‘That was when coal was king; the river was a living thing.’

Walking along Newcastle’s Quaysides in the 19th and 20th centuries, one would first find themselves engulfed in asphyxiating smog before giving way to the acerbic smell of burning coal, with hundreds upon hundreds of men practising their trade aboard the industrial mega-structures that cradled the river.

Or – to put it in a less descriptive way – you would have been met with a very different scene to today. The first records of shipbuilding on the Tyne date back to the late 13th century, and by the 19th century Tyneside was the third largest producer of ships in Britain. World-renowned shipbuilder Swan Hunter employed over 3,000 people and produced over 1,600 ships in over 130 years of operation. One of 21 ocean liners built by the Swans was RMS Mauretania (1906) which – until the completion of the Titanic’s sister ship, RMS Olympic in 1911 – held the honour of being the largest ship in the world. It even held the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing for 20 years. Shipbuilding on the Tyne came to a poignant end in 2006 when Swan Hunter completed its final build, a Royal Navy landing ship named Largs Bay, and the distinctive shipbuilding cranes which towered above Wallsend left for India in 2008.

The end of an era.

Neighbouring Sunderland was once Britain’s biggest shipbuilding town until the industry disappeared in 1988. It is even believed that the word ‘Mackem’ stems from the industry. Why? Well, how might someone from Sunderland pronounce ‘make them’? A reference to making ships.

The decline of shipbuilding throughout the 20th cenutry – bar a brief period of wartime boom – tore the very heart out of a region that lived and breathed by its mighty rivers. Jarrow was one of the worst affected areas, with unemployment in the town (as a result of the decline of most industries there) reaching 74% by the height of the great depression of 1929, which prompted 200 men to lead the famous Jarrow Crusade, highlighting the plight of workers and shipbuilders in the region.

Industrial depression was allowed to ravage one of the greatest regions of England; a region which is still recovering.

Although, as Jimmy Nail once sang: “The river will rise again.”