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Coal Mining in Gateshead I

Heworth Colliery
Heworth Colliery

Mining - the beginnings
Coal mining has taken place in this area since the thirteenth century. The first pits were drift mines dug horizontally into the hillside to follow the seam. They were followed by ’bell’ pits - men would dig a shaft down to the seam, then work their way outwards from the shaft. Bell pits were not very deep and men could climb up or down by ladders with coal being raised by a hand winch. Eventually the roof would collapse, the workings would be abandoned and another shaft sunk down to the seam.

Gradually, mines had to be dug deeper to reach the coal. Workers were now faced with a new problem - water. Drainage channels had to be dug but these weren’t always effective and elaborate systems using water powered pumps were developed. This led to the Newcomen engine - a steam engine with pump rods and a piston attached to either end of a beam engine. Although expensive in terms of the fuel they used, this was a major improvement which meant new pits could be sunk and old ones re-opened. The most powerful engine on the Tyne was installed at Friar’s Goose in 1844. This engine could draw off 1,444,800 gallons of water per day.

Going for growth
The greatest single period of expansion took place in the nineteenth century. In County Durham alone, over 200 pits were sunk as new industries sprang up requiring coal for power. In 1844, there were approximately 34,000 mineworkers - by 1900 that figure had risen to 153,000. The 42 million tons of coal produced in 1851 had increased eightfold to over 373 million tons fifty years later.

Early disasters and strikes
Mines became deeper and often increasingly unsafe for mineworkers. Gateshead has a unique history of mining accidents as it was the location of the earliest recorded pit fatalities, in1621. It was also the scene of the first multiple death in a pit explosion when 30 men died at Bensham in 1705.

Further accidents resulted in small scale strikes in Gateshead in 1740, 1765 and 1784. In 1810, the first great strike took place led by a union of members who were solemnly pledged to secrecy under penalty of being ’stabbed through the heart’ or ’having bowels ripped out’. This strike lasted for 7 weeks. Durham jail became so full of dissident miners that the Bishop offered the use of his stables to house others who were arrested. The misery suffered was immense and the strike broke down due to famine and evictions. The miners eventually returned to work in January 1811 after a seven week strike.

Working conditions
Mining conditions were hard and the early nineteenth century experienced terrible pit disasters with 92 dead at Felling (1812), 75 dead at Heaton Main (1815), 35 dead at Sheriff Hill (1819) and 102 dead at Wallsend (1835)

At this time, all miners were employed under the Bond system. This meant they were required to contract themselves to a ’Master’ in return for a nominal fee - usually 1 shilling. The terms of the bond required them to work continuously at one colliery for a year although there was no guarantee on behalf of the colliery owner to give either continuous or, indeed, any employment at all. Anyone breaking their bond was liable to arrest and if convicted could be either blacklisted or transported. Frequent newspaper advertisements appeared for the return of runaway miners, with the threat of prosecution for anyone who employed them.

Miners were commonly paid in vouchers or ’Tommy checks’ which could only be used in company stores. This became known as the Tommy-shop system.
Miners were housed in pit cottages - any workers who protested about conditions stood the risk of being evicted from their homes

Coal owners, many of them aristocrats like Lord Londonderry, were less concerned with their workers than with their profits..

Reforms were needed.

Thomas Hepburn - early life
Thomas Hepburn was born in 1796 at Pelton. Following his father’s death in one of the local pits Thomas began working at Fatfield Colliery when he was only 8. He was a bright child who could read the Bible at an early age and he remained interested in education all his life.

Hepburn’s Union
From Fatfield Colliery, Hepburn moved to Jarrow Colliery and then to Hetton Colliery. While there he founded the Northern Union of Pitmen in 1831- ’the Pitmen’s Union of the Tyne and Wear’. He was always a man of peace and wanted any strike action to be taken legally and peacefully and at first he succeeded.

1831 strike
In March, 1831, 20,000 miners gathered for a strike meeting at Black Fell (between Birtley and Gateshead) and a further large meeting was held on the Town Moor, Newcastle. The following month, many mineworkers refused to sign the annual bond which expired on 5 April. Thomas Hepburn led his members in a strike. He wanted a reduction in boys working hours from 16 hours to 12 hours a day and an abolition of the ’Tommy shop’ system. The strike lasted until June and resulted in a small victory for the union as some concessions were made. Hepburn won praise from all sides who recognised that his personal influence had prevented rioting and violence. As a result, Hepburn became a full-time official of the Union.. However, success was short lived.

1832 strike and the battle of Friars Goose
The mine owners now had one aim - to smash unionism in the north east. In 1832, they refused to sign on union members and a new strike began.

Hepburn, always a man of peace, tried hard to maintain law and order in the major meetings at Black Fell and Boldon Colliery which followed. However, he found he was unable to prevent the violence that occurred.

In May 1832 a major disturbance took place at Friar’s Goose. As mine workers refused to work underground, 42 lead miners from Cumberland were brought in. Local miners pelted the incomers with stones and rubbish and two men were seriously injured. The miners refused both to work and to leave their cottages. Special constables were sworn in to deal with the emergency . Several families were evicted from their homes. This enraged the miners and brought in support from pitmen in Heworth and Windy Nook. Eventually the constables fled.

The Rector of Gateshead, John Collinson was unable to deal with the affray and appealed to the Mayor of Newcastle for support. Reinforcements arrived and confronted the striking mineworkers. In the conflict which followed guns were fired and five mineworkers and two policeman were injured. The town marshal from Newcastle sent for more reinforcements and also called out the military.

On 11 June 1832,Nicholas Fairless, a South Shields magistrate, was dragged from his horse and so savagely beaten that he died from his injuries. William Jobling, a pitman, was convicted and hanged and his body hung on the gibbet at Jarrow for several weeks. In July, Cuthbert Skipsey, a miner from North Shields, whilst trying to restore order, was shot by a constable.

Eventually the strike petered out. Whilst most of the miners eventually regained employment, the leaders of the strike became scapegoats and were outlawed. The Union crumbled and Thomas Hepburn was banned from the coalfield



Coal Mining In Gateshead II
The Rise of The Miners’ Union


Coal Mining In Gateshead II
Coal Mining In Gateshead II
The Rise of The Miners’ Union

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