The Tyne has been a busy river for many hundreds of years – right from the Middle Ages when coal began to be exported and taken to London and elsewhere by sea. However it has never been the easiest of rivers to navigate, with notorious shifting sand bars to catch out unwary mariners. Dredging only began in the second half of the 19th century and before that the coal had to be brought down the river in keel boats, to be loaded into colliers here at the river’s mouth. The keel boat were shallow drafted and capable of carrying 20 tons at a time.
With such numbers of ships mooring here, there were many who made a living on the river. These included the sculler-men and foy boatmen, who for a fee, assisted vessels entering the port by helping to tow and tie them to moorings. After the river was dredged, it was opened up for larger vessels to sail up as far as Newcastle and ship building really took off along the banks of the Tyne. The river pilots and tug boats were kept incredibly busy – millions of tons of shipping sailed from the river each year at at its peak, in the 1900s, there were around 150 tugs working the river.
Lowlights is the name given to area around the Low Light. The Fish Quay sands and jetty were a hive of activity during the herring season when Scottish girls who followed the fishing fleet would gut the fish on the quays, salt them and seal them in wooden casks. It was also the location of the Tynemouth Lifeboat slipway and Lloyds Hailing Station which recorded shipping movements into and out of the Tyne, the last of its kind in the country.