Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Chronicle of Easington Colliery

 Mary Bell with her book 'A Chronicle of Easington Colliery'.

I was delighted when Mary Nightingale Bell (above) asked me to write a foreword to her fine book "A Chronicle of Easington Colliery". She has kindly agreed to my republishing that foreword here, as a means of explaining something about the nature of her work.

Details of how to obtain the book can be found here. I am sure that those who read it, will then be interested in turning to her related book of poems, which was published two years ago under the title "Where the Pits Were : Poems from Easington Colliery".
These works are not just appropriate for those who know or knew Easington Colliery. They provide fine insights for anyone interested in the nature and development of working class communities.


This book is a remarkable achievement.

Too often we have to make-do and mend when examining the nature of life in a working class community. In autobiographies, established writers or celebrities who come from such backgrounds may hand us some snippets about their formative years. Then historians may report on research material which they have unearthed. But unfortunately, these are all just bits and pieces. For as Peter Crookston pointed out in his book “ThePitmen's Requiem” (Northumbria Press, 2010), working class people themselves seldom keep a “shoebox in the wardrobe” in which they have stored key source material about their family and community activities. So much of what we need to know about such communities gets missed or remains shrouded in generalisations.

Thankfully, Mary Bell is a solid exception to the rule which Peter Crookston pointed to. Although she has collected together far more material about her community than that which a mere shoebox could accommodate. Mary was born in Easington Colliery in County Durham in 1930. It was only after the pit was closed in 1993 and the bulldozers were later coming to knock down former Colliery houses in the area in which they lived, that she and her late husband Jim moved to a bungalow just two miles away at nearby Horden Colliery. But she never really left Easington, for she could not keep away from it. One of the solid links she developed was with a group of “Easington Writers”; where she came to contribute poems and articles for their fine publication “Shrugging Off the Wind”. 

Furthermore, Mary has an exceptional memory. Yet she does not just draw from her own experiences, for throughout her life she has sought (and retained) information from friends and relatives. On top of which she has conducted original research into Easington Colliery's past, via avenues such as the Durham Miners' Association and Beamish Museum. Her efforts are fully revealed in this book. First in her fine chronology of Easington Colliery's history, then finally when she traces the details about the 193 men and boys who were killed during the lifetime of the local pit. She has kept, compiled and used a stack of key information, which would fill masses of those shoe-boxes.

Mary has, however, done far more than keep records which others can turn to. In this book, she has used her store of information to illustrate and explain the nature of the area's solid working class community, whose life before the closure of the pit in 1993 rested overwhelmingly upon the mine's existence. For only a year after production had first got underway at the pit, her husband's parents and their three sons had moved into a Colliery house just across the road to the pit itself. Then by she was born, her parents and elder sister were already settled into local Colliery life.

The Colliery area that she was born into was then at its peak population of ten thousand. This population fell somewhat afterwards, thanks to the spread of birth control techniques.But it was the closure of the pit in 1993 which had the biggest impact on its make up. Its current population now being under half of the peak shown via the 1931 Census.

Mary tells us how key events shaped the life of her community. It was often a school of hard knocks. There was the impact of the First World War (see the local War Memorials for the many former miners killed in action) and the serious influenza epidemic at its close. This was followed by a series of industrial disputes culminating in the lengthy Miners' Strike of 1926; then came short time working as a consequence of the 1931 economic crisis. From Mary's direct experiences as a young girl, we find out what local life was like during the Second World War. Then just as everything settled down to a form of relative post-war prosperity, Easington was hit by a devastating pit disaster in 1951 which killed 83 men. Later significant industrial unrest returned, culminating in the major strike of 1984-5 and then the closing of the pit in 1993 – plus its consequences.

But these are merely the broad facts, Mary explains the key elements - what these facts mean in terms of the nature and quality of life in her community. She can do this because she is a full insider. I am like many others, in what is now often too much of a mobile society. It is a world in which people often feel obliged to uproot themselves and where they may eventually find fresh communal connections. I left Easington Colliery over 50 years ago and finally settled in North Derbyshire. I have dabbled in writing three short articles about my old roots, covering from 1899 to 1935, which are the years before my birth – often with the help of Mary's records. But Mary has now herself covered the broad sweep in both key detail and via the understanding which can only come from experience and involvement.

If many communities are short of “shoeboxes in their wardrobes”, then let us hope there are those who will read this book who will decide to follow Mary's alternative example. The more we know what daily life is like (and has been) in differing neighbourhoods, the better we understand the strengths we need to nurture and the factors we need to tackle.

Hat Tip for the photo - Hartlepool Mail

For more on my own bits and pieces on Easington Colliery, see the "Easington' label below.