Seaham Colliery 1873

OUR COLLIERY VILLAGES.

SEAHAM

From the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 1 February 1873. Transcription by Stafford M Linsley.

 

Painting of High and Low Pits by William Wheldon in 1851. Looking west.

Painting of High and Low Pits by William Wheldon in 1851. Looking west.

With chaste delight yet swelling pride we take our tickets for Seaham. The train is long; it reaches no small part of the way. It is composed of all sorts and conditions of vehicles; from the stately polished wood of modern times to the comical green shays of our forefathers. But the crown of our conceit is in the fact that it is a private railway. It is such an appeal to the better feelings of our nature, moreover, to know that we are paying tribute to a great feudal lord for the privilege of riding a few miles instead of shelling out to an unwieldy impersonality like a railway company. We feel like half-fledged aristocrats as we proceed. And to confirm the feeling – to encourage and foster it, the sublime old engine – big enough to drag a fort to ruin and dust – moves with a solemn dignity like that which an elderly butler exhibits when he is bringing forth a sample of his yellow-seal bin for the delectation of his noble master. But at long last, here we are.

 

Within rifle shot of the Town Terminus is the Seaham Colliery Station, and, judging from the Saturday traffic, we can understand how it is that the pit people hold up their heads in conscious and manifest rivalry with the towns-folk. The town and the colliery are very good friends; in every sense of the word, very near relations. The town, with its cleverly-constructed harbour, its chapels, its public institutions, shops, and warehouses, derives nearly all its importance and most of its prosperity from the vast coal trade, for which it furnishes a ready outlet seawards. It can, however, boast that it is by no means dependent on its immediate neighbour, inasmuch as Haswell and South Hetton contribute to its exports very largely. Still its minor business proceeds almost entirely from Nicky Nack and Seaton Pits. On the other hand, these pits, or rather the pit families, look to the town for the bulk of their provisions, much of their amusement, and, to some extent also, their religion.

 

As our business lies with the colliery village, we pass by, somewhat reluctantly we confess, without attempting to describe the busy and thriving town which takes toll as it were, both ways, on the products of mining and on the sea-borne imports. If it has a fault, commercially considered; that fault lies in the unnecessary multiplication of shops; but this is a free country, and Englishmen will never surrender the right to lose their money and turn bankrupt as often as they please. Turning west, then, from Colliery Station, we soon perceive that we have not far to go in order to plunge – metaphorically of course – head-foremost into the pit. But, before taking the fatal leap, we look abroad and around.

 

Winter though it is, we can discern the makings of a splendid rural panorama, backed and bordered by the ever beautiful and ever lively, ship-dotted sea. Conspicuous in the landscape is the lordly mass of buildings known as Seaham Hall – not quite so stately, perhaps, but apparently as large and as well situated for sea breezes and sea views as the Queen’s marine palace of Osborne. Just now the white sheen of the mansion gleams and glitters like marble through occasional vistas, and between the leafless bows of massive and crowded trees. In summer, nature veils and outvies the handiwork of man; and her veil of rich foliage is so beautiful that we are content to forget and to lose all traces of art and handicraft. Now, however, there is an air of substantial and elegant comfort in the great house which warms the beholder from the tips of his top-knot to the termination of his chilled and brittle toe-nails. The noble family of the Vanes have unfortunately too many pits and too much wealth to be compelled to live all their days in this splendid country home. Amongst them they have lots of houses, and so much money that they are under no compulsion to bide the bleakness of an English winter. And yet anyone not blasé with opulence and grandeur might easily imagine a worse fate than being obliged to live continuously at Seaham Hall. His lordship does put in an appearance oftener than he otherwise would, perhaps, because, like a true English nobleman, he takes a warm personal interest in the volunteer movement; and, to tell the truth, he has an admirably appointed and well-disciplined corps, of which he may well be proud. Grand houses not being on our visiting list, we declined several very pressing invitations to leave our cards at the Hall, or our foot-prints stained with the mud of a coal village in a thaw, on his lordship’s door mat. In like manner, as being out of the record of our commission, we abstained from all attempts to trace Lord Byron’s “footprints on the sands of time,” of which not a few might be recovered hereabouts and in the neighbourhood of Dalton-le-Dale, but of which the greater part have been obliterated by the broad, heavy, flat tramping foot of industry.

 

As we approach the pits, on the left hand side of the turnpike; we come upon an excellent row of houses. It is known as the Model Row. The word “model” must be referred to the standard of by-gone years, for the name would now more fitly apply to the new houses connected with the Seaton pit, further south. Nevertheless, this row is far above the average of pit houses either in this colliery or in Durham collieries generally. They are comfortable, roomy, well built dwellings, a trifle low in the pitch of the rooms, perhaps, but cosy and snug, clean without and within, with a fine outlook to the front, and abundance of capital garden ground, which appears to be cleverly turned to profit; pigs coming in for what, in too many gardens, is regarded as sheer waste. The curled cabbage suggests roast mutton; while the leeks are enough to make a dyspeptic hungry, and a hungry man’s mouth water with vain anticipation and longing. Of course, many of these houses are reserved for the excellent of the earth – by whom we mean the masters’ men – but they are too numerous, we judge to be wholly occupied by these upper-crust miners.

 

Of the other houses we will speak presently; for we must proceed up this road a considerable distance, in fact, till we come to a dene and hillside hamlet, which, though it overlooks the back skirts of the colliery, seems as though foot of soot had never soiled its virgin cleanness. As we move along north we reach one of the two schoolhouses belonging to the colliery. It is gloomy enough for a convent, and black enough for a mortuary; but the latter can hardly be helped in such a locality.· It is not so cheerful a place as a school aught to be, and especially as it is now a girls’ school – the lads going to the school at the other side the pits. Both these schools are used by the incumbent of the colliery church for Sunday instruction; and we have not to travel very far before we find ourselves attending “early celebration” at Church; but we should explain that it is a conjugal communion – the sacrament of marriage, in fact – that is having the early celebration. With dove-like meekness and patience the bride is sitting by the side of the man she is soon to own, and she is illuminating her purview of the married state by reverent gazing on the magnificent east window erected by filial piety to the memory of the late Marquis of Londonderry. Once she turned rather anxiously to see if we were the parson; but, alas, we were not even the clerk; so she concealed her vexation, and irradiated her passing cloud of disappointment by gazing at a still handsomer stained window at the west end, put there by conjugal affection and in memory of that same Tory Marquis. After gazing till half-blinded on these splendid memorials of departed worth and bequeathed wealth, our eye rested on an ugly and deservedly-faded inscription – illuminated, forsooth – of a kind that invariably rouses us to holy wrath. It is now for us a familiar object, and increasingly obnoxious. It set forth in solemn and sounding phrase, in ecclesiastical red and black lettering an astounding testimony to the prodigious and indispensable generosity of the Incorporated Society for the Building, Enlargement, and Restoration of Churches, in having granted £75 towards the erection of the south wing of this particular church. Now as the cost of this extension could hardly be less than tenfold the amount given by the Society, we fail to discover the special claim of the Society to such conspicuous honour, gratitude, and glory. It is to be hoped they pay for the painting of the tablet themselves; but that can hardly be the case, or else they would have been sure to mention a fact which, so far as we can see, must redound to their credit quite as much as the other fact.

 

The church itself is now a really handsome pro or sub-cathedral. Previous to the erection of the second row of pillars and the new aisle, it must have presented a lob-sided, maimed appearance, but now it is strictly according to the ecclesiastical Cocker. The first portion of the edifice was erected by the late Marchioness in 1853. Adjoining is a spacious – a suggestively spacious – graveyard for a small village. As yet the tombs are few and far between. Near the eastern boundary we observed a long, rough mound, and on inquiring from some bright young putters playing pitch and toss not far off, we were informed that this mound was known as “the taty pit;” and certainly it does look rather more like the burial place of turnips and potatoes than that of Christian martyrs to the glory of modern science. Yet so it is. There, sleeping their last sleep, are nearly two dozen out of the six-and-twenty who lost their lives by the explosion of October, 1871. Nor are these bones to lie long under the shadow of seeming neglect. Subscriptions have been made and paid sufficient to defray the cost of a monument to commemorate the melancholy fact of their destruction; all the necessary preliminaries have been completed, but the quarrymen are too busy to supply the stone. Presently they will be able to attend to this order; let us hope they will even make a push out of respect to the memory of their fallen brothers, and then the place of rest will grow green and seemly.

 

A few score yards to the west stands the vicarage; and here, her ladyship’s generous care for the clergy is very apparent. The house is big enough for an asylum; let us hope that her ladyship adequately endowed the living while she was about it, or else the erection of a great mansion, such as this, was like the gift – the troublesome and costly gift – of a white elephant in the well-known Indian apologue. The church squire, whose abode it is, stands well with his parishioners, and deserves to be blessed with a congregation big enough to crowd his beautiful temple; but, somehow, pitmen are wonderfully like other human beings, and don’t take as kindly to religion of any kind, still less to religion according to Act of Parliament, as zealous clergymen would wish. Nearly opposite to the Parsonage, on the cottage side of the turnpike and at the end of a 1ong row, is a place that ought to be a Primitive Methodist Chapel if looks go for anything, but which is, in point of fact, a reading-room. Here also there are evidences that pitmen are much of a muchness with the rest of mankind, and do not display quite as hot a zeal in pursuit of knowledge as they do for increased percentages. Gas (from Mr. Smith’s gashouse at the Harbour) and coals are supplied by the owners, as well as the house-room, and an occasional lift in the money line, though never to an extent that might be suspected of any tendency to pauperise a pit pony even.

 

At right angles to the row of which the reading-room is a sort of caudal appendage, runs a row which is half and half, morally considered. It begins splendidly with a viewer’s house, and goes on fairly for about fifty yards or so, with grass or gardens paled off in front of it; but it degenerates – as the English race is supposed to do – the further south it gets, until the tag rag have a very taggy raggy outside, especially the back side, where the outbuildings are only ruins and nothing to boast of even as ruins; but the interiors are good. “A precious sight better than you’d think for,” is the warm encomium of one of the pitch-and-toss heroes, who has too much pluck or too good a conscience to skeedaddle with the rest when our corpulent shadow looms round the corner, like some pantomime policeman of gigantic proportions. This youth doubtless lives in that same row, and being possessed of strong domestic affections, has grown up in the belief that there’s no place like home. But he is out there; for we can bear witness that there are up and down Durham a great many places like his home, if his home be one of these low-browed cottages. Too many, we should say; for however reconciled habit may make a man to such a nest for his fledgelings, it is not exactly the sort of nest we like to see provided for our blackbirds.

 

As already intimated there is quite a new town of Lord Durhamish houses springing up, and indeed largely sprung up, since Seaton Colliery passed to its present proprietorship. These are excellent dwellings; and indeed it is only fair to say that so also are the double houses of the Waggonway Row, and further that the men have neither the disposition to complain nor anything very particular out of which they could make a complaint were they so inclined. There is a liberal supply, by means of pants, of capital water, supplied from a special reservoir. Yes, by the way, there is one complaint, and a very comical one. But it is a complaint which, though a colliery village is the last place on earth you would expect to hear it, is now become the main grievance of such places, as it has long since become the curse of the whole country, and that is the coal famine. Part of the wages of these men is or was a liberal supply of the coal which they dig out of the ground with their own hands. Now they cannot get enough to keep their toes warm. When they do get a bushel or two it is three parts dirt; but they think themselves extremely lucky to get even that. Their younger children are obliged to travel far and wide on the dangerous waggon ways picking up coals, just for all the world as if they were not colliers’ bairns. This we venture to characterise as scandalous. Whoever else goes short of coal, the miners should have plenty and of the best. This is to “muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn,” and to muzzle it with a vengeance. What in the name of humanity are the big black-birds of the world dreaming about? There are pits up and down where for every two shillings drawn by the miner, the owner, who probably lives at Jericho among the palm trees of Oriental luxury, draws a clear sovereign, and he gets a couple of thousand of these shining medals every day five days a week. If Lord Lytton were still among us he might write another clever tale, and call it “What Next, and Next?” Or if Mr. Lowe be half as sharp as we give him credit for he will get enough income tax out of the coalowners of England this year and next to enable him to remit all taxes of customs, and give the poor collier a free breakfast table, if he can’t give him a scuttle of coals to boil his kettle with. Oh fellow-friends, and brethren of this dear county and commonwealth, let us see to it, rich and poor, that we never burn a coal if we can help it. Lie in bed, when you can’t run up and down to keep warm; and when you are tired of lying in bed, play at leap-frog with the bairns in your fireless back parlour.

 

But this is wandering – though not very wide of the mark. We must cross the ravelment of tramways and make for the pits. The people talk of the Seaton pit as if it were somewhere in the Arctic regions – and in some sense it is [in] this cold weather – but if it is in a sort of Iceland, it is in itself a Hecla or a Geyser. It is an upcast and furnace shaft for both pits, or all three pits, we ought to say; since what outsiders would call one pit, is really two pits, or one divided by bratticing up to a certain point, and then going off by itself down to the Hutton or other seam. As will be remembered there was a terrible catastrophe down these pits a year and a quarter ago. The pit was built up, till the blazing roaring furnace of acres on acres of coal was starved to death for want of oxygen. Now, just about where this bad job occurred they have a stationary engine down below, in fact, there are three such. The seams, or at least three of them, happen to come to a point just a little way between the new pit and the old pits; hence the acquisition of the new pit has been very useful in other respects, besides enabling the proprietors to comply with the double shaft clauses of the Act. On the whole, it is a drudge of a pit; a hard-working, serious, solemn, earnest, go-ahead, money-making pit. Then close beside it is a huge pork-pie structure, almost as big as the Albert Memorial Hall in London; and when we propose to go in and hear the organ, we are coolly informed that it is too hot. In fact, it is a huge patent brick-kiln. Adjoining is the brick factory, in which a fat, strong, roundabout machine is everlastingly shaping, stamping, and turning out bricks of the right consistency and shape. Out they pop, two at a time, from an apparently smooth surface on the flat of what looks like a big grindstone, and when they pop up, pushed from beneath, an active little imp made of cast-iron pops out behind them, and pushes them on to a tape or endless band, along which they ride like happy couples going to church to be married, while an intelligent boy acts as best-man, and brushes the dust and excrescences from the loving couples on their way to the matrimonial furnace or kiln, where their ardent young loves are to be baked into good, useful domestic virtues. But we must bid farewell, without entering into further details. It is a grand colliery, and it would be vain to deny it.