Jubilee of Wheatley Hill Primitive Methodist Church
(Compiled by Peter Lee)
The year of Jubilee has ever been an important event in the age of nations, also in the lives of men and women. In the history of the children of Israel it held a very great place. The trumpet which announced this event gave joy and hope to thousands, as it meant a rest from toil, a fuller liberty by the breaking of bonds, a time to look over the past, judge the progress of the nation. The people with true vision were able to look forward with a hope for greater progress in the future.
So that now our village church has reached it’s Jubilee, we may take a view of the past and see the work done by our brothers and sisters, many of whom have crossed the great river of time to the ‘better land.’ But the fruits of their labours are being reaped by us and, in spirit, they still live with all who fight for a nobler and a fuller life, which shall be built on the power of love in Christ.
It should be our aim to continue the good work, so that in the coming years the spirit of truth and right shall go with our Church, also that it may still be a temple wherein men and women, oppressed by the material forces of life, shall be able to come in close touch with the Unseen, by ever real, presence of our Lord.
About the year 1868, the old Thornley Coal Company commenced sinking operations at Wheatley Hill, which at that time consisted of a few old buildings, and farmstead now known as “The Farm.” Some of these buildings may date back to the time of Queen Elizabeth, so they would be venerable when in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers left this Country for the land of the West; and they, in truth, link the old pastoral days of farming with the 20th Century iron age of commerce.
With the sinking of the shaft came a marked change. The Main Coal Seam was reached in March 1870, after which the work went on quickly. New homes were built and miners came from different parts of Durham. Amongst these were men and women who brought their religion along with them: To them it was real and earnest – no losing it on the road in moving; for while it is good for men and women to leave behind them a good influence which is felt and remembered long after they have left the old home, it is a very sad time when persons leave them the Unseen Life and love of their Church.
With our brothers and sisters this was impossible. The Christian life was very sweet and true – there was no sitting at home until someone invited them to Church, for here there was no building they could call a church. But as in very age where the Spirit works with men and women, an open door was soon found where they might meet for prayer and praise. A miner’s cottage was the first meeting place, and therein the children of God commenced to worship and built up a P. M. Church. Sometimes it was in one colliery row and sometimes in another, but in each was found the power of faith, fellowship and holiness. After a while they met for Sunday Service in an old barn on the South side of Church Street, in front of where the present Walter Willson’s shop stands; and although the conditions were not of the best (for sometimes when the day was wet it was not only necessary to carry an umbrella for use in the street, but also to use in the Church) yet they went forward with the work of Christ and in the year 1873 the present Church was opened to the Glory of God and the Help of Man. They had now, at last, a House in which all their spiritual needs might be met. It was a proud day to them, and in vision they would see great work to be done in the cause of truth. They had not only vision, but put forward great labour for Christ and His Church, so that in a few years Wheatley Hill was one on the leading churches in the Circuit.
It may be well before going further into the history of the Church, to give a brief outline of the development of the mine. After coal was reached, work was soon undertaken on a large scale, and in the Main Coal they went forward, working towards the mother colliery of Thornley. In this seam there soon occurred one of those events, which impress all with the danger of the miners life. On Thursday, January 19th 1871, while a man named Roberts was at work, and had just got ready to drill a hole in the coal for blasting, a very large volume of water broke through the coal from the old workings at Thornley. At this time there would be about 30 men and 9 boys in the mine. Five or seven were lost, 2 were rescued from the Thornley side after being in Wheatley Hill for 56 hours. Their names were Michael Regan and John Smith. It came as a great surprise to those who were working at the Thornley end to hear knocking, for the water was a great many feet up the shaft at Wheatley Hill and all hope of getting men out alive had been abandoned. At the inquest on those lost a verdict was given that the deceased were killed by a burst of water through the gross negligence of W. Spencer, Head Viewer, W. Hay, Resident Viewer, and T. Watson, the Overman. These were sent for trial at the assizes, and, as told by John Wilson in his history of the Durham Miners’, the case against them failed, although it was clear that those in charge had broken Rule 15 of the Mines Act 1860, in not having bore holes kept in advance on the working face. The mine developed, and after the short County Strike, commencing on May 8th and ending May 14th 1874 Wheatley Hill again came into the limelight along with Thornley and Ludworth. These three collieries had for some time been working five days per week. The owners now stated that they were to commence working eleven days per fortnight. This the men refused, and on Monday June 1st the Owners began to evict the workmen, and once again was seen the sight often witnessed in Durham, but which we hope has passed away for ever. A band of candymen under the protection of about 70 or 80 police, carried out the furniture of the people, placing it in the open street, after which the workmen had them removed to a field and for about three weeks the people were tent dwellers. Then the case was sent to Arbitration, the collieries commencing under 10 days per fortnight. The Arbitration decided that the men were right in considering them 10 day pits, but concluded that in future they should work eleven days and the Owners should pay the total cost of arbitration. So we have a case where the men were proved right but the Owners got what they sought.
Work at the mine went on and about the year 1877, the men had trouble at Wheatley Hill to get their wages for one pay, the Owners being in financial difficulties. In August 1882 more trouble came and the colliery ceased working. The company went into liquidation in April 18th 1884. There was another put pay at Thornley and this Colliery also was stopped. These mines remained idle for a few years, until the present Weardale Company reopened them in 1889. They then commenced to sink the shafts at Wheatley Hill down to the Harvey Seam and since then the Colliery has gone forward with true progress, few mines in Durham for the last 33 years having had less local trouble through disputes.
The changes at the mine were bound to have an effect on the Church for like all colliery villages, apart from a few tradesmen, the whole population was a mining class. Few churches of 50 years of age can show so great and successful a record. At the end of about 9 years in 1882, Wheatley Hill was one of the strongest churches in the Thornley Circuit. Then came seven lean years while the mine was idle but with the reopening of the mine the church again became strong both in spirit and in numbers. The old Church was too small for the congregation, and the Temperance Hall was taken for Sunday Services and we had the good but strange sight of a P.M. Church in a small village worshipping in two buildings and in a friendly way divided their numbers to do the Master’s work and meet the needs of the people. On 15th October 1898 the foundation stone laying took place for the extension of the Church. This consisted of about ……yards on the North end, also the present chancel, which, unlike the Established Church, is at the North End instead of the East End. When the reopening took place on 25th December 1898 there was a successful mission by Mr. Johnson of Carlisle. The Church was still found to be too small for the congregation and on ………… another change was made, the porch being removed from the inside, the present one built on the South End, and the Church floor at the South End was raised… and sloped down to the present flat. As the years went by the Church work went forward and it was felt that more class rooms were required to meet the needs of the Sunday School, and on 26th August 1914 the commitment was made to build seven class-rooms on the West side of the Church.
In recording the history of a Nation or a Church, historians feel that their work must consist of giving the names and lives of Kings, Queens and prominent people. But the true historian should not only deal with names but with cause and effect. Therefore, we shall not take up time and space by giving names, which might form a long list of the men and women who have laboured in our Wheatley Hill Church, but it is of great importance that we should try to outline the life and tone of the Church; for it is a remarkable fact that when the mine was at work the Church has ever been a strong one in the Thornley Circuit and few churches have sent out more local preachers and Sunday School teachers. It has ever held an honoured place in the village life and the question is often asked why it has been so. The Church members have ever placed first the idea that they met together not so much to receive but to give, and by each seeking to give some help in church work all have been able to receive that true support and spiritual life which is so helpful in this age of materialism. Another cause is that the Church has always taken a very active part in the welfare of the Village life. When improvements have taken place in the District and Village in education, sanitation or housing, P.M. members have ever been at the front, and in the political movement it has been the same. Also in seeking to improve the miners’ lot they have felt it a duty not only to keep right for the eternal life but by labour to make life nobler and sweeter.
Another thing, which has helped to spread the good influence of the Church, is the high moral tone, which was set by its members, and carried into the homes, the workshops and the mines. Few churches in a period of 50 years have suffered less from dissention and scandal and to be a member of the P.M. church meant setting an example of moral worth. Another cause has been the freedom in business meetings for the full expression of the individual opinion. It is known far outside the Village that there is no restraint says that of true courtesy between the brethren in discussion, but when any line of action has been decided on, it has become the work of all to see it carried into practise. Another cause of strength has been the service given by members to the Sunday School work. There are few village churches with a greater School-roll than Wheatley Hill. Last year we passed the figure of 400 scholars in attendance, and often a strange preacher after the experience of a Sunday Afternoon Preaching Service has said, “Where do you get all the children from, and how do you keep such good order?” The answer is – the respect their parents have for the P.M. Church and the care and kindly interest of the teachers in the little ones. “Feed My Lambs” might be chosen as a motto of our Church and in feeding them we have built up a church and kept it strong in dark days which otherwise would have made it weak and frail. The parents who are not members of our Church know that the children sent to our School will be under a good and noble influence. It is not only a training ground but a recruiting office for church membership, and while we must all feel a great joy and pride in looking over the past, let us not rest on the work already achieved, but learn the lessons by which it has been brought to pass. Keep the Unseen Power and Vision which has made it possible and from this year of Jubilee go forward into the future, filled with the spirit of His love who said “ Lo I am with you always” each trying to make the Church a means of grace to some other brother and sister. Endeavour to improve the world we live in, let our love for each other overstep any difference of opinion which may arise in our business meetings, keep the name of our Church as clean in the Village as we try to keep a clean hearthstone, and ever remember Christ loves little children, and if we would serve aright we must love them too. Let us do these things and the year of Jubilee will not only be a great event in our lives but through His Love and or labour this Church shall not only be a place of peace and hope to those who Sunday after Sunday meet as our early founders did, for prayer and praise, but like the lighthouse on our storm-bound coast it will be a beacon of help and rest for those weary souls who have sought but failed to find happiness in the stormy seas of commercial life and worldly pleasure, shedding its Golden Light of Love far across the troubled waters, and guiding the storm tossed mariners back to the sure and true haven of Peace in Christ Jesus Our Lord and Saviour.
(From Allan Straughan)