Richard, a miner from County Durham, never states his belief in any definitive way. At no point in the memoir does he claim to belong to any specific faith, religion or group. He gives glimpses of his religious leanings growing up and he certainly talks in depth about cultural traditions from the area he lived in. As the memoir progresses, he is vocal on issues, such as pollution, but he does not label himself as belonging to any particular “belief”.
There are hints that Richard considers himself a Christian and he was brought up in a Methodist environment. He was encouraged by his parents to get involved with the chapel growing up, opening the gates as a young boy ready for congregation. There is evidence to suggest that there was a mutual reliance, between Methodist chapels and mining communities, ‘It is certainly the case that many Durham Methodist chapels relied on the collieries for their membership’ (Bruce, 2011, 338). Steve Bruce states that Methodism helped to drive working-class mining communities as there was a ‘remarkable consistency of a Methodist background in the biography of the early leaders of the miners’ union’ (2011, 338). This shows that there was an investment, on both sides, in communities such as Richard’s. This is not to say that Methodism was the dominant religion in coal mining areas, see Edward Cain’s experience here.
Richard talks about how the religious institutions in the village had a clear impact on the community in his youth. He says, ‘I am certain that life in the village would have been far less full…without the benefits of the religious organisations. I think they provided a sheet anchor between the hard conditions at the pit, and all the other temptations associated with the constant dread of near poverty’ (8-9). This shows that Richard had a deep-rooted respect for the work of the religious organisations, Methodist or not, as well as their ability to bring the community together. There is a clear indication that without these religious factions life would have been much harder.
It is interesting to see that the organisations in the village were just as important to the children as to the adults, ‘Nearly all the children went to some place of worship, be it church or chapel, or the Salvation Army…it created a bond between the children in the village’ (4). It was not only the religious institutions making provisions for those in the village:
the next most important influence at work…was the colliery insititute. It provided some sort of alternative to the chapels, and churches, in that there was a library…a games room…a billiards room, and a public meeting room upstairs…there was also a recreational field where both cricket and football were played…pubs and workmen’s clubs must be mentioned as providing an outlet for quite a lot of men, and it would be difficult to say whether they or the chapels, and other religious organisations, had most members’ (8).
Joanna Bourke writes, ‘The pub and the church were…ambiguous uniters of neighbours’ (1994, 143). She identifies a significant drop in church-going during the first part of the 20th century (1994, 145-147). However, Richard’s account of chapels and churches suggests an appreciative attitude toward them, and for their involvement within the community.
Richard writes briefly about some of the places they visited as a child. He writes,
For the most part, you were limited as to how far you could travel, by your own two feet. Until the end of the war, our opportunities to get out of the village were limited to a yearly visit to the pantomime at Newcastle, an annual church outing to South Shields, and the annual church treat to Urpeth Hall. On occasion the miners’ union did arrange a train excursion to Blackpool, but although we had a station at Pelton Fell, and the railways fares were fairly reasonable, they were still often beyond the pockets of most people’ (4).
In fact, Richard only went on one Blackpool trip. He writes that 200-300 people went on the outing and there were no toilet facilities on the train. Setting off early in the morning and only arriving in Blackpool around noon, ‘sometimes the train, or some portion of it, needed a thorough wash down when it arrived’ (134). He seems to have found the experience uncomfortable, and some of the behaviour he witnessed embarrassing. His favourite part of the excursion was his packed-lunch, which he ate on the way there.
He writes a detailed account of (7). It seems to have been a tradition that the community got involved with, promoting some healthy competition and all-round fun. At Easter there was an ‘old custom of dyeing [eggs] in every imaginable colour’ (7), the eggs were hard boiled. These eggs would then be used to ‘jarp’, knocking them together using ‘the sharp end, or the blunt end’ (7) until one cracked. The one whose eggs cracked would give that egg to the winner until one person was left with the most eggs. There were local competitions and prizes for winners. Richard notes that ‘some men could not resist the temptation to try ways and means of artificially hardening the shells…to produce an egg to beat all others. I knew one man who used to bury an egg from one year to the next to obtain a real hard shell’ (7).
There are some details of other events taking place around Richard’s local area, ‘Chester-Le-Street was our nearest market town, the Friday and Saturday night markets were great occasions, for the market traders themselves, as well as the showmen, and the people from the mining area all round’ (127). As well as the local markets he talks about The Barnstormers, a group of actors who travelled around the local mining villages performing plays, including Shakespeare, ‘Maria Martin and the Red Barn and Sweeny Todd the Barber’ (131). He says this group of actors were well respected locally and always well received. They seem to have been a regular occurrence in the local area, providing low cost entertainment for the villagers.
All of these cultural traditions and habits, like attending the markets, show how important community life was to the families of mining villages. Their common interests and experiences drew them together and created a safe environment for children such as Richard. Whether he considered himself religious or not, it is clear that churches and chapels also played an important role in the lives of people, providing opportunities that they might not have had otherwise.
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994.
Bruce, Steve. ‘Methodism and Mining in County Durham, 1881-1991’. Northern History, XLVIII: 2, (September), 2011: 337-355.
MORRIS, R. W., ‘Autobiography of R. W. Morris’, TS, c.350pp. (c.140,000 words). Extracts published as ‘A Boy goes down the pit’, Bulletin of the Durham County Local History Society, No. 20, Oct 1977, pp. 4-12 (edited by G. Patterson). BruneI University Library.
‘R.W.Morris’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:520.
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– Durham In Time.