I live in a landscape shaped by mining. Specifically, coal mining. I am the grand daughter of two miners. The streets underneath my house are criss crossed with pit shafts and tales of sink holes opening up in peoples’ gardens – and a friend’s dining room – are not infrequent. I suspect that black diamond coal dust is in my DNA.
The local history sections of my nearby libraries and book shops are full of tales of mining villages, pit disasters, the impact on local communities in the north east of the closing of the mines and so forth. My pick of three specific books may seem a little random, but each of these has a particular hook for me personally. Thus I give you:
- Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey
- Pit Women: Coal Communities in Northern England in the Early 20th Century by Griselda Carr
- Edwardian Mining in Old Postcards by John Hannavy
Black Diamonds is not specific to the north east of England, rather it looks at a very wealthy family who discover coal in their extensive lands and examines the impact both on the family and the massive divide between them and their estate workers – from the maids, groundsmen, miners etc. It takes you into the Downton Abbey of the coalfields – Wentworth in Yorkshire – and the crumbling lives of the Fitzwilliams across a century. We have death, illegitimacy, scandalous marriages, skullduggery, war – all contrasted with the growing discontent of the mine workers who strove to produce the ‘black diamonds’ for their overlords. This book is fact – but it plays beautifully to the fiction audience. My particular research interests cover late Victorian through Edwardian & Great War periods which this book fed well. For a fascinating and superbly researched insight into the ‘upstairs / downstairs dynamic’ of the coal industry during this period it can’t be beaten.
From here my reading becomes more personal. I am the grand daughter of two miners – therefore I am the grand daughter of their wives. It is well known how dangerous mine work was (still is). My maternal grandmother Elsie Margaret, was born in the early Edwardian era in a mining village in what was then considered County Durham but is now part of Gateshead. She married a miner, my granda John Robson Renwick and they settled in Dunston while he worked in nearby Swalwell Pit, starting his career in the 1920’s right up until the 1970’s.
My copy of Griselda Carr’s brilliant Pit Women has a number of pages highlighted with post-it markers. This book basically tells me the story of my grand mothers’ lives, one who I knew intimately, the other a vaguely formidable figure who died when I was very young. Women were at the heart of coal communities. In the early 20th century these were often quite closed communities. Housing was provided by the pit (and I grew up in a council adopted former pit house) and standards varied according to the benevolence of the particular mine owners. There was no NHS, no welfare state. Miner’s Welfares sprang up as a result and the trade union movement began it’s unsteady progress. That’s a whole lot of history I’m summarising in one paragraph, so forgive me the simplification. Read this book! Carr provides an overview of this, then moves on to look in detail at the conditions women lived in. They were cook, nurse, mother, housekeeper, home accountant, midwife. They were resourceful, often impoverished. They relied on their menfolk to hand over their pay packets at the end of the week, and not to wander into the social on the way home and low it on booze.
Woe betide my granda if he didn’t hand over his wages untouched! There’s a strong tradition of the women in my family giving their menfolk ‘pocket money’ (not carried on in my household, I hasten to add!). Life was precarious – for the men who risked life and limb in the pits – but also for the women with both husbands and sons down the pits who’s lives and dwellings were tithed to that particular pit head. There is a beautifully explained section in Carr’s book looking at the working day of the woman of the house with husband and several sons on differing shifts in the pit. I believe she got about 3 hours sleep and much of what she did was backbreaking work – drawing water for baths (no showers in the pit heads as yet), heating the water, washing, cleaning, cooking, etc. If she was lucky she’d have two or three complete sets of clothing, one for the working week and then a Sunday best. My grandma always loved a smart hat for her Sundays.
As social histories go, Carr’s book is a fascinating slice into the realities of women who are only two or three generations away, who would not believe the relative ease and comfort of their granddaughters. I found this a humbling book, one that makes me reflect that I am lucky to live in a time and place that allows me a higher education, social mobility, gas central heating and a wardrobe of multiple frocks. Elsie Margaret and Hannah had difficult lives – but they had one thing that is perhaps slipping away despite our modern advantages – real, solid communities around them. I revisit the villages of their lives sometimes and look across the beautiful landscaped fields, the scars of mining now covered with green valleys, cycle paths and rivers in which you can still find black diamonds. Every generation gains something; perhaps we also lose a little too.
Finally, Edwardian Mining in Old Postcards. Postcards, you say? An entire book on postcards?! I’m not sure where I stumbled across this book but I am very glad I did. As a writer I often work very much from visual prompts and cues and this beautiful book is a treasure trove of them. I had never heard of the use of these as a device for chronicling every day pit life and more tragically the disasters that often happened in the early twentieth century. My paternal grandfather broke his back in the mines. John Robson was often home getting a flea in his ear from Elsie Margaret about his latest injury that meant there was no household income being earned. Hannvany has collected postcards that span not just disasters but also life underground, life in the villages, the ‘amazons’ of the pit heads (women’s work), trades associated with the mines (the railways played a huge part here in my native north east). The faces of the deceased killed in their thousands during this period are haunting, staring out frozen in time on postcards, their voices forever silenced.
These are my ancestors. These are the people who forged me, who lived their lives in the shadow of the pit heads that no longer exist other than as museum pieces or a monument to the fallen. There is an excellent museum at Woodhorn Colliery in Northumberland that I have visited several times which brings home fully the conditions that my grand fathers worked in. It doesn’t show me the lives of my grandmothers’ though. For that, I am very grateful for these books. More than thirty years on for their deaths, I raise my tea mug to my grandparents – my kind, funny, resilient folks. For them I wear the miner’s lamp charm on my charm bracelet. To remember.