The Keel row

Most Tynesiders are familiar with “The Keel Row”, a popular song dating back to the early 18th century and perhaps the oldest in Tyneside’s song anthology.  But what was a keel and why is the name so special?

Before the mid-1800s, the River Tyne was neither dredged nor equipped with the staithes and chutes necessary for loading colliers that carried the coal to ports around Britain and beyond.  The shallow river shoreline meant that ships were forced to anchor in deeper water, mid-river.  It was then the job of the keels to ferry coal from shore to the waiting ships.  A humble task to be sure, but for over six hundred years keel boats performed an important part in the success of Tyneside’s coal industry; the men who manned them forming colourful communities that were largely closed to outsiders.

Keels provided a critical transportation link for the coal industry, enabling mine owners to sell their product to customers around the world.  The first written record of coal-carrying keels on the River Tyne was made in 1266 and for the next five centuries, mentions of the craft continue to pop up in various official records, clear evidence of their continuous use on the river.  By the late 18th century, an estimated 500 keels worked on the River Tyne employing close to 2,000 men.  But the advent of steam-driven tugs able to tow several unmanned keels at a time, as well as improvements to the river allowing ships to quickly load from shore-based coal staithes, spelt the decline of traditional keels and the men who crewed them.  By the second half of the nineteenth century, the last of the Tyneside keels had disappeared, taking with them an unbroken tradition stretching back at least 600 years.

As I went up Sandgate, to Sandgate, to Sandgate,

As I went up Sandgate, I heard a lassie sing.”

Keelmen and their families lived in a close community centred mainly around the Sandgate area of Newcastle.  The crew of a typical keel was usually comprised of family members, close friends or neighbours and it was common practice for jobs to be passed from father to son; outsiders would find it difficult to enter the trade.  A fitting example of the closeness of the keelmen and the bond they had with their community was exhibited in 1701 when the Keelman’s Society opened a hospital on Newcastle’s City Road, built with money raised through weekly contributions from their wages. The building is still standing to this day, although sadly, unoccupied.

They were comparatively well-paid, earning between 11s 8d and 13s 4d for each trip, in addition to a beer allowance, called a ‘can’.  To get an idea of their value, this was roughly the equivalent to three to four times the daily wage of an average tradesman.  However, work in the winter was often scarce and even in the summer, a successful round-trip was dependent on fair weather that would otherwise prevent ships from entering the river.

 “He wears a blue bonnet, blue bonnet, blue bonnet,

He wears a blue bonnet, a dimple in his chin.”

The colourful shore attire of keelmen was unique and quickly identified them as such. They wore a short blue jacket over a yellow waistcoat, the jacket coming down to within an inch or two of slate-grey trousers which hung on their hips, leaving a margin of white shirt between the two.  Topping off the ensemble, was a black, flat-brimmed silk hat, adorned with two black ribbons each tied in a bow with a streaming five- or six-inch-long tail.

Despite the finery, they would exhibit while ashore, it was a hard life and the job was not one for the weak or the feeble.  Moving keels about the river was reliant on wind and tides, the vagaries of which could easily strand a boat and its crew overnight, forcing them to sleep on deck or huddle for shelter in the sparse cabin on the aft deck.  Each round trip would take 12 to 15 hours to complete and unless the wind and tide worked perfectly in its favour, the heavy keel would have to be rowed to its destination.  A collier would typically carry 25 keels of coal, loading four keels at a time, two on each side, with trimmers working in the hold making sure the cargo was level and would not cause any instability once the ship was at sea. As soon as they were alongside, the keelmen would begin the backbreaking work of unloading their cargo – a little over 21 tons of coal – this being the standard load of a keel as regulated in 1635. In fact, a ‘keel load’ became an official measure, each ‘keel’ amounting to eight Newcastle chaldrons which consequently led to all coal keels being built to the same size.

Like the coal industry, Tyne keels have given us several archaic dialect words.

The crew of a keel were known as bullies, meaning comrades or brothers, reflecting the tight bond that existed between keelmen and probably stemming from the Anglo-Saxon word, billig, meaning beloved or denoting those that are on an equal footing.  The word is not strictly Northumbrian however and was in common use especially among seafarers.

In addition to a skipper and two bullies, a keel would also employ a boy who was simply known as peedee, or as it was sometimes spelt, P.D.  This was a Northumbrian dialect word probably derived from the French word petite, meaning small.

On the stern deck of most keels, there was a cabin known as a huddick or huddock.  It provided shelter for the crew and contained a small stove for heating or cooking. It’s another word that seems to be uniquely Northumbrian and is thought to derive from the Dutch word hut, meaning steerage.

Keels were equipped with a lugsail and were handy sailboats despite their ungainly shape. Each boat also had two long oars; one located on the port side for propulsion and one on the stern which acted both as a rudder and a means to propel the boat using a technique known as sculling.  This was a skill requiring a long stern oar to be moved back and forth in a wide, sweeping motion. This oar was known as a swape, a word coming directly from the Anglo-Saxon and meaning to sweep.

Some of the keelmen’s wives and daughters worked as keel deeters, the name given to those who kept the grimy boats clean.  This word was derived from the Saxon word, dihtan of the same meaning.

The word keel, however, has a much longer pedigree. Its origins date back to the 6th-century writings of the Anglo-Saxon historian, Gildas, who tells us of the arrival of the English at the behest of the warlord, Vortigen, who invited them to help him battle the Scots and Picts.  Gildas, resentful of these pagan English interlopers wrote: “Then a litter of cubs issuing forth from the lair of the lioness of Beornicas, in three cyuls, as it is expressed in their tongue, in ours, long-ships.”  As Gildas wrote entirely in Latin, the English word, cyuls stands out and at once becomes the oldest recorded word in the English language. As a further note to the roots of the Northumbrian dialect, the spelling also gives us a possible clue as to the origins of the local accent.  Listen to a Tynesider pronounce the word and you can hear a sound that imitates the original spelling: “Weel may the kee-ul row….”.

Share this content