ABSTRACT

Newcastle upon Tyne and the other communities surrounding the lower part of the River Tyne underwent a period of rapid economic and social change between 1600 and 1800, and, as with any community, the way in which trade developed with any commodity was of necessity a reflection of the geography and physical environment prevailing at the time. Newcastle was the commercial centre of the coal trade, and, being positioned on the lower river Tyne about eight miles from the sea, it was at the centre of those mining communities which surrounded that part of the river. This was largely that lower section affected by the tides extending from the mouth of the river in the East to the upper limits of the tidal Tyne between Newburn and Wylam in the West. The tidal nature of the river, with its consequent daily variations in depth, made it difficult for heavily laden ships to move freely at all states of the tide, and a process thus evolved of moving heavy and bulky cargoes such as coal from the staiths on the river bank to waiting ships anchored closer to the mouth of the river and the sea. Traditional boats called keels were used move the coal, and these were operated by a particular group of tradesmen known as keelmen. These water tradesmen were an important group of people in the community, conveying freight and people to the collier brigs, waiting close to the mouth of the river. The collier brigs would carry their cargo either to other parts of England, particularly London, or to continental Europe. The nature of the river, with its variable depth and winding course, and the presence of a low bridge in Newcastle, meant that the key to its economic success in providing vast quantities of coal for London and other towns was this ability to transport coal in boats from the riverbank to the waiting colliers close to the mouth of the river. Consequently, those who operated these boats and made the transport system work were essential in ensuring the success of the trade, and it cannot be stressed enough that the efforts of these river tradespeople were largely responsible for sustaining the extraordinary growth in the North-East coal trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This burgeoning coal trade, mainly with the rapidly developing metropolis of London, made Newcastle and the growing coal fields surrounding the lower river Tyne a uniquely important

part of England in this period.1 Most of the historical literature describes the work of the coal-carrying keelmen, but does not indicate whether they or other types of watermen carried other significant exports, or the large quantities of incoming trade, although Hatcher implies that they did, but provides little supporting evidence.2 It remains unclear whether the coal owners or their agents, the hostmen, were involved in the trade in other commodities, or whether their keels were used to provide intermediate transport for any commodities other than coal. There is a reference in the Orders and Minutes of the Company of Hostmen to pann keels or pann boats that were not measured in the same way as the keels.Pann keels were probably used to carry pan coals which were small coals destined for local industrial use, or salt from the salt-pans, most of which were close to the mouth of the river at North and South Shields. On occasion these pann keels were used illicitly for transporting coal to colliers as a way of evading coal duties, and the Company attempted to impose significant penalties upon those who misused these boats for carrying coal destined for shipment.3