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A City of Kittiwakes

Our Heritage Lead on the City of Kittiwakes project David Silk surmises his research into the stories and history of Newcastle Quayside - the nesting home of the kittiwake seabird...

Early 2024, and it was again time to gear up for the Newcastle Puppetry Festival, and it was my great pleasure to be asked to work as the Heritage Lead on the project for a second time. I never fail to be impressed by the energy and enthusiasm that the staff and volunteers at Moving Parts Arts CIO bring to this festival. It turns something that could be quite a niche event into an amazing and welcoming celebration of what makes Newcastle such a vibrant and welcoming community to live in.

A kittiwake nesting on the Tyne Bridge

This year the theme of the parade project was “City of Kittiwakes” - all centred around the seabird which famously migrates and nests under the Tyne Bridge and along the River Tyne: the kittiwake. These little birds, always described as “gentle looking” by the various ornithologists and bird charities whose material I read for my research, are an easy part of Newcastle’s heritage to overlook, being relatively recent arrivals. Easy to overlook that is, unless you’re standing underneath the Tyne Bridge during the spring and summer months when they come flocking back from the North Sea to nest in huge numbers on the towers of the Bridge and many of the surrounding buildings, lending their voices to the city soundscape! Their cries are certainly not gentle. Nor are they really – they are made of sterner stuff than might be obvious at first glance. These are true “sea gulls”, living almost all their lives out at sea, not scavenging but fishing, and returning to their cliffside roosts only to breed in the spring and early summer. The colony in Newcastle and Gateshead is the largest inland colony of Kittiwakes in the world and is one of the few colonies which is actually growing at a time when the species as a whole is in decline.

Guided Heritage Walks on the Quayside with David Silk, artwork by Becky Musgrove

There were no Kittiwakes in evidence in mid-February when I started a series of free heritage tours of Newcastle Quayside to help build a bit of awareness of the Puppetry Festival, the parade, and some of the lesser-known snippets of the history of Newcastle and Gateshead Quayside. Luckily for me and the participants, all four days that we offered the tours did see bright, clear skies over the river, and even if the wind was occasionally a bit chilly (alright, it was a howling gale on the third tour) we were lucky to have a superb day every time for a stroll along what must be one of the most beautiful quaysides in the country. Today, the Quayside is a lively place for a wander, full of bars and restaurants with a glorious view down to the Ouseburn, packed with families, joggers, cyclists, barflies, foodies, workers out for lunch, river cruises and, apparently, firefighters training to rescue people from the river (carrying on a long tradition as we’ll see). The research I did for the tours revealed that the history of the Quayside was no less lively, though often a good deal less beautiful! 

The Guildhall and Exchange (before 1840s)

Take the Guildhall for example. This was the meeting point for our tours and provides a striking visual backdrop and illustration of the history of the Quayside. Standing outside the entrance to the now Hard Rock Café you can see the short row of drunkenly leaning, half-timbered Jacobean houses that include the Redhouse and Bessie Surtees House, the last remnants of an almost vanished architecture on Newcastle and Gateshead Quayside that disappeared over the course of just a few days in 1854. The Guildhall in any city is generally a pretty grand building, as older towns in England dating back to medieval times (like Newcastle) were run by cartels of trade guilds. These guilds were like a mix of professional organisations, trade unions and charities, which looked after the affairs of the various trades in the town. They could be a pretty ruthless bunch though – several of the tour participants were surprised to learn that the Newcastle guilds once started one of the largest Witch Hunts in English history in 1649. If you’d been inside the Guildhall in that year, you would have encountered a Scottish witchfinder searching Newcastle residents for the Devil’s Mark which told that they were a witch, found by jabbing it with a pin and finding a spot on the body that didn’t bleed. In the end, 15 people went to the gallows on the Town Moor protesting their innocence all the way. To this day though, there is no memorial to the victims of this cruel persecution anywhere in the town. It’s a pretty grisly topic to begin a tour of the history of the Quayside with, but it is important not to shy away from these events when you’re dealing with a city’s history. Take it as a lesson to always beware of witchfinders.

The industrial history of Newcastle has never been something I’ve delved very deeply into before, being more of a medieval historian really, but it’s packed with stories of ingenuity, tenacity, and courage, and reveals a city of world firsts. The Tyne Bridge has stood for less than 100 years at this point but has become the visual icon of the city. 

Workers building the Tyne Bridge (Credit: Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums)

The workers who built this beast of a bridge, drawn from the local shipyards, had a head for heights and nerves as strong as the 7000 tons of steel that were used in the construction. In the 1920s, there was little concern for the health and safety of the workers involved in these massive industrial projects. The workers perched on top of the steel arches of the bridge unsecured and climbed up with multiple ladders lashed together. Rivets were forged onsite and flung up at the workers on the bridge, where the rivet catcher would grab it in a thick glove, and it would be hammered into place while still red hot. Astonishingly, despite these precarious working conditions, only one worker is known to have died during the building of the bridge – Nathaniel Collins, a scaffolder from South Shields fell from the bridge in Feb 1928. A waterman named John Carr made a heroic effort to save Collins when he hit the pier and fell into the water, grabbing hold of him to try and drag him into his boat, but he was dragged almost a mile downstream by the strong tide before he finally managed to haul Collins aboard. He was taken to the infirmary where he became the only known casualty of what was at the time the world’s longest single span bridge.

Dorothy Buchanan - designer of the Tyne Bridge

The Tyne Bridge also has the accolade of being designed by the first woman to be a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers – a Scottish engineer called Dorothy Buchanan working for Dorman Long. She had previously been involved with the design of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, and later worked on the Lambeth Bridge in London. At the time she said that she felt that she represented all the women in the world and hoped that many more would follow after her. I hope she’d be proud to know that on the 90th anniversary of the bridge’s opening 90 female engineers gathered on the bridge to celebrate her legacy.

Thomas Spence

It's not just in the field of engineering and industry that Newcastle has been a city of innovation either – moving on from the Tyne Bridge on the Quayside you’ll come to a little plaque half hidden in an alley off the main street, proclaiming the birthplace of Thomas Spence. Born to a working-class family of Presbyterian Scots alongside 17 brothers and sisters (!), Thomas Spence was born in poverty and died the same way. So why does he get a plaque? Because he was one of the most radical political writers of his day, advocating for equal rights for men, women and children, universal suffrage, the abolition of the monarchy and aristocracy and the nationalisation of all land in the country. He began by distributing pamphlets by radical thinkers like Thomas Paine, the famous supporter of the American revolution, but he soon began writing and publishing his own works. He moved down to London where he ran a radical bookshop selling “seditious” pamphlets. Publicly calling for the abolition of the monarchy at the time of the Napoleonic wars made Spence extremely unpopular with the government, and he spent many years in prison as a result. In his works, he imagines a utopia called Spensonia, which embodies his ideas of universal freedom, human rights, and democracy. At the times when he lived, such ideas were a fantasy for most of the population, but perhaps Spence would be gratified to see that we’ve crept a little closer to realising Spensonia in the three centuries since he died, though doubtless he would say that there is still more to do to pass power into the hands of the people.

The Keelmen

As you get even further down the Quayside towards Broad Chare, it can be hard to reconcile the bright, modern promenade where people sit on deckchairs enjoying their drinks in the sun with the bustling, industrial quayside of days long gone. The area once known as Sandgate was the haunt of the Keelmen, hardworking boatmen who rowed the shallow drafted keels upriver to collect the coal that was to be loaded onto the great ships at the mouth of the river before being shipped out to the rest of the world. They weren’t only hard working, but hard drinking as well – it used to be said that one keelman could outdrink three pitmen. They were also known for being ferocious in defence of their rights. In 1803, 53 keelmen were taken by the pressgang and forced into the Navy. In response, not only did the remaining keelmen immediately go on strike in solidarity with their comrades, but the wives and mothers of the captured keelmen took up shovels and rolling pins and marched to North Shields to rescue them! 

Walking past the most recent of Newcastle’s “River God” statues, the strongman who seems to be a blowing a kiss to the Siren further up the hill, we came to the Millennium Bridge, the newest addition to the Tyne’s excellent collection of bridges, and the only one in the city dedicated to foot and cycle traffic. There’s a popular story that it’s known as the “Gateshead Millennium Bridge” as a deliberate snub to Newcastle, who allegedly didn’t stump up any money for it. As a result, many say it doesn’t touch the ground on the Newcastle side. This is one of those stories which I suspect is a myth but is a bit too juicy not to repeat! 

On the other side of the Bridge stands The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, formerly a massive flour mill. It also stands on the site of an old ironworks in a part of Gateshead Quayside that was once so crammed with workshops, warehouses and factories spewing thick black smoke into the air that Hillgate came to be known as “Hellgate”. The lax attitude towards health and safety in the ironworks of Hawks, Crawshay and Company is indirectly responsible for one of the great contributions to North East culture, as a young Geordie Ridley was almost crushed by a wagon in 1853 and was seriously injured. Unfit for work in the pits and factories in which he’d spent his working life since the age of 8, he turned to songwriting as a career and although he had a short career (and life) as a result of his injuries, many of his songs like the Blaydon Races and Cushie Butterfield are bawled out to this day across Newcastle and Gateshead as enthusiastically as they were in the 1800s. 

Daniel Defoe

The air in Hillgate is now considerably less hellish, though there’s a definite chill as you walk along it in between the HMS Calliope on your right and the Glasshouse International Centre for Music (formerly The Sage Gateshead) which looms over you on your left, casting the whole street into the shadow of its shining bulk. It was on this street that one of the great works of English literature was likely written, as Daniel Defoe lived here during the period when he was writing Robinson Crusoe. He managed to fit that in around a job as an official government propagandist and possible spy, which he took to try and pay off the debts that had seen him put in the pillory and locked in a debtor’s prison in London. In a sense, he was a bit of a castaway himself.

The Great Fire of Gateshead, 1854

At the foot of St Mary’s Church, near the tower of the Tyne Bridge on the Gateshead side, where the kittiwakes had begun to nest by the end of March, our tour groups were stood pretty much bang on the spot where Wilson and Sons factory caught fire on October 6th 1854. Spreading to the neighbouring chemical warehouse, it caused an explosion loud enough to be heard in Hartlepool, and powerful enough to blow the gas lamps out in Jarrow. It also set light to the ancient timber buildings and flimsy houses on both sides of Newcastle and Gateshead Quayside, destroying in a few nights what had taken centuries to build up. Stones were flung by the explosion up the steep slope and in St Mary’s Churchyard, and the clock on the tower stopped at 3:10, at the exact moment of the explosion. I had always known that much of the beautiful architecture that replaced the older buildings had been built by John Dobson, the great architect whose work can be seen all over Newcastle. But while I was researching the fire for the tours, one fact stood out as particularly poignant – Dobson’s son was one of the casualties of the fire. It must have made seeing the buildings on the Quayside spring up in the aftermath of the fire a bittersweet moment rather than one of pride.

From there, we crossed back over the Tyne on Armstrong’s Swing Bridge. The story of Newcastle’s bridges is always one that local residents seem to find particularly fascinating, and the Swing Bridge is the latest in a long series of bridges on the same site, because it was here in around 122AD that the Romans first built a great bridge across the Tyne, carrying the road that ran to the fort of Pons Aelius on Hadrian’s Wall. The spectacular medieval bridge, with fortified towers, lined with houses and chapels came next, until it was swept away in the floods of 1771.

The Roman Tyne Bridge destroyed by floods

I don’t like to leave a tour with any stories that are too grim though, so rather than dwelling on the loss of life in the flood, I decided to finish up the tour with one of my favourite stories from Newcastle. A cloth trader named Patton saw his house carried away by the floodwaters from the side of the bridge, and he must have thought he had lost everything when he saw it crash into the water. But miraculously, rather than being smashed to bits, the house actually floated. Patton pursued it for 8 miles down the river until it eventually came to rest and he was able to get back inside…and found his cat and his dog miraculously unharmed! 

Stories like this, of people who take the hardships that life throws at them, who go where the wind takes them and find shelter on the shores of the Tyne, are why the kittiwakes who nest on the river are such a potent symbol of Newcastle as a city. These gentle but chatty little birds endure all the hardships of the sea, going from place to place, but coming back to their refuge on the Tyne, nesting on the artificial cliffs built for them unwittingly by the people of Newcastle and Gateshead. The place has always been refuge – a fortress town, walled for protection as well as a port where people of all nations have sailed to; and a place of courage and innovation, where the modern world was made, not just in the fires of industry but by the courage of reformers like Thomas Spence, Earl Grey and many more. 

City of Kittiwakes Parade (Credit: The Chronicle)

The City of Kittiwakes parade at the end of March was a worthy tribute to Newcastle and Gateshead. I’m starting to suspect that Moving Parts Arts get me to lead the parade mainly to see me in a selection of increasingly elaborate costumes, but it’s a massive privilege to be at the head of such a hard working, dedicated folks form the local community who turned out dressed as cormorants, kittiwakes, herons, curlews, puffins and magpies (of course) to celebrate Newcastle and Gateshead. Long may it continue! 

Watch the BBC Newcastle feature on City of Kittiwakes by clicking here.

City of Kittiwakes and Newcastle Puppetry Festival 2024 was made possible by:

Dave Silk is a storyteller and historian from Newcastle upon Tyne and co-author of Tyne and Wear Folktales for Children. He collects and retells traditional tales and ancient stories from around these isles and further afield, and also enjoys rearing pet leeches and practicing the Dark Arts. @davetaleteller

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