Wooden Waggonways 1621-1659

Whickham Grand Lease Way

In the early 17th century all goods shipped into and of the navigable waters of the river Tyne, by Act of Parliament, had to be traded in the town of Newcastle.

By a Charter of King John, twelve trading guilds (known as “Mysteries”) had been established in Newcastle. These guilds were cartels, regulating supplies and fixing prices of goods; only freemen of the town who were “Mystery men” could trade in the goods to which the guild related. Certain householders of the town were assigned the duties of entertaining visiting merchants and they became known as Hostmen. One of the privileges of the Hostmen was to furnish their guests with supplies not dealt with by a guild. Coal was not dealt with by a guild and by the early 16th Century the Hostmen had obtained a monopoly in supplying coal.

The leading Hostmen had been acquiring leases of mines and they were considerably aided in this endeavour by Queen Elizabeth I who in 1582 obtained (or as some have put it “extorted”) from the Bishop of Durham a lease of all the coal mines in the manors of Gateshead and Durham (‘The Grand Lease’). Originally the term was for 79 years dating back to 1577 and this was later extended to 99 years at a rent of £90 per annum. By a series of transactions the benefit of the lease was transferred in 1584 to the Mayor and Burgesses of Newcastle. The Hostmen of the town had provided the capital to acquire the lease and it was to the leading contributors that the concessions were given to develop the mines.

The control over the trade exercised by the Hostmen was a running sore with the London market and in 1590 the Lord Mayor of London complained to Lord Burghley of the monopoly and extortion of the owners of Newcastle coals. The Crown, however, recognised the potential revenue that could be derived from a closely regulated trade and by a Royal Charter of 1600, signed by Elizabeth I, a Company of Hostmen was created, limiting the right to trade in coal to members of the Company which also owned the keels and employed the keelmen on the Tyne. The Company was able to regulate the total quantity of coal to be produced in the ensuing year on a quota basis. In this way the Hostmen were able to sell the coal at their own prices to their advantage. The Company reached an agreement with the Crown to pay a tax of one shilling per chaldron.

The Company of Hostmen is still in existence, but now it only has a ceremonial and charitable role.

So at the beginning of the 17th Century the accessible coal fields to the South of the Tyne, with the aid of the Crown, had been effectively transferred from the Church into the hands of wealthy merchants and a cartel had been created to control the supply and price of coal, producing a healthy revenue stream for the Crown.

The first Tyneside coalfield to be worked on an industrial scale was in Whickham. There were upwards of 80 pits in the Whickham Grand Lease coalfield and coal was transported down to the Tyne mainly by large carts known as wains, drawn by two horses and two oxen. There were no paved roads and in wet weather the way soon turned to mud. The principal wainway from Whickham which led to the staithes on the Derwent in Swalwell is still known as Coalway Lane. From records of court cases it appears that there were 700 wains in daily use for the transport of coal in Whickham. This amount of traffic resulted in the ways being extended in width and damage being caused to arable land.

It was in the context of disquiet caused by this traffic that a local landowner and engineer, Robert Surtees, looked to technology for a solution. Surtees had already used his ingenuity to clear flood water from pits by using surface water to drive a water mill at Allerdeans, which drove a battery of pumps to extract water from beneath the coal seam and divert it into the river Team. His solution to the problem of transportation was to build the world’s first commercially successful railway, a wooden waggonway, which operated continuously from 1621 to an unknown date between 1706 and 1723, by which time most of Whickham’s pits were exhausted and production had moved to the south. It succeeded because the high capital cost of building it had been shared with the members of the consortium of Grand Lessees and also because the local population found the waggonway to be a more environmentally acceptable means of transport than the use of wains.

The route of the waggon-way from the Dunston Staithes ran along what is now Ravensworth Road to somewhere near the Dun Cow inn. It followed a route later adopted by the Tanfield Way into what is now Watergate Park. It crossed over on a route unknown towards Washingwell Farm. Branch lines to the north survive as public footpaths. The way was extended in 1647 and terminated at Bucks Hill on Broom Lane in Whickham. An embankment crossing a dene to the west of Washingwell farm is still there, albeit somewhat eroded.

Winlaton (or Brockwell) Way

Unlike Whickham, Winlaton had not been in the ownership of the Bishops of Durham. The manor was owned by the Neville family. The land had been leased to various Newcastle merchants and in 1569 it was sold by Charles Neville, the 6th Earl of Westmorland to four Newcastle merchants, Robert Anderson, William Selby, Richard Hodgson and Humphrey Scrivener. The Earl of Westmorland was a Catholic and together with Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, another Catholic, led a rebellion in that year (sometimes known as the Rising of the North) with the intention of deposing the protestant Queen Elizabeth I and to replacing her with Mary, Queen of Scots. It is thought that the proceeds of the sale of the Earl’s interest in Winlaton helped finance this unsuccessful rebellion.

There is an argument between historians as to whether there was a waggonway to serve the colliery in 1632, but Bennett et al* have no doubt that a reference in a division deed of the lordship of Winlaton in that year to “cole carriages” was a reference to waggons.

The route of the way was from the colliery in the vicinity of the Rose and Crown pub on North Street Winlaton along an unknown route between the Blaydon Burn and Winlaton to Blaydon road terminating at Blaydon Staith situated to the west of the existing Blaydon railway station. There was also possibly a branch to the south west to Brockwell.

The colliery was not an easy one to work because of the difficult geology and the deteriorating quality of coal. The records show that the families of the four merchant owners (who were all inter-related) for various reasons ended up in debt and the colliery was a financial failure.

* A Fighting Trade Rail Transport in Tyne Coal 1600-1800 – Bennett, Clavering & Rounding

Stella Grand Lease Way

The manor of Ryton belonged to the Bishops of Durham and the revenue was described as Grand Lease Stella. Ryton, however, had not been included in the Grand Lease and the name probably stuck because the lessees were invariably the same as those with interests in the Whickham and Gateshead Grand Lease. The freehold of Stella belonged to the Tempest family.

The Way was built in 1630s by Robert Sanderson. The pits the way served are hard to determine, but the evidence suggests that by 1660 the way extended to “Kylofield” some three miles from the Tyne. The way appears to have run continuously until it was redeveloped in 1700.

Bensham Windmill Hill Way and Gateshead Head Way

Very little is known of either Way and the routes are uncertain. Bensham Windmill Hill Way was a short route built no later than 1647. The Gateshead Head Way was probably laid in 1660. It served a very small colliery and the cost of constructing and operating it probably contributed to financial ruin of its owner (James Lidell).