The Durham Coalfield, Category D Villages, and Easington Colliery
This piece caused a considerable amount of controversy, and I was invited back to Easington Colliery to reconsider what I wrote about it. You can read that piece here.
The thing about coal mining is that it does not really bring prosperity even when the times are good. Coal is too plentiful, spilling out of the ground all over the place across the world. You cannot corner the market in coal, and will always be in a price war with a thousand other producers. It is self regulating to make minimal profits at the best of times, and horrible losses at others, leaving you with a political choice between exploitation of workers or state sponsored mining at a regular and growing loss, or just simply importing from the world market and making that someone else’s problem. Coal is a trouble filled, dangerous industry that can kill you now or later, and never pay you much. The money is made by others, further down the production line.
Durham is a vast coalfield, discovered under what had been a largely empty county, the coal then liberated by hundreds of mines dotted across the land. Each attracted workers who built their basic houses loosely around the source of their meagre income, leading to nearly the whole county being a patchwork of small towns and villages, each coalescing around a mine or two, constructed and populated only by those low paid who had no other choice. It is a county at complete and utter disconnect from its county town of Durham, that ancient city was bypassed by the coal industry altogether, other than to play host the annual miners’ gala, one of the largest political gatherings in Europe.
I had read that coal mining in County Durham fell into decline from the 1930s. This seems to me to be the wrong way to look at it. It never had a peak in any human sense, being an industry that causes short and difficult lives in either spate or drought. Increased tonnage simply meant more people working dangerously for very little, whilst slumps and unrest in the industry starved and reduced those who’d previously been busy shortening their lives through work. Writing in 1934, J.B.Priestley wrote of a ruined landscape of roads fallen into disuse with only the coal needing to ever come or go, slum housing in ribbons, vast spoil tips slowly burning from within and leaving each pit village isolated in a permanent sulphurous fog. A land and people wrecked by geologic chance occurrence of coal beneath them and the desire elsewhere to burn it. “The Cotswolds” He concludes without humour “were to be congratulated, it seems, on their lack of coal deposits.” The money will never be where the resources are.
Post-war Britain looked at the state of the Durham coalfield with its sub standard housing and dreadful living conditions and declared, as was the spirit of the age, “Something must be done!”. A 1951 County Council review of the county divided the towns and villages into four categories, A to D, depending on their economic prospects. An A rating assumed a prosperous future and continued investment. Category D meant the end. The town or village had no economic hope whatsoever. All council funding would be withdrawn, no further development would be allowed. No new businesses could open. The remaining inhabitants would be encouraged out into the new towns of the Durham coast, allowing final demolition. 114 habitations were graded D. Durham would be levelled and reconstituted into new towns, village by village. Mine and village were viewed as one. Without the mine, there could be no further justification for the village’s continued existence. A new and consolidated county fit for the future would emerge from the ruins.
I drove into Chopwell (Now Tyne and Wear) on a grey Thursday the week before Christmas. Originally a Category A, in 1964 the anticipated loss of the mine in 1966 saw it regraded as a Category D. This is not some small place of a few rows of cottages, but a small town of several thousand people destined for demolition. Parking outside the healthcare centre I was surrounded by proof that Category D had failed in its most central task. Chopwell was abundantly still here.
Finding a parking space was not an issue. There were streets with no houses in and amongst the sprawl of miners’ cottages, where Category D had got to work but not finished the job, giving the town a sense of gap toothed hollowness, as if a book had been printed with dozens of blank pages obfuscating the story. I walked down the hill to the lower part of town, along roads with names like ‘Marx Terrace’ and ‘Lenin Terrace’. Where conditions are the worst, so does politics become the most radical. Chopwell had taken down the Union Jacks and replaced them with Russian flags during the general strike. Once known as ‘Little Moscow’ a badge at odds with what is now quiet and sleepy, a town unsure of itself, unvisited, not on the way to anywhere on a back road up in the hills. I came back on a loop to the top of town via the park, and didn’t see another person. The open spaces of the cricket and football pitches were blanketed in dewy silence. Cats on the prowl would stop mid-step and watch me on my way before reclaiming the morning as theirs alone. The bowling green had turned to a pillow of moss. The crazy golf was reverting to moorland, holes overtopping with late Pennine rainwater that blackbirds and robins drank from. Back in town, the Phoenix pub was closed now but suggested dimly that it might still be a going concern. Upstairs a dog howled at my passing. Sullen armies of derelict armchairs and sofas watched my progress from driveways that couldn’t afford a car. Rows of miners’ cottages faced one another across a grass walkway, never turned into a road for lack of need. A woman was hanging out washing but scurried inside as I came up the street, perhaps detecting a little too much purpose in my stride.
The main street had just a handful of surviving businesses. There was a barbers, a co-op, a cafe, and a takeaway. The Chopwell, a once grand and spacious pub building, was chipboarded shut, cellar drop mossing back into the soil. The bookies had gone bust, and a faded sign advised punters to pick up outstanding winnings from their branch in Seaham. Online, I could find no evidence of this establishment either.
Stunned, Chopwell doesn’t know what to do next. There is no business in the town at all, no trading estate. Nobody can buy anything, there are no jobs whatsoever. The Category D review was right, in a sense. This town has no purpose any more, and hasn’t for decades. It’s just a place where people exist. There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. You can’t earn your way out of here. Chopwell is waiting for someone else to make a decision on its future. It has not the resources or focus to do so itself. Category D crippled it but refused to administer the killing blow, perhaps the cruellest act of all.
Over the hill is High Spen, designated Category D right back in 1951. The Church was for sale. Not an auspicious start, I considered. But this place was somehow in better shape. A gentleman walked two Salukis, shining coats and proud heads. Gardens were neat with filled bird feeders. The school was plump with children. The pub looked smart and well kept. Perhaps after Chopwell anywhere would look well, but High Spen was almost prosperous, the few miles nearer to the city making it a sleeper town for Gateshead and Newcastle. Amongst the tidy porches and creosoted fences patrolled by bright eyed pets, it was remarkable to think that until 1977 this was a village deemed so irredeemably awful by its own elected County Council that only total demolition would solve the problem.
A gateway appeared on my left under some trees. There was a sign attached in laminated plastic, tucked under a loose whorl of ivy. “TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING ACT 1990. The SECRETARY OF STATE hereby gives notice that the Order under section 251 of the above Act to authorise the extinguishment of the public rights of way comprising the whole of the footpath network at the former doctors (sic) surgery commencing from Bute Road South and extending to its termination point at the rear lane of Hookergate Lane at High Spen in the Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead, referred to in the Notice published on 02 October 2018 under reference NATTRAN/NES247/3480, will not be made, the application for the order being withdrawn.”
Such is the language of the sore loser in the battle for the common person’s rights. Here was a right fought for and won, an ancestral pathway kept open for all, regardless of birth and rank. Such rights should never be taken for granted, and I celebrated this shining victory by persons unknown against the colossus of the uncaring state by seeing where the “Whole of the footpath network” might take me. Fifty yards later, I had crossed a small patch of land about the size of a house and garden, past a single berth garage and a fruit tree to emerge on a road I could easily have got to by walking 200yds round the corner, the far end of my inalienable right of way being marked by another laminated sheet stapled to a post. A cat looked at me suspiciously as I turned round and went back, no doubt wondering what that had all been about.
Down the road, in another one of the endless dribble of hamlets that line the lanes I found a butchers called ‘The Chop Shop’ which sold hot sandwiches. There was a queue. In front of me were an older couple, so I asked them about the area.
“What’s it like living round here?” Perhaps not the most creative first question,
“Well I don’t know, you just kind of get used to it.” Replied the lady.
I asked when the pits had shut, what difference it had made, how the area had changed, but they didn’t know how to answer. If it had changed, they hadn’t really noticed, watching one quiet day turn into another in a glacial world without work. It was all a bit awkward, and I sensed perhaps nobody had ever asked them about their part of the world before, and to do so was a strange thing. Why would I want to know? This place doesn’t matter. Gateshead’s much more interesting, a young man like me should go there. They’d lived here their whole lives but didn’t know about Category D designation. The threatened complete demolition of their entire community had somehow passed them by as an event and the revelation did not interest them. Perhaps this ignorance, wilful or inadvertent was the key to the survival of these places. Of 121 villages and towns scheduled for demolition, only 3 were ever totally wiped off the map. The rest perhaps damaged, but resolutely still there in small typeface on the OS map. Reduced but not quite removed, lack of engagement and education opportunities ultimately contributing to their survival, people staying on out of a sense of unremarkable destiny. “This is where I was born and this is where I’ll stay.”
A few miles further on is Marley Hill, a perfect square of red brick houses in several rows. Despite holding onto its mine till late on, it was still a Category D village, with no development occurring for 50 years, other than some temporary prefabs after the war. I parked up at the end of the final terrace. The village sits on top of a hill overlooking the whole of Gateshead and Newcastle. The view is magnificent, and I thought it as good a place as any to eat my lunch.
A woman parked her car about 50 meters away from me. She looked at me, got out and headed over, before tapping on my window.
She was a little nervous. Her shoes were too smart for the pot-holed gravel and puddles, her makeup too careful, her clothing too considered.
“Are you Neil?”
In that split second, I considered being Neil. Perhaps his life was better than mine, perhaps this could be a new and exciting future, starting here on a windswept December hill by the ghosts of Durham past, overlooking the grey and glittering Tyne valley with all of its history and tradition. She looked across at the passenger footwell, an ad-hoc installation of crisp packets and lucozade bottles, and down at my tatty hoody covered in crumbs and the odd blob of mustard. Neil had not made a good impression. I snapped out of it, remembering a girlfriend at home, kind and remarkably forgiving of my single-minded determination to bankrupt myself travelling round England.
“Sorry, not me.”
“Are you sure?”
I was sure.
I wound my window up and finished my lunch. The Tyne shone in the distance, diffracting slivers of sun that otherwise hadn’t made it up to this lonely hill. Another car drew up behind, a blue Audi, sports model. This time it was Neil, and they set off together into the woods beyond the village. In a landscape like this, trees mark where the industry was. Where the earth is too disturbed and full of wreckage to be made arable. Trees are quick, far faster than we imagine them, and a colliery levelled and splintered becomes a wood nestled in the cutaways of the land in just a few decades, home now to the animals and wildness again. Finishing my portion of carrot cake, I got out and walked round Marley Hill, first inspecting Neil’s car. The footwell was empty and vacuumed. There was one of those pine tree shaped air fresheners hanging from the rear view mirror. It would never have worked.
I walked down the far terrace, away from the main road that bisects the village. Families were out in their yards. Conversations faltered as I walked past, a lone pedestrian in a backwater. At the bottom of the village, the church, graveyard too full another clue of an industrial past. The top of the village had a large set of allotments, featuring a good selection of scarecrows. One was a highly detailed effigy of Michael Foot.
So this was Durham, Category D style. Villages lost in time, quietened and sullen. County diffuse and inefficient. Communities resilient in the face of well meaning but clumsy attempts to help. The coal was a long time gone, and so now were most of those who remember it.
I drove to Easington Colliery, a town so indivisible from its purpose it bears the name of its industry in the title. Easington was a huge pit, employing the adult male population of the town, a town that existed solely to serve this modern, high output mine. Older mines demanded villages but this vast employer demanded a full town of labour to drive the cutters into the retreating wall, out under the North Sea. 4 shifts worked it round the clock, overlapping to allow for the travel time between coal face and shaft. It had closed in 1993, a mere 25 years ago.
The town slopes gently down to the shore, but stops a thousand yards short, a seaside village left impotent and fumbling for validation. The gap is a wide open space, bounded on the seaward edge by the railway. The former colliery, now demolished, flattened, landscaped into an uncanny bald conformity that slopes up to the remodelled, reduced, and gentrified peak of the spoil tips, broken only by the concrete caps of the shafts and the old pit cage, as far away from the shaft up the hill as it once went down to the waiting seams. The Who photographed an album cover here once, amidst the Martian rubble of colliery waste, coal washed off, giant angular gravels renewed then each day to create a landscape unlearnable and dehumanised. The smoothed lands leading up to it were yellowed and pockmarked, wan grass on earth so ruined and contaminated it grew in a filthy jaundiced patchwork, ungrazeable.
We don’t have spoil tips any more. Where the Durham coalfield was a sequence of stinking, smoking pyramids of waste, where the ‘Yorkshire alps’ stood as recognisable as Drax, Eggborough and Ferrybridge power stations, they were carted away for roadstone in the age of the motorway. Aberfan’s collapsed onto the village in 1966 on one of Britain’s most shameful days. A sequence of events that look remarkably like the Grenfell tower disaster in cumulative procedural abdications of responsibility. Different age, same humanity, same failings. Same whitewash?
Easington’s had spared the town. Not much else had. From the park I could see the town as a whole, sickly and subdued, in mortal stillness. The land can be put back level and trees and birds will come in time, but the people don’t recover so quickly. A town with a diverse economy can alter, fluctuate, respond, renew. Easington lost almost every job overnight, and when the banks left town, so did the shopping. The main street was a horror story. Almost every shop was shut, the slender remainder catered to subsistence or death. Chemists, basic food and household supplies, funerals. It was 5 days to Christmas and not a single decoration lit up the few scattered windows that still lifted their shutters. Everything was in survival mode. Two fellows stood outside a club, the only indication it was open. Bodies shaped by economic stagnation, powerful accents discussing the football as they smoked. A sincere sign asked customers to tether their horses with consideration for the neighbours.
Halfway up the street is the most striking building in town, now that the pitheads are gone, the Social Welfare Centre, renamed from the Miners’ Welfare. The notice board informed me that Aladdin and his Magic Lamp was on tonight in the ballroom. I went inside. There was a reception with a bloke behind the desk, on the phone. I sat down, surrounded by the extraordinary memorabilia of a mining town. He finished his call, and agreed to show me round, without me even having to explain why I was there. The lower floor contained a three table snooker room and a reading room.
“We had three regular youth groups here, till the funding ran out earlier this year.” He said with a shake of the head. He didn’t seem bothered for his own situation but detested the abandonment of youngsters who through no fault of their own were here and had so little to work with.
I asked him if he had connections with the colliery. Not the first daft question I’d asked today.
“Oh aye. My Father and Grandfather both worked in it. My dad was 16 when he started and my grandfather 13. I joined up too, at 18. I was 35 when it shut, I was one of the youngest. They’d stopped hiring a decade before. The writing was on the wall.”
We passed a photographic display, dozens of men in black and white photos, each with a name and a number. The number related to a number in the schematic diagram of the pit next to the display, showing the place where the body had been recovered from following the 1951 disaster, when a firedamp (flammable gasses emitted by coal seams) explosion ignited coal dust in a continuous blast that ran throughout the level, killing 81 instantly and 2 more in the rescue.
Easington is rare in this regard in that it still has a specific cultural memory. Disasters happened shamefully commonly in this most brutal of industries. Most former pit villages have moved beyond specific memory, with memorials that mark the catastrophe but don’t connect you to the people and their lives. At Easington, it is kept fresh and raw. It is curated and becomes part of each citizen’s sense of being. They are us and we are them. On the opposite wall were photos of a Easington Collieryman who won the VC, and another who liberated Belson and arrested the commander. This arrest had been documented by the cartoonist Carl Giles, one of my greatest heroes. His experiences in Belson left him with a constitutional hatred of authority figures that permeated his work thereafter, and led him in my opinion to be the finest documenter of postwar England. Such is the interconnectedness of all things.
Upstairs at the Social Welfare is the grand ballroom. The janitor informed me that it was;
“One of only two fully sprung dance floors in the country.”
I bounced around for a while to show willing. It was an exquisite floor, although Aladdin and his Magic Lamp had necessitated several hundred chairs to obstruct the main expanse.
“They’ve come up from Newcastle to perform it for a couple of nights. Said we should put out 300 chairs, but they had forty in last night. Should’ve gone with, what do they call it, with all the tables out too?”
“Aye, that’s the one. It’s busiest part of town, this room, they hire it from all over for dances.”
Back at reception I got chatting again. “Did people leave after the mine shut?”
“No, not really, mostly they were older. They’d stopped hiring, so most were over 40 when it shut. Didn’t want to move, so the town just stopped where it was. Children move away, but the adults stay.”
I asked what happened to the houses that became vacant.
“The council move people in from elsewhere, people they don’t know quite what to do with.”
“So Easington is a bit of a dumping ground for problem families?” It was a clumsy question,
“I wouldn’t put it quite like that meself, but it’s not easy for anyone in that situation. Nobody chooses to move here, spare houses are boarded or burnt.”
Councils down South had sent some of their social housing tenants here, telling them it was that or homelessness. A tough place to try to start a new life with no connections or resources.
I made a note, an act he noticed.
“Are you doing a project?”
My cover was blown, and the question was as embarrassing as it was telling. Easington is the perverse poster child of post industrial desolation and as such receives more than its fair share of middle class arty types on ‘projects’ to interpret the hideous ruination. As the set of hit film ‘Billy Elliot’, Easington attracts the wreckage tourist, the well meaning idiots. I was ashamed. To return to J.B.Priestley, he wrote of meeting the Durham colliers’ wives in 1934, each woman scrapping to stretch every last coin to feed their families; “(they) were neither resentful nor whining, but nevertheless made me feel like a rich fat man. And I object to feeling like a fat rich man.” Painfully aware of his own privilege, he found he could scarcely believe that people so forcibly removed from him in economic and social terms could be just a short drive away from home, under the same system of government and having the same theoretical rights.
Likewise, I felt rotten. I have no money at all, but I have friends and family with enough surplus that I can embark upon such a trip as this with complete confidence; the worst that can happen to me is therefore not very bad. I will not end up in a shop doorway, or trapped in a pit village, unable to earn the money to escape. It is privilege pure and simple, and allows me to pursue this journey without real fear of consequence. No child of Easington could dream of doing so, at least not without risking genuine destitution. A misstep or bad fortune and they’d have no net to catch them. I stood stripped naked by his question and confessed that I was indeed doing a project. He was not upset, just indifferent, this is how it is, and remained happy to advise and chat.
The Easington Social Welfare is the lifeline, the pulse that won’t die. It hosts a computer room where they hold ‘job club’, the simplicity of the name seeming so brutal. Lads play snooker. Dances and shows take place in the ballroom. Easington could be beautiful, rolling down to the sea off the gentle Durham hills. But it is dysfunctional. Youngsters who can leave get out as soon as they can. Empty houses are filled with council tenants from elsewhere with no jobs or prospects of having any. Old miners waste the second half of their lives awaiting the return of an industry that’s been erased from the landscape. What for them is a life barely gone is an unimaginably distant past to the bright world of London or even Manchester now. Coal mining belongs to another time and place, one of black and white photographs, moustaches, leather footballs, steam trains, empire.
Coal mining in Durham is now seen only in the rows of cottages, the memorials to those who died, the graveyards that seem too big for the villages, the wrinkles and folds in the land that sprout young and vigorous trees, the network of roads and footprints of lifted rails, the street names, the social clubs hanging on by a fingernail, the headgear set in the bus turning circle, painted mute black. A wealth of circumstantial evidence with no corpse.
I walked up the hill, back to my car. I passed the old school, two colossal brick buildings divided by a courtyard, one for boys and one for girls. They looked for all the world to be two cotton mills, derelict like the North West of my youth. The entrance to one had a sign attached above the old doorway such that it read “Danger, Keep out. BOYS.” There was no such warning on the girls’ school. A local later informed me that it had been slated to be demolished before English heritage had slapped a listing on it, and now it stands in disrepair, much to the annoyance of the town who regard it as an eyesore that needs redeveloping. A modern school round the corner was rated excellent in the most recent inspection.
But how do you help such communities? Perhaps under another system the coal mines might have stayed open a bit longer, but we’re moving towards a post-coal economy, and for environmental reasons the sooner that happens the better. At some point you’d inevitably face the same problem, an entire town losing its employment at once. These problems are inevitable in a de-industrialising society and do not sort themselves out. People do not get ‘on their bike’ to find other employment unless they are either so young they haven’t put down roots or face death if they do not. History and current world affairs tells us that nothing short of starvation or massacre compels people over 30 to move in any great numbers, like the Cornish tin miners who emigrated to Australia after the collapse of their industry. Institute any kind of welfare and people will stay. The dole, meagre though it may be, is enough to sustain the communities that people already have, albeit at a subsistence level. No amount of charity will provide more than temporary relief, as only empowered individuals can reshape a community, and empowerment comes through economic autonomy. Jobs. The fact of the matter is that the architect of the Category D village policy was right in one sense. Durham remains home to dozens of villages that don’t economically work. A city sized workforce spread over a rural county in bits and pieces. Where cities concentrate resources, efficiencies, opportunities, the coal mining legacy of Durham has left it unfocussed, inefficient, and impractical.
But they were wrong in another more important sense. People are ferociously attached to their communities, and the spirit within them is extraordinarily strong. What can seem like a desparate place to outsiders is home to insiders, invisible connections between people making community. For the poorest, this can be all they have, and it burns bright, the threat of losing it for a vague and uncertain future was enough to rightfully cause the policy to fail. What makes perfect economic sense is also social cleansing and dehumanising. It takes away the community that Durham has fought so hard to maintain.
Nobody should advocate distressing people into making decisions that benefit the wider economy, even ultimately themselves, so what the heck do you do? Even when presented with new towns, better housing, schools, transport, the residents of the D villages stayed put, preferring what they knew, the communities they had built and participated in. Change only started to come when the last of that generation died out and new people moved in with new reasons for being there. Can that sequence be shortened without abusing and breaking people? Can work be found that doesn’t require the artificial creation of loss making and inefficient industry in the wrong place? To support industry that the market wouldn’t sustain indefinitely is to impoverish others and store problems up for the future, and therefore should always be regarded as reckless and immoral. Can technology help? In the information age, are there jobs that could happen in these places with a comparatively small amount of technological investment and a degree of lateral thinking? Could their supply of labour in an otherwise tight market and cheap prices give them a new competitive edge in a digital world, given the right opportunity? Can the city of the future be less of a physical construct and more a function of connectivity? This is wild and perhaps optimistic speculation. It is, as ever, far easier to analyse the problems than it is to come up with practical solutions and I don’t expect I shall get a street named after me in Chopwell any time soon. Perhaps that is why politics has given up on the Durham coalfield. Interventionist, socialist policies were met with resentment and resistance. Letting market forces trash the county was a far bigger crime. The people of Easington held public celebrations when Thatcher died, despite their colliery surviving her premiership. It is hard to blame them. Her government and its successor had abandoned them.
At the very least, the youth of the town deserve a chance to make it in the world, and the loss of the youth groups, small though it may seem in the context of the greater problems, is appallingly symptomatic of lack of interest the nation has in these places. I got in my car to drive home, pausing at the crossing as three children ran across, kicking a tatty football, joyful, unaware yet in their youth of their place in the wider world, of the hopelessness of their town, the poor hand they’d been dealt, having at such a tender age only other poor hands to compare it to. It is all they know, and they seemed the happiest people I’d seen all day. I fear it will take another 25 years and the deaths of the last miners before it even starts to turn around, so utterly abandoned to its fate it is.
But the Durham coalfield is more than just a bunch of historical stories winding down. If history tells us anything, it is how seemingly dominant and untouchable industries can collapse overnight in a cloud of hubris in the face of global adjustments. Coal is dead. Cotton is dead. Tin is dead. Our main industry these days is finance. There is a surety of our pre-eminence in this market that is eerily reminiscent of cotton in 1920, when grand buildings and civic works sprung up all over my native North West, great town halls, public buildings, squares, schools, funded by top-hatted magnates, eager to get their name in the history books not just for their economic prowess, but also their character. The London I’d walked through two weeks before felt like a digital Cottonopolis, glass sided civic and commercial masterpieces befitting the titans of the trade. By 1929, the cotton magnates were ruined, the mills closing, the weavers starving. Distant, subtle shifts in global trade and politics had bankrupted a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of commerce in just a few years. In Durham, coal had ebbed away more gradually, ruining the county town by town rather than all at once. The effect had been the same. It wouldn’t take much for global finance trade to shift its flow, and the great buildings of London to fall empty and abandoned like rusting headgear and derelict mills. The myth of Northern differentness hides this possible future, it couldn’t happen here because we’re the prosperous South and that’s the uncivilised North. Economics is blind to these prejudices.
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