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  • The Peopling of Easington District, Part 1

    by Tony Whitehead

    Few modern-day Northeasterners can truthfully claim that their roots in the region go much deeper than the 19th. century. Most of us are descendants of newcomers who arrived from elsewhere in the British Isles at some point in the Victorian era. In 1801 the Northeast of England was almost empty in comparison to today. County Durham for instance had just 150,000 people and there is no reason to suppose its population had ever been much bigger. By 1901 the population of County Durham had increased more than twelve-fold to 1.88 million due to the increasing demand for coal for home and industry and the resultant expansion of the known coalfield into East Durham where there had never been coalmines before. The same story of expansion of coalfields and population was repeated in Northumberland and Cumberland. Where did all these newcomers, my ancestors and probably yours, arrive from? Which areas of Great Britain contributed most to the Northeastern melting-pot? A byproduct of my personal project The Seaham Super Index has been the creation of a census database which offers many clues as to the peopling of East Durham in general and Easington District in particular but the story I describe below was repeated across Northumberland and Durham in the 19th. century and applies equally to people from Ashington and Bishop Auckland as to those whose roots lie in Easington District.

    In 1801 the total population of County Durham was just 150,000. Over a third of these people lived in the ancient towns of Hartlepool (1,047), Barnard Castle (2,966), Stockton (4,009), Darlington (4,670), Durham (about 7,500), Gateshead (8,597), South Shields (with Westoe about 11,000) and Sunderland (about 18,000). Even that great metropolis of the far North, Newcastle, just across the Tyne in Northumberland, had only 30,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 19th. century, little more than Greater Seaham has today. The rest of the county of Durham, not just the high ground as now, was as empty as some parts of western Ireland are today. The tiny farming communities which together made up what we now call Easington District had just 2,310 souls in the year 1801, about the same as modern-day Wingate. By 1901 Easington District had some 50,000 inhabitants, an incredible 21-fold increase. The reason was the discovery of coal – deep and therefore expensive to get at (which meant super-pits and huge colliery villages) but in seams up to seven feet thick !

    The eastern half of the Durham coalfield, upon which Easington District is situated, is concealed by many hundreds of feet of Permian magnesian limestone, the Durham Plateau. The powerful steam engines required to drain deep mines did not exist until the early 1820s. As the third decade of the nineteenth century dawned technological advances had been made which made it possible at last to investigate just what lay under the rolling limestone hills of East Durham. At Rainton, four miles west of Seaham, coal is just below the ground. A few hundred yards away to the east at Hetton, at the start of the limestone escarpment of the Durham Plateau, the coal is several hundred feet below the surface. It was there on December 19 1820 that the new machinery was put to the test.



    Northumberland & Durham coalfield

    Note: This map, simple and effective, is by no means definitive for there were many outcrops outside the marked coalfield such as the area to the north of Haltwhistle in Northumberland and the moorland to the south of Barnard Castle. At Tan Hill (now just inside County Durham but well inside North Yorkshire pre-1974), site of the highest pub in Great Britain and probably the most unhospitable place to live in England, there was a drift mine and a small mining community for decades. Even today there are places in western Durham where people can literally dig up coal in their back gardens. It is not very good quality and nobody will buy it but it will burn.

    Deep mining was an entirely new, dangerous and expensive business, far beyond the financial means of most coal owners, and necessitated the creation of a large company for the purpose, the Hetton Colliery Company. Whilst digging proceeded the famous engineer and pioneer of steam engines, George Stephenson, began construction of a railway from the pithead at Hetton to Sunderland in March 1821. The new line, the first in the world to be designed to use locomotives, was some eight miles in length and ran to the Hetton Company's own staiths on the river Wear, where coal could be loaded directly on to large vessels, thus missing out a number of middlemen at Penshaw and on the river. The excellent publicity received launched the Stephensons on to even greater things, as the world knows. More importantly for the history of County Durham in general and Easington District in particular, coal was found at the Hetton Lyons Blossom Pit sinking, at 650 and 900 feet, in seams six and a half feet thick! By 1832 Hetton Lyons and its two sister pits Eppleton and Elemore were annually producing 318,000 tons of coal worth £174,000, and the combine was the largest mine in England. Hetton Colliery and its railway proved that 900 feet of limestone, water and quicksand and a large hill (Warden Law) blocking the way to Sunderland were not insurmountable obstacles to the exploitation of the rich reserves of coal and that achievement did not go unnoticed. Before long others, such as Lord Londonderry, Lord Lambton (1st. Earl of Durham), Lord Howden and Colonel Thomas Braddyll of Haswell, would enter the arena and the tapping of the deeply concealed Durham coalfield began in earnest. Their target was the tranquil idyll of Easington District.

    The first two collieries in Easington District were at South Hetton and Haswell. Once these had begun production (1833 & 1835 respectively) and proved they were viable the stampede into East Durham was on. By 1841 Thornley and Wingate collieries were also in production and four other pits were being sunk (Murton, Shotton, Castle Eden and South Wingate). By the time of the 1851 census Seaton and Seaham collieries (later amalgamated as ‘Seaham’ in 1864) were being prepared. All of the then existing 8 collieries in Easington were on the western edge of the district for the technology did not yet exist to contemplate even deeper mines on the coast.

    No new collieries were sunk in the decade 1851-61. In fact the district experienced its first pit closure with the collapse of South Wingate Colliery in 1857. In 1869 the sinking of Wheatley Hill commenced and this was followed a year later by two other new ventures at nearby Deaf Hill and Hutton Henry. Wheatley Hill was severely handicapped by under-capitalisation and went bankrupt at least twice before the turn of the century but eventually proved itself. Shotton Colliery closed in 1877 and became a ghost village for the next 23 years until it was reopened by the new Horden Coal Company in 1900. Castle Eden Colliery folded in 1893, Haswell in 1896 and Hutton Henry in 1897. The early 20th. century saw the opening of the coastal super-pits at Dawdon, Easington, Horden, Blackhall and Vane Tempest and the creation of new mining communities in East Durham.

    All of the deep coalmines of East Durham have now closed and their sites have been cleared but behind them they have left tens of thousands of people, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the newcomers who arrived to populate Easington District long ago, left high and dry, often without jobs or hope. Coal alone sustained the population for 150 years but the coalmines have gone now and one has to wonder what will become of Easington District in the decades to come.

    This short series of essays investigates those parts of the British Isles which sent significant contingents to people Easington District a century and more ago and whose descendants inhabit the area today. The primary feeders for the Klondike of East Durham were the other, older coalfields of Great Britain. We should remind ourselves of where these were. The map below (1967) omits certain small and ancient coalfields such as South Shropshire, Somerset and Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire which were already abandoned or insignificant nationally. The tiny Kent coalfield was not developed until the 20th. century so few Northeasterners can trace their roots to Aylesham, Womenswold and Betteshanger though the reverse is far from true.




    British Coalfields


    One of the most important contributing coalfields was also the nearest – the Cumbrian coalfield, tiny in comparison to the Northumberland and Durham coalfield, which ran from south of St. Bees Head up the coast to beyond Maryport (about 22 miles) and inland for only four or five miles, a total size of some 100 square miles and whose epicentres were the towns and ports of Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport. The Cumbrian coalfield existed initially to service the Emerald Isle, just across the Irish Sea, which had no fossil fuel of its own other than peat. Later Cumbrian coal was used in the production of steel at Workington. The Irish connection was particularly powerful in Whitehaven and Victorian census returns show the port to have been full of them, many using the town as a jumping off point for other places in Great Britain. A primary target was the Durham coalfield, where there were hundreds of mines compared to the few dozen in Cumberland and a complete absence of any work in their native land. The Irish infiltrated every part of the Northeast, especially after the Famine 1847-51. Many colliery villages became noticably Irish. A good example of this was Usworth Colliery which received hundreds of Irish families in the second half of the nineteenth century, most via Whitehaven. Usworth colliery was wrecked by an explosion in March 1885 and was out of action for couple of years. It seems that most of the village, by then predominantly Whitehaven Irish, simply got on Shank’s Pony and moved en masse six miles southeast to Seaham Colliery. This pit village, by then scheduled for demolition, was replaced by a council estate at Parkside in 1939 and so the population of Seaham Colliery moved, almost in entirety, to there. So today a clear line can be traced from Ireland to Whitehaven to Usworth to Seaham Colliery to Parkside and is the explanation for the extraordinarily high percentage of Catholics in Seaham today.

    The Cumbrian coalfield extended right into the town of Whitehaven itself where some of the coal was worked from under the Irish Sea, decades before the same thing could be tried on the North Sea coast where the black gold was much deeper. Colliery villages included such places as Egremont, Cleator, Cleator Moor, Moresby, Parton, Camerton, Broughton, Flimby, Dearham and Cockermouth. Many modern-day Northeasterners have some or all of these places mentioned in their family trees.




    Cumbrian coalfield

    The Scottish Coalfields: Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Fifeshire and Midlothian

    The Scottish coalfields, scattered across four counties, made only a modest contribution to the peopling

    of Easington District though many Irish landed there in their escape from the Famine and eventually made their way down to East Durham.

    Lancashire Coalfield

    Originally the Lancashire coalfield exploited outcrops in the foothills of the Pennines but these reserves were soon exhausted and mining advanced westwards to the Lancashire Lowlands where many deep collieries were sunk. The epicentre of this new coalfield was the countryside around and between the towns of Wigan and St. Helens – such villages as Standish, Ince, Hindley, Holland, Ashton-in-Makerfield and Billinge. In the Lancashire coalbelt Rugby League was and still is king and football comes a poor runner-up. This helps further differentiate the coalfield from surrounding places like Preston, Liverpool and Manchester. George Orwell described the appalling poverty of the Lancashire coalminers in the 1930s in The Road to Wigan Pier. Lancashire made a significant contribution to Easington District.

    North Wales Coalfield

    Divided into two distinct parts with a small gap between. The first ran along the northernmost coast of Wales, that part opposite to the Wirral, which was entirely in the county of Flintshire. This included such mining communities as Mostyn, Greenfield, Holywell, Bagillt, Flint, Mold and Buckley. The second, not very far away, was in Denbighshire and had the town of Wrexham as its epicentre. Just to the north of Wrexham is the village of Gresford, site of a major mining disaster which inspired a hymn for brass bands. Everafter the playing of ‘Gresford’ was always the most solemn and eye-moistening moment at the Miners’ Galas in Durham and elsewhere. North Wales was a major contributor to Easington District and there can be few modern-day Easingtonians who are not descended from this connection.

    South Shropshire Coalfield

    Bypassed by the M6 and squeezed between Staffordshire and Wales, Shropshire is arguably England’s prettiest county and its least known. It was also the site of one of the country’s smallest and most unusual coalfields. On the North Sea Coast mining took place some 2,000 feet below the sea. In the Clee Hills of South Shropshire it took place at 900 feet above sea level. You would never guess now driving through this stunning countryside that such villages as Clee St. Margaret and Burwarton were once mining communities which exported their surplus population to Easington District and other places in Northeast England. Shropshire coal helped fuel the Industrial Revolution at Coalbrookdale but could not meet the rising demand and the coalfield became uneconomic due to the greater efficiency of much larger mines opened up in other new coalfields.

    North Staffs Coalfield

    In two parts, the larger being centred around Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme and the smaller being centred on the town of Cheadle in the Pennine foothills. Such villages as Silverdale, Talke, Golden Hill, Mow Cop, Leycett, Finney Green, Madeley and Trentham all contributed to the Easington District melting pot. To see how Staffordshire mineowners lived go to Keele University, which is just off the M6 and near to Newcastle-under-Lyme and which welcomes visitors. This postwar educational establishment has been superimposed on a mediaeval enclosed manorial estate whose epicentre is Keele Hall. The estate, Keele village and much of the surrounding countryside was owned by the Sneyd family who also had the mineral rights for much of the coalfield. The collieries were not visible from the Hall, being hidden away in nearby valleys like Silverdale so as not to disturb the sensitivities of the Sneyds and their guests. Gaze in wonder at the huge and ornate marble fireplace at Keele Hall and imagine how many colliers gave their lives to provide it.




    Map of Staffordshire and Warwickshire Coalfields

    South Staffs Coalfield

    Also known as Cannock Chase Coalfield, this was the main energy source for the Industrial Revolution which shaped the modern world and was to give the Black Country its nickname. Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale were supplied in the 18th. century from here where shallow mining had already been practised for centuries. Today the Chase is pockmarked with abandoned mine workings and occasionally a person or a pet falls down an old air vent and needs to be rescued. Contributing communities to Easington District included Hednesford, Willenhall, Bloxwich, Bilston, Darlaston and Wednesbury.

    Warwickshire Coalfield

    Centred on the area to the west and northwest of the towns of Coventry and Nuneaton. Negligible contribution to the burgeoning population of Easington District in the 19th. century.

    Leicestershire Coalfield

    Situated in the far west of the county where Leicestershire meets Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Communites included Ashby-de-la-Zouch and COALville. Few colliers from this coalfield migrated to Easington District. In the 20 th. century a new coalfield was opened in the northeast of the county in the Vale of Beauvoir (pronounced Beaver), bordering on Nottinghamshire. It seems likely that this will be the site of the last deep coal mining in Great Britain when it has ceased everywhere else.

    Yorks, Derbys & Notts Coalfield

    The largest of Britain’s former coalfields, it stretched from the Leeds area to south Notts where that county borders with Leicestershire. Mining began in the foothills of the Pennines in places like

    Silkstone Common and Thurgoland in south Yorkshire. Later the coalfield moved east taking in places like Barnsley and Mexborough. From Woolworths in Barnsley town centre several collieries and pit heaps were visible until after the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. They are all gone now. Late in the 20th. century a new coalfield was discovered at Selby in Yorkshire but at the time of writing (July 2002) it has just been announced that even this will close shortly. The Yorks, Notts and Derbys coalfield was among the major contributors to the peopling of East Durham in the 19th. century. As in Lancashire many of the Yorkshire coalfield towns, like Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield are distinguished from surrounding cities like Sheffield and Huddersfield because of their passion for Rugby League rather than football. It is certainly strange that the 13-man game never made it in the Northeast.

    Forest of Dean Coalfield

    Small scale mining still goes on in this ancient coalfield that was exploited by the Romans among others. The past is remembered in the names of communities like CINDERford and COLEford.

    A few souls from this coalfield found their way to Easington District but most were deflected to nearby South Wales.

    Bristol Coalfield

    Apart from those with serious subsidence problems most Bristolians have largely forgotten that their city sits upon a small but ancient coalfield. The older (and very hilly) part of Bristol is in fact riddled with underground workings and tunnels from drift mines of long ago. This coalfield was working until well into the 20th. century. Few Bristolian colliers made their way to the Northeast for the South Wales coalfield was booming and not far away.

    North Somerset Coalfield

    Included such places as Midsomer Norton, Radstock, Kilmersdon, Writhington, Paulton, Camerton and Timsbury. Bath is just a few miles away. Dying by the middle of the 19th. century many of the coalfield’s colliers made their way north to County Durham and Easington District in particular.

    The South Wales Coalfield

    The eastern part of this coalfield is deeply trenched by river valleys with floors accomodating such mining communities as Rhonnda, Mountain Ash and Pontypool. In between are uplands, 1,000 to 2,000 feet high, bleak and uninhabited. Coal came to the surface in the valleys and was collected from the river beds and later from the valley sides. The western part of the coalfield is less elevated, and its valley floors more open. Welsh ‘steam’coal was in high demand for its quality and thus the coalfield boomed after the invention of the railways. As there was usually enough work for everyone there was no need to migrate to distant places like County Durham. There was a small and regular exchange of populations between the Northeast and South Wales but this was insignificant compared to the migration fron the North Wales coalfield to places like Easington District.

    The Peopling of Easington District, Part 2

    Few modern-day Northeasterners can truthfully claim that their roots in the region go much deeper than the 19th. century. Most of us are descendants of newcomers who arrived from elsewhere in the British Isles at some point in the Victorian era. Last time we looked at the migration to East Durham from the other coalfields of Great Britain. This time we will look at migration by a different sort of miner – the Cornish and Devonians.

    It has been said that a mine is a hole in the ground with a Cornishman at the bottom. Traces of mining work may be found in almost every parish in the county and Cornish skills are a byword in mining camps the world over. The world famous School of Mining is situated at Camborne. Mining has been practised in both Devon and Cornwall for perhaps as long as four thousand years. The early workings were for tin, washed from the gravels in the beds of streams or dug from the shallow deposits which could be worked as open pits. Underground mining began in the 16th. century and as the workings went deeper other valuable metallic minerals were found – usually copper but also arsenic, lead, zinc, wolfram, silver, nickel, cobalt, bismuth, ochre, sulphur, barytes and fluorspar.

    The booms and slumps in metal prices, which reflected the difference between supply and demand, were an unavoidable risk and from time to time nearly brought mining in the southwest peninsula to a halt. The most serious challenge to date came in the 1860s when it was discovered that the mud of the alluvial plains of Malayan rivers contained a remarkably high level of tin. This did not need to be mined – just scooped up. At much the same time large copper deposits were located in both North and South America. The price of both metals tumbled and many Cornish and Devonian mines were forced to amalgamate or close. Their workforces made their way, 3rd. class on Britain’s embryonic railway system, to coalfields far and near. A major target was County Durham. In Easington District three distinct clusters of Southwesterners can be identified in the census returns of the late 19th. century.

    The first arrivals were at Wingate Grange Colliery in the south of Easington District in the late 1860s. Local legend has it that their ancestors all arrived on the same day in open-topped trucks, soaked to the skin, freezing-cold and hungry after a three day non-stop journey from one end of England to the other. A little later another contingent arrived at Murton Colliery, but this proved to be merely a scouting party for a far greater influx. Eventually an entire district at Murton became known as ‘Cornwall’. Just about everybody at modern-day Murton includes some of these migrants in their family trees. The third site in Easington District which absorbed southwesterners was Seaham Colliery where a row of colliery houses was named Cornish Street. In Seaham too you will find many people who have a connection with the southwest peninsula – with surnames like Beer, Pascoe, Jane, Trewitt, Tremayne and Hocking.

    The disastrous trade slump of the early 1890s led to the closure of all but a handful of mines in Cornwall and Devon and triggered further movement to the Northeast, often to those places which already had a large contingent of their relatives. In the 20th. century Cornish mining kept declining but certain of the mines somehow manged to survive almost until the present day. One or two are now maintained as museums.

    The Peopling of Easington District, Part 3

    Few modern-day Northeasterners can truthfully claim that their roots in the region go much deeper than the 19th. century. Most of us are descendants of newcomers who arrived from elsewhere in the British Isles at some point in the Victorian era. Last time we looked at the migration to East Durham from Devon and Cornwall. This time we look at the massive invasion from the Emerald Isle which took place in the middle of the 19th. century.

    The death from ovarian cancer in November 1558 of Mary I (Bloody Mary) and the accession of her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I sounded the death knell also for Roman Catholicism in England. The new queen had to be crowned by the senior surviving Protestant prelate, the Bishop of Carlisle, for all of his superiors had been burned at the stake. In Catholic eyes Elizabeth was an illegitimate usurper and the rightful claimant was her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Persecution of Catholics became official policy and the bulk of the population, wanting only a quiet life, sensibly shifted their allegiance from Rome to London. Elizabeth crushed the Catholic Rising of the North, eventually executed her Scottish cousin and defeated the Spanish Armada sent to avenge Mary. By the time of Elizabeth’s death Catholics had become a feared and despised minority whose loyalties were believed to lie outside the kingdom. English Catholicism retreated to Norfolk where alone they still constituted a majority and that county is still the spiritual home of the creed in the kingdom today. The leading English Catholic today is the Duke of Norfolk, surname Fitzalan-Howard, a distant kinsman of Elizabeth.

    Scotland too became predominantly Protestant and Catholicism survived only among certain clans of the Highlands and islands. In primitive Ireland however it seemed nothing would change the allegiance of the inhabitants. Elizabeth and her successor James I (& VI of Scotland) thought differently and authorised land grants in Ulster to Protestant settlers from both England and Scotland. An alien ruling minority was imposed on the Irish and all of the British Isles still suffer today from the results. In 1798, taking advantage of Britain’s war with Revolutionary France, the Irish rose in revolt but they were soon crushed and their leaders executed or driven into exile.

    The resultant Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 joined that troubled island to the existing United Kingdom and made Parliament at Westminster supreme over 4 million Irish Roman Catholics. Emancipation, that is the concession of political rights to them and their few co-religionists in Great Britain, became a serious issue. In 1815 the law excluded Protestant Dissenters to a great extent and Roman Catholics almost entirely from public office. King George III and his successor George IV personally vetoed any attempt to resolve the matter. In January 1828 the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister. He soon became convinced that Catholic Emancipation was the only thing which could prevent civil war in Ireland. In March of that year he repealed the 17th. Century Test and Corporation Acts which, in theory at least, had debarred Dissenters from public office. In April 1829 he also carried Catholic Emancipation by talking over King George IV. A Catholic still had to swear an elaborate oath before taking office and could not aspire to be Regent, Lord Chancellor, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland or High Comissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (heaven forbid!) but otherwise he was now on an equal legal footing with Anglicans for the first time since the Armada. Religious toleration was still far from complete: only Anglican priests and, strangely enough, Quakers and Jews, could perform marriages valid in law. There was as yet no secular or civil marriage. This was introduced at the same time as the registration of births, marriages and deaths began in England & Wales – on July 1 1837, 10 days after the accession of the 18 year old Queen Victoria. Catholics (and women) still could not go to University and would not be able to for half a century more.

    In mediaeval times Ireland’s population was probably a fairly constant figure of about 1 million, all that the country could sustain from the few crops it produced. Then a new plant was introduced from the New World which thrived in Erin’s cold and wet climate – the potato – and which required little care or attention other then good drainage. This new crop was however highly susceptible to disease and there were many examples of failure over the next two centuries. These blights were usually localised and of short duration. There had never been a complete failure which extended over several years but this disaster finally occurred in the second half of the 1840s. By the time of the 1841 census Ireland had 8 million people, twice the modern level and equal to over half the population of England & Wales at that date. A million died of starvation and associated disease between 1845 and 1849, the last peacetime famine in Western Europe. Roughly the same number emigrated to Britain and her colonies and to the United States. In 1851 Ireland had 6.5 million people. In 1861 she had 5.8 million. Today all of the island of Ireland has less than 5 million people. However there are at least 17 million Americans and four or five million Canadians and Australians who claim Irish descent.

    According to the census of 1851 the population of the island of Great Britain was 21 million, a figure which included some 734,000 Irishmen and approximately 1.5 million of their womenfolk and children, about half of whom had arrived in the previous decade. If the same figures are extrapolated to today Great Britain with 60 million people would have to absorb over 6 million economic refugees from Ireland, more people than the island actually possesses. We complain bitterly enough today about the numbers of illegal immigrants trying to reach our shores but have apparently forgotten that once we had to cope with far, far more, my own ancestors among them and possibly yours too. In 1850 Pope Benedict XIV thought it opportune at last to establish a normal hierarchy of bishops in England, hitherto treated as a schismatic country requiring special arrangements. In the Northeast of England the see of Hexham & Newcastle was created as a result.

    The influx affected every part of Great Britain and especially the Northeast of England which was near to the ports of Cumberland which received Irish traffic. As now the newcomers were far from popular – they were perceived as a threat to their livelihoods by the English working classes for they would work for little more than a roof over their heads and some food in their bellies. There were anti-Irish riots in Salford, London and a number of other places but no serious disturbances were reported from County Durham. The Irish infiltrated every corner of the county and can be detected in massive numbers in the 1861 census at Newcastle, Sunderland, South Shields, Hartlepool and Seaham Harbour – they, being poverty-stricken, always ended up in the poorest quarters, and at Seaham for instance they took over the back alleys and tenements and ghettoized themselves in what became known as ‘Irish Back Street’. Though there were no anti-Irish riots at Seaham there were many affrays it seems and especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Gangs of young English miners from Seaham Colliery walked the mile or so to the port of Seaham Harbour every weekend in the expectation of several beers and then a punch-up with the Irish. The Sons (and Daughters) of Erin, hot-blooded and keen to settle accounts with the English, any English, usually obliged. There were similar scenes at many of the other colliery villages of Easington District – at Wingate for instance the English and Irish gangs had their own drinking holes and it was not until the late evening that the different beers met up in the centre of the village to settle their differences and the violence began. The extraordinarily high proprtion of Catholics in modern-day Seaham Harbour can be dated back to this period. Every Sunday at the main Catholic church in Seaham, St. Mary Magdalene’s, it is standing room only for all of the masses – almost all of the congregation are fourth or fifth generation descendants of Irish immigrants from those troubled times long ago.

    Sunderland too, just four miles up the coast from Seaham, received a huge number of Irish, attracted by the shipbuilding and glassblowing trades and any other work that was going. All that some of the newcomers, the young single women, had to offer was their bodies and the origin of the port’s huge red-light district, almost exclusively populated by the sisters of sweet Molly Malone, lies in this period. In the mid-19th. century Sunderland’s brothels were the international equivalent of modern-day Patpong in Thailand. The vice trade was an important part of the town’s economy, dependent as it already was on the thousands of international seamen who passed through.

    The Peopling of Easington District, Part 4

    Few modern-day Northeasterners can truthfully claim that their roots in the region go much deeper than the 19th. century. Most of us are descendants of newcomers who arrived from elsewhere in the British Isles at some point in the Victorian era. Last time we looked at the migration to East Durham from the Emerald Isle. This time we look at the influx of agricultural labourers from many rural districts of the kingdom but especially East Anglia which took place in the late 19th. century.

    The most spectacular example of this in the Northeast that I have so far uncovered lies outside Easington District – look at the census returns from 1861 onwards for all of the colliery villages of Chester-le-Street District and start counting the number of households which originated in the flat Suffolk countryside which surrounds the town of Mildenhall. The soil in this part of England is sandy and poor in nutrients and little could grow here until the introduction of artificial fertilisers in the late 19th. century. So poor is the soil in places that only lichen can grow, hence the name of the neighbouring township of Lakenheath (Lichen-Heath). Chester-le-Street district censuses 1861-91 inclusive mention literally hundreds of households who came north from such villages as Barton Mills, Icklingham, Back Row, Tuddenham and Lackford and brought their ancient Suffolk-specific surnames like Dorling and Garnham with them. The census returns for Mildenhall District in the same period show a consequent decline in population and most of these absentees can be found in County Durham. It is clear that thousands of modern-day residents of Chester-le-Street must descend from this influx, though many of them will be unaware of it for they have yet to dicover the hobby of genealogy and the memory of the connection has faded from their family legends. Ironically Mildenhall is now a very prosperous district, sustained and nourished by the two giant American air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath and by improvements in agricultural techniques. The surnames Dorling and Garnham are still present in some numbers in the local telephone books just as they are in Chester-le-Street.

    In 1801, with the Industrial Revolution barely begun, England & Wales were predominantly rural countries and there were few large towns outside London, Norwich and Bristol. Over the course of the next century however Britain became an overwhelmingly urban land with many large industrial towns. There was a massive movement from the land to the cities in search of the work created by the new factories, accelerated at times by the periodic and cyclical depressions which afflicted agriculture and by the overtures of head-hunting agents of industrialists who could offer higher wages in the mines of County Durham or the factories of Birmingham.

    Easington District too received its share of East Anglians though from all parts of the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and not just specific small areas. Many of them came from coastal villages such as Cley and Sea Palling which already had trade connections with ports in County Durham. Collier vessels brought coal and limestone from such places as Seaham Harbour and went back with agricultural produce, peat and emigrants looking for work in the hundreds of coalmines which then existed in Durham. Agricultural labourers earned poor wages, lived isolated lives and worked very long hours. They usually lived in tied cottages which had to be surrendered when they changed employment. There were bonuses at harvest time but many were obliged to supplement their income with poaching and other activities which could bring instant dismissal and eviction. In County Durham wages were higher and more consistent, there was a free house and free coal for the fire. After 1869 there was also a powerful union, the DMA, to protect the miners, something non-existent in the countryside where individual labourers were at the mercy of ruthless landowners. Many Durham mining villages also had free schools supplied by the mineowners and these gave the children of the East Anglians educational opportunities which did not exist in the counties they had left.

    ENDS