Demise of Old King Coal inspires book about East Durham

Miners picket Easington Pit, March 12,1984.
Miners picket Easington Pit, March 12,1984.
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A former mayor of Peterlee has drawn on her interest in family history to pen a book about the coal mining roots of East Durham.

The Birth of Billy Elliot Land, by Maureen Taylor-Gooby, charts the early history of Easington, Horden and Blackhall collieries.

New book on East Durham.

New book on East Durham.

“I decided on the name for the book because quite a bit of Billy Elliot was filmed in the area,” said Maureen, a miner’s daughter.

“The slow decline of colliery villages made me want to recapture the early days of these communities, when the miner was at their throbbing heart.”

Maureen was born to Horden pitman Richard Carr during World War Two and grew up surrounded by relatives involved in the fuel industry.

Her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both miners, while her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather worked in the coke industry.

“I was born in Horden in the days when Horden was a living, vibrant colliery village, as were Easington and Blackhall,” she said.

“Later in life, being interested in family history, I found members of my family living in Horden on its early days and recorded in the 1911 census.

“This family interest developed into research into the development of Easington Colliery, Horden and Blackhall - all once thriving pit villages.

“These vibrant communities had their hearts ripped out when the collieries closed. Horden especially has empty boarded-up houses with few chatting neighbours.”

The three villages of Easington Colliery, Horden Colliery and Blackhall Colliery all owe their existence to coal - as well as the industrial revolution.

Easington was the first of the three pits to be sunk, with the first sod cut in 1899. Thousands flocked to work at the mine, with the first coals drawn in 1910.

Two miles down the road, on farmland which was to become known as Horden, sinking of a pit began in 1900. By the 1930s it employed over 4,000 pitmen.

Just a few years later, in 1909, Horden Collieries Ltd branched out to build a new pit, this time at Blackhall. Almost 2,500 were employed at its peak.

Houses, shops, churches, schools and pubs quickly grew up around the collieries and, within a decade, each had become a close-knit community.

But the dawn of the 1980s brought savage cuts to the coal industry. Blackhall closed in 1981, followed by Horden in 1986. Easington survived until 1993.

“The strength of these mining communities would make it easy to conclude that the villages had been involved in mining for many, many generations,” said Maureen.

“But this is just not so. They had life-spans similar to a single person, and my book is the story of the birth and early years of these villages.

“Although the pits are now dead, those who remember the communities help keep them alive.”

Stories of wartime heroism, industrial developments, schools, shops and village life are all documented within the pages of Billy Elliot Land.

Tales of individual miners, colliery disasters, strikes, churches and chapels are included too - as well as the early history of East Durham.

“I was brought up when coal was King. But, today, there are very few signs, apart from a few pit wheels, that we ever had collieries in the area,” said Maureen.

“It is almost as if a generation of people, a whole workforce, never really existed. This made me want to recapture the early days, and the result is this book.

“The bonds of connection and common purpose were grounded very deeply in the pit communities. Hopefully they will never be broken.”

* The Birth of Billy Elliot Land is available now from Amazon and Waterstones at £9.99.

The book will be officially launched by Professor Fred Robinson, of Durham University, at St Cuthbert’s Church Hall, Manor Way, Peterlee, on October 30, at 7pm.

Anyone interested in attending should contact David Taylor-Gooby on 587 0008.