Miss Margaret Dryburgh


WILLIAM SHIELD - composer and musician. 1748-1829

Perhaps the most famous of Swalwell's sons, and thought by some to be the composer of the tune 'Auld Lang Syne', William Shield was born at Swalwell near Long Rigg, see picture below, close to where the Sun Inn now stands, and was baptised at Whickham on 5 March 1748. His father was also called William and his mother was Mary Cash. He probably received only a rudimentary education at Crowley's school though he played the violin and harpsichord at an early age. He was encouraged to study music while apprenticed to a Mr Davison, a boatbuilder in South Shields, having moved as a child, some years after the death of his father and mother, taking his father's music and his own violin with him. Mr Davison encouraged his musical studies and enabled Shield to play at local concerts. He became a friend of Charles Avison, the celebrated Newcastle composer and organist at St Nicholas's Church, from whom he was able to increase his musical knowledge. He composed an anthem for the inauguration of a Sunderland church which was later performed by the choir at Durham Cathedral and played the violin locally at concerts and in theatres.

Moving to Scarborough, where he had been invited to direct concerts, he became orchestra leader in the theatre, composing the music for several songs. While at Scarborough famous musicians of his acquaintance advised him to go to London, where he soon became a player in the Italian Opera Orchestra at the King's Theatre and later became principal viola, a position he held for 18 years. Thus he became established as an accomplished musician and composer and began writing and producing operas, one of which, "The Flitch Of Bacon" secured him an appointment as a Musician In Ordinary to King George IV in 1778. In 1782 he was engaged as house composer at Covent Garden Theatre until 1797, composing many operas and other works. In 1791 he made the acquaintance of Haydn and the following year he visited Paris and Italy and met Sir William Hamilton in Rome and gained the friendship of Princess Augustus. He was appointed Master of His Musicians in Ordinary to King George IV (Master of the King's Music) in 1817. He became well known for his operas and songs which brought him fame and is sometimes credited with writing the music to the song 'Auld Lang Syne' (words by Robert Burns), though it must be said this is fiercely disputed by the Scots. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states that 'Shield's version of the tune at the end of the overture to his opera Rosina became well known all over Britain owing to the popularity of the opera, and today we sing it to the words of 'Auld Lang Syne' and that it may very well not be Scottish and but for Shield it would not have became famous'. It is perhaps time that someone settled this dispute once and for all. His opera Rosina, premiered at Covent Garden in 1782 was a great success and was peformed in Edinburgh, Dublin,and in the United States and is set at Gibside and Winlaton Mill. George Washington is said to have been an admirer of the opera. He often used folk songs, including Tyneside ones, in his works for the stage and his aim was to give them popular appeal. He also wrote books about the theory of music, 'An Introduction To Harmony' and 'The Rudiments of Thoroughbass'. His private life is little known but he returned home to visit his mother in 1791. His partner - apparently he was never married - was Ann Stokes of Marylebone, London. Shield died in London on 25 January 1829 and is buried in Westminster Abbey where he is commemorated by a marble tablet erected in 1892 with the assistance of Joseph Cowen of Stella Hall, and sometime editor of the (Newcastle) Evening Chronicle. There is a memorial, unveiled in 1891, to Shield in Whickham churchyard and his parents and sister Ann are buried there.

A memorial to William Shield was erected by Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council at the bottom of Hood Street near his birthplace and offically opened by the Mayor of Gateshead on 15 December 2009.

A very comprehensive book "The Life, Times and Music of William Shield" has been written by Peter Smith and is published by Gateshead Schools' Music Service, Evistones Road, Gateshead NE9 5UR.

Click here for Westminster Abbey page

Back to top of page

Auld Lang Syne

Most people get the words wrong, it is auld lang syne ( meaning times long since, times gone by), and not Zyne. Also, there is no such last line as 'for the sake of auld lang syne', it should be 'we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld Lang syne'. But watch almost any Hollywood film in which the song is heard - and there are many - and you'll hear it sung wrongly. (An honourable exception is 'The Last Time I Saw Paris', 1954, with Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson). This common error should not concern us however, as the words were not written by our man Shield but by Robert Burns. "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind, Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And days o' lang syne". At least Hollywood always gets the tune right!

'Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?


'And for auld Lang syne my jo* (or 'my dear'),
For auld Lang syne,
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne'.
(*JO - an expression of goodwill).

LANG JACK - strongman

John English (Lang Jack) came from Chester-le-Street in 1830 to work on the construction of the first Scotswood bridge (the Chain Bridge of 1831) and originally lived between Old Axwell and Swalwell. He later built himself a cottage near the road leading from Old Axwell and Clockburn Lonnen to Whickham. He soon found fame as a local strong man being of huge physical proportions and over 6 foot four in height, and he carried the stone from Wooodhouse Quarry to construct his house, see old postcard, above, which he built in the evenings after a hard day's work on the bridge. The chimneys, which he carried from Blaydon, weighed 12 stone each. This house was on land given him by the Claverings of Axwell. He also helped build the old Butterfly Bridge, destroyed by flood in 1902, at Winlaton Mill in 1842. (The bridge built in 1950 was also destroyed by flood in 2008). He was often to be seen at the head of political processions in the Newcastle of the early 1830's and when some of Crowley's workmen accompanied Mr Charles Attwood* from Whickham Park House to Durham in support of the Reform Bill, their leader was Lang Jack.

Back to top of page

Lang Jack died in 1860 aged sixty. An 18 foot column topped by a bust of Lang Jack, and designed by John Norvell of Swalwell was erected in 1854 outside his cottage and inscribed J.English 1854. He died in 1860 having overtaxed his strength rendering himself unable to work at his job. On his death the cottage reverted to the Claverings estate and was last occupied by the Morris family but was badly damaged by a fire caused by an overturned oil lamp in 1907 making it uninhabitable and it was later demolished. The memorial was removed in the 1980's to a site near St Mary's Green in Whickham. The pub formerly named the Rose and Crown has been renamed after him. *Charles Attwood was a local reformer who campaigned vigorously for the Reform Bill of 1832. (See Grey's Monument in Newcastle Upon Tyne which commemorates Earl Grey's Reform Bill).



Born in 1658, Ambrose Crowley was a native of Stourbridge in Worcestershire and a Quaker. He was the son of a successful manufacturer of and trader in ironware and was apprenticed in 1674 to Clement Portland, a member of the London Drapers company and an ironmonger. He soon started his own business as an ironmonger but, after quarrelling with his suppliers, began to make his own nails. He established a factory in Sunderland using skilled workers from Liege and other Continental iron-making areas, as nail-making was a new venture in the north east, and supplied the Thames shipbuilding yards and the Admiralty by sea. Because these workers were Catholics they inspired local opposition and possibly as a result of this Crowley moved his factory in 1691 and re-established his works at Winlaton on Tyneside.

As the works expanded and as he needed water power for further development he built works at Winlaton Mill in the late 1690's and a warehouse at Blaydon on Tyne in 1701 and supplemented his Thames Street warehouses with one at Greenwich. Meanwhile, a potential competitor was emerging at Swalwell in the form of a partnership between Edward Harrison, John Bayliss and John Wood who had obtained property with the intention of setting up an ironworks there. In 1707 Crowley bought out this rival's works, and expanded the operation considerably, transferring the local headquarters from Winlaton to Swalwell. The River Derwent's navigable qualities made Swalwell an ideal choice as iron ore could be unloaded from keels coming alongside at the factory's own staiths, and the finished iron products loaded onto the same keels and hence to ships. Additionally, the water in the Derwent was said to be particularly adapted for tempering steel. As business developed he had won regular contracts for supplying nails and other ironware - pots, hinges, wheel-hubs, hatches, anchors and cannons - for the Navy and the East India Company from stocks held in London which was supplied by his Tyneside factories. Most of the skilled workmen, clerks, foremen and managers for Crowley's Winlaton, Winlaton Mill and Swalwell works were recruited from outside the north east, which originally had few men possessing the necessary skills, although they were no doubt trained by the incomers. Swalwell did have some experienced men who worked for Edward Harrison before that firm was bought out by Crowley. Sir Ambrose and his successors continued to live at Crowley House, Greenwich and the business was run from London.

A system of committees controlled day to day running of the works but Crowley ultimately made the final decisions. Additionally, a Council in each factory met regularly to consider correspondence from Crowley in London and other items, the committees being subordinate to the Council. Members of Committees or Council were usually, though not exclusively, managers. The committees had responsibility for items like welfare, a committee for Leading dealing with transport costs, a Committee of Treasury probably dealing with the security of those officers handling money and the Committee of Mill Affairs dealing with the administration of the Winlaton Mill works. Finally there was a Committee of Survey , concerned with all the Crowley's works, especially with controlling the quality of the end products. All communication between Crowley in London and the works on Tyneside were by post which in the early 18th century and before railways took three days for the almost 300 mile journey.The wage bill in the 1760's was said to be 20,000 a year. Earnings were between one shilling and two shillings and sixpence per day. The working day was then over thirteen hours long.

Back to top of page

Sir Ambrose Crowley - biography

Ambrose Crowley was knighted in 1707 (for his service as one of two Sheriffs of the City of London and Middlesex) and he stood for Parliament as a Tory in the' rotten' borough of Andover, winning it in 1713, although his election was challenged with the (almost routine for that time), allegations of bribery being made by a rival candidate. But before the subsequent investigations were complete, Sir Ambrose died suddenly in October 1713. He was survived by his father, his wife, one son and five daughters and was interred at Mitcham, Surrey. He had by then become a very wealthy man, building from nothing, in only 30 years, a large and successful business with many innovations especially in its provisions for the welfare of its workers, and his system of rules enforced by Crowley's courts. He had great self confidence, was honest, industrious and well respected. Following his death his son John, then aged 24 carried on the business until his death in 1728 when his widow took over its running and prospered until her death in 1782. During part of her period of control the iron works were said to be the largest in Europe. The Swalwell works enriched the village and became an attraction in its own right drawing visitors to Tyneside to see the works in operation. There were many visits from Swedes with interests in the iron industry and one of Crowley's brothers, Benjamin, visited Sweden in 1701 to study iron ore production. Iron ore was shipped to England from either Stockholm and Gothenburg depending on which ore-producng district the ore was mined. Three ships made ten voyages a year to the Baltic and brought seventy tons of ore at a time.Click here for an interesting article.

The organisation was nation-wide, the factories being in the north but the head office and main warehouses in London with further distribution premises in the Midlands. Most goods were sent from the north to London by sea, and were sold at home and abroad, in both Europe and what was to become the Empire.

Keelboats shipped the goods down the Derwent and Tyne for loading onto seagoing ships and a manager at Newcastle supervised shipping and customs arrangements.

A small fleet of Crowley's ships , among them, the Ambrose, the Theodosia, the John and the Crowley of about 300 tons each, plied between the Tyne and London. Other vessels were hired.

Back to top of page

Coal was obtained locally and a farm provided draught horses. Crowley strove for self-sufficiency as employees comprised not only ironworkers but clerks, coopers, carters, farmers, seamen, warehousemen and Thames watermen. Thus bar- iron came from Russia, Sweden and later America, arriving at the factories on wagons drawn by horses from his own stables, blacksmiths used coal from local mines to heat the iron for working, and the finished products were sent to Greenwich, often in Crowley's own ships. Some goods went first to warehouses in Blaydon. The goods were taken by keel boat from riverbank to ship because the Tyne had not yet been dredged to allow bigger ships upstream and to lie alongside the wharf. Newcastle Corporation's policy in the 18th century was to maintain it's near monopoly of the river trade and prevent other centres from developing nearer the river mouth, and to further increase its prosperity by charging fees to shipping usually regarded as exorbitant. Gradually, however, competition for the trade did develop and the Crowley's were in conflict with Newcastle Corporation over many decades, the Crowley's by-passing port regulations and tolls on cargoes moving between Swalwell and Tynemouth. Since sea transport was so essential for the firm's existence, the availability of ships and their safe passage was always a concern. The press gang was another threat, not only to merchant seamen, but to Crowley's workforce too.

He attracted some ridicule from the Tory publication, The Spectator when he was lampooned as Sir John Anvil, 'a person of no extraction, having begun the world with a small parcel of rusty iron' (Issue No 299 of 12 February 1712).

William Penn, founder of the State of Pennsylvania, came to England to consult the best authorities for the development of Pennsylvania and obtained from Crowley directions as to working the iron of the colony. (See J M Swank, Manufacturing Of Iron In All Ages).

Crowley attributed the success of his enterprise to Sir William Bowes in a letter he wrote from Winlaton on 13 November 1702.

Products, and Crowley's Laws

Anchors and chains were two of the principal products of Crowley's factories and were supplied to order, the other products being supplied from stock. Anchors weighed as much as 70 or 80 cwt and were carried on the Derwent as were other heavy goods made at Swalwell, the lighter articles bing generally made at Winlaton and Winlaton Mill. Although many products were in demand nation-wide, there were specialised markets for other goods, notably from the Admiralty in the south of England and for goods supplied for export, with the warehouses on the Thames supplying these markets, as well as general ironware. However, the factories did serve some other markets direct such as those in the north of England and Scotland. Steelmaking was also a concern of Crowley's and steel was supplied to the Midlands. The Navy, however, remained the principal customer for wrought ironware throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nails, anchors, hoops, tools, brackets, hinges and locks were supplied to the naval dockyards under contract. Other products made at various times were axes, bolts, chisels, files, shovels, tongs, forks and cannon. War increased demand and hence profits, while in times of peace, profits were smaller. Crowley often had problems obtaining payment from the government for his goods.

Crowley was ahead of his time in his adoption of a system of social provision for his workers. Benefits for sickness, old age and unemployment and funerals were provided. A levy on wages at the rate of nine pence in the pound provided help with food and clothing for the aged and permanently disabled, while widows were also given help. The beneficiaries had to wear a badge inscribed 'Crowley's Poor' on their left shoulder. A school for the workers' children and the services of a doctor and a minister were also provided, the schoolroom also serving as a church. The minister's stipend was paid for by a levy on wages of twopence-halfpenny in the pound. In 1819 Crowley's workers had a library of 3000 volumes situated at Winlaton and were likely to have been far ahead of the average working man in education. A 'court ' was in existence, meeting in Swalwell from 1816, to arbitrate in disputes between workers, and rules and regulations were collected in a law book and used for the benefit of every employee, from highest to lowest. A council which included a cashier and a ware keeper and an ironkeeper met at 10 am every Thursday to deal with wage disputes and other complaints. The Crowley rules included one requiring him to be informed of any clerk or workman who succumbed to the attractions of Newcastle, a reflection of his Quaker affiliations no doubt. The rules and welfare provision introduced by Crowley and carried on by his sons were an early attempt to overcome difficulties with labour relations by providing security for his workers both at work and in retirement. He also concerned himself with the moral and spiritual well-being of his employees. Following the period when Millington's took over the factories the system was abandoned by 1827 and the relationship between labour and capital reverted to a more conventional pattern.

*Crowley's Laws were numerous and far-reaching. Law No 50, 53. 'To hear small differences...which cause waste of time and trouble to Magistrates.' 'No workman was 'to strike an officer, throw stones or snowballs, or by blowing of a horn or otherwise raise a tumult or mobb'. Clubbing for drink was also finable.

William Hancock, one of Crowley's workmen, was arrested for debt at the suit of one Robert Atkinson, brewer, of Newcastle. Whereupon Mr. Crowley wrote to his 'good friends', Mr. Cotesworth )a prominent locla businessman) and Colonel Liddell, that he was far from screening any of his servants from paying their just debts and he had often requested Atkinson not to give his work-people credit they standing in need of none, having their wages paid them every week'. The Crowley ironworks had no difficulty in getting hands because it paid wages every week, whereas other owners paid wages at irregular intervals. He declared that Atkinson had been 'vexatious...arresting and ruining 'em by troublesome prosecutions for ale-wife's scores of many years standing'. He was prepared, however, to close the incident on condition that the brewer, through Cotesworth's good offices, made apology and gave an assurance that he would not arrest his work-people in future; otherwise he was 'determined to move the House' - i.e. to assert his parliamentary privilege - no small threat in those days - 'and summon the offenders to answer their offence here'.

Law No. 85 requires the works' treasurer 'to make it his business to Pry and Enquire' into the actions of the work-people 'and when any clerk or servant shall make a Frequent Practice in going much abroad, particularly to Newcastle, which hath been the ruine of several, to inform me'. Strictures against 'morning drinking' followed, and the discharge of guilty workers was to be mandatory.

Law No 113 stated that 'Whereas in 1724, taking into consideration the deplorable state of my honest and laborious workmen and their familes when visited with sickness or other bodily infirmities, who for want of a proper and speedy relief have languished for a longer time under their maladies than otherwise they would', required that the proprietor accordingly appointed, at his own proper charge, a surgeon skilled in physic as a works' doctor. He was to be a perosn of sober life and conversation 'not addicted so much to pleasure as to be withdrawn from a due attendance on his business'; he was to give daily attendance in the factory, though he was allowed to have a private practice within 10 miles of it. All workmen who had been in the firm's employ for twelve nonths and their families were to be attended gratis. 'Yet such hath been the unparallel'd ingratitude of some persons and the villany (sic) of others that they deserve punishment more than the benefit thus intended them, first in obtaining medicines on every light occasion and, on the disorder naturally abating, not only kept them till spoilt but have also destroyed them; others have unreasonably demanded medicines for their children when they have returned indisposed from foreign service and also I have been credibly informed that such hathe been the villany of some others that they have feigned themselves sick or disabled by bodily infirmities and have thereupon obtained medicines which they have afterwards disposed of to Countrey people. Persons abusing the scheme were to be deprived of its benefits.

Law No 97. had a preamble which read 'the raising and continued supporting of a stock to relieve such of my workmen and their families as may be by sickness or other means reduced to that poverty as not to be able to support themselves without some assistance, the teaching of Youth and other matters of so great concern, are so incumbent upon us that there is no avoiding of a General Contribution for the same'. It proceeded to arrange for the appointment, and to prescribe the duties, of 'the clerk for the Poor'. 'He is carefully to teach and instruct the workmen's children and to be constantly in his school', from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. and from 1p.m. to 4 p.m. during the winter months and from 6 a. m. to 11 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in summer, 'He shall not upon any account of Races, Cock fightings, Rope dancers or Stage Players dismiss his scholars but constantly attend school'; 'he shall not without the consent of the Governors give his scholars ... leave to play or absent himself for more than half an hour in any one day in school hours; he shall carefully teach all his scholars that are capble of learning the Catechism of the Church of England ...' on on Court days 'he shall, upon demand, bring two or three lines of the writing of such of the workmen's children as are under his care to lay the same before the Governors that his conduct may be the better judged of', and in association with the works chaplain 'shall bring such scholars to be examined in public in the Cathecism'. Finally, 'he is to take care to make his scholars shew due respect to their superiors and especially aged persons and to correct lying, swearing and such-like horrid crimes'; setting a good example himself in these things since 'example availeth more than precept'.

*All quoted in North Country Life In The Eighteenth century The North east 1700-1750. Edward Hughes1952.

Back to top of page

Decline and later owners

When son John inherited the family firm in 1713 he continued to run the business in much the same way as his father had done. However, from 1717 to 1719 Crowley's supplies of iron ore virtually dried up owing to a prohibition of trade with Sweden and John led other merchants in seeking to have the ban overturned by the British government. John entered Parliament in 1722 and remained the representative for Okehampton for five years while continuing to run the firm from London. From 1727 he represented the town of Queenborough near Sheerness but died the following year aged 38.

Theodosia, his widow now had control of the firm until her and John's eldest son Ambrose came of age and hence Theodosia was nominally in charge from 1728 until 1739, although her manager John Hanmer effectively ran the business until his death in 1730 when John Bannister took over for ten years, during which time an additional works was acquired at the River Team, a tributary of the Tyne. Abraham Alleyne succeeded Bannister in 1740 and remained manager until 1754. Meanwhile, Ambrose IV legally inherited the Crowley estate from 1739 and the legal wrangles which had plagued the family for some years continued. Disputes had arisen over the leases obtained from the Clavering family and Clavering was able to take advantage of his position to renegotiate a new lease on terms favourable to himself. Ambrose IV died in 1754 and another son of Sir Ambrose Crowley, John, inherited the family firm but he died after only a year, when Theodosia once more took overall control until her death in 1782 aged 88.

After this the business became the property of the Earl of Ashburnam, and of Charles Boone, two of her sons- in- law. The last of the managers running the firm at the death of Theodosia was Isaiah Millington and the two co-owners allowed him to manage the firm which then became known as Crowley, Millington and Company. Millington, and later his sons, managed the business until 1849 when the last of them, Crowley Millington, died and Fergus Graham became the new manager, while in 1857 control passed to Lyon Playfair, a scientist who had married Crowley's daughter. The closure of the firm was occurred in 1863, a Mr Laycock having bought the Swalwell works some time before then. The Swalwell factories were eventually taken over by Ridley and Company. The Winlaton factory had closed in 1816 following the end of the Napoleonic wars which hit the firm hard with cuts in Admiralty contracts, and the Winlaton Mill works were sold in 1863. Bourn records the existence of a factory situated at the west end of Dunston in which nails were the principal product and many men and women were employed here, the women making bags.

The lead held by Crowley in iron and steelmaking was not maintained and their techniques, advanced for their day, were copied by other centres of the iron industry, particularly Sheffield, and this, together with local competition, especially from the firm of William Hawks, contributed to the famous works' decline and eventual closure. A failure to specialise and innovate is also held by some to be a factor in the decline. The works were to be reopened later by Mr Laycock of Winlaton and eventually passed to other owners, until final closure in 1911. It was this owner who was responsible for destroying the firms' records by fire in 1862. Throughout these later periods of closure the workforce remained largely in Swalwell, though finding employment elsewhere in the district during periods when the works were closed. The only part of the Crowley works which remains is Forge Cottage, Winlaton.

Ambrose Crowley brought masons from many parts of the country to build his workshops, dams and warehouses and it is believed that they formed the Freemason's Lodge at Swalwell, meeting in the Queens Head, although there is no supporting evidence for this theory. There was a lodge in Swalwell in 1725 however. Many of his iron workers were imported from Staffordshire and Liege in the earlier years of the enterprise at Sunderland and Winlaton. The Midlands and Yorkshire and Stourbridge were other popular places for the recruitment of employees. The Crowley works was the main reason for the growth of Swalwell as a village and established its fame and helped shape the way it is today. M W Flinn describes it as a giant in an age of pygmies. It produced high quality goods and had a high reputation which extended beyond the shores of Britain. Its organisation, administration and its social provision for employees was unique but Crowley's successors, even his own sons, did not produce any great innovations or expand and maintain its leading position in the iron industry.

See also the Industry page for an account of the post-Crowley years.

Further Reading.

A detailed study of the Crowley firm can be found in M W Flinn's book, Men Of Iron - The Crowley's in the Early Iron Industry (1962). Mr W Bourn also covers the subject in less detail in his history of Swalwell in his book, Whickham Parish-its History, Antiquities and Industry. Another book examining the Crowley works is, The Making of an Industrial Society, Whickham 1560-1765 by David Levine and Keith Wrightson (1991). These books can be borrowed from local libraries.

Back to top of page

Crowley's Crew - industrial brotherhood

The Crowley workers in Swalwell, Winlaton and Winlaton Milll, numbering almost one thousand at their peak, became known as Crowley's Crew and gained some notoriety for their often riotous behaviour and their support for High Tory politics, provoking friction with the keelmen who were supporters of the Whigs. An effigy of Thomas Paine, the author of 'The Rights of Man' and a keen supporter of both the American and French Revolutions, (and unloved by Tories), was burnt at Swalwell in 1792. The press gangs also suffered at the hands of Crowley's Crew. There was also great rivalry with the workers, known as 'Hawke's Blacks', from the Gateshead firm of Hawkes Crawshay. Later, however as competition in the iron industry caused loss of trade to the Crowley works, enthusiasm for Tory politics waned and in the 1830's Crowley's men became firm supporters of the Chartist movement which campaigned for an extension of democratic rights to all.

Known for their solidarity and spending much of their leisure time in each other's company, they were hard men, working in a hot, dirty and often unpleasant environment and liked to spend their spare time doing the things of which their 'superiors' sometimes disapproved. Things like drinking, gambling, poaching, fighting and sports such as cockfighting and bull baiting. Crowley with his rules and courts was able to exercise some control over Crowley's Crew but they were regularly involved in any disturbances which happened in the district and on Tyneside generally. Especially so after the end of the wars with America and Napoleon and the subsequent depression, with a massive drop in the demand for armaments, fewer contracts and increasing insecurity and unemployment. The general national distress among the poorer people in the period of economic uncertainty after 1815 led to the growth of new political movements like the Chartists. The Newcastle Town Moor protest against the Peterloo massacre, in Manchester of 1819 was attended by Crowley's men.
Another incident indicates that although Crowley's crew largely accepted the authority of their employers and the other authorities, they were prepared under certain circumstances to defy authority in trying to have their complaints heard.

Back to top of page

The Crowley men and others suffered badly from the serious winter and spring of 1739-40 when shipping was held up causing both raw materials and finished products to be delayed. This resulted in the Swalwell men trying to persuade their Winlaton colleagues to join them in a march to Newcastle to protest against the price of corn. Action by Crowley's chief agent at Swalwell to prevent the Winlaton men's coming to Swalwell was successful but representatives of the Keelmen who were already blockading the river then came to Swalwell in an attempt to cajole Crowley's men to come with them to Newcastle and this prompted the appearance of a notice on the factory gate threatening anyone who left work with dismissal. The keelmen then went to Winlaton and told the Crowley men there that unless they helped get the corn while it was still at Newcastle it would be moved during the night and they would all starve, whereupon the Crowley men came to Swalwell, broke down the gates and compelled the men there to join them. Several hundred men then left Swalwell, calling at Derwenthaugh to persuade the workers there to stop work and join them in taking their grievances to Newcastle. On the journey they encountered some women at Gateshead who told them of death and injuries in Newcastle and urged them to go and halt any further bloodshed.

On arrival in Newcastle most of the Crowley men were disciplined, more so than the Keelmen. An Alderman told them he would urge the corn merchants to sell their corn cheaply and this satisfied Crowley's men and a petition was presented and read out by the Mayor of Newcastle who promised to help. Crowley's crew then returned home, although some broke the windows of the Guildhall. The Newcastle magistrates kept their promise to try to redress the mens' grievances and the export of grain was banned together with coastal shipments. Five Crowley men were brought to trial for their part in the riot and convicted and sentenced to seven years transportation.Crowley's Crew are also celebrated in the song Swalwell Hopping, and their influence continued to be felt until the decline of the works in Swalwell and Winlaton in the 19th century.

THE KEELMEN - boatmen

Keelmen once formed the greatest class of the working population of Swalwell. They were recruited, during the 17th century at least, largely from the Borders and Upper Tynedale. The Keelmen's Hospital, erected in 1701 and still to be seen in Newcastle's City Road, was built by funds raised by the keelmen themselves.The keelmen worked for their employers on a yearly hiring basis at this time, giving them regular pay throughout the year when coal mining was still a seasonal trade in the days prior to the steam-ship. There were many strikes during times of hardship arising from harvest failures and high corn prices and similar grievances. The keelmen were a tough group of men. During the involvement of Crowley's Crew with the keelmen in Newcastle referred to above, armed keelmen roamed the town, destroying many of the records, and were eventually subdued by soldiers from Alnwick. There were about 400 keelboats and sixteen hundred keelmen employed on the Tyne in 1704. About 200 keelmen were required to move the coal down river to below the bridge at Newcastle. Keelboats, see picture, were 40 foot, wooden, flat-bottomed boats with sharp bows and stern used to transport coal from riverbank wharves out to sea- going ships lying in the middle of a river or below the bridge. They were propelled by means of a long oar but the tide was the main propulsive force. Steering was by another oar at the stern. A sail could also be fitted. The payload was about 20 chaldrons of coal. The job was not without hardship as the river could often freeze in winter for several weeks and they were also a favourite target for the Navy press gangs owing to their strength and endurance. On 30 March 1759 a fight between the Keelmen and the press gang took place when some King's Officers went to impress men but, having been given a sound thrashing at the hands of Crowley' men some time earlier, were now heavily reinforced and several were stabbed with swords and one inhabitant was stabbed to death and others wounded. The keelmen and Crowley's men were mutually antagonistec and Crowley's crew received a sound thrashing at the hands of the keelmen in 1792, when they had to run for their lives.

Keelmen were employed at several staiths on the Tyne, including at Derwenthaugh as well as on the Derwent at Swalwell.Many lived in Sandgate at Newcastle but others, whose keels carried the coal mined in the pits of northwest Durham from the staiths at Derwenthaugh to below bridge, lived in Swalwell.Below bridge meant upstrem of the bridge at Newcastle, beyond which ships were unable to sail because of the shallowness of the Tyne.When spouts were proposed, thus allowing the coals to pour directly into the ships, there was a great strike in 1822 and the keelmen refused to allow the erection of the spouts. Hundreds of men from Whickham Parish were involved and there were many instances of riot and disorder. A man o' war, The Swan, lay alongside opposite Newcastle quay and soldiers were billeted at Dunston. The solders were drilled in Axwell Park and conflict occurred between soldiers and keelmen with many of the latter suffering imprisonment. The strike lasted form September 30 to December 4 and afterwards the spouts were erected. Repeated attempts were made by the keelmen to destroy the spouts. Dredging of the river was carried out in the mid 1800's and ships were able to lie alongside the river bank. The keelmen's trade declined in the 19th century leading eventually to their disappearance, as from about 1850 larger vessels called wherries began to be employed on the river, often tied together in a line and towed by tugs, and staiths became widespread.

The Keelmen wore a distinctive dress, including a blue bonnet as mentioned in the song 'The Keel Row', and were a close-knit community living at Sandgate in Newcastle, though others lived at Swalwell and Whickham near the Derwent. The job usually passed from father to son. In 1701 the Keelmen's hospital was opened at a cost of 2000, financed by a small regular sum deducted from the keelmen's wages. The building still survives. Many of the Newcastle men were from Scotland and returned home in the slack winter months. These months were slack for the keelmen, especially in the 18th century, and the seasonal laying-off caused hardship among them. Newcastle corporation in 1723 had employed keelmen during the slack winter nonths in taking sand and removing wrecks from the river and hence aiding its navigation but this practice was discontinued in later years. The collier shipping fleet arrived about March, when a supply of coals was ready, winter coals quickly deteriorated and were hard to sell. Additionally, roads and wagonways were difficult to keep in good repair during the winter months.

On a proposal to put back the opening of the shipping season to the middle of March George Lidell said; 'But what I had like to have forgot and is very materiall; what must become of the poor keelmen? They are a Sort of Unthinking people that spend their money as fast, nay generally before they get it. They give over work the beginning of November and many of them had not then a shilling before hand. They live upon their credit and a little labouring work till they get their binding money at Christmeas. That money goes to their creditors and then they borrow of their fitters* to buy provisions and have credit with the Runners fo a little drink and so they put off till trade begins which is generally about Candlemas. Now, if they arn not to begin till about Ladyday, half of them will be starved; for as their time of working will be so much shorter, trades' people will not trust them, there being no prospect of being repaid.' 'Mutinies' of keelmen and pitmen were common in the 18th century and crises in the trade often corresponded with labour troubles, the reasons are to be found in the way their livelihood could be interrupted on the whim of the employers influenced by commercial considerations. *Fitters were agents acting for the coal owners.

Back to top of page


Sergeant James Firth (1874 - 1921), a Swalwell resident, though originally from near Sheffield, lived in Quality Row and enlisted in the Duke of Wellington's West Riding regiment in July 1889 winning the Victoria Cross on 24 February 1900 during the Boer War when he rescued two men from enemy fire by carrying them to safety. The citation reads, "At Plewmans Farm near Arundel, Cape Colony February 24th 1900, Sergeant Firth gained the Victoria Cross for two acts of bravery and devotion" "Lance Corporal Blackman had been wounded, and was lying not more than one hundred yards from the enemy, who were keeping up a severe hail of fire on all around" "Sergeant Firth scorning the bullets aimed at him and his brigade, advanced to the stricken corporal and carried him to the cover of their own lines". Shortly afterwards, second Lieutenant T H B Wilson fell dangerously wounded, in spite of the proximity of the Boers who had advanced quite close to the firing line, Firth carried the Officer over the crest of the ridge to shelter, receiving a bullet through the eye and nose, whilst engaged in this humane act". In 1900, Sergeant Firth was discharged as medically unfit from the services. He applied for service again in 1914 at the outbreak of World War One, but he was turned down on medical grounds. After a long period of disability he died of tuberculosis in May 1921. He probably attended Swalwell school and a presentation of a silver watch was made to him by the villagers on his return from South Africa.

MARGARET DRYBURGH - missionary. 1890-1945

Born in Nelson Street, Sunderland in 1890, she was the eldest child of the Reverend William Dryburgh, minister at the Ebenezer Chapel in Market Lane from 1890 and later Minister at Swalwell Presbyterian Church from 1895, (see picture of comemorative stone above), living in the Manse next to the Ebenezer Chapel. She went to school at Swalwell, moving back to Sunderland on her father's retirement in 1906 with her parents William and Elizabeth, and two sisters and brother (Janet, Elizabeth, and John). She took a BA degree at Durham University (actually at Kings College, Newcastle, then part of Durham University), and taught history at Ryhope Grammar School before training for mission work in which her mother was also interested, having been president of the local branch of the Woman's Missionary Association while living at Swalwell. She was a qualified nursing sister. Moving to China she maintained links with St George's Church in Sunderland and Swalwell Sunday school. She taught in China and Singapore and it was while there that on the Japanese advance into Singapore she was captured with other WMA missionaries in February 1942 while being evacuated by sea. The passengers and crew were imprisoned on Sumatra. She organised church services and also while in the camp wrote down music and formed a vocal orchestra of 39 women singing the sounds of orchestral and piano music. No musical instruments were available. Many died in the camp and the concerts ended after 30 per cent of the women had died and Miss Dryburgh helped keep up morale before succumbing to dysentery in the poor conditions of the camp, and she died on April 21 1945 only 5 months before its liberation.

Back to top of page


The TV series 'Tenko' related the story of British women held in Japanese prison camps. A documentary, Song of Survival made by survivor Helen Colinj, a Dutch lady, has been shown on Channel 4. Lavinia Warner, the co-author of the book Women Beyond The Wire, when appearing on the TV programme This Is Your Life devoted to Dame Margot Turner, gave some details of the camp. There is also a book by the only surviving missionary, Gladys Cullen, called More Than Conquerors.

The film Paradise Road, made in 1996 and directed by Bruce Beresford, told the story of the camp and Margaret Dryburgh is played by Pauline Collins, although her name has unaccountably been changed to Margaret Drummond for the film. There is an account of the camp in the book Women Beyond The Wire - a story of prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45, by L Warner and J Sandlands.

Dunston Hill hospital has a ward named after Margaret Dryburgh. She wrote a song "The Thief Of Palumbang" based on her recollection of the score of the film "The Thief Of Baghdad" (1940), music for which was by the Hungarian, and later Hollywood-based composer Miklos Rozsa, whose credits include Spellbound, Ben Hur, and El Cid.


Although the Claverings did not live in Swalwell, they have a long association with the village and owned much of the land and so should receive a mention. The family name is commemorated in Swalwell's Clavering Road. Sir Henry Clavering was almost the the last of the Claverings to have lived at Axwell Hall and Park, built in 1761, and situated across the Derwent from Swalwell. The first Clavering's came there in about 1630, following the Selby's.

Sir Henry Augustus Clavering was a retired naval Captain with distinguished service abroad, succeeding his cousin William Aloysius to the estate and baronetcy in 1872. He was said to have had a somewhat eccentric personality. He liked dogs, horses and sport and disliked servility and cowardice. However, he was also said to have been kindly in spite of his bluffness. Apprehending two poachers on his land, on finding that they were out of work and had 12 children between them he gave them both a decent meal and ordered his cook to make up a parcel of food for the wives and children. He then employed one of the wives as a charwoman at the Hall. A poor man, not knowing who he was, asked him if he had on old coat. Sir Henry gave the man his own coat and went home in his shirtsleeves

He took a keen interest in the Swalwell flower shows and sports which were held annually in the park with a marquee and small tents being erected by the lake, and with dancing in the evening. On one occasion while the men were finishing with the erection of the tents, Sir Henry with his dogs appeared on the scene, and for some reason ordered one of the men named Harrison to stop with his work. This he promptly refused to do. "What!" said Sir Henry "can I not be obeyed on my own ground? If you don't do as you are told, I will set the dogs upon you. ""Do so then," returned Harrison, who was a rough, daredevil kind of fellow, "and after I have stopped the breath of the dogs I will stop yours. Don't you think, Sir Harry, that you are the only man that's been in the Navy. This went right home to the heart of the old naval captain, who asked this man who dared defy him, what ship he was in. To Sir Henry's surprise he replied by giving the name of the very ship of which he was captain, and by further adding that the man who threatened to set the dogs on him was his captain, who was so plucky at sea that he was nicknamed "Mad Harry." So overjoyed was Sir Henry, that he not only heartily shook hands with his old comrade of the seas, but ordered him to come at once to the Hall and drink to the memory of the old days. While the flower show was in full swing next day everybody was filled with astonishment when the carriage of Sir Henry came upon the scene, and more so when they saw Harrison dressed in full naval uniform sitting beside his old captain, both looking happy and smoking long cigars. Sir Henry kept his old comrade at the hall for a week, talking over their old sea days and living on the very best. Sir Henry was an exponent of the noble art of self-defence and could use his fists when necessary. Once, quarrelling with the head joiner and under-agent he became so angry that he struck out at the agent who hit his master so severely that he knocked him out. Sir Henry, offering his hand, told the man he was a better man than himself and to forget the incident and go on with his work. The same thing happened with his butler, who was given a rise in wages. Another time, when his cook gave notice, he went to the kitchen to demand an explanation and was told the kitchen was too airless. Grabbing the poker, he broke every window in the kitchen. A laundry maid who gave notice because she disliked his language was told not to be so foolish, as it was just the same as "God bless you." Sir Henry died suddenly on November 9th 1893, aged 69 and his remains were cremated at Woking his ashes being brought to Blaydon cemetery for interment in a vault he had built there. These reminiscences were given many years later by one of the bearers of the urn carrying the ashes. Sir Henry was the tenth and last baronet thus ending the male line of the family. The Rev John Warren Napier succeeded to the estate, assuming the name of Clavering in accordance with the will of William Aloysius Clavering. The estate was eventually sold by auction in 1920 to a Newcastle syndicate for 25,000.

Back to top of page

WILLIAM BOURN - historian

As the Whickham chronicler of much local history and the author of 'The History of the Parish of Whickham' and 'Annals of the Parish of Whickham', William Bourn should also receive a mention, as any account of Swalwell's history owes much to him. William's father worked as both keelman and chainmaker at Crowley's. His son William was born in 1848 and was educated at the Whickham Parochial School. Working at the rope factory at the Teams, Gateshead he then worked at the Robert Stephenson and Co. railway works at Forth Banks, Newcastle and later at Sir William Armstrong's factory at Elswick. In 1825 he was appointed attendance officer by Whickham School Board, covering Whickham, Swalwell and Dunston until he retired due to illness after 22 years. Bourn was a keen reader and began to contribute local history sketches for the 'Weekly Chronicle' while a young man. He knew Joseph Cowan of Stella Hall and founder of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle,and represented the people of Whickham as a liberal councillor on Whickham Urban Council. He was also a Primitive Methodist. Married in 1869 and with 8 children he died in 1926 and is buried in Whickham churchyard.

Back to top of page


A wood engraver and the best of the celebrated Thomas Bewick's pupils, he was born at Swalwell in 1775 in a house at Waterside. He was apprenticed to Bewick in Newcastle at age fourteen. He engraved a view of St Nicholas Church Newcastle and his work being well received, he moved to London around 1800 where his engravings illustrated several books, including an edition of Hume's "History of England" and especially, Ackerman's "Religious Emblems" published in 1808. Returning to Swalwell in 1818 for 20 years, he had a workshop on Market Lane. He was an enthusiastic gardener and naturalist, liked to shoot and was a keen sportsman. Moving again to London two years after the death of his mother in 1828 he worked on the second series of "Northcote's Fables" and "Rural Sports" He also painted animals for pub signs, including a deer for the Buck Inn Swalwell, now The Gamekeeper, which was highly praised by artists. Charlton Nesbitt died at Brompton in 1838.

Back to top of page


Harry Clasper was a boatbuilder and renowned oarsman from Derwenthaugh, who is buried in Whickham Churchyard having died aged 58 in July 1870. The rowing feats of these and other famous Tynesiders like Renforth are commemorated in the pub names The Skiff at Derwenthaugh and The Rowers at Dunston.

Back to top of page