I can do better than that... studied this stuff years ago so here goes - some of this is copied from a text I have but that matters not... prepare for a long, but valuable read:
The origin of the word ‘Mackem’ is related in some way to shipbuilding and the Wearside pronunciation of ‘make’ and one interesting comment in Fordyce’s History of Durham (1857) could point to a late 1700's or early 1800's root for the term.
An alternative term for a Wearsider was Mac n’ Tac (or Mackem and Tackem) and this was more prevalent at one time and could have been the original phrase describing Sunderland people before ‘Mackem’ became popular. It is most likely a jocular observation of the Sunderland dialect in the way they pronounce ‘make’ and ‘take’.
‘Mackem and Tackem’ can be explained by the two principal forms of employment in 19th century 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 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.
The engine-fitting theory could be doubted of course 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 (Geordie) 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. (see Post 2)
In his description of Sunderland shipbuilding in the late 1700s and early 1800s William 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 use of the term ‘make’ in relation to shipbuilding might be the first inferred use or at least the origin of the term ‘Mackem’. This is what Fordyce said (in 1857) regarding earlier Wearside shipbuilders:
“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 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 Bishopwearmouth’s subscription library and then wheeled it all the way to the South Pier for its launch.
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 (author, Robinson Crusoe) observed 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.
Post 2 follows... The terms of Geordie and Mackem