South Moor Billy Pit0001
South Moor ‘Billy’ Pit

A daunting journey

When John Egleton , at the age of 31, with his wife Mary, 27, (who was probably pregnant with their fourth child, Maria May), and children Robert John, aged 7, Cecelia, aged 6 and Pamela Rebecca aged 3, moved from rural Norfolk to the coal mines of County Durham in 1890 it must have been a daunting journey into the unknown. He was joined by his brother Alfred Egleton.

They had worked all their lives as agricultural labourers but at the end of the 19th century there was a rapid development of coal mining in the North East of England and the mining companies were recruiting labour from all over the country. It is more than likely that a friend or relative had preceded them to Durham and probably sent them information and made some arrangements for them. (Mary's uncle, Alfred Rix, had moved there and in 1881 was recorded living at Kyo, near Stanley, where he was a colliery worker. The two families were still associating in 1926 when a number of Rix's attended the funeral of Maria May Egleton.)

There can be no such place!

As late as 1938, J.B. Priestley wrote, "A traveller impressed by the Macbeth like look of the city will be well advised not to get out of his train at Durham station. The inhabitants of mining villages live in a region so unlovely, so completely removed from either natural beauty or anything of grace or dignity contrived by man. The landscape is darkly studded here and there with pitheads and tips. It does not seem like and English landscape at all. You can easily imagine that a piece had been lifted out of the dreary central region of some vast territory like Russia or America then deposited onto this corner of our island. The scene, as I remember it, was brown, monochrome, except where an occasional pithead brought a black stain to it or a cloud of steam showed a distant curl or two of white. I cannot help feeling that I shall be told there is no such place."

Coal mining as a job

Coal hewer
Men worked hard and often in indescribably dirty and impossible conditions. They laboured in places where they had to lie down in cramped positions all day to hew coal. They went home black with coal dust and bathed in a tin bath usually in front of the living room fire. Their filthy clothing would be washed by their women. It was hard work and men had to go on till they reached the age of 65 (there was no early retirement in those days).

West Stanley explosion 1909
It was dangerous work too. Mine explosions were commonplace. The number killed in the West Stanley Pit disaster in 1909 was 168. In a mining village, the pit dominated everyone's lives and the community knew little else.

The 1911 Census shows John Egleton and his wife Mary living in a 2 bedroom house with his brother Alfred and 11 of their children.

Can we imagine such conditions today?