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2 TOWN OF NEWCASTLE. Chap. I
Newcastle may be regarded as the capital of the district, though there are many other important towns in the neighbourhood, such as Sunderland, Shields (North and South), Hartlepool, and Middlesborough, the prosperity of which depends in a great measure on the sale and shipment of the coal to London and other ports at home and abroad. Newcastle is a very curious old town: its more ancient parts are full of crooked lanes and narrow streets, of wynds and chares, formed by tall antique houses, rising tier above tier along the steep northern bank of the Tyne; as the similarly precipitous streets of Gateshead crowd the opposite shore.
Eighteen hundred years ago the Eomans, under Hadrian, first bridged the Tyne by the Pons iElii, near the point occupied by the present Low Level Bridge, erecting at the same time a fortification on the Moot Hill, now occupied by the Central Eailway Station. About a thousand years later, after repeated immigrations of Norsemen, whose Eorls or Earls of Northumberland made Newcastle their principal seat, the Normans came and built the New Castle —now eight hundred years old—from which the town derives its modern name. The keep of the New Cabtle still stands entire, though black with age and smoke, almost directly opposite the line of the noble High Level Bridge—the warlike relie of the older civilization thus confronting the utilitarian offspring of the new.
The town has in the mean time grown immensely, having expanded in all directions far beyond its ancient boundaries. It is no longer a border fortress—the "shield and defence against the invasions and frequent insults of the Scots," as described in ancient charters,—but a busy centre of peaceful industry, the fountain of a vast amount of steam power, which is exported, in the form of coal, to all parts of the world.
A dense cloud of smoke constantly hangs over the town, almost obscuring the sun's light. North and south, the atmosphere is similarly murky, and the surface of the soil everywhere exhibits the signs of extensive underground Chap. I. POPULATION OF NORTHUMBERLAND. 3
workings. In all directions are to be seen swollen heaps of ashes and refuse, coals and slag—the rubbish of old abandoned pits, as well as the pumping engines and machinery of new. As you pass through the country by night, the earth looks as if it were bursting with fire at many points —the blaze of coke ovens, iron furnaces, and coal heaps reddening the sky to such a distance that the horizon seems to be a glowing belt of fire.
The Northumbrian people, generally, exhibit many striking and characteristic qualities, inherited most probably from the hardy and energetic Norsemen who settled in such numbers along the coast many centuries ago. Taking them as a whole, they are bigger as well as hardier men, and of more marked individuality, than the inhabitants of our more southern counties. They are less flexible, graceful, and polished, but full of rough shrewdness and mother-wit, and possessed of considerable strength of character, of which, indeed, their remarkable guttural speech is but a type. The Northumbrian dialect is a sort of mixture of Lowland Scotch and North-country English, pervaded by the strong burr peculiar to Northumberland. It is related of a Scotch lass who took service in Newcastle that when asked how she got on with the language, she replied that she managed it very well by "swallowing the R's and giein them a bit chow i' the middle." This description of the Newcastle dialect might, no doubt, be improved, but we will not venture upon a task so difficult.
The classes of the Northumbrian population more particularly referred to in the course of the following pages, are those connected with the coal trade. The number of workpeople employed in the Durham and Northumberland collieries, above and below ground, is about forty thousand—the above-ground workmen being nearly half the number of those employed under the surface. Besides these there is about an equal number of keelmen and sailors employed in the transport of the coal; the shipping connected with the trade, as is well known, 4 COLLIERY WORKPEOPLE. Chap. I.
having for hundreds of years formed the principal nursery of our seamen.
The pitmen, who work out the coal below ground, or "the lads belaw," as they call themselves, are a peculiar class, quite distinct from the workmen employed on the surface. They are a people with peculiar habits, manners, and character, as much so as fishermen and sailors, to whom, indeed, they are supposed, perhaps from the dangerous nature of their calling, to bear a considerable resemblance. Some forty or fifty years ago they were a very much rougher and worse-educated class than they are now; hard workers, but very wild and uncouth; much given to " steeks," or strikes; and distinguished, in their hours of leisure and on pay-nights, for their love of cockfighting, dog-fighting, hard drinking, and cuddy races. The pay-night was a fortnightly saturnalia, in which the pitman's character was fully brought out, especially when the "yel " was good. Though earning much higher wages than the ordinary labouring population of the upper soil, the latter did not mix nor intermarry with them; so that they were left to form their own communities, and hence their marked peculiarities as a class. Indeed, a sort of traditional disrepute seems long to have clung to the pitmen, perhaps arising from the nature of their employment, and from the circumstance that the colliers were amongst the last classes enfranchised in England, as they were certainly the last in Scotland, where they continued bondmen down to the end of last century.
The last thirty years, however, have worked a great improvement in the moral condition of the pitmen; the abolition of the twelve months' bond to the mine, and the substitution of a month's notice previous to leaving, having given them greater freedom and opportunity for obtaining employment; and day schools and Sunday schools, together with the important influences of railways, have brought them fully up to a level with the other classes of the labouring population. The Newcastle colliery class can even boast of having produced amongst their number many
Chap. I. DRAINING AND WINDING ENGINKS. 5
distinguished men, such as Dr. Hutton the geologist, originally a hewer at Long Benton; and Thomas Bewick, the first English wood engraver. One of Bewick's earliest recollections was that of lying for hours on his side between dismal strata of coal, and plying the pick by the light of a glimmering candle for bread.
Amongst the upper-ground workmen connected with a colliery are the firemen, enginemen, and brakesmen, who fire and work the engines, and superintend the machinery employed to draw coals out of the pits and keep them clear of water. Previous to the introduction of the steam.engine the usual machine employed for the purpose was what is called a " gin." The gin consists of a large drum placed horizontally, round which ropes attached to buckets and corves are wound, which are thus drawn up or sent down the shafts by a horse travelling in a circular track or "gin race." This method was employed for drawing up both coals and water, and it is still used for the same purpose in small collieries; but where the quantity of water to be raised is great, the gin is found quite insufficient, and then pumps worked by steam power are called into requisition.
Newcomen's atmospheric engine was first made use of to work the pumps; and it continued to be so employed long after the more powerful and economical condensing engine of Watt had been- introduced. In the Newcomen or "fire engine," as it was called, the power is produced by the pressure of the atmosphere forcing down the piston in the cylinder, on a vacuum being produced within it by condensation of the contained steam by means of cold water injection. The piston rod is attached to one end of a lever, whilst the pump rod works in connexion with the other. The hydraulic action employed to raise the water is exactly similar to that of a common sucking pump.
The working of a Newcomen engine is a clumsy and apparently a very painful process, accompanied by an extraordinary amount of wheezing, sighing, creaking, and bumping. When the pump descends, there is heard a plunge,
(J PLATEWAYS AND STAITHS. Chap. I.
a heavy sigh, and a loud bump: then, as it rises, and the sucker begins to act, there is heard a creak, a wheeze, another bump, and then a loud rush of water as it is lifted and poured out. Where engines of a more powerful and improved description are used, the quantity of water raised is enormous—as much as a million and a half gallons in the twenty-four hours.
Another engine, early employed for the purpose of winding the coal out of the pits, was that called a Whimsey. In working this machine, the engine-tenter, or brakesman, stood with his hand, or foot, upon a lever, to stay the action of the whole the moment he saw the corfe or basket full of coals above ground, when it was landed by the banksman on the pit-head. The total power of the engines employed in pumping and winding in the Northern collieries is now considerably upwards of twenty thousand horses.
The necessity which existed for conveying, in the easiest and cheapest manner, large quantities of coal from the pits to the shipping places along the Tyne and Wear, early led to the invention of levelled tracks laid with stone, along which the waggons were dragged by horses. Then wooden planks or rails were in course of time introduced, by which the resistance of friction was still further diminished; but. as the wood soon became worn out, the rails were protected by flat iron plates nailed upon their upper edges; and eventually the whole rail was.made of cast-iron plates, whence the road came to be denominated the "plate-way.''
These roads led down to the staiths erected along the river side; the waggons sometimes descending by their own gravity along inclined planes, the waggoner standing behind to check the speed by means of a convoy or wooden brake bearing upon the rims of the wheels. Arrived at the staiths, the waggons were emptied at once into the ships alongside waiting for cargo. Any one who has sailed down the Tyne from Newcastle Bridge cannot but have been struck with the appearance of the immense staiths, constructed of timber, which are erected at short distances from each other on both sides of the river.