Hostmen of Newcastle upon Tyne

The Hostmen of Newcastle upon Tyne were a cartel of businessmen who formed a monopoly to control the export of coal from the River Tyne in North East England. They were so known from the medieval practice of "hosting", whereby local businessmen provided visiting merchants with accommodation and introduced them to local traders. The Hostmen acted as middlemen with whom the coal producers and those who shipped the coal to London and elsewhere were forced to deal.


From the time in the mid-13th century when coal began to be exported from the River Tyne, the burgesses of Newcastle tried to gain a monopoly over its export. In 1216, King John granted Newcastle the right to elect a mayor and also to form trade guilds. These guilds sought to ensure that trade in various commodities was concentrated in Newcastle. The desire of the Newcastle burgesses to monopolise trade on the Tyne led to a dispute with the Prior of Tynemouth regarding the shipment of coal from nearby settlement of North Shields, which was owned by the priory. In 1267 the mayor of Newcastle, Nicholas Scott attacked North Shields with a band of merchants, setting fire to several buildings. In 1290 the burgesses petitioned the King regarding North Shields and succeeded in suspending the export of coal, as well as other trade, from the new settlement. Henceforth, North Shields remained solely as a fishing port. In 1350 Edward III granted a licence to the Newcastle burgesses to excavate coal from Forth Banks and the Town Moor area. From 1446, shipments of coal from North Shields were permitted, but in 1530 a royal act confined all shipments of coal to Newcastle quayside, thereby giving the Newcastle burgesses the monopoly they desired. This reinforced a medieval monopoly granted by Henry I, which was still in place.[1]

The Reformation

Prior to the Reformation, most of the north-eastern coal deposits were in the hands of the monasteries. The monasteries leased out land for mining but generally set limits on the rate of extraction so as to keep the price high. This meant that the production of coal stayed at a constant level. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the coal deposits fell into private hands and the restrictions on output disappeared. The yearly rate of extraction increased from approximately 15,000 tons prior to the Reformation, to 162,000 in 1603, to 239,000 in 1609 and to 425,000 in 1634, nearly all for export from the Tyne. Coal was exported to London and other parts of England, but also to Holland, France and Flanders. Coal became by far the most valuable local commodity. As with other traded items, coal could only move through the city of Newcastle if its buying and selling were handled by the town's burgesses. The Hostmen had formed a group within the Company of Merchant Adventurers of Newcastle to exploit this monopoly. In practice, the Hostmen owned the "keels", large boats that were used to transfer the coal from the riverbank to the waiting colliers that were moored downstream. The men who worked these boats were known as "keelmen". The keelmen led a very precarious existence, being paid casually, and they were regarded with distrust by the Hostmen with whom they were often in dispute.[2]


In 1553, during the reign of Edward VI, John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland sponsored an act allowing Newcastle to annexe Gateshead and its surrounding area from the bishopric of Durham. This would have allowed the Newcastle burgesses to mine for coal on Gateshead land. The plan was foiled by the death of Edward and the downfall of Dudley. The Newcastle burgesses made a similar attempt in 1576 during the reign of Elizabeth I but were opposed by the queen's privy council.[3]

The Grand Lease

Towards the end of the 16th century, the Hostmen began to buy up leases in the Tyneside coalfield until they soon had a near total monopoly of the production of coal. This move was aided in 1583 when Queen Elizabeth leased the ex-palatinate mines of Gateshead and Whickham to two Newcastle merchants, Henry Anderson and William Selby, who in turn apportioned them to the leading Hostmen. This became known as the "Grand Lease", and the Hostmen came to be known as the "Lords of Coal", as they now controlled both production and export of this commodity. In 1590 the lord mayor of London complained that the regulation of coal exports from the Tyne was unfairly raising prices.[2]


In 1600 the Company of Hostmen was incorporated through a charter granted by Elizabeth I. This gave them exclusive rights to trade coal in the Tyne in return for a one-shilling tax on every chaldron (wagonload) of coal shipped from the Tyne. The charter allowed an exclusive body of electors, in practice the Hostmen, the right to elect the mayor and burgesses of the town. In 1600, 240,000 tons of coal were shipped from the Tyne, 20 times more than the tonnage produced by the Durham coal industry and shipped from the River Wear.[1]

The tightly knit Hostmen, with their cartel and control of the Tyne, now controlled the coal production business. They had capital and economies of scale on their side. Few local coal entrepreneurs could survive if they were not members of the Company of Hostmen. The Commons in 1621 included the Newcastle Hostmen in a list of monopolists who should have their privileges revoked, but an act of 1623 specifically exempted them.[3]

Scottish invasion

In 1637 Charles I, in an attempt to raise revenue, doubled the tax on Tyneside coal in return for allowing the Hostmen to regulate production and set the price of the coal. The London coal importers and the East Anglian ship-owners were outraged and resolved to boycott Tyneside coal. As a result, the price of coal rose and the royal revenues dropped. Charles was forced to cancel the Hostmen's monopoly. When the Scots rose in 1639 against Charles' introduction of the English Prayer Book into Scotland, the anti-royalist London merchants encouraged the invading Scots to capture Newcastle. This they did in 1640, totally disrupting the export of coal. The Scottish army remained in Newcastle for a year and charged the Corporation a regular fee for billeting its troops.[1]

Civil War

In 1642 the English Civil War began between Charles I and the Parliamentarians, and the Newcastle burgesses sided with the monarchy. In 1644 Cromwell's forces blockaded the river to prevent the royalist burgesses from profiting from their coal exports. As a result, London passed that winter almost without coal to burn. To ease this situation Parliament encouraged the export of coal from Blyth and from Wearside. Unfortunately not enough coal was available from those sources to replace the Tyne coal. In the winter of 1644, Scottish troops again crossed the border and Newcastle was besieged for three months before the garrison capitulated. The Scots occupied Northumberland and Durham for two years and taxes from the coal trade were used to pay for the occupying army. After the Civil War had ended, in 1648, Puritans replaced the Royalist burgesses on the Newcastle Corporation, but the new men were just as anxious to maintain Newcastle's trading monopoly as the burgesses that they replaced. It was at about this time, in 1655, that Ralph Gardiner of Chirton accused the Newcastle Corporation of "tyranny and oppression". He was imprisoned for illegally brewing in North Shields and contravening the monopoly of the Bakers and Brewers Company of Newcastle. Gardiner petitioned Parliament for the abolition of the regulations that forced traders to deal through Newcastle. His petition was unsuccessful.[1]

Eventual decline

The Civil War had allowed the River Wear to emerge as a competitor of the Tyne for coal exports. By 1660 the Tyne coal trade had recovered but was now only a third greater than the Wearside production. At this time the Newcastle Hostmen clashed with the Sunderland coal traders by claiming their charter rights and imposing a shilling tax on all coals exported from Sunderland. The Newcastle monopoly continued until between 1700 and 1750 the coal production increased to such an extent that non-Hostmen businessmen were drawn in. This seriously weakened the strength of the Hostmen and they would never again have such a stranglehold on the north-east coal trade.[3]


  1. 1 2 3 4 Marshall, Michael W (1997). Turning Tides. Keepgate Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-899506-35-7.
  2. 1 2 Moffat and Rosie (2005). Tyneside. Mainstream Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-84596-119-6.
  3. 1 2 3 Fraser and Emsley (1973). Tyneside. David and Charles. ISBN 0-7153-5764-6.

Black, Edwin, Internal Combustion (St. Martins Press 2006), probably has the most extensive documentation of the Hostmen's cartel, including footnotes. A large outtake from the book with even greater depth about the Hostmen can be seen on the book's website,

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