With the decline of its traditional industries in the 1970s and 1980s, Newcastle seemed to reinvent itself as a ‘Party City’. Today, the city is attempting to move away from its ‘Party City’ past.
In May 2017, five crews from the Cleveland Fire Brigade were called out to a stretch of the River Tees just a few metres across from the famous Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge. A rusting and dilapidated car ferry, left to rot on the Tees’ Middlehaven bank, was on fire. Black smoke billowed up into the atmosphere as firefighters began their attempts to control the blaze. Two and half hours later, the fire, watched by thousands on social media, was eventually extinguished.
In the aftermath, the North-East press mourned the loss of this car ferry, speaking of its history and all the great times spent in its company. The boat had been previously biding its time awaiting a planned removal and demolition at the hands of Middlesbrough Council and so its termination was already anticipated. But the spectacle of the fire had provided a powerful shock to the people of the North East: the Tuxedo Royale was well and truly dead.
For twenty-five years, ‘The Boat’, a floating night-club moored underneath the Tyne Bridge, was symbolic of Tyneside’s transition from an industrial to a post-industrial age. It suggested a Tyneside that looked less towards the manufacturing and mining of the past than the service sector and tourism industries which were said to be its future.
It arrived in 1983 at the height of male unemployment caused by the decline of Tyneside’s traditional industries. ‘The Boat’, which opened in December 1984, beckoned Geordies on board for a night of drink, dancing and fun. Partygoers, greeted by staff in naval uniforms, were first invited to enjoy cocktails on its deck before descending into the hull to brave the rotating dance-floor that has since become a prominent feature of Geordie folklore.
But ‘The Boat’ was not just one over its lifespan, it was in fact two; two repurposed ferries originally launched by the Wallsend-based Swan Hunter in the early 1960s. The TSS Caledonian Princess became the Tuxedo Princess, the TSS Dover became the Tuxedo Royale. The Tuxedo Princess, the most famous of the pair, arrived in 1983 and held its place in the Geordie clubbing scene until 1988 when it was temporarily replaced by the Tuxedo Royale. When the Princess returned from Glasgow in 1998, the Royale was moved to Middlesbrough, where it has languished ever since.
With the building of the £22 million Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the £70 million Sage Gateshead music centre and the transformation of the Rank Hovis flour mill into the £46 million BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in the early 2000s, the Tyne today seems to attract tourists seeking culture rather than drinkers pursuing trebles. Industrial Tyneside, which once gave way to Partying Newcastle, has now been replaced by Cultural NewcastleGateshead (as it prefers to be called today).
This sequence of events appeared to explain the rise and fall of the two Tuxedos. Out of place in the gentrified and cultured Quayside of 2007, the Princess’ position was no longer tenable. In December 2007, three hundred guests were invited to bid adieu to this aging night-club. A few months later, the Princess was towed to its final resting place, a breaker’s yard in Greece. Did this bring to a close a chapter of Newcastle’s history? Was the age of the ‘Party City’ over?
In 1960, Newcastle did not have one single night-club. Instead, the city was littered with pubs and social clubs, predominately male institutions which offered a range of ales alongside an assortment of pickled eggs, pies and crisps. Those seeking culture could attend the many cinemas and variety theatres spread throughout the city’s streets or visit the more genteel Theatre Royal for drama or the City Hall for a night of classical music or, on occasion, jazz. The city, however, did not even have an Italian or Indian restaurant. A few Chinese restaurants had arrived in the 1950s, but the vibrancy of Stowell Street was still to come.
We could be forgiven for thinking that the city’s population was chiefly male and working class. Those excluded from such a designation, the middle classes of Jesmond and Gosforth and the wives, mothers and daughters of industrial workers, often ignored by the label Geordie, did not seem to matter. Men were valued for their strength and ability to work long gruelling hours within the mines, shipyards and other manufacturing industries. Wor Lass was often spoken of as an annoyance, an irritation that Geordie soothed through the pub and the company of ‘the lads’. Women may have secretly ruled the roost behind the scenes but out in the open they were often of secondary importance.
We could also be forgiven for thinking that the city’s economy was primarily industrial. Newcastle was grimy, black and still living in the shadow of the great figures of the 19th century whose inventions had brought fame and prosperity to the region. The macho, hard-drinking, working-class Geordie identity, synonymous with men and the world of strenuous work, seemed to speak for the city. It was a taste for drink, the Geordie dialect, weekly attendance at the match and employment in the industrial spaces of Tyneside that granted access to this identity; any deviation from this norm would be rejected as ‘posh’ or ‘soft’.
The Bigg Market figured as one of the centres of this Geordie identity (the other being St. James Park, the home of Newcastle United Football Club). It was a place where revellers met to joke, laugh and swap stories while inhaling the dark amber ales pumped out by the local breweries. In Kiddar’s Luck (1951), Jack Common described the Bigg Market and its adjacent spaces in the early 1910s:
It was a working-class crowd in every street, largely cheerful because, being Saturday, they had a bob or two to chuck away; and easy with one another because they had all got that bob or two the same hard way, or similar, were none of them any better than they should be, because they all spoke the same dialect, and because this was “canny Newcassel”.
Only the subsequent introduction of motor vehicles would suggest that the Bigg Market of the 1960s was in any way different to its early 20th century incarnation.
But Newcastle was not as industrial as we have been led to believe. Most of the industry was spread along the Tyne, away from the city itself. Shipyards were found at Jarrow, Wallsend, Elswick and North Shields, just as the major coal mines were not located within the city walls. Instead, the city’s economy was dominated by services and retail.
In the 19th century, an appetite for luxury and consumer goods on behalf of the Newcastle’s growing middle class resulted in the success of many retail operations. Newcastle was home to the world’s first department store, opened by Emerson Bainbridge in 1838 (the Grainger St. shop was relocated to Eldon Square in 1976 after being taken over by John Lewis) and J.J. Fenwick’s grand store still stands in its original location drawing thousands of customers year after year.
The introduction of Eldon Square and Gateshead’s MetroCentre (once the largest shopping centre in the European Union) in the 1970s and 1980s has since done much to solidify Newcastle as the North East’s commercial capital, but retail and services have always been entangled with the city’s identity.
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the decline and deindustrialisation of Tyneside in the 1970s and 1980s did not affect service-dominated Newcastle. This was where Geordies shopped, spent their money and enjoyed themselves.
Defeated by international competition (by 1956, Japan had overtaken Britain as the world leader in shipbuilding), Swan Hunter and Vickers-Armstrong Ltd. – two of Tyneside’s largest and most significant employers – found themselves in turmoil in the second half of the 20th century. Strategies to nationalise in the 1970s and to privatise in the 1980s could not restore these companies to their former prosperity. The decline of Swan Hunter and Vickers-Armstrong among others demonstrated that Tyneside was undergoing major changes within its labour market. The processes of de-industrialisation were under way and a post-industrial Tyneside was emerging.
During the 1980s, the male population of Tyneside was disproportionately affected by unemployment: between 20% and 22% of all working-age men were without work in the years 1982-1987. Female employment, on the other hand, surprisingly rose within this period of widespread male job loss.
Throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, female employment sat at around 20%, yet by the early 1970s, 40% of the regional workforce were women, and by the 1980s, in line with the national average, this figure stood at 45%. A large percentage of these working women did, however, find themselves in low-paid, low-security, part-time employment in the service sector.
In 1978, the Benwell Community Project published Permanent Unemployment, a report detailing the effect of industrial decline on Benwell’s mostly working-class population. It argued that ‘the great majority of jobs in Newcastle are now concentrated in the service sector — and there is very little call here for the traditional skills of the engineer, the boilermaker, the craftsman’. While 70% of all employment was found in the service sector in those years, less than 40 per cent of Benwell men worked there. Instead nearly two thirds continued ‘to seek their livelihood in the shrinking manufacturing and construction industries’. The report described a male workforce attempting to hang on to not just an industry in decline but a way of life, while a newly employed female workforce capitalised on an increase in service sector employment and the disinterest of men to take up such roles.
The struggles of such men have provided subject matter for many of the film and television programmes set on Tyneside in subsequent years, including Auf Wiedersehen Pet (1984-1986) and last year’s I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016). I have elsewhere referred to such films and programmes as representing the narrative of the ‘Geordie in Crisis’. In my review of I, Daniel Blake, I described the ‘Geordie in Crisis’ as:
a somewhat romanticised figure, formed through the processes of memory and looking back into the past. Out of step with the present, his decline, charted sympathetically, appears with regret. Yet, an association with the humorous, does not allow his depiction to fall into outright despair. Lamentable but appealing through the virtues of hard work, durability, solidarity and good humour, the decline of the traditional Geordie functions as an endearing symbol of the impact of economic and social change.
And so, as we can see, the 1970s and 1980s brought profound change to Tyneside. But did the ‘Party City’ really emerge from the ashes of industrial decline?
The first thing to note is that Newcastle had always been a ‘party city’ in some shape or form throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Geordies – working-class men that is – were always known to work hard and play hard. Drinking, watching the football and rowdily enjoying leisure time have been fundamental elements of Geordie identity for decades. What has changed are the details and the great expansion of the sector since the 1980s: the growth of the clubbing district; the marketing of Newcastle as a ‘Party City’ to outsiders; the resulting surge in stag parties and hen weekends; the acceptance of women in what were once male-only spaces; and the introduction of gay bars and clubs for the city’s homosexual and bisexual communities. These have all led to the creation of the ‘Party City’ as we know it today.
Although Newcastle did not have a night-club at the start of the 1960s, by the end of the decade a varied and lively night-time economy had emerged. This was indebted to the 1961 easing of licensing laws which allowed night-clubs to extend their opening hours into the night. La Dolce Vita, on low Friar Street, became one of the centres of Geordie glamour and sophistication, attracting some of the biggest stars of British show-business to sing, dance and perform to the newly affluent punters inside. Billy Botto’s, Club 69, the Emerson, Cavendish and Flamingo Club were just a few of the other spaces Geordies could go for a good time. They boasted cabaret shows, cocktail bars, restaurants, roulette tables and the ‘one armed bandits’ which have become ubiquitous in the bars and pubs of the present.
Stanley Henry, co-owner of the Bailey Group, one of the largest of Tyneside night-club chains in this period, described the secret to their success:
We brought real night-clubs into the provinces at a price ordinary folk could afford, and gave Geordies a touch of glamour they’d not had before. We appealed to them with thick carpets, sexy lighting, swoony music, and they went overboard. We built up a regular trade, locals who came two of three nights a week – and it wasn’t just a youth thing, linked to the Beatles and Carnaby Street, we had lots of married couples too.
Such changes mirrored those taking place across Newcastle itself. In the late 1950s, T. Dan Smith became leader of the City Council and began reinventing Newcastle in his image of a modern, progressive city defined less by the neo-classical architecture of Tyneside’s Golden Age than the possibilities of architectural modernism. His enthusiasm for utopian housing schemes and tower blocks, resulted in the eventual clearance of many of the slums in Newcastle’s West End and their replacement with modern flats and estates.
Smith was keen to rid Tyneside of its industrial mind-set and to emphasise the Newcastle’s commercial status as a regional capital. He wanted to reflect ‘the consciousness of an age of increasing leisure’. And so, this led to extensive investment in the service sector, ultimately laying the groundwork for the post-industrial Tyneside that would emerge in later years.
In the early 1980s, Geordie entrepreneur Joe Robinson landed on the scene armed with cheap drinks and trendy bars. He has often been credited with transforming Newcastle into the ‘Party City’, for singlehandedly creating the ethos which would invite the British tabloid press to deplore the boisterous overindulgence of the Bigg Market, and denounce the drunkenness, crime and social problems ostensibly stemming from the low-cost cocktails on sale in his bars. Some areas of Newcastle did become off-limits to the uninitiated, no-go areas for students whose accents labelled them ‘posh’, or even worse, ‘southern’. Drink, drugs, crime and fighting were indeed problems in these years but so were widespread unemployment and economic hardship.
One of the major developments of this period was the entrance of women into not only the labour market but the leisure sector. The workingman’s club, invented on Tyneside in the 1860s, was once only accessible to men and in later years proved hesitant to admit women. But by the late 1980s much had changed. With money in their pockets from new-found employment in the service sector, women arrived at the city’s bars and clubs in droves, in pursuit of debauchery, hedonism and cheap treble vodkas. This was for historian Bill Lancaster a ‘curiously feminist experience’ where ‘women equal the men in behaviour as well as numbers. Provocatively dressed, they play the men at their own macho game in this curious deconstruction of courtship and social conventions’.
By late 1983, the great symbol of Newcastle’s status as a party capital had arrived on the Tyne. The Tuxedo Princess, a car ferry constructed at Wallsend by the once mighty Swan Hunter shipbuilders, found itself repurposed for a new economic age. Industry had here given way to leisure; the changes that had taken place on Tyneside in recent years now seemed irreversible. Michael Quadrini, owner of the popular Tuxedo Junction night-club, had been searching for a larger venue for a few years, and eventually stumbled on the idea of repurposing a disused car ferry as a new night-club for the city. ‘The Boat’ was moored on the Gateshead side of the river – after failing to receive planning consent from the city council – and beckoned Geordies on board for a night of contemporary dance and disco music.
There were some worries in the 1990s that Geordie party culture was eroding the distinctiveness of Newcastle’s historic drinking scene. Corporate firms had moved in and transformed old bars and pubs into indistinct, monotonous clubbing spaces, while local, independent operators were ultimately bought out. Some commentators regretted that alternative, smaller scale and locally embedded activities were ‘undermined or pushed to fringe’. Newcastle was said to be becoming a clone of other cities across the UK, with the same shops, bars, clubs and restaurants.
Surviving historic bars such as the Victorian Crown Posada on the Side still draw attention to what has been lost, and alongside the other great buildings that were demolished in the second half of the 20th century, this is something to regret. But there remains doubt whether the introduction of corporate bar culture has eroded what makes Newcastle special. The eccentricities of Geordie identity have ultimately proved inexhaustible.
The decline of industry – and the accompanying reduction of the status of working men in the importance of the region’s economy – has led to other once-excluded groups vying for their own importance in the city’s identity. Today, Geordie identity is not monopolised by white, heterosexual, working-class men. Ethnic minorities are more readily included, as are women and LGBT people. All now play a role in Newcastle’s drinking culture.
But this is not to say that the city has not become separated by difference. LGBT people tend to congregate in the Pink Triangle at the far western limits of the city, while the less well-off Geordies spend time in the now dilapidated and nearly bar-less Bigg Market, the Gate or cheap pubs in the vicinity. Students and the city’s middle class are today often more inclined to head to the more sophisticated Osborne Road, Diamond Strip or Quayside. There is of course a large degree of cross-pollination but this is generally how things pan out. And so the city continues to have a strong party and drinking scene – more than it even had in the past – but it is now segregated, like many big cities, into straight/gay, cheap/expensive, working-class/middle-class, student/resident. The city’s old working class drinking spaces have fallen into decline, cheap drinks and trebles are harder to find, and many once-popular clubs and bars have closed.
Last week, I went to the Bigg Market, once the centre of Geordie drinking culture and recorded the occupants. There are four newish bars (Filthy’s, Passing Clouds, Bier Keller, The Gentleman), one open club (Pop World), one closed club (City Vaults), an ice cream shop (Creams Gelateria), a supermarket (AN), a health food shop (Holland and Barrett), one open takeaway (Bigg Market Chippy), a discount department store (TJ Hughes), an army memorabilia shop (Kommandoutdoors), a corner shop (Finlay’s), two greek restaurants (Simply Greek, Kafeneon) and some short-stay accommodation (Dream Apartments).
Newcastle City Council has recently received £1.6 million lottery funding in order to transform this declining area into a thriving economic hub. The Bigg Market is unlikely, however, to reclaim its place at the centre of Geordie drinking culture. Its importance in the night-time economy has been irredeemably lost to the more middle-class Diamond Strip – whose most captive audience are the 80,000 students that arrive in the city in every autumn with money to spend and fun to be had.
This move away from the bars and clubs of the past now appears inevitable. NewcastleGateshead, despite its failed European Capital of Culture bid in 2008, today wishes (and has for some time) to promote itself as the cultural headquarters of the North East. At the dawn of the millennium, there were originally some doubts whether BALTIC, Sage Gateshead and the Millennium Bridge would revitalise Newcastle instead of merely papering over the cracks of a failing economy. Few deny in 2017 that the city has not improved with their introduction.
The city council has also sought to increase the number of upmarket bars trading across the city. Low-cost bars that offer trebles have been targeted in campaigns to reduce binge-drinking and improve the city’s public image. It is now illegal to sell a unit of alcohol for less than £1.25.
Henri Murison, a local councillor who managed the city’s recent alcohol rules, responded with optimism to the possibility of Joe Robinson returning to open a new upmarket bar on Tyneside:
We want more venues like this if anything. This type of responsible upmarket venue is very in keeping with what we want to achieve and we can see that people are happy to come here to experience that as part of their visit. By introducing these conditions on new licences, we are sending a clear signal that we want to move away from the Geordie Shore image. That is not what we think Newcastle is about. If there are more quality establishments that want to come here, they are very welcome, but just like the conditions we have imposed on this venue, we want to ensure they will be responsible in their actions.
And this leaves us with one last point. Geordie Shore (2011-), MTV’s notorious reality TV show which continues to sell an unfavourable image of Newcastle to the UK and beyond, may have unwittingly helped to push the city in the opposite direction, away from its drunken and hedonistic past, and towards a cultured and respectable future. Will Geordies respond to such top-down political developments with enthusiasm? We will have to wait and see.
Photographs courtesy of Newcastle Libraries and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums