The Victorian Economy

The Victorian Economy

The Victorian era brought dramatic changes in the economy of the North-east. There was unprecedented industrialisation and popula­tion expansion, with new villages and towns springing up in the south-east of Northumberland. Yet the Victorian period could have been one of stagnation and decline on Tyneside, for although the wind seemed set fair in the 1840s, much of Tyneside’s existing industry was to decline in the following decades, and only the energies of Tyneside entrepreneurs put the region on a new direction of growth.

The major exception to this decline was coalmining itself. After 1850, with the expansion of local railways and the growing demand for steam-coal, the pace of growth quickened. Mining around Seghill, Plessey and Cramlington was extended. Districts previously mined for High Main coal were re-opened for steam-coal. Collieries became larger, and new settlements grew up, like East Hartford after 1866. Coal was taken by rail to the Tyne, where the Northumberland Dock opened in 1857. These railways (and the advent of steamships) made the small harbour of Seaton Sluice redundant. Collieries north of Blyth were slower to expand because of transport problems, for Blyth was a private port for Cowpen colliery. Netherton colliery, opened in the 1820s, shipped its coal via keels on Sleekburn gut (channel) until, with Bedlington and Barrington pits, it gained rail access to the Tyne in 1850. In 1854 Blyth harbour was opened up and improved, but could not cope with the volume: by 1860 it was shipping 250,000 tons, whereas 11/2 million tons went by Blyth-Tyne railway. New mining villages, like Bomarsund, named after an engage­ment in the Crimean War, sprang up north of the river Blyth. In 1872 the railway was extended to Ashington. Coal from here and neigh­bouring collieries like Pegswood and Newbiggin had a long rail journey to the Northumberland Dock, and in 1882 the Blyth Harbour Commissioners began major improvements at Blyth. Blyth shipped only 150,000 tons in 1883, but 4,750,000 tons in 1913. Ashington’s popplation grew from 1,002 in 1871, to 5,307 in 1891, 13,972 in 1901, and nearly 25,000 in 1911. Beyond Ashington, pits around Amble were extended for the deep steam-coal, creating new villages at Radcliffe and Broomhill, and Amble harbour and staithes were improved in the 1870s.

Though coalmining thrived, other sectors faltered at mid-century. The collier trade itself was threatened by the quicker and more reliable delivery of coal to London by railway from other regions. The recently-grown iron industry faced competition from Teesside with its Cleveland ores. The remote furnaces of Redesdale soon went out of business. Bedlington closed in 1860, Wylam in 1865. Tyneside ironworks managers migrated to Teesside, and though the Walker works of Losh, Wilson and Bell survived with its imported ore, they too closed in 1891. Similarly the Tyneside alkali industry declined in the face of the new Solvay process and the attractions of Teesside. The glass industry largely disappeared through new competition, and in south-west Northumberland the leadmining costs rose as lead prices fell with new foreign supplies entering the market, and the mines were closed.

The state of the river Tyne was a major constraint on industrial growth. Although the Tyne was one of Britain’s leading ports, it was possible in the 1840s to ford the river below Newcastle at low tide, and vessels commonly grounded on banks and shoals. At the mouth there were no piers, and gales drove ships onto the Black Midden rocks. In 1849 the average depth on the bar was only six feet. Newcastle corporation was responsible for the river, but made few improvements, much to the annoyance of Tynesiders. From 1809 to 1849 the corporation received £957,973 from river dues, etc., but spent only £397,719, the rest going on town expenditure. In 1850, however, the Tyne Improvement Commission took control of the river, and after J. P. Ure became Engineer in 1859, dredging began. In 1876  the opening of the Swing Bridge at Newcastle, and further dredging beyond it, opened up the river to Dunston Staithes. By 1895 there was 30 feet of water even at low tide well up river, and the two massive piers at the mouth were complete.

New direction for the Tyneside economy after 1850 was provided by men like Charles Mark Palmer and William Armstrong. Palmer, a young coalowner, decided to build a steam-propelled iron ship to meet the competition of railway-marketed coal. His John Bowes was launched in 1852 and immediately proved its value, delivering as much coal to London in a five-day return trip as a collier would in two months. Further iron ships from Palmer’s Jarrow yard and other shipyards not only saved the seaborne coal trade, but began a major shipbuilding industry. Existing wooden shipbuilding, of colliers and East Indiamen, did not die immediately. In 1858, only seven out of 44 Tyne shipyards used iron, but by 1862 there were 10 (including C. W. Mitchell’s Walker yard), employing over 4,000 men.

William Armstrong, an archetypal Victorian industrialist, made the biggest impact on Tyneside. The son of a corn merchant who was Mayor of Newcastle, Armstrong began as a solicitor, but became more interested in engineering. He invented a hydraulic crane and started a small factory at Elswick in 1847. The Crimean War of 1854-6 provided opportunities for both Palmer and Armstrong. Palmer got a contract for a rolled-iron plated gunship, the Terror, 2,000 tons, with 16 300-pound guns, and later gained a reputation for warships. Armstrong invented a breech-loading field gun, soon adopted by the government. He was knighted, and Elswick became -an armaments centre, which by the late 1860s was bigger than Palmer’s yards.

In 1867 Armstrong also began making warships, but as ships could not get up to Elswick, they were built at Mitchell’s Walker yard, and the firms amalgamated in 1883. In 1876 Armstrong designed the hydraulic Swing Bridge, which enabled ships to reach Elswick river-front, where a shipyard was opened in 1884. Armstrong’s first warship was the gunboat H.M.S. Staunch in 1868, and he was soon building cruisers and gunboats for the world; the Panther for Austro-Hungary, the battleship Victoria for Britain, the Elizabeta for Rumania, the Yashima for Japan, and many others. The Armstrong empire also pioneered the steam-propelled tanker for the emerging oil trade, building the Gluckauf in 1886 as the first effective oil tank steamer, and 95 others in the next 20 years.

By 1900 Tyneside was a world famous centre for both shipbuilding and armaments. Armstrong’s complex had grown from 30 men in 1847 to a workforce of over 25,000. The Tyne’s reputation was not just based on the Armstrong and Palmer yards, but also on other major firms like Hawthorn, Leslie and Co., and Swan Hunter’s. Marine engineering became important, with firms like Hawthorn’s, Clarke Chapman of Gateshead, and Parsons’ Heaton Works and his Marine Steam Turbine Company. C. A. Parsons developed the turbine engine, and his vessel Turbinia amazed the naval world at the 1897 Spithead review by weaving amongst the big warships at 30 knots. Parsons also. developed turbo-alternators for electric power, and Tyneside firms became important suppliers to the new electricity industry. Although Tyneside’s fame had not been built on passenger ships, Tynesiders have tended to see the crowning achievement of this era of growth as the large transatlantic liner Mauretania, built in 1906 by Swan Hunter’s and powered by Parsons’ turbines. The fastest transatlantic liner of her day, she continued the New York run until 1934.

This Victorian economic growth brought rapid population growth and in-migration. Walisend, for example, grew from 4,700 in 1841 to 29,000 in 1901, and Elswick from 3539 in 1851 to 27,801 in only 20 years. In 1871 a fifth of Northumberland’s population had been born outside Northumberland and Durham. Thirty-one per cent. Of these migrants had come from Scotland, and 19 per cent. were Irish. The different groups and the overcrowded housing led to tensions. When the anti-Catholic lecturer Murphy visited North Shields in 1869, there were shots in the hall and a major street-fight outside. Although great inequalities and considerable poverty remained, the economic growth brought higher living standards to the mass of the population, especially towards the end of the century. In particular, housing improved, together with sanitation and public health, and the new terraced streets of Scotswood, Byker and Wailsend represented very real advances on earlier conditions. For the middle-classes there were the larger terraces of Jesmond. The new housing greatly expanded Newcastle and the Tyneside towns, and the railways, horse-trams (introduced  to Newcastle in 1879), and later electric trains and trams, helped men get to their work. The Tyneside landscape altered dramatically. In the 1840s watercolours and lithographs still showed grassy banks to the river, but by 1914  the river was largely flanked by terraced streets and shipyards.

The coast and sea-bathing had long attracted middle-class visitors. Assembly Rooms had been built at Tynemouth, and in 1 843 the steamboat Venus had begun regular sailings from the New Quay, North Shields, to Seaton Sluice, providing a return ticket, plus tea and a plate of fruit at Seaton Delaval gardens, all for is. 3d. (6p). Now the shipyard managers and skilled workmen began to live in the Victorian and Edwardian terraces in Tynemouth, Cullercoats and Whitley, and many other workers made Sunday trips to the seaside there.

With rising living standards, some industrial disputes began to focus on working hours as well as wages. Industrialists like Armstrong were generous in gifts to Newcastle and other towns, but could be dictatorial in their factories. In 1871 Armstrong strongly opposed his engineers on strike for a nine-hour day, and brought in foreign blacklegs, but he eventually had to give way. This 1871 strike was not union-organised, and apart from the miners (who built an effective union in the 1860), organised unionism only expanded in the 20 years before 1914.

Along with industrial growth on Tyneside came rural decline in Northumberland. Although farming wages were good compared with southern England, labourers left the farms for the towns of Tyneside and further afield. The population of the Ford district of Glendale fell by 43 per cent. in 1851-1901. Cheap railway transport allowed goods from industrial districts to drive rural industries out of production. Woollen mills, smithies, market town industries like glove-making at Hexham, all declined. As people left, a negative multiplier effect led to a downward spiral of rural services and amenities, a spiral still not halted in parts of Northumberland.