If asked today, many people would probably spontaneously associate Newcastle with local football legends Alan Shearer and Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne or the cast of Geordie Shore. However, a new digital history project led by Northumbria University’s ‘History of Activism Research Group’ – including contributions by historians from Durham and Newcastle universities – seeks to correct this image by emphasising the historical importance of the region as an important centre of political activism. The ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ website, which was officially launched on 20 November 2015, aims to map the rich tradition of social and political activism in the region. As a matter of fact, since the late 17th century Newcastle and the adjacent boroughs of Gateshead, South and North Shields were vibrant hubs for popular movements in Britain and beyond. This radical tradition shaped the identity and culture of the region profoundly yet many important historical events are gradually vanishing from the public conscience. What is more, radical local politics were often embedded in international movements and the big political struggles of their time and made Tyneside a strikingly cosmopolitan place.
During the 19th century, leading figures of international movements such the Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi (1854) or the American anti-slavery campaigners Frederick Douglass (1846) or William Lloyd Garrison (1867) visited Tyneside, and were enthusiastically welcomed by their local supporters. Similarly, many Geordies were actively supporting revolutionary movements abroad by collecting donations or offering asylum to refugees.
In 1851, a group of 12 members of the Polish Legion, who fought during the 1848 revolution against the Russian Empire, were received with thundering applause in a local meeting, subsequently finding asylum and a new home on Tyneside. In the same year, a mass meeting in Newcastle celebrated the arrival of the iconic leader of the Hungarian Revolution 1848/49, Lajos Kossuth, in Britain. Five years later, in 1856, Kossuth eventually visited Newcastle and paid tribute to the local support for the revolutionary cause.
There was, however, also a strong home grown radical tradition of radical politics on Tyneside. This includes prominent figures such as the radical bookseller and land reform campaigner Thomas Spence, who was born on Newcastle’s Quayside in 1750. Spence became a leading member of the famous London Corresponding Society and is seen by many historians as one of the intellectual forefathers of the Chartists. Another prominent figure of Tyneside radicalism was the local newspaper proprietor and liberal politician Joseph Cowen Jr. Being well-connected with social reformers, international revolutionaries and the regional elites, Cowen put his full financial and journalistic weight behind a great number of causes. He supported the local miners’ unions, supported the early co-operative movement, resisted the Boer War and collected donations for revolutionary movements abroad.
An almost forgotten yet even more fascinating local figure is Dr Ethel Williams. She belonged to various political organisations such as Women’s Social and Political Union, the Union of Democratic Control and helped to establish the Workers’ Education Association in Newcastle after the First World War. Yet, Ethel was pioneer in other fields as well. She was, for example, the first female doctor in Tyneside with her own surgery and also the first female motorist in the city. According to some accounts, she used her car to transport fellow suffragettes to protest meetings and direct actions in the region. In July 1917, Ethel Williams and Charlotte Despard (another veteran suffragette and sister of Field Marshal John French) tried to establish a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Newcastle to protest against the First World War. However, its first and only meeting was violently broken up a ‘patriotic’ mob and the council ceased its activities almost immediately afterwards.
Yet, the history of social and political activism on Tyneside is not limited to prominent individuals. Many historical instances of protest were only recorded as collective actions, and these are recorded on ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ too. Dr Andy Burn (Durham) discusses apprentices’ protests in 1633 that addressed grievances about the enclosure hitherto public land. He also contributes a description of the first recorded keelmen’s strike in 1660. One of my own contributions provides a vignette of the Guild Hall Riots of 1740.
These are just a few examples. Other events highlight the long and complex history of industrial conflicts, social and political activism in one of the early heartlands of industrialisation in the world. The ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ aims to raise awareness for this aspect of local history that is so deeply engrained in the collective identity of the region. Yet the approach to research and understand the spatial dimension of political activism also contributes to a better academic understanding of urban history and geography. It helps explain how certain localities, spaces and places became attributed with political meaning. For example, many meetings for liberal causes with a strong presence of middle-class supporters took place indoors in lecture halls and assembly rooms. This probably contributed to its perception as being more ordered, respectable and compatible with British political culture. In comparison, working-class activism very often took place in public places, for example in public squares, in pubs or in the workplace. The question how this spatial dimension influenced the perception of urban space and how it impacted on activism is another interesting aspect of this project.
‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ is, however, no exclusively academic exercise. The public is invited to make use of the information on the website to discover Newcastle anew from a different perspective. The makers are also keen to received input and recommendations which events and persons to include. Ideally, the website will become a repository for the various histories of activism on Tyneside curated by the public for the public.
Dr André Keil is a Lecturer in Modern European History at Durham University. His work focuses on 19th and 20th-century Europe with a special focus on British and German history. His research interests cover the broad fields of political culture in Europe, the history of social movements and historical peace and conflict studies.