They might have been small, but they packed a mighty punch in the coal industry. Now Beamish Museum has fresh plans to celebrate the pit pony. By Alison Goulding.
SIX new arrivals at Beamish are already making a big impression. Bramble, Briar, Tippet, Wheezer, Milkyway and May are Shetland ponies, the same breed that played a major part in North East coal mines for much of the 20th century.
Though the newcomers have never worked in mines, they will live in the fields around the museum’s pit village and represent the sturdy breed of that age.
Chris Thompson is horse operations team leader at Beamish.
He said: “We decided to purchase some more Shetlands to give a greater feel of a pit village rather than one lonely pony.
“They came from a stud farm in Great Whittington.
“When the government outlawed women and children pulling the tubs, the next best thing was a pony.
“In 1913, an estimated 70,000 pit ponies worked in the UK. By the ’80s this had dwindled to less than 100, as machinery took over.”
Though the mines are now closed, Chris says it is important for people to be able to revisit their heritage.
He said: “A lot of people live in places like Seaham, where the industry has moved on or ended.
“Beamish shows that heritage – where their relatives lived, the jobs they did and how they lived, and it can help them understand that.”
The museum was home for one of the North’s last true pit ponies, Pip, for many years. The grey Shetland had worked at Beamish pit and Sacriston Colliery amongst others.
He became famous in the ’90s when he was photographed leaving Sacriston pit for the last time and appeared on the front page of the Guardian.
After Pip, the museum took on chestnut Shetland Flash, showname Butterby Limelight, a descendent of the stallions used by Lord Londonderry to breed a workforce for his mines.
To house the new additions, the museum is building a recreation pit stables next to the pit village, due for completion next year.
They will be constructed out of yellow brick, a type once common across the Durham coalfield.
Chris said: “Clay was a by-product of mining and most mines would have a brick kiln on site where they would make their own bricks.”
The original stable building that the replica will be based on is situated between High Spen and Greenside, near Rowlands Gill.
The building is still in use as a stable today, and while the interior of the building has changed, the exterior remains largely unaltered.
The stable once served the Victoria Garesfield Colliery via Rickless Drift, on Rickless Lane.
Visitors will be able to see how the pit ponies were cared for, and Flash will continue to demonstrate how the work harness was worn.
Drew Hodgson has worked at Beamish for four years as a rural life engager and horses are his passion, both at work and outside work.
He said: “Flash wears a harness and does demonstrations and we think Wheezer might be good at that too, because he’s very calm. The others will be in fields around the pit village just adding to the feel of the place.
“We get Flash ready as if he’s off to work, with his eye protection on to prevent any debris getting in his eyes.
“People often ask if the pit ponies were blind but that wasn’t the case.
“The eye protection was just made of a mesh that they could see through and after an act of parliament in 1911, ponies with damaged eyesight weren’t allowed down the mine.”
The 1911 act also helped their welfare in other ways.
Drew added: “They worked for their living but so did the men. The ponies needed a medical certificate and they were well looked after.”
“They didn’t get a big holiday but they did get one. The lads would sometimes take them to shows and exhibit them in pit pony classes. They were also allowed to race them in pit men’s derbies.”
Pit ponies across the UK worked hard for a living, but were generally well cared for.
Chris said: “Each pony might pull two or three tons of coal out of the mine every day. The men had their favourites and would often share their lunch with their pit pony. They appreciated the hard work that the ponies did.
“When they were killed in explosions or cave-ins they were shown as much respect as the men who died. People mourned for them.
“Miners were very animal-orientated anyway. They’d often keep pigeons or budgies or whippets. When they came out of that dark hole they wanted to relax and be outside, perhaps take their whippets to race and have a few beers.
“Working in a mine was hard, but people liked it. They liked the camaraderie and everything else that went with it. The social clubs, the allotments.”
The ponies that worked in the North East were largely bred by Lord Londonderry.
Chris said: “Shetlands are native to the Shetland Isles, but the stamp of pony used in the North East was bred by Lord Londonderry. He bought Bressay Island and had the ponies transported back to the region by boat.
“Then they were herded off and taken to his farms. He also bred Clydesdales and had a stud farm in Dalton-le-Dale.
“He had a land agent called Robert Brydon and he lived there in a house that still stands, next to the children’s playground.
“Brydon wrote books about caring for ponies and there are ledgers at County Hall detailing Lord Londonderry’s ponies.
“We also have the Brydon Shield at Home Farm, which was named after Robert Brydon and awarded to Clydesdale’s winning the Cawder Cup three times.
“Robert Brydon had a man working for him called Charles Aikenhead and today his descendents run the scrap yard at Seaham.
“Most modern Shetlands are descendants from two stallions – Jack and Odin – who were the foundation for Lord Londonderry’s stock.
“When he disbanded his stud, Odin was bought by Lady Estella and Lady Dorothea Hope, prolific breeders. Our pit pony Flash is from Odin stock.”
Chris grew up in Seaham and has worked at Beamish for more than 16 years.
He has been interested and involved with horses his whole life.
He said: “I came to work in the town stables when they had a couple of Shire horses and a cob as a groom, then I became stable manager and then rural life team leader.
“I went to work at Vaux when I left school and then went to college, which didn’t pay the bills, so I went back to Vaux working in the pub trade side of things before I decided to go back to what I knew.
“I’ve had horses all my life and my grandad, Joseph Carr, did too. We’ve used his name as the proprietor’s name over the arch in the town stables and we’ve recreated a fruit round here. He did a fruit round in Seaham with a horse and cart.
“My great-grandfather on the maternal side ran a horse and cart from the station at Cold Hesledon picking up luggage for passengers.
“We were into driving cobs. My grandad called them Gallowers, which is a term from the borders.
“There are a lot of colloquialisms around the pit ponies too because miners came from all over and they’d bring these different terms with them that would stick through the generations. It was its own kind of language really – Pitmatic – but a lot of it has died off now because they’re not used every day. You do still hear them in Working Men’s Clubs and places like that.”
Despite their small size, Shetland ponies are renowned for being tough.
Chris said: “A hard-working pony might bring out six tubs of coal in one shift, so the good workers were overused.
“No one wanted to take the lazier pony but the 1911 act stopped the good ponies being over worked.
“They needed good ponies to get the coal out. They were also used on the surface to move pit props and things like that.
“The Shetlands would be used in the lower seams, on the surface they would use anything up to a shire horse.”
The pit ponies were essential to the coal miners, and the man in charge of them, the pony keeper, would be held in high regard.
Chris said: “They had a lot of ponies to manage and they had to know what was what – who was lame, who needed more feed, if they needed a rest and so on.
“I read in a book once about a horse owner seeking advice from the mine’s pony keeper about a hunter that refused to jump.
“The pony keeper advised that they hit it on the head with the end of the crop a few feet from the jump which startled it into jumping.
“They knew how to think differently in order to get the job done. Some pit ponies would pull the tubs easily and others didn’t want to and the pony keeper had to figure it out.”
An integral part of mining
IT was not uncommon in the early 20th century for horses to spend their lives underground, often from the age of three.
Horses remained an integral part of coal mining in the North East.
At the height of coal production in 1913, the Durham coalfield was home to 22,000 pit ponies.
The tradition of using horses underground was a long one, with Ellington, the last working North East colliery, not retiring its ponies until 1994.
The reconstructed building at Beamish will be used to house the museum’s pit ponies and there will also be space for a colliery cart horse.
Cart horses were essential in coal mines to carry out many tasks, from delivering the miners coal allowance to pulling the colliery ambulance.