DEATH MARCH of the BLUE BONNETS – in conversation with author John Orton

Former Tynesider John Orton is author of three previous books which have featured on this blog, The Five Stone Steps, Blitz Pams, and A Chill Wind off the Tyne which are all set in the 1900s to the 1940s, but his new book goes back further.

“Shields has a rich history, I always had an inkling that I might find some tales worth telling from way back in the mists of time. It was by chance that I read a newspaper article about the Dunbar death march”. (Dunbar is on the North East UK coast 30 mile east of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh).

In 1650 Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scots at the battle of Dunbar but was left holding thousands of prisoners. His own troops had almost run out of supplies so he forced the Scots on a march from Dunbar to Durham with no food or water, hundreds died and some were interned in Durham Cathedral.

What caught my eye though was the 1500 that survived, most were shipped to the New World, but 40 were sent to South Shields to work in salt pans. The new book tells of the fortunes of five highlanders taken on by two of Shields salt-pann owners who lived along the banks of the river Tyne.

Can you tell me about the plot and what happens to the five Scots lads in Shields ?

It’s a bit difficult to do without giving out any spoilers, but one of my old friends from South Shields Grammar Technical School in the 1960s Bob Colls, who went on to become a Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University and authored a book about George Orwell, has given an excellent summary of the new book:

‘It’s a rattling yarn that takes on the life and times of poor Tyneside fishers, fish wives, keel-men and panners. If you like a salty tale – love in the sand dunes, sweat in the salt houses, riding-the-stang and dodging the press gang, you’ll enjoy this book. If you are interested in how the poor lived in 1650 – by their wits, mainly – you’ll learn something too.’

Was salt making important to the town and what sort of life did salt workers lead?

Making salt by boiling sea water was practised in both North and South Shields form the 1300s. It probably started to help fishers to preserve their fish, by the 1600s it was a major industry.

The sea water that flowed into the Tyne at high tide passed through pipes into wells, then it was pumped into iron panns that were 20 ft long, 14 ft wide and up to 14 inches deep. Coal would be carried from keels (boats) into the salt-house where panns were heated over a furnace.  

In all it was a dangerous and hard job as workers would stoke fires, pump waters, and carry newly formed salt into the sheds where the salt dried out to be weighed and measured by excise men.

A Shields pann would produce highest quality white salt that was in demand not just from local fishers, but for shipping to the rest of England. In the 1600s there were more than 150 panns producing the ‘white gold’ and pann owners made fortunes.

Keelmen Playing at Cards (reproduced by permission of Durham County Record Office, Mackenzie and Dent, Histories of Northumberland Durham and Newcastle (Newcastle vol 1 294a) – 183

‘Weel may the keel row’ is a song known to many older Tynesiders. Do the keelmen come into the story?

Wye aye they do! The City of Newcastle had a royal monopoly over trade on the Tyne, which was a dangerous river to navigate in the days of sail, so most ship’s master’s preferred to moor their vessels near to the river mouth, and transported their cargo to and from Newcastle by keels – keels were boats 42 ft long and 19 foot wide.

At the stern, the skipper steered the boat with a long oar called a swape, and two bullies (crewmen) and a boy propelled the keel with an even longer oar. Coal was a major export, and the keels would carry coals to the colliers waiting at the mouth of the Tyne. The keelmen were mostly from Scotland and wore blue bonnets, the young lassies would fall for them – dimples and all.

In research did you come across any unusual stories ?

To be honest Gary it was all strange to me, but here are two. One-eyed seamen were a common sight in the ale-houses of Shields. To find the latitude of a ship, a device known as a Jacob’s Cross was used – a long stick with a cross piece was held to the eye with one end to the sun and one to the horizon – the markings on the stick gave the latitude. Gazing for long periods at the sun lead to blindness.

Another I came across was the story of the Royal Navy who always laid in wait for ships returning from voyages to board the vessel and press gang the crew. To beat this many ships would anchor a few mile away and make a swift swap and discharge their able-bodied crewmen and take on in their place boys aged under 10, plus one-legged or one-armed unfit old seamen, just enough to carry the ship to a mooring place.

When is the book released and where can people buy it?

It’s out now on Amazon as a paperback and kindle, and on sale at The Word library shop in South Shields.

Alikivi  July 2022