Regulating the Environment of the River Tyne’s Estuary, 1530-1800

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Between 1530 and 1800, the River Tyne and its tributaries, known as ‘creeks’ or ‘rivulets’, were utilised for their strategic facilities and commercial benefits: as vast drains for paper mills, glassworks, breweries, collieries and tanneries; as a source of fluvial power to turn mill wheels; as a liquid highway for shipping imports and exports; and as productive fisheries. The regulators of the river estuary, the mayor and burgesses of Newcastle, were confirmed as ‘conservators’ by an Act of Parliament in 1530, with a jurisdiction between Sparrow-Hawk and Hedwin Streams, marking the Tyne’s estuary. It is true that Newcastle Corporation would certainly not win a conservation prize for sensitive river management today, but what this paper argues is that nor were they by any means completely ignorant towards protecting the Tyne from ‘harm’, as they defined it, to the best of their knowledge. The stereotypical image of early modern people pouring their waste into the river without any consideration of the consequences of their actions is an enduring but an inaccurate one, as the extant documents demonstrate amply. The disposal of solid human, agricultural and industrial waste was highly regulated, especially on riparian property and even more so on wharves or jetties. Open sewers were designed to carry only rainwater and small amounts of liquid waste to the river and the majority of households used dry privy pits and sold agricultural manure and solid human waste to local farmers as fertiliser.

This topic is currently under-researched, and consequently misunderstood, almost certainly as a result of its explicitly unsavoury connotations and perceived repulsive details, particularly in relation to waste-disposal. There are some excellent environmental river histories, White’s The Organic Machine, Pritchard’s Confluence, Barca’s Enclosing Water, and Cioc’s The Rhine: An Eco-Biography, to name a few, but none of their start dates precede 1796. Only Smout and Stewart’s The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History, published in 2012, tackles environmental attitudes towards a British river in the pre-modern period in two of its eleven chapters. There is a lamentable gap in the literature in the shape of in-depth environmental histories of rivers in the pre-modern period.

The men who managed the River Tyne’s estuary in the pre-modern period did not understand the chemical changes they caused by permitting urban sewers and riparian businesses to discharge their untreated liquid waste into the river water. But they considered in breath taking detail and depth the consequences of each and every structural change to the bed and channel of the river and they expressly forbade the deposition of any solid waste into the river, either directly or indirectly, something which required substantial and sustained effort to regulate. Their motivations were not environmental. But although Newcastle Corporation was driven primarily to prevent the choking up of their great liquid highway that was crucial to trade and their revenues, they did think carefully about the proposals they sanctioned and they were concerned about the impact of human activity on the River Tyne in a pre-modern context.

Using the detailed minutes of Newcastle’s weekly River Court (extant from 1644 to 1834), and the twenty-one river by-laws it enforced, the paper reveals early modern attitudes towards river management and protection. Their systems were basic, their technology rudimentary, and their understanding of river systems was in its infancy, but this is precisely why they acted with so much enthusiasm to protect the river; they were explicitly aware that they could only reverse such damage very slowly and inefficiently, using shovels powered by the labour of keelmen. The paper concludes that the Tyne’s pre-modern conservators were in touch with their environment, they were concerned about hurting the river, damaging the river, spoiling the river, and even potentially destroying the river, all their own words, and they went to considerable lengths to protect the River Tyne as a result of their concerns.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEnvironmental History in the Making
Subtitle of host publicationVolume II: Acting
EditorsCristina Joanaz de Melo, Estelita Vaz, Lígia M. Costa Pinto
Place of PublicationSwitzerland
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9783319411392
ISBN (Print)9783319411378
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2017

Publication series

NameEnvironmental History
PublisherSpringer Nature Switzerland
ISSN (Print)2211-9019
ISSN (Electronic)2211-9027


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