Northumberland is in the international spotlight this weekend as the town of Blyth hosts the prestigious Tall Ships Regatta.
Here are 10 fascinating facts about the history of Blyth – once one of the busiest ports in England.
• The river and town’s name comes from the old English word ‘blithe’ which means ‘gentle’ or ‘merry’ and this evolved over time to become Blyth. In 1250 the town was temporarily referred to as ‘Blithemuth’. If the name had persisted as it has in the case of Tynemouth, Bournemouth and the many other river mouth named towns of the UK, Blyth would today be referred to as ‘Blythmouth.’
• The main industries which helped the town prosper were coal mining and shipbuilding. The salt trade, fishing and railways also played an important role. These industries have largely vanished, but today the port still thrives.
• The port of Blyth dates back to the 12th century and by the early 1960s was said to be the busiest port in England shipping over six million tons of coal. There were six collieries within its 19 square km boundaries. The colliery names are commemorated on plaques attached to planters around the town’s market place.
• Blyth’s former shipyard became the largest on the north east coast with five dry docks and four building slipways. During the First and Second World wars many vessels were built in Blyth for the Royal Navy, including the first aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. The port also served as a submarine base during both wars and the submariners memorial on Elfin Walk serves as a reminder of the role Blyth’s submariners played in both wars.
• Rope works and sail makers opened businesses in Blyth in support of the ship building. Blyth was also home to a harpoon shop. The harpoons were made from old horse shoe nails and used in the Greenland whaling industry.
• Today in Blyth market place there are random concrete blocks which spell out ‘Blyth’ in Morse code.
• The Quayside has been transformed into a modern commercial district, with a mixture of office blocks, a hotel, restaurants, and housing alongside the lifeboat station, University research centre and the working port. The centrepiece of the area is the Spirit of the Staithes. A modern sculpture that commemorates the coal and rail industries and their role in the growth of the port.
• 200 years ago Captain William Smith, who hailed from Blyth embarked on a voyage from Blyth Port to trade around the world. He discovered Antarctica by chance when he made a desperate attempt to sail around westerly gales he encountered around Cape Horn. Today the Blyth Tall Ships project has purchased a near identical Tall Ship to the one used by Captain Smith and this is currently being refurbished by a team of local trainees. In 2019 a team will set sail in it from Blyth to recreate Captain Smith’s journey and put his name in its rightful place in world history.
• Blyth is home to the non-league football club Blyth Spartans famed for their repeated ‘giant killing’ exploits in the FA Cup and also commemorated for their role as pioneers of women’s football during World War I. (Bella Reay scored 133 goals in one season).
• Today Blyth is a booming town with a bright future. It is playing a leading role in the development of the UK’s offshore renewable energy industry. Its port continues to be a hive of activity. Oil and gas support vessels are mobilised and de-mobilised here and Oil Spill Response Ltd, a specialist clean up company for oil spills have three bases in the world. One is in Rio, One is in Singapore and the other is in Blyth. The Port has also received more than 100 complete wind turbines this year which are transported on to UK wind farm sites.