River Tyne's story revealed in study by environmental historian

Environmental historian Dr Leona Skelton delves into the ups and downs of Tyne history over the centuries

Dr Leona Skelton at Howdon sewage treatment works on the Tyne
Dr Leona Skelton at Howdon sewage treatment works on the Tyne

Over the centuries, the Tyne has been used, often abused, left for dead, resuscitated and celebrated.

Now the ups and downs of the river’s fortunes spanning the last 500 years are being plotted by environmental historian Dr Leona Skelton.

Leona, 30, who grew up in Gateshead, is putting together the environmental story of the river from the 16th Century to the present.

Her starting point is 1530, when Newcastle Corporation became the stewards of the Tyne on behalf of the Crown.

She is investigating how the Tyne has changed, including alterations to the river bed through dredging, straightening its curves and meanders, removing islands and rocky outcrops.

Leona is also looking at how societies of the time reacted to the changes and measures to protect the river.

“The story is one of massive change,” says Leona, who went to Joseph Swan Comprehensive School in Gateshead before taking a history degree at Sunderland University and then a Masters and PhD at Durham University.

“I am investigating how, over 500 years, people have managed the river environment in different ways.”

English Heritage The River Tyne and the Quayside, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1938. Image produced from a damaged negative
The River Tyne and the Quayside, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1938. Image produced from a damaged negative
 

Before dredging, people could walk across the Tyne at low tide at various points.

But increasing trade and growing riverside industry drove the need for access by bigger ships further up the river.

Features such as King’s Meadow island, where the Blaydon Races began and which had its own Countess of Coventry pub, was dredged away to improve operations at William Armstrong’s Elswick shipyard.

Other islands such as Dunston Batts and Caledonian island near the River Team were also removed.

Rocky outcrops at Bill Point and Friar’s Goose were blasted away.

Other prominent features were the balast hills on the riversides, created from the material dumped by empty ships arriving in the Tyne for cargoes - usually coal.

Leona’s work is part of a wider, national environmental history project, but she is also writing a book based on her Tyne study.

It will include bodies like the River Jury set up in the 17th Century by Newcastle Corporation which fined offenders who dumped waste in the Tyne.

A young seal lies on the steps of the Swing Bridge across the river Tyne, between Newcastle and Gateshead
A young seal lies on the steps of the Swing Bridge across the river Tyne, between Newcastle and Gateshead
 

There were concerns than for the state of the river’s fisheries and, in the days before upland reservoirs, the quality of the water which was used for drinking.

“They were also terrified about the river silting up and affecting trade because they did not have the technology to deal with that,” says Leona.

In the 18th Century, the River Jury was offering to pay people who reported rubbish dumpers a portion of the fines levelled on the offenders.

In the 19th Century the Tyne Improvement Commission was set up as a reflection of the Government’s assertion that the river was a national asset, with London relying heavily on North East coal.

“There was dredging, the building of big docks and turning the river into a massive canal,” says Leona.

The worst time for the river, she says, was from 1850-1950 as industry and pollution intensified.

In the 17th Century restrictions were placed on the frequency with which salmon could be fed to apprentices, such was its abundance.

But the fish disappeared as pollution killed the river. The Tyne Salmon Conservancy had been set up in 1866 at Hexham to try to protect the fishery.

Crowds gathered on the banks of the River Tyne to watch the Esso Northumbria sail down the river on 9th February, 1970
Crowds gathered on the banks of the River Tyne to watch the Esso Northumbria sail down the river on 9th February, 1970
 

There were 270 sewers discharging into the Tyne, with the situation made worse by the replacement of dry toilets, whose contents were collected by carts, with flushing WCs.

In 1939 a standing committee had stressed the need for an urgent clean up of the river.

From the 1960s, there was a growing conservation movement and the Tyne Interceptor sewerage project saw waste piped to what is now Northumbrian Water’s Howdon plant for treatment.

Events such as the Gateshead National Garden Festival in 1990 also saw the remediation of heavily polluted riverside.

The demise of much heavy industry also led to water quality improvement and now the Tyne is the best river in England and Wales for salmon rod catches.

Leona, whose grandfather worked at the Swan Hunter shipyard, says: “I have always been passionate about the Tyne but I have only known a clean river environment.”

She is seeking people’s memories, experiences and views about the Tyne including the meaning of the river and how it has changed over lifetimes, the ways in which people use the river for work or recreation, how they feel connected to the Tyne, feelings about deindustrialistion, wildlife and what the future holds.

A general view of Hexham Weir as the River Tyne continues to be the best river in the country for salmon
The River Tyne at Hexham Weir
 

“We are part of the Tyne’s story but people in a hundred years’ time may have a different mindset to us,” says Leona.

She is asking people to come forward to chat from Monday until February 1. Contact leona.skelton@bristol.ac.uk

Environmental History of the River Tyne:

1505: Establishment of Newcastle Trinity House to manage leading lights, Tyne pilots, mariners and sunk ships.

1530 (to 1850): Act of Parliament made Newcastle Corporation official conservators of the Tyne . Two water bailiffs were appointed to inspect the river daily and fine those who polluted the river.

1613 (to 1834): London Trinity House developed 24 Tyne-specific by-laws against pollution to be enforced by a River Tyne Court, held weekly on behalf of Newcastle Corporation.

1834 (to 1850): Corporation Act provokes massive restructure of Newcastle Corporation, the river court discontinues and a newly appointed River Committee takes over the management of the river.

1850 (to 1968, when it became the Port of Tyne Authority): River Committee and Newcastle Corporation’s conservancy dissolved by Act of Parliament and the Tyne Improvement Commission takes over.

1866 (to 1950): Tyne Salmon Conservancy established in Hexham,

1921 (to 1939): Parliamentary National Standing Committee on River Pollution and a Tyne Sub-Committee of scientists were appointed.

They produced 1,000 scientific reports, concluding the Tyne needed a clean up urgently, but the Second World War derailed plans for a pipeline to divert sewage from the Tyne.

1942 (to 1975 when the water authority took over): Northumberland and Tyneside River Board established.

1966 (to 1975): Tyne Joint Sewerage Committee formed, representing health authorities, water boards and all local councils - eventually built the Howdon Interceptor Sewer to divert sewage from the Tyne .

1989 (to present): Establishment of the Clean Tyne Project

2004 (to present): Establishment of the Tyne Rivers Trust

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