Heritage: Project to probe North East mining exodus

A study by the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers is looking at how North East miners took their skills from around the world

Mining engineers in the North East in the 19th Century
Mining engineers in the North East in the 19th Century

With its prowess in everything from mining and railways to shipbuilding and early power stations, the North East played a leading role in forging the modern world.

The region not only exported locomotives around the globe, it also provided the mining engineers and colliers who had perfected their skills in the Great Northern Coalfield.

When other countries decided to develop their own coal mining industries, the expertise was supplied by North East workers.

The same skills were also needed in the gold fields of Australia and the diamond mines of South Africa.

Now the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers in Westgate Road in Newcastle, with its internationally-important library and records, is at the centre of a project to examine how the men from the region’s mining industry – and their families – spread across the world.

They took with them their culture and North East place names. The first pit in South Africa was called Penshaw Colliery.

The 18-month Mining the Institute project, backed by an £85,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant, is investigating the exodus abroad of North East colliery men from around 1840 to the early years of the 20th Century.

“These pioneering mining engineers, having learned their skills in the Great Northern Coalfield, subsequently travelled the globe, followed by the skilled men of the region, opening up coalfields, goldfields and then much else,” says Rick Smith, chairman of the institute’s management group.

The project is being led by Bill Lancaster, former director of the Centre for Northern Studies at Northumbria University.

He muses on two of the great step-changes in the development of society – an agriculture-based civilization and the rise of the industrial world and a wages economy.

The North East, sitting on vast coal reserves and with centuries of mining experience, was ahead of the industrial game.

Crowley’s ironworks in what is now Gateshead was employing a large wages workforce in the 17th Century.

“Later, there are the Stephensons’ locomotives, Joseph Swan and his light bulb – it was all happening here and coal was a big factor in creating this new society, “ says Bill.

“There was a huge boom in the coal mining industry in the 19th Century and people were leaving agriculture in County Durham and Northumberland for the jobs but that wasn’t enough, and many more came from Scotland to Ireland and Cornwall.

“Reading the descriptions, the 19th Century mining villages in the North East were like the Wild West.

“Coal was the first modern energy,” says Bill. Other countries followed suit and it was the North East which was a well of experience.

“Our engineers and miners began developing a global coalfield,” says Bill.

They opened up the Ruhr coalfield in Germany in the 1820s and did the same in Vancouver Island in Canada, and across the United States from Illinois to Kentucky, to Australia and New Zealand.

The project is also looking at another migration of miners from the North East in the 20th Century, but for a different reason. This time, it was because the industry in the region was contracting.

The Great Northern Coalfield had reached its peak in 1913, with more than 200,000 miners.

Especially from the 1950s, transfer schemes saw mining families move to new coalfields in the Midlands and the south, where it was also easier for women to find work in retail and light industry.

The project plans a mining festival in the summer.

It will include recitations of pitmatic, the language of the North East miners which was researched and recorded in a 2007 book by the late Bill Griffiths.

The festival will feature the work of pitmen poets like Joseph Skipsey and Tommy Armstrong, writers from Sid Chaplin to Alan Plater, plus pitmen painters, with mining artists from Norman Cornish to Tom McGuinness.

Mining music will also be showcased, with songs such as the Blackleg Miner and Byker Hill and Walker Shore.

Also part of the festival will be the hundreds of short documentary films made by the NCB film unit in the 1950s-60s.

“They went round the pit villages in the North East, in the pubs chapels, and pit rows, talking to people,” says Bill.

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