In 1987 I wrote to Mr. Etherington(he had always been Mr. from my days at school) to see if he had a copy of the article from The Northern Echo that he had written some years previous on Wheatley Hill. I had aspirations on writing a history of the village and I knew that the article would give me some leads. Greg Wharrier from Thornley had given me his address and indicated that he was involved with the local Labour party as well as writing article for local papers.

    The letter that came back was very warm and he was excited to receive a letter from an ex-pupil. The letter was written with a fountain pen in his usual style, very open and legible. (He had used a fountain pen when writing his comments on my school report) He gave me a brief history of what he had been doing since the school closed and it included the following articles from The Northern Echo and Peterlee Scene all written in his inimitable style. On my visits to England I always made a point to go to see him. He has earned the respect of all the people in the area, which he loved, as is seen in his articles, and he will always be remembered by all his readers and ex-pupils. 

This is how he started his article on Wheatley Hill in the book "Our Patch" published by Printability Publishing, Wolviston.

If I say that Wheatley Hill is a rather special place for me I know that many people reading this will understand why. It is the village where I worked for twenty-three very happy years, four of them living in School House where my daughter was born.

One of my great delights today is to meet one of the lads despite being up to 50-years-old) that I taught during those years. Each one says, "Remember me?" and we have a long chat about the "good old days". I meet the occasional young lady too, rather fewer of these because we didn't become co-educational until 1967, but an equally pleasant experience.

Wheatley Hill: the village with a heart


If you imagine the Dardanelles to be a Turkish strait that joins the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea, and that it has some connection with Gallipoli and the 1914-18 War, then obviously you don’t know Wheatley Hill.

Any local will tell you that the Dardanelles  are the colliery streets built on a slope behind Front Street, not named but numbered. I once asked how the name came to be used and was told that the long alleyway between the Nimmo Hotel in the Front Street and the colliery houses had been likened to the Dardanelles Strait and the name had, by usage, been transferred to the streets.

The history of Wheatley Hill, like most colliery villages, really only spans the years from the Industrial Revolution, but there is rather an odd link between the village and Newcastle. Surtees’ History and Antiquities of the County of Durham traces the manor of Whetlawe, which became Quetlaw before assuming its present name, back to 1474 when it belonged to Robert Rodes, Esq. This gentleman is thought to have built the beautiful steeple of St. Nicholas Cathedral.

The average life of the three collieries closed in the area seems to have been around 120 years, although Wheatley Hill’s productive existence was in the region of 100 years. Boring operations began in about 1839 but the first coal were drawn in 1870, under the Hartlepool Coal Co. During its lifetime the colliery seems to have had more than its fair share of troubles. Five lives were lost in 1871 through flooding and seemingly inevitable explosion claimed eight lives in 1876.

Wheatley Hill carved its own little niche in the history of the coalfield when the miners joined with their mates at Thornley and Ludworth collieries and struck against working an 11-day fortnight instead of ten on May 18th, 1874. The employers’ answer was simple; police, aided by a gang of Tyneside roughnecks known as the “candymen” proceeded to evict the men and their families from their colliery owned houses.

As if this was not enough, there were the occasions of the two “put pays,” probably unique in the history of coal mining. The men were paid fortnightly and on presenting themselves for pay on February 9th 1877, found the 'Original Hartlepool Coal Co.' had conveniently and without warning declared itself bankrupt. Ugly scenes threatened; a magistrate read the Riot Act and the crowds dispersed. It is said that a year, obviously of extreme poverty and hardship, passed before any pay arrived, and it is believed that a sum in the region of £600 was never paid out. It is perhaps stretching credulity to the limit to say that the same thing happened again but it did in 1884. The same ugly scenes seemed likely to take place but the Durham miner is resilient and his sense of humour is apparent at the most unlikely moments. Sir Timothy Eden in his Durham County History tells this story.

“John Wilson, chairman of Wheatley Hill Miners’ Lodge and later Liberal M.P. for Mid-Durham for 25 years, was addressing a mass meeting of Wheatley Hill and Thornley miners in the eloquent, impassioned way befitting a Primitive Methodist lay preacher. He noticed that he did not appear to be holding his audience and many eyes were turned heaven­ward as if beseeching the Almighty to intervene. However, it was soon obvious this was not the case when a voice was heard to say, ‘Haud thi hand till the “slate cock” comes in’. The pigeon duly landed on its ducket and Wilson heard the same voice give him permission to proceed, “There, he's landed, thoo can gan on wi thi speech". Pathos and humour intermingled.

The Front Street School opened on November 26th 1877, as the Wheatley Hill Board School, and is still in use as part of the Mixed Secondary Modern School. It seems to have begun as a family concern with Mr. James Routledge, certificated teacher, as headmaster, Robert Gray Routledge, pupil teacher second year, and Mabel and Margaret Routledge as monitors.

Obviously the Lancaster and Bell monitorial system of teaching was used where the head instructed the monitors who, in turn, instructed the children. Mr. Routledge was succeeded by Mr. Francis Woodmass, who has recorded a comment, which points to the fact that shortage of teaching staff is no new problem. He records that he had Standards 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 under his charge and that “this, with the general supervision of the school, is too much for any teacher to do satisfactorily.” A delightful understatement. In March 1882, Mr. Charles L. Bowhill took over the headship, which he held for may years. In the inter-war years and for a short period after the war, Mr., Thomas Arnold was headmaster. Mr. Arthur Harris, the present head, remembers him as a loyal colleague and stern disciplinarian. Mr. Edward Ward, at present deputy head, was a pupil during the Arnold regime and tends to remember the stern disciplinarian part of his character only.

However, for me, the man who will always be “Mr. Wheatley Hill” – although I know he will be most annoyed with me for calling him this – is Mr. Edward Cain. In his time a revolutionary socialist to the extent that he found employment hard to come by; colliery checkweighman; County and District councilor; miners’ delegate to the International Miners’ Congress at Krakow, Poland, in 1930; secretary to the Miners’ Lodge; Justice of the Peace; chairman of the governors of the A. J. Dawson Grammar; member of the Easington Divisional Education Executive. In 1950, on the invitation of the then Secretary of State for the Colonies he spent three months in Nigeria as a member of a mission to advise on conditions of labour in the new mining industry then being established.

A remarkable record of public service; perhaps the more remarkable because Mr. Cain has also a very full and satisfying private life. He is an accomplished violinist, a lover of classical music, particularly opera, about which he is often asked to address local organizations, and a lover of, and authority on, the poems of Robert Burns. A living example, perhaps, of the maxim that education begins when one leaves school.

Wheatley Hill has always been a sporting village; unfortunately not so much so today. For many years the village had a cricket team of which it was justly proud; it died of apathy at club and public levels and the field is now used by the Workmen’s Club football team. Boxing is the other sport for which the village was noted. Bantamweight Pat Gorman almost made the British title, being beaten in an eliminator by Johnnie King, who went on to become champion. Pat coached Charlie Curry, who became a leading featherweight and was beaten by Ronnie James of Wales, the British champion. Eddie Hopkinson, goalkeeper for Bolton and England, was born in the village. Eddie Carr, pre-war Arsenal centre forward, who later played for Newcastle and managed Darlington, is a local lad, as is David Carr, ex-Darlington and Watford whose career has been terminated at an early age through injury.

In the immediate post-war years Wheatley Hill had one of the finest drama groups in the area under producer Mrs. Vera Fairclough, of Easington, whose sense of theatre was only outshone by her dynamic temperament. Under her leadership people from the surrounding villages flocked to see Wheatley Hill productions. There was a school drama group which had a festival award for a Shakespearean extract and Arts Council companies played to packed houses in the Welfare Hall.

So far as the colliery was concerned, there was contraction in the 1930’s and nationalisation dawned with a much smaller labour force than under private enterprise and there were no great changes in mining methods. At the closure the last rites, on the Miners’ Lodge side, were conducted by Mr. Brian Miller, at 25 probably the youngest chairman of a miners lodge in the country.

What of Wheatley Hill now? The village has some light industry; Tony Carr, another local, has built up a thriving sawmill and timber and joinery business; there is the Cosmit Manufacturing Co. making shirts and pyjamas, and the Dowson anorak factory, these latter two employing mainly female labour but, at least, providing employment.

Perhaps, more than anything else Wheatley Hill is a place with a heart, a place of warm humanity. The personal tragedy of misfortune is taken to the heart of the community and the burden shared. This is done in the most unobtrusive way, no one seeks self-aggrandisement: people matter.

In my opinion, this humanitarian feeling and personal involvement with community problems shared by the young and the more mature bodes well for Wheatley Hill. If a few of our Southern industrialists could be cajoled from their ivory towers for a short while, long enough to sense the drive and spirit of the place, I am sure that both they and the community would benefit. 

 From an article in The Northern Echo



Each of our villages is completely individual in character, sometimes approaching a level of near eccentricity. Nowhere is this individuality more strongly expressed than by the warmhearted folk of Wheatley Hill.

Like most people, I once thought that The Dardanelles was a strait joining the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean. Not so. In Wheatley Hill there were numbered streets built on a slope behind Front Street and connected to it by an alleyway alongside the Nimmo Hotel. This was the Dardanelles Strait and, by usage, the name was transferred to the streets themselves.

The original mediaeval name of Quetlawe is retained in a street name but the real story of the village is one some hundred years of coal mining; rather less than neighbouring villages.

The first coals were drawn in 1870, a time of great prosperity in the Durham coalfield. The Franco-Prussian war meant that, with their own industries out of action, both contestants bought British coal, steel and armaments. The recently opened Suez Canal had created a boom in trade to the East using coal-fired ships.

Most miners were earning one pound per day and coal-hewers up to thirty shillings, boys' wages being proportionately high. In addition, the Wheatley Hill miner had a five-day working week since he did not work the fortnightly 'Baff Saturday' as at other local collieries. Pork and beef cost 6d (2½p) per pound, eggs were 24 for is (5p), whisky 2/6 (12½p) per bottle and beer 2d to 3d per pint (say 1½p).

They were halcyon days, but not for long; by 1874 to use a term familiar today a recession set in and the owners' attitude hardened.

The early days of coal mining were particularly hazardous. Five men lost their lives in a flood on 19th January 1871 and this sad event brought Wheatley Hill to the forefront in union matters, a position it never conceded.

At that time any disaster, flood or explosion was regarded as an Act of God, very convenient for the owners who avoided paying compensation, disastrous to widows and dependents of victims. The newly formed Durham Miners' Association decided to make the Wheatley Hill incident a test case, and they were successful.

The inquest verdict included these ominous words: “ . . . that the said W. Spencer (head viewer), W. Hay (resident viewer) and T. Watson (overman) did kill and slay the five deceased by neglecting to put in proper bore holes for the safe working of the mine". They were committed for trial at the March Assizes on a charge of manslaughter. The judge ruled that experienced miners working there should also have been aware of the danger and the union's counsel withdrew their case.

Within ten years the Employers' Liability Act came into being due, in no small part, to the Wheatley Hill action.

On 18th May 1874 Wheatley Hill and Thomley men came out on strike on being asked to work an eleven-day fortnight. The owners' response was swift; the strikers were served notice to quit their colliery houses. On 1st June the candymen arrived, roughnecks from the doss houses of Tyneside enlisted by the owners to do their dirty work, eviction.

They succeeded with some difficulty and the village became largely a tented encampment every colliery in the area having loaned its lodge marquee. Local support also provided food, the summer of 1874 was one of the finest on record; undue hardship seems to have been avoided.

The two 'put pays' are probably unique in the history of coal mining. On 9th February 1877, when presenting themselves for payment, the men were told that the 'Original Hartlepool Coal Co.' had declared itself bankrupt. In the ugly scenes that followed the Riot Act was read. Incredibly the same thing happened again in April 1884.

The miners were admirably led at this time by John Wilson, a Methodist preacher and later Liberal M. P. for the Mid -Durham Division. Addressing an open-air meeting he noticed many eyes straying heaven­ward. He knew they were not seeking divine intervention when he heard a voice say, “Haud the hand till the slate cock comes in". This was shortly followed by, “There he's landed, thoo can get on wi thi speech". Humour amid pathos.

The amiable eccentricity of the village was evident in the twenties. Indus­trial relations were good and colliery management took a lively interest in local affairs. At the same time 'The Daily Worker' was sold from door to door and the village was equated with Chopwell as another 'Little Moscow'.

It was a noted cricketing village, sadly no more, and sport generally flourished. In the thirties the village junior football side fielded a promising youngster called Fred Peart. I wonder if Lord Peart remembers? In boxing Pat Gorman and Charlie Currie were championship contenders. Eddie Hopkinson kept goal for Bolton and England, Eddie Carr played for Arsenal and Newcastle, David Carr for Watford and Darlington.

The village today is living proof that, when deprived of its industrial lifeblood, our communities do not die; they smarten themselves up defiantly.

I have not mentioned Peter Lee at all in this article, a man who did so much for the village and is buried there. I could not do justice to this great and good man in this purely local context. To do so in a single article of this length is the daunting task I have set myself for next week.


From an article in Peterlee Scene (29th June 1984)



      There is always a certain sadness associated with the demolition of a building, for whatever reason. If it happens to be a place with pleasant, personal memories and associations recalling well-loved friends of past years, then the hurt is the greater. So it was for me when, last years, visiting then from outside the area and without knowledge of local authority intentions, I stood in Wheatley Hill Front Street and saw a vacant expanse between School House and what was once Baldasera's ice cream parlour.

            The gap is now filled with weird, futuristic looking buildings called, I believe, factory modules. Should you be in the market for a factory then Easington District Council will let you have one of these free of rent and rates for two years. Whatever the end product of these factories it will be consider­ably inferior to the material produced by the original building. This was designed as the Wheatley Hill Board School and here the men and women who were to become heads of the founding families of the village received their early education.

            Here I shall recall those early days secure in the knowledge that they are beyond the recall of anyone living today. In a second piece I hope to reminisce on the early days of the Boys' Modern School, a much more risky venture since there are many middle-aged gentlemen around whose version of the period will, perhaps, differ from mine.

The Elementary Education Act of 1870, usually known as the Forster Act, resulted in the country being mapped out into school districts each with a School Board. In this area the Wingate School Board was the body responsible for providing elementary education for children between the ages of five and thirteen who were now, by law, compelled to attend school. Few children stayed on to thirteen and leaving age was generally considered to be ten, an age at which jobs could be obtained,' and staying at school meant the payment of fees.

It was in this educational framework that the Wheatley Hill Board School began to operate on 26th November 1877. It seems to have been a family concern, the staff being made up of Mr. James Routledge, Certified Teacher, Robert Routledge, Pupil Teacher Second Year with Mabel and Margaret Routledge as monitors,

            The teaching method was the monotorial system introduced by both Joseph Lancaster and Dr. Andrew Bell in the early nineteenth century. The Head taught the monitors and they passed on their newly acquired learning to the rest of the pupils. A system to make modern educationalists cry out in horror. Strangely enough, most pupils emerged at least literate and numerate and completely unaware of how wrongly they had been taught.

            By the end of the first term 256 scholars had been admitted - there is no record of age or sex - and this seems to have been too much of a good thing for the Routledge family. In January 1878 Miss Clipperton of Wingate came to help out for a month and then Miss Graham of West Hartlepool joined the staff. During 1878 a monitor resigned because she was 'tired of teaching through being found fault with by parents'. How many depleted school staffs there would be if this were thought valid reason for resignation.

                Bureaucrats were unpopular then, as now. There was a visit from an officious clerk 'who imagines there are no honest people but himself. There were frequent visits from Mr. Robert Foster, Clerk of the Wingate School Board, whose duties included the examination of registers, summary of fee books. There was also a visit from Mr. Arthur E. Bernays to carry out an inspection. These were the days of 'Payment by Results' and the amount of the grant depended upon the number of children who could read and write reasonably fluently. It must have been a nerve-wracking occasion for the staff.

            At the end of 1878 Mr. Routledge was succeeded by Mr. Francis Woodmass and we note the curriculum being enlivened with the sound of music. Songs taught included 'The Child's First Grief, 'The Old Arm Chair' and 'Lightly Row', sentimental and moral in tone. But, since these were the days of Queen Victoria and the Empire, the sinews were stiffened with 'Rule Britannia' and 'Hearts of Oak'.

            There is a significant entry in the school logbook for 15th July 1881 noting that the heat was oppressive and there was 'not a drop of water about the place'. Peter Lee's campaign for an adequate supply of clean water is here foreshadowed.

            In October. 1881 Mr. Woodmass seems to have been a trifle overworked. He had Standards 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 under his own charge and he writes - with a charming quality of understatement - "This, with the general supervision of the school, is too much for any teacher to do satisfactorily". He asks for another teacher to be appointed.

            These were the pioneering days; compulsory education was a new concept, trained staff were hard to come by and funds depended upon the pupils' measurable, mechanical proficiency. A more settled period began with the appointment of Mr. Charles Bowhill in March 1882. He was to hold the post for many years providing a stabilising influence for both school and the developing village.

The building was not significantly altered when it became a secondary modern school under the 1944 Butler Act; the activities therein differed greatly. That, of course, is another story.

From an article in Peterlee Scene


      There was a great deal of puzzlement - and some amusement - when Wheatley Hill Senior Boys' School became the Boys' Secondary Modern. It was largely that same, well-loved building of 1877 vintage, appeal­ingly ugly and now sadly overcrowded and playing host to two junior classes. It seems we hadn't been a Senior Boys' School at all; we were 'Unreorganised' and the official who uttered the words made it sound like a disease. The 'modern' referred to our classification under the 1944 Education Act. Exciting times lay ahead.

            The staff in those years of the late forties were a close-knit, dedicated bunch - who would have hooted with laughter to be so described - and tried to appear tough and cynical. They must have succeeded because, for a time, the school was known as 'The State Pen' and the headmaster as 'The Chief Screw'!

                They were familiar, not merely with the world outside the classroom, but with the grim realities of a world at war. One could recall flying a Dakota loaded with near-dead inmates of Belsen to hospital in Brussels, another overlooked the D-Day landings from the controls of his Beaufort. There was one who had fought with the Eighth Army from Tobruk to Monte Cassino and another whose topic of conversation could be of convoys to Murmansk and Archangel, but rarely was.

            They must be nameless; I would be taken to task severely if I suggested that they had anything special to contribute. I can merely highlight some of my memories of those days, to do more would involve a full-length work, a by no means unworthy task.

            Being a modern school added some variety for both staff and pupils. In our unreorganised' days it was usual for teacher and class to meet at 9 a.m. and go though the day together. Only certain subjects could be completely specialist, such as woodwork, which took place in a room with an old-fashioned coal fire. This gave rise to the rumour that the tails of the woodwork master's dust coat were asbestos lined. Unfounded, I am almost certain.

                Some staff had to specialize in more than one subject. In one case Music and Religious Instruction were handled by a character who decided to teach them at one and the same time. The sight of an unfortunate boy being belaboured by a badly broken violin bow with the teacher entreating him to "Say after me boy, God is Love, God is love", is ever fresh in the memory. It was about this time too that the system of 'rewards and punishments' was introduced which had a rather strange sequel for one rather earnest member of staff.

            This chap had struggled for a long time with a boy who was, not to put too fine a point on it, backward. One day, detecting as he thought some slight progress in written work, he sent the boy complete with exercise book up to the headmaster. Within minutes the boy returned wringing his hands and blowing on them. "Cor Sir". he said, "if that's what I get for improved work never send me up the gaffer if it get worse". Perhaps the Head should have been briefed beforehand.

            The school was rapidly becoming more than a mere 'nine to four education factory'. In addition to football teams for which Wheatley Hill School had always been noted, there were cycling club, gymnastic club, chess and camera clubs, philatelic society, school camps and speech days. I can only briefly mention the latter two.

            The camps were memorable occasions which brought staff and pupils together in an informal setting bringing benefits to both. Landieu Farm, Wolsingham. was the first site and brings back memories of bracing walks over Bollihope Common with sixpence from the Headmaster for the first boy to find the rare Sundew flower. Budle Bay, Barnard Castle and Haltwhistle were equally rewarding.

                The first Annual Speech Day presented a major challenge, our hall lacked a stage and the Girls' School came to our rescue. Staff and pupils worked long and earnestly for what was to be our public debut. Perhaps advance publicity was too good; in the event we couldn't accommodate all who turned up for what turned out to be a memorable night. The choir entertained with traditional English airs and some Schubert. Indian clubs were handled with dexterity and there was a gymnastic display. Fifteen lads who had never previously even read a Shakespeare play – much less acted in one - presented the assassination scene from 'Julius Caesar'. They did so with such skill that we were asked to present it at the County Youth Drama Festival where it won an award.

            We felt we had 'come of age' and had the confidence to go ahead with other projects.

            Just in case I am accused of ‘going on a bit’ about Wheatley Hill I should point out that this is a sort of ‘by request piece. Certain people were quick to point out that I had written about Wellfield.  It was a cricket match between these two schools that I discovered that we had perhaps established a sort of ethos, the school spirit.

The WelIfield scorer had difficulty in spelling the name of an opposing batsman and appealed to the Wheatley Hill scorer for help. He replied, "Thoo canner spell that? Thoo should gan to our skyul".

Little did he know how warmly the members of staff who overheard him felt towards him; we were, in fact, rather proud of his economical use of the vernacular.

 From an article in Peterlee Scene