The Young Durham Miner from New Lambton.
The Story, As Told by George Parkinson.
To readers of these reminiscences who do not know me personally, I may without presumption or needless apology present myself as the son of a Durham miner, born in 1828 in the colliery village of New Lambton, where my father was also born in 1804.
On that level of life, I passed from childhood to manhood through the ordinary curriculum of the northern pitboy's lot.
A Man for Hissel'.
I graduated successively from the starting-point of a doorkeeper in the mine at nine years of age, through all the stages of a miner's toil and its dangers, till at twenty-one years of age I took my degree as a coal-hewer, this being the highest unofficial position attainable at the cost of the hardest form of mining-labour known. Like an apprentice, completing his time, so the putter, or conveyer of coal, becoming a hewer, has reached his highest level, and in the old pit phrase, He's now a man for hissel'.
He may only be a pitman; but, in taking stock of human nature, men have learned that in the pit, or at the plough, or any other form of honourable labour, ' A man's a man for a' that.'
Now, on that basis of honest toll and nobility of character I have always cherished a pardonable pride in my parentage. True no family coat-of-arms nor legendary lore from the College of Heralds relieved the monotony of our humble cottage walls. Nothing suggested either a past greatness from which our family had descended, or the loss of lands and titles were never ours.
My father and mother were Practical people, living in the present, the joy of their lives being largely found in ministering to the needs of those around them in every possible way. Though they have long passed to rest, they are still remembered with kindly and grateful thoughts in many a humble home.
Kind hearts are more than coronets.
Passing through the market-place at Durham once, I was accosted by a man who said,
"Excuse me, sir, but I have long wanted a chance to tell you a story which I think will interest you. My mother was left a widow with me, her only child. We lived in a house which stood alone in a field about half-a-mile of your father's house.
One very dark night we sat in that lonely cottage, no one near us, no fire nor any coal to make one, and no food. But somehow your father had heard of us and as we sat in our loneliness, he appeared at the door with a poke of coals and some chips of wood. In a few minutes a cheerful fire was blazing in the grate.
Then your mother and your aunt Bessie came with parcels of bread, butter, tea, and sugar, and a bottle of milk as welL The kettle was quickly boiling, tea was prepared and soon all gloom was gone, as if the change might have been worked by the fairies."
Then laying his hand on my shoulder, he said in a faltering voice:
"Mr. Parkinson, I've never seen a fire burn as bonny as that did, and I never had a meal like that in my life.
Oh! it was grand, sir, it was grand! Then your father came back in the morning, and after making inquiries he went to one of the colliery offices and got me work on the screens at the pit. The man in charge promised to look after me.
After asking for a load of coals to be sent to us, your father took me home as happy as a prince, to tell my mother of our future prospects. Aw've been on them screens and about that pit for above thirty years, and for some time now Aw've had charge of the screens and other work."
With tears dropping down his cheek he again shook my hand and exclaimed, "Oh that neet! Ah'll niver forget that neet! "
I went on my way thinking of Tennyson's line, "Kind hearts are more than coronets," and again of that sentence greater still, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto Me."
A man's plain, every-day duty.
My father's fine courage and resourcefulness were exhibited in another incident which took place at Haswell Colliery, where we were then living. The boiler exploded, and it was necessary to draw the men from the pit. The only apparatus available was the 'crab,' a sort of huge drum revolving horizontally, to which a rope was attached, which reached to the shaft bottom.
On this was hung the corf, or basket, in which coal was brought up, and in which the men sometimes came to bank. The shaft was 160 fathoms or 960 feet deep. The crab, moved by a horse, was a very slow method of traction, but nothing better could be found.
Some obstruction took place, and the corf, full of men, hung in the shaft for an hour-and-a-half, exposed to the strong downward current of air caused by the ventilating arrangements. By the time the corf again began to ascend all the men were chilled and benumbed.
When only a few feet remained to be traversed one of the men fell backwards, and but for the fact that the corf edge held him behind the knees, he would have gone to the bottom of the shaft. His Jacket fell over his head and entangled his arms.
He could not see, nor could he do anything to help himself. His companions, stiff with cold, could do nothing but shout, "A man is falling! Stop the crab!"
It was stopped, and the men in charge crowded to the shaft mouth to find what could be done. It was 3 am. on a dark winter morning, and nothing could be seen.
My father instantly threw off his blue jacket and his shoes, and called for two men, each over six feet high and powerful in proportion. "What are ye gannin to dee, Willie?" was the question. "Aa's gannin to be let doon there heed first, to get ha'ad of him and fetch him up."
He lay down, and the two strong men seized him by the ankles and lowered him into the abyss as far as they could reach. He felt about for the man's collar, in momentary fear that the slight grip which kept the poor fellow from destruction might fail and sweep them both away.
As soon as he felt that he had a sufficient and safe hold on the collar of the pit jacket, he called out, "Draw up very slowly." Inch by inch the corf ascended, and when clear of the edge, the eager hands reached out and drew it to the side of the shaft, where the poor fellow was released from his awful position and my father was again set on his feet.
He donned jacket and shoes and went home, not thinking he had done anything out of the common, but taking it all in the day's work.
No reporter expatiated in those days on such feats, and no medals were awarded for what was regarded as a man's plain, every-day duty, a thing not to be shirked or neglected, at the peril of bitter self-contempt.
Even in the life of a pit village, beauty and variety of interest were not lacking.
Such was my parentage, and such was the spirit of the home in which my brother and I grew up together for twenty five years. It is not strange, then, that the memory of that home and parentage is still very warm and very dear to both of us, and still supplies impulse and motive after the greater part of a century has elapsed.
The village in which I was born was a prominent feature of a picturesque landscape lying between the ancient town of Houghton le Spring and the Warden Law on the east, and the still more ancient town of Chester le Street on the west, with the well-wooded valley of the Wear between.
One long row of low roofed brick cottages, with a few other rows standing apart, formed the street, which faced a meadow through which ran a clear burn or stream. Some distance down the stream stood an old mill, at the entrance. to a series of delightful woods, clothing the steep banks of the burn.
In spring multitudes of primroses grew here, and the spot still bears the name of Primrose Hill. Beyond this lay some pleasant lanes, passing near the domains of Lumley and Lambton Castles, with fine woods on either hand; so that even in the life of a pit village, beauty and variety of interest were not lacking.
A little Paradise.
The miner's lot at that period included very long hours of labour, with very short hours for rest. No standard of age was then fixed for boys entering the pit but they were sent to work as early as six or seven years of age; not, as is sometimes alleged, from mere heartlessness on the part of the parents, but under the pressure of growing family needs, which was very keenly felt in my early years, owing to the long-continued low rate of wages and the high prices of provisions.
Nor was any legal time-limit fixed for their dark. and dreary toll, so that, irrespective of age or circumstances, boys were generally called from bed at three o'clock in the morning. Meeting at the pit mouth at four, they descended into the regions of darkness, where for thirteen or fourteen hours a day-and often for more-they abode in gloom, made visible by the feeble flickering light of a small tallow candle, or the still feebler reflection of the wire shaded Davy lamp.
Though sunrise and sunset duly followed in the world they had left behind, no gleam of daylight nor ray of sunshine illumined their path. save on Sundays, for six months in the year. Thus the Sunday became the veritable jewel of the week, when the cares and miseries of the workdays vanished from memory, and the joys of family life, of sunlight, and of unwonted ease made a little Paradise.
A joy that Napoleon never felt at Austerlitz nor Wellington at Waterloo.
One particular Sunday morning stands out very vividly in my memory. I was then a little over nine years of age, and on the Saturday night, after the six days' rising at three a.m. and returning at six p.m., I sat, tired and weary, drowsily nodding by the fireside, exceedingly comfortable, with my feet on the bright half of a wagon-wheel which served as a fender.
On retiring to bed, I was asleep in two or three minutes. About five in the morning I woke, under the impression that I had been called on to go to work; but I could find no pit clothes laid in their usual place before the fire, which was glowing in the grate.
I saw no preparations for work going on, and I was just growing peevish when, turning round, I saw my Sunday clothes laid on the chair beside the bed, with my stockings on the top, all in order for putting on. It dawned upon me that the day was Sunday, and with feelings of intense joy and satisfaction, such as no words could express,
I sprang back to bed, and again drifted off to sweet and restoring sleep. Years after I told Peter Mackenzie this story, which he introduced into a lecture on the Sabbath, describing the scene, and exclaiming in his own inimitable manner, "The poor bairn bounced into bed with a joy that Napoleon never felt at Austerlitz nor Wellington at Waterloo."
The day of days
Thus some of the happiest memories of my early days centre round the Sunday. Saturday night, for instance, was a time of preparation. All the week's work was done, and everything connected with it put out of sight.
The whole night's rest lasting till daylight on Sunday morning, the one family dinner of the week, the Sunday school and the public services, all combined to create an oasis in the wilderness, filling the atmosphere with welcome fragrance as it drew near. It was literally the day of days, a veritable Elim of wells and palm-trees, with a desert on either side as barren and desolate as Shur or Sinai to the Israelites of old.
End of Part One.
True Stories of Durham Pit Life by George Parkinson to be continued.