Cannons, coal and King Charlie: the first Newcastle-Sunderland derby


Every so often, we are reminded that there is more to supporting Newcastle United than nurturing extraordinary delusions of grandeur or helping Mike Ashley provide highly paid employment for recovering criminals. There is also a deep sense of history, as shown by Michael Hudson*, the thoughtful Mag behind the excellent blog on non-league football Accidental Groundhopper, in these reflections on what he judges to have been the first Tyne-Weart derby, back in 1644.

It started with coal. In north-east England, everything started with coal.

The produce of the Northumbrian coalfield had been shipped from Newcastle since the middle of the 13th century, around the time the city’s mayor, Nicholas Scott, was leading a group of armed merchants in setting fire to the rival port of North Shields (an attempted historical re-enactment by residents of the Meadowell Estate went slightly awry in 1991).

Although the Prior of Tynemouth took legal action, Newcastle’s traders eventually checkmated him by making King Edward I a monetary offer he couldn’t refuse. The Priory’s trading rights were severely restricted and the sale and export of coal was made the sole preserve of the Freemen of Newcastle.

The city’s trading dominance was just as entrenched at the beginning of the 17th century, Elizabeth I having reaffirmed Newcastle’s monopoly in exchange for a one-shilling tax on every wagonload of coal exported from the Tyne.

After a failed attempt to annexe Gateshead, Newcastle’s coal magnates turned their attention towards the nascent trade from the River Wear. In 1609 11,648 tons were shipped out of Sunderland, a small fraction of the 239,000 which left the Tyne. Nonetheless, King James I was persuaded to issue a decree compelling a percentage of Wear coal revenues to be paid to Newcastle’s merchants. A decade later the world’s first recorded railway started transporting coal from Whickham down to the Tyne at Dunston. The dominance of Newcastle’s Company of Merchant Adventurers was confirmed in 1637 when Charles I doubled the tax the Crown levied on coal shipments and granted the Company control over production and the right to hike up their prices in return. And so they did.

Newcastle’s prosperity – in 1635 a traveller described it as “the fairest and richest town in England inferior for wealth and building to no city save London and Bristol” – and strategic importance made it an attractive target for the Scottish Covenanters. In 1640 a poorly-trained English force was soundly defeated at the Battle of Newburn and hastily withdrew from the garrison at Newcastle, which, together with the counties of Durham and Northumberland, was ceded to the Scots in the subsequent Treaty of Ripon. Charles agreed to pay £850 a day towards the maintenance of Scottish troops in Newcastle and was forced to recall Parliament after an eleven-year gap to negotiate a larger financial settlement (the Scottish eventually departed a year later). Parliament opened on November 3rd 1640. By the middle of 1642 the country was at war.

Returning from South Shields, the Scottish troops took up positions across the valley on Cleadon Hill, seriously disrupting bus traffic and several games of golf

After failing to capture Hull, William Cavendish (a Nottinghamshire landowner who Charles had ennobled as the First Earl of Newcastle) was sent north to secure the coalfields of Durham and Northumberland. Although Parliament ships blockaded the Tyne (coal exports dropped to just 3,000 tons in 1642), Charles’s control of north-east England wasn’t seriously threatened until January 1644 when a Scottish army of just over 20,000 re-entered Northumberland, crossing the Tyne at Ebchester and taking Sunderland unopposed. After some initial skirmishes around Penshaw Hill, the Scottish besieged and captured the Royalist fort at South Shields in the third week of March, turning south to face Cavendish, who had brought up troops from the garrisons at Newcastle and Durham City.

Who, if anyone, triumphed in the skirmish which resulted is unclear, though popular myth – perpetuated by this Guardian article – asserts that the Battle of Boldon Hill was fought between the armies of Newcastle and Sunderland (who presumably arrived dressed in Stone Island chain mail and spent six hours shouting “Come on then, I’ll do you” at each other while hopping around and waving their arms) and resulted in the red and whites’ first Tyne-Wear derby win (“bolstered by the anti-Royals from Scotland,” as Sunderland’s Wikipedia entry puts it).

What is known is that the two sides exchanged cannon fire across what is now East Boldon and Cleadon and Cavendish was unable to enter Sunderland itself. The Scottish made no attempt to capture Newcastle until Charles suffered a calamitous defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor on July 2nd and consequently abandoned much of the north of England. Cavendish sailed for Germany the following day, only returning to England after the 1660 Restoration.

Besieged by a Scottish army of 40,000 troops, and with scant hopes of relief, the city of Newcastle refused to surrender for three months until its defensive walls were finally breached. The garrison of 1,500 made a last-stand at the Castle Keep, Sir John Marley – the Royalist mayor whose statue is one of four on the façade of 45 Northumberland Street – handing over the city on October 20th. Charles followed suit within months, surrendering to the Scottish army at Newark and spending the best part of a year as their prisoner in Newcastle.

The Tyne – Wear rivalry didn’t end with the Civil War. Although Sunderland had closed the gap on its wealthier neighbour, the town’s trade was again restricted by Royal Charter after the Restoration.

This allowed Newcastle to dominate coal exports until the end of the 19th century, when the antagonism between the two cities was first noted on the football pitch. The opening games between the sides took place in 1898. On Good Friday 1901 an estimated 50-70,000 supporters packed in to St James’ Park, overwhelming the 25 police officers present, swamping the pitch and causing the game to be called off when the players were unable to make their way out of the tunnel. The mood quickly turned, punches and missiles were exchanged and “three or four thousand persons, mostly young fellows with caps, formed themselves into one compact body and went on an expedition of wreckage,” the Athletic News later reported.

Nicholas Scott would have enjoyed that one.

* Michael Hudson, who kindly consented to reproduction of this article from his Accidental Groudhopper blog, on Michael Hudson: Inspired by a 1985 daytrip to Esbjerg, my last act of the 20th century was moving to Daejeon, South Korea, where I adopted the local football club and inflicted Northern vowel sounds on impressionable students of English. I’ve since worked and followed (mostly staggeringly unsuccessful) teams in Seoul, Tokyo, Northern Bohemia, Sicily, Riga, Hangzhou and Odessa, as well as (slightly less memorably) South Shields, Manchester and Nottingham.
Now studying for an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL in between spending too much time on Twitter, watching non-league football and bemoaning Mike Ashley’s continued mismanagement of Newcastle United.:

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3 thoughts on “Cannons, coal and King Charlie: the first Newcastle-Sunderland derby”

  1. Quite an interesting journey through the local annals, though slightly geographically challenged -if the scots crossed the Tyne at EBCHESTER (Co.Durham) they should’ve had their sat navs checked!

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