On Saturday 17 March 1660, about five hundred Newcastle keelmen ‘assembled together in a tumultuous manner’, parking their keelboats across the arches of the old Tyne Bridge ‘to stopp the passage of all keeles and boates to go up and downe the River’. The deputy mayor, Robert Shafto, reported in a letter to the government that the men stayed there until Monday, at which point they ‘presented unto us [Newcastle’s magistrates] their grievance by way of petition, desireinge to be releaved’. Shafto suggested that the keelmen were ‘encouraged’ to strike by the masters of coal trading ships, in vengeance at some new terms that had been imposed on them by Newcastle’s coal merchants. But this implication was disingenuous and patronising towards the keelmen. In fact, they had already gone on strike five years earlier on their own initiative. A London newspaper reported in August 1654 that:
‘We have had great stop of trade by our keel-mens pretence of too small wages from their masters; they all as one man stood together, and would neither worke themselves, nor suffer others… And now though a company of foot, and a troop of horse, be drawn into Town, yet they continue in their obstinacie…’
Industrial relations repeatedly broke down for the next 200 years. In a petition from the 1670s, the keelmen claimed to be ‘poor workemen, who take great pains and earne their liveings, by hard labour, whose dues for their labour are soe small that they and their families cannot subsist therewith’ and in 1719 that they were ‘much oprest by reason of the long contrak[t] made’, a contract that sealed the monopoly of the coal merchants. In other words, keelmen understood the economic subtleties of the coal trade, right down to the legal arrangements. They also understood their own indispensable role in transporting coal out to the ships. Without their labour, it would have piled up on the riverbanks, costing the merchants a fortune, so keelmen knew they were in a strong position to push their interests through political action in the form of petitions and strikes.
The 1660 incident deteriorated after Shafto and the town’s sheriff threatened the strikers that they were ‘disturbing the publique peace’. The two men returned on Friday the 23rd with ‘some Assistance … to suppresse theire unlawfull assembly which was accordingly done’ and on the same day the men ‘fell peaceably to labour in theire keeles’. We can’t be sure precisely what was promised or threatened by the deputy mayor and his sheriff, but this was by no means the last action in a long-running dispute.
Joseph M. Fewster, The Keelmen of Tyneside: Labour Organisation and Conflict in the North-East Coal Industry, 1600-1830 (Woodbridge, 2011).
The petitions and a copy of Shafto’s letter are in Tyne and Wear Archives, Accession 394/1.
The newspaper report is from Mercurius Politicus,No. 220, 24-31 (August, 1654), pp. 3722-23.