Mackems and Mac n’ Tacs
A ‘Mackem’ is a native of Sunderland. The origin of the term is debated but relates in some way to shipbuilding and perhaps the Wearside pronunciation of ‘make’. Written traces of the term are hard to find before the second half of the twentieth century but one interesting comment in Fordyce’s History of Durham (1857) could point to an early nineteenth century or late 1700s root for the term.
As a dialect word in its own right ‘Mackem’ means ‘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.
One possibility is ‘Mackem and Tackem’ in reference to Sunderland could be explained by the two principal forms of employment in nineteenth century Sunderland. As mentioned on our introductory page about Sunderland, 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 ships and ‘Tackems’ the sailors who took them out to sea.
‘Mackem’ does seem to have originated as a jibe or derisory comment of some kind. Due to local rivalry, Tyneside would be a possible source for such a term, particularly as the traditional pronunciation of ‘make’ on Tyneside is supposedly ‘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. However, as we shall see below, there is a tantalising earlier reference to a derisory comment relating to Sunderland involving the word ‘make’.
Mack ’em or Build ’em?
The County Durham historian William Fordyce, writing back in 1857, makes a very interesting remark about Sunderland shipbuilding that could point to an early origin for the ‘Mackem’ or ‘Mac n’ Tac’ 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.”
We are of course talking about the era of timber-built sailing ships. According to Fordyce, Sunderland shipbuilding in the eighteenth century up to around the 1830s, 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 in Sunderland. It is clear that he was describing a particular opinion about 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 to make 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 the subscription library in Bishopwearmouth and then wheeled it all the way to the South Pier for its launch.
So do Fordyce’s comments about the derisory late eighteenth and early nineteenth 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 could be a possible 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 told) that they build ships “to perfection”.
It seems clear that there was already some kind of insult about Sunderland making ships in the nineteenth 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 perhaps more coy about using derogatory local terms than they would be today or maybe it just never came up in written records.
Clearly, however, as Fordyce demonstrates, there was some kind of familiar saying that some Sunderland shipwrights were in the business of ‘making’ ships in their own time.
‘Jamies’ and ‘Geordies’
We know there was intense economic and cultural rivalry between the ports of Sunderland and Newcastle since at least the seventeenth 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 and other during the nineteenth century. 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.
From a later period, in our explanation of Geordie we know that during the 1715 Jacobite Rising, Newcastle supported King George (supposedly 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 of James 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 said 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.