Methodism Comes to the Durham Coalfield.
The Story, As Told by George Parkinson.
In the early years of the eighteenth century the only provision for the religious needs of the coalfields centred in the parish churches, which were very few and far apart. As new collieries were opened, and large populations gathered round them, the existing churches were quite inadequate for the growing necessities of the case.
A Hard Tough Life in New Lambton.
But nothing was done, and vast numbers of people grew up without the humanizing influences of either religion or education, and in consequence were the ready victims of vice in all its forms. The 'Pitman's Pay' gives us a picture of the rough manners, boisterous enjoyments, and hard life of the men of those days.
Feeding the Hungry Souls.
When the great evangelist of that time came to preach the gospel in the North, he found, a virgin soil. From place to place he travelled to speak to multitudes who knew nothing of their own sinful, lost condition, nor of the means of salvation. Thus. when Methodist societies were formed, the members were in no sense Dissenters; they had nothing to dessent from. Methodism was the only agency that taught them, enlightened them, and fed their hungry souls.
Sunday School - the Only Place of Education.
The oldest and most familiar mental photograph in my memory is that of a square, red tiled brick building at the end of a long row of miners' cottages in my native village. This structure, being sornewhat higher than any other building in the place, had a prominence which naturally attracted attention where there was little else to notice. Two large windows in front. and a projecting porch covering the doorway between, marked it out as a special building both in structure and purpose. Though void of ornament and without architectural pretensions, that little unassuming Methodist chapel was the only place of worship, and its Sunday school the only place of education. in the village for more than sixty years of its history.
The Little Chapel.
During those years the services held and the lessons taught within those rough brick walls, won many souls for Christ, changed many lives and many homes, turning evildoers into workers in the Master's vineyard, and helping to form Christian characters to carry on the work in years to come. Thus the little chapel with these associations and memories of families and friendships from childhood to old age, became as sacred and as much revered by the people of the village as St Paul's Cathedral can be by inhabitants of London or St. Peter's by the citizens of Rome.
The Influence of the Public House.
The only place for social gatherings or recreation was a public-house, formed by uniting two cottages, which with a fenced cockpit and a quoit ground at the front, and a quiet place for pitch-and-toss just round the corner, provided opportunities for notaries of these sports, which, with the tap-room as their centre, were often accompanied by drunken brawls and fightings, with all the demoralizing influences arising therefrom.
Sitting in the Darkness.
Beside the chapel the nearest places of worship were the church at Houghton-le-Spring, about two miles off to the east, and the more ancient church at Chester-le-Street, three miles away on the west. A chapel-of-ease at Penshaw, two miles-and-a-half in another direction, was the parish church. From none of these, however, was any pastoral visitation conducted, nor were any religious services held for the people of New Lambton, who. like those In many other places, were literally left to sit in darkness and in the region and shadow of death.
The Gospel Light Breaking on the Shores.
Yet, just as the people which sat in darkness by way of the sea in Galilee of the Gentiles eighteen hundred years before, saw the great gospel light break on the shores of their lake and chase the darkness from their region, so in the eighteenth century the mining population in the colliery villages of Durham and Northumberland by way of the Wear and Tyne saw that same gospel light, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever,' breaking on the villages of Low Fell and Tanfield, Horsley and Plessey, Birtley, Biddick, and Penshaw.
The News of the Methodist Revival.
At Shiney Row, a village about one-and-a-quarter miles away, the Methodist revival had broken and the news spread to all the villages round. In houses, down the pits, and at the street corners conversation turned frequently on what was going on at ' Shiney Row.' One man at Lambton determined to see for himself what the strange news meant, for he had heard that someone whom he knew had been converted,' and he was determined to see what converting was like.
The Conversions Start.
On the Sunday morning, therefore, he walked to Shiney Row, and on entering the village met two men. To his great surprise, no dogs accompanied them; they were dressed in their better suits, and altogether had the appearance of men bent on important matters.
'Wy, whatten sort o' day had ye yisterda', lads?' he called out to the men. 'Eh, there's a bonny garn' on here,' replied one of them. 'What's the matter noo ? ' ' The Methodies hes getten in amang huz, and some o' huz hes getten in amang the Methodies. The bowling match didn't come off yesterday, because baith Harry and Tom was convarted last Sunda. There hesn't been all the week-end.'
Jacky Raisbeck fra' Lumley
The men were on their way to a meeting in some cottage, and they invited their questioner to go with them. In reporting his experiences he said: 'Whe dis thou think was the preacher, but Jacky Raisbeck fra Lumley? He'd a white 'kucher, and, my sang! he luk'd as good as a parson. He preached about the horrible pit, and, my word! gettin' to bank was a queer job.'
The First Methodist Service in New Lambton Village.
He and his wife asked some of the Shiney Row men to come and hold a prayer-meeting in their house on the next Saturday night. This was the first Methodist service held in the village. People heard the singing, and came to their doors. Then 'Jacky Raisbeck' came and preached. When the place came on to the Sunderland plan none of the dwellers in Lambton had ever seen its name in print, and they flocked to look at the strange sight.
The Travelling Preacher.
The travelling preacher came on the Saturday, and the good wife made a special cake for his delectation. The little table was set in front of the window, covered with a 'harn' tablecloth. Everything, though rough and coarse, was made spotlessly clean. The fireplace, bright with polished fire-irons and a glowing blaze, shone welcome. Behind the door a ladder led to the upper room or loft close to the tiles, which were not hidden by any plaster or wooden ceiling. The flooring boards of the loft were laid loose upon the joists.
A Full House.
The host, sure that the house would be full, took up every third board in the loft, and on the two remaining planks he placed forms, so that those upstairs could hear, though they could not see. Their beads touched the tiles in the roof, and movement was impossible, they were so closely packed. The ladder by which they climbed up provided seats for others and the whole house was thus filled with hearers.
The Colliery Managers Welcome the Revival.
Then a revival began at Lambton. Many were being saved, and the colliery viewer. Torn Smith, had the good sense to see that the converted men were punctually at the pit on Monday morning instead of lounging at the public-house. He offered to alter Jacob Speed's cottage at the end of the row, so that it could be used as a chapel.
The colliery workmen were sent, and part of the needful timber was provided. The roof was raised several feet, partition removed, and a gallery at each side and at the back was put up; two large windows put in, and the doorway protected by a small porch. Thus the chapel was provided, which, with necessary alterations. has served its purpose to the present day.
Consolation Amidst Hardships and Better Things to Come.
Pew rent at the rate of 9d. per quarter was charged for seats in the side gallery, the money thus raised being devoted to the provision of paper, pens, and ink for the writing-classes in the Sunday school. Eighteen shillings per quarter was the regular amount thus raised for some time.
The chapel thus created was the centre of almost all extra-domestic life. Its only competitor was the public-house; and gradually, all that made for good living, high character, and even the elements of education, found its home and sphere in the little sanctuary.
The work was maintained at the cost of many sacrifices and much self-denial by the poorly paid pitmen, who found in the Methodist services their consolation amidst hardships and their inspiration and hope for better things to come.
By George Parkinson.
True Stories of Durham Pit Life by George Parkinson to be continued.