Wearside Echoes: Out All Out!

The Silksworth evictions of 1891
The Silksworth evictions of 1891
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THE eviction of hundreds of Silksworth villagers has hit the headlines - 121 years after the striking miners lost their homes.

CROWDS of villagers jeered from rooftops and windows as pit bailiffs turfed William Donnelly and his family out onto the street in the bitter chill of a winter’s day in 1891.

The miner, who had moved from the mills of Cumbria to seek a better life in Silksworth, was left with his dreams in tatters – and his furniture dumped unceremoniously in the road.

“It is very strange to think that William, my great-grandfather, was just one of hundreds of miners evicted by Lord Londonderry following a strike at Silksworth pit,” said local historian Pat Burn.

“What those poor people must have gone through was terrible. Thrown out of their houses, with nowhere to go and no money – and in the middle of winter too. How awful it must have been.”

The story of the Great Eviction Strike drama is now being re-told for Wearsiders 121 years on, following a project involving Beamish Museum, Silksworth Heritage Group, local schools and groups.

An exhibition of old strike photographs is currently on show at Silksworth Library and, over the next two weeks, schoolchildren will be re-enacting the evictions during visits to Beamish.

“Silksworth’s history is unique, and yet many of the younger generation knew nothing about this dispute until we started the project,” said museum outreach and access officer Michelle Ball.

“It has brought people together to explore the events of the strike, and we are hoping that memories of what happened will live on into the future. Events like this really bring history to life.”

The roots of the Great Strike lay in an argument which broke out in 1890, over the “free choice” given to Silksworth’s pit deputies on whether or not to join Durham Miners’ Association.

Many miners started to suspect that those who refused to join the union “enjoyed special management favour,” however there were counter claims of violence being used to drive deputies to sign up.

“Feelings grew in bitterness and, in November, hewers downed tools, saying they would work no longer under black-leg deputies,” said Douglas Smith, author of Silksworth strike book Out All Out.

By the end of November, the pit was practically idle – except for a handful of deputies reporting for work each day. Even the 70 pit ponies were allowed to “frolic in unaccustomed freedom.”

One month later, and growing ever more impatient at such a long stoppage, colliery owner Lord Londonderry started applying to the courts for hundreds of eviction warrants for his striking miners.

“The village of New Silksworth, built by Londonderry to house his workers, was reminiscent of a medieval walled town, being almost surrounded by a brick wall six feet high,” said Douglas.

“Many of the dwellings were low, cramped cottages – with two families sharing a wide back yard and a single communal tap. Under the law, however, tenancy ceased when work ceased.

“Some people suggested that the miners might be asked to pay rent instead of being evicted, but Lord Londonderry declared that he paid the rent himself, as the houses “were part of the miners’ wages”.

Pitmen at several Londonderry collieries, including Adventure and Seaham, opted to strike in support of their Silksworth comrades in January 1891, but the situation still remained at deadlock.

Eventually, after a recruitment drive in Hartlepool for eviction bailiffs – known locally as candymen – the first 11 families were thrown out of their homes in Quarry Street on February 19.

“The bailiffs were nicknamed ‘candymen’ after the rag and bone men who used to go around the streets. These would collect people’s old furniture, and give out sweets to children,” said Michelle.

“But some of the new candymen were recruited under false pretences, being told men were needed to shift timber in Sunderland. This timber actually turned out to be the furniture of striking miners.

“When they discovered the true nature of their job, many refused to carry on. These were made welcome by the Silksworth community, but others were only too keen to evict the striking miners.”

Daily evictions were carried out across Silksworth from February 19, with streets including Maria, Londonderry, West, Stewart and Hill – where William Donnelly lived – among those targeted.

Jeers and boos greeted the candymen as they arrived, flanked by police officers, at each address – with villagers banging pots, singing and even playing accordions to show their contempt.

There were reports of miners being carried out in their armchairs or still playing the piano, while others watched while dangling from rooftops and walls. There was, however, little violence.

“One is struck by the sheer restraint of these folk in the face of distress, as well as their amazing patience, steadfastness and even humour,” said Douglas, a member of Silksworth Heritage Group.

“With the knowledge that any episode of violence would immediately damage their cause, they maintained their solidarity despite loss of home and upheaval of family life.”

Contempt, cayenne pepper and soap were their only resistance. Pepper in the curtains to make the candymen sneeze, soap on steps to make them slip. Bricks were also used to weight down furniture.

“There was only one violent incident during the strike, which was actually started by people travelling into Silksworth from Sunderland,” said Michelle.

“They aggravated the police by throwing stones, and the officers retaliated with batons. Several people were taken to hospital with cuts and bruises.”

Many of the evicted families camped in the nearby Methodist Chapel, braving freezing conditions. Some of the luckier ones squeezed into the already overcrowded homes of friends or relations.

Finally, on March 20, a deal to end the strike was signed. The owners agreed to withdraw aggressive policies, deputies were allowed union choice and all men were re-instated as before.

But, although work resumed at the mine, and families were allowed to return to their old homes, life was never to be quite the same in Silksworth after the strike.

“Men came from all over the country to work at Silksworth pit when it first opened, and my great-grandfather was one of this new generation,” said Pat, a member of Silksworth Heritage Group.

“But the strike brought residents of the new village together, turning it into a close-knit community. That’s why it is so nice to see the community working together again to remember the strike.”

l Beamish Museum will be highlighting the Silksworth miners’ strike of 1890/91 with a week of half term activities from February 11.

“Show your sympathy for the strikers by making a blue rosette, have a go at making a clay model pit cottage, or rally in support of the evicted families,” said Michelle.

“You can also explore a fascinating exhibition by Silksworth Heritage Group, Silksworth Mining Society and Silksworth Banner Group.”

Admission to Beamish will be half price during half term, with tickets costing £8 for adults and £5 for children. Return transport tickets for the museum can be booked at Silksworth Library.