Wearside Echoes: Keeping Silksworth’s history alive

Silksworth pit December 1959
Silksworth pit December 1959
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A GROUP dedicated to preserving Wearside’s past for the future is to mark a milestone anniversary in style.

Silksworth Heritage Group (SHG) has dedicated the past 25 years to documenting the history of the former pit village – and will celebrate with a special exhibition.

“We came from nothing, really,” said chairman Pat Burn. “But, over the past quarter of a century, we have collected a large archive of material and research.”

Silksworth and Tunstall were sleepy rural hamlets until building work began on the sinking of Lord Londonderry’s prize colliery in 1869.

Hundreds of homes were built for the miners who flocked from around the world to find work and, within a decade, New Silksworth was a thriving community.

“Life revolved around the pit. Everyone relied on coal for fires, transport and industry. Sons followed their fathers and grandfathers into the pit,” said Pat.

Silksworth Colliery was to remain at the centre of village life for 100 years until, on November 6, 1971, more than 600 men lost their jobs when it closed its doors.

Today, skiers slalom their way down the former pit heap where miners once toiled far underground – but the mining heritage of Silksworth has been anything but forgotten.

Blue plaques adorn its many historic buildings, local schoolchildren enjoy lessons about the past and SHG has even worked alongside Beamish Museum on major heritage projects.

“We are proud of our roots, and never want them to be forgotten. We are determined to continue to preserve the history of Silksworth for future generations,” said Pat.

SHG can trace its own roots back to the 1980s, when Seaburn-based researcher Vera Stevens was commissioned by Wearside Historic Churches to compile a study of Silksworth Church and Community.

Pat attended a slide show given by Vera at North Street Methodist Church Hall as part of the study and, after a chance remark, the idea for a local heritage group was born.

“Vera remarked that Silksworth was steeped in history and that she had only touched the tip of the iceberg,” said Pat. “This inspired me to seek support in setting up a group to enlarge on Vera’s work.”

Pat and a handful of few fellow enthusiasts held coffee mornings to raise money for funding. But, after two such events, the fund stood at just £2.42.

A starter grant of £100 was eventually provided by Sunderland Council and, after a year of yet more coffee mornings, the first AGM was held in April 1988.

“It was a journey into the unknown, as we were among the first local history groups in Sunderland. We struggled in the dark at first,” said Pat.

“Once we were up and running, though, other groups followed. We were a model for them really, and became one of the first members of Sunderland’s Heritage Forum.”

Sales of home-made marmalade and mugs printed with the logo of Silksworth Colliery helped prop up of the coffers of SHG in its early days.

Twenty-five years on, however, the group is in a far healthier financial position thanks to book publications, donations and community activities.

“We really had to scrape around to pay for the rent of rooms for our coffee mornings back then, but it was definitely worth it,” said Pat.

“We have gone from making handwritten notes on Silksworth’s history, to using typewriters, word processors and finally computers. We have changed with the times to stay strong.”

The group has clocked up many successes over the years, including the Blue Plaque campaign, a Silksworth Strike project with Beamish and several exhibitions at heritage fairs.

A thriving website, as well as joint events with the Friends of Doxford Park, Silksworth Banner Group and St Matthew’s Church, have all helped raise the profile of SHG too.

“Our original aims when first starting out were to involve the whole community on a local, national and international basis – and this we have done,” said Pat.

“Indeed, the only one of our aims that we haven’t fully achieved is the setting up of our own heritage centre, although we have tried very hard.

“But I believe that joining forces with other like-minded groups is the way forward.

“It makes you stronger – as well as getting more people involved with preserving local history.”

A special exhibition is to held to mark the group’s 25th anniversary at North Street Church Hall – the spiritual birthplace of SHG – on September 22.

Mayoress Barbara McClennan, who was born in Silksworth, has agreed to open the event and will unveil a wall hanging featuring the colliery area at 1.30pm.

An appeal for new members is to be launched during the event too, and Pat added:

“We need new blood. We have built a solid foundation, and have a wonderful group of helpers, but are now looking to the future.

“No man is an island – we need more people to grow.”

l Meetings of the Heritage Group are held on the third Wednesday each month at Beckwith Mews, Seaham Street, Silksworth, from 7pm. Admission is £1 and new members are always welcome.