The modern Port of Blyth has more humble origins with the first recorded reference being in 1138 when the monks of Newminster Abbey near Morpeth exported salt from the pans on the north side of the River Blyth. This was encouraged by the convenient supply of local coal used in the evaporation of the brine.
The shipment of coal itself began during the 14th century and by the close of the 16th century coal mines were recorded at Cowpen and Bebside. During 1609 in the reign of James 1, a total of 21,571 tons of coal were shipped from Blyth, a significant quantity for the period, and this trade steadily replaced the shipment of salt which was in decline during the late 16th and early 17th century.
The oldest remaining chart of the harbour is from 1682 which in particular highlights the first “major” commercial quay, Blyth Quay, more commonly described as “Bishop’s Quay”. During this period the river was not deep enough for most vessels to load full cargoes, so loading was often undertaken from boats known as “keels”, a type closely linked with the history of Northumberland.
Steady development continued in the 18th century and by 1730 coaling and ballast quays, a pilots watch house and a lighthouse had been established followed in 1765 by the first breakwater known as “North Dyke”. This was a roughly built stone structure intended to break the force of the sea in an easterly gale. Twenty years later, in 1788, came the building of the first staith with an elevated loading point together with the erection of the High Lighthouse which served as one of the leading lights until July 1984.
Blyth was now becoming a prominent port and the increasing number of vessels using the river led to the purchase of a steam vessel to tow sail vessels back to sea in 1819 and the rebuilding of the stone breakwater three years later which had become dilapidated. In this period shipbuilding had also commenced and a plan from 1813 clearly shows three such shipyards operating.
The next significant development came in the mid 19th century with the arrival of the railways. The Tyne and Blyth Junction Railway built the first rail linked staith on the south side of the river in 1849 and coal shipments grew rapidly over the next few years to around 200,000 tons per annum. This growth clearly had to be managed and in 1854 the Blyth Harbour and Dock Company was formed, given powers to develop the port and to levy dues and charges.
In the latter part of the 19th century the shipping industry as a whole, and in particular the coal trade, continued to develop at an alarming rate and it soon became clear that the existing Company was unable to raise sufficient capital to keep Blyth’s facilities up to the necessary standard for large volume shipments. As a result they promoted a Bill to “constitute and incorporate Commissioners for the management of Blyth Harbour” on the basis of a trust, as operated on other North East coast rivers. The Bill received Royal Assent on 19th June 1882, constituting the birth of the current Blyth Harbour Commission and which as an initial task undertook the construction of South Harbour to accommodate expanding trade.
The 20th and 21st Century
During the early 20th century coal continued to dominate trade through the Port although shipbuilding had also grown into one of the largest centres in the Northeast with the 2nd Ark Royal being built at Blyth in 1914. The Port also became an important submarine base during both World Wars.
By the 1930’s Blyth was exporting 5.5 million tonnes of coal per annum and had become the largest coal exporting port in Europe when the trade reached it’s peak in the early 1960’s at over 6 million tonnes per year.
A period of decline ensued during the late 1960’s with coal trade reducing significantly as local mines began to close together with the last remaining shipyard, Blyth Shipbuilding Company which ceased operation in 1966.
The 1970’s saw a reversal of this trend with Alcan establishing a major aluminium smelter 5 miles north of the Port together with an import terminal of the river to handle large volumes of bulk raw materials.
At the same time Blyth started to expand it’s paper import trade from Finland and grew to a peak of over 0.5 million tonnes in 1998 making the Port one of the major paper terminals in the UK.
The loss of a large proportion of this paper trade in 2000 was a major blow but the Port re-invented itself again rapidly expanding into container handling, plywood, project cargo, coal and other dry bulk commodities.
Another blow occurred in 2012 with the closure of the RioTinto aluminium smelter just up the coast at Lynemouth. The smelter had long been a major customer for the Port but given the level and diversity of trade growth, the effects were minimalized with even a record turnover being produced the following year.
From 2010 onwards the energy sector has become an important focus for the Port with large numbers of wind turbine components being handled for onshore and offshore wind farms. Furthermore, Blyth is rapidly establishing itself as a base for the oil and gas sector with frequent visits from supply vessels and related engineering companies moving into the Port. A major marine fuels terminal also open in 2015 with a focus on servicing the offshore energy sector.
The Port’s history demonstrates the need to constantly evolve and adapt in the face of major challenges along the way and this is probably key to why a modern, successful and expanding Trust Port still exists to this day.
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