The Tuxedo Royale was a fixture of Newcastle’s clubbing scene in the 80s and 90s, with a revolving dancefloor and horny patrons with ‘pupils the size of dinner plates’, before it was gutted in a suspicious fire
For most clubbers of the 80s and 90s, the ship has sailed. Cleared the docks, bound for new tides with a thunderous blast of the horn. But for those who partied on the Tuxedo Royale, the ship never left port – it was gutted in a suspicious fire.
In the Tuxedo Royale’s prime, 2,000 people filled its many discotheques, bars, and restaurants, buoyed by the astringent house vodka and tidal rhythms of the river below. It was a fixture of Newcastle’s clubbing scene – there were nights on the Toon, and then there were nights on the Tyne. The 369-foot turbine steamer dominated the Gateshead waterfront in the 80s and 90s. The monstrosity of the thing meant you could both lose your friends for hours, or find your future spouse, as many locals did. The Tuxedo Royale was purchased by local businessman Michael Quadrini in 1986. With the bite of an after-dinner mint and the pong of a leathery aftershave for burly old boys, the vessel’s name positioned it for elegance. At least in the beginning, when the boat attracted a share of celebrity patrons. But the locals were mightier than the fly-ins, and a viscous stream of hen parties and stag-dos sluiced down the establishment’s strict dress code, and the ‘Tux’ was born.
As her 10-year-old son darts into the room begging for a new football, Anna Melton looks back on her younger years. Inside a box of scrapbook souvenirs is an invitation to her friend’s 18th birthday in the Admiral Suite. She screams when she finds it. The Tux was the go-to venue for local coming-of-ages, but Melton’s maiden voyage came a few years earlier, in 1989: “You had to walk up a dodgy gangplank to get on,” she recalls. “I know it was a boat but it was moored there permanently so you think they would put something sturdier. To this day, I remember what I wore: a purple miniskirt and a silky, cream top with this huge Princess Diana collar. It wasn’t nearly slutty enough.”
Melton grew up in Rowlands Gill, eight miles from Newcastle’s centre. Her first night on the Tux was her first-ever night out. She was 16. “I was there with someone older and was trying not to drink too much. I wanted to be sophisticated, but I was just walking around with my eyes on stalks,” says Melton. Her voice often fades to a faraway place, like a suspect asked to recall their whereabouts on the day of a decades-old crime.
These are the details we never think to keep. Plus, the lack of visual reminders does not help. “You didn’t go out with a camera. My friends and I laugh about it. None of us would have jobs if we had pictures or social media then.”
Before it was the Tux, the ship was a RoRo: a roll-on, roll-off ferry taking passengers and their wheels across the English Channel. With a mooring in Gateshead, the Tux might as well have been at sea. Its regulars still remember the impossibility of the location. “We classed the Tux as Newcastle even though it was on the Gateshead side,” says Melton. “You had the quayside opposite, a very nice area where everyone went out, and you had the boat in the middle. The Gateshead side was proper grotsville with its warehouses. Now, it’s gorgeous with its restaurants. But once upon a time you never went there. You taxied straight there, you did not deviate.”
The Tuxedo Royale had a sister: the Tuxedo Princess. While the Princess was the Tyne’s original steamer-turned-nightclub, it was moved to Glasgow in 1988. Over the years, the boats changed posts. The Princess returned to the Tyne after 10 years in Glasgow, and the Royale moved onto Middlesbrough. Most regulars admit they can’t remember which ship was which.
“I worked on the beach bar with the revolving dancefloor, which is what attracted a lot of people... sometimes we had bets on who would hurl next”
In 1989, acid house and underground raves rippled through the country. Melton’s friends often came to class with “pupils the size of dinner plates”. But the Tux was in another league. “It was never the coolest place to go,” says Melton. Rather, the multi-functionality of the venue meant it could host the complete cycle of a fledgling’s night out: a feed, a boogie, a hookup, and a hurl.
Kate Howell, a former Tux bartender, can still smell the grease. “There were all sorts onboard, but most people wanted chips. Near the upstairs bar was the buffet. It was mainly Chinese, but we went through an insane amount of chips,” says the 39-year-old. The main attraction, somehow of its time and ahead of it, was a revolving dancefloor on a former car deck. Speak to any Tux regular and they will all mention the dancefloor and the Everest that was mounting and dismounting it after a few pints. “I worked on the beach bar with the revolving dancefloor, which is what attracted a lot of people, although you always had to keep an eye out later on in the night for people being sick. Sometimes we had bets on who would hurl next.”
The upstairs bar offered a different pace of life. Howell remembers it as more of a town pub, only with river views and hornier patrons. “Some went in with one partner, saw someone they liked, went upstairs with them, got their number, and then left with their original partner. I saw many a girl being, well, basically fingered at the bar,” says Howell.
Between 2006 and 2007, the Royale and the Princess pulled up the gangplank for the last time. Mounting maintenance costs and their reputation as piss-up pontoons meant it came to be considered a blight on the evolving waterfront. Quadrini’s business eventually went into administration in 2009. The Princess was scrapped in Turkey, but in Middlesbrough, the half-sunk Royale stagnated, sinking deeper and deeper into the River Tees.
There were emotional campaigns for its restoration, but largely it was considered to be an eyesore and a burden to the taxpayer. It took another decade for the council to reach a decision. “She Is To Be Scrapped,” declared a group campaigning for its restoration. A few months later, the Tux met a different fate when a fire tore through it, charring what was left. Police treated the fire as suspicious, but the investigation did not return anything conclusive.
With a glassy beetle of a concert hall, a £30 million Hilton, and a container village with a microbrewery, the Gateshead waterfront of today is far from “grotsville”. With a competitive range of venues and the added scrutiny of social media, there is little room for the distinctly uncool venues, the boats with a 160-seat buffet and toilet doors that fling open when the tide goes out. “You just don’t get places like that any more,” says Howell. “These great clubs are now sadly gone.”