LIFE at the coal face has always been tough. Even now in the 21st Century where advances in technology and machinery have helped temper the hard, physical labour needed to work underground, mining is still a dangerous and arduous occupation.
Turn the clock back a century, however, and the conditions were truly horrific. At the industry’s height in the 1920s, 1.2 million men were working in the terrifyingly claustrophobic environment of Britain’s pits.
The hours were long, the work backbreaking and the risk of injury or death from flooding, gas explosions, roof collapses or accidents ever present.
In the third decade of the 20th Century around 2,000 men died in mining accidents every year. Many more succumbed to illness and disease as a direct result of toiling hour after hour underground in poorly lit, cramped, dust-filled and deafeningly noisy conditions.
It is hard to imagine that those who were employed in Britain’s most hazardous industry had either the time or energy to take on other physically challenging activities in their free time.
But it was against this harsh backdrop that sometime around 1920 the Prudhoe Miners’ Race began.
An arduous five-mile competitive contest, it tapped into the popularity at that time among miners for long distance running events (probably because it was a cheap pursuit).
For the next quarter of a century or so, the race was a much anticipated fixture on the local sporting calendar. But after the Second World War it ran – quite literally – out of steam, at about the same time that pits which for 100 years had been the backbone of Prudhoe’s local economy also went into decline.
The race and the many and varied characters who lifted the trophy have stayed in the local psyche, however. So much so that it was revived as a one-off millennium event in September 2000.
Now the Prudhoe Miners’ Race is again being resurrected to celebrate London 2012 and the fact the town will be the first place in Tynedale to welcome the Olympic flame on June 16 as it makes its journey through the North East. This time, though, the run – which was officially re-launched earlier this month by North East Olympic running legend Charlie Spedding who took bronze in the marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles games – will hopefully be back to stay.
Prudhoe Town Council wants to see a revamped miners’ race once again become an annual sporting fixture to commemorate for generations to come, not just the day the Olympic magic came to Tynedale, but the area’s proud industrial heritage.
Seventy years ago the Prudhoe Miners’ Race was an all-male affair. Now women will be among the hundreds of runners who will line-up on July 15 as the reborn race is put under starters orders. It is to be hoped that in the years to come the race – which is being organised by Team Decathlon, the athletics club behind the popular Run Northumberland series of half marathon and 10k events – spawns as many celebrated competitors as the original.
Local runner Jack Appleby is recorded as the victor of its first outing. In the mid-1920s Archer “Archie” Pattison won the race three times in a row and was allowed to keep the winner’s trophy.
According to Jim Standish, who helped compile the local history book, A Prudhoe Likeness, which has a section on the original race, Pattison was teetotal.
But he joined the Conservative and Unionist Club on Prudhoe’s West Road so he could compete in the race. This was at a time when the area was predominantly working class, and Pattison was employed in an industry where everyone was expected to be a staunch Labour Party supporter.
Jim says: “I do not know whether he had Tory leanings rather than being a Labour supporter, but as far as I am aware his affiliation was simply a sporting one.”
Other noted runners at this time were Jimpson Harle, said to be just five feet tall and weighing under six stone, and Dickie Moore. Both men were trained by William Grigg and ran for the Prudhoe Working Men’s Club (the “Big Club”) which had been founded in 1903, and still stands on South Road.
Jim Standish, who lives in Stocksfield and is a former chairman of the Prudhoe and District Local History Society, says there was great rivalry between the clubs.
“Each pub and club had their own runners and it was very prestigious to have someone running in the race. There is no doubt that as far as the Tory Club and the Big Club were concerned there was very fierce rivalry in sport as well as politics.”
The Duke of Northumberland donated trophies for the race which originally started on Front Street at the West Wylam Inn (known locally as the Jerry) and went eastwards past where Waterworld now stands, turning right up what is Prudhoe Hospital Drive, then right again on to Moor Road.
The race then ran past where Prudhoe Community High School now is before turning left on to Highfield Lane and on to High Mickley, down Eastgate Bank to Mickley Square then back along the A695, West Road and Front Street to finish at the Jerry.
It’s impossible to now run that route, but the revamped Prudhoe Miners’ Race will where it can follow in the originals footsteps.
It is likely the race’s early pioneers were miners as the vast majority of the local population were employed in the West Wylam and Mickley pits or ancillary industries.
Other than a trophy it is not known what, if any, other prizes winners would have received. But food parcels were given out during the 1926 General Strike.
Prize money could be very generous though. Jim says that at Mickley Show, a major community event which featured sports, including a professional running race, the top prize in the 80 yard foot handicap in 1947 was £48, with £7 for second and £1 each for third, fourth and fifth places.
“At a time when wages weren’t very high, a prize of nearly £50 was equivalent to three months’ pay. Running could be lucrative if you were any good. Certainly a lot of Mickley lads ran under pseudonyms. Whether that was to hoodwink the handicap committee or because if they were deemed professionals they couldn’t take part in amateur sport, we don’t know.”
Successful runners would be “handicapped” by starting a few yards further back than less well-known athletes to make races more competitive. In the Second World War a five mile veterans’ race was added – probably because many young men were away fighting. One of the winners was the alarmingly named “Iron Jaws” Watson who is reputed to have been able to lift a 16-stone weight with his teeth!
The race is thought to have come to an end about this time, its demise perhaps hastened by the waning of mining which saw many of the area’s pitmen and their families move to collieries in other parts of the UK.
Mining finally came to an end in 1961. No one knows what happened to the race trophies and records.
But the Prudhoe Miners’ Race is now once again set to live on with its reawakening this July.
Prudhoe town mayor, Coun Jennifer McGee, says: “We hope this race will become our Olympic legacy and will carry on for future generations to enjoy. It is a race that is unique to our town.
“Prudhoe and the surrounding area was a mining community and we have to remember our roots, no matter how much times may have changed.
“These were hard-working men who worked in dangerous conditions and did a lot for the country as a whole. But they still found the time to take enjoyment in running and launched the Prudhoe Miners’ Race as a community event.
“As the Olympic torch is coming through Prudhoe in June, the town council thought it would be a good idea to host a summer of celebrations and the miners’ race ties in well with the Games and the sporting legacy we hope they will leave behind.
“The Prudhoe Miners’ Race was revived as a one-off to celebrate the new millennium in 2000, but this time we are committed to keeping it going. Hopefully this will be our own Olympic torch.”
l Entry to the Prudhoe Miners’ Race is £11 for UK Athletics members and £13 for standard entry. To enter go to www.runnorthumberland.org
MINING IN PRUDHOE
THE first record of mining in East Tynedale dates back to 1434. But the industry’s modern era can be traced to 1836 when the first shafts were sunk at West Wylam, which became a principal centre for mining in the area along with Low Prudhoe, Hedley Park, Durham Riding, Mickley and Eltringham.
As the mines grew so did the population. In the early 1800s there were less than 100 people living in the area. By the 1890s this had swelled to around 5,000.
The West Wylam pit – whose coal was used to fire the Tyne-built Mauretania’s boilers – alone employed nearly 1,000 men. Following the nationalisation of the mines in 1948 the industry in the area began to decline as it was decided extraction of coal from the drift shafts was no longer economic.
The drift seams were often very low and narrow. The Victoria seam at West Wylam, for example, was only 15 inches high. Many pitmen moved away to West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire where mining still flourished.