Our Gateshead

Dunston Staithes




The Dunston riverside was once a hive of activity, with lots of ships waiting at the river mouth to be loaded with coal from the Keel boats as early as 1671. The Keel men had to be strong, as the Keel boats carried 20 tons of coal with just a square sail and two large oars, they did four or five trips a day, manned by two men and a boy. When the Dunston Staithes were built, sadly, the Keel men were made redundant.


The Dunston Staithes (pictured above) were built by the North Eastern Railways. The first pile was driven on 26th August 1890. There was no formal ceremony when they were opened, just a few officials of the mineral traffic department were present. They were opened on Monday 16th October 1893, and the first steamer loaded at 7.20 a.m. was called 'The Holmside'.

It is said that the Dunston Staithes are the largest timber structure in Europe and probably in the world, although I have found no proof of this.

The structure is made of North American pitch pine timber, no longer available, from the once unlimited forest.  Most of the timber used was 20 metres long, 14 inches deep and 14 inches wide. The total weight of timber is 3,200 tons, the Staithes are 526 metres long with 4 railway tracks, 6 loading berths (3 on each side), with 2 chutes to each berth.  The gradient from West to East is 1 in 90.

The main structure was £33,130.19s.lld The railway known as the permanent way was £247.5s.0d., additional timber £2,433,19s.2d. The total cost £210,000., which was a lot of money in 1890.

In the early 19th Century, Waggonways were used to transport the coal from the North Durham coalfields, of which there were quite a few. Dunston, at that time, would largely be agricultural, supplying food for Newcastle and Gateshead. Meat, such as pork, lamb, mutton and beef, as well as milk, vegetables, grain and hay, but the more industry increased, the food was produced locally. Ships came into the Tyne at Dunston from all over the world to collect their cargo, the crews would need feeding, so the Dunston shops did very well in those days. Some of the crews would stay at the Seaman's Mission, which is now the Community Centre. As the Staithes became more and more of a success, the farmers started to charge for crossing their land.

There were lots of Waggonways, but the first was, Whickham Grand Lease, running from Bucks Hill, Whickham, to Lobley Hill, then, on to Dunston. It was built by a Consortium of  companies and handled about 100.000 tons of coal each year. These Waggonways were the forerunner to the Railways as we know them. The first steam engine in the North was built by George Stephenson in 1814. Between 1699 -1724/5, there was a Dunston Way running from Blackburn Fell and Gibside to Dunston, it is, in part a footpath, now known as Keelmen's Walk. There was also a Ravensworth Way built by Liddell's of Ravensworth, it ran from Lamesley and Eighton to the Team, then on to Dunston.



The scale of the operations were quite large, for after just one year, coal shipments had increased from 20,000 tons to 130,000 tons per annum. In 1894, 1,289,000 tons were shipped from Dunston in 1,037 vessels. The Staithes were so successful that in 1898, the North Eastern Railways Company decided to build an inner Staithe, to double their capacity, with a tidal basin (pictured above) for the retention of vessels. Up to 20 ships would wait in the Tyne to be loaded.

To build the basin, islands had to be removed and shallows deepened. In the process, flooding would occur until these operations were completed.

The rivers had a poor reputation at that time, as anyone who lived in Dunston would tell you. In fact, the river Team, (The Gut - as it was called), was said to be the most highly polluted river in the Country, and having lived not far from it myself, I can tell you, it was! If you were to fall into it, it would be "rushed" to the nearest Hospital! In the 1940's, I can still remember, the river used to flood the bottom part of Ravensworth Road.

In 1938, 4 million tons of coal was exported from the Staithes. The coal waggons were pushed by steam engines up the gradient, to the Staithes. It was a very skilled job to shunt the waggons onto the Staithes, as the driver worked "blind" from behind, and had to make sure they were on the right track. The men had their own signals, maybe a touch of a cap, or some other gesture, but there was nothing written down, so the driver had to depend on them.

Once on the Staithes, and at the berths, the "teamers" and "trimmers" were waiting in the colliers to level the coal, as it came down the chutes, to keep the ship level. The empty waggons rolled back to the Railway siding by gravity.  It was not a pleasant place to work, as it was noisy, oily and very, very, dirty. There were occasionally some very serious accidents, because of the poor lighting. They worked by candlelight until the electricity arrived in 1930. Some of the men lost their limbs, some were crushed between the ship and the Staithes, however, it was still considered a privilege to work there. Trimmer's and teamer's jobs were nearly always handed down from father to son, or some-one in the family. They were the "elite" of the Staithes, very well paid, as in 1930 they earned around œ8 to œ10 per week, I don't think anyone knew how much they really earned, (not even the Tax Man).

Going back to the engine driver for the moment, if they didn't gauge the end of the track just right, the trucks could fall over the edge. In the year 1928, that is exactly what happened. The engine travelled a little too far, crashed through the end buffers and two trucks fell over the edge. If you can imagine the engine shunting (pushing from the rear) a set of 12 trucks, all loaded with 20 tons of coal, then it is not hard to imagine the great difficulties in retrieving the trucks. It took a crane of considerable size to lift such  a vast weight.

During the Staithes "glory days", in 1929, 140,000 tons of coal per week was loaded. In 1970 it's production dropped to just 3,500 tons per annum. Trade had steadily declined from the end of the second World War, it was never to recover. The run-down was gradual, but they closed as working Staithes in 1977, and finally in 1980.

In 1990 after they were refurbished by Gateshead Council with help from Central Government grants. The Staithes were opened as a walkway, on part of the riverside site, which was part of the National Garden Festival. The river Tyne was also cleansed for this event and now, happily, salmon swim up the river to spawn.  

In 1912, a dug-out canoe was found at the West Dunston Staithes, it dated back to Neolithic times*.

The Dunston Staithes is an unusual structure restored to be part of our local and national industrial heritage. It is now a grade 'A' listed building and over 100 years old.

* The Neolithic period was the New Stone Age circa 5000 BC.

Written & Researched By Ethel Baker 

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