Text adapted from and information taken from a rootsweb post by Ruth & Barry Myers

In the 18th Century, the Tyne was not navigable for large ships. Keels, small squat boats, were used to transport coal from the Newcastle quays out to the large ships waiting at Tynemouth. The keels were equipped with a sail, but were usually propelled by oars. The keelmen wore a uniform of a short blue jacket and a black panama-style hat. The song "Weel may your keel row" was written about them. A group of powerful merchants known as the "fitters" ran the coal business on the Tyne.

A list exists of about 350 keelmen bound to fitters - it reads : Sir, Above is a LIST of the KEELMEN which are bound to us; and we desire that you will not employ any one of them in any Work or Service whatsoever; for if you do, we shall call upon you for such a Satisfaction as the Law will give us. Newcastle, April 28, 1750 The list came from the Pontop (late Simpson's) Fitting Office, Quay Side, Newcastle and has about 25 signatories.

The earliest mention of the Newcastle keel is in an Act of Parliament from the year 1421, when by statute of Henry V, 1,cap. X, it was enacted that all these vessels should be measured and marked by Commissioners, and that their portage should be twenty chaldrons of coal only. The wording of the original petition is found in the old Rolls of Parliament. It states that "in the same port be certain Vessels called Keels, by which such Coals be carried from the Land to the Ships in the said Port; and every of the said Keels ought to be of the Portage of Twenty Chaldrons".
The picture shows a keelboat and 'staithes' in the background

During the eighteenth century the "keel" as a measure of coal became fixed at eight chaldrons of 53 cwt. each, and the burden of the "keel" was therefore 21 tons of coal. The original Tyne keel was clinker-built but Later types were of carvel build. In plan the keel was almost oval, but pointed at both ends. Length was 42 feet and beam 19 feet. Fully loaded and rigged the keel drew 4 feet 6 inches of water. The single mast, rigged with a large square sail, was fitted into a tabernacle, slightly forward of the cargo space. This mast could easily be lowered for going through the old, low, Tyne Bridge. There were small covered or decked areas fore and aft and a cabin in the stern, known locally as a hudduck. Although some of the later types had a rudder, the majority were steered with a long oar known as a swape or sweep. The cabin could only be reached through a deck hatch and was of very limited headroom. Similar to the Yorkshire or Humber keel but usually to be much smaller, the Tyne keel was used mainly in the Tyne coal trade running a shuttle service from the staithes or collieries inland to the sea-going colliers in the estuary. They depended not only on sails and oars but also on tide and current, often coming down with the ebb tide and upstream on the flood tide or flow. From the mid nineteenth century many Tyne keels were replaced by larger clinker-built craft towed in trains by tugs and known as Tyne wherries. These were similar in shape but larger and used to carry much more varied cargoes (e.g. coal, sheet steel, drinking water or even occasionally people). For many years the crews of both wherries and keels alike were known as keelmen or watermen. Very few keels were built after the 1860s although a some survived until the period of the First World War. The last was on active duties in 1924 but it seems to have been an isolated example. The last wherries were taken from service as late as the 1960s.

In "History of Northumberland" by E. Mackenzie (1825 Edition), Keelmen are described as follows:

"The keelmen who are employed on the river Tyne are a remarkably hardy, robust, and laborious class of men, and are distinguished for their great muscular strength. In this particular they are, perhaps, superior to any other tribe of men in England. Their employment requires uncommon exertions. They have to contend, in their strong, clumsy vessels, with the perils of violent gales, dark nights, freshes in the river, and a crowded harbour; while the casting of their cargoes frequently prevents andy secession from the most severe exercise. On one occasion, during a strike, or what is in the north called a stick, sailors and others accustomed to laborious employments were found incompetent, even with extra hands, to navigate the ponderous keels.
. A naval officer of rank once declared that he would rather have a keelman from the Tyne than a man that had been a voyage to the East Indies.

These men would be unable to perform the duties of their occupation, were they not supported by nutritious food. Accordingly, the hardy keelman never goes on board the keel till his basket is stored with a good joint of meat, and a substantial loaf, generally of the best flour, which, with a bottle of beer, form his usual diet. The flesh, which is of the fattest kind, is sliced, laid upon a piece of bread, and then cut into convenient bites with a knife. Seated around the huddock (cabin), and covered with sweat and coal-dust, they enjoy their meal with peculiar cheerfulness. One boy, called the Pee-dee, is attached to every keel : he is under the immediate orders of the skipper; but each of the crew contributes a small portion of his victuals for the boys' support while on board the keel.

An annual bargain is made between the fitters and the keelmen. This is denominated the "Binnding", and is usually preceded by much discussion respecting the conditions. When the agreement is signed, the fitters treat their keelmen with a substantial dinner, and abundance of ale. This is therefore an important and a happy day.

From the practice of hailing one another on the river, especially during the night tides, they acquire a loud and vociferous manner of expressing themselves; yet their conduct is uniformly civil and exemplary, and they are gradually losing that blunt roughness by which they were characterised. Their principal enjoyment consists in 'drinking'; but the young men delight much in a boat-race. Their conversation over their ale naturally relates to their exploits of setting, casting and rowing. When two claim the distinction of being the "best man in the wark", the dispute can only be decided by combat. These contests are often severe, but never succeeded by malice, for they are remarkably friendly to one another, being, to use their own language, all keel-bullies or brothers. The fund which they have established for the relief of each other, during sickness and old age, and also for the relief of their widows and children, is highly honourable to themselves, and affords an example to others worthy of imitation. The wives and daughters of this laborious race are also strong and industrious. They usually wear woollen or cotton bed-gowns, with a silk kerchief, of various colours, thrown carelessly over their shoulders, and another tied around their heads. Some of them sweep the keels : these are called keel-deeters. Many of them are employed in delivering ballast, chalk, kelp etc and are, like their husbands, uncommonly hardy and active.

The seamen engaged in the coal-trade are distinguished as a most robust, active, and fearless race of men. The nutritious victuals on which they subsist, and the hard labour they perform, brace their sinews, and give them an unequalled degree of strength; while from their hazardous and rapid voyages, they soon become expert in seamanship, and accustomed to every kind of danger. Hence the coal-trade has always been esteemed as an invaluable nursery for seamen, and the hardy and bold sailors it furnishes constitute the pride and strength of the British navy.

The celebrated Captain Cook began his naval career as a sailor in the coal-trade. "Our seamen possess, in a high degree, that calm intrepidity in danger, and that thoughtless prodigality, which characterise sea-faring people; nor have they yet abandoned those superstitious fears and observances which form such an odd compound in the character of the boldest men on earth."

My thanks go to Ruth Myers for this extract.

The keelmen formed distinctive communities along the river bank (e.g.Sandgate in Newcastle). They were famous for organising themselves for their mutual benefit, such as the self-financed construction of the Keelmen's Hospital in Newcastle in 1701. They were also notoriously militant and were involved in frequent, violent, clashes with authority (from the local magistrates to the Royal Navy!) but were never able to form a guild or effective trade union; any attempts at this were blocked by the "fitters", the all-powerful merchants who ran the coal trade on the Tyne. The Keelmens Hospital built in 1701 was originally intended for their sick and was paid for out of monies set apart from their wages by the Hostmen's Company who were both trustees and employers. This arrangement collapsed in 1712 and there followed several attempts to manage the hospital as a charity until 1872 when the practice of levying by charitable corporations was abolished by parliament. Newcastle corporation then took over the building.

In 1898, Newcastle Town Hall property office reported the inhabitants of the Keelmens' Hospital as 43 men, 36 wives, 7 widows and 85 children. There were 54 single living rooms each at 3 shillings every six weeks. Widows were entitled to a room at 7d every 6 weeks. Early in the 19th Century, coal staithes were built to allow colliers to unload direct to the shore, and the keelmen, seeing their livelihood under threat, went on strike and rioted - the militia being called in. There is a print of the Hedley steam railway locomotive, "Wylam Dilly", fitted with paddle wheels and mounted on a keel, towing a string of keels on the Tyne during the keelmen's strike of 1822. The ships could only unload east of the Tyne Bridge, but with the replacement of this by Armstrong's Swing Bridge in 1876 and the dredging of the Tyne in the 1850s, the keels disappeared, to be replaced by the larger wherries.