Coal and Cathedrals, Saints and Sinners – Durham 1942

RAF Memorial Durham Cathedral
RAF Memorial Window, Durham Cathedral

So often our identities, both as individuals and as nations, are bound to our sense of place; a particular familiar landmark, be it a castle or a hill or a church or even a pithead, evokes a sense of community and belonging, a feeling of “home”. These landmarks tie us to the land, helping to create within each of us our regional or national identity. We begin to see them as old friends, perhaps even as members of our families; bricks and mortar, yes, but so much more than that. In times of strife, these landmarks become symbols of spirit, of hope and determination. There’s a famous old black and white photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London at the height of the Blitz, its world-renowned dome towering above the smoke and the rubble, and the death and confusion which surrounds it.

For us County Durham folk, our landmark, our talisman, the source of so much pride and affection, is Durham Cathedral.  We have an evangelical passion for this place; wherever we go in the world we sing its praises, and those of this precious gem of a city. It is no cold, forbidding ancient space; this Cathedral has a beating heart, a warmth and a joy, its ancient stones embracing all who visit, those of all faiths and those who have none.

For almost 150 years, every July, thousands of miners from collieries all over the North East of England have gathered here with their banners for the traditional service which marks the beginning of the miners’ gala, or as it is known in these parts “Durham Big Meeting”, earning it the nickname of “The Pitman’s Cathedral”.

The Cathedral is both restful and busy, calming and vibrant. In the golden light ladies with armfuls of flowers and greenery bustle back and forth creating floral arrangements for the altar and side chapels; purple-gowned guides and beadles smile and chat to visitors and pilgrims; cassock-clad choristers march in procession on their way to choir practice; a small army of volunteers and listeners attend to those seeking information and those seeking solace. The footsteps of tourists fall upon marble memorials set amidst the flagstones, all of them too busy looking upwards at the magnificent vaulted ceiling to notice the names of long forgotten souls who rest for eternity beneath their feet.

The Cathedral’s history isn’t confined to the Norman and Medieval periods though; in more recent times, even in living memory, it has played its part on the world stage, a backdrop yes, but also a silent participant. Lord Londonderry, one-time government minister, local coal magnate and land owner, and a vilified Nazi appeaser, had visited the Cathedral with Hitler’s ambassador, Von Ribbentrop, in 1936. As the organist struck up the German national anthem, “Deutschland Uber Alles”, the ambassador began to raise his right arm in the traditional Nazi salute; he was only prevented from doing so when his Lordship grabbed the offending limb and shoved it swiftly and firmly back down by its owner’s side.

Londonderry Hitler & Von Ribbentrop
Lord Londonderry, Hitler and Von Ribbentrop, Germany 1936

As you enter the Cathedral through the ancient Norman doorway, just Lord Londonderry and Von Ribbentrop did, it’s very easy to miss the Royal Air Force Memorial and stained-glass window to your right, as your attention is automatically drawn to the vast nave and the towering columns to the left. The window depicts an airman in his flying jacket, sat on the back of a soaring eagle, gazing upon a mist-shrouded cathedral, and references one of the most famous episodes in the Cathedral’s more recent history.

On the night of 28th March 1942, 234 Royal Air Force Wellington and Stirling bombers had dropped around 400 tons of bombs, including 25,000 incendiary devices, on the medieval German city of Lubeck, a port on the Baltic coast. The raid was meant to be a show of force, a demonstration of the capabilities of Bomber Command, and the first time the Area Bombing Directive issued to the RAF in February 1942 had been implemented, to horrific effect. Lubeck had been chosen as a target because of its many medieval timbered buildings, which burned like tinder under the incessant deluge of incendiary bombs. The plan had been to replicate the method of bombing which had destroyed Coventry. It worked. Over 300 people were killed in the firestorm which resulted, and more than 15,000 were made homeless. Such was the intensity of the fires that the bells of St Mary’s Church melted. In a savage turn of events, four Christian religious ministers (three Catholics and a Lutheran) were arrested by the Nazi authorities after the raid, tried and sentenced to death. They were beheaded on 10th November 1943 in Hamburg. Their crime? To explain the Lubeck raid as a “trial by ordeal” in their sermons, which the authorities interpreted as unacceptable criticism of the government, intended to undermine morale.

In direct response to the attack on Lubeck, the Luftwaffe launched a series of bombing raids on historic British cathedral cities. These were nicknamed the “Baedeker Raids”, because they targeted sites of cultural and historical significance picked out from the series of famous old travel guides. The first raid took place on 23rd April 1942, targeting Exeter. Canterbury, Bath, York and Norwich were also bombed, the latter twice, along with small towns of no strategic importance such as Cowes, King’s Lynn and Poole. Every one of the Cathedrals survived, but there was heavy damage sustained to the city centres and substantial loss of life. Over 1600 civilians were killed, even more injured, and 50,000 homes destroyed or damaged.

Exeter  Baedeker Raid 1942
Aftermath of the Baedeker Raid on Exeter, 1942

On the night of 30th April 1942, a force of some 38 German bombers passed over the North East coast and carried out raids on Newcastle, Sunderland, South Shields and Jarrow.  A number of bombs were dropped in the vicinity of Durham, which was much less heavily defended than the industrial towns and cities of the region. Four fell near Carville, on the outskirts of the city, others at Beamish village (including one with a timer device that exploded later in the day, killing eight people); a few miles to the north, an unpopulated area by a bend in the River Derwent was heavily bombarded, and two bombs fell at Finchale Priory, which perhaps had been mistaken for the Cathedral.

Many believed that the Luftwaffe had been aiming for Durham that night, but for some reason had missed their target. However, it was a bright moonlit night, and the Cathedral is hard to miss – it towers above the peninsula in the River Wear and is visible from miles around. Some local residents, including the chief Air Raid Warden George Greenwell, had recounted that a mist had suddenly and miraculously descended upon the city, rendering the target all but invisible to the marauding German aircraft. Many local people attributed the fog to divine intervention, perhaps on the part of the Cathedral’s resident saint, Cuthbert, and it became known as “St Cuthbert’s Mist”; whatever the cause, Durham Cathedral was spared that night, and it is this event which is so beautifully depicted in the stained glass window above the RAF Memorial.  

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral from the River Wear

It’s not just the county’s servicemen who are commemorated within the Cathedral though. On the opposite side, the inscription upon a black marble memorial, affixed to the ancient stone walls, gives thanks for the lives of the thousands of men who died for the getting of coal. Every day the page is turned in the Book of Remembrance; every day a different list of names of those men and boys killed in the county’s mines.

Mining had always been a perilous occupation, and this remained the case during the war years, with massively increased demands for production leading to longer working hours. However when war broke out, many of the town’s colliery workers had been on short hours, and throughout the 1930s there had been periods where production had ceased altogether due to lack of demand abroad. The miners were frequently laid off, and there were constant battles between the unions and the colliery owners for better pay and conditions. Lay offs meant that there was no work; no work meant no wages. Wages varied hugely from one week to the next, even when work was available, and many families lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

As the reality of war and its impact upon the nation’s industrial resources began to dawn on Churchill’s government in late 1940, it soon became evident that there would need to be an exponential rise in coal and steel production, necessary for the manufacture of ships, aircraft, tanks and armaments. In early 1941, propaganda posters produced by the Durham Miners Association, urging miners to “PUT YOUR BACK INTO IT!” began to appear on the “surface” at all mines around the county. This campaign caused disquiet in some quarters. It seemed that there was no happy medium – many of these men had only just come off short time working, having been allowed to work only two weeks out of every three, and now they were being required to work every hour that God sent. Many others however were just grateful for the regular work, and glad to “do their bit” in support of brothers and sons serving in the Forces.

On Saturday 5th July 1941, Admiral Sir Edward Evans gave a speech at the Miners’ Hall at Redhills in Durham, urging maximum effort. The Admiral was afforded a warm welcome by the assembled pitmen, especially when he introduced Flight Lieutenant McKenzie of 43 Squadron, and Pilot Officer Balbage, of 74 Squadron, both fighter pilots, who flew operations in the two Spitfires paid for by the Durham Miners Association. Sir Edward relayed a message from the Minister of Food, promising to do all that he could to ensure that the country’s miners were properly fed. Plans were put in place to increase the number of pit-head canteens to provide hot meals for the men. Up till now, most had simply eaten their bait – sandwiches, or maybe a bit of pie or cold leftovers from the previous night’s dinner – during a brief meal break underground.

Durham Miners 1940s
Miners at Sherburn Hill, Durham, 1940s

Throughout the war years, there were regular and frequent fatalities in the County’s collieries. The Member of Parliament for Seaham Harbour, Mr Emmanuel Shinwell, was a passionate advocate for the rights of the miners throughout the war and beyond. In August 1941 he spoke to a group of miners in Seaham Harbour, and was highly critical of Mr Churchill’s government. He felt that the vested interests of many in government – the landed gentry and the millionaire industrialists among them – were limiting the nation’s potential for production, thereby hampering the war effort. Mr Shinwell had long been of the view that the coal industry should have been put under direct state control as soon as war broke out, and a standard weekly wage introduced for all employees whether they worked in collieries in Kent, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire or Scotland. This is what had happened towards the end of the First World War – however, instead of retaining control the mines had been returned to private ownership in 1921, leading to widespread strikes across the country throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.

Not all working men held with Shinwell’s views however. He was frequently accused of being unpatriotic and stirring up ill-feeling against the Government purely for his own political purposes. However, many were persuaded to his way of thinking when the Government passed legislation making it illegal for miners to strike. Historically Mr Churchill had been no friend of the working man. During the General Strike in 1926, he had been one of those politicians who had advocated the establishment of machine gun posts at pitheads to combat any civil disorder, and his views still rankled.

Disputes like this were replicated in mines around the country, from Kent to Scotland; the War Cabinet finally agreed to a standard minimum wage of 83 shillings a week for all underground workers, and 78 shillings a week for surface workers.

At Murton Colliery, near Seaham, any relief at the new pay and conditions was short lived. At around 8 o’clock on the evening of 26th June 1942, a huge explosion of fire damp tore through the Five Quarter seam. An official statement issued by the colliery owners, the South Hetton Coal Company Limited, confirmed

   “Thirteen men were killed outright and three injured. Of the three men injured two were able to proceed to their homes, but the third was removed to Sunderland Royal Infirmary suffering from extensive burns. The bodies of the deceased men were all recovered within eight hours of the accident.”

The names of the thirteen men who perished at Murton Colliery that night are recorded in the Book of Remembrance at the Miners’ Memorial at Durham Cathedral. Alongside them are written the names of a further 39 men who were killed at the Seaham and Murton pits (Seaham, Vane Tempest, Dawdon and Murton) between 1939 and 1945. Many more perished in the mines scattered across this little county during those years. The inscription on the memorial reads:

He breaketh open a shaft away from where men sojourn.

 They are forgotten of the foot that passeth by.” 

Amongst the bishops, the barons, the saints, and the sinners, the lives of those rough, ordinary men who paid the ultimate sacrifice, along with those who fought and died on land, at sea and in the air, are remembered, and honoured.  

Durham Cathedral remains for us, as it was for them, our talisman, our “home”.

Miners Memorial Durham
Miners Memorial, Durham Cathedral

You can read more about Lord Londonderry and wartime in County Durham, in my forthcoming book, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command -The Wireless Operator’s Story (estimated publication date July 2020 – now available to pre-order).

Above Us The Stars book cover

My first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter, is a true story of 19th century migration from the mining villages of County Durham to the Australian rainforests. You can read more here.

The Horsekeeper's Daughter book cover

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  1. Allison February 17, 2019

    Fabulous as ever, please keep them coming!

  2. Nicola February 17, 2019

    Brilliant read

  3. David February 17, 2019

    Thoroughly enjoyed this. I was in the cathedral this week. I’m also the grandson and son of coal miners. Many tales told to me by grandad over Sunday dinner.

  4. Ian Mc Nee February 18, 2019

    Another great piece Jane. Ref the second Paragraph, I thought it was just me that went around the world trying to convince everyone that Durham Cathedral is the best, seems I’m not alone after all.

  5. Julie Harland February 18, 2019

    Fabulous Jane, I love to read your blogs!

  6. Vic Jay April 16, 2019

    I loved this post, Jane.

  7. BobW June 25, 2019

    Lovely post. I was a student at Newcastle in the 80’s and often passed the cathedral when travelling home or back by train. (Home is South London)
    I have often thought what a beautiful building it is. Really must take the time to stop off one day and visit it.

    • Jane June 25, 2019 — Post author

      You really must! The cathedral is breathtaking and the city itself is beautiful .

  8. Dominic Handley June 30, 2019

    Thank you. I enjoyed your Blog so much I have to read the book now, downloaded from google play to my phone so I can read it while my girlfriend (daughter of a mine electrician from Wheal Crofty Cornwall) searches for seaglass.

    • Jane June 30, 2019 — Post author

      Hi Dominic, thank you so much ! Hope you enjoy the book too. Good luck with the sea glass hunting 🙂

  9. Bob E March 31, 2020

    My father was a chauffeur for lord Londonderry and his agent at Seaham, he picked up Von Ribbentrop from London and drove him to Wynyard before the war, his passenger never spoke to him the entire journey! He was also aware of the embarrassing incident in Durham cathedral when Ribbentrop was about to salute.

    • Jane March 31, 2020 — Post author

      Hello Bob, thanks so much for getting in touch! Wow that’s absolutely incredible. Wish I’d heard about this before I finished writing my book about Seaham during the war, Above Us The Stars. Londonderry features in it quite a bit. Thanks so much for sharing your father’s story!

      • Bob E March 31, 2020

        On another occasion my father was driving the agent to Seaham golf club along Princess road, the agent sat in the rear seat wearing a bowler hat and filling his pipe, my father braked suddenly when a child stepped in the road, and the agent fell against the front seat pushing the hat down over his ears where it stuck!
        My mother came out of here front door to see my father with his agents head under his arm trying to pull the hat off, but my mother thought he was wrestling with the poor man.

  10. Jane September 15, 2020

    I guided in our lovely cathedral in Durham, for thirteen years. It was always a great joy to tell the tales of the Baedeker raid on Durham and the Cathedral’s survival. My father in law was on duty, in the tower on that night. The Miners Memorial is wonderful too – It was once a Coal Owners dining-room fireplace surround, but look at the carving, The minors tools are the very same that we imagine were used in the making of Christ’s Crucifix

    • Jane September 15, 2020 — Post author

      Hello Jane, thank you for your lovely comments. What a pleasure and a privilege to have guided in our wonderful cathedral for so many years! It’s incredible that your father was there that night. What a story. Yes I do love the miners’ memorial too – and the DLI chapel, which is exquisite

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