Mackems and Mac n’ Tacs
The origin of the word ‘Mackem’, the now familiar term for a native of Sunderland is often debated but is related in some way to shipbuilding and the Wearside pronunciation of ‘make’. Written traces of the term are hard to find before the second half of the 20th century but one interesting comment in Fordyce’s History of Durham (1857) could point to an early 19th century or late 1700s root for the term that we will come to in a moment.
As a Sunderland dialect word in its own right ‘Mackem’ can be literally translated to mean ‘make them’ or mack ’em for short and although it almost certainly relates to shipbuilding – the industry for which Sunderland was primarily known – it does not fully explain why it is used for a Wearsider.
‘Mackem and Tackem’ in reference to Sunderland could be explained by the two principal forms of employment in 19th century Sunderland. As mentioned on our page about Sunderland industry, the census of 1851 showed that sailors and shipbuilders formed by far the biggest workforce in Sunderland at that time. ‘Mackems’ could quite easily be the shipbuilders who made the ships and ‘Tackems’ the sailors who took them out to sea.
This seems straightforward enough but on Tyneside it is often claimed the ‘Tackems’ were the Tyneside shipyards that took Sunderland-built ships to have them fitted with engines in the Tyne yards. Possible of course, but not proven, and this suggestion, which seems to have later twentieth century roots does seem to have an air of superiority about it.
We may dispute the engine-fitting theory but ‘Mackem’ does seem to have originated as a jibe or an insult. Due to local rivalry, Tyneside would be a likely source for such a term, particularly as the traditional pronunciation of ‘make’ on Tyneside is ‘myek’ as opposed to ‘mac’ on Wearside. If it began as a jibe, then the term ‘Mackem’ has similar origins to ‘Geordie’, which also seems to have started life as an insult or patronising term that was then subsequently adopted as a label of local pride.
Mack ’em or Build ’em?
The County Durham historian William Fordyce, writing way back in 1857, makes a very interesting remark about Sunderland shipbuilding that could point to an early origin for the Mackem term.
In his description of Sunderland shipbuilding in the late 1700s and early 1800s Fordyce notes that Sunderland shipbuilders were “vigorous and enterprising in the prosecution of their business”, but “did not appear generally to have been possessed of much scientific knowledge respecting it.”
Much of Sunderland shipbuilding in that early period (1700s-c1830s) was seemingly about building ships where quality was very much regulated by price. In his explanation of this situation Fordyce uses italics to emphasise the words ‘build’ and ‘make’ to describe the differing qualities of workmanship available. It is clear that he was relating a particular opinion of Sunderland shipbuilding in those earlier times.
“The degree of perfection in construction would seem to have been regulated according to price, hence it came to be derisively said that Sunderland shipbuilders could ‘either build a ship or make one.’ So recently in 1835, when Lloyd’s Registry was instituted Sunderland was not found worthy to claim any exemption from the rule that ‘no ship built north of Yarmouth should have a classification of more than ten years.”
In fairness, Fordyce went on to say that progress towards perfection since that time (up to 1857) had been “most rapid” on Wearside and certainly later Sunderland ships were built to the highest of standards.
In those early days it seems to have been a fashion for resourceful Wearside shipwrights tomake ships in their own time, often cheaply, at their own expense and then sell them off at a reasonable price but without the guarantee of quality.
In 1800 one such resourceful man is known to have built a small ship weighing three keels on the village green at Bishopwearmouth. He then dragged it all the way to the river at Southwick a mile away using an old route called the Keelmen’s Lane. In 1817 another man built a small ship of 15 tons to the rear of Bishopwearmouth’s subscription library and then wheeled it all the way to the South Pier for its launch.
So do Fordyce’s comments about the derisory late 18th and early 19th century claim that Sunderland shipbuilders could either make or build ships point to an early root for the terms Mackem and Mac n’ Tac?
When it came to making rather than building ships, low cost, low quality vessels would potentially undercut the work of rival shipyards and especially those on the Tyne. If this was so then Newcastle would be the likely source for the jibe about Sunderland making rather than building ships that Fordyce refers to. After all it was at Newcastle that Daniel Defoe observed (or was perhaps informed) that they build ships “to perfection”.
It seems clear that there was already some kind of insult about Sunderland making ships in the 19th century so if the term Mackem or Mac n’ tac was already in use we need to ask why are there no apparent written records? The answer may be that Victorian and earlier twentieth century writers, historians and journalists were more coy about using derogatory local terms than they would be today,
Wearside ‘Jamies’ Tyneside ‘Geordies’
We know there was intense economic and cultural rivalry between the ports of Sunderland and Newcastle since at least the 17th century when the two towns took opposing sides in the Civil War. Even out at sea the two communities were determined to distinguish themselves from one another during the nineteenth century and William Fordyce again writing in his History of Durham in 1857 does reveal a term that was clearly identified with Wearside, at least out at sea.
Fordyce’s History of Durham gives much detail about Sunderland’s history and in a footnote on the same page as his remarks about making ships he notes the following:
“A writer in a recent periodical supplies us with the curious information that ‘Mariners term a vessel from the Tyne a Geordie and from the Wear a Jamie. At sea, they can distinguish the one from the other by the different colours on their bows, sides, stems &c.’…”
Why Sunderland vessels were called Jamies is not clear but it may reflect some long-established connection with Scotland, perhaps relating to the Civil War of the 1640s when Sunderland welcomed the Scottish garrison whose soldiers subsequently besieged Newcastle. In our explanation of Geordie we know that during the 1715 Jacobite Rising, Newcastle supported King George (the Geordie supporters) rather than supporting James, the Old Pretender.
The term Jacobite comes from the Latin for James and Jamie is of course another variation but there is no evidence that Sunderland was especially pro-Jacobite in the 1715 rising. Interestingly, however, the riverside community of keelmen at Biddick on Wearside are known to have sheltered a prominent Jacobite rebel, James Drummond, the Earl of Perth. Drummond, apparently lived in secret disguise and worked as a boatman on the Wear. He resided with a Biddick mining family called Armstrong – who perhaps not coincidentally have a Scottish Border Reiver surname.