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Mining Villages – Coxhoe in the 1840’s

The mining of coal was carried out in the North-east of England from Roman times.  The first mines were literally holes in the ground, not very deep, and usually entered by ladders.  As the miners burrowed round the inside of the hole, it took on a ‘bell’ shape and these were known as ‘bell pits’.

Diagram of a 'bells pit'

As mining became mechanised following the invention of the steam engine they were able to go deeper and the first colliery shafts were sunk in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Waves of immigrants came to the North East from Cornwall, Norfolk, Scotland and Ireland where many agricultural workers had been driven off the land by ‘enclosures’.  They soon found work in the pits.
Moving house (re-locating) was easy – no house purchase was required, and no mortgage.  Possessions could be put on the back of a flat card and moved quickly to where new mines were being sunk.  All living accommodation belonged to the mine owners and the miners paid a weekly rent.  In the older colliery districts houses were thrown up with indecent haste so that cottages were likely to be situated close to the pit head.

It is reported that ‘…in the old collieries the state of morals and the conduct of the workers was good…’.  *Places of worship and schools were established, but in the newer colliery villages these were ‘…generally the last to be established or even thought of…’*.
The houses in the older colliery villages were extremely confined and forbidding, but the houses being built at the new colliery villages were of a superior character.

Dr. Mitchell, the  Commissioner covering the southern part of County Durham was very impressed and gave a detailed description of the village of Coxhoe as being typical of the South Durham Colliery villages.

The village of Coxhoe, close to Clarence Hetton Colliery, extended for a mile along both sides of a public road, but the houses were not continuous, there being a break after every ten or 12 houses, giving access to the streets running off to right and left. Throughout the whole village there are seldom more than ten or twelve houses in an unbroken line, so that it is easy to get from one place to another.  The cottages are  built of stone plastered with lime, with blue slate roofs, and all appear exceedingly neat, and as like to one another as so many soldiers are like to each other.  There is no yard in front of any of them or any yard behind or dust hole, or convenience of any kind or any small building, such as is usually considered indispensable and necessary.   Yet there was no unpleasant nuisance, no filth nor ashes, no decaying vegetables.  All was swept and clean. It was explained that carts came round early  every morning with small coals which were left at every house, and the same carts, after depositing the coal at every front door moved round and came along the backs of the houses, and received the ashes and all other matters, and carried them off and deposited them in a heap in an adjoining field.

The dimensions of the houses in this village were as follows:-
Front room, length 14ft. by breadth 14ft 10ins., back room, length 14ft by breadth 10ft, communicating with which is a pantry 6ft 6ins. By 3ft.  Upstairs is a bedroom, partly made up by the wall and sloping roof.  The height of the wall above the boards is 2ft 8ins and from the top of the walls a slope of 7ft. to the highest part of the apartment.  The ground floor is made of clay, sand and lime.  The height of the front wall is generally 13ft 10 ins and in some of the cottages is 14ft 9ins.  The height of the back wall is less.  The whole expense of erecting such a cottage is £52.  It could be rented for £5 a year.

I was conducted into one of the cottages and it seemed very comfortable.   This house, like most of the colliers’ houses in these villages, was very clean and well furnished.  In fine weather the doors are frequently left open and in passing along the front, in every house may be seen an eight-day clock, a chest of drawers, a four-post bed with a large coverlet, composed of squares of a calico tastefully arranged, and bright saucepans and other tin ware utensils displayed on the walls.

Most of the women take pains to make themselves as well as their houses, look very agreeable…’*

In some parts of the country such as the West Riding, Bradford, Leeds, Halifax, Lancashire, Cheshire, East Scotland and South Wales, women and girls were employed underground and the effect on community life was disastrous, because immorality began underground where women and girls worked scantily clothed, and the male hewers, because of the heat and strenuous nature of their work, wore few or no clothes.  There were numerous illegitimate births and the women were often slovenly and foul mouthed.  Their children were left to run wild, or were looked after by some neighbours for a few pence a week.  These women were unskilled at ordinary household jobs like sewing and cooking and being uneducated themselves they had little time for securing a formal education for their children.

The miner rarely took a bride from any other class of work people, but it was not the practice for Durham miners wives to work in the mines and the children in the Durham Coal field had the considerable benefit of living in a home under the continuous superintendence of a mother; the immorality underground was avoided, and as the wives stayed at home to perform domestic duties, their houses were perhaps the best of any colliery district in the country.

Mr. William Morrison, a surgeon of Chester-le-Street, commended the colliery women for their homes:-
            ‘…the children of colliers were comfortable and decently clothed; cleanliness, both in their persons and houses is a predominant feature in the domestic economy of the female part of this community…’*

In spite of the advantages of superior living conditions and mother at home, the children’s social environment still left much to be desired.  (Dr. Mitchell, the Commissioner, does not relate that in among the new houses there were about 30 pubs.)  The example set by parents and workmates and the attitudes created by their working environment were not conducive to the rearing of a better-educated and socially-adjusted new generation.  That was left to the future.

All quotations taken from the ‘Children’s Employment Commission’, (1842)  p.568, pps. 135-137, p.662.

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