Waggonways had role to play in the war effort

With the cooler days of autumn upon us, my trusted old bike is about to be mothballed for the winter.

Sorry but cycling into horizontal rain in the teeth of a bitter wind from the north is not my idea of fun.

However, last week’s couple of days of Indian summer delayed the inevitable, and I was able to travel along those gifts to cycling in North Tyneside, to whit, its waggonways.

Within minutes of coming off the busy Coast Road and onto the waggonway near the Silverlink, road noise becomes a distant murmur as you enter a world of hedgerows, wildflowers and the occasional animal.

This pastoral scene is a long way from the original, industrial purpose of the waggonways, but still my historical antennae started twitching.

The vast northern coalfield fuelled the Industrial Revolution, and the waggonways transported hewn coal from the pits around Killingworth, Burradon and beyond down to the Tyne and the coal ships that awaited it.

Coal from the North East travelled the globe.

I’ve cycled along the waggonways for many miles now over the years, and I often get a sense of the past here.

I can picture the trundling waggons, full of coal, small steam engines pulling the load as they had done since George Stephenson’s time, steam billowing, hedgerows choked with dust, the noise of the waggon’s wheels screeching along the rails on their descent to the river.

The coal couldn’t be extracted quick enough. By 1911, nearly 60,000 people worked in the Northumberland coalfield area, double the total 10 years before. The First World War sent the arsenal economy of Tyneside – that is shipbuilding, engineering and coalmining – into overdrive.

Many young men joined up at the start of the war, including those in the mining community.

This caused a severe skills and manpower shortage, a gap filled mostly by women and those miners recalled from war service.

Some soldier miners were co-opted into the Royal Engineers’ tunnelling companies to lay mines at the Somme and Messines Ridge.

Many, of course, never made it back home and still lie in the battlefields of France, Flanders, Gallipoli and further afield.

Others went down with their ships to a watery grave in the service of the Navy.

All the local members of the services who died are currently being researched by volunteers from the Northumbria World War One Project to create a free and accessible database of casualties. It follows on from our Tynemouth project, which researched nearly 2,000 deaths from that area as a result of the war.

The rest of the geographical area of what is now North Tyneside is expected to yield a further 3,000 casualties.

As part of this research, volunteers will inevitably gain an understanding of a fascinating, and troubling, period of our history that continues to resonate today.

Anyone interested in helping and anyone with information about any person killed or who died as a result of the war can contact the project online at
northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or email tommy@

The main project workroom at Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for anyone wanting to learn more. The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.