North-East Heritage and the Coalfields: Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival talk

This is the text of a talk I gave this week at the Radio 3 Freethinking Festival at The Sage in Gateshead. It was broadcast on Friday 11th November in The Essay slot on Radio 3 – you should temporarily be able to find a link to the Listen Again facility here

“Arriving in the northeast of England for the first time a decade ago I thought I knew what to expect. There may have been pit closures, the decline of heavy industry and the miners’ strike, but this was County Durham, heart of what was once the biggest coalfield in the world. There would be pitheads and spoil heaps, there would be mines. I wasn’t expecting to see cloth-capped miners trudging back from work begrimed from a days work at the coalface, but I did expect to see mines. I’d spent time in some of the big industrial cities of the north. They were often dominated by former mill buildings, old foundries and warehouses. The workers may have gone, but the works themselves remained. When the tide of industry that had swept through the North receded, it had left the factories and mills stranded high and dry. But at least they were there. There was something fundamentally different about the North-East. The pitheads, mine shops, spoil heaps and store sheds had been completely erased. In 1914 there were over 300 coalmines in County Durham; today only one winding wheel survives in situ. It is a testament to the extent that the colliery landscape has disappeared that standing mine buildings are now outnumbered by memorials to the disasters that claimed the lives of many miners during the industry’s heyday. In Durham City, both the site of County Hall and much of the University are built on the sites of former coalmines. During recent construction work at the university, the remains of the mineshaft of Elvet Colliery were briefly uncovered. I watched groups of hard-hatted engineers and construction workers staring down onto this brief emergence of the region’s past before it was covered over and construction began anew.

I want today to look at the extent to which the collieries have been erased from the landscape of North-eastern England and make a plea for the preservation and protection of what little survives of this globally important industry.

It is hard to under-estimate the sheer scale of this disappearance of the coal industry. Even the spoil heaps had been landscaped out of existence, and spoil heaps are big… very big. The spoil heap at Ashington was, at its greatest extent, the biggest spoil heap in Europe. It’s now been almost entirely landscaped away and a country park lies in its place. Some geologists have suggested that we should characterise the current geological period as the anthropocene, an age where the human impact on the earth came to define the world’s environmental trajectory. When one comes to comprehend the extent to which the north-east coal fields has seen its mineral resources extracted from the ground, redistributed either as coal or spoil and then the subsequent scars and spoil further eroded and removed, it is hard not to agree.

But this was not just an extractive industry; it produced communities as well as coal. On a landscape scale, the rise of the mines saw a re-organisation of the settlement pattern, with new pit villages springing up in undeveloped countryside or enveloping existing settlements. An entire culture grew up that was centred on, and grew out of, the coal industry. The north-east coalfields had their own rich dialect ‘pitmatic’. It even had its own dance traditions, rapper dancing; the dancers commonly wore hoggers, the long shorts worn by miners in the late19th and early 20th century. Whilst many of these traditions and practices remain, the organic and living link between them and the communities of labour that they grew out of is becoming increasingly tenuous. Durham Miner’s Gala, originally the big meet of the unionised labour force, although once in decline is becoming increasingly popular again. But whilst the morning starts with the procession of brass bands and union banners, they no longer have a close and immediate link with the coal industry. They may parade into Durham from the surrounding villages, but they march past industrial estates, new housing developments and wasteland where the pits used to stand.

However, the coal industry was not Durham’s only extractive industry – up in the hills of the North Pennines another industry thrived – lead mining. Here the situation is very different. This industry went to the wall half a century before the coal industry was destroyed, but it has left a far more visible trace on the landscape. The industrial buildings and installations associated with extracting the lead from these bleak upland moor sides can still be seen. As with the coal industry, there was a distinct set of specialised terms to refer to these features. The hushes, adits, jigger houses, buddles and bouse teams can still be seen along roadsides and side valleys. They survived because of cheapness of land up in the hills and the lack of pressure to redevelop it – there was plenty of it and it had limited alternative uses. The communities who had moved into the area to work the lead veins simply drifted away- the non-conformist chapels lost their congregations and survived by being converted into holiday homes.

The contrast between the lead mines and the coalfields are clear – the lead valleys have kept their landscape, as the people went. However, the pit villages were different- the industries went but the people stayed. Notoriously, in the 1950s, Durham County Council classified some of these villages as not worthy of investment and aimed to demolish them and re-locate the populations. Whilst a small number of villages were entirely destroyed and their people moved, for the majority of the 120 or so villages it simply meant a lack of investment. Nonetheless since the end of this bitterly resented policy in the mid-1970s, the collieries were slowly destroyed and the spoil heaps removed.

It is a lasting tragedy that so little effort was spared in recording the physical infrastructure. There was little realisation that although the process was a piecemeal one, the demolition of individual collieries was removing an entire distinctive regional landscape. This is not to suggest that archaeologists have not been interested in our industrial past; the study of industrial remains grew massively in the post-war period. However, for a long time it was the preserve of the enthusiastic amateur, often themselves with a background in engineering or industry. Within the confines of professional archaeology there was sadly often less commitment, less will and crucially, less resources to engage in recording the remains of such a recent period. It has to be said also that within the colliery communities themselves there may have been a reluctance to see the heritage sector start to treat the places that had until recently been their place of employment as the focus of research by academics. Understandably, in the rawness of unemployment people were not always happy to see the mines packaged and sold as a ‘heritage attraction’, worried perhaps about a dewy eyed glorification of the coalfields. Others simply wanted to turn their backs away and seek new work hoping that the rapid redevelopment of the old colliery sites would see an economic upturn.

However, today, as we move further away from the great days of Durham coalfield, we are increasingly aware of what we have lost. There is also an increased appreciation amongst people living in the region of the importance of coal mining. For many, it helped to form a sense of what it means to come from the North-East. There is also a wider understanding of the central importance it had, not just for the history of the local area, but on a national, indeed international stage. For example, the need of the early coal mines to get their coal quickly and easily to local ports to allow it to be exported led to the creation of network of horse-drawn wagon ways. In the early 19th century it did not take long for the newly developed technology of steam locomotion to be introduced, giving the North-East a pivotal position in the development of steam railways. It is salutary to note that in a recent survey 68% of those in the North-East agreed that the industrial revolution is the most important period of British history and significantly 71% of those in the region believed that industrial heritage sites made them feel proud of their local area. Despite this clear local enthusiasm for the North-East’s industrial heritage there are still more Roman forts open to visitors between the Tweed and the Tees than sites connected to the industrial past. More worryingly, despite its relative lack of antiquity, this industrial heritage is at greater risk than older remains. Recent research by English Heritage has shown that 1 in 10 Grade I and II* industrial Listed Buildings are threatened. This is more than three times the national average for Listed Buildings. This is a problem that is particularly acute within this region, with the North-East having nationally the highest proportion of industrial sites at risk. Why is this? Is the recent industrial past less valued here than elsewhere? I believe not, instead there are good practical reasons. It is not easy to convert a coalmine! The best way for industrial remains to be preserved is not by turning them into heritage attractions, but by finding effective and economic ways for them to be used for modern purposes, as offices, homes or factories. But by their nature, the remains of coalmines are designed to house heavy machinery or had very specific technical functions, which make it hard to find alternative purposes for them. In general, sites connected to extractive industries are not easily re-appropriated for modern use – and in the North-East sites linked to coal, lead and iron mining form over 50% of the sites at risk. There is also a wider aesthetic challenge; historic sites such as castles, monasteries and stately homes are seen as beautiful in their own right and often thought to actively contribute to a landscape vista. Whilst many people may feel that industrial remains have a certain utilitarian elegance, this is a much harder notion to sell to the wider public. All too often, the remains of industry are seen as something inflicted on a region rather than organic elements of a historic landscape.
It is not just a question of protecting upstanding industrial buildings.

Another key aspect of the region’s industrial past can be found beneath the ground, surviving as archaeological remains. Many mines saw investment and technological development when the coal industry was at its height. They were constantly being rebuilt and expanded. This meant that the colliery buildings that were removed when the industry declined were just the latest version of a sequence of structures on the site that may go back 150 or even 200 years. These early collieries could be very different in appearance to their later iterations. Watercolours of 19th century coal mines by the Victorian artist Thomas Harrison Hair show industrial landscapes subtly different to the ones we associated today with the coal industry. His landscape view of ‘A’ pit at Hebburn is dominated by what at first appear to be carousels, but on closer inspection are wooden gin-gangs, horse-driven engines for providing motive power to the colliery. Behind them looms an impressive pithead, which unlike later 19th century examples is an entirely timber structure. The screening shed at Phoenix Pit, High Etherley he depicted in a watercolour probably done in the 1830s could easily be mistaken for a medieval half-timbered building. The dominance of wood as a construction material over stone, brick and metal is a reminder of how much our mental images of colliery landscapes are influenced by the photographic and film images of early 20th century mines. It is this kind of prehistory of the coal industry that can only be accessed through archaeological investigation.

Yet, whilst today the public and heritage professionals are increasingly open, indeed positively enthusiastic about preserving our industrial landscapes, the recession presents new challenges. Even when the physical arrangement of industrial structures are suitable for redevelopment, the higher additional costs associated with taking on an historic building is often a disincentive to developers, particularly in straightened economic times. With current planning controls that ought to help conserve these kinds of sites under threat from the new Draft Planning Framework, it is likely that we will see more industrial sites destroyed rather than re-developed as investors would rather see a cheap and uncomplicated new build than take on a potentially problematic historical structure. The kinds of grants and advice that should be in place to encourage sympathetic engagement with these sites are vanishing in the crackdown on public spending.

Where planning permission has been granted to demolish or substantially alter these sites, current legislation stipulates that, where appropriate, archaeological investigation should be carried out on the ‘polluter pay’s principal. This, though, requires local government to have access to specialist in-house conservation and archaeological advice. Instead we see local authorities massively cutting these key services. Even within the North-East we are faced with the possibility that large areas of Teesside will be without any archaeological support, a serious and urgent threat to the industrial heritage of that area.

This is not a call for the end to development or even for the end to destruction of buildings and landscapes connected to our industrial past. A refusal to sanction change would lead to a sclerotic landscape imprisoned by the physical legacy of dead industries. Whilst it is possible, indeed essential, to critique the notion of ‘sustainable development’ as presented in the new governmental framework for planning, we need to strike a balance between preservation and renewal. But to do this, we need to have an awareness of the extent to which we have already lost elements of the industrial landscape and be able to evaluate both the social and economic value of these sites. This involves not just a detailed consideration of each individual case; individually, a terrace of miner’s housing or an isolated fitters workshop may not have much significance. Nonetheless, a sense of the place that these specific cases play in the wider landscape is essential if we are to avoid our industrial landscapes dying a death of a thousand cuts. In addition to this basic challenge, one that is in essence curatorial, there is a second barrier to overcome, and this is an interpretative and representational one. One does not need to be a hardcore Marxist theoretician to recognise that in the later 18th and 19th centuries the massive expansion in British industrial production was not simply predicated on rapid technological advances. There was also a profound alteration in labour relations, with the development of a new industrial working class. Neither is it a particularly radical proposition to suggest that the relations between the proprietors and workers were marked by inequality and exploitation. On a wider scale Britain’s precocious industrialisation was also closely connected to its imperial expansion. When we come to presenting and interpreting our industrial heritage we need to bring this on board. All too often the story of our industrial past is presented as a teleological story of scientific and engineering know-how and entrepreneurial nous. Whilst this is certainly one aspect of our industrial past, we need to be alive to the conditions and constraints within which the all-important workers were situated. We need to emphasise their contributions to industrialisation, the price they paid and where appropriate their acts of resistance. If we don’t do this we run the risk of providing what the French museologist Philippe Hoyeau has called a simple ‘restaging of dead labour’.

Despite these challenges, we should be positive. The immediate trauma of the rapid de-industrialisation of the coalfields, if not forgotten, is at least blunted. There are new generations in the North East who have never directly known the coalfield, but who have parents and grandparents for whom such landscapes were integral parts of their personal histories. We are at the point where “current affairs” is beginning to tip into history, where personal experience is replaced by second-hand testimony and where living memories are replaced by historic cartographies. We can’t stop this inevitable progress of change, nor should we want to, but we can take the chance to save what can be saved, record what can be recorded and continue to tell the story of an industry that defined a region.”

NB: The picture is of Murton Colliery (Co. Durham) from English Heritage’s excellent Viewfinder website.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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1 Comment

  1. I'm a Scot (84) from the Lothian Shale and coal area of Midlothian ..In the early 1950's I was a Medical officer at the Sedgefield General Hospital close to the Trimdon( Brand new) coke ovens and the colliery in the village ….I had a motorcycle and knew the mines rather well(The Nurses were local girls mainly and I had a crush on one from SPENNYMOOR) and often explored the leadmines up Swale Dale and Weardale ….In my youth I worked at the Moat Pit in Roslin bit it and it's brickworks are gone …..However I am still interested in Coal here in Vancouver Island …. I have shares in a COAL LOADING facility and in two coal mines


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