Poets, writers, songwriters and researchers are known to have begun taking an interest in regional dialects from around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There was doubtless earlier interest but written materials exist from this period onwards and new works are still being written today.
There are some beautiful Northumbrian folk songs of unknown origin. These include classics such as - Water of Tyne; Bonny at Morn; Weel may the Keel Row; Sair fyeld, Hinney; A you A, Hinny Burd; The Collier’s Rant; Bobbie Shaftoe; Ma Bonny Lad.
Publications of these together with newly written accredited works began to appear in the early 1800s - works such as Bell’s ‘Northern Bards’ - 1812 and Sharpe’s ‘Bishoprick Garland’ - 1834. Allan’s Tyneside Songs, the most comprehensive and a quite amazing book, was first published in 1862. Quite a bit of the information on earlier writers, given below, has been obtained from Allan's.
Rabbie Burns (The Bard) 1759 - 1796. Scotland’s national poet was probably an influence on some of the early local writers in dialect.
Sir Walter Scott 1771 - 1832. Sir Walter Scott was a writer of historic novels, playright and poet. As a young man he was fascinated by the oral traditions of the borders. He began collecting and recording many of the epic tales - the border ballads. His three volume work, 'The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border', whilst Scottish in essence, is another very significant component in the evolution of the genre.
The following is a list and brief profile of just some of the poet/songwriters - it is interesting to note their differing social backgrounds and to consider the comparison between some educated writers, taking perhaps an academic/social interest in dialect, and the working class performers and artists, working at the grass roots level.
It may be that the book Allan’s Tyneside Songs attaches more significance to certain writers than perhaps warranted, when viewed from a latter day perspective.
Here below then is a list of some of the songwriters - apologies for omissions. It also includes some significant persons who were not songwriters, but of importance to the evolution of the genre and also as regards appreciation/research of our local dialect.
Thomas Thompson 1773 - 1816
Thomas was one of the leading founders of the ‘Tyneside song‘. Born in Bishop Auckland he settled in Newcastle around 1790 and became a successful merchant with a keen interest in local culture and dialect. His songs include The New Keel Row, Canny Newcastle and Jemmy Joneson’s Whurry.
John Selkirk 1782 - 1843
John was born in Gateshead - a barber’s son. He became a clerk in Newcastle then tried to succeed in business as a merchant in London but returned around 1830 in failure and destitute. His final years were lived in poverty and misery . He sadly fell into the River Tyne at Sandgate and drowned when aged 60/61. His songs include several about a character Bob Cranky (a habitual braggart) and Swalwell Hopping.
John (Jack) Shield 1768 - 1848
Together with Thompson and Selkirk he was one of the first three poet/writers of note establishing a tradition which others followed. Born in Hexham, he moved to Newcastle in his twenties, and with his brother built a successful wholesale/grocery business. He had a free and easy nature and, it seems, wrote dialect materials as a hobby. Songs include Oxygen Gas, The Bonny Geatsiders, My Lord ‘Size’, Bob Crankey’s Adieu and The Barber’s News.
William Purvis (Blind Willie) 1752 - 1832
More a street performer than a poet/composer nevertheless Blind Willie was a character of note. Whilst Thompson/Selkirk/Shield were of relatively educated background with a degree of Burns influence, Willie was a true local minstrel of poor working class background. He was blind from birth and existed on a meagre income, wandering the streets of Newcastle, from pub to pub, playing his fiddle and relying on charity or a free drink. He claimed ‘Buy Broom Besoms’ as his own - whether he did compose it is unknown.
William Stephenson 1763 - 1836
Born in Gateshead, William learned his trade as a clock/watch maker. A bad accident caused him to reconsider his future and being a scholar and literary type, he retrained to become a schoolmaster. Meanwhile he wrote songs and poems among which were The Quayside Shaver, The Skipper’s Wedding and Newcastle on a Saturday night - the latter proving that in some ways not much has changed!
John Leonard - date of birth/death unknown, probably in the Gateshead area. John was a writer on politics and general matters. Little else is known but he did write one famous song - Winlaton Hopping.
William Mitford 1788 - 1851
Born in North Shields, William was apprenticed to a shoemaker eventually leaving that trade to run public houses and from there into business. He was a prolific writer of songs which he would perform with gusto in his pub. His work was published on broadsheets from around 1816. His most famous song by far is ‘Cappy, the pitman’s dog’.
Robert Gilchrist 1797 - 1844
Robert was born in Gateshead but apprenticed in Newcastle to be a sail maker (his father’s trade). From a young age he was interested in poetry and also wrote dialect songs. When his father died he took over his business but was not particularly successful being perhaps more interested in his writing and travelling. His songs include - A voyage to Lunnin (London), The Amphitrite, Blind Willie’s singing.
William Watson 1796 - 1840
He was a thought to be a shoemaker by trade but this is not certain - he eventually moved into politics and spent time in London. As well as his interest in writing and singing dialect and local songs he wrote election songs. He mainly wrote songs between 1820 and 1840 - among the better known are Dance ti thy Daddy, Thumpin Luck and Newcassel Races.
Thomas Wilson 1773 - 1858
Wilson’s story is a remarkable one. He was born into a very poor family at Low Fell, Gateshead. He was down the pit as a trapper boy at age 8. His determination to improve his life was such that he studied and went on to become a schoolmaster then on into business, eventually as a partner in the famous Tyneside engineering firm of Losh, Wilson and Bell employing many people (a forerunner of Palmers or Vickers Armstrong). He never lost his love of the area and it’s working class people, particularly the miners. He wrote songs and prose in dialect - The Weshin Day in particular is well known and regularly performed to this day. His ‘Pitman’s Pay’ is another well known work.
William (Billy) Purvis 1780 - 1853
Was born near Edinburgh but his family moved to Tyneside when he was very young. He lived in The Close, Newcastle almost all his life. He was apprenticed to a trade but even from a young age was drawn to the stage - he became a call-boy at The Theatre Royal, Newcastle. He learned the theatre crafts and eventually established his own travelling theatre which he toured around the north of England. In his employ were many good performers - Ned Corvan (see below) being perhaps the most famous. His theatre was a regular event at Newcastle Races - he became a very well known character. He would stand in his distictive clown’s dress imploring passers by to come in to see the shows. He was not a prolific writer but played a very important role in the development of the local dialect song tradition.
Robert (Bobby) Nunn 1808 - 1853
Bobby was a slater by trade but lost his sight following a fall from a roof. Thereafter he used his abilities as a musician to earn a living. He played the fiddle, sang and wrote songs. He was a regular at pubs, clubs around Tyneside. Apparently many songs were rather coarse, full of innuendo - much to the delight of audiences (men and women) with the benefit of a few drinks inside them. His songs include The Pitman and the Blackin, The Newcastle Lad, Drucken Bella Roy ’O and a classic - the surreal Fiery Clock Fyece, a tale of an illusion caused by drink whilst passing St Nicholas Cathedral.
Joseph Philip Robson 1808 - 1870
The ‘Bard of the Tyne’ - his father was a schoolmaster and Joseph also became a teacher, an educated man. From an early age he loved to write poetry and was a prolific writer. Works such as ‘When we were at skuel’, Polly’s Nickstick, The High Level Bridge, The Pitman’s Happy Times and many more. His most famous song would be The Pawnshop Bleezin’ - a hilarious but poignant examination of the various pawnshop customers as they react to the shop going up in flames.
David Ross Lietch - born circa 1809 - died August 16, 1881
Son of Rev William Lietch of North Shields - brother to Thomas Carr Lietch the first town clerk of Tynemouth.
He was a medical doctor educated at Edinburgh University.
Wrote a book "Poetic Fragments" which was published in 1838 - founded the North Shields newspaper, "The Port of Tyne Pilot" which was published 1839-42 under his ownership.
He wrote "The Cliffs of Old Tynemouth" - broadsheet 1843.
He moved to Keswick in the Lake District in late 1840s - acquired a sort of local fame there by corresponding with William Wordsworth.
Although he practiced medicine, he continued his interest in writing in local dialect and his 1870 ballad "Willie Green" written in the Cumbrian dialect was 'top of the pops' there for about 10 years.
He is buried in Crosthwaite Churchyard, Keswick.
The family always spelled their surname as Lietch but after the very late 1800s it almost always appears in records as Leitch.
The Cliffs of Old Tynemouth is still a great Tyneside favourite. Written to the beautiful melody of the Irish Air - The Meeting of the Waters, the song is a beautiful ballad and the chosen melody has sophisticated harmonies too.
Acknowledgement - sincere thanks to Mr Leitch's 3x great neice, Eleanor Clouter, resident in Canada, for kindly giving the above information. David Ross Leitch was an intelligent, educated person with literary ability and interests, as well as his community-mindedness and genuine compassion for his fellow man. His memory continues on embodied in one absolute gem of a Tyneside song.
Edward (Ned) Corvan 1830 - 1865
Ned was a Liverpudlian of Irish extraction but his family moved to Tyneside for work when he was very young. He apprenticed as a sail maker but this was not for him and he moved into a theatre, which was under Billie Purvis’s management, just doing odd jobs and chores. He tried to build a career as a performer/musician - singing local songs, playing violin. He then had a particularly successful song ‘He wad be a noodle’. When he moved to a new concert hall venue (The Olympic) around 1850, he took the place by storm and so a very successful career as a music hall and club performer followed.
He was the logical predecessor of the great Joe Wilson and Geordie Ridley. Along with Bobby Nunn and Blind Willie before him he paved the way for the working class ‘street or pub/club performer’ in stark contrast to the more educated Burns influenced writers. Other songs included The Toon Improvement Bill, The Rise in Coals, Asstrilly (Australia) - The Pitman’s Farewell, The Cullercoats Fish Lass, Warkworth Feast and a song ‘Wor Tyneside Champions’ about the astonishing oarsman Harry Clasper and other sporting heroes. Clasper was the Alan Shearer of his day, although his sport was boat racing not football. This was the cult sport of Victorian times before football took over the planet. (see also Robert (Bob) Chambers - oarsman).
Geordie Ridley 1835 - 1864
George was born in Gateshead, son of a rope maker/pitman. He too was down the pit at age 8, as a trapper boy then wagon man. This was at Shipcote Pit in Gateshead. He had a flair for mimicry and entertainment and often amused his workmates with his ‘routines‘. He suffered a bad accident as a young man which rendered him unable to do heavy work again - it was caused somehow by a runaway wagon.
He used his entertainment skills to build a new career as an entertainer becoming a very well known character at the growing numbers of trade club and concert hall type venues, pubs, fairs, social gatherings etc. He had a knack for writing songs of local interest (often to pre existing melodies) and by 1862 was appearing at the biggest venues all over the north east. But by then sadly his health was declining, the legacy of his bad accident. He died at his home in Grahamsly Street, Gateshead aged just 29.
He wrote THE Tyneside anthem ‘Blaydon Races’, another classic ‘Cushy Butterfield’, Joey Jones (a winning racehorse at the Northumberland Plate), Johnny Luik Up (based on a character guise he often adopted) and several others. He was no literary genius but had the common working class touch which has created his legendary status on Tyneside.
Joe Wilson 1841 - 1875
Joe is perhaps THE writer of local songs. He was certainly the most prolific by a long way. His book of ‘Songs and Drolleries’ is a feast of dialect materials. He was born in Stowell Street (now Chinatown), Newcastle, his mother a bonnet maker and father a cabinet maker. He went into the printing trade, a fact which obviously helped as regards publishing his poems and songs which was originally a hobby but which became his life. His aim was to have a place in the hearts of Tyneside folk and to do what little he could to enrich the lot of common folk. He wrote hundreds of pieces - his drolleries were quaint and humerous. An early success was ‘Cum Geordie Ha’d the Bairn’ a satirical tale based on his brother’s discomfort at nursing Joe’s little baby sister.
He performed his own materials in the clubs and concert halls until sadly TB took him, like his father before him, to an early grave. Whilst in failing health he stayed for a while with landlord and local character Rowly Harrison. This was at his pub The Commercial, in Winlaton, Blaydon which is on high ground and for the bracing air, but to no avail. He wrote several of the most enduring of our local songs including ‘Keep your feet still Geordie Hinny’, Aa hope ye’ll be kind ti me dowter, The Row upon the Stairs, Dinnet clash the door, ‘The time that me fethur was bad’ and many, many more.
Rowland (Rowly) Harrison 1841 - 1897.
He was born in Gateshead and as a young man quickly moved into a life in music hall as a singer/entertainer. He performed all around the north east amusing folk with his own brand of broad humour. He eventually moved into pub management and at one stage looked after an ailing Joe Wilson at his pub The Commercial in Winlaton. The pub still exists. One song, Geordy Black, remains well known - it became the title of a recent BBC Radio profile of the history of local dialect songs, the mining legacy etc.
The following information about Rowly has been supplied by his great granddaughter Anne Wake (nee Harrison) 8/9/2010
"With regard to my great grandfather Rowland Harrison described on your web site. He was born as you correctly say on the 23rd June 1841 at King William Street Gateshead and baptised at St Mary's Church Gateshead.
He died on June 9th 1897 whilst living in Sunderland and managing the then Sunderland Empire. He was buried at Monkwearmouth Cemetery.
This information was retrieved from the family bible which has been meticulously kept up to date since it was purchased in 1811. It is now owned by my cousin Rowland Harrison who lives in France".
Richard Oliver Heslop 1842 - date of death unknown
He was a business man (iron merchant) with a love of literature and great interest in dialect. His great achievement was to compile a book of Northumberland Words - the first rigorous dialect dictionary of our local words and their meanings - a monumental achievement. He wrote other literature too but it is for his unique book that he will be remembered.
C M Leumane
There is no in information on this writer but he did contribute a great classic song to the local repertoire (albeit arguably a Wearside rather then Tyneside anthem). ‘The Lambton Worm’ remains a great favourite song and story - based on the story of George and the Dragon but adapted to local aristocratic family The Lambtons of Lumley Castle, Chester le Street. Leumane wrote the local words to a pre-existing old pantomime song going back to 1867.
Tommy Armstrong 1848 - 1920
Tommy is affectionately known as the pitman poet. He was undoubtedly the finest of the miner songwriters with a great wit and flair for satire way ahead of his time. He was born at Shotley Bridge and lived/worked at Tanfield Lea near Stanley, Co. Durham. A club and pub performer, his book of 25 popular songs is still in print - it is said that much of his work has been lost. His songs could be hilarious, surreal and satirical, for example - 'Nanny’s a Mazer', 'The Row atween the Cages', 'The Marla (Marley) Hill Ducks (jailed for trespassing!)'. Also they could be very moving, for example the story of The Trimdon Grange Explosion, about one of the worst pit disasters in UK mining history.
Go to the links page to visit the Tommy Armstrong Society website giving lots more information about the poet.
James Weams (correct surname Wemyss) - born 1851 in Durham - died 1911.
James was an educated man, a versatile all-rounder - a musician/comedian/entertainer/songwriter.
He worked as an entertainer on the music hall circuit and wrote songs and lyrics. He played 2nd violin in an orchestra too. Weams contributed two great songs to the local repertoire.
‘The Neighbours doon belaa’ was an ironic look at the hardships of the times. This song was a favourite of one of Tyneside’s great 19th century music hall comedians - Harry Nelson.
'The lass on the quay' (Sally Gee) an irreverent and hilarious tale of a Cushy Butterfield type character.
A songbook of Weam's material is mentioned in 'The Farne Folk Archive' database - five songs inclusive of the two aforementioned.
He retired eventually to Deptford in Sunderland where he took on a beer house, The Rowers Arms.
Acknowledgement - my thanks to James' great grand-daughter Lilian Milne, who has kindly supplied the above information. Hitherto little was known of James who was a significant figure in the great tradition of local dialect repertoire.
Alexander Barrass 1856 - 1929
He was down the pit aged 9 but, perhaps like Thomas Wilson, went on to educate himself and to better his position in life a little. He may have gone into journalism but this is not certain. Sadly he had some sort of breakdown ending up in Sedgefield Asylum for the last 35 years of his life. In happier days he wrote a volume of work ’The Pitmans Social Neet’ which includes songs and narratives - an interesting addition to our local dialect repertoire.
Jack Robson 1885 - 1957
Jack was born at the village of Annitsford, Northumberland (as was singer Owen Brannigan). He became a village headmaster teaching up in north Northumberland. He was a good pianist/organist with a love of religious music and local people/places/dialect. He wrote songs in both areas of interest, prolifically.
Some of his material was used on the famous local interest BBC radio show 'Wot Cheor Geordie' of the 1950s.
Over 40 of his songs are well known - they possess the subtle harmonies of a schooled musician and the fluent lyrics of an educated, literate man. In this respect I feel he is perhaps the finest of all local song writers. His great love of the area and humanity shines through.
He wrote a song 'Wherever ye gan you're sure to fing a Geordie' which in it's day rivalled Blaydon Races as THE Tyneside anthem. In the 1970's this coveted status was perhaps usurped by Lindisfarne's 'Fog on the Tyne' and more recently by Mark Knopfler's 'Local Hero' (but it still all comes back round to Blaydon Races in the end!)
Jack wrote many other beautiful songs - ballads, witty, poignant - it was all there. Songs such as 'My Cheviot Hills', 'Cullercoat's Bay', 'Pot Pies and Puddens', 'The Howty, Towty Lass', 'The Ha'penny Woods at Bedlington', and the little gem 'Canny Tyneside'.
In my view Jack Robson should take his place as the finest of all writers of our local songs.
Please visit my web-page dedicated to Jack Robson for more very interesting information about this great Tynesider - via the home page.
Norman Turnbull 1879 - 1954
Norman was a quiet man, a bachelor who lived with his 4 spinster sisters in Gosforth. He worked as a shipping clerk/surveyor in Grey Street, Newcastle.
He wrote dialect songs purely as a hobby and they were good. Like Jack Robson, he was a source of materials for 'Wot Cheor Geordie' on local BBC Radio. His best songs include 'Wot Cheor Geordie', The Pitman's Lament, Alang the Roman Wall', Amble Feast', 'The Barn Dance Hustle'.
Eric Boswell - born Wearside, 1921 - died Nov 2009.
Eric was a professional musician/writer based in London during his very successful career. He wrote a pop song in the 50's 'Little Donkey' which became an international hit. Also other songs for artists such as Matt Monroe.
He retired back to his native north east, and lived in rural Northumberland. He was commissioned by Mawson - Wareham(JG Windows Record Store, Newcastle)to write dialect materials. This was specifically for a 1980's dialect show toured locally and on radio, called Geordierama.
It featured local BBC presenters Mike Neville and George House. The shows comprised of Geordie jokes and recitations also Boswell's songs. He has written 4 books of songs, some now very well known and part of the standard repertoire. Among these are the hilarious, yet touching 'I've got a little whippet', a seduction song - 'Wi me pit claes on', an anthem - Tyneside's where I come from' and 'The forst footin' song'.
Alan Hull - 1945 - 1995
Alan was born in Benwell, Newcastle. A folk singer/guitarist who achieved commercial success with the folk/pop band Lindisfarne. He was also a gifted composer who's anthem 'Fog on the Tyne' remains a great favourite of the Geordie public.
Johnny Handle - 1935 -
Johnny is perhaps THE significant musician of the genre of the post war period. He started off in the 1950s with skiffle and as a traditional jazz pianist but since then has been a pivotal figure not just as a singer and virtuoso accordionist but as a prolific composer of dialect songs. He became well known through the success of the High Level Ranters but has gone on to become a father figure, a walking encyclopedia of the repertoire. He has great knowledge of mining traditions and dialect (he was a miner) and all aspects of Northumbrian folk music. He was a key figure in collating the the Northumbrian Anthology, an epic documentation of the music, and is still active, entertaining, story-telling and playing as well as ever. Check out his website www.johnnyhandle.co.uk
Jez Lowe - 1955 -
From the 1980s onwards Jez Lowe has performed dialect repertoire with his group 'The Bad Pennies' as well as his work with other musicians. He has been a major figure in the genre for many years now. He is a consummate performer constantly working throughout the UK and touring abroad but also a prolific composer, a writer of great songs with insightful lyrics. To see the sheer extent of his work visit his website www.jezlowe.com
Terry Conway - 1944 - 2013
Terry was singer and prolific writer of songs. This quote is from a touching obituary in Living Tradition Magazine 'As a songwriter, he had a wonderful way of getting real meaning into his words, be they humorous or serious, and his songs have been taken up by numerous well known artists. He was a prolific songwriter and amongst his best known are Fareweel Regality; Hawkhope Hill; Ballad Of Erwin ; Walls Of Troy; Working Man and The Bus To Morpeth'.
Hailing from the one time pit village Shiney Row, County Durham, Ed Pickford writes songs about the mining tradition. His output is prolific and some of his best songs are known and sung nationally - Farewell Johnny Miner (which has become a political anthem); Ee Aye Ah Cud Hew; Workers Song.
Full details on Ed's website www.ed-pickford.co.uk
Jock Purdon - 1925 - 1998 - 'The Miners' Poet'
Although Jock was Glasgow born he spent most of his working life as a coal miner at a pit at Chester le Street, Co. Durham. A prolific poet and song writer, among other things his verses captured his opposition to those who put profit before people.
Artists - - -
Famous singers of our local songs, past and present, include Owen Brannigan, Dennis Weatherley, Alex Glasgow, Louis Killen, Bob Fox, Pete Scott, The Unthanks, Jim McGeehan, Graeme Danby. Some of these artists have contributed significantly to the repertoire with their own compositions too.
Other significant persons/organisations - - -
John Roland Bibby 1917 - 1997
Roland set up the Morpeth Antiquarian Society in 1946. In time this led to the creation of the Chantry Museum, The Morpeth Gathering, the Language Society etc. He was a scholar, historian, writer and campaigner - a modest but determined man with a great love of all things Northumbrian.
I strongly recommend visit the website of Northumbriana.org.uk for much more information on all these things. See Links.
Scott Dobson - died 1984
Scott was a writer of prose, not of songs. But his written work was groundbreaking and influential - he has to be one of the major figures in the traditions of dialect awareness. He wrote prolifically during the 1960s and 70s, with great insight and humour and the 'common touch'. His best known are his 'Larn Yersel Geordie' booklets, the definitive populist Geordie dictionary. His materials were also much used on the Geordierama shows (see Eric Boswell).
He retired to Malta where he is buried - his tombstone carries the immortal words 'Gan Canny'.
Bill Griffiths 1948 - 2007
Bill diligently researched and collated local dialect words and materials, and promoted awareness of it's fundamental importance. He was a poet, scholar in Old English, researcher, archivist.
I strongly recommend check out his websites www.indigogroup.co.uk and www.pitmatic.co.uk (see Links) - also his books and definitive dialect dictionary.
Gary is a broadcaster and author - a lover of all things Geordie who does all he can to promote local music on his Radio Tyneside show, The Geordie Hour, broadcast every Sunday 5pm, repeated Monday evenings at midnight. He has authored books of dialect monologues and is an authority on our local culture. Check out his radio show and website www.garyhogg.co.uk
Mawson & Wareham/JG Windows
All credit must be given to Mawson & Wareham, a publishing company closely linked to JG Windows music store in Newcastle. They have, over many years, built up a huge catalogue of local songs by many fine artists. Their website gives full details - www.mawson-wareham.com
Updated 13th October 2017
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