Telling the story of the development of Blyth as a major town in Northumberland
Records indicate that the harbour was in use in medieval times and that the town of Blyth was first chronicled in 1208. The town took its name from the River Blyth. The word Blyth is said to mean ‘white water’. A sandy strip of land which then jutted out into the bay of the river from the links to the south was the beginning of the town. Blyth was then, and for centuries after, cut off from Cowpen. A tidal inlet, running parallel to the river from its bend to the south, covered what is now Cowpen Quay, Post Office Square and Beaconsfield Street, and ran down behind Crofton Mill Pit. On this narrow strip of land, bound almost entirely by water at high tide, there were a few salt pans at which valuable salt was produced by evaporating sea water. Around them were one or two cottages, the homes of a few fishermen and those who tended the pans. The construction of a formal harbour was complete in 1730 with a coaling quay, a ballast quay, a pilots watch house and a lighthouse. The first breakwater was built in 1765 and the first staith with an elevated loading point in 1788. The growth of the port into a modern harbour began with the incorporation of commissioners in 1882 enabling the port to be developed in the form of a Trust. Prior to 1907, two market places were in operation, one at Cowpen – so named from the ancient art of ‘couping’ or bartering and the second at Blyth. After 1907 the market was established as it is today.
Also a famous submarine base in two World Wars, the service was granted the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Blyth Valley in 1979 with the honour conveyed upon HMS Onslaught, an ‘O’ Class Submarine – now sadly out of service and broken up. A tradition on board was that the ship’s bell was used for christenings of the children of the commander of the day. When she was broken up this bell was presented to Blyth Valley Council and it resides in the Mayor’s Parlour in the Civic Centre in Blyth. The names of children and dates of their christenings can be seen engraved inside the bell. Traditional industries through the centuries of shipbuilding, coal-mining, foundry work dominated and the shipyard at Blyth was renowned as the largest in the North East until its closure in 1967. The second Ark Royal having been built at Blyth in 1914. In 1974 local government reorganisation saw the joining together of the Borough of Blyth, Seaton Valley District Council and part of Whitley Bay Urban District Council to form the Borough of Blyth Valley.
The closure of Bates Colliery in 1986 ended the long tradition of coal-mining in the borough with it a strengthening of the council’s Economic Development strategies in a resolve to bring new employment to the town. The closure of the colliery also brought with it the demise of the Cowpen and Crofton Miners’ Welfare on Renwick Road in the Town completed in 1925 which had been the social centre for the mining community and which had been paid for by subscriptions deducted from the wages of the mining fraternity. However, the Council, seeing the need to bring several of its departments together, bought the building and extended it to suit the needs of a modern day Civic Centre. The building was officially opened on 8th June 1990 by Neil Kinnock M.P. the then Leader of Opposition. He viewed it as a most marvellous way of preserving and enhancing a lovely old building rather than going down the road of new build as so many other authorities had done. The opening of the Keel Row Shopping Centre in 1990 brought major high street retailers to the town to join those rather more local and traditional traders and the busy market place in the centre of town which operates on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year. An exciting feature of the north bank pier of the river Blyth is the Wind farm. Nine windmills generate electricity linked to the National Grid.
Hughes Bolckow formerly Messrs, Hughes, Bolckow, and Co., Limited was a well-known shipbreaking company based out of Blyth, Northumberland. Intending to create an industrial park for dismantling obsolete warships in 1911, the company leased 6 acres (2.4 ha) of land from Lord Ridley and the Blyth Harbour Commissioners. The company was responsible for scrapping a number of famous Royal Navy ships including HMS Britannia. In response to requests from customers, the company created a series of “choice Antiques” from the fine old seasoned timber they possessed from the old HMS Britannia. The company even had a Ship Timber Department that would create articles manufactured from teakwood taken from obsolete battleships and preserved in “Solignum”. During World War I Messrs, Hughes, Bolckow, and Co., Limited experimented with employing women in jobs that were traditionally reserved for men. By 1916 13% of the workforce were women, in 1960 The Hughes Bolchow Shipbreaking Co., Ltd., of Blyth changed its name to Hughes Bolckow Ltd. so as to serve notice that although its main activity was still in shipbreaking, the company was branching out.
Ship building as an industry developed in Blyth from the middle of the 18th century. Between 1789-1799, 35 Blyth built ships were recorded in the Newcastle Register, that being the nearest port of registry. At the turn of the century there were four shipyards all of which were busy – Hannay, Watson, Stoker and Watts.
Through the 1800’s many ships were built for customers from all over the world, Colliers, Tramp Steamers and Cargo-Liners, were build for Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Russian, Cuban and Australian companies.
During World War I nine tramps and colliers were completed as well as four torpedo boat destroyers including “Verbena” and the surveying vessel “Merry Hampton”.
Perhaps the most famous ship to be built at Blyth was completed in December 1913 for Daniel Stephens. The Newcastle tramp steamer “Ryton” was actually purchased on the stocks by the Admiralty in May 1914, before its owners could take delivery. It was launched on 5th September 1914 as the seaplane carrier “Ark Royal” and commissioned three months later. It served throughout World War I, carrying eight seaplanes in its hold. These were lifted by cranes into the sea and back on board again. In 1923 Ark Royal was converted into a depot ship and re-named “Pegasus”, which served as a catapult ship and accommodation during World War II. From 1937, a large number of boom defence vessels, minesweepers and other craft were built for the Admiralty. These included five River Class frigates and Castle Class frigates. Commercial shipbuilding did continue after World War II, but gradually declined through the late fifties and into the sixties, when the last yard finally closed in March 1967.
Coal Mining 2
The first mines in the area were sank by the Ridley family in the mid 18th century. These were shallow workings at Plessey Checks and Bassington Farm and at one time there were 18 separate pits being worked. Some of the names were: West Pit, Rodney Pit, South Pit, Rising Sun Pit, Hall Pit and Success Pit. Most of the coal from these pits was despatched by sea from Blyth. Originally the coals were transported in carts and in panniers on horseback, but eventually the Plessey Waggonway was established and ran from Plessey Checks past Bog Houses, New Delaval and what is now Plessey Road, down to the River Blyth. Most of the way was leased under ‘wayleave’ from Lord Delaval and records show that between 1750-1760 the cost of the lease was £300 per annum. Mining continued to develop in the area, with networks of Waggonways connecting the pits to shipping ports at Blyth and Newcastle and new deep mines beginning to be sunk from the early 1800’s.
The growth of the industry reflected the ready markets that existed for coal, especially in London. By 1826 the capital was importing 2 million tons of coal by sea and of this only 125,000 tons (6.25%) came from other coalfields. The earliest deep mines were recorded in the Cowpen and Cramlington areas, these being sunk from around 1800. Mine owners built small terraced houses for the miners around the new pits and created mining villages such as East Cramlington, Shankhouse and East Hartford. During the 1860’s West Cramlington had the honour of starting the first ever Co-operative Society in the two counties. (Fynes – The Miners of Northumberland & Durham 1873).
Up until that time miners could only obtain provisions from the pit owners’ stores. A small group of men had discussed the possibility of setting up a provisions shop for the miners. There followed several meetings of large groups of workers and the group finally subscribed a fund of £20. They took a small room at Cramlington Village and set up shop with second-hand fixtures at a cost of £7, then two of the members were appointed to go to Newcastle and make the first purchases.
Some of the local shopkeepers said the men were lunatics and they became known as the ‘madcap’s’, however they returned from Newcastle with merchandise which was sold out within a week.
They guarded the shop at nights with a rifle for fear that it would be robbed, but none were attempted. They continued for their first three months doubling and trebling their orders until the first dividend was declared, silencing the prophets of doom. The numbers of members increased rapidly as initial caution waned in the light of regular division of profits among members. Within a few short years virtually every village in the two counties of Northumberland and Durham either had its own Store or was connected with a nearby one.
On 16/01/1862 at Hartley Colliery, 204 men and boys died in one of the most appalling mining catastrophes in the annals of this country. The colliery was working with only one shaft in which was also fixed a set of pumps. The beam supporting the pump engine[which was the largest and most powerful in the north, weighing more than 40 tons] suddenly and without warning broke in two. One half plunged down the shaft, ripping off the stone and timber that protected the walls, carrying pipes, gearing and hundreds of tons of debris in its descent.
The accident happened just after the back shift men had gone down to relieve the fore shift. It was six days before a way could be made through the debris and by then all 204 men and boys down the pit had died, suffocated by poisonous gases. Nine days after the accident a large public meeting of miners from all pits in the area, was held at Newcastle.
A petition was drawn up demanding that two shafts to every pit be made compulsory by law, and as a direct result an Act was passed to that effect, later that year.
Mining flourished in the region with pits being worked at Blyth, Bebside, Cowpen, Crofton Mill, Isabella, East Hartford, Nelson Village, New Hartley, Seaton Delaval, and Seghill, from those early days through to 1986, when the last working pit in the area, Bates Colliery was finally closed down.
A brewery was first recorded at Blyth in the early 18th century, which supplied a small number of local public houses and ships using the harbour. A lease from 1725 shows this to have been a small scale enterprise. As Blyth grew a larger brewery was built between 1784-86, behind Queens Lane and the Brewery Bar public house. Henry Ridley leased the new brewery and 23 pubs, 12 of which were in Blyth. All were tied to the brewery for supplies. The brewery survived through to the early 20th century, however in common with many other smaller breweries, changing conditions and wartime restrictions eventually forced its closure in 1916. The brewery never re-opened, however the old Brewery Bar pub survives to this day as The Quay.