The North East of England is a rich seam of mining heritage. So why not walk back in time to explore the history of this industrial age?
Most of the old mines have disappeared and there are no deep pits left in production in North East England.
Mining has become a focus for the heritage industry with museums and attractions celebrating the region’s industrial past
I found myself reflecting on this heritage during a visit to the Miners’ Institute in Newcastle for the launch of ‘pitman artist’ Tom Lamb’s biography.
The book traces his life through 27 years working as a miner at Busty Pit at Craghead Colliery in County Durham.
Tom’s life underground is vividly brought to life with over 100 of his paintings and sketches in the book written by Dr Peter Norton. It set me thinking about how much of this mining heritage you can still see today.
A coal miner’s life
When Tom Lamb worked in the mines there were around 750,000 people employed in the coal mining industry in Britain. It’s amazing to think that there were 135 pits in the Durham Coalfield alone.
It was a hard life despite the camaraderie amongst the miners. Gas explosions, roof falls, flooding and runaways wagons were just some of the life-threatening hazards for the men working underground.
Tom Lamb started work down the mines in 1942 at the tender age of 14. He worked at the Busty Pit in Craghead not far from Stanley in County Durham where he kept sketchbooks illustrating life below ground.
Whenever he could, he’d sketch his fellow miners at work. This image of a miner shovelling coal on a longwall face is particularly evocative.
The conditions were brutal in this dark, damp and dangerous environment and it’s astonishing that Tom was able to capture these images with such clarity.
Back in daylight, he would use the sketches as a starting point for his oil paintings. One of my favourites is a scene of Tom’s first day going underground called ‘Gannin’ Doon the Pit’ which has become an iconic image.
Painted in 1946, all the men featured in the painting are his fellow miners with the new starters on the left and the colliery officials on the right. Look carefully and you’ll see Tom Lamb himself in the centre of the group together with his uncle, Jackey Lamb, one of the officials.
Tom’s reaction to going underground for the first time was that he was “going to a place where the sun never shines”.
He remembers the arrival of the cage to take him below ground and dropping down to the deep shaft. For a teenager, it must’ve been a terrifying experience.
Today, coal mining as a way of life is long gone. So what’s left of Tom Lamb’s mining in County Durham?
I took a trip on a mining journey of discovery last weekend to find out what traces still remain.
Craghead Colliery closed in 1969 but there are remnants of the mining industry in the village today. The Malley Bell shaft cover can still be glimpsed from the roadside in the grounds of East Villa on Thomas Street in the village.
Around the village the landscape has been reclaimed but look hard enough and you’ll see signs of its mining past – the old mining community buildings, the pit houses, allotments and scars on the landscape.
Taking pride of place is a statue to the miners on the village main street as well as the miner’s lamp memorial just before you drive into Craghead.
You can also just about make out the route of the incline which was constructed to take the Craghead coal to Pelton Level where the wagons joined the Stanhope and Tyne Railway.
Life at the coal face
Another place to get a glimpse of life down the pits is the excellent Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington, Northumberland.
South East Northumberland was once one of Britain’s biggest and richest coalfields. Back in 1913, the Great North Coalfield employed almost ¼ million men, producing over 56 million tons of coal every year from about 400 pits.
Ashington developed from a small hamlet in the 1840s to a rapidly expanding colliery town with five pits employing around 5,500 men in the 1920s.
The boom in coal led to the formation of the Ashington Coal Company who built the first miners’ houses from 1857 onwards. By the 1930s there were over 3,000 back-to-back miners’ terraces in Ashington.
Ashington became a centre for the coal mining industry. It was considered to be “the world’s largest mining village”.
Miners at Woodhorn Colliery would descend from the pit head in a cage which plunged 888 feet into the deep mine every shift. At the pit face there’s no doubt that conditions were hard, dangerous and physically demanding.
Many of the mining buildings have been restored so it’s possible to get a glimpse of life in a mining community.
Today the museum hosts the annual Ashington Miners’ Picnic in the summer, a get-together for the community including ex-miners and their families.
The picnic started 150 years ago when coal was king in South East Northumberland. In its heyday the picnic was a major event in the annual calendar with guests including national politicians and union leaders.
Today it has changed from being a day out for miners’ families and a political rally into a celebration of Northumbrian culture which takes place every summer.
Coal mining has also become a heritage and tourist industry in the North East. Not to be missed is Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham which makes a great day trip for heritage detectives.
This living history museum has a recreation of mining buildings, brought to the site from elsewhere in the region and re-assembled.
For those interested in mining heritage, there’s an actual drift mine, one of many that once thrived in the Beamish area. There’s also a reconstruction of a typical pit village which gives an insight into life in the 1900s in the northern coalfields.
Take a trip underground at the Mahogany Drift Mine and you’ll discover the often grim reality of conditions for pit workers.
It must have been back-breaking work in this claustrophobic environment.
Inside the colliery lamp cabin you can see the rows of miners’ lamps which the men would have used during their shifts.
The Colliery Winding Engine, dating from 1855, is the only survivor of its type, and was once common in the north’s coalfields. Today you can still see its winding gear in action.
Over in the ‘pit village’ visitors can go inside the miners’ cottages and see how families lived in the early 1900s.
The colliery houses on Francis Street were moved to Beamish from Hetton-le-Hole on Wearside to preserve the mining heritage. Step into mining families’ homes with their cosy, coal-fired ranges and look at the outside “netties” (toilets) and tin baths hanging in the back yard.
Methodism flourished in the North East’s pit communities. At Beamish you can go inside a Wesleyan Chapel from Pit Hill, an old mining community, which hosts traditional services.
Hetton Silver Band Hall has also been moved to Beamish, brick by brick from Hetton-le-Hole, and you can hear what a brass band would have sounded like in a mining village.
The Pit Pony Stables is a replica of an existing block which served Rickless drift mine in Gateshead. It illustrates the role played by horses in a North East colliery in the years before the First World War.
The North East of England is also famous for its pitmen artists who painted their lives above and below ground.
They were talented but untrained, learning their trade the hard way – working at the pit face and painting in their spare time
After their shifts at the Woodhorn or Ellington pits, the group took art appreciation classes at Ashington YMCA.
The paintings they produced provided a striking record of life in a mining town and at the pit.
I love the raw quality of their paintings – the way they throw you into the heart and soul of the mining community.
Today, the best place to see the their paintings is at the Woodhorn Museum in a special gallery dedicated to their work.
In County Durham miners Tom Lamb and Norman Cornish developed a passion for painting and, like their Ashington counterparts, drew on their experiences of life. This BBC TV video shows how Tom took inspiration from the coal face in his art.
‘Pitmatic’ – the miners’ language
Mining heritage also seeped into everyday language in North East England and can be heard even today.
Miners spoke a distinctive dialect called ‘Pitmatic’ which they used to communicate with each other when they were down the pit working in hot, noisy and cramped conditions.
Many Pitmatic words were mining terms such as the term ‘corf-batters’, the boys who scraped the coal out of filthy baskets.
‘Hoggers’ were shorts worn by miners underground. Other Pitmatic words crept into everyday life including clag (to stick), clarts (mud), hacky (dirty) and progley (prickly).
I love the way these words as onomatopoeic! Artist Tom Lamb’s biography has a great selection of these evocative words in its glossary.
Durham Miners’ Gala
The Durham Miners’ Gala was traditionally one of the high points of the mining year when the colliery bands made their way to Durham for the ‘Big Meeting’.
The main assembly point was in Durham Market Place from where the bands and miners with their banners would then march to the Racecourse.
One of the main focal points of the Gala was the County Hotel where union leaders, dignitaries and special guests greeted the marchers from the hotel balcony.
Famous names like Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn MP and Prime Minister Harold Wilson were amongst the important speakers during the peak of the mining industry.
In a splendid painting, Tom Lamb captures the celebratory atmosphere of the Miners’ Gala perfectly. The Craghead Colliery Band are prominent in the foreground with the miners and their families.
They are listening to a speech by the Labour Prime Minister of the time, Harold Wilson.
After the celebrations at the Race Course, the crowds marched to Durham Cathedral for the Miners’ Service.
The annual tradition continues to this day… and a trip to the Miner’s Gala is an experience not-to-be-missed.
From pits to pleasure grounds
The mines have long gone and many former pits have been reclaimed as country parks, industrial estates or wildlife reserves.
In south-east Northumberland several open cast mines have been reclaimed as recreational sites. Hauxley has become a nature reserve where mining has been replaced by bird hides and wild walks.
Northumberlandia in Blagdon has been transformed in a very different way as a massive art installation, although there are still glimpses of open cast mining taking place on land next door.
Designed by artist Charles Jencks, this giant female landscape art work has been dubbed ‘Slag Alice’ by locals due to its pit heap origins. I prefer its more flattering nickname of ‘Goddess of the North’.
It’s strange to think that this is all that remains of the mining landscape in some old mining communities.
Elsewhere you can see numerous memorials to mining’s past across North East England.
Mining had many tragedies and disasters – it was dangerous work and there were many terrible accidents which are remembered across the region’s coalfields.
In the suburbs of Newcastle, there’s an open space called The Spinney which commemorates the High Heaton Pit disaster which took place in 1815. Forty one men and 34 boys were trapped when water from old mine workings burst into the colliery.
The workers took refuge in a section of the pit which the water did not flood and tried to burrow into an old shaft in a bid to escape.
But the trapped miners failed to escape and are thought to have starved to death.
The youngest victim was just seven-years-old and the oldest was 82. Some families lost three generations of their loved ones.
Trees representing each victim were planted at The Spinney as a memorial. There are also interpretative plaques telling the story of the disaster.
The West Stanley Pit Disaster was another shocking mining tragedy, this time in County Durham.
It happened in 1909 when an abundance of methane gas caused a single lamp to explode in the pit. The loss of life was dramatic – 168 men and boys perished in the explosion.
A pit-wheel memorial can be seen at Chester Road in Stanley with the names of everyone who died in that incident,
It’s important we remember the role that mining and its working class heroes played in our industrial past. These communities are part of our history and heritage,
The past may be a foreign country – but we need to revisit it from time to time to see how they did things differently there. So why not go on your own pilgrimage and mining heritage trail?
Tammy’s travel guide – North East mining heritage
Here’s a guide to some of the best places to discover mining heritage in North East England.
Beamish Open Air Museum is located near Chester-le-Street in County Durham. It’s a brilliant attraction with reconstructions of pit village buildings, railway station and a real drift mine. Allow a full day. Admission fee. Open daily.
Craghead is a former mining village located four miles west of Chester-le-Street in County Durham. Take a walk around the village to discover the remnants of the mining industry.
The Durham Miners Gala takes place in Durham every year in mid July.
You can peek inside Newcastle’s historic Mining Institute and its library. It is open to the public from Monday to Friday 10:00 to 17:00. Look out for special events. It is located on Neville Street near the Central Station.
Read up on the mining past in an illuminating new book called Tom Lamb – the Biography by Dr Peter J. Norton. It’s published by the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers.
Copyright and credits – Tom Lamb images are copyright of the artists and courtesy of Dr Peter Norton and Tom Lamb.