At its AGM, Andy Griffin took members for a trip along the Tyne in his talk entitled “Wheel May the Keel Row”, complete with a spirited rendition of this Geordie song.
Its title should read “Weel May the Keel Row”, meaning “Well May the Keel Row”, or let the boat (the keel) be rowed quickly and safely. The unwieldy keels were rowed from the back, rather like a gondola. The song was printed in 1770, but dates from at least 1745. Sandgate, mentioned in the song and now completely redeveloped, was once home to 1600 people, where the Keelmen’s families lived. By 1905, they had all gone.
There is a painting by Turner in the National Gallery “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight” showing the boats - 42ft long and 9ft wide, with a draft of only 4½ft. The top of the boat was made of oak (for strength), while the more water resistant elm was used under water. The boats could carry a standard 21 tons, a measure set in 1635.
Since they were using sails and oars, the keelmen needed to use the tides as efficiently as possible, so their working day shifted. Turner’s painting shows them working with torches. They ferried coal nine miles from the staithes to the large colliers moored at the mouth of the Tyne. The round trip took around 12-15 hours, and they were given one guinea per load. Each keel employed a skipper, two men and a boy (the peedee). They were big, strong men: they needed to be.
Men were bound each Boxing Day for the coming year by the Hostmen (essentially, Newcastle Corporation). These men received all the revenue from the traffic, and also fees for permission to dump ballast (pebbles and sand). Silting of the river became a major problem, and in 1843 a sailor walked across the river. Complaints by merchants and coal owners led to the establishment in 1850 of the Tyne Improvement Commission. The river was dredged and the North and South piers were built. With other improvements, such as the building of the Swing Bridge in 1876, large ships could sail directly to the staithes upstream.
The keelmen had a number of grievances, and there were frequent strikes. Overloading of the boats by the employers, a dangerous practice, was one grievance. Another was that wages were paid as ‘can’ money, which were vouchers to be used only in shops owned by the Hostmen. An attempt to break a strike in 1830 by using volunteer labour failed: the volunteers were not strong enough for the work, 4d per keel was donated by the men from their wages to fund the Keelmen’s Hospital. This attractive building is now on the Heritage at Risk Register, and has been vacant since 2009, when its use as student accommodation ended.
Fewer Keelman were needed after the improvements to the Tyne, but their final demise occurred with the introduction of the steam collier. The first of these ships was built in 1852 at Jarrow by Palmer Bros., Earlier, steam ships were designed for luxury travel. Unlike sailing ships, they were not tide or weather dependent, and so could work steadily through the winter. They were loaded directly, and could carry 650 tons. The round-trip to London took only five days: previously, two colliers would take a month to shift this amount of coal.
Jarrow expanded enormously, employing 3,500 miners and 35,000 shipyard workers. Palmer’s was the main employer in the town until 1934 when the shipyard closed, followed shortly afterwards by the Jarrow Crusade. But that’s another story.