Beamish, Part 3: The Colliery

Beamish, Part 3: The Colliery

Part of a series of reviews on the open air living history museum in County Durham, UK. Other posts in this series are:

1 – a review of the 1940s Home Farm
2 – a review of the 1900s Pit Village 

I confess, I had no idea what a colliery was, so I Googled it when we arrived at Beamish. Google informed me that a colliery consists of “a coal mine and the buildings and equipment associated with it.” How interesting!  I had never seen a coal mine before.

As previously mentioned in Part 2, coal mining was a big industry in northeastern England at the beginning of the 20th century. Coal mined in the Northumberland/Durham areas supplied about 1/4 of the country’s need. Peak production was in 1913, when over 165,000 men and boys worked in 304 Durham coal mines. It was not easy work, nor was it always safe. In 1913, more than 1000 miners died. One miner was killed or injured every five minutes.

We started off in the lamp cabin.  Each miner had a token bearing his number (also called a colliery check). He would hand the token to the manager and receive a safety lamp in exchange for it. The manager would then hang the token on a tally board, showing who was at work in the mine. In the event of a fire or explosion, the tokens served to inform rescue services of how many men were in the mine at the time.

colliery lamps coal mine beamish living history museum
The sign reads, in part, “Spitting in the lamp cabin is prohibited.”

The Beamish Colliery includes the Mahogany Drift coal mine, which originally opened in 1855.

beamish colliery mahogany drift coal mine entrance
Entrance to Mahogany Drift Mine

A drift coal mine is one that does not go straight down deep into the earth but rather runs underground at a slight angle and does not go very deep. We were actually allowed to enter the coal mine and see what it was like, but not without donning hard hats. Safety first!

colliery hard hat coal mine beamish living history museum

Once inside the coal mine, it did not take long to imagine what conditions must have been like for the miners. To say that there wasn’t much space would be an understatement. Miners often had to work laying on their backs or sides while chipping away at the coal seam. When our guide turned off the light in the area we visited, “dark” doesn’t quite seem adequate to describe it. There was NO light whatsoever, no reflections, not even a glimmer. Then there was the dampness. We splashed through little puddles on the way to the work site. Our guide told us that miners often had to lay in a few inches of water while they worked. Cold, cramped, dark and damp: these are not conditions in which I would want to spend hours at a time.

The Beamish Colliery was a great way to experience and learn what working conditions may have been like for working class men 100+ years ago. It was a very informative and educational visit.

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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