An Introduction: Harold Heslop, 1898-1983. – Writing Lives

An Introduction: Harold Heslop, 1898-1983.

Image curtesy of Anglo-Russian Research Network.

Harold Heslop was an author and writer of proletarian literature. He wrote several books, such as The Gate of a Strange Field published in 1929 and Goaf originally published in Russia, then later published in England in 1934. His work appears to have been well received[1] and has since been used as an example of the growing movement of working-class writing emerging in the early 20th Century.

Heslop belonged to a family with a long history of mining. His Father and Grandfather worked their way into positions of trust and were regarded by their peers as men infinitely skilled in their profession. Heslop remembers his Grandfather being spoken of as a man ‘of the pit.’[2] He talks of his father’s ambition to rise above the station of deputy thanks to his acquiring ‘competency certificates.’[3] These he remembers as being framed and hung in pride of place on the chimney breast in the front room.

That Heslop went into the mining industry seem to have been a forgone conclusion. He explains: ‘I was not trapped. I was immured, as were all my contemporaries into a mining world that we could not and would not change, but to whose destiny it was to pass away.’[4]

A Hewer at work. Image Courtesy of Elgin A Family History.

The imagery and symbolism of Heslop’s ‘internment’ is not lost on the reader. He poignantly captures how it must have felt for the men and boys who disappeared everyday, deep into bowels of the earth, to eek out their existence. He describes how there was always an hour overlap between shifts as the men travelled many miles beneath ground to reach the seams of coal they would work on that day. His eye witness accounts describe how the hewers worked with skill and precision in the most harrowing conditions: ‘In a place only twenty-two inches from floor to roof, a man had to be agile and sure as he assumed the posture suitable for such a constriction of space…[as] he inserted his body wholly into the space and shuffled on his back’ (93).

Heslop portrays the early years of his childhood in his memoir From Tyne to Tone. A Journey, through a description of the working men, and a history of family and community life in the rural poverty of New Hunwick.

Fred Parker, a Welsh Miner and Champion Quoits Player. Image Curtesy of Llanhilleth Miners Institute.

This small mining village in County Durham, North England, is described by Heslop as a place where men had so ‘rarely essayed so mean and contemptible a habitation of souls’[5] to be found anywhere. The housing and social conditions are explored through, for example, the memories of the women who chatter over their fences, un-affected by the stench of the cesspits situated at the back of their houses. And it is through the descriptions of the recreational games that the men and children play, that Heslop reveals how miners games, such as quoits, tipcat or Knurr and Spell,[6] became part of their cultural identity, and how this in turn reveals the roles of the men and women within the mining community.

Heslop also reveals the conditions within which he and his peers were schooled, the majority of whom – including Heslop – were taught at the local council school. Heslop must have been one of the brighter students as he gained a place at Bishop Auckland Grammar School in September of 1911, and recalls coming top of the class along with another boy from the farming community. He remained here for one year before the family relocated for his father’s work. The place of Boulby where the family moved was some distance from his school in Bishop Auckland and still too far from any other grammar school that he might have transferred to,[7] and so at the young age of thirteen, he went with his father into the mine. After this interruption in his education Heslop returned to his studies at the London Labour College, thanks to a scholarship granted to him by the Durham Miners Association. The latter part of his memoir retraces his young adult years and his involvement with the Trade Unions and his interest in politics.

The style and tone of the memoir makes for a fascinating read, and I hope, through the development of this blog, to reveal the language and imagery within which Heslop reveals the responsibility of the working-class writer to their work and to their audience.

Works Cited.

Fordham, John. Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth- Century Britain. Ed. Kristin Bluemel. Edinburgh: EUP, 2009. ‘A Strange Field: Region and Class in the Novels of Harold Heslop.’ 71-4.

‘Harold Heslop’ 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): 3:0075.

Heslop, Harold. ‘From Tyne to Tone: A Journey’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 3:005, available at


Harold Heslop: Image curtesy of Anglo-Russian Research Network.

A Hewer: Image curtesy of Elgin A Family History.

Quoits:  Image curtesy of Llanhilleth Miners Institute.


[1] Fordham, John. Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth- Century Britain’ Ed. Kristin Bluemel. Edinburgh:   EUP, 2009. ‘A Strange Field: Region and Class in the Novels of Harold Heslop.’ 71-4.

[2] HESLOP, Harold, ‘From Tyne to Tone. A Journey’, TS, pp.293 (c.123,000 words). Brunel University Library. 10.

[3] Ibid, 8.

[4] Ibid, 14.

[5] HESLOP, Harold, ‘From Tyne to Tone. A Journey’, TS, pp.293 (c.123,000 words). Brunel University Library. 3

[6] Ibid, 5.

[7] HESLOP, Harold, ‘From Tyne to Tone. A Journey’, TS, pp.293 (c.123,000 words). Brunel University Library. 60.


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