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an eye-witness report on conditions in a typical small colliery village

From Our Colliery Villages, a series published in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, giving a contemporary, eye-witness description of local pit communities in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This account of the Holywell pits in Northumberland, near Seaton Delaval, was published on 22 November 1873. It is now out of copyright.

`Holywell is an old-fashioned country village near the sea coast, about five miles to the north of Shields. In ancient times, it was the property of the Delaval family, but at the present time the Duke of Northumberland is lord of the manor. It stands on the north bank of a lovely dene, at the bottom of which runs a noisy stream, dashing over its rocky bed as if eager to reach the sea, which may be heard beating on the beach a mile and a half away. This stream is none other than our old acquaintance, Seaton Burn, whom we first met at Seghill, then at Dudley and Anitsford, and runs to earth at Seaton Burn, where he has his source. Now we find him again in Holywell Dene, where he is upon his best behaviour, disporting himself playfully, as becomes the delight of the numerous picnic parties who in summertime drive over from Shields to enjoy the beauty of the spot. Holywell takes its name from a well in the dene, at no great distance from the village, which, though once of great repute as a medicinal spring, is now but little used. It was formerly known as Our Lady's Well, was therefore supposed to be holy, and hence the name of the village which sprang up near it some three hundred and odd years ago. Whether the well was ever endowed by Our Lady with any sovereign virtue we know not; certain it is, however, that it possesses peculiar chemical qualities, for a slight infusion of gall into the water causes it to become a lovely puce colour. The possession of such a well as this, one would imagine, ought to have been sufficient for the good villagers of the place without other drinking fountains, but even holy water seems to have been a trifle too cold for the natives, so no less than two public-houses have long flourished in the village to supply a dash of something warm to take off the chill. Holywell Village is not by any means a clean place; there seems a want of drainage, and a deficiency of sanitary arrangements. In fact, the village may be said to consist of a couple of public-houses, two shops, and sundry farm houses and farm labourers' cottages, many of which are very ancient. Thatched roofs abound, and even the Half Moon - the smallest of the hostelries - is so far behind the age as to be yet covered with straw. At one end of the group of houses forming the village there remains an old house which in its prime must have been a handsome Gothic country house, but which has now so far fallen from its high estate as to be the abode of several farm labourers.

This is simply Holywell Village, however - the real original Holywell from which the two contiguous collieries take their name. Orgininally there were two sets of pits bearing the Holywell name - East Holywell and West Holywell. The latter place lays claim to the honour of a greater antiquity than East Holywell, and is, indeed, so old that the royalty is nearly worked out. Mining operations ceased there a few years ago, and, as we stated in our last week's paper, the deserted pit heap has been converted into potato grounds for the Backworth men, who live in the houses and workshops which in their prime were the property of the Holywell owners. The career of West Holywell, therefore, may be said to be finished, and it devolves upon the more eastern villages to keep up the honour and reputation of the family name. Now East Holywell may be said to possess a sort of dual individuality, seeing that there are two collieries and two colliery villages belonging to the same owners and claiming the same name. Taking age as the means of distinction, we have the old pit and the new, or, put alphabetically, we have the A pit, the B pit and the C pit.

The A pit commenced working in the year 1839, and since that time has worked with considerable regularity, enjoying an almost perfect immunity from accidents of a serious character. At present, however, its pulse may be said to beat rather feebly, as only 44 hewers are employed in its working, who labour to such effect that they turn out from 150 to 160 tons per day - a fair, good average. This is from the High Main Seam alone; but it is considered a much too slow way of doing business in pushing days like these, and to enable the Holywell Coal Company to send a larger quantity of their coal to market a new shaft is being sunk near the old one, which will penetrate through both the High Main and Yard Seams until it reaches the Low Main. When this is accomplished the daily out-put will, of course, be greatly increased, and the quantity of extra men required will considreably augment the population of the district. At the A pit there is nothing wonderful to be seen in the shape of machinery. The old pit has always led a steady, humdrum sort of life; to use a figure of speech, he has always been a dull sort of boy. "All work and no play" would seem to have made him rather dull; but then, again, if we may compare his pit heap to a garment, he is so decidedly out at elbows that all play and no work would appear to have made him a very ragged boy, indeed. With the exception of Radcliffe, this is the worst heapstead we have yet seen, as it is uncovered, and, from its elevated position, receives the full benefit of the searching winds which blow from the sea, to the no small discomfort of the solitary banksman, who teams the coals from the tubs in which they reach the top of the shaft.

Nor is the surrounding house accommodation of a very superior character. In fact, to speak plainly, it is very far short of what it ought to be. There are in all four rows here which may be said to be much of a muchness. Three of them are single rows, the other double. Of the single rows, the North Row is the longest, consisting of two wings or divisions. Each house has two rooms, a large kitchen on the ground level, and a cold dismal garret of the same size above, which is reached by the accustomed break-neck ladder. The pantries project from the rear of the cottages, but there are no back doors, and the only provision for through ventilation is the small latticed loop-hole in the pantry. Privies and ashpits there are none, and so behind the houses we have rather more than usual of those sights and smells so injurious alike to social morality and to public health. The same remarks will apply to both the Office Row and the Burn Row, but the Double Row is, as its name implies, built upon a somewhat larger scale than its neighbours, having two rooms on the ground floor, with the usual garret above. As to its sanitary arrangements, however, it is no better situated than the single rows. The long row faces north-west, and the others run at right angles from it, and in the angle thus formed we have the small Wesleyan Chapel, and an infant school, which used to be the village reading room - an institution now unhappily defunct in the place, to the great regret of the more intelligent among the men.

The new East Holywell pits are about a mile to the north of the old one, and are distinguished as the C and D pits, the intermediate letter B, being represented by an old shaft near them which, having fallen into disuse as a coal-producer, is now surrounded by a dark pile of woodwork, from the interior of which ascend continually dense clouds of smoke, as a sort of indication that, though the old man is now unable to do much hard work, he is still able to blow a fairish cloud by the assistance of an engine below ground. In his time he has had many "troubles", which have caused his decline from an energetic coal producer to a mere air passage.

C and D have as yet done little to distinguish themselves. They are, comparitively speaking, untried pits, but are fast making a name for themselves in the coal trade as infants of great promise. They are pleasantly situated side by side at a short distance from, and jsut behind, the celebrated Seaton Delaval avenue; and nestling among the leafless trees may be seen from the pit heap the chimneys of the fine old hall, and the graceful dome of the Delaval Mausoleum, erected by Lord Delaval in memory of a son who died in his twentieth year. The pit gearing and engine houses of the New East Holywell are light and graceful in appearance, presenting much the same sort of contrast to some of the old pits as a thorough-bred racer does to a lumbering old coach horse. C works the High Main, and D the Yard Seam. The total number of hewers employed in both is about 200, and their average daily output amounts to about 500 tons per day. The colliery stands on the estate which belonged to the late Mr. R. Bates, of Milburn Hall, and consequently the village, which until lately consisted of only one row, goes by the name of Bates' Cottages. Some people even apply the name of Bates to the colliery itself, but others - and we should say they are right - speak of it as Holywell New Winning. Here there are yet but three rows, containing in all of little more than a hundred houses; but as building operations are still going on, and more men will soon be wanted, in all probability te number will soon be largely increased. The two new rows are of brick, and each house contains three rooms, viz., one large kitchen on the ground level, or rather a little above the ground level, with a cement floor. The staircase - a slight improvement upon the old-fashioned ladder - is placed just behind the front door, and the inner story is divided by a partition so as to form two bedrooms, one of which has a fireplace. The pantries project from behind, and are large and airy, but, except in a few cases, privies and ashpits have not been added to make the new houses complete. The old row is built of stone, and is eight years old, occupying an excellent position just on the top of the north bank of Holywell Dene. With the exception of eight double houses, all the dwellings in this row contain three rooms - a roomy kitchen on the ground floor, with two bedrooms above, reached by a ladder and hole in the floor so narrow that no articles of any size can be taken into the upper rooms. An additional discomfort is the absence of a fireplace in either of the bedrooms, an evil which might be easily remedied at a slight cost by the owners. The eight double houses are four-roomed ones, but the upper ones are untenable, as they have no ceiling to protect them from the heats of summer or the colds of winter. The owners have, however, consented to ceil them as early as possible, and if they further endow the bedrooms with a fireplace each, they will become snug and comfortable cottages. Here the inhabitants have good gardens, and the additional advantage of separate back-yards containing conveniences and pigsties. This stone row is brought to a termination by a neat Primitive Methodists Chapel, which ministers to the spiritual wants of the people, though its ministrations are sadly interefered with by the baneful influence of the two public-houses in the old village close at hand. Until recently there was no school in the place, but a few months ago a handsome edifice was built by the owners, where the children are educated. The water supply of the village is indifferent; there is no reading-room in the place, and this perhaps accounts for a great extent for the popularity of the Fat Ox and the Half Moon down in Holywell proper. The Seaton Delaval Store is within easy distance of the colliery, and from that institution the co-operators of Holywell get their goods.'

Ronald Branscombe

Copyright © 1996 Ronald Branscombe

Most recent revision 15 August 1996 09:33:49

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