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The Last Women of the Durham Coalfield - Hannah's grand-daughter

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This is the last book in the trilogy that started with my great great grandmother, Hannah Hall in the 1820’s as she re-located with her family to a new coal mine opening up in Hetton-le-Hole, County Durham. No-one at that time could have known the importance of that move.

By 1822 there was a decline in production of exposed coalfields in County Durham and the owners of the new Hetton Lyons pit turned to previously un-mined land that lay on the magnesian limestone plateau in the east of the county to excavate for coal that lay underneath. As a result of the success of this venture Hetton became the first deep coal mine in the world and together with the development of a railway network, the previously unexplored land to the east of the county became increasingly developed for coal, creating the resulting villages and became known as east Durham.

The family stayed in east Durham and my second book followed Hannah’s family after her death, into a new century which must have filled them with optimism. We followed the fortunes of Hannah’s youngest daughter Susan and her family through her struggles of making ends meet with the low wages brought home by her husband who couldn’t be fully involved in coal production as a result of the debilitating eye complaint, nystagmus. In addition, the family business of dressmaking continued but was facing severe competition from ready-to-wear clothing that was available at the beginning of the 20th century.

Life hadn’t changed much for Susan and her family, and she was living in very similar circumstances as her mother had, in the same village, in the same poor-quality housing and still without any basic amenities such as a water supply and sewage system. However new challenges were presented to Susan and her generation by the First World War and whilst miners were in a protected industry, many from the village of Ludworth signed up to war and the village suffered the inevitable losses as a result, losses that were felt by everyone in the tight-knit community.

Susan and her family continued to share the similar heartaches that Hannah had experienced with her family and dealt with them in the same, strong and determined way with never a thought to letting anything get her down. When she died in 1940, just after the announcement of World War Two, we are now following the fortunes Hannah’s Grand-daughter, in The Last Women of the Durham Coalfield, who continued to live in east Durham.

Eventually, by the 1940’s life had begun to change for the County Durham mining communities. Electricity was available, even to colliery-owned housing, it wasn’t in every room but at least it was there and running water and a sewage system had been installed. Things became even better after the War when the Government of the day had all sorts of changes planned to improve life for everyone including the 1944 Education Act, the introduction of a National Health Service and a Town and County Planning Act that set out a target of new house building across the country to replace the massive amounts of poor-quality housing.

Through the experiences of Hannah’s family, this book looks at the early effects of the post-war Government innovations in the 1950’s and 60’s in respect of colliery village life and how education, health and housing affected them. We witness the dismantling of the colliery village in favour of new town life at Peterlee and whilst this would not constitute the closure of the whole of the east Durham area which grew from the development of the coal industry, we certainly witness changes on a massive scale, the main one being the separation of the miner from his place of work which signalled the beginning of the end of colliery village.

The saga has come full circle – Hannah was there in the beginning of the east Durham coal mining industry, an industry she probably believed would be forever, and I was there at the end, in Wheatley Hill – 138 years later.

By Margaret Hedley

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