In 2009, an archaeological survey was conducted in advance of a proposal by the Tyne Rowing Club who wanted to build a new flight of steps down to the waters edge on the south (Gateshead) bank of the River Tyne, just west of Newburn Bridge. The Historic Environment Record noted the survival of a spread of old boat timbers, representing the remains of a possible five vessels at this point of the river. The boats were of a type of river barge known as a wherry
, a common sight on the river until the 1960s.
Boatsheds, Tyne United Rowing Club. Photo A Curtis (2013).
Remains of the Ryton Wherries, west of Newburn Bridge. Photo A Curtis (2013).
The wherries at Ryton were beached at this location between the 1940s and the 1960s by the Port of Tyne Authority when they were no longer in service, to remove them from the navigation channels, further downstream. Later photographs (from SINE
, Newcastle Libraries Collection
) show how the wrecks have deteriorated over time (click photos for link).
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The decaying remains of wherries at Newburn. View from the south. (Image from 1971).
Stafford Linsley Collection , Ref: 312
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Aerial photo (zoomed), from the southwest. (late 20th Century).
Norman McCord Collection, Ref: 414
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Wherries on River Tyne opposite Newburn.
Beamish Peoples Collection Ref: NEG1198
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045938:Newburn from Newcastle Libraries Collection.
Beamish Peoples Collection Ref: NEG1201
Beamish People's Collection Ref: NEG1200
Active disassembly of the hulks to retrieve valuable copper clench nails followed by the constant tides and flow of the river have now reduced the remains to just a scatter of wood and metal debris, much embedded in the mud of the river bed.
A full archaeological survey of the site was made in the spring and summer of 2009 by Alan Williams and Patrick Taylor. Of the five substantial hulls noted on the HER, two proved to be pontoons, probably originally floating ferry landings, and three were wherries. All were made of oak timber planking, a durable material largely responsible for the continued survival of the vessels. The survey showed that many elements of wherry construction were identifiable including parts of oak frames, planks, knees, rudders and metal fixings.
The construction technique for the hulls is of overlapping planking sealed with caulking (rags of hemp soaked in tar), known as clinker construction. Each plank overlaps the one below it, and a fixing nail is driven through the overlap, and bent over (clenched) a metal washer called a rove. Scatters of clench nails and roves were recorded among the timbers at Ryton. This is a very ancient technique; vessels sailed down the Tyne by the Roman navy would have been clinker-built, as indeed was the Sutton Hoo ship and all Viking long-boats. Cullercoat cobbles
continue the tradition, but after the time of Henry VIII, most other craft are made of end-butted planks, sealed with pitch, a technique known as carvel planking which is much easier to repair than clinker planking.
The Tyne Wherries were developed to carry out the two functions of barge-traffic and lighterage (to lighten the load of larger vessels). In the early days they were propelled, like the Keels
before them, by the power of the flowing tide, by the use of long sweeps (oars) or punting poles and through the use of simple sailing rigs (square sail or later, sprit sail and jib). Strings of unpowered (dumb) wherries could readily be towed by paddle-tugs, thus enabling them to take best advantage of wind and tide for passages. In the later nineteenth century many became self-propelled, using small vertical boilers and engines placed aft to drive a screw propeller, and eventually a few adopted motor power.
Tyne Wherry at the Mill Dam by John Scott (1850). South Shields Museum & Art Gallery.
The names and owners of the Ryton wherries have been lost, but it is known that local industries owned small fleets of wherries, to reduce the cost of transportation for heavy, bulky goods of low value. Armstrong-Vickers, Cookson's Lead Works and Keedy's all operated fleets of wherries. Another was Kirton’s Brick Works at Newbum (originally Walbottle Firebrick Works), located just on the other side of the river from the Ryton hulks which operated wherries from the late 19th Century to 1965.
The last wherry of its type, and the largest shell-clinker built craft left afloat in England in the 1970s, was 'Elswick No. 2'; launched in 1939, 55 feet long and 23 feet in the beam. She was launched as a towing (dumb) wherry but was soon fitted with a motor engine and used by the Vickers Scotswood factory for carrying heavy machinery manufactured there down river to be put aboard ships for export or coastal transport. It was purchased by N. Keedy and Sons in the post-war period and continued in similar lighterage use, for instance, ferrying pre-fabricated steel sections between shipyard sites.
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Motorised Tyne wherry 'Elswick No 2' at Willington Quay.
Beamish Peoples Collection Ref: NEG3746.
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The Tyne Wherry 'Elswick No. 2' during refurbishment at Hawthorn Leslie's in Hebburn. (Image from March 1986). Stafford Linsley Collection, Ref: B185.
In the early 1970s, N. Keedy and Sons donated Elswick No. 2 to the Maritime Trust. This body merged with Tyne and Wear Museums in 1976. The wherry was transferred
to the Tyne and Wear Museums large object store at Beamish in 2002 where it remains today.
The Tyne Wherry "Elswick No 2" on its journey to the Regional Museum Store at Beamish Museum, March 2002.
Beamish Peoples Collection Ref: NEG179493
The Last Tyne Wherry - Elswick No. 2. Tyne & Wear County Council Museums Service. c1979.
We are lucky to have retained this single example of an original Tyne Wherry. In comparison, no example remains of the equally common Tyne Keel-boats, which were unlike the larger wherries, legally restricted to carriage of coal. Sunniside Local History Society have a good article about the keels, and the keelmen who manned both keels and wherries here
An article, 'Tales from a working river
' in the Newcastle Chronicle (January 15th 2011) described the memories of William Gardner who worked on the Tyne wherries until about 1926.
Two keelmen worked on each wherry. There was a cabin into which they had to lower themselves, with two bunks for sleeping, a fire and cooking utensils. A wherry could carry loads of 65 to 85 tons and when fully loaded, the top of the craft would only be 18in above the water. Many frequently sank and had to be salvaged along with their cargo. There was a walkway 18in wide only separated from the drop into the open hold by an 8in high batten. William Gardner's wherry operated from Cowan's brickworks
at Blaydon, from where fire-bricks were sent all over the world. A full load of some 20,000 bricks was loaded and unloaded by hand.
Tyne-side seem’d clad wiv bonny ha’s,
An’ furnaces sae dunny;
Wey this mun be what Bible ca’s,
“The land ov milk and honey"
If a’ thor things belang’d tiv I,
Aw’d myek the poor reet murry;
An’ cheer the folks i’ gannin by,
Iv Jemmy Joneson’s Whurry.
Jemmy Joneson, whose wherry is immortalized in this Geordie dialect song by Thomas Thompson, c1815, was a famous local character, well known to passengers on the River Tyne. After the onset of steam, despite the notable protestations of Joneson, the use of wherries and 'comfortables' (a covered wherry) for passenger transport on the river rapidly died out, replaced by the steamboat.