Saturday, 21 February 2015

A Durkin, Brown Genealogy from Co. Durham to Tyneside

Trying to trace my husband's family has been so frustrating. No family stories from parents, aunties, uncles or cousin, no photographs to speak of. Just one man who was orphaned at the age of twelve and who rarely spoke of his background or spoke of his time served with the British Army in the second world war and after. A quiet man who accepted his lot.

John Robert (Pop) Durkin 1915 - 1990

John Robert Durkin's background lay in seclusion. To gain access to that background was like peering through a keyhole that only he had a key for. Of course, as so often is the case, he died before family could dig deep and ask all the questions that inevitably came later. John Robert was affectionately known as 'Pop' so I shall refer to him by that name as I attempt to tell his story.

Official records of birth and marriage were easy to come by and his birth certificate gave the name of his parents as John Durkin and Mary Ann formerly Brown. Their address was given as Kelloe, Co. Durham. Family thought that he was born in Trimdon because Trimdon was the only place he mentioned. In actual fact research has discovered that Trimdon was where his Brown maternal line lived.  His father John Durkin was killed in WW1, leaving his mother Mary Ann widowed with three children. But not everything is so black and white and more discoveries were made later as will be revealed.

Census searches for previous generations in Co. Durham were inconclusive, surprisingly there were lots of Durkins with a few possibilities but nothing conclusive. The 1911 census heralded a breakthrough in research and Mary Ann was found living with her father Robert Henry Brown, mother Margaret Brown and siblings in Wingate. Surprisingly, a granddaughter was listed in the household but as Robert and Margaret were the only ones shown to be married it was a mystery as to who parented the child called Mary Simpson Brown. The Brown family had moved about and births were given as Boldon, South Shields, Cumbria and Walker.

Pop's marriage certificate gave his father's name as John Durkin and from census returns I was able to identify his paternal family. He had two brothers who survived childhood. Thomas also died in WW1 with no issue and Patrick never married and had no issue either. As a result the name Durkin for this branch of the Durkin name is now located in South Tyneside and Hampshire.
Pop's Uncle Patrick

After his mother died in 1927, Pop and his two sisters lived with their grandfather in Hebburn but we know hardly anything about his sisters or their whereabouts except for a letter from one of them (Margaret) who in the sixties had written a letter to Pop telling him she had divorced and gave the names of her children but it seems that a family disagreement prevented him from answering. As far as I'm aware the letter no longer exists so cannot be used for research...such a shame. The other sister Ellen is thought to have married and lived in London. No search of civil registration indices can positively identify the sisters' marriages.

I often wondered how Mary Ann Durkin managed to look after her children until her death when her father Robert Henry Brown took over the responsibility. I thought it so sad. I decided to check out her death certificate for cause of death and to my surprise found that her brother Robert Henry Brown jnr had given the information. Another surprise was a listing of two births (twins) shortly before her death. They were Edward and Alexander Durkin sons of Mary Ann Durkin, formerly Brown. This was nine years after the death of her husband. And so the family tree exploded with suspicions, questions, ideas and no obvious answers. Further research provided more tantalising information but as always, answers to research give way to more questions and so the research goes on.
Research Documents

Luckily, a response from a genealogy board to an appeal for information, resulted in finding Pop's first cousin Joyce who at 90 years of age is such a charming lady. Ellen and second cousins reunited with John my husband and me for lunch at The Poachers public house at Metal Bridge, near Spennymoor. We had a wonderful time and it was so good to link up finally with the descendants of John's lost ancestors. It was especially fitting to meet up at The Poachers as it was once run by Pop's Aunt Ellen. We are indebted to Lesley and Colin for organising this meeting for us.
Joyce formerly Scott, daughter of Bridget, formerly Durkin

Now I have untangled some of the web I feel more confident in fitting pieces together, expanding my research and putting flesh on the bones. Hopefully a fuller picture will evolve and I will be able to record it here.
Durkin descendants at The Poacher

If anyone recognises their families from the above. Please get in touch. You can leave a comment below.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Dad at Westwoodside

My Dad (William Pears) was born 24 August 1922 at Misson Springs, son of James Jesse Pears and Mary nee Mellors. He had three half siblings, Dorothy, Gladys and Cyril Mellors who never knew their own father(s). JJ and Mary married in 1919. They were aged about 50 and 37 respectively. Two more children were born in marriage, they were James Jesse born 1919 and Reginald born about 1924. The two bedroom cottage he lived in was one of a terrace of three. Water was provided from a well which regularly had to be cleared of dead rodents. Dad suffered from polio as a child and was nursed by his elder half sister Gladys Mellors. The cottage had a long garden in which vegetables and fruit were grown for home consumption and bartering with neighbours. The garden was so long as to need horses and plough to dig it. Dad remembered them using a horse that only had one lung and also being bitten on the thumb by one. The battle scar stayed with him all his life.

Granddad JJ Pears was a farm foreman at that time having worked as a farm labourer for most of his life but had also worked as a Sinker at New Rossington Pit in the early 1900s. Granny Pears supplemented their income by working as a ‘gentleman’s cook’ and was often called to prepare and cook meals at big houses. Left over jugged hare and the like was a welcome supper in the Pears’ household.

Dad went to school at Misson. Schoolchildren from the surrounding area travelled to school on a converted coal wagon driven by a Mr Hedley. The school comprised three classrooms, one each for the infants, juniors and seniors. The Headmaster was a Mr Brell and the Mistresses were Miss Jones and Miss Bradley. Dad thought himself to be quite clever despite only going (as he put it) to a little school. Before school, Dad had his chores to do and these included chopping wood, collecting eggs for a neighbouring farmer and bringing back milk from the farm. His breakfast was very often melted cheese from the oven, spread on chunks of toasted home made bread.
Dad also remembered going to Doncaster on Saturdays with his mother to help with shopping, going to chapel at Misson and agricultural shows at Haxey. His pets included dogs, rabbits, ducks and chickens. I expect all except the dogs were meant for the table eventually!

He had a spirit of adventure and loved to tell stories from his youth. Visiting the game keeper’s bush to see vermin hanging, hunting rabbits, playing along the river Idle, looking for eels and snakes and hiding from the water bailiff with his brothers and friends Fisher, Grant and Jackson. His younger brother Reg fell through the ice on the river and Dad, even though he couldn’t swim, had to pull him out. Dad eventually learned to swim in the Mediterranean during WW11 while serving with the RAF.

In 1938, Granddad started work for Coopers (farmers) and the family moved to a tied dwelling at Park in Westwoodside. An old grey stone house with stone flag flooring, no electricity and an outdoor earthen toilet. There was a coal fired range in the kitchen, the house was lit by paraffin lamps and water was supplied from a tap in an outside wash house. There was no garden as such to grow vegetables but Granddad JJ Pears kept pigs at the rear of the house and chickens at the front. Granny would hang sides of bacon and cure hams in the cellar and her homemade pork pies were in great demand!

Dad said they were surrounded by family at Westwoodside and often spoke of his Aunt Butler who seemed to be held in high regard and so time went on…children grow up and leave home and so it was with Jesse and Mary Pears. Despite living in such poor and hard conditions compared to what we know today there was a quality of life that remains priceless. I had a short glimpse of it when I was a young child. Visits to Westwoodside are now happy memories. Granny, tall and thin with grey hair tied up in plaits, who made the most delicious afternoon teas of home cured hams, pickles, jellies and cakes. Granddad who was a bit scary with his deep graveling voice and huge moustache but most of all, I remember the love that I felt in Westwoodside. Something I will always treasure.

Carolyn Durkin 2011

Sunday, 29 January 2012


We can trace four generations of Trotters during the nineteenth century. They witnessed the worst of the working, social and living conditions. Non as far as I can tell were criminals or lunatics or so undeserving they ended up in a workhouse. This is their testimony.


JHT is our common grandfather ancestor. He was born 17 September 1895, the youngest of eleven children born to Robert Trotter and Elizabeth (nee Winward). He was born in John St, Newfield (Pelton Fell), Co Durham. Joseph went to Pelton First School, enjoyed football and writing poetry. He left school at 14 years of age and was employed by the Pelton Colliery Company as a putter and driver from 20 September 1909 to 14 May 1915.

He served with the army in the Great War, 15 May 1915 – 9 February 1919 as a driver with the Royal Field Artillery, Divisional Ammunition Column. He was in France for most of this time and was gassed at the Battle of the Somme, after which he was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal. He was discharged due to demobilisation. His character certificate describes him as honest, sober, hard working and a good man with horses.
On returning home to Pelton he was re-employed as a putter and surface worker but suffered from ill health and had poor attendance. His mother asked if the colliery company could give him a more suitable position considering his health and legend has it that he obtained a ‘cushy’ job because of this. He also appealed to the Ministry of Pensions for assistance and in 1920 was awarded a pension of 40 shillings per week in respect of bronchitis (previously diagnosed as pulmonary tuberculosis) attributed by the medical authorities to his service during the war. His pension was reduced in 1924 to 7s-6d for a final period of 52 weeks, followed by an annual gratuity of £10.

JHT married Ethel May Best, 13 September 1919 at St Cuthbert’s Catholic Church, Chester le Street. They had three children, Joseph Henry, Iris May, born 9/4/1924 and Maureen Mavis.
The great depression and general strike followed and in 1928 Joseph uprooted his young family to find work at the new South Yorkshire coalfields. The children and all the family’s belongings were piled onto a horse drawn cart and driven south down the old A1.

JHT settled his family in Rossington, near Doncaster. He worked underground at the colliery where he suffered a near fatal accident and was laid off sick for some time. In 1940 he applied for the post of caretaker at Rossington Welfare Hall and grounds. He received a good character reference from the Mines Superintendent in which it said Joseph became very efficient working on ‘park and gardens’ while employed at Pelton Fell. It remains unsure as to whether Joseph was successful in his job application but in 1944 he commenced duties with Rossington Parish Council as Curator at the new cemetery. His duties included preparing and looking after the cemetery gardens, grave digging, assisting post mortems and making entries in the burial register and other paperwork. His starting gross wage was £3 – 10s per week and free tenancy at the cemetery lodge during his employment.

Legend has it that Granddad JHT would have preferred to stay in Rossington after retirement but in 1960 returned with Nanna Ethel to Pelton, renting a property at 25 Orchard St where he died in 1961. And so their journey had come full circle. Granddad’s return to Pelton was short lived and at his graveside, Nanna threw dust onto his coffin and said ‘Ta-ra Mate!’ That’s what they were…mates in a long journey that took them through two world wars, emancipation for women, hard work, poverty, joy and pain.


Great Grandfather Robert Trotter was born in Elswick, Northumberland on All Souls Day, 2 November 1845. He was the son of Robert Trotter II and Mary, nee Dixon. His family moved to Kibblesworth before the 1851 census and when he was 8 years old began work at Marley Hill Colliery, Co Durham. His father died around the same time and Robert 3 became the family breadwinner. The family is documented as dependent on charity from Lord Ravensworth and Sir Robert Greenwell. Robert’s family seem to be unsettled at this time but eventually made their permanent home in Pelton Fell. He is recorded in the 1871 census for Pelton Fell as head of household living with his two younger sisters, Margaret and Mary and brother John. His mother Mary and brother Lancelot disappear from the picture during the 1860s and it is probable that they died during this time, though record of their deaths and burials have not as yet been found.

The Pelton area offered a healthier life-style with better housing and modern pits. In 1873, the Newcastle Chronicle ran a series of articles on Co Durham villages. The village of Pelton Fell was described as…

a jumble of houses, pits, and outbuildings in apple pie order, with surrounding countryside so fresh as to be a bonus to the village and a pleasant place to live.

Relationships between employer and miners were favourable and they were affectionately termed, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. One local coal owner, Lord Dunsany, provided domestic gas supply at nine pence per fortnight in winter and six pence per fortnight in summer. Previously, the colliery and miners came to an agreement to establish a school district in Pelton Fell for only a few pence per week from each miner. This school district was in operation from 1862, several years before state education was introduced.

Robert III never received formal education and was illiterate, making his mark (X) on his church marriage entry. It had been his responsibility to provide for his mother and siblings and there would have been no time for school. However, some of his siblings are recorded as scholars in the 1861 census when they lived in Kibblesworth, Lamesley. Although it would seem his mother encouraged her children to study, Robert missed out, in order to provide for his family.

On 6 June 1871, Robert III married Elizabeth Winward at Pelton, Holy Trinity Church. Interestingly, Robert III gave his age as 23 instead of 25 and Elizabeth who was 18, gave her age as 21. Elizabeth was Roman Catholic of part Irish descent, born in Bangalore, India in December 1852. Elizabeth was the daughter of the publican at the Newfield Inn and legend has it that Robert III pulled the first pint there.

Surprisingly, Robert III visited America twice, in 1871 and 1881, though it is not known why. During this time, his in-laws looked after his wife and young children. Robert’s life was quite eventful, besides fathering eleven children in the space of twenty-three years he was responsible for saving the life of a young lad named Henry Porter who was in danger of drowning in a pit flood. As a reward for his bravery, men employed at West Pelton Pit presented him with a marble clock.
Robert III witnessed great improvements in the mines and no doubt shared the hope and excitement of the formation of the Durham Miners’ Association. He experienced the introduction of bank holidays, train excursions and the joy of the Miners’ Galas.
In his later years Robert became fond of ‘a bet’ and found that soap leaves, a favourite cosmetic of his daughter Teresa were ideal for writing bets on. The highly perfumed betting slips became the talk of Pelton Fell and Teresa found out what had become of her missing soap leaves – much to her indignation.
Robert had a dry sense of humour and was a lover of story telling and his remarkable life which took him from trapper boy to Deputy Overman, his large family, his adventures overseas and his witness of the great changes in the mines during his lifetime must have given him many stories to tell.
Robert III worked in the pits for 67years before retiring on a pension granted to him by the Pelton Colliery Co. He died on Friday 13th February, 1925 aged 79 years and was buried with his late wife Elizabeth in Pelton churchyard.

Epitaph: When the day of toil is done, when the race of life is won. Father, grant thy wearied one, rest forever more.

Children of Robert Trotter III

George William Trotter, born 17 April 1872, Black House Inn, Urpeth Lane Ends.
John Winward Trotter, born 20 Sep 1873, Newfield Inn
Mary Ellen Trotter, born 6 August 1875, Newfield Inn
Eliza Trotter, born 4 Sep 1878, North Row, Newfield, married Andrew McGorrigan
Lancelot Trotter, born 10 Nov 1880, North Row, Newfield, died Oct 1967
Robert Trotter, born 30 Dec 1883, Louisa Tce, Chester-le-Street, died from war wounds in France 21 Jan 1918
Florence E Trotter, born 18 Nov 1885, Howlett, Pelton Fell, married George Shepherd
Ethelreda Trotter, born 24 May 1888, William St, Newfield
James Trotter, born 3 Dec 1890, William St, Newfield
Theresa Trotter, born 19 Jan 1893, William St, Newfield, married William Burnip
Joseph Trotter, born 17 Sep 1895, John St, Newfield, married Ethel May Best, died 1961

Robert Trotter
Elizabeth Trotter
Lancelot Trotter
Robert Trotter
Eliza Trotter
Florence Trotter
Teresa Trotter
Joseph Trotter

Robert Trotter
John Trotter
Margaret Trotter
Mary H


Robert II was born 6 June 1819 at Low Elswick and his baptism record is listed in the parish registers of St John, Westgate, Newcastle. He was the son of Robert Trotter I and Ann, nee Dickinson.
Robert II would have witnessed the first attempts by miners’ unions to improve working conditions and the defeat met by those unions time and time again. He was a bonded employee, long after Wilberforce had successfully brought an end to the slave trade.
He married Mary Dixon 5 Feb 1842 and surprisingly, was able to sign his name in the parish register of St John. It is a childlike scrawl compared to Mary’s signature, which is neat and legible. Mary was a minor and Robert was of full age at the time of their wedding. Mary’s background is not known, other than she was born in Scotland and her father was a Carrier but from research it becomes obvious that she was educated to some degree and encouraged her children in education too. It’s remarkable that a woman of her class and of that time could write so well. Was it a Methodist influence?
Elswick had become overcrowded with industry and lost its rural setting. Robert II took his young family to Kibblesworth but far from settling there, a decent living was difficult to find and hardship beset the family. Robert II died around 1854 and his burial is recorded in Whickham parish records. He is described as a pitman from Marley Hill.
This tragic death left his wife widowed with four young children and another on the way. She would not have been turned out of her colliery home because she had two sons of working age, Robert III and John… even at the tender ages of 8 and 6. Surely this must have been cruel consolation. They were now classed as the ‘deserving poor’ with one foot outside of the workhouse. As deserving poor they would have received money from the poor law union or parish relief. They also received items from the Greenwell and Ravensworth charities. Widow Mary Trotter’s name appears on various lists as recipient of such items as sheets, garments and soup. These lists are part of the Lamesley parish records held at Durham Record Office.
The family stayed together and are found on census returns for 1851 and 1861. Was it the impoverished life that caused Mary and her son Lancelot to die too soon? Mary has always struck me as a champion amongst women; facing terrible ordeals she managed to keep her family together and encouraged their education. Lancelot, age 10 is noted as a scholar in 1861, when one would have expected him to be working. This is remarkable for such an impoverished family. There is such a story here that it begs to be told but we will probably never know the details.

1851 Census
Robert Trotter
Mary Trotter
Robert Trotter
John Trotter
Lancelot Trotter

1861 Census
Mary Trotter
Robert Trotter
John Trotter
Lancelot Trotter
Margaret Trotter
Mary H Trotter

None of the children of Robert II and Mary have been found in Church of England or non-conformist baptism registers. Not all Methodist registers have survived.


Robert I having died before 1841 does not appear on any census returns. Accurately tracing his baptism (the official record of birth prior to 1837) has been difficult. The International Genealogical Index is the most comprehensive listing of baptisms prior to the mid nineteenth century but caution is needed to correctly identify ancestors. Trotter is a common surname and while helpful genealogical research tools can be used there remains that itching doubt that questions the validity of claiming previous generations as our own. So with tentative steps into the eighteenth century I found two choices.

First of all I will explain some of the problems in searching old records. Baptisms are not necessarily an indication of time or year of birth. Late baptisms were not uncommon. Some families had several children baptised at the same time with no record of their individual ages being made. The death of a sibling often meant that a later sibling was given the same name. Considering all this, is it surprising that arithmetic does not add up every time? The Latin word ‘circa’ is a good cover up when an exact date or year isn’t known. It means ‘about’. Other old records such as burial registers are only as accurate as the person offering information. I am convinced that many of the working class and paupers had no real idea of their age and it is unrealistic to expect that their husbands, wives or children knew either. The 1841 census recorded ages of those over the age of 15 to the nearest five, e.g. someone aged 23 would have been recorded as age 25 and someone aged 22 would be recorded as 20 years of age.

Robert II was born in Elswick. We know this from the 1851 census. St John was the parish church for Elswick. A search through the baptism registers finds Robert II baptised 6 June 1819, son of Robert I and Ann. Other children of Robert I and Ann include Thomas and Lancelot baptised 16 January 1815, Elizabeth, baptised 14 Sep 1817, Jane baptised 4 April 1822 and John baptised July 1824.
The 1841 census for Low Elswick records Robert II and John as sons of Hannah who was a widow and head of the household. Two other children are recorded. They are Hannah aged 8 and Rebecca aged 10. Another sibling, Lancelot age 25 was by this time married and lived a couple of doors away with his wife Mary.
As is always the case, answers in genealogy generate more questions. Who is Hannah and where is Robert? Is this the right family? Further research found the burial record of Ann Trotter in St John Parish registers, the subsequent marriage of Robert to Hannah McPherson in Jesmond and baptisms of Ann, 9 May 1830, Rebecca, 27 Sep 1931 and Hannah at Newcastle, St John. The burials of Robert I his son Thomas and daughter Jane are in the Westgate Cemetery burial registers. The jigsaw pieces fit. This is the right family.
At this time, Elswick was being swallowed up by industry and overcrowding in Newcastle spilled out into the suburbs. With no proper sanitation, working class areas turned into fever districts. A drought in 1831 resulted in drinking water to be pumped directly out of the river Tyne resulting in a cholera epidemic. Robert I died of cholera in 1832 and his daughter Jane died of worm fever. All the remaining family, except Lancelot escaped the filth and savage conditions of Elswick by taking employment at Kibblesworth.
Newcastle, St John church registers record the marriage of Robert I and his wife Ann Dickinson, 4 April 1813 but no ages are given other than of ‘full age’, which means 21 or over. A simple subtraction suggests Robert I was born circa 1790. It was the custom to name the eldest son after its paternal grandfather but Robert I appears to have twin sons, Thomas and Lancelot.  Can we be sure Thomas was the eldest? Would Robert I ‘s father be Thomas or Lancelot? It was also common to carry traditional family names from one generation to the next, so we can expect to find siblings with the same names in each generation.
A search for Robert Trotter I in the IGI, baptised around 1790 and within a 15 mile radius of Newcastle produced two results.

Robert, son of Thomas Trotter and Jane Murray/Morrow born 23 February 1786 at Earsdon, Northumberland.

Robert, son of Lancelot Trotter and Rebecca Hall, born 5 Dec 1790 at Tanfield, Co Durham.

The Northumberland result also finds siblings with several common names:
Ann, Thomas, Michael, Joseph, Jane, Elizabeth and Margaret, whereas the Durham result has no siblings recorded in the IGI.

The names Lancelot and John are flies in the ointment. They have featured in three generations of our Trotter ancestors. There are no Lancelot Trotters in the IGI for Northumberland, yet they are numerous in Co. Durham. The name John Trotter is found in great numbers in both counties during the eighteenth century but I have found no link of either name to our nineteenth century ancestry,


It would be so easy to claim the Earsdon Trotters as our own but where did the name Lancelot come from? In desperation I checked the IGI again and found an entry for Hannah, daughter of Lancelot Dickinson and Jane, baptised 1778 at Lamplugh, Cumberland, an iron-mining district. There are many Lancelot Dickinsons listed in the IGI. Was our first Lancelot Trotter named after his maternal grandfather? Was his mother Ann really Hannah, daughter of Lancelot? I feel at this point I am clutching at straws and while the Earsdon Trotters look the most promising line to take, I still need to find that missing link. Hopefully the Trotter story so far, will prompt others to expand their own unique story and maybe delve deeper into the eighteenth century. If so, I wish them good luck!

© Carolyn Durkin 2009


International Genealogical Index

Census Returns

Parish registers of St John, Newcastle

Registers of Jesmond Parish Church

Registers of Pelton Parish Church

Westgate Cemetery Registers, Tyne & Wear Archives Service

Lamesley parish records, Durham Record Office and TWAS in microform

Newcastle Newspapers, Newcastle Central Library

The Pit Children by Eric Forster

Pitmen, Preachers and Politics by Robert Moore

Joseph Henry Trotter jnr

Family Archives

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Backdrop to my Nineteenth Century Trotter Ancestry, part 1


The Trotter family history I have researched mainly concentrates on the nineteenth century and involves four generations of pitmen. It is a common ancestry I can share with countless other descendents I will never meet. It can be expanded to all sorts of branches taken from the main Trotter trunk. The twentieth century history is still to be written and it is for each branch to do so according to its own unique story.

I believe any family history must be researched in the context of the times our ancestors lived in and I have written a backdrop of the political, social and working conditions they experienced. Our nineteenth century ancestors were not famous. They belonged to the working class but they were the stuff that put the Great in Britain. They suffered atrocious working and living conditions but lived with a passion. They were bonded as slaves to their employers but fought for freedom through the unions. They witnessed the industrial revolution; they were the machinery; they were the energy that turned the wheels of power. They were subservient and oppressed but demonstrated a positive pride. Their blood curses through our veins. Their genes live on in our children. They are an ancestry to be proud of.


The demand for coal rose steeply with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and human life was a cheap commodity. At the same time as calls for the abolition of slavery moved the country’s conscience to cause the government to pass an Act in 1833 to that effect. British men, women and children were entering into bond agreements with coal owners that legally bound them to their masters for a year at a time with no guarantee of continuous work, making them virtual slaves to their coal owner masters.

Conditions down the mines were dangerous, savage and filthy. With no sanitation or clean water above or below ground it was little wonder that the tunnel-ridden mines would be no better than sewers. Women did not work in the Northumberland & Durham coalfields post 1800 but little boys, sometimes as young as 4 were bonded to coal owners as cheap labour. Many did not survive their childhood and were often moulded in stature not by good nourishment and fresh air but by deplorable, cramped working conditions. Physical deformities were common.

These children were lucky to reach middle age and life was cheap. So cheap in fact that in the early 1800s, deaths or accidents were not accounted for. A Darlington coroner reported that there had been no deaths from mining accidents in the Darlington Ward between 1810 and1831. The truth was that they were never recorded; yet a miner was held financially responsible for accidents to pit ponies and breakages of his working tools. There were no pithead baths until the mid twentieth century and miners from early times could journey to and from work almost stripped of clothes, sluicing down in their yards or in the traditional steel bath in front of their home fire. They earned a tough reputation.

Shifts often started about 4am, the miners being woken by the early morning call of the ‘window knocker’ and little boys were carried still asleep on their father’s shoulders to the Pit from where they descended by basket or by clinging to a rope into the bowels of the earth. While grown men who had risen to the ranks of hewers went of into the dark tunnels to win coals, sometimes in seams no more than thirty inches deep, small boys were employed in perhaps the most responsible occupation down the mines.

It was their task as ‘trappers’ to open and close the ventilation doors for other workers so that mine traffic could flow uninterrupted. These boys worked the longest hours with only a candle for comfort against the fear of ‘Old Nick’ who lurked in the bowels of Hell below. Their shifts lasted fourteen hours or more with no breaks and a threat of a whipping if they dared to fall asleep or wander off to play. A trap door left open would upset the ventilation system down a mine and the gas that built up as a direct result could explode with enormous loss of life but more importantly, wealth generating manpower.

In 1812, a terrible explosion occurred at Felling causing many deaths and a halt in production, which in turn highlighted the need for safety measures down the pits. The famous Davy Lamp, invented in 1815 was hoped to effectively reduce the risk of explosion but in practice it didn’t.

At ten years old a trapper boy was promoted to pony driver, responsible for steering ponies, pulling tubs of coals, from collection points to the pit shaft and his wage would rise from ten pence a day to one shilling and three-pence. From then on he could look forward to a position as putter at the age of thirteen from which he would progress through various stages of work to the rank of hewer for two shillings and sixpence a day at the age of eighteen. Although the work was backbreaking, the young miner could develop hewing skills that at least he could be proud of.

Improvement in miners’ working conditions in the first half of the nineteenth century were not due to concern about the miners’ lot. The coal owners’ desire for increased profit introduced ponies to the mines and iron rails for the easy rolling of coal tubs. These measures helped the putters but that help was only a side effect of economic measures to increase production and not a conscious desire to ease the putters’ workload.

Male children were insurance policies for their parents. Men with sons were more employable because children were the cheapest form of labour and every child employed was a man’s wage saved. Sons not only provided job security for their fathers but also housing security for widows. As long as a widow had sons from at least four and a half years of age and employable, then she and her family could stay in their colliery cottage and not have to face the poor house.

Help, however, was on the horizon and in the second half of the nineteenth century, the miners led by Methodists were able to form a miners’ union that had real bargaining power and although progress in the miners’ cause was slow at times, the miners were able to develop a sense of pride and worth that they had not know before.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

My Trotter Ancestry and the Border Reivers Link

“For over 350 years up to the end of the 16th century what are now Northumberland, Cumbria, The Scottish Borders, Dumfries, and Galloway rang to the clash of steel and thunder of hooves.  As George MacDonald Fraser explains in his book, The Steel Bonnets, "The great border tribes of both Scotland and England feuded continuously among themselves.  Robbery and blackmail were everyday professions; raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder, and extortion were an accepted part of the social system.

While the monarchs of England and Scotland ruled the comparatively secure hearts of their kingdoms, the lance and the sword dominated the narrow hill land between.  The tribal leaders from their towers, the broken men, and outlaws of the mosses, the ordinary peasants of the valleys, in their own phrase, 'shook loose the Border'.  They continued to shake it as long as it was political reality, practising systematic robbery and destruction on each other.  History has christened them the Border Reivers.” (link not now available)
My Trotter ancestors most probably were Border Reivers belonging to the border clan or tribe known as Trotters. This clan are thought to have held power over an area near Berwick and derived their name from their mode of transport. They rode little Scots ponies, which had the ability to cover long distances while carrying heavy loads and trotting at a steady continuous pace.

In Elizabethan times, wardens were established to keep peace across the Border Marches and Trotters are named as wardens in the Stanhope area. As the social system changed, many Reivers became pitmen, as did my Trotter ancestors.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Childhood Memories - Trotter tree

The Cemetery Lodge was a very pleasant house. Set just inside the cemetery gates it comprised, kitchen, scullery, front room and council meeting room. There were three bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom. The central staircase was carpeted with a clippy runner, handmade by Nanna Ethel. The front room was full of fine furniture where no children were allowed. The scullery had a washing machine, primitive by today’s standards but Nanna insisted on using her tub and pos-stick, complete with dolly-blue. The kitchen was where family congregated. A coal fired range provided hot water and cooking facilities, even though a cooker was installed in the scullery. Batch baking of scones, bread etc were mixed in huge enamel basins on the kitchen table. The same kitchen table would be cleared and set for meal times and cleared again for other work. At Christmas time the whole family would gather around the table to make wreaths. Granddad took orders for Christmas wreaths and the kitchen became a hive of industry. Such occasions have become treasured visual and sensory memories of industrious family faces flushed with warmth from the fire, sitting around the kitchen table, jovial conversation, banter, the Christmassy aroma of wreath foliage and currant scones baking in the range oven, blackout blinds shutting out the night and the horsehair chaise-langue underneath the window on which, we children loved to sit.
As children we would sit in awe at the amazing wonders, happenings and grown up talk we shouldn’t have been privy to in this magical kitchen, this tree of knowledge. Cigarette stumps would be saved, unravelled and recycled to make new cigarettes from old, in a little roll up machine. How clever it was! Just by strategically placing tobacco and a paper in the machine, then closing the lid, a new cigarette would be manufactured! Too much or too little tobacco was not good enough and many a fat or pathetically thin cigarette made by little fingers was condemned and taken to pieces and reused again until the resulting ‘fag’ was acceptable. The chiming clock set on the sideboard was Granddad’s domain. He alone would open its glass face cover, then with invasive, mechanical surgery, set it and wind it up with a big key before closing its face again. Its thudding tick, tick, tick continued as if nothing had happened. The cuckoo clock, high on the wall was a temptation drawing little upturned faces to catch the ‘cuckoo call’ at the stroke of the hour. Hardly daring to breath or blink in case we missed it. Again, it was Granddad’s task to pull the chains that kept the little cuckoo’s heart beating. Children were not allowed to touch for fear the cuckoo would not come out to tell the time again.

The cemetery grounds were well maintained. Granddad planted and tended the lavender borders, rhododendron and laurel shrubs. He cut the long grass at the far end of the cemetery with a scythe, sometimes disturbing a rabbit or two and occasionally Nanna would be presented with a rabbit for dinner.  The cemetery was divided up into sections for Church of England, Catholic and other non-conformist burials and also a raised area separated from the rest of the cemetery by a double line of privet hedging. This was the un-consecrated section, for stillborn babies and suicides. Sometimes I would see a little white coffin waiting for burial…just left by the back door with no one in attendance…no mourners. It made me feel sad. I hope such practices are now changed. There was a mortuary in the cemetery grounds and Granddad would assist when there was a post mortem arranged. He would have to clean up afterwards and he didn’t seem to mind a willing pair of little hands to help him. Some might say that a cemetery is an odd playground for a child but Granddad and Nanna were there and it was a happy place.

The last time I saw Granddad was in his coffin in the front room of 25 Orchard St, Pelton in 1961. Nanna asked me to say goodbye but I didn’t want to. Nanna, despite being small and aged, placed her surprisingly very strong and sure hands on my shoulders and steered me through a room full of black draped mourners to where Granddad lay. There was nothing to fear…he was just asleep and a kiss on his cheek was my last farewell. Someone had placed a bowl of Christmas roses next to the coffin. Granddad, when working in the cemetery, grew Christmas roses and taught me my first words, ‘pretty flowers’. Christmas roses are so pretty and for me are forever, sweet memories of Granddad.