Wednesday 12 June 2019

Hidden Histories: Mining in the North East

Photo: Peter Fannen

Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered and I recently attended Hidden Histories: Mining in the North East as official bloggers.

Aimee has written about the day here. Our social media posts before, during, and after the event can be found on the #hiddenhistories hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Official photography by Peter Fannen (PJFimages)

Shakespeare Hall, Durham

The venue was Shakespeare Hall, home of the Durham Community Association which hosts a range of groups, classes, and clubs. The modest entrance on North Road belies the building’s impressive architecture and facilities.

A Bit of Background

Organised by Sophie Hopkins and Eliza Colin Hodges, Hidden Histories featured speakers from Beamish Museum, the Auckland Project, and GMB Trade Union.

In Hidden Histories we aim to bring together different generations and different demographics of the North East to break down barriers of stigma that could be caused by a lack of understanding of historic and present conditions.

By learning about the importance of mining in the area, we will address a complex and an often untold piece of British history and what it means today, and how these different geographies have been affected by it in both positive and negative ways. We want to create discussion and document breakthroughs as people connect to the place they are in.

The Idea Behind Hidden Histories: A Bit of Background

Opening Speech

Photo: Martin Baker

Sophie and Eliza shared how they first connected on a residential run by Jack Drum Arts, how the idea for Hidden Histories came about, and their aims and hopes for the event.

Their talk was described as “most inspiring” by Laura Emerson Roberts, Lead Arts and Music Worker at Jack Drum.

They also showed a short video called Wallace the Pit Pony created by Jack Drum as part of Film Encounters; a heritage education film project for primary school children.

Partners Introduction

Photo: Martin Baker

Laura Emerson Roberts and Helen Ward — respectively Lead Arts and Music Worker, and Managing Director at Jack Drum CIC — spoke next. Jack Drum CIC is a community arts organisation producing theatre, music, film, and arts events.

Sophie and Eliza met at a six day residential run by Jack Drum as part of the British Council’s Active Citizens social leadership program. Participants developed skills to design and implement social action projects to affect positive and lasting change in their communities.

Mining in the North East

Photo: Peter Fannen

The event proper opened with a talk covering 500 years of mining in the region by Jonathan Kindleysides, Head of Industry at Beamish Museum. History was never my favourite subject at school, but Jonathan’s passion and knowledge brought the subject to life.

There was a lot to cover in a relatively short time but Jonathan gave a good account of the broad sweep of history and the lives of the miners, their families, and wider communities through to the forced pit closures of the 1980s.

I was particularly struck by the account of miners being lowered into the mines on chains long before the development of proper lifts, and the role of the “sinkers,” specialist workers who traveled from coal field to coal field sinking the initial mine shafts.

Agree / Disagree Activity

Photo: Peter Fannen

After a break for coffee and mingling there was a group activity led by Eliza and Sophie. We each had red (no), green (yes), and yellow (unsure/maybe) cards to hold aloft in response to a series of questions.

  • Do you change how you talk depending on the situation?
  • Do you feel safe with everyone in this room?
  • Should local history be taught in universities and schools?
  • Is mining history still relevant?
  • Should the mines still be open today?

The exercise led to the sharing of some very interesting stories and opinions.

Panel Discussion

Photo: Martin Baker

Next was a panel discussion with Sophie, Eliza, Neve Ovenden, and Hannah Ruddick. Neve is president of the Durham University Working Class Students Association (DUWCSA) and a founding member of the Durham Student–Worker Solidarity Group. Hannah is Branch A61 Youth Officer, LGBT+ Officer, and LGBT+ Regional Equality Forum Delegate for the GMB Trade Union.

I found this section the most personally challenging (which is to say rewarding) as I have little in the way of lived experience or family history comparable to what was being discussed. I am not of working class stock and was sufficiently privileged to not realise the extent of my privilege for decades. One of the speakers, I think it was Sophie, commented that everyone has a close attachment to their region of origin. I seem to be missing that gene. As I’ve written elsewhere, I have little sense of rootedness. It is something I am sure I will return to.

Lunch and Music

Photo: Martin Baker

An excellent cold buffet lunch was served in an adjacent room while Brendan Hoar (aka Mr Pelican) provided musical entertainment in the main hall.

Brendan is currently working on a project called Music for the Mind, focusing on mental health awareness.

Follow him on Bandcamp, Facebook, and Youtube.

A Life Worth Living?

Photo: Peter Fannen

After lunch there was a talk by Sylvie Donna. Sylvie is a lecturer at Durham University and founder-director of Fresh Heart Publishing.

The talk centred on the book A Life Worth Living? the Life of a Miner in the North East of England in the Late 20th Century by Ned Cowen. Originally self-published in the 1970s, the book was re-edited and expanded by Sylvie in collaboration with the original author’s family.

Published in 2012 under Fresh Hearth’s Another World imprint, A Life Worth Living? is available from Amazon.


Photo: Peter Fannen

Next on the programme were four workshops which took place simultaneously in the main hall.

  • Making a Mark: Boot Polish, Charcoal and Printing, led by Carys Funnell from The Auckland Project
  • I Remember... Durham, led by poet Tony Gadd
  • The Miners’ Experience, Campaigns and Legacy, led by Sylvie Donna
  • Discussion group led by Neve Ovenden and Hannah Ruddick

Aimee took part in Making a Mark [video] while I chose Tony Gadd’s poetry workshop. I first met Tony at the Newcastle Literary Salon and was interested to learn more about him and his work. He introduced himself to the group with an “elevator pitch” poem. I thought we’d be asked to compose a similar piece of our own but in keeping with the day’s theme Tony invited us to write a poem that shared some aspect of our own hidden histories. Here is mine:

I remember a faded black and white
photograph, square, white-bordered,
taken on my father’s Kodak Brownie
that sits now on a high shelf in my home
awaiting a roll of film and some attention
to bring it to life.

A photograph taken by my mother
I suppose. Who else?
A photograph of me, a child of six or seven,
younger maybe, beside my father. The
only photograph I recall of him standing,
bent in later years by arthritis and crippling pain.

The two of us, father and son, at the docks in Bootle.
In the background, huge, some ship or other.
One moment frozen in time ...

Coal to Canvas: Mining Art in Bishop Auckland

Photo: Martin Baker

The final talk was by Carys Funnell, Learning Officer at The Auckland Project. According to its website,

The Auckland Project is like nothing you’ve come across before. It’s a project that spans over a thousand years, seven venues in one beautiful setting. We’re all about Bishop Auckland, a small town but one with a big history and big ambitions.

Carys spoke passionately about the Mining Art Gallery and the history of creativity in mining communities throughout the region.

Wrap Up and Evaluation

The event closed with a look back on the day by Sophie and Eliza. All too soon it was time for me and Aimee to head back to Newcastle taking with us some good memories, a few new friends, and lots to think about.

In Other Words

I asked a couple of people to share their thoughts of the event.

The preparation for the event was very thorough. Volunteers were briefed and deployed effectively, information packs for participants were of a high quality and useful, the space was transformed brilliantly, refreshments were well presented, and the venue was well-chosen.

The selection of speakers was diverse and interesting, reflecting very well the aims of the event — to inform people able the mining heritage of the North East and to prompt discussion and interaction between generations and between locals and students. The technical set-up was well-thought out and well executed, with projection capabilities and PA system to ensure that all presentations were accessible.

Most inspiring was the opening speech given by Sophie and Eliza themselves. They spoke thoughtfully and articulately about the project and about their personal journey developing the skills to change and unite their communities for the better.

Well done, ladies!

— Laura Emerson Roberts, Lead Arts and Music Worker, Jack Drum Arts

The following is excerpted from a longer write-up of the day by Mick Watson:

I am 52. This disclosure regards my age may seem irrelevant. However, I feel it’s very relevant to understand my viewpoint regards the fascinating & well-organised Hidden Histories: Mining in the North East event by people considerably younger than I. I have to point out that by & large my age group were the last to experience working mines that were still producing coal. My children never saw a working pit.

With critical thinking at the foremost, my first unspoken surprised reaction to the title of the event is why do the young people feel that the North East’s history regarding mining is actually hidden? Do they mean hidden from them? Hidden from my age group & culture? […] It got me thinking which is exactly what the event was all about & linking this to the knowledge pertaining to young people whether local or not, town or gown. […] I am not really sure our Mining History is hidden at all. The student should look for the history.

I learned that young people are not afraid to speak publicly about their own mental health issues, I am proud of them. My generation don’t like opening up like this generally.

I learned that some young people generally seem to be acutely aware of social class division. The word elite was uttered many, many times out loud during the event. I know in some people’s minds class is an issue but maybe this is just my opinion but the older you get that class division disappears, you realise, yes some people have more money, but we are all equal, the Queen still has to go for a poo, just the same as you or me ha-ha!

My advice is to be yourself, find your inner voice & be you.

— Mick Watson

Further Information

If you are interested to learn more about Hidden Histories, check out the Facebook event, the blog announcement, or email


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