It is difficult to believe that so lately as the years 1858-60, the “bar” at the mouth of the Tyne was an insuperable obstacle to all but vessels of very moderate draught; and that ships might lie for days, and sometimes weeks, after being loaded, before there came a tide high enough to carry them out to sea. The river was full of sand-banks, and little islands stood here and there—one in mid-stream, where the ironclads are now launched at Elswick. Three or four vessels might be seen at once bumping and grounding on the “bar” unable to make their way over. Well might the old song say—
“The ships are all at the bar,
They canna get up to Newcastle!”
An old map of the Tyne shows a number of sand-banks down the lower reaches of the river, with ships aground on each, of them.
But the River Tyne Commissioners have changed all that, and their implement of warfare has been the hideous but necessary dredger. No longer need vessels of heavy tonnage desert the Tyne for the Wear, as they were perforce driven to do during the first half of the nineteenth century, for the Wearsiders had set about deepening and widening their river long before the Tynesiders did the same by theirs. Considerable and continuous pressure had to be brought to bear on the civic authorities at Newcastle before they finally took action; but having once done so, the future of the Tyne was assured. Now it ranks second only to the Thames in the actual number of vessels entering and leaving, and owns only the Mersey its superior in the matter of tonnage.
“Her dusky hair in many a tangle
About her, and her looks, though stern and cold,
Grow tender with the dreams of by-gone days.”
The outward signs of “by-gone days,” in the Newcastle of to-day, with the one notable exception of the Castle, must be diligently sought out amongst the overwhelming mass of what is often called “rampant modernity,” of which the town to-day chiefly consists. The modernity, however, is not all bad, as this favourite phrase would imply; much of it is doubtless regrettable and a very little of it perhaps inevitable; but no one will deny either the modernity or the beauty of Grey Street, one of the finest streets in any English town; or the fine appearance of Grainger Street, Blackett Street, Eldon Square, or any other of the stately thoroughfares with which Grainger and Dobson enriched the town within the last eighty years—no one, that is, who has learned to “lift his eyes to the sky-line in passing along a thoroughfare” instead of keeping them firmly fixed at the level of shop windows.