In October 1809 keelmen below the Newcastle bridges went on strike to demand improvements in pay. Keelmen were the workers who transferred coal in keels or barges to waiting colliers. They were well paid (compared to other labourers), and they had a long history of taking combined industrial action, though in 1809 all combinations or unions of working men were illegal. The livelihoods of the keelmen were threatened by the introduction of shutes or spouts on the ‘staithes’ (piers that extended out over water) that made it possible to load coal on to colliers without the keelmen’s labour. Despite these technological developments, keelmen were a common sight on the river well into the nineteenth century.
In August 1809 keelmen responded to rising food prices by organising petitions to the mayor that demanded increases in wages - wages that they claimed had remained the same since the early eighteenth century. But when increases were only offered to those working above the bridges, keelmen all along the river went on strike in October and prevented ships being loaded. Keelmen prevented ships docked at Walker Quay from being loaded with coal. Nervous magistrates quickly called in infantry and cavalry to keep the peace and to make arrests. Interestingly, however, the strike quickly ended with victory going to the keelmen. Magistrates and representatives of the coal trade chose to accept the keelmen’s terms rather than risking any escalation of the industrial dispute. The historian of the affair, D. J. Rowe, has contrasted the keelmen’s achievements with the miserable fate of Nottinghamshire’s Luddites slightly later in the period, and argued that it was the keelmen’s still-sizeable economic significance, as well as their unity, which accounts for their success.
Ten years later, in September 1819, the keelmen would again go on strike, though despite the fact that it occurred months after the famous ‘Peterloo’ massacre in Manchester, the strike was a purely industrial, as opposed to political, affair. Nervous magistrates did think there was a link, however, and once again the military was called in. On 14 October 1819 a man was killed when naval marines fired into a large crowd that was trying to prevent the unloading of colliers at North Shields.
D. J. Rowe, ‘The strikes of the Tyneside keelmen in 1809 and 1819’, International Review of Social History, 13:1 (1968), pp. 58-75.