Life Of Peter Lee
(From articles in the
Parish Magazine in 1997 and based on the biography of Peter Lee written by Jack
Lawson MP, with a foreword by Clement Attlee
and published by the
London Epworth Press-1948.)
Peter Lee was born in July
1864 at Duff Heap Row, Fivehouses, Trimdon Grange, County Durham(20th July 1864
at 126 Trimdon Grange Colliery, Trimdon according to his birth certificate). He was one of
the five children of Tom and Hannah Lee who moved to County Durham from Oldham,
Lancashire in 1860. Tom Lee had a further three children from a previous
Hannah, who had received education from her own
grandfather, a schoolmaster, educated her children as best she could, by
candlelight in their pit cottage, wherever they happened to be living. For Tom
Lee couldn't settle in one place for very long.
He was the grandson of a gypsy and it seemed that
the wanderlust was firmly within him. He had the reputation of a good hewer,
straight in his dealings with management and therefore work was never difficult
for him to find and from colliery to colliery the family went. their furniture
being sold twenty one times in twenty-two years!
Peter started work in an Oldham cotton mill when he
was ten years old but because he didn't attend school in the afternoons, was not
allowed to return to the mill the next day. He was determined not to go to
school and found himself a job in a brickyard where there were no awkward
questions about schools!
In 1874 the family moved back to the Durham
coalfield and Peter got a job at Littletown Colliery with his father. Once he
worked down the pit, Peter realised there would be no pressure on him to go to
school and he was happy with that. His mother tried to encourage him and his
brothers to attend night school when they came out of the pit, but was only
successful in the winter when the nights were dark and the boys had nothing else
to do with their time!
At 13 years of age Peter began Putting - a piece
worker and he found this work so tiring that he didn't feel like going to the
night school summer or winter.
Between 1879 and 1886 Peter Lee worked at 15
collieries. He worked at Littletown twice, The Boyne, Pittington three times,
Sleekburn, Houghall, Elemore, Haswell three times. Two pits in Oldham, twice at
Wingate, Trimdon Grange, Trimdon, Littleburn and two pits in Dearham Cumberland.
At 16½ Peter was a coal hewer. At this time he was
a heavy drinker, a bit of a fighter and a very hard worker when he realised he
was throwing his life away. There is no doubt that his mother, always keen on
education but never one to force her views on her sons, was partly responsible
for his change of heart and lifestyle. Peter joined the night school and
struggled against all odds to acquire an education. He learned, from his
education that there was a wide world beyond Britain and they too were looking
for the skills of the Durham miner and at 22 years of age, having been used to wandering with his mother
and father, Peter booked a passage to Philadelphia, United States of America.
During his time in American coal mines, Peter found
the same problems there as with British coal mines they were dangerous, low paid
and badly managed. Characteristically during his first six months in America,
and in an attempt to find the best deal he could, he worked in Pennsylvania,
Ohio, Indiana, Indianapolis, Louisville and Evansville. It was during this time
spent in the U S that Peter first became involved in Trade Unionism, becoming
chairman of a Miners' Lodge in Mecklenburg County, however the troubles at this
mine seemed without end. Methods and organisation were very rough and ready and
there was not much money going even for a good workman like Peter, disillusioned
he threw up his chairmanship and booked a return trip to England.
When Peter arrived back in Wingate his reading and
writing had not improved and he had certainly not made his fortune but he was a
much different man for all that. The year he had spent in the U S had a great
impact upon him and on his return to the pit he became involved in the Miners'
Lodge being elected Delegate to the Miners' Council within three months.
Also soon after his return from America, Peter
married his childhood sweetheart, Alice Thompson from Thornley on 29 February
1888 at the Wesleyan Church in Haswell. Peter spent his honeymoon in the pit!
The couple lived with his wife's parents for six weeks. for although he worked
at the pit, the manager would not give them a house as a result of Peter's Union
activities. Peter made no secret of this fact and eventually got the sack from
his job and went off on his own to seek work in new parts. He was given a job
and a house at Stanley Drift, Crook where he and Alice spent many happy years in
their back-to-back colliery house.
In 1892 Peter Lee was elected checkweighman by the
miners of Wingate. This followed a three-month strike by miners of the Durham
coalfield - a strike during which miners and their families found out what true
hunger really was. This position meant that Peter Lee was the choice of the men
and would be paid by them to check the coal hewers weight and to ensure a fair
deal for the miners of Wingate.
For the first time when making such an appointment,
the miners made it a requirement of the appointment that Peter should sit a
written examination. Many felt, on past experiences with Peter that he was too
ignorant to pass such a test but they underestimated how he had spent his free
time since he had left the village of Wingate some years before. During a spell
working in Marsden colliery, Peter had found a friend in a young schoolmaster
who sensed Peter's qualities -the teachings and learning's went on for two years
until Peter went to work at Thrislington.
Peter Lee, unbeknown to many was by now a fine
mathematician and had words enough to express himself as a result he not only
got the job of checkweighman but surprised many who thought they knew him well!
He was checkweighman at Wingate for four years, but
his reputation as a fighter and a drinker seemed always to be in the background
and Peter felt it too difficult to reconcile this reputation with his important
job at the pit and without any indication to anyone of his intentions. Peter
gave in his notice to the men of Wingate - he admitted that he didn't know where
he was going or what he was going to do but within a few weeks he had borrowed £50
and booked a passage for South Africa. On this occasion Peter was leaving
behind him a wife of eight years and four children.
After a long time looking for work in South Africa,
Peter finally found a job in the Valbank Mine, Middleburg. It was well-paid work
-£1 per day and the work was regular and permanent. He did so well here that
his brother; John joined him eight months later.
Peter enjoyed his time in South Africa and he felt
the time had come to make a major decision, either he had to make arrangements
for his family to join him there or he had to go home, and in view of the
disturbances around South Africa at the time he decided to leave for England and
did so in August 1897. During his journey home he took in the grand tour of the
great cities of Europe, a tour only carried out in those days by the sons of the
well to do!
Peter Lee returned to the pits of the Durham
coalfield, first to work at Thornley, Wheatley Hill and then Sacriston - this
was the shape of his first five years after returning from South Africa.
In 1902 Wheatley Hill needed a checkweighman and
they remembered the principles of Peter Lee and sent for him to act for them. In
1903 he was elected to the Parish Council and became its Chairman.
Wheatley Hill at this time was a joke; there were no
made-up roads and no direct road at all to link Wheatley Hill with the village
of Thornley. Burials for the people of Wheatley Hill were carried out by putting
the coffin on a bogey and pushing it up the waggonway to the cemetery in
Thornley, whilst the mourners took the long route around by the Halfway House.
Before too long Peter Lee had instigated a road
between Wheatley Hill and Thornley and a new cemetery in Wheatley Hill. The
people of Wheatley Hill were so delighted with Peter's activities on the Parish
Council that in 1907 they elected him to the Rural District Council of Easington.
At the time there were only two taps in Wheatley
Hill, there was still no sewage system and it was down to the persistence of
Peter Lee that Wheatley Hill got both of these things together with street
lighting. It was quite a legend that newcomers to Wheatley Hill often couldn't
find their own house on a dark night, as all the streets looked the same and
most had wooden shutters keeping all light inside the houses!
Peter was also heavily involved in the chapel and
worked enthusiastically cleaning, redecorating and making new furniture for
the Sunday School and as his confidence grew within the chapel, he would walk
miles on Sundays to preach at a service in another village.
In 1919 Durham County Council became the first
labour controlled council in Great Britain and Peter Lee became its Chairman. In
his opening speech to the Council at the Shire Hall in Old Elvet, Peter Lee
reminded those assembled that during the four years of war the work of the
Council had stood still. He reminded them that roads, health, education and
everything concerning the social life of the county were in arrears and in
general deterioration. He told them that this was intensified in County Durham
given its industrial background, which had inherited long neglect, and he told
of his intention to begin the process of transformation.
Peter was not only Chairman of the County Council
but also Chairman of the Finance Committee and he spent long hours in Shire Hall
getting to grips with his most important challenge to date.
Despite the long hours Peter Lee put in at the
Council chambers, he was practically without any financial means of supporting
himself. Previously the Chairmen of the County Council had had private incomes
but of course Peter did not. A motion was placed that a certain sum should be
voted for his expenses in carrying out the duties of his office. A member of the
County Council at the time - Sir Francis Arthur Pease, coal owner made a
generous speech in support of the motion in which he stated it was imperative
that expenses should be paid and he suggested a bigger sum than had previously
been put forward and the motion was passed unanimously.
Throughout this battle for expenses on his behalf,
Peter Lee was embarrassed - he would not discuss finances even with his close
friends and he made it clear that although circumstances compelled him to accept
the expenses he would not accept more than half the amount granted by the
Council. He constantly reminded his colleagues on the Council of the quality of
life for the majority of Durham workmen and their families - the state of the
housing, slums in some places, low wages giving rise to ill-shod, ill-clothed,
ill-fed men women and children by the thousand whose plight had been worsened by
the recent war.
The task before the newly formed Durham County
Council was huge and it is fair to say they found it difficult knowing where to
start - they needed a huge programme of health reform including water and sewage
provision, school buildings and educational in general, roads which had been
made for horse traffic were now in need of development, housing, infant and
maternity clinics - in short a revolution was needed in County Durham at the end
of the First World War.
A major drawback to all of the reforms which were
needed were the very high prices of raw materials which had almost doubled since
the beginning of the War and it was against this backdrop that the first Labour
County Council began its task of undoing all that had gone before as far as
social services were concerned. The conditions, which had been created by the
ruling classes in England, which had brought disease, exhausting labour and low
wages must always be borne in mind by those supporting the labour cause.
The County Council, supported by Urban and Rural
Councils worked together and threw themselves into their work with determination
and enthusiasm none more so than Peter Lee. From early morning until late at
night he worked in either Shire Hall or the Miners' Hall.
The miners had built their representative a house in
Durham City on a site chosen by him. Peter called this house Bede Rest and it
had views, which looked, over the Cathedral. He thought the house perfect, but
it led him to be criticised by many. To their mind he was a miner and the leader
of Labour forces and the house offended his critics. They made it a major theme
for their platform speeches - it grew out of all proportion in the speeches from
an ordinary house, built on a hill to a palace. Leaflets were written about it
and scattered abroad by the thousand. The press made news out of the situation
and it became the subject of many a leading article. Peter Lee's house played a
part in winning the election for Peter's opponents and at the same time losing
Peter remained the least disturbed man in the county
even though he was at the centre of the battle. He was not a man to be rattled.
Nearly every day there was a letter, interview or speech reported in the press
and when there wasn't there was an attack upon him. His response was to throw
himself even more heartily into his work with the Council and the Miners.
By 1921 the miners of England and Wales had become
angry that the coal being produced in some areas was sold very cheaply abroad
whilst in other areas coal was sold directly to other industries such as the
cotton and wool industries for a higher price. The miners who supplied these
industries were paid high wages in line with the high prices charged for the
coal and also their families had the opportunity to be employed in the other
industries thus increasing the family income. The miners of Durham and Wales
however did not have this opportunity - it was either coal or nothing in these
The miners felt that the profits ought to be pooled
so that wages would be equal throughout the country - they did not want to
strike - they only wanted a fair deal. Of course the miners had never had a fair
deal in the past, and this situation was to be no different.
The rapid fall in coal prices in some areas brought
about 'slump' conditions in 1921. In the Spring of that year the owners used the
fall in coal prices to announce cuts of up to 50% in miners pay and when the union refused to agree to this,
coal owners locked mineworkers out of the pits on 1st April. The Government
immediately put into force its Emergency Powers Act, drafting soldiers into the
coalfields - bringing them back from Ireland where war was being waged! so
determined were they to win this particular battle. The Government and mine
owners, stepped up the conflict by seeking an end to national agreements and
requesting a further cut in pay and the Union, sadly, found itself without the
supportive action it desperately needed from its allies.
On what became known as 'Black Friday', 15th April
1921, the miners found themselves betrayed by the leaders of the Transport
Workers Federation and the National Union of Railwaymen, and it was clear that
they would be on their own in a contest of endurance with the State.
For the first few weeks of the strike in Wheatley
Hill, it was a picnic atmosphere, pit ponies who had not seen the light of day
for years, settled down in colliery fields and the miners arranged races with
the driver boys for jockeys and the whole community joined in the fun.
During the days there were meetings or sports and
relations between miners leaders and the police were good with very little
conflict being seen. This was the reality. However the press made their usual
mountains out of molehills when it came to headlines and any small incident
involving miners was reported as a revolution especially in the London papers.
The coal owners, at the time of the 1921 strike did
not now have the powers previously used, of evicting the miners from their
homes, and also, new to this strike, children were being fed a meal every day at
school so these were two pressures that the miner did not have to consider going
back to work for as he previously had. The miners in Wheatley Hill took it in
turns to get up early in order to light fires at the school and make breakfast,
working alongside their wives and school staff to serve the children at least
one good meal a day.
After three months the lockout was ended. On 28 June
1921 the Union recommended acceptance of a deal which involved scrapping
national agreements, this deal included a wage reduction that left miners at
least 20% worse off in real terms than they had been in 1914 - the miners had
once again been betrayed.
Peter Lee had seen too many strikes to like them but he was too wise
to think that economic freedom was to be won by people lacking spirit and he was
in the centre of the conflict, sharing its problems with other leaders, and when
the conflict ended he was there to share the troubles that the conflict had left
behind. Strikes, whether won or lost leave a host of difficulties and misery
behind them and Peter Lee was prepared to help those who needed it.
At the 1922 County Council elections however,
Labour's opponents exploited the lock out of 1921 laying the blame firmly at
Labour's door; as a result Labour was defeated in County Durham and the old rule
resumed in the Shire Hall.
So Peter Lee led the forces of Labour in opposition,
attacking on the inside and educate on the outside by press correspondence,
pamphlets and speeches. Peter was particularly at his best in this situation and
he was now in the position of preparing people's minds for greater changes that
There are picturesque, colourful carnivals held
annually in various villages and towns of Britain which are reminiscent of old
times but in its day, the Durham Big Meeting was a sight that roused the
emotions and gripped the heart of the communities who knew what it stood for and
the hardships that men and women had faced years earlier in order that the proud
procession could take place.
The first mass meeting of the lodges of the Durham
coalfield took place at Wharton Park in Durham in 1871 when around 5,000 people
listened to speakers from Scotland, South Yorkshire and Staffordshire. The
following year and for almost every year since, the annual demonstration or
Miners Gala was held on the Durham racecourse.
Every lodge of the DMA had its own banner made of
painted art-work and silk attached to a bar, hooked to end poles which were
carried by chosen men. When there had been a fatal accident in the colliery that
year, the lodge banner would be draped in black when it was paraded at the Gala.
On Big Meeting Day in Wheatley Hill along with
hundreds of similar villages within the coal field, men, women and children
would rise at dawn on the Saturday morning of the gala in July, long before
breakfast time ready to meet with the colliery band and banner as it marched
through the village to catch the bus into Durham to take part in the major
procession of banners.
In the early days of the Gala the procession would
take four hours - banner after banner marching through the narrow City streets
to the racecourse. Each banner had its own picture and motto, portraits of old
leaders, portraits of present day leaders, men known in local circles, the
county or in national or international life. The Lodge officials march proudly
under the banner, keeping an eye on the banner bearers.
A rostrum was set up on the racecourse for the speeches that will take
place throughout the afternoon. Peter Lee was never happier than when he was at
the Big Meeting. It was part of him and he had come to be a part of the meeting
for most people there. As a boy he had marched with his father, mother, brothers
and sisters. In young manhood he had proudly carried a banner - for years he had
walked beneath one as a Lodge official, and now his tall figure and striking
face could be seen as he moved through the crowds to take his place as Chairman
at one of the platforms. Jack Lawson describes Peter Lee at a 1920's Big Meeting
"That head with the gray curling locks under a
soft black hat, that face with imperial beard, had become such a permanent
feature of the great gathering that it seemed scarcely possible to imagine it
without him. He was intimate with all, but none were familiar with him. There
was something kingly about the man, but none knew him as other than a comrade.
The serenity and leisurely assurance of him gave serenity and no more poetry
that in an effortless way, as though utterly unconscious of it even in the worst
days, Peter Lee conveyed such confidence to men that his mere presence was a
In 1925 with the return of the Gold Standard, coal became 10% more
expensive to our overseas customers. Naturally they did not want to pay the
extra 10% and placed orders elsewhere and the coal owners had to face reality -
increased prices and no customers! Under such circumstances, as they had done
before, the coal owners called on the miners of Great Britain to accept a wage
reduction, the miners refused. The coal owner’s reply was to post notices at
all pitheads saying, “Take it or leave it" - leave
it meant a stoppage at the pit.
Everyone knows what follows. All professions of workers throughout
Great Britain rallied to the cause of the miners. There was not a trade,
industry or profession, which did not resent the deep wrong that, had been done
by this demand for reductions in pay.
The “lock out" was to drag on long and
painfully. The General Strike in May 1926 in aid of the locked out miners
collapsed before the end of that month but the miners refused to give in despite
the suffering they went through. During this lock out, the children were well
fed in schools, this situation kept the men out of the pits, if the children had
been suffering as a result of the industrial unrest, it may have meant a quick
return to the pit but thanks to the gardening skills of the miners themselves,
the tables of food were always filled for the children. Peter Lee and his
colleagues on the County Council had the satisfaction of seeing the children fed
and in better conditions than they had been in previous stoppages.
The inevitable defeat soon came to the miners in the shape of reduced
wages and an hour longer on a shift. There were many throughout the coalfield
who would have fought on and who were very bitter that the owners had
won again. During this time, as Miners Agent, Peter Lee visited pit after pit
trying to reassure men who were unhappy about starting back to work - he faced
many a hostile crowd but never gave up. He was well respected amongst the miners
but feelings were running very high and he took some straight speaking from the
crowd. 1926 is said to have been Peter Lee' s most difficult year. As Miners
Agent and Chairman of the County Council he had many problems, which stemmed
from the long struggle of the miners. His friends worried about him, wondering
how he kept going with the amount of responsibility he had taken on. Peter's
only answer was that he had come from tough stock where hard work and a
disciplined body and mind would see him through. And it seemed to!
It was not until 1930 that he was elected General
Secretary of the Durham Miners' Association - the leader of more than 100,000
Peter was faced with both economic and social
problems. Wages had been reduced throughout the coalmines of Great Britain by
about one half since 1920 whilst output had been increased some hundredweight
per man. Added to these problems was the growing dilemma that coal and steam was
no longer the sole means of providing power and had been partly displaced by oil
and electricity. It was a bleak picture facing Peter Lee, as he took over the
job of General Secretary in 1930 and many wondered how he would tackle it. His
introductory speech was to remind the miners of how far they had come in terms
of social and working conditions over 200 years.
He reminded the Durham Miners of the findings of
Richard Fynes in his History of the Miners of Northumberland and Durham -
telling of how boys worked 18 hours a day. He reminded them of his own father
starting work in a Lancashire coal mine just after his 6th birthday. He reminded
the miners how, after one strike, the prisons of Great Britain were so full that
almost 300 people had to be accommodated at Auckland Castle, the home of the
Bishop of Durham.
He reminded them of the victories of the miners -the
abolition of the 12 hour day and the victory of getting rid of the Tommy Shop in
1831. He reminded the miners of such names as Martin Jude and Thomas Hepburn, starved
by the coal owners for their union work. He reminded them of 1844 when
35,000 men, women and children were evicted from their homes and thrown into the
fields to spend the winter in tents and other types of crude shelter. Children
were born under these conditions women pawned their wedding rings and put the
proceeds into the common fund. For five long months with the press, police and
ruling classes against them these men and women held out - eventually beaten but
out of their hardship was born the Miners Movement.
He drew their attention to the 'bindings', that
legal servitude common among miners for long years, almost unknown to the rest
of the country when a Durham and Northumberland miner were bound to masters for
a year and were only free for a day until the year 1872.
Peter Lee reminded the miners of 1930 of the debt of
gratitude they owed their forefathers and he drew their attention to the words
of Thomas Hepburn in 1831, "To know how to wait is the secret of
success". If anyone had waited long enough, the miners of County Durham had
and Peter Lee began his term of office by making the miners aware of the way
they had come, the price that had been paid and the things that had been
achieved. He reminded them of the miner’s battle for freedom, his work below
ground, his total disregard of his own life when fellow workers were trapped, or
the daily life in those miners’ homes. He was not dwelling on the past to keep
the miners quiet. He was stirring their pride by appealing to their loyalty, he
was rallying them at a time of great stress to be of good heart for the fight
ahead so that there would be no likelihood of returning to the days of the Bond.
In 1933 Peter Lee was elected President of the Miners Federation. In
August 1934 he chaired the Miners' International Conference In Lille,
France where he
reviewed the international coal trade. During his closing speech he said:
“This is my first as it will also be my last address as Chairman of the Miners
International. In closing, my parting thoughts are, may the workers of the world
be knit more closely together in their trust of each other and grow stronger in
their international organisations so that they may acquire real power and thus
bring about that better state of things we all wish to see, when liberty,
goodwill, prosperity and peace shall reign in our several countries, and in each
find democratic government firmly established".
On 22nd September 1934 an explosion that
lost 265 lives at Gresford,Wales shocked the country. Peter Lee, along with other
miner’s officials hurried to the scene but nothing could be done. Peter was
part of the investigation, which followed, and it was during this investigation
that he came to respect and know Sir Stafford Cripps MP. They were as different
as chalk and cheese - one old one young. One educated, the other the product of
hand-to-mouth knowledge. One so trained in the law that his position was almost
unchallenged, the other a practical miner. The lawyer astounded the miner by his
ability to grasp facts and search even the most expert witnesses and Peter Lee
said of Sir Stafford Cripps. “He is the best miner of us all". The two
became very good friends and Peter Lee later obtained the services of Sir
Stafford at a subsequent enquiry in the Durham Coal field.
Peter Lee died on Sunday 16th June 1935 -
his mind was still very alert and active but his body had let him down.
It was his wish that he should be laid to rest in
the cemetery which he had set apart in the old days when people had to walk long
miles along unmade tracks to bury their dead instead of having them nearby in
their own village. So his body was taken to Wheatley Hill and not, as many
believed would happen, Durham City a place he dearly loved. His heart was still
in Wheatley Hill. Miners from all over the north and the country, men and women
from all walks of life visited Wheatley Hill to do honour to the life and work
of Peter Lee on the day of his funeral. "It's just like Peter to come back
and lie among his own a miner was heard to say at the funeral. In Patton Street
Methodist Chapel where Peter had preached, taught and dreamed, eloquent words
were said of him and sincere mourning took place in Wheatley Hill on the day
that Peter Lee "came back".
Amongst the older people in the colliery villages
around East Durham, Peter Lee's legend still lives on. He was 6' 1 1/2” in
height with curling hair and a striking face. Like all strong men he was often
dogmatic and sometimes intolerant but whether right or wrong, he always fought
for the injustices, which had been heaped on the lives of miners.
Of Peter Lee's Speech Given At The
Jubilee Of The Patton Street Methodist Chapel
“The year of Jubilee has been an important event
in the age of nations, also in the lives of men and women. In the history of the
Children of Israel it held a very great place. The trumpet which announced this
event gave joy and hope to thousands and it meant a rest from toil, a fuller
liberty by the breaking of bonds, a time to look over the past, judge the
progress of the nation. The people with true vision were able to look forward
with a hope for greater progress in the future.
So that now our village church has reached its
Jubilee, we may take a view of the past and see the work done by our brothers
and sisters, many of whom have crossed the great river of time to the ‘better
land'. But the fruits of their labours are being reaped by us and in spirit,
they still live with all who fight for a nobler and fuller life, which shall be
built on the power and love in Christ.
It should be our aim to continue the good work, so
that in the coming years the spirit of truth and right shall go with our Church,
also that it may still be a temple wherein men and women, oppressed by the
material forces of life, shall be able to come in close touch with the Unseen,
by ever real, presence of our Lord.
About the year 1868, the old Thornley Coal Company
commenced sinking operations in Wheatley Hill, which at the time consisted of a
few old buildings and farmstead now known as The Farm. Some of these buildings
may date back to the time of Queen Elizabeth, so they would be venerable (sic)
when in 1680 the Pilgrim Fathers left this Country for the land of the West, and
they, in truth, link the old pastoral days of farming with the 20th Century iron
age of commerce.
With the sinking of the shaft came a marked change.
The Main Coal Seam was reached in March 1870 after which the work went on
quickly. New homes were built and miners came from different parts of Durham.
Amongst these were men and women who brought their religion along with them. To
them it was real and earnest - no losing it on the road in moving, for whilst it
is good for man and women to leave behind them a good influence which is felt
remembered long after they have left the old home, it is a very sad time when
persons leave behind them the Unseen Life and love of their Church.
With our brothers and sisters this was impossible.
The Christian life was very sweet and true - there was no sitting at home until
someone invited them to Church, for here there was no building they could call a
church. But as in every age where the Spirit works with men and women, an open
door was soon found where they might meet for prayer and praise. A miner’s
cottage was the first meeting place, and therein the children of God commenced
to worship and built up a PM Church. Sometimes it was in one colliery row and
sometimes in another but in each was found the power of faith, fellowship and
holiness. After a while they met for Sunday Service in an old barn on the south
side of Church Street, in front of where the present Walter Wilson's shop stands
and although conditions were not of the best (for sometimes when the day was wet
it was not only necessary to carry an umbrella for use in the street but also to
use in the Church) yet they went forward with the work of Christ and in the year
1873 the present Church was opened to the Glory of God and the Help of Man. They
had now, at last, a House in which all their spiritual needs might be met. It
was a proud day to them, and in vision they would see great work to be done in
the cause of truth. They had not only vision, but put forward great labour for
Christ and his Church, so that in a few years Wheatley Hill was one of the
leading churches in the Circuit.
It may be well before going further into the history
of the Church to give a brief outline of the development of the mine. After coal
was reached, work was soon undertaken on a large scale and in the Main Coal they
went forward, working towards the mother colliery of Thornley. In this scene
there soon occurred one of those events, which impress all with the danger of
the miners life. On Thursday, January 19th 1871 while a man named Roberts was at
work and had just got ready to drill a hole in the coal for blasting, a very
large volume of water broke through the coal from the old workings at Thornley.
At this time there would be about 30 men and boys in the mine. Five or seven
were lost, two were rescued from the Thornley side after being in Wheatley Hill
Pit for 56 hours.
Their names were Michael Regan and John Smith. It came as a great surprise to
those who were working at the Thornley end to hear knocking, for the water was a
great many feet up the shaft at Wheatley Hill and all hope of getting men out
alive had been abandoned. At the inquest on those lost, a verdict was given that
the deceased were killed by a burst of water through the gross negligence of W.
Spencer, Head Viewer, W. Hay, Resident Viewer and T. Watson, the Overman. These
were sent for trial at the Assizes and as told by John Wilson in his history of
the Durham Miners, the case against them failed, although it was clear that
those in charge had broken Rule 15 of the Mines Act 1860, in not having bore
holes kept in advance of the working face. The mine developed and after the
short County Strike, commencing on 8th May and ending 14th May 1874 Wheatley
Hill again came into the limelight along with Thornley and Ludworth. These three
collieries had for some time been working five days per week. The owners now
stated that they were to commence working eleven days per fortnight. This the
men refused, and on Monday 1st June, the owners began to evict the workmen and
once again was seen a sight often witnessed in Durham but which we hope has
passed for ever. A band of candymen under the protection of about 70 or 80
police, carried out the furniture of the people, placing it in the open street,
after which the workmen had them removed to a field and for about three weeks
the people were tent dwellers. The case was sent to Arbitration, the collieries
commencing under 10 days per fortnight. The arbitrators decided that the men
were right in considering them 10 day pits but concluded that in future they
should work 11 day's and the owners should pay the total cost of the
arbitration. So we have a case where the men were proved right but the owners
got what they sought.
Work at the mine went on and about the year 1877,
the men had trouble at Wheatley Hill to get their wages for one pay, the owners
being in financial difficulties. In August 1882 more trouble came and the
colliery ceased working. The colliery went into liquidation in April 1884 and
there was another Put Pay when working stopped at the Colliery. The mines of
Wheatley Hill, Thornley and Ludworth remained idle for a few years, until the
present Weardale Company re-opened them in 1889. They then commenced to sink the
shafts at Wheatley Hill down to the Harvey Seam and since then the Colliery has
gone forward with true progress, few mines in Durham for the last 33 years
having had less local trouble through disputes.
The changes at the mine were bound to have an effect
on the Church for like all colliery villages, apart from a few tradesmen, the
whole population was a mining class. Few churches of 50 years of age can show so
great and successful a record. At the end of about 9 years in 1882, Wheatley
Hill was one of the strongest churches in the Thornley Circuit. Then came seven
lean years while the mine was idle but with the reopening of the mine the church
again became strong both in spirit and in numbers. The old Church was too small
for the congregation and the Temperance Hall was taken for Sunday Services and
we had the good but strange sight of a PM Church in a small village worshipping
in two buildings and in a friendly way dividing their numbers to do the Master's
work and meet the needs of the people.
On 15th October 1898, the foundation stone laying
took place for the extension of the Church. On the north end, also the present
chancel, which unlike the Established Church is at the north end instead of the
east end. When the reopening took place on 25th December
1898 there was a successful mission by Mr. Johnson of Carlisle. The Church was
still found to be too small for the congregation and another change was made,
the porch being removed from the inside, the present one built on the south end
and the Church floor was raised and sloped down to the present flat section. As
the years went by the Church work went forward and it was felt that more
classrooms were required to meet the needs of the Sunday school and on 26th
August 19l4 the commencement was made to build several classrooms on the west
side of the Church.
In recording the history of a Nation or a Church,
historians feel that their work must consist of giving the names and lives of
Kings, Queens and other prominent people. But the true historian should not only
deal with names but with cause and effect. Therefore, we shall not take up time
and space by giving names. Which might form a long list of the men and women who
have laboured in our Wheatley Hill Church but it is of great importance that we
should try to outline the life and tone of the Church. For it is a remarkable
fact that when the mine was at work the Church was a strong one in the Thornley
Circuit and few Churches have sent out more local preachers and Sunday school
teachers. It has always held an honoured place in the village life and the
question is often asked why it has been so. The Church members have constantly
placed first the idea that they meet together not so much to receive - but to
give. By each seeking to give some help in Church work all have been able to
receive that true support and spiritual life, which is so helpful in this age of
materialism. Another cause is that the Church has always taken a very active
part in the welfare of the village life. When improvements have taken place in
the village and district in education, sanitation or housing, PM members have
ever been at the front and in the political movement it has been the same. Also
in seeking to improve the miners' lot they have felt it a duty not only to keep
right the eternal life but by labour to make life nobler and sweeter.
Another thing that has helped to spread the good influence of the
Church is the high moral tone, which was set up by its members and carried into
the homes, the workshop and the mines. Few Churches in a period of 50 years have
suffered less from discord and scandal and to be a member of the PM Church meant
setting an example of moral worth. Another cause has been the freedom in
business meetings for the full expression of the individual opinion. It is known
far outside the village that there is no restraint save that of true courtesy
between the brethren in discussion and when any line of action has been decided
upon. It has become the work of all to see it put into practise. Another cause
of strength has been the service given by members to the Sunday school work.
There are few village Churches with a greater Sunday school roll than Wheatley
Hill. Last year we passed the figure of 400 scholars in attendance and often
with a strange preacher. Who after the experience of a Sunday Afternoon
Preaching Service has said, "Where do you get all the children from and how
do you keep such good order?" The answer is - the respect
their parents have
for the PM Church and the care and kindly interest of the teachers
in the little ones. "Feed My Lambs" might be chosen as a
motto of our Church and
in feeding them we
have built up our Church and kept it strong in dark days which otherwise would
it weak and frail. The parents who are not members of our Church know that the children sent to our
school will be under a good and noble influence. It is not only a training
ground but also a recruiting office for Church membership. While we must all
feel a great joy and pride in looking over the past, let us not rest on the work
already achieved but learn the lesson's by which it has been brought to pass.
Keep the unseen power and vision, which has made it, possible and from this year
of the Jubilee go forward into the future. Filled with the spirit of His love
who said, "Lo, I am with you always" each trying to make the Church a
means of grace and some other brother and sister. Endeavour to improve the world
we live in, let our love for each other overstep any difference of opinion.
Which may arise in our business meetings, keep the name of our Church as clean
in the village as we try to keep a clean hearthstone and ever remember Christ
loves little children and if we would serve aright, we must love them too. Let
us do these things, and the year of the Jubilee will not only be a great event
in our lives but through His love and our labour this Church shall not only be a
place of peace and hope to those, who Sunday after Sunday meet as our early
founders did. For prayer and praise but like the lighthouse on our storm-bound
coast. It will be a beacon of help and rest for those weary souls who have
sought but failed to find happiness in the stormy seas of commercial life and
worldly pleasure. Shedding its golden light of life far across the troubled
waters and guiding the storm-tossed mariners back to the sure and true haven of
peace in Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour."