Northumberland and Newcastle since 1914

Northumberland and Newcastle since 1914

The First World War took the lives of thousands of Northumbrians serving in France with the Northumberland Fusiliers and other regiments. It also brought extra orders to the Tyneside shipyards, and Armstrong’s annual profits rose from £800,000 to £1 million. However, the end of the war also ended the era of world-wide imperial and trade expansion, and the boom ended in the summer of 1920, when freight rates suddenly. fell and contracts for new ships dried up. The trade recession was accentuated by the lack of government naval orders, restricted by the Washington Naval Limitation Treaty and later by disarmament policies. By 1923 there was heavy unemployment on Tyneside, though there was a limited recovery, particularly with orders
for oil tankers, after 1926. Armstrongs epitomised the problem: they built only one Admiralty warship between 1920 and 1936, and they desperately tried new projects like the disastrous Newfoundland paper-mills scheme, where costs escalated in a bad winter, and in 1927 they were forced to merge with Vickers. The Walker Naval Yard closed in 1928.

These were just the beginnings of bad times. In recessions long-term investment like shipbuilding is first and hardest hit, and the industry now suffered even more in the 1930s Depression. In 1930 orders for tankers ceased, yards began to close, and unemployment soared. Economic rock-bottom was in late summer 1932. At Willington unemployment was 74.6 per cent., in Wailsend 46 per cent., and in North Shields 48 per cent. The National Shipbuilders Security Company was set up in 1930 to buy redundant shipyards for other uses, and in 1934 Palmer’s Jarrow yard on south Tyneside was bought and closed. All the related engineering industries also suffered, as did coalmining. Falling coal prices and exports in the post-1918 years had led to clashes between employers and miners over wages, culminating in the General Strike of 1926, and its sad failure to help the miners. Unemployment in Ashington reached 63 per cent. in summer 1932, and 55 per cent. in Bedlington, though these were seasonal peaks, and by winter the rates were down to 19 per cent. and 10.6 per cent. respectively.

Northumberland & Tyneside in 1976
Northumberland & Tyneside in 1976

Government cuts reinforced the downward spiral, and it was not until 1934 that positive action was taken. The particular problem of the region was its over-emphasis on a few basic industries and a failure to develop the newer growth industries like car and aircraft production. The commercial flexibility that led to new directions in the 1840s was not present in early 20th century Tyneside. Many people migrated to jobs in the Midlands and South-east. In 1934 the Special Areas Act set up development areas and finance to build industrial estates for new industry, but by 1934 the world economy was recovering, and with it shipping orders. On Tyneside rearmament gave a real injection: in 1935 the Walker Naval Yard re-opened and built the battleship King George V, and by September 1936 there were 17 warships under contract in Tyneside yards. Even in 1939, however, there was still high unemployment in many parts of the North-east. The 1930s recession (like that of the mid-1970s) was very uneven in its impact, and at the same time as the Jarrow workers were marching to London in 1936, there were many new estates of suburban semi-detached houses being built around Tyneside.

After the Second World War the North-east shared in the national rise in prosperity. Throughout the 1950s incomes rose, suburban estates expanded, and car ownership became more common. Output from the Northumberland coalfield expanded, and the Tyneside shipyards had full order books, especially for oil tankers, though there were also passenger ships like the Empress of England launched at Walker Naval Yard in 1956. However, the region’s growth lagged behind the national rate: the area was still dependent on a few traditional industries, lacked rapid growth industries, and people continued to migrate to the faster-growing Midlands and South-east.

These underlying problems came to the surface after 1960. Ship­building was facing stiffer competition from Japan and Germany, and profits fell. The Blyth yard, with 1,000 employees, closed in 1966. The 1966 Geddes Report on British Shipbuilding argued for rationalisation, and in 1968 Swan Hunters merged with all the other Tyne yards to form Swan, Hunter and Tyne Shipbuilders, but the future has remained uncertain, and in 1976 the industry faces nationalisation. Coalmining also contracted; the number of miners in the whole North-east fell -from 140,000 in 1958 to 63,000 in 1969. In Northumberland, towns like Amble, Ashington and Bedlington saw increasing mining unemployment, although a number of pits in the area were designated as long-life pits by the N.C.B.

This decline, and the fact that regions like Tyneside were always first to go under in a recession like that of 1962-63 and last to recover, made the government step up its regional policies and incentives to new industries, aided by local organisations like the North East Development Council. Attracting these industries has been difficult. The region has had an unfavourable image, and is seen as remote from the centres of the Midlands and South-east, where the potential migrant firms are, though the new road system based on the Tyne Tunnel and A1(M) is a major improvement. The new industries have also tended to employ the reserves of female labour rather than the unemployed men, and to require modern skills difficult to find in the area. In face of these difficulties the success of the policy has been remarkable. Numerous firms have come, and the regional economy would be in a much worse state today without them. In 1968 the government directed the new Alcan aluminium smelter, costing £50 million, to Lynemouth, ensuring the jobs of perhaps 1,000 miners in the local pits. Despite all this, however, industrial Northumberland and Tyneside has again been hard hit by the mid-1970s recession. In June 1976 Tyneside unemployment stood at 8.2 per cent., against a national rate of 5.6 per cent., and it will be one of the slower regions to partake in any recovery of the British economy.

During the 1960s Northumberland County Council began two new towns at Killingworth (1962) and Cramlington (1963) to provide centres for new industry and housing in south-east Northumberland, and they have grown rapidly. In Newcastle the city planning officer, Dr. Wilfred Burns, and the leader of the City Council, Mr. T. Dan Smith, inaugurated a massive city centre redevelopment plan, involving a new road system (including an urban motorway) to relieve traffic congestion, and office and shopping complexes. Mr. Smith talked of creating ‘the Brasilia of the Old World’. Older housing in Byker and Scotswood was pulled down, to be replaced with high-rise flats. The plan is not yet complete (and parts have been changed), but the city horizon is now dominated by new office blocks, the road system is much improved (though it has destroyed the human scale of parts of the city), and an underground railway or ‘Metro’ is still under construction. The central scheme has cost the city some of its fine buildings (notably Eldon Square), though it is perhaps the philosophy of huge housing blocks (like the   ‘Byker Wall’ block shielding the rest of the neighbourhood from the motorway) that is most open to criticism.

The growing urban sprawl of Tyneside and the increase in commuting meant the existing local government units no longer represented defined communities. Many of Newcastle’s suburbs lay in Northumberland county. In 1974 the national reorganisation  of local government created a new Metropolitan County of Tyne and Wear to run the whole conurbation as one unit. Its boundaries included Newcastle, Tynemouth, and the Tyneside portions of Northumberland such as Gosforth, Wallsend and Whitley Bay. The new Northumberland administrative county was not reduced to a purely rural unit, as some earlier proposals had suggested, but retained much of the coalfield area, including Ashington, BlytI and Cramlington.

In the Northumberland countryside, population decline has continued as a result of farming mechanisation and the lack of job opportunities. Between 1956 and 1966 the agricultural labour force fell by almost 30 per cent. The problem has been most acute in Northumbrian Tweedside, where the population fell by 12.5 per cent. in 1951-61. Glendale fell by 7.2 per cent., and Haltwhistle by 8.2 per cent Many small settlements have fallen below the viable size for community life. In Redesdale and North Tynedale the plantations of the Forestry Commission, started in the late 1920s, but greatly expanded since 1945, have provided some employment. Surveys of rural migration throughout the county have shown that lack of jobs for the young is a key factor, and it is the school-leavers who have to seek training and employment on Tyneside. Rural policy has evolved more slowly than industrial policy, but since the early 1960s planning documents have begun to emphasise the importance of rural growth centres, notably Morpeth, Hexham and Berwick, with secondary centres at Ainwick, Wooler and Haltwhistle.

With rising car ownership, the urban population of Tyneside has made increasing use of the Northumbrian countryside. The recent road improvements in industrial Northumberland, and the by-passes at Ainwick and Morpeth have also made the moors, hills and beaches more accessible. Public access to these areas is vital, but requires planning to avoid damaging both the environment and agriculture. To meet this need the Northumberland National Park was created in 1956, with its Warden centre at Ingram, whilst an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated on the coast between Warkworth and Berwick in 1958. Although the Northumberland countryside is uncongested compared with Devon or the Lake District, and one can still find half-empty beaches in north Northumberland in summer, specific areas have come under heavy pressure. The dune ecosystems of the coast are particularly fragile, and uncontrolled parking and development could lead to irreversible changes, so planning policy has restricted parking development to limited sites.

The historical legacy is also threatened. Parts of Hadrian’s Wall are in danger from the thousands of tourists’ feet. But the major threat is not to the older buildings and monuments (many of which are protected), but to the industrial and mining remains, being destroyed by modern urban and industrial change. Fortunately some of the best examples of industrial archaeology have been preserved, and can now be seen in the regional open-air industrial museum at Beamish in County Durham.