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Who are we?

By Geoff Nicholson


            Who are we?  By “we” I mean those of us lucky enough to live in the north-east of England – the pre-1974 counties of Northumberland and Co Durham.  What strains of ancestry have gone into our make-up?  Which population movements have added to the mix over the years?


            As with everywhere else in the country, the population seems to be a blend of those Celtic elements which were there when the Romans arrived, with a dash of “Roman” blood, no doubt, though in this case “Roman” really means “tribes from other parts of the Roman empire”, from northern Europe, from Spain and from Italy, and a large addition of what is generally called Anglo-Saxon ancestry.  In the case of the north-east it is thought that the settlers of that period were Angles, rather than Saxon, and the Kingdom of Northumbria was an Anglian one, not Saxon.


To that mix there have been additions of Viking blood, form Norway and Denmark, though it has to be said that there is probably less of that than in some other places.  We were too far north to be included in the Danish Kingdom of York, and too far south to receive the Norse influences as did the Scottish Highlands.  Vikings came to the north-east certainly: their first known raid was on the riches of the Church on Holy Island.  They are not thought to have made permanent settlements here, though, even though we do hear of them overwintering in the Tyne near Jarrow on at least one occasion.  Normans came here also and though, like the Vikings, they are bound to have added some of their genes to the north-eastern gene-pool, they were a tiny proportion of the whole though the spread of Norman ancestry has been such that it has not remained entirely with the male-line descendants of the Normans, such as they are today, but has spread inexorably through the whole population.


            So much is well-known.  However, there have been other influences on  who we are.  The north-east has always been a trading region, with Newcastle coal being exported all over he world and with a brisk trade in all sorts of goods having been   kept up with northern European ports, including those in the Baltic, from well before the coal trade became important.  Sailors from those places would have called regularly at all our ports and while there they would have done what sailors do, adding their contributions to our gene pool.


In the eighteenth and nineteenth century just about every industry imaginable found a home somewhere in the north-east, and the ready availability of cheap Newcastle coal meant that they all boomed.  The local work-force could keep up with a natural, slow, growth in those industries, but at times all found it necessary to recruit workers from outside the region, thus adding to the variety of what went into making us, the north-easterners.  Families arrived from both northern and southern Ireland, to work in the Tyneside chemical industry, in the Northumberland and Durham coalfield and as farm labourers all over the region.  Others came from the tin mines of Cornwall, from the declining coalfield of the Forest of Dean, from the Welsh coalfield and from the agriculturally-depressed areas of Norfolk, finding a passage from King’s Lynn to Newcastle on a returning collier brig much easier and cheaper than attempting to reach London by road.


            In the north of Northumberland the local population was much reduced during the Border Wars and, once peace was restored, its farms needed workers to get them on their feet again.  In general those workers were supplied from Scottish districts not far from the Border, and led to quite a Scottish outlook from those who lived there.  This can be seen by the many Presbyterian churches in north Northumberland, for instance.  The “north to south” drift of population through Northumberland is also apparent in the coastal fishing families, who really form one population – an extended family,  almost – with those of Berwickshire and the Lothians.


            Cumbrians have always seen the Tyne gap in much the same way as Scots saw the road into England – as their route to a better, more prosperous life – and so they have also been a regular addition to our gene pool, probably bringing with them a higher proportion of Viking ancestry than that of most native north-easterners.


            Other more localised influences include the mainly Yemeni Arab seamen who settled in South Shields with their families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Belgian refugees (locally called “Belgiums”) who spent much of the First World War in a camp at Birtley, some of whom remained when the War was over.


            The result of all this?  Although we have just as strong an Anglo-Saxon base as any other part of this country, we in the north-east have imbibed an interesting cocktail of other genes, from which, of course, we have selected the best qualities, to make us much more interesting than had we been from, say, an isolated district in the English Midlands!



by Geoff Nicholson


            It should come as no surprise that South Shields has had more than its fair share of shipwrecks over the years.  It has been a major port, situated at the mouth of a very busy river, one whose entrance has been the haven sought by ships approaching from all directions at all states of the tides and in all weathers.  Thanks to the lack of interest of Newcastle Corporation, the body responsible for the upkeep of the Tyne until the middle of the 19th century, there were no piers, nor anything else to alleviate the hazards of crossing the bar at the river’s mouth, until the Tyne Improvement Commission finally won the long battle against the sea which it took on when it began the construction of the piers.  Before that all ships had to run the gauntlet of finding the right place to cross the bar: too far to the north and they could be upon the Black Middens between Tynemouth and North Shields, merciless rocks which would tear the bottom out of any wooden-hulled ship, too far to the south and the equally unrelenting and shifting Herd Sand at South Shields was waiting for them.  The right course had to be set, regardless of the howling North Sea gales which could blow any sailing ship off course, and with the poor visibility, driving rain and mountainous seas of a winter storm it is a wonder any ship managed to reach the safety of the river at all.  For those attempting to leave, things were not much better.  The poor state into which Newcastle Corporation had allowed the Tyne to fall was just another hazard to contend with.


            No wonder it was at South Shields that the first lifeboat was designed and built!  It is generally considered that the wreck on the Herd Sand of the “Adventure”, a Newcastle collier brig, in March 1789, was the last straw which prompted some “Gentleman of the Lawe House” to offer a reward of two guineas for a design of a boat “to preserve the lives of seamen, from Ships coming ashore”.  The “Adventure” had grounded only a comparatively short distance from the shore but the rough seas prevented local men from doing anything to save the crew with the boats they then had.  The “gentlemen’s reward” was to stimulate the ultimately successful, efforts of William Wouldhave and Henry Greathead.


            Some ships were lucky.  Three which were driven onto the Herd Sand in January 1802 managed to make a last-minute escape by cutting their anchor cables and getting off on the high tide.  Another which was blown onto the sand and was unable to escape was lost, but not before the new “Northumberland” lifeboat from Tynemouth had managed to save all the crew.


Sometimes a ship was lost but much of their cargo or stores, as well as the crew could be saved.  Consider the case of the “Lady Faversham”.  She was a fully-fitted 430-ton barque and had been in the East-India Trade as well as having been used to carry timber from the St Lawrence to the Tyne.  In November 1845 she was leaving the Tyne with a cargo, mainly of coal, when she went aground on the In-Sand in South Shields harbour.  The In-Sand was near the south bank of the Tyne, more or less in line with the end of the Mile End Road, as it approaches the river.  It was a minor problem to shipping in good weather and under any other regime but that of Newcastle Corporation it would have been dredged away or otherwise removed many years before.  However, it was there and it ended the career of the “Lady Faversham”.  At first, attempts were made to re-float her by using the then very modern technique of having divers repair her hull, but that did not succeed.  All the stores and fittings which could be salvaged were removed from her, possibly as much to deny them to looters as to lighten the ship - her 150 tons of coal would render her a dead-weight no matter how much light material was removed from her.  They were all taken to North Shields, where, on 31 March 1846 they, together with the ship itself, and all that remained on her, were auctioned at the Albion Hotel.


The stores were duly sold, the “Lady Faversham” herself going for the respectable sum of 250 pounds.  It was then up to the new owners to re-float her, but she still resisted every attempt to do so and in the end the only thing for it was to use explosives to blow her out of the water.  The first attempt at doing so, although it attracted thousands of sight-seers, including the Mayor and Town-Councillors, was a miserable failure and it was not until December 1846, when she had lain on (or in) the sand for a little over a year, that she was finally blown up.  Her cargo of coal formed, it is said, a black mass over 50 feet high.  A detailed list of the stores removed from the “Lady Faversham”, and printed as publicity for the auction, is in Newcastle Central Library.  It is neatly divided into “stores landed” and “stores on board when sunk and presumed to be in her” – posisbly a rather optimistic assumption!


            Not long after, in 1849 a collier brig named the “Betsy” was swept onto the Herd Sand in a storm.  A lifeboat was promptly sent out to it, but before it was able to do anything for the crew, the lifeboat itself was capsized, and all 23 of its crew – all of them Tyne pilots – were lost.  This must count as the greatest disaster caused by a storm at the mouth of the Tyne.


            In 1861 a schooner, the “Fowlis” was undone when she was blown onto the Herd Sand by a gale when trying to enter the Tyne after a voyage from Inverness.  She was eventually washed onto the South Pier and some of her crew were rescued after heroic efforts by four lifeboats.  Eventually only three men were left on board, but conditions were so bad that the watching crowd could see that nothing could be done for them.  As the ship broke up in the heavy seas, all three were swept into the sea.  One, miraculously, was saved, but the other two were drowned.  Another boat which came onto the Herd Sand in that same storm was the brig “Sarah Ann” of South Shields.  Fortunately the lifeboats were able to rescue all the crew and the ship itself, although lying on her side, and reachable at low water, was recovered a couple of days later, repaired, sold and had another year of life before sinking after a collision off Flamborough Head..


            Yes, being part of the crew of any sailing ship in the days before modern aids such as radio, radar, etc, was always a dangerous thing, and never more so than when attempting to reach the safety of the Tyne in a gale.  We should be grateful that no-one is expected to undertake such hazardous things these days.