This month's heritage blog is an insightful piece written by multi-disciplined Trust volunteer John, who is a heritage researcher, digital mapper, and Back to the Future walking guide.


Not far outside Newcastle, a small burn winds its way through a steep-sided valley into the Tyne.  Early in the middle ages the power of this river was harnessed and used to drive water wheels for the milling of corn and the preparation of wool and cloth.  As the centuries progressed the number of water mills on this unprepossessing little river increased and, along with the discovery of nearby coal deposits, the area became a hive of local industry.  In the eighteenth century, the valley, with its easy access to cheap coal and a ready supply of water, was well placed to exploit the use of steam power and is considered by many to have been the very heart of the industrial revolution in the area.[i]

In Victorian times the industrialisation of the valley continued apace. With the noise and smoke from the factories, and contaminants from mine workings polluting the rivers and streams it would have been a particularly unpleasant place to live and work.

But, in the 20th century these Victorian industries started a steep decline.  Advances in technology, foreign competition, and the depletion of cheap raw materials from the local area all contributed to the closure of many of the factories in the valley.  By the 1970s, decisions about what to do with the abandoned buildings and derelict industrial sites needed to be made.

This is a story that echoes the history of the Lower Ouseburn Valley, but in the case of Blaydon Burn the decision was to remove much of the industrial infrastructure, to make safe the ruins of the old factories and allow nature to take its course.  Following this, in 2007, Gateshead council embarked on a three-year project to document the archaeology and ecology of the area and create the Blaydon Burn Nature Reserve where local wildlife thrives amongst the remnants of industry.[ii]

Today a walk around Blaydon Burn offers tantalising glimpses of that industrial past.[iii] 

Abandoned coal drops

Abandoned coal drops

Stairs ascend to nowhere from the valley floor.

Stairs ascend to nowhere from the valley floor

Firebricks from the famous Cowen works litter the riverbed.

Firebricks from the famous Cowen Works litter the riverbed

Water cascades over the dam that was once part of Massey’s Forge

Water cascades over the dam that was once part of Massey’s Forge.[i]

Streams feeding into the burn are, even today,  stained with the tell-tale signs of long forgotten mines.

And streams feeding into the burn are, even today, stained with the tell-tale signs of long-forgotten mines.

But could this have ever been the fate of Ouseburn?  Why did Blaydon Burn become a Nature Reserve rather than a thriving creative and cultural hub?

Like the Ouseburn, the industrial story of Blaydon Burn began in the middle ages when the river was first used to drive numerous corn mills.  In the 17th century the Brockwell Wagonway crossed the valley carrying coal and lead to the Wharf at Blaydon Burn and as the coal reserves along the burn began to be exploited a further wagonway was created along the line of the river.[i]  Many of the old corn mills were then being repurposed to pump water from the mine workings or to drive the bellows and hammers of forges.  Similarly, in Ouseburn, coal from nearby collieries in Jesmond, Heaton and Byker was being exported from the riverside but, unlike Blaydon Burn, other industries, such as Robert Mansell’s glassworks, were being established.  The 18th century saw further industrialisation of Ouseburn with the expansion of the glass industry, roperies, flax mills and the start of the pottery industry; steam engines were being used to pump water from mines (for example the problematic mine at Heaton that was prone to flooding), while along Blaydon Burn the oligarchs of the coal industry recognized not only the value of what was underground, but also the increased profit that was achievable by limiting the supply (the so called “Limitation of the Vend”).  Landowners played the waiting game and kept the area as farmland rather than exploit it for housing or industry.  The coal reserves along Blaydon Burn were still waiting to be exploited fully.

Coal mining and the extraction of clay are intrinsically linked, and the fireclay extracted along Blaydon Burn was of a particularly high quality.  Joseph Cowen, known locally as the "Blaydon Brick”, established the family brickworks there in 1828,[i] and not far away was Snowball's Works at Derwenthaugh, where the firebricks used in the construction of the kilns at the Liddle-Henzell Glassworks on the Ouseburn were made.

Snowball brick

In the mid-19th century, as the coal mines in Newcastle began to be closed, new coal mines were opened along Blaydon Burn and with these new mines in production there was an accompanying increase in the industrialisation.  The Cowens expanded their brick yards and established a gas works,[i] coal was used to power iron forges and lead works, and in 1903 the Ottovale works were built by the mouth of Blaydon Burn for Preistman Collieries.[ii]  Ottovale was not only a major coke works but the hot coal gases were used to drive an electricity power station and distilled to produce coal tar and petrol.  This petrol, Blaydon Benzol, was the first ever to be distilled from coal gas.

Comparative industrialisation[i]

Blaydon Burn

(see https://tinyurl.com/BlaydonBurnGPS for further details)

Ouseburn

(see https://tinyurl.com/OuseburnGPS for further details)

A comparison of the industrial developments starts to provide clues regarding the different fates of Blaydon Burn and the Lower Ouseburn Valley.

On Tyneside, the Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century was initially characterised by the development of numerous small industrial concerns: glass houses; potteries; flax mills, roperies; chemical industries (alkali works); lead works; meat packing etc. which often exploited the use of steam power. As the 19th century progressed, many of the smaller industries became uneconomical and the profile of industrialisation moved towards heavy engineering concerns, such as ship building and munitions, as well as the businesses that supported those industries.

This change in industrial profile is echoed in the history of Ouseburn, but in Blaydon Burn all industries remained direct offshoots of coal mining and were reliant on that steady, and cheap, local supply of coal.

Comparative topography

Analysis of the topography of the two areas in the 19th Century shows another important difference. 

While Blaydon Burn was heavily industrialised, it was not an area where many people actually lived.  By 1898 the Blaydon Burn mines alone employed around 800 (rising to nearly 1500 at the peak of employment in 1914)[i] yet it is clear that the workforce was not being housed within the valley; even in the nearby villages of Blaydon, Winlaton and Stella there are few signs of any significant growth. 

Ouseburn (Byker) was incorporated into Newcastle in 1835 and over the period covered by these maps the population of Newcastle more than doubled, rising to 215,000 by 1901.  To cope with the expanding population many larger properties were subdivided to create low quality tenement housing and, in the early years of the nineteenth century, this would have been supplemented with back-to-back rows of “slum” housing.  It was not unusual to find a dozen or more people living in a single two-up-two-down dwelling.[ii]

Ouseburn typifies the way in which the population distribution changed because of the Industrial Revolution, the workforce of the countryside diminished as a result of mechanisation, while the population of towns and cities increased as people relocated to take up the better paid jobs created by a wide diversity of new industries. 

The same cannot be said for Blaydon Burn.  There was little or no diversity of industrialisation along Blaydon Burn, the area continued to make use of waterpower until the end of the 19th century, and the new industries were offshoots of, or entirely dependent on, the coal industry (e.g., coke, gas, and brick works).  Following the Nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947, Mary and Bessie, the last remaining mines along Blaydon Burn, were declared uneconomical and were both closed by 1956;[iii] the Ottovale works continued operation until it too was closed in 1959.  With the eventual closure of Cowens last brickworks, Blaydon Low Yard,[iv] in 1975 all industry had gone from valley.

When Ouseburn was faced with the same scale of deindustrialisation in the latter half of the twentieth century, with many of the large factories and workshops all but abandoned, an impoverished environment and a declining population … the shock troops moved in.[v]  In 1983, a few years before the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation (TWDC)[vi] was established to drive the regeneration of areas like Ouseburn, Mike Mould bought the old Cluny Bonded Warehouse and created a cooperative of actors, artists, and musicians to develop 36 Lime Street” as workshops and studios.  The artists (Mike Mould’s “shock troops”) kick started the resurgence of Ouseburn, investment then followed, and the regeneration of the valley started in earnest.  But over in Blaydon Burn the sound of forge hammers and the railway had been replaced not with the beat of band practice, but the babbling of the river and the tune of birdsong.


[i] http://www.dmm.org.uk/colliery/b042.htm

[ii] M. Barke and R. J. Buswell (eds), Newcastle’s Changing Map, Newcastle City Libraries and Arts, (1992)

[iii] https://co-curate.ncl.ac.uk/blaydon-burn-colliery/

[iv] https://sitelines.newcastle.gov.uk/SMR/3434

[v] Rather theatrically, Mike Mould once referred to the artists of 36 Lime Street as “the shock troops of urban regeneration” (http://36limestreet.co.uk/about-us/)

[vi] https://neregenarchive.online/home/nera-archives/tyne-and-wear-development-corporation/

[i] The HER (https://www.twsitelines.info/) was used to identify, map, and classify the industrial sites along Blaydon Burn and the Lower Ouseburn Valley

[i] https://www.twsitelines.info/SMR/3555

[ii] http://www.winlatonhistorysociety.btck.co.uk/BLAYDONBURN/Ottovale

[i] https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/speccoll/2018/04/05/the-blaydon-brick-joseph-cowen/

[i] https://sitelines.newcastle.gov.uk/SMR/8469

Picture credits: A Curtis; H Richardson; J Emslie

[i] https://sitelines.newcastle.gov.uk/SMR/3431

[i] http://www.winlatonhistorysociety.btck.co.uk/BLAYDONBURN 
   https://www.gateshead.gov.uk/article/4398/Blaydon-Burn-Nature-Reserve

[ii] https://www.northernarchaeologicalassociates.co.uk/blaydon-burn-industrial-landscape-assessment

[iii] https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3.spanglefish.com/s/38531/documents/blaydonburnleaflet.pdf