Chapter 5



The century 1750-1850, brought immense changes to the North-East as it did to Britain as a whole.  Horse power was supplanted by steam power and transport was completely revolutionized by the invention of the locomotive.  Old towns burst out of their medieval walls as population rapidly increased and new towns came into existence.


The first half of the nineteenth century saw the opening of many new collieries away from the Tyne and the Wear, in areas which relied on the new railways to transport coal to the nearest ports.  In East Durham the coal is covered by, concealed beneath, beds of magnesian limestone and for this reason the more easily reached seams in the west and center of the county were worked first.


In 1821, the first new pit was sunk at Hetton, reaching the Hutton Seam at 147 fathoms.  Others followed in the next twenty years at Murton, Haswell, Thornley, Shotton, Castle Eden, Trimdon, Seaton and Monkwearmouth.  The sinking of these pits was only achieved in the face of immense difficulties.  The greatest enemy was water, for vast quantities held in a bed of sand at the base of the magnesian limestone poured into the shafts.  Without the inventions of Newcomen and Watt the improvements to them that followed these pits could not have been sunk.


On January 29th, 1834 the first seam of coal 3ft.9ins. in thickness was won at Thornley Colliery, the property of Sir W.Chaytor 1 and Messrs. Thomas Wood 2, John Gully 3 and Burrell who comprised the Thornley Coal Company.  The following were the seams of coal at the beginning of the working of the mine.

                                                                                                Depth                           Thickness

                                                                                                First Seam        216ft.                           3ft. 9ins.           Not named, never worked

                                                                                                5/4                     505ft                            7ft. 2ins.            Worked

                                                                                                Low Main        748ft.                           3ft. 9ins.            Worked

                                                                                                Top Hutton       820ft.                           1ft. 11ins.             Training face only

                                                                                                Hutton              863ft.                           3ft. 0ins.            Worked

                                                                                                Harvey             994ft.                           3ft. 0ins.            Worked

                                                                                                Busty             1,032ft.                           3ft. 0ins.            Worked

                                                                                                Brockwell    1, 098ft.                                                    Not worked



In the space of a few years Thornley changed from a sparsely populated farming community centred around a Manor into a fairly densely populated village with the focal point being the pit shaft.  In 1801 the population of Thornley was 56; in 1811, 58; in 1831 three years before the first coal was won, 50.  In 1841, only seven years after the mine opened the population was 2,730; and in 1851, 2,740, of whom 1,423 were males and 1,317 females.  The first newcomers, the shaft sinkers came largely from Cornwall, but a few of them were Germans.  Colliery workers were later recruited from Ireland.


1 Sir W. Chaytor - brother-in-law of Whitton Hall       

2 Thomas Wood - of Coxhoe Hall

3 John Gully - bare knuckle boxing Champion of England, gambler, racehorse owner, country squire and M.P.


The face of the village changed rapidly following the sinking of the shaft for the newcomers needed to be housed.  The first houses were poor, single storied, limestone cottages.  Women as well as men helped to carry the stones from the limestone quarry near the colliery.  Speed was the first essential and such considerations as space and light were ignored, the houses being huddled together as near to the pit as possible.

A number of houses were built by a contractor named Thomas, a mason, of Hetton.  A record of the price of many houses he built has remained.


1837.  The Thornley Coal Company.


To Thomas Dunlop for building cottages                                                           

To Bal. of a/c 1837 for 55 houses                                                                            £124. 0. 0.


1837 Feb 28th to building of 8 single houses at the end of the stables at £20              £160. 0. 0.

To building 3 houses in Quarry Row at £35                                                               £105. 0. 0.

To building 12 single houses at back of stables                                                          £300. 0. 0.

                                                                                                    Total                    £689. 0. 0. 



This memorandum also contains reference to the building of a schoolroom.  This school was owned and managed by the Thornley Coal Company.  It cost £132.  0.  0.  to build.


The street nearest to the quarry took the name Quarry Street, but this was later re-named High Street after the single storey, limestone cottages were partially pulled down and rebuilt as two storey dwellings.  The first streets were Pit, Dyke, Swinburn, Park, Church, Queen, Nelson, Collingwood, Waterloo and South Street.   Post Office Square and School Square were also built.


Conditions were poor, women and young children worked in the mine often working longer hours than the men.  Everyone in the pitmen’s families from the age of three upwards worked, the children being kept underground from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Only in this way could the miners earn sufficient money to keep them alive.


Despite bad wages and poor working conditions the work at the colliery progressed well during the first few years and a record of January 30th, 1837 tells of two pitmen, Storey and Surtees, who as a wager, undertook to hew coals against each other.  The wager was won by Storey, who hewed 33½ tubs of 20 pecks each, and Surtees 30 tubs.  Because of the hardness of the seam the feat was supposed to be unprecedented.  For the eight hour shift Storey earned 11s. 2d. and Surtees 10s.                                                                                                                


On March 21st, 1840, the Thornley Coal Company after a lengthened and expensive working made a most important discovery finding a new seam 1, 2 of coal four feet thick, 160 yards below the five-quarter seam.  The finding of this seam made a great difference to the whole of the area for it proved that the seam ran throughout the coalfield. 


Parallel with the development of Thornley Village, the Northumberland and Durham Miner’s Association came into being.  Relationships between the employers and workmen were never


1 This was the Harvey Seam that was worked out in 1952.

2 One year later on August 5th, 1841, there was an explosion in the Harvey Seam causing the deaths of one man, and                                             8 boys aged 9 to 17 years.  There was no compensation, cause - firedamp.



friendly and early attempts to organize the workers into groups were crushed out of existence by the employers who were scared of any move which threatened to make the men self-reliant.  Aware of the value of public sympathy the miners began in 1830, to make their grievances known to the public and to agitate for the establishment of a union in which the Durham and Northumberland miners could join together.


By 1831, this union had been formed and sure of their strength the miners struck for higher wages and shorter hours.  However, the union soon found that their strength was inadequate, for the employers were experienced and moreover they held the advantage.  The owners broke the strike and the Union by refusing to bind its members and by turning their families out of their homes.


Some attempt was made to break the power of the owners by the newly formed Miners’ Association of Great Britain and Ireland, but even this body made little progress until 1842.  Thornley Colliery thus came into being at a time when conditions were decidedly unfavourable for the miner.   Hours were long, payment small, accommodation poor and the miners knew from experience that any attempt to improve conditions by joining a union meant dismissal.


An improvement was made by the Mines Act of 1842.  Its aim was “to prohibit the Employment of Women and Girls in Mines and Collieries, to regulate the Employment of Boys, and to make Provisions relating to Persons working therein.”  No boy under the age of ten was to be employed, no boy under that age was to be apprenticed, and no apprenticeship was to last for more than eight years, except at the skilled trades connected with the collieries.  An inspector was to be appointed, but he was to have no power of interference with the management of the mines.  There was to be no payment of wages at public-houses.  The later was important because often a miner receiving his wage in the public-house would spend the whole on drink before leaving, with drastic results to the welfare of his family


Although the relationship between workmen and owner was not completely satisfactory, Thornley Colliery managed to work for nine years without a strike.  However, by 1843 matters had come to a head and the colliery, one of the largest in the county, came out on strike.  Their grievances were many but the biggest problem concerned the custom of binding the men to work for a year at a particular colliery.  The owners of Thornley Colliery wished to extend the length of the bond 1 and the miners, when everything else failed, refused to work.  On November 24th, warrants were issued against 68 persons for being absent without leave.  The prisoners were tried at Durham Assizes and found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment.


The general situation did not improve and by 1844 there was a cry throughout the industry for a redress of grievances.  The Miners Association sent an address to the coal owners urging that a price be charged for coal that would bring in reasonable profit for the owner and permit a decent wage to be paid to the miner.  They opined that the coal owners’ policy of undercutting each other’s prices and then reducing wages would be ruinous to an industry on which the country depended.  The appeal met with silent contempt and after several meetings and an appeal to Parliament the Association decided to call upon the men to strike.


1 Breaking the bond carried severe penalties, could even result in being deported.


In spite of the strike, the injustices continued and the miners of Thornley continued to press for better working conditions.  They supported the demand that child workers should only work ten hours a day and that they should receive a wage of 1s. 0d. per day.  They also complained about the use of fly doors and clout doors, the injustice of “great tubs” and the danger from Shetland ponies.  The ponies were larger than those used now and must have been rather terrifying to young boys.  The poor accommodation provided in Thornley by the owners was a constant source of unrest, families with seven or eight children living in one-roomed houses, the room being 4 yards by 5 yards with small pantry attached.


The miners’ cause was often misrepresented and therefore meetings were held to attempt to inform the public of their position.  Mr. Clough, from Thornley, addressed a meeting in Newcastle on May 7th, 1844, and he tried to illustrate why the miners had been forced to strike.  The best hewers in eight hours in a favourable seam could only earn 2s. 6d. a day, which after paying for doctors bills, fines, coals, picks and other equipment only left a wage of 11s. a week.  The owners refused to pay compensation after an accident and Mr. Clough recalled an explosion at Thornley Colliery in 1841, when nine lives were lost and many people injured but the bereaved families depended absolutely upon contributions from people in the village.


That the Thornley miners were very much alive to the need for unity among the workers is evident, because when the inaugural meeting of the Durham Miners’ Associations was held it was in the Thornley Halfway House field on September 23rd, 1869.  Mr. Cairns was representative for Thornley and later he became Secretary of the Association.  Members of the union were often victimised by the owners and in March 1871, the manager of Thornley Colliery refused to bind Cairns who was checkweighman 1.  The matter was put to arbitration and it is the first recorded instance of an offer from the men to apply arbitration, as a means of settling the disputes between employers and workmen, under the Association.


Thornley Colliery played an important part in helping to form and uphold the Union during its early days.  In 1870, 230 of the miners from Thornley were union members, the largest number from any one colliery in the Association.


During its early years as a mining community the village must have had few periods of peace.  Strikes and accidents were frequent and even without them relations between the owners and the miners were strained.  There were also quarrels over religion.  Many of the miners had come from Ireland and they were staunch Roman Catholics.  Two factions grew up in the village, on one side the Protestants and on the other the Roman Catholics.  To avoid fights it became the custom for the Protestants to use one side of the street and the Roman Catholics the other.  Strife between the two sects lasted for many years, marriages were never arranged between two people of differing religions, and little excuse was necessary before violent fighting broke out.


On May 8th1875, a terrible disaster took place.  A great fire completely destroyed the whole heap-stead and although no lives were lost the distress caused by the loss of work was pitiful.  Men went from Thornley to surrounding collieries gathering food and clothing for needy


1 This happened to my Dad following the 1926 strike.  He too, was checkweighman and was told by the manager at   Kelloe that he had chosen the wrong side.  He was blacklisted and only obtained a job in mining after     Nationalisation.

families, and soup kitchens were set up.  Three years later a boiler explosion killed five men and injured seven.


On April 4th 1884, the colliery owners were in desperate straits.  It was Pay Friday (alternate weeks), but the Thornley Coal Company was bankrupt, and there was no wages for the men.  This was not the first time that this had happened and as only half the amount owing for a previous occasion had been paid there was great alarm and the people were ready to riot.  Mr. Ramsey, the agent, wanting to satisfy in part the wants of the people, sold a Branch engine but when the N.E.R. engine came to take it away men, women and children pulled up the rails, thus having both engines in “pound.”   The Treasurer hoped to persuade the men at a meeting the next day, to allow the sale to proceed, and accept the money as an instalment of their wages.  The Treasurer’s eloquence was cut short by the arrival of a pigeon involved in a race from Newcastle to Thornley.  Just when the orator was in the midst of one of this best sentences a voice was hear, “Haud thee hand till th’ ‘Slate Cock’ comes in.”  In a moment, speaker and occasion were lost, and the gathering generally watched the bird.  Then in a deliberate manner the same voice was heard exclaiming: “There, he’s landed; thoo can gan on with thee speech.”  Rhetoric and reason were both ineffective after the “Slate Cock” had landed.  However, the Executive Committee of the Durham Miners’ Association put in men as bailiffs at each colliery in the area to prevent anything being taken away.  After a year of litigation the wages were paid in full 1.  After this incident 2, the collieries in the neighbourhood were bought by Mr. Spearman of Thornley Hall.


Thornley had been in the Ecclesiastical Parish of Kelloe, but on June 20th 1842, the foundations of a new church dedicated to St. Bartholomew were laid by the Rev. C. Abbott, Curate of Kelloe.  An acre of ground had been given by Mr. Spearman for the erection of the church and the formation of a burial ground.  On the 8th August 1843 it was finally dedicated 3.  The building is in stone, consisting of a chancel, nave, western porch and a bell turret.  In 1885 the interior was restored and a chancel screen erected, whilst in 1895 the nave was reseated and a new organ provided.  In the church there is a stained glass memorial window bearing the Spearman coat-of-arms.  The architecture is not good, although the church is said to have cost £900.  The acoustics, however, are quite good.  The church has a close connection with Sherburn House Foundation that provides scholarships and owns the almshouses.  It has always made a contribution to the stipend of the Vicar of Thornley.


The site of the present Roman Catholic Church of The English Martyrs was purchased in 1897 by Father Michael Haggerty.  The first Roman Catholic School was built in 1800.  There were also Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist Chapels in Thornley from 1871.


Schools in Thornley grew from the early days of the Colliery School.  This school, which faced the Colliery and was patronised and partly supported by the Coal Company, held 120 children.  When the Board of Education came into being, Thornley Boys and Girls and Infants departments were opened in 1877.



1 “Put Pays” It took 1 year and £1,000 from the Durham Miners Assoc. to get the wages.  Three collieries, Thornley, Ludworth and Wheatley Hill wage bill was £4,724.  All received what was owed.  Union made the non-union men 7s.  toll or fight for wage themselves.  Events were unique in Durham mining industry.

2 Pit stood idle for 3 years.  Many left the village, 1881 population 3,132; 1891 2,070.  Beneficial, not so lawless.

3 The church was closed in 2003 as the building was deemed unsafe.

Thornley in 1865 had many public-houses.  A directory gives the names of the following; The

Black Bull, The Board Inn, The Engine Tavern, King’s Head, The New Inn, Robin Hood, Traveller’s Rest, Standish Arms, The Grapes, The Dun Cow and the Three Horse Shoes.


Licensing laws allowed these public-houses to open at 6 o’clock and remain open until 11 o’clock at night.  The landlords successfully exploited this situation by supplying salty sandwiches, pickles and broth to their customers.  Arising out of the heavy drinking vicious sports were followed, such as rabbit coursing, cock fighting and even bare knuckle fighting. Less harmful sports were popular such as pigeon racing, quoits, fives, foot-racing and pot-share bowling.  George Wallace of Thornley won the sprint championship of England at Sheffield in 1873.  He held it until 1879 when he was defeated by the great Hutchens; still said to be the fastest runner of all times.   Tom Nicholson was champion pot-share bowler of England.


Conditions in Thornley following the opening of the mine were poor.  Wages were low, hours long and working conditions dangerous.  The dwelling houses had bare earth floors one step down from street level.  Round the fire was a well that provided seating accommodation for the occupants, if they were not the fortunate possessors of a form.  The bed, two planks laid on boxes, was placed in a corner away from the fireplace.  Artificial light came from candles, the water supply had to be brought from a well at Gore Hall by bucket or bought from the water cart.  There were two open middens where refuse and filth were deposited, and these were cleaned out very intermittently.


As the century progressed, the standard of living improved.  Women and children were no longer allowed to work in the mine, the length of the shift was shortened and wages increased.  By the end of the century the Durham Miners’ Association was firmly established and the miners were more secure in the knowledge that they had a Union which would safeguard their rights and fight to improve their social and working conditions.


Thornley Colliery sunk in 1835 closed at the end of January 1970 after a 135yr. era of colourful history.