chapter  10
19 Pages

Wage labour, wealth and the power of a database. Unlocking communities of work outside urban guilds in Newcastle upon Tyne


In a Newcastle offi ce in June 1672, fi fty-seven-year-old John Lambe answered a series of dull but important procedural questions about trade on the River Tyne, posed by lawyers on behalf of the mayor. He confi rmed that the town’s trading privileges did, in fact, stretch from ‘Hedwin Streams’, a few miles upriver of Newcastle, out to a sandbank at the river mouth known as ‘Sparrowhawk’. No beer brewed outside Newcastle had ever been sold legally in this area, he believed, though many had tried. The ‘brewers and burgesses’ had often seized illegally imported beer, he said, and had ‘disposed thereof by drinking of it, and giving of such beere and ale to strangers passing by the New Key’. 1 The image he conjured of a Quayside party at the smugglers’ expense was a rare moment of levity in a heated dispute that had already stretched over centuries and spasmodically descended into violence and even homicide. 2 That Lambe felt in a position to tease Newcastle’s burgesses in this way is intriguing, not least because of his own ambiguous social status in the town. Lambe identifi ed himself for the deposition as a ‘yeoman’ – a term that had its origins in noble household service but by the latter sixteenth century had come to signify a better class of farmer or a well-off and unaffi liated townsman. But in an earlier life Lambe had been a waterman, or a keelman, the Newcastle term for a labourer that heaved and carried coal by boat from the riverbanks to waiting ships.