Documenting the North East

On the Waterfront


The decline and rebirth of the rivers of North East England

A foghorn sounds, a crane swivels on its axis, sparks fly from a welder’s torch. Legions of workers flow towards the waterfront, beckoned by the enormous metal ships resting on the banks of the river. Through the clattering of heavy machinery and turbulence of fog and steam, arrives Launch (1974), a love letter to the shipyards of Wallsend, directed by the Amber Film Collective’s Murray Martin and Peter Roberts.

The construction and launch of an oil tanker on the Tyne provide this film with its narrative drive but its focus centres mostly on the majesty of the industrial space itself. Gone is the fascination with ceremony common to the tradition of such documentaries. The arrival of Princess Anne and her entourage, so celebrated by the Launch of the Esso Northumbria (1969), is marginalised; her role in this story rendered unimportant and insignificant.  

Launch Day figures in the film as the culmination of many months of concentrated effort; a fitting conclusion as well as a fresh start. This is the lifecycle of a town where all roads lead to the shipyards. Dwarfed by the scale and might of its achievement, Wallsend has grown into a dormitory for those at the shipyard’s behest. The intensity of emotion felt on the day of the launch reflects the accomplishment of a whole community working towards a single goal. But the final farewell doesn’t just mark the celebration of a job completed. A ship heading for the sea, never to return, is also a time for reflection and a moment of mourning.   

Launch 2

In the coming years, the shipyards themselves would be mourned; their disappearance another chapter in the story that was deindustrialisation. Launch would become a memory of how things once were; a testament to the triumph of a lost way of life. In two celebrated photographs, Chris Killip captured this sudden unravelling of Tyneside’s industrial culture. In Looking East from Camp Road (1975), children play in the shadow of the “Tyne Pride”, the largest ship ever built on the river. Two years later, in Demolished Housing, Wallsend (1977), these same streets are reduced to rubble, the skyline empty, the shipyards abandoned.

The photographers and filmmakers of the 1970s couldn’t help but look at Wallsend through the lens of loss. Driven by a desire to celebrate the working-class communities and industries of the region, their quest for a spectacle of everyday life was tainted by the knowledge that such places were changing inexorably. Marooned in the gap between industry and information, the future of the working rivers of North East England was profoundly uncertain. The romantic vistas that had appealed to an earlier generations of river photographers could only have belonged to a more innocent time.  

Harry Morrison was drawn to the golden light of dawn. In the moments of peace and quiet that preceded the working day, this remarkable amateur photographer transformed Newcastle’s riverside into a landscape of expressive beauty. His favourite subjects were the individuals observed through mist and murk: lone cyclists climbing steep ravines, labourers relishing cigarettes, newsagents retrieving morning papers. Set against the atmospheric industrial backdrops of 1950s Tyneside, the routine and everyday could be elevated to the lofty reaches of the sublime.

Dorman Long’s Building the Tyne Bridge (1928) didn’t require this play of light and shadow to enhance its subject matter. The construction of the Tyne’s most famous bridge was a spectacle in itself. Built originally as an unemployment relief scheme, this striking piece of infrastructure would come to symbolise Tyneside’s great age of industry. The pocket-sized workers pictured in the collection appear to have risked all in the pursuit of greatness. Lacking the requisite safety equipment prescribed by a modern age, the men pose for their portraits aboard narrow steel bars hanging in the air. Strong winds would send many tumbling down into the water – a quick plunge and then back to the job. The dangers of such work no match for its ultimate payoff.

The exaltation of industry masked some major considerations, not least of which was its detrimental impact on the environment. The achievement of the Tyne Bridge, a river overcome through brain and brawn, spoke of a human mastery of the natural world. Ferry Journey Between Newcastle and North Shields (1965), however, revealed the price paid by the Tyne’s industrial experiment. This amateur 16mm film showcased the filth and dirt of a river receiving the poisonous waste of industry. But Ferry Journey also marked the beginning of a turning point in the river’s story. The abandoned warehouses and boarded-up homes lining the Tyne’s banks would soon be recolonised by life. The ruins of decline gave nature a chance to fight back.

Over on the River Tees, wildlife had been making inroads into ageing industrial spaces for some time. “On the surface, the industrial landscape of Teesside would seem to have little to offer nature,” announces Joanna Lumley, narrator of The Hidden Kingdom: A Natural History of Industrial Teesside (1991). “But a closer look reveals a place that is home to a wide variety of plants, birds and animals. Largely unnoticed by us they are part of a hidden kingdom.” This hidden kingdom encompasses the wild flowers flourishing on old slagheaps, the common terns seeking refuge in industrial wetlands and the bats roosting in the canopies of ICI’s administration block. Ring-fenced industrial sites give the protection and safety absent in the wild. All that is required from these stalwart plants and animals is an appetite and ability to change.

Elsewhere, nature was restructured and harnessed to give the illusion of the real. High up in the North Tyne Valley, a remote site was chosen to store the water resources demanded by the thirsty cities in the east. “Already many people have forgotten what it looked like before all this water was here,” says the narrator in Kielder Water 1968-1982 (1982). “To their children, this lake will seem as natural and eternal as the forest does to them.” Water for oil refining, steelmaking, quenching, dousing and cooling first accumulated in Kielder Water, the largest man-made reservoir in Northern Europe, in the early 1980s. Since then, this flooded river valley has capitalised on its standing as a site of artificial beauty. What was once an isolated and placid hill community today attracts thousands of pleasure-seekers dazzled by the opportunities for recreation and leisure provided by the lake and its neighbouring woodlands.

Removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life was another artificial oasis of peace and quiet. “Among the blackening coalfields, the noisy shipyards and factories,” narrates Walter Reeve in Jesmond Dene (1951). “Surely here, we will find no natural scenery, no sanctuary for birds, no place for dalliance or for quiet recollection.” In the steep-sided Ouseburn valley a short bus journey from Newcastle city centre, one of Tyneside’s wealthiest industrialists forged his own peculiar paradise. Jesmond Dene, a picturesque pocket of woodlands, crags, waterfalls and pools concealed in the heart of dirty, industrial city, was financed by the wealth generated in William Armstrong’s Elswick works. Here, non-native species such as the cedar, juniper and Californian Redwood flourished alongside rhododendron and azalea. On the payment of a small entrance fee, the people of 19th century Tyneside could catch the glimmer of a kingfisher or marvel at a white-throated dipper in mid-flight. The Ouseburn river’s narrow wooded valley has formed a crucial wildlife corridor ever since, connecting open countryside to the lush, green spaces of the Dene. But the story of this Tyne tributary doesn’t just end with a scenic walk on a Sunday afternoon.

In the 1980s, the decaying and derelict lower reaches of the once prosperous Ouseburn were earmarked for regeneration. Tyne Tees Television’s Boats, Goats and Yuppie Flats (1986) promoted the city council’s plans for the deserted warehouses and run-down industrial buildings lining the river’s banks: “The river itself will be cleaned and the banks improved. Old warehouses will be converted into offices and flats. New housing will be built on a currently derelict site and a museum and visitor centre will be established. If the dream comes true the valley will be transformed.”

This enthusiasm for the possibilities of a post-industrial future was also captured by A Tale of Two Rivers (1992) produced by the Tyne & Wear Development Corporation. “The communities along Tyne and Wear will have the most advanced developments in Europe in place to take them into the twenty-first century,” announces John Grundy, narrator of this promotional film. “Newcastle and the region will take pride in the twenty-four-hour experience of zest and vitality in one of Europe’s finest new waterfronts.” Although the prestige of business parks, enterprise zones, hotels, nightclubs and cultural districts could not satisfy those yearning for a recreation of the industrial past, North East England had, by the turn of the century, succeeded in forging a captivating new narrative. “The old image is being replaced by the new reality,” says John Grundy. “And that’s not just the hype. See it for yourself. All along the rivers, things are changing.”

066221:Colour photograph of Quayside Newcastle upon Tyne Malcolm Maybury 1998

The photographs above are from Amber’s archives and are licensed through Creative Commons. Links to individual collections and the North East Film Archive are provided in the text. The final photograph of Newcastle Quayside is provided by Newcastle Libraries. 

This is the second instalment of “Documenting the North East”, a history of documentary photography and filmmaking made in North East England. Planning and its Discontents looks at architecture, community and change, Belonging After Industry discusses football, cage fighting, makina and the night-out. You can follow me on Twitter here

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