Beamish, Part 2: The 1900s Pit Village

Beamish, Part 2: The 1900s Pit Village

Second in a series of reviews on Beamish, the open air living history museum in County Durham, UK. To read part 1 – a review of the 1940s Home Farm at Beamish – click here.

A pit village is a mining community – the place where the miners lived with their families.  Because coal was a big business in Northern England during the early twentieth century, Beamish featured just such a village for us to wander through.

Home Life

The houses that the coal mining families lived in were row homes, all connected in one large strip.  They were not spacious, however, and often served as living quarters for large families with up to 12 people.  The main floor of each house consisted of a kitchen and a parlor.  The kitchen was used for much more than cooking – it was also the place to bathe, eat meals, do laundry, and sometimes it even served as an extra bedroom. The parlor, as you can see in the photo below, was the best room in the house, used for special occasions or Sunday gatherings.

beamish pit village house parlor

Miners families’ living in the cottage row houses would often have gardens in which they would grow vegetables to supplement their food supply.

Outside the houses, we often saw a small slate with a time written on it in chalk.  We assumed this was the time for a living history presentation.  Not so.  It was the Beamish pit village version of a wake up call.  Miners would write the time they wanted to be waken up on the slate outside their house.  A “knocker up” employed by the mining company made sure that the miners were awakened at their requested times.

In a few places, we saw carts full of coal outside the cottages.  It turns out that it was a free coal allowance delivered to the miners’ homes every fortnight.  (One of the few perks of being a miner.)

beamish pit village coal allowance

The miners and their families were an resourceful lot.  When clothes became too worn to be passed on to another family member, they were cut into strips and used to make a rag rug, as the man in this picture demonstrated.

beamish pit village making a rag rug

The rug started off not as a rug, but rather as a blanket on top of a bed.  When it had outlived its usefulness there (or when a newer one could replace it), it went onto the floor of the parlor. After it started to look a little worse for wear, the family would move it to a less formal room of the house.  When it could no longer serve any purpose as a rug, it went into the fireplace as fuel.  Consequently, not a single scrap of material was wasted!

School Life

Also in the Beamish pit village was a school.  Children stayed in school until at least age 12, and they studied the following subjects:  reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, domestic science, needlework, science, drawing, music, religious education, and physical education.  We were lucky enough to see a class receiving instruction when we were there (probably a field trip from a nearby school).

beamish pit village school classroom students teacher

There were lots of rules that parents would not stand for today.  First, boys and girls sat on opposite sides of the room.  Second, no one could write with their left hand. Finally, corporal punishment was the normal means of discipline. Consequently, school was not a fun time for children.

Church Life

When we left the school, we proceded to the chapel, a small stone church that originally opened in the 1850s.

beamish pit village church

Its purpose in the Beamish pit village is to represent a typical Wesleyan Methodist chapel from the early 1900s. The church congregation in that era would have adhered to philosophies of thrift, self-denial, independence, and hard work.  Likewise, there would be very little tolerance for gambling and drinking alcoholic beverages.

The building itself also served as a community center, hosting performances, group meetings, study sessions, and more.  One form of entertainment held at the church was a magic lantern show.  A magic lantern, powered by acetylene gas, projected images onto a blank wall.

Beamish pit village church magic lantern
The magic lantern at Pit Hill Chapel

The chapel was the center of the pit village community, so it also served as the site for special celebrations. We were lucky enough to be there for the Harvest celebration, and this stunning display:

beamish pit village church harvest celebration

Beamish is located at postcode DH9 0RG in County Durham, England.  Telephone 0191 370 4000. Open daily at 10:00 AM except holidays. Beamish recently received a £10.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to add a 1950s section, which should be open by 2021.


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