployed Keelmen on river dredging work.

Finally, procedure was set out to be followed in the event of another strike to try and prevent further strikes.

The Newcastle Chronicle reported on 23rd October, “We are happy to state that the Keelmen on this river returned to their work on Friday morning. The terms which have been arranged between them and their Employers will raise the funds of their Hospital, we understand from £1.800 to about £2.700 a year.”

The Keelmen went back to work on the 22nd October, having been on strike only 24 days. Their next strike three years later lasted ten weeks.

Keelboats and their strikes 

The steam locomotive ‘Tom & Jerry’ used for the first time to tow strike breaking Keelboats.

The 1822 Strike:

The strike of 1822 began in October at the time when the men were ‘arled’. Arling was the time when men were informed of the terms by which they would be ‘bound’ for the next year from Christmas to Christmas and was always carried out three months in advance, usually in October.

A large number of Keelmen joined by local sympathisers or some just out for a fight caused a riot and scenes of disorder took place on a regular scale. A small Royal Naval man-of-war sailed up the Tyne and moored near Newcastle. Soldiers were billeted at the Public Houses in Dunston and Swalwell, they carried out drill practice at Axwell Park. Naturally the local people were very alarmed and frequent conflicts took place between the Soldiers and the Keelmen. Many of the latter were imprisoned and eventually the strike ended having lasted ten weeks.

In a letter from Nathaniel Clayton, Town Clerk of Newcastle to Mr Green, Staithman of Dunston on Tyne dated 2nd October 1822. Mr Clayton said “I heard yesterday that nine keels loaded and ready to sail were yesterday stopped by a great number of men.” The Keelmen gathered in great numbers and would not take out the Keels, or allow anyone else to take them out. A Petition was presented to the Mayor of Newcastle on 3rd October, addressed to the Gentlemen Coal Owners and Fitters on the River Tyne.

The Petition began “Humbly Herewith” and made three main requests. It stated that the Keelmen and their families who were out of work were suffering great hardship and could see no improvement in their situation was coal was being loaded directly into the Colliers from the spouts. They therefore requested that “no more than six Keels of coal be put into any ship or vessel by the spout until the employment improves for the Keelmen”. There second request concerned the allowances and Binding money.

‘Binding’ money had been, prior to the 1819 strike, two pounds per Keel and one guinea for the Binding Supper but in 1821 this had stopped completely. Keelmen were requesting that these allowances be resumed as well as the £1 payment which had been negotiated in 1819 to help with house rents.

The third item mentioned in their Petition was the fact that some Fitters were charging rental for the use of the Keels of 1s 6d. per Keel per tide and this was reducing the earnings of every Keelman. They particularly mentioned the plight of the Keelmen employed by the below-bridge Collieries many of whom were already down on the number of journeys made and thus were down on their earnings.

The Petition continued with comments about the Keelmen supporting their own sick and aged in their Hospital who would otherwise be a burden on the Parish and Corporation, but that the Hospital Fund was suffering due to the number of Keelmen being out of work.

On the 12th October the Coal Owners from Collieries below the bridge replied to the Petition stating “For the work required of the Keelmen they have been paid liberally and that they never entertained any idea of making any reduction in their wages.

On the 14th October the Coal Owners from Collieries above bridge replied, “unqualified abhorrence at the ungrateful conduct of the men who have manifested not merely an indifference to the benefits conferred upon them, but also a total disregard to their duty and the interests of their Employer.” It is obvious therefore that the Coal Owners were rejecting the requests put forward by the Keelmen.

The Durham Chronicle published an ” Address of the Keelmen of the River Tyne ” in their paper on 12th October which set out the requests by the Keelmen to the Coal Owners. In their editorial reply they referred to “ deluded men “ and on the subject of the binding money, “ Such is the result of a further stop; then what reason have they to hope they will gain anything by the present “.

The Newcastle Chronicle reported on 12th October that a great number of Keelmen from Collieries below the bridge had prevented Keelmen from Stella and Lemington Collieries above the bridge, had prevented from returning to work after they had come to an agreement with their Coal Owners. The Keelmen from above the low arched bridge had no fears about their own jobs and would have been happy to accept terms and return to work. On 16th October, from the Collieries above bridge, 100 loaded Keels were sent down river. At various points where the river narrows below the bridge, men n the banks stoned the the Keels and some were even pulled ashore.

There was much violence and rioting during the strike and many men were arrested for breaking their “ Binding “. In a copy of an agreement of 1827 between Nathaniel Clayton, Hostman and Keelmen, the terms of Binding were set down clearly. Out of eleven points the seventh is particularly relevant:

“ The said Keelmen, shall at all times use their best endeavours to forward and dispatch and Work and Orders of the said Nathaniel Clayton his agent or agents and shall not at any time refuse to load or or receive on board their several Keels, the coal appointed to be taken in”.

The Keelmen had allies in this strike, the seamen of Shields. The seamen had gone up river and persuaded the crews to come off the Colliers that were being loaded at the spouts. The Mayor objected to this external interference and took some of the Military down river to stop the riot and eventually after having read the “ Riot Act “ and arrested 32 men, order was restored. This action led to the request to the Admiralty for ships from the Royal Navy to assist the Coal Owners.

In a letter dated 24th October, to the Lords of the Admiralty, Town Clerk Nathaniel Clayton wrote, “ The Mayor is now upon the river with some troops in order to resist the riotous attempts of the Keelmen of this Port to put a stop to the trade of the Port. A riotous body of sailors are proceeding up river to prevent he ships which have been loaded with coals from proceeding to sea. I recommend that the force in this area be strengthened by Ship of War with a strong body of Marines on board.”

By the beginning of November, after four weeks of strike, some loaded Keels were setting down river to unload at Shields, but these were under heavy guard by the Military. On the 16th November Newcastle Chronicle reported that some ships had that week been brought up to the bridge to be loaded and thus make the journey by Keel much shorter and easier. During the strike a steam locomotive was taken out of service on the Wylam Colliery wagonway and brought down to the Tyne. It was harnessed to a Keel and paddle and used to tow several Keels down river. The locomotive was one invented by William Hedley and built in 1813, it was nicknamed the ‘Tom and Jerry’ and was returned to normal work after the Keelmen’s strike ended. The sight of this adaptation of steam power working on water drawing Keels down river, should have given the Keelmen food for thought. Here was another great threat to their livelihood, one machine which could do a job normally requiring many men.

On the 22nd November the Civil Authorities of Newcastle issued a declaration to the “ deluded Keelmen “ because of the continual stone throwing at Keels being operated, this was a caution:

“ Peaceable inhabitants, women and children, to keep within their houses during the the time the Keels are passing from the Staithes to Shields. The Marines have orders to open fire on the first man that shall dare throw a stone at them “.

In the week prior to this declaration, rioting had continued to try and prevent Keels working and on one occasion several Keels were smashed to pieces. The Newcastle Chronicle reported these breakages on 23rd November and their comments indicated that the Keelmen were harming their own industry, but not in anyway affecting the Collieries by their action. They quoted, that approximately 50 Keels were working daily from above the bridge Collieries, which they stated was average. The below bridge Collieries were using the spouts for loading so the Keelmen themselves were proving that they were no longer needed. The Chronicle stated that in fact the below bridge Collieries had loaded more coal than in normal times. “ The trade of the Tyne may thus to be said to be in full activity without the intervention of the ordinary Keelmen.

On 29th November the Coal Owners and Fitters held a meeting in the Mayor’s Chambers to discuss a Petition from the Keelmen which requested: a) Binding money and binding supper be restored to them. b) That out of work Keelmen should be employed as coal trimmers at the Staithes. c) That the Coal Owners an Fitters could use their influence to help the Keelmen imprisoned because of the strike.

The reply to this petition was completely in the negative, it was a sign of the declining power of the Keelmen that their demands were thrown out without further negotiation. Regarding the Binding money and supper the Coal Owners replied that this request had already been turned down in the first Petition and the Keelmen surely did not think it would not be accepted especially due to their recent conduct. The Coal Owners stated that the men who were employed as Trimmers had been good workers and would not therefore be put out of their jobs for Keelmen. To the last request asking for leniency toward men imprisoned, the Coal Owners thought these men had broken the law and must therefore take their punishment, especially those who had been violent.

During the strike the Admiralty had sent five ships to the Tyne, these were the Nimrod, Egeria, Pioneer, Swan and later in the strike the Brisk was sent. During the riots the ‘Swan’ had come up to the bridge at Newcastle and it was noted that this was the first time a war ship had been upriver to Newcastle since the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

The men returned to work early in December and the Newcastle Chronicle reported on December 14th that “ the trade of the river is again in full activity”.

The Magistrates of Newcastle agreed to make a payment to members of the Military who had been of assistance during the strike, as a token of their thanks and the Coal Owners had to face expenses of £1.922.5s. 11/2d.

The men had gone back to work but were dissatisfied having gained very little. They decided that the next course was to take the Coal Owners to court and use the legal system to try and remove the spouts.

Various cases were brought by the Keelmen in 1823 and 1824 at the Newcastle and Northumberland Assizes against the Coal Owners. Some of these were transferred to York to avoid local bias on the part of the jury, but all found in favour of the Coal Owners.

Keelboats and their strikes 

The last case was brought to Carlisle in 1828, it was King v Russel and others, Proprietors of Wallsend Colliery owners. But again the Keelmen lost, the jury favoured the Wallsend Colliery owners. They thought that although the Keelmen were correct in stating that the spouts were a hazard to navigation of the river, they improved the trade. After this last case the spouts were accepted by the Keelmen and in general Keelmen continued to be paid very well. An estimate of 18s.0d to £1.1s.0d. was quoted as an average in 1840 in the ‘Penny Magazine’.

(Pictured above on the left an example of loading by lowering chaldron’s and opening the bottom. On the right, launched in 1852, the first screw-propelled iron Collier. The normal time for a Collier had taken for a trip to London was one month, the new Collier took just five days, such technological advances along with the eventually opening of the Swing Bridge would eventually mean the end of the Keelboats).

The Keelmen did not immediately lose work as a result of the spouts and Staithes, in fact because of the ever increasing demand for coal, the number of Collieries on the Tyne increased from 37 to 70 in the mid 1820’s. Although less Keelmen were necessary at the below the bridge Collieries, many more were needed above the bridge and this compensated for the jobs lost below the bridge.

Some figures quoted for 1827 show that about 700 Keelmen were working from above the bridge Collieries and approximately 150 Keelmen working below the bridge. Exports from the Tyne increased greatly, in 1831 2.2million tons of coal were exported and in 1850 4 million tons were being exported.

Keels continued to play an important part in coal transportation even below the bridge. This was mainly due to the lack of maintenance of the river itself. It was not until1860 that anyone gave serious thought to thorough dredging of the river and in 1831 at the St Laurence Colliery new plans were drawn up for a new Staithes and these included a keel spout.

In 1876 when the new Swing Bridge replaced the old Tyne Bridge with its low stone arches, the whole of the river was open to the Colliers. It was after this that there was a very rapid decline in the number of Keels.

In 1897 there was among the people living in the Keelmen’s Hospital, only one Keelman left, his name was Robert Stephenson. He had been born in 1824 and was third generation Keelman working for the Lamb family of Axwell Park as had his father and grandfather before him. From the 1870’s he had been forced to work as a Ferryman and blamed the steam ships for taking away the livelihood of the Keelmen.

They will certainly be remembered in Swalwell and surrounding villages by the local Keelmen’s Bridge and the songs ‘The Keel Row’ and ‘The Black Cock of Whickham.

Collieries Above the Bridge:

Holywell Main, Walbottle, Wylam, Benwell, Elswick, Garesfield, Lanchester Common, Pontop, Townley Main, Tanfield Moor, South Moor, Urpeth, Team.

Collieries Below the Bridge:

Heaton, Walker, Wallsend, Willington, Killingworth, Backworth, Burradon, Percy Main, Collingwood Main, Fawdon, Coxlodge, Kenton, Gateshead Fell, Gateshead Park, Felling, Jarrow, Hebburn, Manor Wallsend, Usworth Main, Pelaw Main.


The Keelmen by Eric Forster Coals from Newcastle by Roger Finch Early Radical Newcastle The Keelmen by Eric Forster Decline of the Tyneside Keelmen by D.J.Rowe North East England: The Regions Development 1760-1960 by Norman McCord