The Northumbrian pitman is a man by himself. He marries early and is a continent man, while unchastity is rare in the females of his race. The husband is the 'home god'. He never does a turn of household work; it would be a disgrace to the wife if her 'master' were to hew wood or draw water. He earns the bread, stalking off to his shift of work in his grimy flannels, with his lamp hanging at his belt, and returns when it is over to strip, wash, eat, unbend then from his grim taciturnity, and smokes the pipe of well-earned ease. His store of energy is inexhaustible; whatever he sets his hand to, he does it with all his might. If he is 'religious', he is a glowing coal of Primitive Methodist fervour, he preaches at the street corner with as much vehemence as he wields the pick in the pit; he is a staunch teetotaller. When he drinks, it is not in sips, nor is he ever a soaking sot. He cares for no sedentary amusement. The sport he enjoys must he of an active kind; the more active it is, the better he likes it. The game of 'bowling', of which the pitmen are so fond is more arduous than a shift in the pit. When he gambles, he does not punt for coppers., but flings himself neck and crop into the arena of chance. A 'school', as it is called, is formed.
Men make a ring and play at pitch and toss, with scouts on the outlook for the police. Pounds are staked on every toss and gold changes hands freely. I have seen a man who won £70 at pitch and toss in one afternoon lose the whole next day in betting on the bowling on Newcastle Town Moor, and went to work the day after guiltless of the ownership of a sixpence. The pitman is fond of wrestling, and occasionally can handle his fists, although his fighting, as a rule, is of the rough and tumble order. He is generally more or less a dog fancier, his choice being an animal that can make a respectable appearance at rabbit coursing; some breed greyhounds. In the old days he was not happy without a dog for company.
The pitman's energy finds vent by many channels other than those alluded to. Many cultivate their minds with great success. Geology and botany are favourite subjects, and some men throw themselves into mathematics with as much zest as others stake their money on the toss of a coin. The Northumbrian miner swears by the Newcastle Chronicle and in nine houses out of ten you will find a copy of the weekly impression of that journal.
He has struggled, not unsuccessfully, against much of the degradation that as experience too surely shows all but invariably goes hand in hand with bad house accommodation. Coxhoe and its neighbouring Durham villages were bad enough, but I have seen pit villages in Northumberland compared with which the house accommodation at Coxhoe is respectable and indeed luxurious. I should like immensely to take one of the 'back houses' at Killingworth Colliery and drop it on the platform of a Social Science Congress. Better still, I would like to see a Social Science Congress convened in Killingworth Colliery pit village. The place has a population of about a thousand, and consists of one long row of hovels by the road side, with other rows arranged irregularly behind. The Killingworth 'front house' consists of a fair-sized single room downstairs, with an attic above, reached by an almost perpendicular ladder stuck through a hole in the ceiling. In the centre of this attic it is possible to stand upright, and in most there is a small window, although that is a matter of secondary importance, since daylight finds its way in along with rain and snow through holes in the roof. The Killingworth 'back house' is a lean-to built on to the rear of the Killingworth 'front house'. It consists of a single room, whose dimensions are 18 feet long by 10 broad, with a height of 71/2 feet after the slope ends. The flooring is of brick laid endways, by no means closely., the damp comes up and lies in clammy beads on the surface. The plaster of the roof is broken into holes, the walls are of rough bare brick, the door makes no pretensions to fit and is full of seams; of cupboard accommodation there is a total lack. Washing the foundations runs a deep black gutter, astraddle of which stands the rain water butt and which is crossed by a wooden bridge. To this bower of bliss the Killingworth pitman brings home his bride. Here children are born to the couple, and it is the number of these pledges of love which alone constitutes a solid basis for a claim to a 'front house', with the roomier joys of its single room below, and its leaky garret at the top of the break neck ladder. No closet accommodation exists.
In spite of their wretched dwellings, the pit people of Killingworth have warded off deterioration, and are exceptionally fine specimens of the breed. Amid the squalor of their habitations - I will not use the word home - they bear themselves with a courage and self respect which is very touching. They are an exceptionally sober and provident folk; there is but one public house in the place, and the majority belong to the local branch of a co-operative association which has 18000 members and an accumulated fund of £11,000.
From Killingworth it is a short drive to Dinnington Colliery, a pit opened up within the last five years. Dinnington pit village is sheltered by a grove of fine old elm trees. We pass from their shade and stand before a row of well-built two storied houses. The doors are newly painted, the large well-glassed windows are hung with pretty curtains. In this window are fuschias and gladioli, in that a vase of goldfish, in the next a statuette under a glass shade. Virginia creeper and clematis are trained up the walls and their sprays cluster around the windows. Their front doors open into pretty flower gardens, parted and bounded by privet hedges. Those pitman's houses! Fresh from Killingworth, and not yet quite of the memories of Coxhoe, I find it hard to accept the assurance that such they are but am convinced by the sight of 'Geordies' returning from their shift and entering the neat habitations with an incontrovertible aspect of occupancy. 'Geordie' courteously returns our greeting and makes us heartily welcome to an inspection of the interior of his dwelling. We visit many, to find them all comfortable and commodious.
Black bearded, honest eyed Mr. White and his family are at tea in the kitchen when we knock at the back door. The kitchen is a ceiled, papered and carpeted room, 11 feet by 7. There is a range with boiler and oven. Off the kitchen is a capital, well lighted pantry with three rows of shelves. We pass into the parlour - a parlour in a pit village? - to find ourselves in a handsome room 18 feet by 15. On the centre table are nicely bound books; on the sofa and the handsome horse hair chairs are anti-maccassars; above the mantle piece is a good sized mirror; and chiffonier, carpet, pictures and window hangings are good. We ascend a carpeted staircase to a well-lit landing. off which open two bedrooms, one 15 feet by 9, with register stove, wardrobe, cupboards and large window, the other 9 feet by 7 with the bed in a recess - a well built, well glazed, well ventilated, well sewered and well furnished house, with a flower and vegetable garden in front, 30 yards long by 19 feet wide. The houses in another row are still better, with three good sized bedrooms upstairs and 50 feet gardens in front. The row first mentioned has the gardens behind the houses.
Every house in the village has its closed in ashpit and coal bunk, its covered water butt, sink and privy. And besides the oven in each kitchen, there are several ovens out of doors for bread baking. Everywhere the drainage is good and when the building and laying out are wholly finished, Dinnington will be a perfect Paradise of a pit village. The nearest public house is a mile distant; and, as yet, so are the nearest schools and the nearest mechanics institute. The colliery is the property of Messrs Bowes and Partners, and the managing partner is Mr. C.M. Palmer of Jarrow, a gentleman who has, in that town, as well as in Dinnington, earned the title of a public spirited philanthropist. Mr. Crone is the principal viewer, and all agree in describing him as untiring in his efforts to make life pleasant for the pit people of Dinnington. In conjunction with Seaton Burn, an adjacent colliery in the same ownership, it has its Horticultural Association, with a large number of members and an annual income of upwards of £150, derived from subscriptions and the profits of the annual ball. At Seaton Burn, there is a Mechanics Institute, with 120 members.
This article first appeared in the 'Newcastle Weekly Chronicle' of the 5th October 1872 and was published in the NDFHS Journal Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 1993.
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