Articles · Newcastle and North East

A Tale of Two Cities: Newcastle and Sunderland

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Newcastle and Sunderland’s fierce rivalry is said to date back to the English Civil War. But is it a relatively recent phenomenon?

In April 2013, Sunderland A.F.C. arrived at St James Park for the Tyne-Wear Derby, hoping for their first win on Newcastle soil in thirteen years. With the fortunes of both football clubs plummeting under unpopular owners, a win would drag Newcastle United down into a relegation battle and make it all the more easy for Sunderland to stay up. It was the Italian Paolo di Canio’s second game in charge, a fresh appointment designed to turn around Sunderland’s fortunes.

Newcastle, who had finished the previous season in fifth place, were currently ravaged by a series of injuries induced by the demands of playing in both the Premier League and the Europa League with a thin squad and a lack of investment. Success on the pitch had come at a price for the Toon Army; a summer transfer window had come and gone with owner Mike Ashley hoping to coast along, riding the success of the 2011/12 campaign.

With his Manager of the Season win all but a distant memory, manager Alan Pardew found himself under heavy fire from the Geordie faithful. His eight-year contract looked more like a jail sentence than the asset originally devised by the Newcastle hierarchy. Following a great string of autumnal losses, four new French players were brought in during the January transfer window – and berets began to be sold in the club shop – but such investment did little more than paper over the cracks of a failing institution.

It was in this troubled context that the two teams faced each other at St James Park. Civic pride, bragging rights and survival in the England’s top flight were all at stake. But the gravity of the fixture, and the sheer humiliation brought forth by defeat, were made even more apparent after disorder broke out in Newcastle City Centre following Sunderland’s 3-0 victory over Newcastle.

The preceding ninety minutes of football were here a mere precursor to the “real” contest which was settled on the streets. As mounted police attempted to move Sunderland fans towards the Metro stations, Newcastle fans sought their revenge and a chance to overturn defeat by confronting the opposition at the beginning of their twelve mile journey home. This quickly escalated into a fight between police, attempting to contain the disorder, and the fans wound up into a frenzy. Bottles were thrown, bins were set on fire, officers were injured, a horse was punched. Several fans were arrested for violent disorder, and subsequently banned from attending a football ground for the rest of their lives; others escaped punishment lost in a sea of feverish rioting.

The disorder of the following year’s Tyne-Wear Derby, which Newcastle lost again on home soil, was best captured in Duane Hopkin’s Twelfth Man (2014). This short film used quick-cutting to emphasise the tension between rival sets of fans and police on horseback attempting to contain the chaos. The frantic squeals of sirens and thumping firecrackers were here paired with the crazed chants and taunts aimed at rival supporters. The film seemed to say that this was an interminable battle between warring city states that stretched back into a distant past. Derby day was thus merely the modern expression of a historic contest between eternal adversaries. Sport had mostly replaced outright war between the two cities but violence was always under the surface looking for a rupture to spew out.

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The hostility between Newcastle and Sunderland is usually said to date back to the English Civil War.* This theory, which is commonly seen in newspapers and club fanzines, posits that it was in the seventeenth century – after the two towns found themselves on opposing sides during the Civil War – when things first got ugly.

This story begins with King Charles I’s decision to award the East of England Coal Trade Rights to Newcastle, an act which threatened the Sunderland coal trade and laid the foundations for a Royalist-Parliamentarian divide between the two towns during the subsequent Civil War. Following the inconclusive Battle of Boldon Hill (1644) and a major defeat for the Royalists at Selby near York, Newcastle found itself exposed to an invading Scottish army which occupied the city.

19th century antiquary Robert Surtees wrote in his History of Durham that the Newcastle residents reacted to the siege of their city in 1644 with the following rhyme:

Ride through Sandgate up and doon

There you’ll see the gallants fighting for the croon

And all the cull cuckolds in Sunderland toon

With all the bonny blue caps will never bring us doon

And so, following Royalist defeat, Sunderland, as a supporter of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians, emerged out of the conflict with the upper hand. But the town’s superior position was short-lived. Following the Restoration of the monarchy, the Newcastle Hostmen successfully forced the government to levy an extra duty on a chaldron of Sunderland coal in 1662, ending any real Wearside advantage in the coal trade.

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The Civil War theory neatly corresponds with contemporary experience – Newcastle as favoured regional capital, Sunderland as second best – two proto-cities locked in a titanic struggle over the rights of coal and the balance of economic power. In the post-industrial age, with attention focused on the Tyne-Wear conurbation, on the city centres and their new universities, and on a tourism and services-centred economy, it is easy to forget, however, that all the large towns of the North East once found themselves on top (with Newcastle, South Shields, Sunderland, Middlesbrough all jostling for position) and that economic rivalries were often subsequently much more small-scale – like those between Newcastle, North Shields, Gateshead, South Shields and Wallsend on the Tyne.

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It is also not clear how this original hostility played through into the nineteenth century when Newcastle and Sunderland were fundamentally reconfigured, new industries and identities were created, and there was as much emphasis placed on the geography of the “North East Coast” – which stretched from Blyth to the Tees – and the “Great Northern Coalfield” – comprising all the pit villages of Northumberland and Durham – as the ports which shipped the coal.

If there was a real divide in the North East, it seems that it was one laid on a north-south axis. Between not Newcastle and Sunderland – which collaborated extensively in the shipbuilding trades and within labour politics – but the Tyne-Wear and Tees/West Hartlepool districts that resisted partnership and association with one another.

Divisions were also found within communities themselves. Since populations were much less sedentary than today, people moved both within the region – from village to village, chasing opportunities for work – and into the North East from Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It appears that it was the Irish who bore the brunt of prejudice in the North East not the unfortunate Wearsiders who unwittingly found themselves on Tyneside.

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A more compelling theory is perhaps that the current Tyne-Wear rivalry is a relatively recent phenomenon. From this perspective, we can see that a once common identity between the two areas fractured following the decline of industry, the loss of a self-evident masculinity tied to industrial labour, the rise of football hooliganism and the urban regeneration programmes which set out to remake the North East.

“The origin of recent Tyne Wear hostility undoubtedly lies in post-1960s football rivalry,” wrote Bill Lancaster, a historian who has done much to dispel the myth of a Newcastle-Sunderland rivalry dating back to the Civil War.† “A survey of more than a century of Newcastle United versus Sunderland derby matches reveals that the games were for most of the century manifestations of what the Evening Chronicle described as a ‘Neighbourly rivalry’, conducted by fans who ‘erected a holiday atmosphere with bugles, bells and rattles’”.

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In the early twentieth century, football had the power to bring together once feuding groups. Success at St. James Park helped the miners of East Northumberland “perceive themselves as Northeasterners rather than as members of isolated mining villages” and enabled them to look on Newcastle not “as the arch enemy but rather as carrying the pride and hopes of the Northeast.”‡

Glory in the FA Cup and the League was shared across the North East, as evidence of the region’s sporting prowess and its ability to conjure up some of the nation’s greatest footballers. A win for Wearside would be lauded in Newcastle – as seen in 1937 when a party was held at Newcastle Central Station for the FA Cup winning Sunderland team – and local songs, such as the Tyneside anthem “Blaydon Races”, were once shared by both teams.§

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Just as popular players passed between Newcastle and Sunderland with little fanfare, diehard sporting fans attended both football games: seeing the black and white at St. James Park one week and the red and white at Roker Park the next (as my Dad used to do in the 1960s). In 1903, Sunderland even staged a Wear-Tees fixture at St. James Park after the Football Association banned them from playing at Roker Park.

But this is not to say that no rivalry existed between Tyneside and Wearside. Derby fixtures were extremely popular and often attracted fifty to sixty thousand supporters to the terraces. Instead, a shared identity prevailed across the region, a sense of kinship that was celebrated when London teams visited and when Newcastle and Sunderland found success on the field.

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Bobby Thompson knew the realities of life in the pits, he knew what it was like to spend years idle, he knew debt and he knew the drink. This was the material that shaped his career as a comedian. Throughout his life, during the years of fame and show biz glitz and glam, Bobby could never catch a break. Although Payday would bring necessary respite this was only until the bars and racecourses came calling.

His trademark character, the “Little Waster”, with his unravelling stripy jumper, flat cap and chain-smoking habit, spoke to those less fortunate than himself, those who couldn’t escape life in the coalfield, as Bobby did, or later, those who remembered what life was once like before the pits closed. With his millions disappearing into the hands of bookmakers, Bobby set out to prove that stardom had left him unaffected. Aspiration and living in comfort were the real vices to be avoided; struggle was both his experience and his act.

Bobby’s shows always had the same format. Out came the “Little Waster” and his tales of debt, dole and indolence. “Private Thompson” and his war-time fables then followed, with the same one-liners repeated endlessly. But this was part of the fun. Outside, the North East was changing, but inside, Bobby was always same. He couldn’t change and he wouldn’t change. An attempt to find a national audience in the 1960s was a sorry failure. His “maks” and “taks”, his accent and parochialism were seen as alien to those outside the North East. The warmth and hospitality conjured up by his mischievous reminiscences regrettably left the rest of the country cold.

Although success was at best ephemeral – and failure always stalked in the background – he was once the pride of the North East; a comic whose distinctiveness was rooted in the local, in the real experience of those who came to see him at the social clubs across the “Great Northern Coalfield” or caught the Radio Newcastle show “Wot Cheor Geordie” from 1951. He was even described as a “Geordie Genius”. But this was before “Geordie” stopped speaking to the whole North East. Today he is considered a “Mackem”, a Wearsider, a native of Sunderland. The “Geordieland” he once talked about has shrunken to within “spitting distance of the River Tyne.” New Penshaw, where he was born in 1911, is now firmly behind enemy lines.

***

Bobby Thompson had what we would now call a “Mackem” accent, a variation on North East speech related to Northumbrian, Tyneside and Durham Pitmatic dialect but with a few differences. Much of the vocabulary which differentiated these dialects – words relating to coalmining, industry, food and 19th century life – has now been lost, and so today, Mackem differs to the Geordie of Tyneside mostly through pronunciation. This includes a tendency to use diphthongs rather than pure vowels (face, fejus, school, skewel) and a use of an “ay” vowel sound instead of the “e” in Geordie ([ɛi] diphthong versus /iː/) in words such as cheese, please and green.♦

It is this minor divergence in pronunciation which gave Mackem its name: what began as a pejorative exonym, aiming to ridicule Wearside speech (the pronunciation of “make” and “take” as “mak” and “tak”), has now been reclaimed by the residents of Sunderland themselves.

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Much has been made of the word “Mackem” and its so-called origins in the shipbuilding rivalries of years past. This urge to project modern sensibilities into the deep past – while alluring – is surely mistaken. “Mackem” is, in fact, a very modern coinage. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first use in print to the 1980s.¶ Until this point, “Mackems” saw themselves and were known as “Geordies”. Few would be able to stomach this today.

“I have a question for all Sunderland fans and residents,” wrote Steven Chaytor in Watching Sport without TV (2006). “When exactly did you become Mackems? My reason for asking is the clear memory of thousands of Sunderland supporters charging around the Capital [during the 1973 FA Cup final] singing – ‘Geordies here, Geordies there, Geordies in Trafalgar Square la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.’”

The notion that Mackems once enthusiastically referred to themselves as “Geordies” will undoubtedly disturb some contemporary residents of North East England. The region is now fundamentally divided into opposing tribal identities. Long gone is Robert Colls and Bill Lancaster’s optimism that “Geordie” could speak for the whole region. With “Geordie” so unalterably charged as “not Sunderland” today, a new endonym could improve the wellbeing of the region. But for this to have any success, Mackems and Geordies may have to recognise what they have in common first.

***

An economy built on ships and coal; a society knitted together through community, politics (as bastions of “Old Labour”), fanatical football support and the drink; a people whose identities were inextricably tied to their jobs and to their sense of being different from the national norm. This was the experience of Newcastle and Sunderland at the turn of the twentieth century. In the following decades, this way of life began to unravel. The experience of decline and unemployment traumatised the region and forced it to be reborn. Rebirth has brought benefits – especially to the women who “Geordie” never catered for – but others were “left behind” and forgotten as change passed them by.

The post-industrial age, with its emphasis on education, services, culture and tourism, has transformed the way the North East sees itself. Call centres have replaced the collieries; shopping malls have succeeded the shipyards. Long gone are the days when a self-evident masculinity arose from the act of working with your hands. Masculinity is now proven on the streets, on the terraces, in the bars, in the gym. Insecure identities, economic uncertainty and resentment at Newcastle’s post-industrial settlement have resulted in Derby Day taking on ever greater importance;♣ losing against the “scum” has become a great attack on each community’s self-esteem.

Recent developments have brought fresh challenges to the established order. The old assumptions about a Labour-voting region are now up for grabs.◊ A new divide has opened in the region’s politics, one which pits the centre against the periphery, the university-educated against school leavers and the old against young. Sunderland doesn’t want to be a mere gateway to the European Union;♠ it misses the days when it sailed the seas. Newcastle looks on with schadenfreude, forgetting that it too is heavily divided. How this will play out remains anyone’s best bet. It is worth reiterating, however, that although change has pushed the two cities apart – defining one against the other – they remain remarkably similar places, with a shared history and strong sense of themselves. Realising that they both have much more in common than they care to admit will be advantageous within the crucial years that lie ahead.

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Photographs courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives, Newcastle Libraries and dkodigital.

To read more on this story: check out the companion piece “The Wear-Tyne Derby, The Tyne-Wear Derby”

*Some commentators have also joked that the Tyne-Wear rivalry began when part of Tyneside was north of Hadrian’s Wall – and hence barbarian – while Sunderland was safely part of the Roman Empire. I’m not convinced.

†Lancaster writes that during the nineteenth century “artisans from Tyneside and Wearside would assemble in large crowds and march through Newcastle displaying examples of their craft ranging from glass to footwear and conclude with concerts in public houses. Trains filled with passengers from Blyth, Sunderland and beyond poured into mid-nineteenth century Newcastle to watch the famous Tyneside rowers compete with their Thames rivals, events that attracted much gambling and as they were often organised by local publicans prodigious consumption of alcohol.” See ‘The North East, England’s Most Distinctive Region?’ in Lancaster, Newton and Vall (eds.), An Agenda for Regional History.

‡These quotes are taken from “Sport and the community: a case study of the mining villages of East Northumberland, 1800-1914” by Alan Metcalfe.

§This and some of the evidence regarding Newcastle-Sunderland’s common identity is from Up There: The North-East, Football, Boom & Bust by Michael Walker (2014). According to the author you can also hear Sunderland fans singing the “Blaydon Races” during the 1973 Cup Final against Leeds. His ears appear to be better than mine.

♦Common phrases such as “Howay”/”Ha’way” are now spelt “Howay” on Tyneside and “Ha’way” on Wearside (with the “Howay the lads”/”Ha’way the lads” famously seen by Newcastle and Sunderland footballers as they exit the tunnel). However, I have found multiple books about Newcastle United which use the “Ha’way” variation.

¶According to anecdotal evidence, “Mackem” was in use on Tyneside during the late 1970s. 

◊The origins of Labour’s recent troubles in the North East may well be found in the North East Assembly referendum (2004). Labour, here, failed to convince its North East base of the merits of coming together under a devolved assembly. Inter-regional rivalries and a perceived Newcastle dominance clearly played their part too: one Sunderland resident argued that “Mackems (Sunderlanders), Smoggies (Teesiders), Monkey-Hangers (Hartlepool) and the Pink Panther mob (Durham) don’t want to be beholden to a Newcastle based assembly, merely reinforcing the prime position of the ‘Geordie Mafia’”.

♣The urban regeneration programmes that set out to remake the North East have cemented Newcastle’s status as regional capital and relegated Sunderland to second-best. A new bridge, university, stadium and glass centre can’t quite compete with the bulk of cosmetic investment (including a rejuvenated Quayside and vibrant city centre) enjoyed by Newcastle over the last few decades. That the Tyne and Wear Metro is predominately focused on Tyneside (and only reached Sunderland and beyond in 2002) also adds to this sense of indignation.

♠Manufacturing was reborn on Wearside in 1986 with the arrival of Japanese carmaker Nissan. The Washington plant currently builds 519,000 cars per year (with 55% of this number exported to other EU countries) and employed 7,755 people in 2016-17. With Britain hurtling towards a no-deal Brexit, Nissan’s business and Sunderland itself could be greatly impacted. Will Nissan stay once Britain leaves?

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One thought on “A Tale of Two Cities: Newcastle and Sunderland

  1. One reader of this blog has suggested that “Mackem” was in use in spoken language much earlier than I had anticipated. David Kemp told me via email:

    “My dad who was born in the West End of Newcastle in 1913, always referred to ‘Mackems.’ He said it was to poke fun at their pronunciation of ‘make’ and ‘take’. We said ‘myek’ and ‘tyek’. Incidentally he had no time for them. When I was wee he told me that after the Derby game at St. James’, the Bishop of Newcastle would come to the ground first thing on the Sunday morning to ‘cleanse’ the ground. However, I remember the fans mingling on the terraces in the 50’s and 60’s.

    My dad used the term ‘Mackem’ in exactly the way we would today. It was independent of football and was a means of identifying anyone from Sunderland and surrounding area.. ‘Geordie’ definitely referred only to those born along the banks of industrial Tyneside and no wider. We were/are proud of it and would not have wanted it used of those who didn’t deserve it.”

    Any further comments would be welcomed.

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