Mostly Mining was the first book on which I saw the Frank Graham logo. My father had – and has – a copy, and so did my maternal grandparents. I was fascinated by history, but I think more excited in this case by realising that books could be published in Newcastle.
William A. Moyes was a geography teacher at Wellfield A.J. Dawson Grammar School, Wingate, Co. Durham, from 1952 to 1963. This school was attended by my maternal grandmother and my parents, so there was a personal tie. Mostly Mining is a history of Easington Rural District, the eastern part of County Durham between Sunderland and Hartlepool, dominated by colliery villages, and until the post-war period brought the new town of Peterlee, without an urban centre of its own. Moyes hoped the book would be useful to school and college students as well as of interest to general readers.
Mostly Mining is at times rather dense with tables and maps labelled with statistical information. While Moyes was a geography teacher and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, it is not a work of historical geography, but a history informed by geography and with a social scientist’s attachment to statistics. For those accustomed to reading history as a narrative dominated by personalities, there was no succession of them here, though there were chapters named after reforming landed gentleman Rowland Burdon, the poacher’s son, miner, trade unionist and Liberal MP John Wilson, and another miner and trade unionist but a Labour MP, Peter Lee, after whom the town of Peterlee was named. A wide range of sources was trawled, though, leaving glimpses of numbers of individuals over eight centuries, from witnesses to a charter of 1155 to the residents of Main Street, South Wingate, identified in the 1851 census. The expansion and corporatisation of coal mining in the nineteenth century is explained and the rise of trade unionism alongside it. The sense of fragility felt by sizeable communities living in often flimsy, impermanent housing and viewed with suspicion by much of the established social order is conveyed in extracts from memoir and correspondence and in the life-ending events which exploring deeper and deeper strata risked, from sudden explosions and flooding while sinking a pit, to significant loss of life in collapses and floods underground. There can be few people now descended from or among those who lived in East Durham in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who fail to recognise family names among lists of the dead, now widely available elsewhere (such as through the Durham Mining Museum website) thanks to the internet. It’s not only the era of large-scale mining which is illustrated by lists; one page is given over to the inhabitants of East Durham who signed the Solemn League and Covenant in 1644. Moyes draws attention to a number of sources, from documents in record offices and scholarly editions of the same, or the details included in census records, which were far less accessible to the public in 1969 than they are today. There’s a sense too of the pleasure of using sources previously used for the illustration of national or county history to demonstrate the social and economic transformations of a narrower locality.
Mostly Mining is an uneven account. There is little sense of the transitions in local government from manorial structures, parish vestries and the justices of the peace to local sanitation boards and eventually to Easington Rural District Council, though the parish unions are acknowledged. The role of the district council in taking control of the provision of housing is covered as a rational response to a pressing problem; the emergence of Peterlee as the result of further social investigation, this time by central government, in part in the hope of stemming exodus from the coal mining areas by providing better homes and social amenities. Moyes notes beforehand the initiatives of parish councils within the rural district which helped set precedents for the community facilties of Peterlee; but he could not have foreseen that in a decade from the publication of his book the idea that government would promote good quality rented housing over poor quality individual ownership would be a thing of the past. Likewise, the concluding section on the Redcliffe-Maud Report and its recommendations for the area – that most of it be amalgamated with Sunderland Borough and Seaham Urban District into a new Sunderland and East Durham unitary authority within the North-Eastern Province – could not anticipate either the perpetuation of Easington (with altered boundaries, including Seaham) by the Local Government Act 1972, or its abolition and replacement by a County Durham unitary authority in 2009, or the tangled negotiations between authorities over devolution which would follow. While Moyes recognised that some ‘tired’ collieries would close in the near future, the near-elimination of the industry which had shaped the area was also beyond his powers of prognostication. As it stands, Mostly Mining is a tribute to a willingness to master a wide variety of sources, a belief in rational enquiry and the widening interest in local history and communities which existed in the 1960s.