A history of Tyne Tugs, their builders and owners

































Above: Select the required Tug Owner by using the initial letter of the Owner's Name eg: Batey, Lawson or Tyne.

Above funnel images courtesy of John H Proud

Towing has its roots in the Tyne

In the mid 1800s the Tyne was a dangerous river. The North and South Piers were not completed until 1895 and there was a constantly shifting bank of shingle and sand over a rocky base that formed a bar across the river mouth. Safe navigation into or out of the river depended on the draft of the vessel, the tide and the prevailing wind. Many ships were wrecked when making to enter or leave the river.

If the prevailing wind was from the East then the river mouth became even more dangerous as steep waves and spray made the entrance almost impassable. Therefore movement into and out of the river was entirely dependant on the weather. A prolonged period of Easterly winds in the winter of 1847 penned over 1,700 sailing vessels in the river and on the day that the winds dropped and the sea state improved, some 400 vessels left the river on the same tide.

So it is not suprising that tugs became a absolute neccessity.

At least 360 steam vessels (not all tugs) were built on the Tyne before 1850 and most were paddle driven. North Shields (with 149 vessels), South Shields (with 78 vessels) and Gateshead (with 63 vessels) were the principal centres for tug boat building at this time. Eleven Tyne yards each built nine or more steamers before 1850 and a further eleven built four or more. However in all there were some sixty builders that built at least one of these early steamers.

Just over 10% of the tugs operating throughout the UK were on the Tyne and by 1827 some 38 vessels were plying the river. Their largest task was the towing of small sailing ships into and out of the river for the London coal trade. Tyne tugs in the 1830ís, were generally small, 50ft to 70ft long, compared to other shipyards elsewhere in Britain. From the 1840s an increased number of tugs were built on other rivers.

Tyne built tugs for local owners were later sold to other ports. An 1852 Admiralty survey of the tugs in use in London, Bristol and Liverpool, showed that 40 were built on the Tyne, 11 on the Thames, 10 at Liverpool, 3 at Southampton and Bristol and 2 each on the Wear and Tees.

By the 1860s there were over 250 steam tugs on the Tyne and almost 100 more on the Wear and Tees.

It is therefore not suprising that tug owners painted the funnels of their tugs with their own individual designs so that they and their customers could easily regognise their tugs.

So in summary, "why so many tugs on the Tyne"?

a) There were a large number of coastal sized sailing ships carrying coal from Tyneside to London each of which would use a tug to enter or leave the river in adverse winds.

b) Vessels using the enclosed docks or riverside quays would often use tugs. There were over 14,000 vessels a year recorded as trading to the Tyne in the early years of the 20th century.

c) The River Tyne itself in the days prior to the TIC was a very difficult river to navigate and tugs were needed to pull vessels off the numerous mud banks.

d) Many of Tyneside collieries had early railways or waggon ways to link the collieries to the Tyne river bank. Keels (or small non-propelled barges) would then be used to take the coal to a loading point. Tugs would be used to tow these keels, often in strings, down the river to the colliers. In 1924 there were 22 million tons of coal & coke shipped from the Tyne.

e) Tyneside was a major shipbuilding centre launching up to 150 ships per year. Each launch would require tugs to control the vessel after it entered the river. Between the years 1860 and 1920 there would be 2 or 3 launches per week.

f) Tyneside was a major ship repair centre with upward of 30 dry docks at its peak. Ships entering or leaving dry dock would normally use tugs to handle this manoeuver. Ships entering dry dock would often be there for only a few days before leaving again and another vessel would take its place.

g) With the expertise of building tugs for the local market, the Tyne tug builders were the major provider of tugs for the rest of the UK. Many of the tug owners also operated as tug dealers, buying new tugs from the builders and selling them on very quickly to owners elsewhere.

But who were these owners? In the book that is widely regarded as the definitive work on UK steam driven tugs, "British Steam Tugs", Phil N Thomas says: "Towing has its roots in the Tyne . . . . the list of tug owners runs into hundreds, so only the owners of the larger fleets with the approximate number of tugs can be listed. The big difficulty for anyone not steeped in local history is to know when a common surname relates to a family concern or to rival owners. Then too, the tradition of dividing the ownership of vessels into 64 shares was very strong on the Tyne and many owners had shares in tugs, other than those registered in their own name. In many of the alphabetic sections the initials after the surname are all the different names in the registers."

For anyone with an interest in this subject I recommend that they read the above book and also "150 Years of the Maltese Cross" - The story of the Tyne, Blyth & Wear Tug Companies by John H Proud
Funnel images at the top & bottom of the page are copied from this book.