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.
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?”
“Pit vest grey”
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.
“It’s coal, sweetie.”
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.
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.
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.