Toil, tears and hardship - A look at the history of the North East's working class

PUBLISHED: 14:47 28 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:06 20 February 2013

Toil, tears and hardship - A look at the history of the North East's working class

Toil, tears and hardship - A look at the history of the North East's working class

John Hannavy looks at the trials of working life in the North East at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries

Malcolm Coxon writes in response to this article


A letter from Malcolm Coxon ex Elemore Colliery 1966 - 1971

Fourteen faces stare out at us from a postcard published in late February 1908 - Charles Applegarth, Edward Ashman, Charles Chivers, John Clarke, Robert Cowan, John Dixon, Thomas Errington, William Glendenning, James Madden, Thomas McNally, Henry Oswald, William Rollin, James Wake and Alfred Wood.


All of them died in the Glebe Colliery explosion in Washington at 9.30pm on the evening on Thursday, February 20th, 1908. At just 18 years of age, Thomas Agar Errington was the youngest of them all, and with his 13 colleagues, his death was commemorated on a postcard published to raise funds for the families of the deceased.


Four days short of a year later, at the West Stanley Colliery a few miles north west of Durham, 168 men lost their lives in an explosion of firedamp. Of the 204 men working underground at the time, only 36 made it back to the surface.


That was West Stanleys second major explosion - on April 19th 1882, 13 men had been killed when a faulty miners lamp ignited a pocket of coal dust mixed with the deadly gas.
Just two months earlier, at Trimdon neat Sedhefield, yet another deadly explosion, which killed 74 men, added to the price miners have paid to bring us coal.


That day, February 16th 1882, is remembered in the traditional song, The Trimdon Grange Explosion, made famous - to my generation at least - by Alan Prices poignant 1969 rendition.


In the early weeks of 1882, a young woman had been looking forward to her wedding to a miner who worked at the coalface in Trimdon Grange Colliery. The wedding had been planned for Saturday, February 25th, but instead of marrying her fianc she attended his funeral on the same day and in the same church. The history of the region has been peppered with such tragic stories ever since deep mining started 400 years ago.


Writing in his book A Tour Thro the Whole ISLAND of GREAT BRITAIN in the late 1720s, Daniel Defoe, of Robinson Crusoe fame, gave a graphic account of one disaster which took place in 1727.


Here we had an account of a melancholy accident he wrote, and in itself strange also, which happened in or near Lumley Park, not long before we passd through the town. A new coal pit being dug, the workmen workt on in the vein of coals till they came to a cavity, which, as was supposed, had formerly been dug from some other pit; but be it what it will, as soon as upon the breaking into the hollow part, the pent up air got vent, it blew up like a mine of a thousand barrels of powder, and getting vent at the shaft of the pit, burst out with such a terrible noise, as made the very earth tremble for some miles round, and terrifyd the whole country.

There were near three-score poor people lost their lives in the pit, and one or two, as we were told, who were at the bottom of the shaft, were blown quite out, though sixty fathoms deep, and were found dead upon the ground.


Lumley Colliery was about five miles north-east of Durham, and between 1727 and 1827, more than 150 men lost their lives at that one pit.


While mining accidents were almost commonplace, many other occupations were fraught with risks. In the years before health and safety came to the fore, accidents at work happened regularly in just about every industry.


Workers rights were still well in the future in Edwardian times and the combination of long hours, low wages, poor working environments and high personal risks was a fact of life in the major employment industries of the North East.


A century before photography came along to illustrate the lives of our forebears, writers like Defoe sought to use words to paint pictures of what they saw. In Newcastle, for example, Defoe saw shipbuilding expanding rapidly as Britains growing 18th century trade with the world demanded more and more ships.


They build ships here to perfection, he wrote, I mean as to strength, and firmness, and to bear the sea; and as the coal trade occasions a demand for such strong ships, a great many are built here. This gives an addition to the merchants business, in requiring a supply of all sorts of naval stores to fit out those ships.


Coal and shipping were mutually dependant for more than 200 years, and dozens of industries sprung up to facilitate and support them.


Fatalities and injuries in shipyards and steelworks were regular occurrences, and in a society which had no support infrastructure, the loss of income threw families into poverty. It is no wonder that the late Victorian and Edwardian years saw a huge rise in the importance of trade unions, the establishment of compensation funds, and growing recognition of works rights and employers responsibilities.


But among those who regularly put their lives at risk were several groups of volunteers. With so many ports along the regions coast, both shipping and commercial, the waters off the shores of Northumberland and Durham were among the busiest around Britain - and also some of the most hazardous. Lifeboats from Amble, Bamburgh, Berwick, Blyth, Cullercoats, Hartlepool, Newbiggin, Seahouses, Sunderland and Tynemouth have collectively saved thousands of lives since the first station along the regions coast was established at Sunderland
more than 200 years ago.


It would be wrong, of course, to paint a wholly gloomy picture of the Edwardian years. Many of the coastal towns catered for the workforces leisure time, however brief that might be. Improving train and tram services made it easy to get to Roker, Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and elsewhere for a day, where the allure of the beach, and the added bonus of regular beach performances by touring pierrot groups made for a great day out.


It is a sobering fact that most of the industries which, a century ago, employed hundreds of thousands of local men and women - in the mines, shipyards, steelworks, docks, and fishing ports - have all gone, either priced out of the market by foreign competition or lost as sacrificial victims to political ideology. We import coal from Australia while millions of tons remain accessible at home, we import steel, we buy our merchant ships from the Far East, Finland, Poland or France, while a huge pool of skill - honed and refined over generations - has been left to slowly wither.


Do you have memories to share of working in the coal mines, shipyards or steelworks of the North East? Wed love to hear from you. Leave a comment below

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