JUST CURIOUS JANE

JUST CURIOUS JANE - BOOKS AND HISTORY BY JANE GULLIFORD LOWES

Seaham Part 4 “She Was Only a Coal Miner’s Daughter”

Miners with lamps

Well he was an electrical engineer actually but let’s not split hairs…

If you were a child growing up in Seaham in the 1970s and 1980s, there’s an incredibly high chance that your dad worked in one of the town’s three coal mines. If he didn’t work down the pit, he worked for the Council. Our fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers began their working lives at the pit days after they left school, in the full expectation that they would stay there until the day they retired or the day they died, whichever happened sooner. These were the days of full employment – as a small child I didn’t know anyone whose father was out of work. I am descended from five generations of coal miners, on both sides, and fiercely proud of my heritage.

Those unfamiliar with the mining industry may assume that every man who worked at the pit was a miner, but this isn’t so. Each individual colliery was like a small town, with a multitude of trades and professions necessary to keep it functioning. Many of these trades involved working underground, but there was also a small army of “surface” workers – blacksmiths, fitters, joiners, engineers, electricians, time keepers, and managers, and of course the formidable ladies who ran the canteen.

The pit was the centre of our lives, of everyone’s lives; but for the coal mines, Seaham as we know it would not exist. Although the days of the private pits and their wealthy absentee owners were long gone, the collieries still exerted an almost feudal hold over their employees, many of whom lived in tied houses belonging to the National Coal Board.

When I was six years old, my dad got a transfer from Seaham Colliery to the Vane Tempest Colliery on the cliff tops at Seaham, just a stone’s throw from Seaham Hall where the Londonderry family who had created the port at Seaham to service their many pits once resided. Eventually dad became electrical engineer and shift charge engineer. Although he worked underground, the engineers and electricians were not classed as miners, and were not usually members of the National Union of Mineworkers. Again there’s an assumption that all mineworkers were NUM members but this isn’t the case – many of the different trades and professions had their own unions – for example NACODS, for the Overmen and Deputies.

Vane Tempest Colliery, where East Shore Village now stands

With this new job came the chance of a tied house, and in 1976 we left our little home in Queen’s Avenue, with its handkerchief – sized front garden, where I had lived since I was born, and moved into a spacious 3 bedroomed terraced house in Oliver Street.

High Colliery to Low Colliery. (If you’re from Seaham that needs no explanation).

There was no garden, just a back yard, and a front door that opened straight onto the street. There was no view, other than the front street and back lane, and not a bit of greenery anywhere in sight. My mother would fill the back yard with planters and pots and tubs filled with geraniums and marigolds every summer to try to brighten up the outlook. Although the house seemed large, it was virtually unmodernised – there was a old fashioned range in the lounge, no central heating, a belfast sink in the kitchen, and there was still an outdoor toilet in the back yard (thankfully no longer in use – there was a downstairs bathroom). It was like something from Beamish. However there was one luxury item which we hadn’t owned before…a TELEPHONE! After some major modernisations, we moved in.

I have so many happy memories of the eleven years or so we lived there, even though as I grew older I was desperate to escape. I can still remember the names of every family who lived in that little street of thirty houses – fifteen on one side, fifteen on the other. The Scollens at number 1, Renee and Dave Swann at number 4, the Livingstones and their mad red setter Penny at number 6, the Guys at number 7, the Hendersons at number 9 (Mr Henderson was from Ashington and to this day I never understood a single word he said), old Mr Beer at number 10, the Halls at number 11.

Over the road there were the Brunnings at number 26 , the Browns (two lots, unrelated), the Gauts, the Crombies, the Franklins. Forty years later, I can still count some of the children I grew up with in that street as good friends. I recall vividly the births, the marriages and the deaths of my neighbours, the laughter, the arguments, the street parties, the kindness and the tragedies, the good times (of which there were many) and the desperate, desperate times (of which there were quite a few).

Having a dad ( and two grandads) who worked at the pit had a number of advantages. As well as the boring stuff like a free house and free coal (delivered fortnightly and tipped through the gate into the back yard, or directly into the coal house through the coal hole), mineworkers’ children had an endless supply of “free” (and I use that term loosely) stuff. As my grandad Jim worked in the Time Office, where workers clocked on and off and a record of their shifts was kept, we always had paper and pencils.

If your dad worked as a fitter or in the blacksmith’s shop, you had a regular supply of iron benkers or bengies for playing marbles with (they were just ball bearings, but hard currency in the playground), and there’s a good chance your mother had a number of fancy wrought iron brackets for hanging things on. My grandad had a sledge made for me – it was just a piece of wooden board with 2 metal runners screwed on, and a piece of rope tied to the front, but I loved it! Need something for the house? “I’ll get one made at the pit.”

The mine workings of the Vane Tempest stretched out for miles under the sea bed. The shelves of every primary school classroom in Seaham were filled with the beautiful fossilised remains of ferns and leaves and sea creatures, rescued from the spoil heaps by our fathers.
“ Look Miss I’ve brought in a fossilised tree branch for the nature table!”.
“Another one? ”
One day my dad somehow managed to get lost in the old mineworkings, which must have been somewhat alarming; this caused much mirth at home and the next morning my mother packed a ball of string in his bait box, just in case.

How many of us would come home from school and clatter around the house, only for our mothers to hiss “SHHHHH your dad’s in bed!” ? We were all so familiar with those shift patterns which shaped our family life – day shift, night shift, back shift and tub loading (universally pronounced tubble-oadin’). It was brutally hard work. On a Friday my dad would start work around 7.30am, finish around 3.30pm, come home and go to bed for a few hours, then go back out to work at 10.30pm until 6.30am on Saturday. He’d usually work a Sunday morning too. The phone would often ring during the night and dad would get called out – “The Eickhoff has broken down”. Or “that bloody Eickhoff” as it was known in our house. The Eickhoff was a huge coal-cutting machine – no Eickhoff meant no coal production. He regularly worked seven days a week, especially when I was at University. I must have been one of the very few students to never have had an overdraft or any debt whatsoever, thanks to my parents’ hard work and generosity.

Every miner’s child would be familiar with their dad’s work gear – the bright orange overalls and the dark grey pit vests and y-fronts that always seemed to be hanging on the washing line. Pit vest grey is an actual colour in our family.
“What colour is it?”
“Grey”
“Grey?”
“Pit vest grey”
“Ah right.”

As well as the work clothing, our dads were also provided with pit boots and and black donkey jackets. These jackets had bright orange plastic patches sewn across the back , bearing the initials “NCB” in large black letters, just in case they were in any doubt as to where they worked or who owned their lives. In the early 1980s, donkey jackets actually became a coveted fashion item for teenage boys and girls. EVERYBODY had one. This was the era of the New Romantics and Alternative Music, of Duran Duran, Visage, Dexys and Joy Division, and it was perfectly acceptable to go out wearing ankle warmers, a broderie-anglaise-trimmed calf length gipsy skirt and a donkey jacket, looking like a cast member of the Kids from Fame who had somehow wandered onto the set of the Boys From the Blackstuff.

So many kids pinched their dad’s or older brother’s old jacket and carefully cut away the orange badge, but there was always a thin tell-tale seam of luminous plastic around the edges which gave the game away. Incredibly you can now find them for sale on eBay, listed as “Rare Men’s Vintage National Coal Board Donkey Jacket – Used, in good condition, £55”. HOW MUCH? My parents would never let me have a donkey jacket because “you’d look like you were going down the pit”. Hardly surprising some of our friends and neighbours thought we were a bit…well… posh.

Posh. I was regularly accused of being posh by the older kids in the neighbourhood. Dad was an engineer and mum was a librarian, and we had squirty cream on top of our coffee. Therefore we were posh. At the time I never really understood what “posh” meant. Aspirational perhaps? My parents wanted a different life for my brother and I. “That Jane Gulliford has got ideas above her station.”

I still have.

Every summer during “pit fortnight” huge numbers of miners and their families would head off on holiday, many travelling together by coach, to Butlins or Pontins. I remember Butlins at Mine head and Filey being particularly popular. However we holidayed in Stratford upon Avon or the Cotswolds. While every other kid in the street was playing on the dodgems and having whale of a time on the beach, we were visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace or Warwick Castle. And I loved it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If that made us posh then I guess we were. Well, as posh as you can be when you live in a colliery house and everyone you know and are related to works at the pit.

There’s a popular misconception that mining families were somehow financially badly off. In fact, miners were very well paid, especially those who worked underground and at the coal face, mainly because it was so bloody dangerous. I remember my dad’s boss losing an arm when it became trapped in the conveyor, and I can recall regular serious injuries and fatalities at the pit and at local collieries, Westoe and Wearmouth. There was nearly always overtime available, and looking back there was never any shortage of new cars in our street. We weren’t rich by any stretch but nor were we poor.

In 1984 everything changed, and was never the same again. The Miner’s Strike of 1984-1985 still divides opinion today. In the eyes of many, you were either for it or against it, but for lots of families it was never that black and white. In recent years there has been a tendency almost to romanticise the events, but believe me, there was absolutely nothing romantic about it. It was brutal. Police brutality. Union brutality. Extreme poverty. Extreme hardship.

I have many memories of that time – lying in bed listening to men arguing and fighting in the street; being awoken by the sound of breaking glass  as the windows of the local greengrocer’s shop were shattered in the night (again) because her husband had broken the strike; standing at the school bus stop watching the “battle buses” containing the handful of men who had returned to work, and the desperate men who tried to prevent them from doing so. Gradually more and more seats on those buses were filled, as an increasing number of men crossed the picket line due to financial desperation, disillusionment with union tactics, an acceptance of defeat or sometimes a combination of all three.

I recall women crossing the street to avoid their next door neighbours, people not speaking to former friends and relatives for decades. I remember my parents’ quiet desperation, which they tried to keep hidden from us, when we were down to our last £20, and trying to survive on strike pay of £9 per fortnight. I hated Thatcher, and I despised Scargill.

It was a tragedy, whichever side you were on, and still I find this very difficult to speak about, 33 years later.

Just eight years after the strike, the last of Seaham’s mines closed down, and my dad was one of the very last employees.

When my son was very small I took him to the museum and Winter Gardens at Sunderland. One of the displays featured the mining history of the local area. He picked up an small object, turning it over in his tiny hot hands, and brought it over to me.

“What’s this?”
“It’s coal, sweetie.”
“What’s coal?”

How times change.

Last year while researching Seaham’s industrial past online, I stumbled upon a simple sketch of a miner’s helmet and headlamp, which I believe comes from the mining community in the United States. Next to it were written the words

“I am a coal miner’s daughter. He went into the dark so my light could shine”.

He did. It does. And I am forever grateful.

Coal miner's daughter

Links

You can read more about Seaham, its people and its history on this blog.

My first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017), tells the true story of a young Seaham woman who left the mining villages of County Durham behind to start a new life alone in Australia in 1886. You can read more here.

The Horsekeeper's Daughter book cover

My new book, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story will be published in Summer 2020 (now available to pre-order). The book tells the story of a Seaham family, the Clydes, during the Second World War, and follows the fight for survival of 19 year old RAF wireless operator Jack Clyde and his bomber crew.

Above Us The Stars book cover

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32 Comments

  1. Allison Swainston nee Hall November 2, 2017

    Wow, I think for me, being a Hall from number 11 and sampling your mam’s coffe in a poppy patterned tea cup and saucer with “squirty cream” on top, this is your most powerful piece of writing.
    The hours spent playing cricket in the back street. or two ball against the wall always makes me smile.
    I remember the video van on a Friday evening , where you were fined for not rewinding the tape.
    The jubilee party with chips provided from Brown’s chippy.
    The best of memories Jane, how lucky we were.

    • Jane November 2, 2017 — Post author

      Haha I’m howling, I’d forgotten all about the video van!!! Thank you so much, it was quite a difficult and emotional piece to write I can tell you. So glad you enjoyed it xx

  2. Kath Skinner November 3, 2017

    Remember these times so well. You’re writing brings my past to life Jane and I love it!! My dad was a miner at Dawdon colliery and in his later years worked at the council information centre next to the library. Happy times & hard times for many but luckily Seaham has picked itself up again and my heart still belongs there 💕

  3. Alison Rudzki November 3, 2017

    Oh my goodness Jane, this is powerful stuff, I’m crying as I type. I’m back there with you and share all those memories and feelings.

    As you know my dad worked for the Council and I always felt lucky that apart from call-outs, he didn’t go out on nightshift. He did his time as a brucklayer down the pit though- building walls against the gob-fires – 6 feet thick – then another wall. I’ve lost relatives in the various pit tragedies and recall the pain and hatred of the miners strike, it split families and friendships across Seaham. I recall being sent out with good parcels early in the morning or late at night to leave on doorsteps so as not to embarrass anyone.

    Like you, I’m so grateful and so proud of where I’m from. I recall the day I started university and my parents presenting me with a Davey Lamp inscribed with the words ” Don’t forget your roots.” I never have and it sitspolishedvon my windowsill now 33 years later here in New Zealand.

  4. Paul Sargerson November 3, 2017

    Why you wernt born an author God knows , you have a powerful way with words and even better you know what your writing about .like all the rest you have written it’s breathtaking in its own way and sad to but still wonderful .

  5. Stephen Foster November 3, 2017

    Hi Jane another charming article on our mining town. Your experiences totally mirror my life growing up in seaham when the mines were open . Like you I am very proud of my mining family . Through their hard work and also high moral standards I was also lucky to be the first member of our family to go university without the financial worry of today’s students.ps when is your book launched as Anne and I would love to attend best wishes Steve Foster

    • Jane November 3, 2017 — Post author

      Hi Stephen, thanks so much, glad you enjoyed it ! The book launch is probably going to be mid December – I’ll keep you posted though , it will be lovely to see you and Anne again.

  6. John Abbott December 10, 2017

    I came across your website via twitter and was impressed by your blogs, the way they were written, I could recollect my childhood in the 70’s, people who lived in the Road, etc. I’ve read all the blogs and so impressed by your writings, I’ve ordered your book, which will accompany me on trip to watch the cricket in New Zealand.

    • Jane December 10, 2017 — Post author

      Thank you so much John, I hope you enjoy it! And you’re a very lucky man indeed, heading off to watch my favourite sport in my favourite country!

  7. MV December 28, 2017

    LJG — What a beautifully observed, evocative and heartfelt piece of writing. Mr K’s faith in your talents was well-placed indeed (for the record, there was never any doubt in my mind). Wishing you every possible success with your book and each that follows it. Keep travelling; it does your soul good! — MV

    • Jane December 29, 2017 — Post author

      Thank you so much “MV”, I hope he would have been very proud! It’s just taken me a (very) long time to find my vocation. Currently mulling over a few ideas for book number 2. Hope you’re well and I agree – who knows where my next adventure will be! X

  8. Shaun Clapperton August 21, 2018

    That has taken me right back to my youth (I’m a year younger than your brother) and your words have transplanted me back to the days when my dad’s aunty and uncle used to come visit us – both my brother and I were completely unaware they’d brought a weeks groceries to help us through the strike.

    Please pass my regards on to your parents. It’s a few years since I last bumped into them.

    • Jane August 21, 2018 — Post author

      Hello Shaun thanks so much for your lovely comments – I remember you well 🙂 I’ll certainly pass on your regards to Mam and Dad, thank you x

  9. Paula Newton August 25, 2018

    Just wonderful!! I have so much enjoyed reading these. Being from Seaham and growing up during those times too, I relate to them all completely. I shall definitely be buying your book! x

    • Jane August 25, 2018 — Post author

      Thanks Paula, glad you enjoyed the blog. Hope you like the book too! X

  10. Ann Marie Jorgenson August 25, 2018

    Loved reading this and I have also read your book. I remember you when you lived in Queens Avenue. My Dad Alan Baker and my husband were miners, he was an electrician and often talked about the Eickhoff

    • Jane August 25, 2018 — Post author

      I remember you and your brother and sister very well Ann Marie. I think I have a photo of you and I in our front garden at Queens Avenue! Lovely to hear from you x

    • John Witten August 24, 2022

      Anne Marie, he didn’t go anywhere near them though haha. Jane, was your dad Geoff? I worked at VT and had Happy times there after transferring from th Knack. Great days in the community that was knitted together by the collieries. I was not from mining stock, and was the first and last generation of our family to venture underground!

      • Jane August 24, 2022 — Post author

        Hello John, glad you enjoyed it! Yes my dad is Geoff. His dad George worked there as well, as did my other grandad Jimmy Groark who worked in the Time Office

  11. Melanie Wood August 25, 2018

    Just brilliant!! All of my family….Dad, Grandads and Uncles worked at all of the various pits in Seaham. I was born in 1970 and we lived in Frederick St and Alexandrina St until we moved away in 1978. My dad was a fitter at Dawdon and yes I had a never ending supply of shiny silver benkers which I gradually lost as I was rubbish at marbles! I had the donkey jacket in the early 80’s which I dug out of the cupboard for the local disco nights although it was about 6 sizes too big for me!! A very thought provoking piece of writing Jane!

    • Jane August 25, 2018 — Post author

      Hi Melanie thanks for getting in touch – you must be exactly the same age as me then! Ha they were happy times ! X

  12. Muriel Cox August 25, 2018

    I go back earlier in memory than you Jane . Late 40’s ,50’s & 60’s but I still recognised your graphic history of Seaham & its Mining community . Wonderful to read ! I left Seaham many years ago but the picture & descriptions you write are part of my heritage . I have only recently discovered your website & look forward to your book . Thank You so much

    • Jane August 25, 2018 — Post author

      Thank you so much Muriel! If you new to source a copy please do get in touch x

  13. Tracy Golden December 24, 2018

    Well written.

    I remember so well the miners strike and the devastating consequences,

    Robinsons (top of Church Street) gave us more free shoes than I needed. Mam working at the Leisure Centre got us free hot showers. The Xmas Party at the Dawdon Welfare Club saw the French and Russian Miners show solidarity – my brother a “Casey” and me a beautiful oil painting kit. Humbled that the Russian Miners chipped in.

    Brothers never spoke for years as a result of one breaking (out of destitution) breaking the strike. A town divided. A town now healed. W left in 1988 – i wonder how long it took.

    Movies like Billy Elliot may romanticise the situation and we love it (but when i was his age I cant remember Ballet lessons at the Wellie!!!) – but those who lived it remember both the hardship and the generosity of the “fish lots” supplied by local business, The free shoes. The days our dads came back from the picket lines having played good cricket with the coppers when they weren’t being rough.

    I still to this day don’t know who gave us the free eggs… whoever you are I thank you!!

    Best memories of the strike were spending far too much time at the pit pond. Oh and the big meeting in Durham that year.

  14. Brian Langtry May 19, 2019

    Hello Jane,
    I found your sites enthralling and educating. For my sins I make documentary films focusing upon mining and canals. Although I have no direct link to mining being brought up in Lancashire I of course was aware of these 2 industries and an awareness which has I guess finally bloomed in retirement. I am intending to make a short film about Seaham’s mining history and am particularly interested in both peoples memories of mining and the perception of this legacy amongst younger Seaham residents. I am planning to start this in July and wondered if it might be possible to meet up and record/film an interview for the film? You can see further personal information at http://www.leglessproductions.co.uk http://www.filmsbybrianlangtry.com or brianlangtry23@gmail.com

  15. brian langtry August 12, 2019

    Hi Jane,
    glancing again at your site always a pleasure. i’m coming to the area next tues/weds/thurs to do some filming so am hoping we can meet and do an interview ?
    Looking through google for info an history is not that forthcoming as I was trying to see where the local mines were sited but only manage to find information on Vale Tempest. Tried to source local history books/maps but a failed attempt I’m afraid.
    I’m hoping you might be able to advise or point me in the right direction – is there a local history soc etc? I’ll bring you a copy of a film i made about the 84/5 strike in Leicestershire which occurred to me reading the blog when you talk about strike in Seaham and growing up. Looking forward to voyaging North!

  16. Janice Martucci November 9, 2019

    Jane I absolutely love this, and agree with a previous comment that it is very powerful and moving (to tears). My father was born in Seaham, as was his father before him. My great grandfather came to Seaham from Reeth in Swaledale, via Bishop Auckland in 1855. He went on a jaunt to help open the mines in the Rhine Elbe area, then came back to Seaham where he became a pillar of the community. All the men in my father’s line were miners, lead then coal, until my grandad declared that no son of his would go down the mine. And none of them did. And I’m sorry about that because that meant that they all moved away, none were our neighbours, we all became nomads and I have forever missed the continuity, and the sense of being, that you get when brought up amongst aunts, uncles and cousins. I was in Seaham last week and feel an incredible fondness for the place. I love that nature has taken over but if you look you can still see signs of the coal industry here and there., and yes there was coal dust on the beach. Oh it was wonderful to see the place bustling and lively, watched over by Tommy., eternal guardian of three of my ancestors killed in WW1 who have their poppies on the railings. So in that way the Spence family is forever there. Janice (Spence)

    • Jane November 9, 2019 — Post author

      Hello Janice, thank you so much for taking the time to get in touch and to share your family’s story. So glad you enjoyed the blog x

  17. Angela August 22, 2022

    Would love to read all of your stories on Seaham. Plus the Wireless Operators Story. Where can I buy same, please

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