Wearside Echoes: Things that go bump in the night

PIT SCENE: Shotton Colliery - no date known.
PIT SCENE: Shotton Colliery - no date known.
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TODAY we continue our ghostly series with a look at a haunting tale from East Durham.

THE chance to dig for ‘black diamonds’ brought miners flocking from across the world to work at Shotton Colliery – the new mine opened by Haswell Coal Company in 1841.

Indeed, so prosperous was the venture that a thriving community soon grew up around the pit – fuelled by Britain’s hunger for quality coal amid the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution.

Within just 40 years, however, the colliery was closed and the village started dying a slow and agonising death. As the pitmen and their families moved out, so their homes fell into disrepair.

“An eerie silence fell upon the forgotten ruins and the once-thriving mining community became a ghost town,” said local historian Norman Kirtan, a member of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Once the decision was taken to re-open the pit in 1900, however, the houses were rebuilt and folks gradually returned. But, although Shotton lost its ghost town tag – it didn’t lose its ghost!”

One of the streets of refurbished old cottages was called Chapel Row and, in the spring of 1902, miner George Lamb set up home in the new des res with his family and a few sticks of furniture.

“What poor George didn’t realise at the time was that someone else had his covetous eye on the little cottage. He would soon find out though,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.

For the first month, the Lamb family could not have been happier – nice neighbours, plenty of work and, best of all, a comfortable bedroom offering peace and quiet after a hard shift at the pit.

“But, at the beginning of their second month at Chapel Row, that perfect peace was shattered for some inexplicable reason,” said Norman, who now works as a forensic artist for the police.

“Night after night, the family was woken up by a rattling at the front door latch and a hammering fit to wake the whole street. But, when George got downstairs, there wasn’t a soul to be seen.

“It was all a mystery. By the time he managed to poke his head outside the door, there was just the usual darkness – as well as the sounds of the pit toiling away at the other end of the town.”

At first, George thought it was all a practical joke but, as the nightly rattles and bangs and sleepless nights continued, so the joke soon wore thin. The Lambs were living in terror.

“As spring turned to summer and then the warm nights gave way to chill frost and howling winds, the Lambs and their neighbours tried everything to catch the joker,” said Norman.

“But no footsteps were ever heard, and no human was ever seen to run from the door. Then, in late December, the first fall of snow covered the flagstones and George’s hopes were raised.”

The pitman knew that whoever had been terrorising his family would leave footprints behind him – and George was determined to track the trickster down and punish him for months of hell.

At midnight, right on cue, the sneck rattled and the door was hammered by powerful fists. George ran to the door and threw it open, peering out into the darkness.

“The snow was untouched and the night was still. George knew then that whatever, or whoever, was hammering down the door of his cottage, it certainly wasn’t human,” said Norman.

George Lamb’s son, a young miner who also worked at Shotton Colliery, was the only person to see any movement accompanying the visitations – at least according to contemporary reports.

“One evening, when he returned home from work, he reached up to unlatch the door and saw a grey shadow dancing before his eyes before slipping away into the night,” said Norman.

“The lad bravely gave chase from street to street, but the shadow maintained a discreet distance ahead. Out of breath, the boy stopped to regain his composure, but the shadow stopped too.

“It turned around to look back at his pursuer, and that was when the boy saw its eyes – burning red like two living coals and staring back at him, fit to strike terror into his heart.”

The young miner was, not surprisingly, terrified. Finding new strength, he turned on his heel and hurried back home – later telling his family the spirit looked “like no one in Shotton we know!”
“Experts and scientists soon got wind of the tale and even published their theories in the London Chronicles – the settling of earth, the rumbling of machinery, the rattling of trains,” said Norman.

“It was all very common in these parts and perfectly normal, they said. And the red eyed ghost? Just a trick of the light. Youthful exuberance perhaps! Mr and Mrs Lamb must have taken exception to this.

“The heaven that was their little haven in Chapel Row had turned into a living hell. To have the problem written off as grumbling earth or juvenile hallucinations must have irked them.”

Today, the Lambs are long gone – as are the colliery and the coke works. The cottages, too, are just a distant memory, and just a few relics of the once-flourishing pit community remain.

“But what happened to the ghost? Perhaps one frosty night at midnight it will come back and rattle on someone else’s door in Shotton Colliery. Perhaps it never went away...” said Norman.

** Do you have a ghost story to share with Norman? Contact him via email on forensicart@yahoo.co.uk or by telephone on 07765 635 128.

Sidebar: Shotton facts and figures

* Old Shotton dates back to at least AD900, when it was known as Scitton.

* Shotton Colliery village took its name from Old Shotton but developed over a mile away.

* Shotton pit was ‘won’ in 1841 and immediately connected by waggonway to Haswell pit.

* In the 1841 census 17 households were mentioned in Shotton Colliery – all ‘sinkers.’

* By 1871 there were 323 households – and West Row had become Chapel Row.

* The accepted date for the closure of Shotton Colliery is November 3, 1877.

* The 1891 census revealed entire streets were boarded up, while others had few residents.

* The colliery was reopened in 1900 by the new Horden Coal Company.

* The brickworks was reactivated in 1905, to make use of sagger clay from the mine.

* By 1906 Shotton Colliery Mark II was producing 392,000 tons a year from 1163 staff.

* The old beehive coke ovens were re-opened in 1907, employing around 16 men.

* By 1918, miners were extracting 472,000 tons annually.

* Much of the old colliery village was demolished after the Second World War.

* Shotton Colliery closed on September 1, 1972.