Category Archives: County Durham

Land of Oak & Iron

The Land of Oak & Iron is a vast region rich in natural and industrial heritage and is right on the doorstep of some of the most populous parts of the North East. DAVID SIMPSON explores.

Aerial view of Allensford in the Land of Oak & Iron.
Aerial view of Allensford in the Land of Oak & Iron. Photo: Michael Ball

Have you ever visited the Land of Oak & Iron? Perhaps you have without realising. This is after all a land covering around 177 km2 of North East England and features a wonderful wealth of ‘heritage, history, heroes and habitats’.

Focused on the beautiful Derwent Valley this land encompasses parts of County Durham, Northumberland and the Borough of Gateshead and is a superb part of the region to relax and explore on foot or bike and all within easy reach of Tyneside and many of the most populous parts of the North East.

Land of Oak and Iron Heritage Centre
Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Centre. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Recently we visited the plush new Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Centre and the adjoining independent café Shrub which are very easy to reach just off the A694 at Winlaton Mill between Consett and Gateshead. In the sunny Autumnal sunshine there were plenty of people enjoying good food in the café – much of which is sourced from North East producers, while others were trying their hand at wood-engraved print-making in the heritage centre, courtesy of visiting demonstrator, Shona Branigan of Salmon Jam Press.

Wood-print engraver, Shona Branigan.
Wood-print engraver, Shona Branigan. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The centre and café look out onto the beautiful wooded Derwent Valley with its extensive network of pathways that are popular with cyclists, dog walkers and families out for a stroll. Formed as a landscape partnership, the Land of Oak & Iron is hosted by Groundwork NE & Cumbria and with £3.4 million of secured funding, is undertaking a programme of fourteen interconnected projects to conserve, enhance and encourage accessibility to the area’s unique cultural and natural assets. The developments began in 2016 and will continue all the way into 2020.

Land of Oak and Iron Heritage Centre
Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Centre. Photo: landofoakandiron.org.uk

The opening of the café and heritage centre in October 2018 has been an important milestone in these developments and the centre is a good starting point to explore the whole area. However it’s about much more than just one place. This is the heart of a region that stretches north west from the wooded valley of Allensford near Consett along the beautiful Derwent to where the little river joins the Tyne at Swalwell. From there the region stretches west along the Tyne to Cherryburn the one time home of famed eighteenth century engraver, Thomas Bewick.

Bewick is just one of the many local heroes associated with the Land of Oak & Iron. Others include the fraternity of seventeenth century German sword makers who settled at Shotley Bridge; the renowned industrialist, Ambrose Crowley; the ‘Unhappy Countess’, Mary Eleanor Bowes of Gibside and the ‘pitman poet’ Tommy Armstrong.

Wonderful wonderland in the Land of Oak and Iron
Wonderful woodland in the Land of Oak & Iron. Photo: landofoakandiron.org.uk

In terms of heritage, the landscape speaks for itself. Extensive woodland includes Chopwell Wood, Milkwellburn Wood and the Thornley Woodlands which are typical landscape features of the district. In fact in the old Brythonic tongue of the Celts, the name Derwent means ‘oak river’ and is testament to the long-established sylvan nature of the district.

Improved access to woodland, encouraged through the work of Access & Woodlands Officer, Peter Downes, works to assist and support local owners of small woodlands and is another successful aspect of the Partnership’s work, bringing owners of adjoining woodlands together. According to Kath Marshall-Ivens, Community Engagement Officer at Groundwork NE and Cumbria, the area covered by the partnership has a 13% woodland cover which is higher than the national and regional average. It includes a number of PAWS (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites), which are sites that were ancient woodland but have been replanted in more recent years. Ancient woodland is that which has existed continuously since 1600 or before.

Country parks, Land of Oak and Iron
There are four country parks within the Land of Oak & Iron. Photo: landofoakandiron.org.uk

There are four country parks within the whole area, namely Derwent Walk, Derwenthaugh, Allensford, and Tyne Riverside and there are additional visitor centres at Thornley Woods and The Lodge Heritage Centre at Consett and Blackhill Park.

The numerous landscape features and habitats across this beautiful region include wildflower meadows like Blaydon’s Shibdon Meadow which lies in close proximity to the MetroCentre, adjoining the Shibdon Ponds nature reserve. Further to the west near Prudhoe are the intriguingly named ‘Spetchells’ to the south of the Tyne which in the North East form a unique chalk meadow landscape created from the spoil heaps of a former chemical works that stood on the site. As well as interesting fauna the Spetchells form a special habitat for solitary mining bees.

Industry has certainly played a role in shaping the landscape of the Land of Oak & Iron. The Derwent Walk pathway that forms the primary walking and cycling route through the whole area follows the course of a Victorian railway that linked the former iron town of Consett to Tyneside. Many of the smaller pathways of the network follow the routes of colliery wagonways some of which date back to the 1700s and 1600s.

Major heritage features in the region are often reminders of its important links to the iron industry and include the early eighteenth century remains of Allensford Blast Furnace near Consett and the impressive Derwentcote Steel Furnace of the 1730s near Hamsterley Mill. We also have the rare and curious Whinfield Coke Ovens near Chopwell Wood, built by the owners of the Victoria Garesfield Colliery in the 1860s.

Derwentcote Steel Furnace
Derwentcote Steel Furnace. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Other heritage features within the Land of Oak & Iron include two major National Trust sites in the form of Thomas Bewick’s cottage at Cherryburn which stands in a splendid rural setting and of course the wonderful parkland of Gibside near Rowlands Gill including the magnificent Palladian chapel and much else besides. Somewhere between the two we have a major English Heritage site in the shape of the twelfth century Prudhoe Castle, reputedly the only castle in the North East never to have been captured by the Scots.

A lesser-known heritage site that forms a lovely independent attraction is the Path Head Water Mill, a restored operational water mill complete with a working water wheel and adjoining mill pond. Parts of the mill were salvaged from mills at Acomb and Guyzance in Northumberland and it forms a super attraction in lovely grounds near the valley of the Blaydon Burn.

Path Head Water Mill
Path Head Water Mill. Photo: landofoakandiron.org.uk

Perhaps a more surprising heritage feature of the Partnership area are the remains of the thirteenth century medieval manor house called Old Hollinside Manor near Whickham. It was known as the ‘Giant’s Castle’ because the men folk of the Harding family who once resided here were noted for being so tall in stature.

Old Hollinside Manor
Old Hollinside Manor. Photo Gateshead Borough Council

The River Derwent and Tyne are of course an important aspect of the area’s cultural, industrial and natural heritage. In recent years improvements have been made to the Derwent as a habitat for fish and this has been one of the partnership’s most publicised projects. Salmon and Sea Trout can now migrate much further upstream to lay their eggs after the development of a rock pool fish pass at Lintzford, overseen by the Tyne Rivers Trust.

Opened in November 2016, the new fish pass complements the existing 300 year old weir that had previously blocked the migration of the fish. Another fish pass will be created upstream at Shotley Grove and this will open up the whole river for spawning and have a positive impact on trout and salmon numbers in the valley and even out at sea.

Fish Pass, the Land of Oak and Iron
Fish Pass, the Land of Oak & Iron. Photo: Julia Richardson

Towns such as Consett, Rowlands Gill, Ryton, Whickham, Blaydon and Prudhoe all lie within the Land of Oak & Iron as well as several smaller villages. The proximity of neighbouring Tyneside make this all the more important as a region of natural and industrial heritage in close proximity to so many thousands of people.

Community involvement has been a major factor in the success of the Land of Oak & Iron Partnership and has included outreach programmes to local schools with sessions aimed at exploring the industrial and natural heritage of the area.

Notable creations associated with links to schools include the composition of a song and also the creation of an orchestral piece both inspired by the landscape of the area. In addition there has been much work in partnership with Gateshead College aimed at engaging with the landscape, with projects including photography and work for building students in the conservation of the industrial heritage sites.

Although the projects will be completed in 2020, the legacy and community involvement will continue far beyond with a ‘legacy group’ ensuring that the wonderful Land of Oak & Iron can be explored, enjoyed, understood and appreciated for many generations to come.

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LINKS

Land of Oak & Iron website:

landofoakandiron.org.uk

 

On Twitter: @LandofOakIron

On Facebook: www.facebook.com/LandofOakandIron

Café Shrub, Winlaton Mill: cafeshrub.co.uk/

Path Head Water Mill: gatesheadmill.co.uk/

Cherryburn: nationaltrust.org.uk/cherryburn

Gibside: nationaltrust.org.uk/gibside

Prudhoe Castle: english-heritage.org.uk/

Salmon Jam Press: salmonjampress.co.uk/

Main Partners Land of Oak & Iron Partnership: County Durham Community Foundation; Durham County Council; Durham Wildlife Trust; English Heritage; Gateshead College; Groundwork NE and Cumbria; New Visions Heritage; Northumberland County Council; Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust; Tyne River Trust; The Woodland Trust. Other partner organisations include: Blaydon Youth and Community Centre; Friends of Chopwell Wood, Heritage Lottery Fund; Industrial Heritage Networks; Newcastle Gateshead Initiative and Visit County Durham.

Have you visited the Land of Oak & Iron?

Please tell us about your favourite places to visit in the district or anywhere else that you like to explore across the North East of England.

Leave your comments below, we’d love to hear from you.

Majestic marvels: the castles of North East England

DAVID SIMPSON looks at the fantastic variety of castles found in North East England.

Newcastle Castle Keep
Newcastle Castle Keep Photo © David Simpson 2015

‘Northumbria’, the historic kingdom of North East England has an extraordinary variety of wonderful castles and fortifications. Even the three cities of the region: Durham, Sunderland and of course Newcastle have a castle each, while Northumberland has more castles than any other county in the whole of England. Several are pretty spectacular too.

The castles range from fortified tower houses called ‘pele towers’ and fortified farms and barns called ‘bastles’ to grand medieval fortresses like Alnwick. Today a handful of castles are nothing more than a mound in the ground but there are still plenty more that stand as magnificent ruins or even as the complete article, though often with architectural additions of differing ages.

Some castles are private residences, some are hotels while others are major visitor attractions drawing people from far and wide. Here we thought we’d take a quick wander around the castles of our kingdom.

Three cities :  Three castles

It still takes me aback when visitors express surprise that Newcastle has a castle – yet the clue is there, in the name. Newcastle’s castle of course gave its name to the famed city upon the Tyne and dates from Norman times. Before then the town was known by its old Anglo-Saxon name of Monkchester.

Cathedral and castle Blackgate Newcastle
The Blackgate and St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle : Photo © 2015 David

It was Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror who built the first castle here of ‘earth and wood’ on the site of a Roman fort overlooking the Tyne. It was replaced later by another new castle on the same site that was built in 1172 during the reign of Henry II.

Today the castle survives in two parts, namely the formidable Norman keep which dates from the 1170s and the beautiful Blackgate which dates from 1247. The two parts are separated from one another by the Victorian railway that cut the old castle site in two halves. Great views of the setting of Newcastle can be found from the top of the castle keep and logically there is perhaps no better starting point to explore the history of ‘the toon’.

The castle protected the development of the early town of Newcastle but its importance in the defence of the place became less significant following the development of the medieval town walls from 1265. Nevertheless when Newcastle came under siege during the Civil War in the 1640s it was the castle that was the last place to hold out.

Castle gateway
Castle gateway.Photo © David Simpson 2017

Durham Castle in Durham City stands on the neck of the peninsula formed by the River Wear and dates from Norman times. There was an earlier Saxon fortification on the same site and it successfully defended the little city and its neighbouring Saxon minster. It seems to have fulfilled its defensive role rather well as Durham held out against the Scots in 1006 and 1038.

William the Conqueror ordered that a new castle should be built here in 1072 and it developed from thereon with much of the older parts of the present castle dating from the reign of Bishop Pudsey (1153-1195). The castle keep is the most imposing part of the building and houses students of Durham University but the keep is in fact largely a nineteenth century restoration with the original having fallen into a ruinous condition. The keep was rebuilt in the 1840s at around the time the castle became part of Durham University.

The castle keep, Durham
The castle keep, Durham Photo © David Simpson 2017

Much of the main body of Durham castle is, however, genuinely medieval, notably the great dining hall, though later parts of the building date from the Tudor and Georgian eras. Of course today, the castle is part of a World Heritage site that includes the neighbouring Durham Cathedral. A curious fact is that the whole river peninsula of Durham was once considered to be ‘the Castle’. So, the cathedral technically lay within the castle which is why the castle bailey that now takes the form of two streets called the Baileys runs along the cathedral’s eastern flank.

It is sometimes forgotten that the City of Sunderland has a castle too though it lies away from the city centre to the west, where it gives its name to one of the Sunderland suburbs on the north side of the River Wear. Hylton Castle was built around 1400 by a William de Hylton on a hill overlooking the Wear and guarded a nearby ferry that was in operation from the 1320s.

Hylton Castle
Hylton Castle Photo © 2017 David Simpson

Hylton – the hill settlement – was the name of the nearby village from which the Hylton family took their name. Currently the castle is undergoing an exciting transformation into a living, working building that will benefit both the local community and visitors. The Hylton family had owned an earlier manor house on the site and became a powerful local family of note. Interestingly one member of the family later became a Governor of Tynemouth Castle.

Castles of the Coast

Tynemouth Castle is one of four splendid castles to adorn the North East coast between the Tyne and the Tweed.  It stands high above the mouth of the Tyne and forms a splendid backdrop to the neighbouring sands of King Edward’s Bay. In a similar way to Durham Cathedral being enclosed within Durham Castle, the castle at Tynemouth enclosed the Priory of Tynemouth.

Tynemouth Castle and the bay
Tynemouth Castle and the bay Photo © 2018 David Simpson

In the reign of Henry VIII when Tynemouth Priory was closed for all time, the castle remained an important place of defence against the threat of Spanish, French or Scottish forces. Today, the priory and castle form a magnificent romantic ruin and a superb historic focal point for the fabulously genteel and lively seaside town of Tynemouth.

However, as far as romantic coastal ruins go Tynemouth has a great rival further north up at Dunstanburgh near Craster on the Northumberland coast. This enigmatic castle was built in 1313 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and was extended by John of Gaunt in the 1380s. It occupies the largest site of any castle in the region and is a strong rival to Tynemouth for being the best-known coastal castle in the region. In truth both are overshadowed by the stupendous Bamburgh Castle, which is arguably one of the best-known castles in the world. For its setting, history and occasional movie appearances, Bamburgh is hard to beat when it comes to the North East castle hall of fame.

Built on a site occupied since prehistoric times, Bamburgh can only be described as iconic such is its fame and magnificence. It was the site of the northern capital of the Northumbrians, consisting of a communal fortress and citadel but the building we see today is not the Bebbanburgh of Anglo-Saxon times as the place was refortified as a castle in Norman times.

Beautiful Bamburgh.
Beautiful Bamburgh. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The huge keep at Bamburgh is twelfth century and much of the surrounding walls are medieval though the castle underwent much-needed restoration during its ownership by the famed Victorian industrialist William Lord Armstrong who also resided at Cragside. One unusual feature of the castle is that it has its own windmill (though no longer with sails) which can be seen at the western end of the castle.

Of course, equally romantic to Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh is  Lindisfarne Castle first built in 1550 on Beblowe Rock, the highest point on Holy Island which lies off the coast to the north of Bamburgh. This castle was beautifully restored and converted into a private residence by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1903 and seems to almost grow out naturally from its rocky base. It is now owned by the National Trust.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle : Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Percy and Neville

The grandest castles were often the homes to the most powerful barons and in the North East the Neville and Percy families ranked highest of them all. Brancepeth Castle near Durham was a Neville stronghold and one of the places at which the family plotted the Rising of the North against Queen Elizabeth I along with the Percys. However, it is Raby Castle with which the Neville family is most famously associated in the region. Situated near Staindrop in County Durham, Raby Castle stands within a beautiful deer park in Teesdale and is a quite breathtaking site when seen passing on the neighbouring road.

Raby Castle
Raby Castle © David Simpson 2018

Raby is stunning but is rivalled by Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle, the famous stronghold of the Percys who were the Earls of Northumberland. Famous Percys included Harry Hotspur (1364-1403), the war-hungry son of the First Earl of Northumberland.

Alnwick Castle
Alnwick Castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

Today, however Alnwick is perhaps more closely associated with another Harry, Harry Potter, ever since the famous quidditch scenes of the movie were filmed here.

The Percys also owned Warkworth Castle near the mouth of the River Coquet, a castle that features in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and with which Hotspur has the strongest connection. Another castle,  Prudhoe Castle, where the Tyne Valley meets Tyneside was yet another Percy stronghold and holds the distinction of apparently being the only major medieval castle in the North East that was never taken by the Scots.

Warkworth Castle
Warkworth Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Lumley, Langley

Lumley Castle in County Durham and Langley Castle in Tynedale, Northumberland are two particularly beautiful medieval castles which now serve as hotels. As hotels both often celebrate their historic roots by holding themed medieval banquets. Interestingly both also have a similar square-shaped design with four corner towers.

Langley Castle
Langley Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Langley Castle’s owners in medieval times included both the Percys and the Nevilles although other powerful families included the Radcliffes and Umfravilles. Lumley Castle once belonged to the Lumley family who were often involved in political intrigue in times past.

Lumley Castle
Lumley Castle Photo John Simpson

Another lesser-known castle that now serves as a hotel is Walworth Castle near Darlington which was built by a Thomas Jennison, Auditor of Ireland in 1603 but traces its earlier origins back to 1189.

Walworth Castle
Walworth Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

County Durham castles

On the whole castles are much less numerous in County Durham and the Tees Valley than they are in Northumberland to the north because it is that bit more distant from the Scottish Borders.

Ruins of Barnard Castle
Ruins of Barnard Castle’s castle above the River Tees : Photo © David Simpson

Barnard Castle in Teesdale is the best-known ruin in the county of Durham. It was historically associated with the Baliol family whose members included Bernard Baliol from whom the castle and neighbouring town both take their name.

A lesser-known Durham castle is Witton Castle in lower Weardale which now forms the centre of a caravan country park near the pretty village of Witton-le-Wear. This castle was commenced from the conversion of a manor house around 1370 but much was rebuilt around 1700.

Witton Castle.
Witton Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Fortified tower houses or peles, which are so numerous in Northumberland are rare in Durham, though we can see the ruins of such houses at Ludworth east of Durham and at Dalden near Seaham.

Auckland Castle chapel
Auckland Castle chapel. Photo © John Simpson

Several castles in County Durham were historically associated with the powerful Prince Bishops. Durham Castle, we have mentioned but others included Bishop Middleham near Sedgefield of which only a small mound remains. The bishops also held a castle at Stockton of which there is nothing remaining and of course they owned Auckland Castle, often termed Auckland Palace which is still one of the most stunning buildings in the county. Another site of interest is Bishopton, a village near Stockton which has the rather impressive earthworks of a ‘motte and bailey’ castle nearby but which despite its name belonged to a baron called Roger Conyers rather than the bishops.

Earthworks of motte and bailey castle at Bishopton
Earthworks of motte and bailey castle at Bishopton. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Northumberland Castles

In 1415 a list of over one hundred castles was compiled in Northumberland showing the importance of defences in that county in medieval times. These castles varied in scale from simple fortified tower houses to grand castles on the scale of Alnwick and Bamburgh.

Aydon Castle
Aydon Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Amongst the list is Aydon Castle near Corbridge, which is still one of the county’s finest medieval fortifications but on a larger scale are castles such as Ford and Chillingham both in the valley of the River Till in north Northumberland.

Chillingham, a fine medieval castle is a popular attraction today as a rather unusual castle noted for its rather eccentric ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ displays and its exhibition of medieval instruments of torture. Chillingham is also noted for its ghosts – the most haunted castle apparently – though many Northumberland castles such as Blenkinsopp and Bellister in Tynedale also claim to have resident ghosts.

Vicar's Pele at Corbridge
Vicar’s Pele at Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Pele towers and bastle houses of note in Northumberland include the vicar’s peles at Corbridge and Elsdon. These kind of pele towers (pele is pronounced peel by the way) were built specifically to protect local clergymen who might have been seen as easy and relatively wealthy prey for raiders in times since past.

Many other pele towers throughout the county were associated with local Border Reiver families. The same was true of the bastles of which examples can be seen in the main street in Haltwhistle or at Black Middens in North Tynedale where we can be impressed by the thickness of the defended walls.

Vicar's Pele, Elsdon
The village of Elsdon in Redesdale showing the vicar’s pele Photo © David Simpson 2019

Many of Northumberland’s castles lie in ruins, notable examples being the impressive remains of Norham Castle which overlook the River Tweed and neighbouring village of Norham. Surprisingly Norham Castle belonged to and was built by the Prince Bishops of Durham as Norhamshire formed an outlying part of their territory.

Norham Castle
Norham Castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

Further north still the town of Berwick upon Tweed was once the site of medieval castle that stood on a site now occupied by the town’s railway station but the main remaining historic defensive feature in that town today is a system of defensive walls that date from Elizabethan times.

Castles, bastles, towers and peles are of course just as much a feature of the border landscape when we cross the border into Scotland to the north: Floors, Duns, Smailholm, Hermitage, Ayton, Cessford and Fatlips are notable examples of castle and peles and there is a similar variety of fortifications to what we will find in Northumberland.

The biggest difference is that across the border we will find many fortifications that have been modified over time to take on that distinctly Scottish, architectural style which has echoes of castles found on the continent in Germany and France but which are not a feature of the Northumberland and Durham landscape.

 

Black Middens bastle
Black Middens Bastle House, North Tynedale. Photo © 2005 David Simpson

Remembering the miners who gave their lives

DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tragic loss of life in the coal mining  history of North East England where literally thousands of men lost their lives simply doing their job.

West Stanley memorial
Memorial to the West Stanley Colliery explosion of 1909.

“Bye mam”, shouted fourteen year-old John Richard Heard, as he set off for work, as he’d done so many times before.

“Bye son”, his mother replied and then, strangely, moments later, another farewell came as he briefly returned, for reasons that we will never know:

“Bye mam”.

“You’ve already said goodbye, son” came the reply, the mother not knowing that this goodbye, would be his last.

The young lad lived in Perkinsville, a little pit village near Pelton just west of Chester-le-Street. He worked at nearby Urpeth Busty Pit, a short walk from his home. How long he worked there, we don’t know. What sort of lad he was, we don’t know.

All we know is that the inquest notes for his death on that day, January 27, 1898, include the boy’s name, the name of the colliery owners, the name of the pit and the cause of death.

The mine owners were Charles Perkins and Partners, the successors to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Mosely Perkins, from whom ‘Perkins’ Ville’ was named. The Perkins family also owned the nearby iron works at Birtley where there is a prominent statue to E.M. Perkins’ memory. The pit was the Urpeth Busty Colliery, ‘busty’ being the name of the coal seam that this particular colliery worked. As for the cause of death, a short matter of fact explanation reads as follows:

“His work consisted in ‘helping-up’ the putter with his empty tubs, after which he should have returned to the siding. On this occasion, however, he did not return to his proper place, and being caught by the full tub, which the putter was bringing out, was crushed between it and the prop.”

The words “he should have” are typical of the comments found in the summaries of mine accidents at that time. Responsibility is firmly placed on the individual worker, even when the deceased worker might be as young as eleven, ten, nine or eight-years-old but this lad was fourteen, so clearly he must be considered an adult. To the modern mind the thought occurs that this is only a boy and he should not be working here at all, but these were very different times when the risk of death in the name of work and progress, even for children, was a simple and unfortunate fact of life.

Five months following John Richard’s death, his mother, Alice Heard, would also pass away. She was 41. Her death was perhaps hastened by her heart-breaking loss. Alice would share the grave with her beloved son in Pelton churchyard. She would, however, live to see the marriage of her daughter from whom my mother’s family descend. Alice was my great-great grandmother and the story of the lad – my grandma’s uncle – who came back to say that one last goodbye, has passed down to us.

Felling Colliery
Old postcard showing Felling Colliery the scene of a disaster in 1812

In our day and age no one expects to lose their life simply doing a job, simply earning a living for their family. Less do we expect to find children employed in such dangerous work. However, this was once the widely accepted reality in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham and in other coalfields across the land. A century earlier, back in the early 1800s most people had worked as ‘agricultural labourers’. That was no doubt a relentless job and it certainly received very poor pay. It was a life of virtual servility, little better, perhaps, than that of the medieval peasants of old. For such people, mining was a very attractive proposition.

Businessmen, speculators, risk takers, entrepreneurs and men of money like Edward Mosely Perkins brought new opportunities for the impoverished. They opened mines and built new villages from scratch, offering simple home comforts and wages which though modest by the standards of today, would have been more than tempting for farm hands used to working the land.

Alice’s mother and father, were called Apperley and originated in rural Herefordshire where Apperleys had resided for centuries, presumably working the land. Mining brought new opportunities that drew people of modest means from far and wide to the North East seeking work in the coal mines. Another branch of my family came over from Ireland, also to work in the Durham mines. Mining was a comparatively lucrative trade, but of course it was also, as we have seen, potentially deadly.

Woodhorn Colliery museum
Woodhorn Colliery on the northern edge of Ashington is now a fabulous museum that celebrates and recreates the lives of miners. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The massive scale of this danger and the huge loss of life really only hit home to me some years ago when I co-authored a book about the history of Sunderland aimed at young people in that city. The book was filled with quirky facts and fun features but also the occasional poignant event.

This book was fun to do but one thing that really sticks in my mind is discovering that within the modern bounds of what is now the City of Sunderland we can find the names of around 2,700 men and boys who lost their lives working in the mines of that very area. So, that’s 2,700 just within the area covered by the present City of Sunderland. That is to say just one small part of the North East coalfield.

Now you might think there must have been some fairly major colliery disasters in the Sunderland area given that figure, but in truth that part of the region seems to have been reasonably fortunate in terms of mining deaths. The worst disaster in the area now covered by present day Sunderland was of a relatively modest scale. It was also a relatively early disaster, being an explosion at Newbottle Colliery in 1815 that claimed 57 lives.

Haswell disaster sculpture
Detail from sculpture commemorating the Haswell Colliery disaster of 1844. Photo David Simpson © 2018

However, by the time that colliery closed in 1956 it had claimed the lives of  148 men and boys over a period of time, all of whom died simply doing their job. Across the region most deaths in the mines were, sadly, an almost day to day experience. There were no major disasters at Ryhope Colliery, for example, which operated for 109 years (1857- 1966) yet it still claimed the lives of 291 men and boys during its working life. Further north, at Monkwearmouth, 297 lives were taken during that mine’s history. That is of course the colliery that once stood on the site now occupied by Sunderland Football Club’s Stadium of Light.

The intention here is not to be morbid or make a political point of some kind. It’s just important to highlight this rather sad element of our region’s history that should not be forgotten. Most towns and villages around our nation have war memorials recalling the names of those who gave their lives while bravely fighting for their country. Many were young men, of whom we should be rightly proud. In the coalfield of Northumberland and Durham many such war memorials stand in almost every town and village but those towns and villages could equally display monuments to the men and perhaps more significantly, the boys – the children – who gave their lives simply earning a living to support their families.

This is no less a tragedy than the sad losses of war and these are individuals of whom we should be no less proud, especially when we consider the part coal played in powering us towards the modern world and all the comforts we know today.

Mining tragedies weren’t just a nineteenth century phenomenon, however. In May 1951, for example, 83 men lost their lives in one single event in the colliery at Easington in County Durham. And if you find the human cost too unbearable to imagine you might consider that it was not just human lives that could be taken. In September 1880 a single disaster at Seaham Colliery claimed 164 men and boys but also killed 181 pit ponies working below ground. Mining could be a hard and cruel industry in so many respects.

Mine disaster memorial Stanley
West Stanley memorial. Photo © David Simpson 2018

If the plight of the region’s miners and their families, who faced such daily dangers is remembered at all, it is in the memorials to the major disasters. One good example is at Stanley in County Durham which recalls the disaster at the West Stanley Burns Pit in  February 1909 where 168 lives were lost. The memorial was unveiled in 1995 by the then Newcastle United football manager Kevin Keegan whose grandfather, a miner at this pit, had survived the event and had helped with the rescue effort.

There are many other memorials across the North East, some new, some old. At Haswell between Durham and Easington for example there stands alongside the 1830s remains of a colliery engine house a sculpture installed in 1996 by Michael Disley depicting the faces of miners trapped between layers of stone. It commemorates a disaster at the Haswell mine in 1844 which claimed 95 lives.

Haswell Colliery Engine House
Remains of Haswell Colliery engine house and commemorative sculpture. Photo © David Simpson 2018

One of the most important memorials and one that is contemporary with the event rather than a modern remembrance can be found in the churchyard at Heworth near Gateshead. Here a memorial to a disaster of special importance commemorates that which took place at Felling Colliery in 1812 in which 92 miners lost their lives. Their names are engraved around four sides of the monument. This disaster was of particular significance because it was the first pit tragedy to really come to the attention of the public conscience and was an event that really spurred on a determination to improve mine safety. It was the Felling disaster that ultimately brought about the development of the miners’ safety lamp.

Felling Memorial Heworth
Plaque and one side of 1812 Felling memorial at Heworth churchyard : Photo © David Simpson

Coincidentally the churchyard is also the burial place of Thomas Hepburn (c1795-1864), the Pelton-born, union leader who founded The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland. Hepburn, who had worked in mines since the age of eight, fought hard to improve the rights and conditions of his fellow miners. He was a dignified and intelligent man, determined to fight the miners’ cause by peaceful means. He often worked against great adversity and faced much resistance from those who controlled the trade but he was an important part of the story in improving the often brutal conditions in which miners had to live and work.

Hester Pit memorial Earsdon
Memorial to Hartley Colliery disaster Earsdon churchyard. Photo © David Simpson 2018

For me the most moving memorial to a pit tragedy within our region is at the scene of the biggest North East mining tragedy of them all and one that I have only recently visited for the first time. It concerns the Hester Pit at New Hartley near Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. Here a disaster struck on the morning of Thursday, January 16, 1862 after a massive beam engine used for pumping water from the mine gave way, crashing into and destroying the mine shaft below. Deep below the number of miners was especially high as it was time for a shift change with about half the men due to end their shift and the others about to commence work.

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The men and boys were able to move to a higher seam to escape the imminent danger of flooding but the destruction of the shaft and cage meant that the only means of ventilation and escape from the build up of noxious gases had been destroyed.

Above ground men worked frantically to reach the entombed miners but the breakthrough would not come until the following Wednesday. Sadly, long before that point, the men below had succumbed to the gas. The last diary entry of one of the deceased occurred on the Friday and this suggests that it may have been on that day that most of the men had met their end.

The bodies sat in two rows, all as if they were simply sleeping. One boy’s head rested on the shoulder of his father, while two brothers embraced in a permanent affectionate slumber.

A miner involved in the attempted rescue effort was the first to encounter this scene. He climbed back to the surface and with great emotion announced the dreadful news to the waiting families and crowds above. There were no survivors below.

Two hundred and four men and boys lost their lives in what was the worst mining disaster ever recorded in the North East of England. Sadly, a third of those who died were under nineteen and included five boys aged ten or eleven years old and more than twenty were from twelve to fourteen years of age.

The dead were buried at Earsdon near Whitley Bay some four miles to the south and a continuous convoy of coffins and mourners is said to have run to there from New Hartley. A monument can still be seen in Earsdon churchyard commemorating the burials but the really moving place for me is the memorial garden at New Hartley itself that is built around the superstructure on the site of the shaft where the terrible events took place. The garden was opened in 1976 and in 2012 a memorial pathway by Russ Coleman was added recalling the names of those who lost their lives

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The one positive note that came from this tragedy was a change in the law, in 1865, which made it compulsory for mines to have more than one shaft, though some colliery owners opposed this additional expense. If there had been a second shaft at New Hartley, the miners would have been saved.

Disaster memorials like that at West Hartley are unusual and recollect only the major events. They do not record the names of the thousands of incidental deaths that occurred in North East mines over the decades which were not connected to major disasters.

Deaths such as that of John Richard Heard are perhaps only remembered, if at all, by those whose family histories feature such terrible heartbreaking episodes. There must be many a family throughout the region who share in this unfortunate legacy with their own family tales to tell of men and boys who lost their lives in our North East mines.

The memorials do help us to remember how times can change. They can provoke us to ask questions about humanity itself and how we can make our lives better for future generations.

Let’s not let the miners who gave their lives, miners like fourteen-yea- old John Richard Heard, be forgotten.

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The Durham Mining Museum (online resource)

To find out more about individual coal mines, mining disasters and pit fatalities in North East England I recommend visiting the fantastic Durham Miners Museum, an amazing online resource featuring vast amounts of information on coal mines, coal owners with extensive lists of names and information and reports about miners who were killed in the pit.  The site covers Northumberland as well as Durham and also lead and ironstone mining in places such as Cleveland and Cumberland. You can visit the site at www.dmm.org.uk/ 

Woodhorn Mining Museum

You can also find out more about the Hartley Colliery disaster and much else about the life of coal miners and coal mining in the region by visiting the fabulous Woodhorn Museum near Ashington

History Pages

About the history of the Easington area

About the history of the Stanley area

About the history of West Hartley and Seaton Delaval