ELSWICK No. 2 - The Last Tyne Wherry

Elswick No. 2 outside the museum entrance

ELSWICK No. 2.outside the main gates, on its way to the Large Objects Store 17/3/2002.

ELSWICK No. 2. is 17.37 metres long and has a displacement of some 50 tonnes.

Tyne Wherries were clinker-built craft towed in trains by tugs. They were used mainly in the Tyne coal trade to bring cargoes from the staithes or collieries to the sea-going colliers in the estuary. Tyne Wherries replaced the smaller Tyne Keels in this work

Please note that the Tyne Wherry is owned by the Tyne & Wear Museums and is not on display to visitors.


The following may help folk to understand what a Wherry was and the History of ELSWICK No. 2., taken from a Tyne & Wear Museum Department Information Sheet:

The greatest attractions at Newcastle's 900th anniversary celebration regatta were the Danish and Shetland replica Viking ships, but few people watching them glide past Newcastle Quay realised that several miles downstream, awaiting preservation, lay Tyneside's own last descendant of these graceful craft.

The Tyne Wherry. ELSWICK No. 2. might look ungainly by comparison but she was built on the Tyne less than fifty years ago using exactly the same skills and methods practised by the Vikings who raided the Tyne over a thousand years previously.

The Laud Chronicle for 794 AD (actually 796) tells how "Northumbria was ravaged by the heathen and Ecgfrith's monastery at Jarrow looted", and how soon afterwards some ships of the fleet were wrecked at the river mouth.

Other 'Vikings' later settled more peacefully in the region, bringing with them their skills and crafts, including that of boat building. Indeed, by the late thirteenth century the Tyne was important enough for Edward the First to choose it as one of the twenty sites to build a great war galley: the shipwright's building this by the shell-clinker method passed on from the 'Viking' invaders.

For over five hundred years this shell-clinker method of building boats continued in the region as a simple and economical way of constructing vessels for river, coastal and fishery use. It persisted even despite the coming of steam and iron. for example, the river's early paddle-tugs (themselves a Tyneside invention) were almost all of shell-clinker build and most were quite sizeable craft over seventy feet in length.

Alongside these paddle-tugs could be seen a growing fleet of large, sturdy, barge-like craft, also built by the shell-clinker method, these were the wherries. Despite their heavy hulls and great beam an experienced eye could easily pick out their 'Viking' ancestry in the similarly pointed stems and sterns and the skilful curves of their nail-fastened, overlapping planks.

On the tidal fore shores of Bill Quay and St. Lawrence the shipwrights still laboured outdoors to build these massive craft using tools and methods which would have been immediately recognised by their Viking predecessors.

As changing transport and coal shipping methods in the nineteenth century caused the decline of the Tyne's traditional river carriers, the Keels, so the expansion of industry created the need for a fleet of more versatile. general purpose vessels to carry both raw materials and finished goods along the river, whilst also acting as lighters to ferry materials to and from visiting ships which, after the 1850's, greatly increased in size and number.

The Tyne Wherries were thus developed to carry out these two functions of barge-traffic and lighterage. In the early days they were propelled, like the Keels before them, by the power of the flowing tide, by the use of long sweeps (oars) or punting poles and through the use of simple sailing rigs (square sail or later, sprit sail and jib).

Strings of wherries could readily be towed by paddle-tugs, thus enabling them to take best advantage of wind and tide for passages. In the later nineteenth century many became self-propelled, using small vertical boilers and engines placed aft to drive a screw propeller eventually, a few adopted motor power.

Typical wherries were some fifty feet in length and twin beam, measuring thirty five to forty tons, though they were even larger. All were massively built to withstand being crushed in the docks' heavy regular groundings on falling tides and the occasional collision in the crowded river.

The self-propelled wherries ('putters') usually carried a small, man operated, deck crane forward, but the main feature all wherries had were the great open hold amidships and the short decks at either end. Beneath one of which held simple accommodation for the crew.

So essential to the river's trade and industry were the wherries that by the turn of the century over two hundred companies or individuals were operating wherries with most concerns being administered from Newcastle Quayside.

The Tyne Wherry Co. for example ( twenty four craft, ranging from twenty to two hundred and forty tons. Whilst Allen Brown Ltd. (Lightermen) boasted the largest ownership of steam wherries. Additionally, some major riverside industries such as Cookson's (lead refining etc.) and United (chemical manufacture) ran their own wherry fleets.

However, as with many other aspects of the river trade and industry, there was a great change after First World War and the number of wherries in use declined as available cargoes and numbers of ships visiting the Tyne and needing coal-bunkers provisions (both often supplied by wherry) decreased. Also road-freight transport between the riverside and shore became increasingly competitive.

Although some wherries remained in use after the Second World they were by then a dying breed, often being abandoned or beached at the riverside, many being cleared upriver by the Port Authority to a graveyard above the head of navigation (Newburn).

By the mid 1970's only one was left afloat - the ELSWICK No. 2. Not only was the ELSWICK No. 2 the last Tyne Wherry to be operated on the river, she had also been the last of her type to be built. In fact it seems today that she is also the largest shell-clinker built craft left afloat in England. Nearly fifty five feet long and over twenty three feet in the beam she is constructed with massive, closely-spaced five inch by six inch frames onto which are securely nailed the overlapping, one inch thick, oak planks. Although launched as a dumb (towing) wherry she was soon fitted with a motor engine, being owned and used by the Vickers Scotswood factory for carrying massive items of heavy machinery manufactured there down river to be put aboard ships for export or coastal transport.

When purchased by N. Keedy and Sons in the post-war period she continued in similar lighterage use, for instance, ferrying pre-fabricated steel sections between shipyard sites.

However, by the early 1970's her working life was coming to an end and the vessel was donated by Keedy and Sons to the Maritime Trust who, in 1976 were joined by the Tyne and Wear Museum Service an attempt to preserve for future generations this truly unique vessel - a tangible link with our Viking past, a close cousin of the Tyne's famous Keels and appropriate reminder of the important role played river transport during the heyday of the river's trade.

ELSWICK No. 2 was for many years stored in Hebburn/Jarrow with a small amount of restoration being carried out. The problem was what to do with the artifact and where to display it.

The vessel has now been moved to Beamish Museum for storage and possible display.


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