The North East of England has a rich history or revolt and resistance to authority. Whole volumes could, and have been written on this subject. With a natural aversion to control from outside or above, the people of the North East are renowned for their rebellioness against injustice. Whilst this is not the place for an in depth study of each and every historical record of this, a brief rollercoaster ride through the tides of time, to highlight a few snapshots of this history, is in order. ( 126ad – 1832 for now…)

Natural disaffection from Roman rule instigated the rebellions of the Northern Tribes and repeated destroying of sections of Hadrian’s Wall in 126AD and 163AD, to Roman generals being killed in revolts of 180AD, to further trouble of 297AD, 343AD, and in 367AD a combination of Pict’s, Irish, Scots, and Saxon pirates colluding together to overrun the Wall and other continuing revolts against Roman rule. (no wall can stop us !)

After the conquest of 1066, Norman kings found that the North East “difficult to govern and defend”. In 1080 they instructed the help of the Bishop of Durham to intervene. The bishop on entering Gateshead, his pleas for peace were drowned out with “slay ye the bishop”, whilst fleeing and hiding in a church, it was set alight, and the bishop butchered as he tried to escape. The crowd then attacks a Norman castle at Durham.[i]

The formation of what could be described as early Trade Unionism in 1719 and the Newcastle Shoemakers Union. 

The hunger riots of 1740 in Newcastle, and the plundering of grain ships to feed the starving by Tyneside and Wearside pitmen, the taking over of the town from the fleeing militiamen, the freeing of the prisoners, the storming of the Guild Hall and destroying its court records, “This was a highly symbolic act of collective violence since the Guild Hall was the epitome of bourgeois civic pride and the meeting place of the local elites”[ii].

The resistance to press gangs at North Shields in 1760 onwards, where instances of mutiny were common, and the taking control of the ships to escape.

March 9th 1761, and opposed to forced conscription in the area, a march of an estimated 5000, led by Allendale pitmen, converged on Hexham. The authorities, who had called the North York’s Militia to restore order, lost patience with the riotous crowd and opened fire resulting in the deaths of 50 protestors and two of the soldiers. The deaths included two pregnant women. Over 300 were injured.

March 20th 1815 and the Sunderland Keelmen riot.

In 1819, after the massacre of Waterloo in Manchester, The Town council of Newcastle sent a message of congratulations to the Prince Regent and promised to deal with the forces of “anarchy and atheism” in Newcastle.[iii] Of course 80,000 protestors in the North East thought differently and on 11th October they peacefully converged from all areas to the town moor to voice concerns and give support to the victims of “Tyranny and Oppression”. The crowd had hidden weapons and arms in case of a repeat of Manchester, to defend themselves.

14th October 1819, and the Keelmens strike at North Shields. The authorities and coal owners, fearing general disorder, sent the Mayor of Newcastle down river with naval vessels, whilst the coal owners were trying to load the coal boats with blackleg labour. Naturally the locals resisted with a barrage of missiles thrown from the banks of the Tyne. The marines open fire, mortally wounding Joseph Cleckson and taking him prisoner, whilst hiding in a nearby pub. The infuriated crowd stormed the building, released the prisoner, whilst the mayor etc escaped through the back door. The crowd then “went on to take over the streets of North Shields until a party of the Sixth Dragoon Guards from Newcastle Barracks arrived and cleared the streets. For the next few days the cavalry continued to patrol the streets of North Shields where there was the occasional outbreak of disorder and violence, especially after the verdict of the inquest into the shooting of Joseph Cleckson was given as Justifiable Homicide”.[iv] 

The 1825 Seaman riot of August 3rd in Sunderland, where in another dispute with coal owners, a riot ensures, and the Newcastle Militia open fire killing four men.

1832, Gateshead, and the ‘Battle of Friars Goose’. Local colliery owners wanting houses they owned back from the, at the time, un-unionised workforce attempting to form a union, to insert blackleg workers into these homes. Efforts to evict the striking pitmen led to clashes. “The miners had been urged to keep the peace and behave in an orderly manner but the attitude of the police and bailiffs was enough to cause riots and bloodshed.” “A large body of miners had assembled at the colliery to meet the police. The leader of the policemen, a Mr Forsyth, issued two cartridges of swan-shot to each of his men and then proceeded with his unpleasant task. The miners were enraged by the taunts of the police and the damage to their furniture, so, while the ‘ejectors’ were in the house of a Mr Carr, they overpowered the sentry of the building designated as the police headquarters and stole his guns. In the ensuring chaos the police were trapped in a narrow lane. The lane was overlooked by a small hill on which some miners stood and threw stones and other missiles. Realising their predicament, they fired on the crowd and the miners fired back inflicting several casualties during the police retreat to the safety of some rising ground. Messengers were sent to bring soldiers from nearby Newcastle, but the pitmen realised the plan and obstructed their passage as much as possible so that when the military arrived, accompanied by the Mayor of Newcastle and the Rector of Gateshead, the rioters had dispersed. Not to be outdone, the forces of the law arrested more than 40 innocent people, including three women, accompanied by considerable police brutality“.[v]

[i] A Short History of Gateshead. Northumberland Press. 1974.

[ii] Andre Keil. Mapping radical Tyneside. Website.

[iii] Wor story. Self published booklet. Autumn 1998.

[iv] Mapping radical Tyneside. Website.

[v] A Short History of Gateshead. Northumberland Press. 1974.    On March 31st 1974, every schoolchild in Gateshead was given a copy of this book to ‘mark the dissolution of the County Borough of Gateshead’, myself included. No wonder some of us turned out how we did, with such a rich history.


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