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Last updated:28 April 2015

Songs about mining and mineworkers

The Library collection includes many songs about mining and mineworkers, ranging from the 19th century to the 1984/85 miners' strike.

Cover of Songs of the Durham CoalfieldA book in the Library collection called Songs of the Durham Coalfield (shelfmark AG Mining Box 4) tells the history of the family and working life of pit deputy Jock Purdon. The first song is The Easington Explosion remembering the disaster of 1951. To be classified as a disaster, an accident or an explosion at a mine has to claim at least ten lives. Easington claimed the lives of 81 miners plus two rescue men. Easington was one of the most modern and productive mines in Europe. The explosion was caused by picks striking yellow lustrous iron sulphide mineral, which ignited firedamp bringing down 120 yards of roof. What made it so unfortunate was the fact that the explosion happened between shifts so there were 43 men relieving 38; the one survivor of the initial blast died in hospital a few hours later.

Farewell to 'Cotia. Purdon was a deputy at Harraton Colliery in County Durham when he wrote this. The pit was always known as the 'Cotia (an abbreviation of Nova Scotia) and when it closed as part of Lord Robens's 'rationalisation' schemes, the miners were given the alternative of moving to Nottingham. Purdon put it up in the pit head baths for all to see that 'the death knell had been tolled for the colliery where the men were brave and bold.'

A new version of the song, A Warning, was adapted by Mel Calladine, a miner from Bufford Colliery, Nottingham, for the 1984 strike:

You working miners mark my words
The time is drawing nigh
You'll have to change your language lads
You'll have to change your beer.
But leave your picks behind you
You'll ne'er need them again
And off you go to Nottingham
To join Macgregor's men.

The Echo of Pit Boots, written for the closing of the pits at Chester-le-Street, a mining town that once The Echo of Pit Boots from Songs of the Durham Coalfieldbrewed its own beer. Purdon says to the new generation growing up there now that 'the pitmen are as unreal as the shadowy figures tottering thro' the no man's land of a Great War Newsreel.'

Lovely Lady Astor would be quite funny if it was not so outrageous. Lady Astor visited the pit at Esh Winning, County Durham to ask them to take a pay cut leading to the 1926 strike. It is sung to the tune of 'Yankee Doodle'. Working class poets, songwriters and cartoonists often created humour out of the conditions they were under in their working lives, as Sam Fitton did in his portrayal of the Cotton Industry early in the twentieth century.

The Wee Trapper Lad is the story of a young lad who had to keep watch at the pit, who was frightened awake but too frightened to sleep. Trappers were boys of the youngest class, employed to open and shut the doors to keep the ventilation in the working regular. The practice in the early days was to use boys of not more that six years of age and they remained in the pit for eighteen hours per day for five pence.

Hally's Piebald Gallowa is the story of Jimmy Hall's piebald Galloway Pit Pony called Saul eating the 'Lumley Six' banner as it hung out to dry.

'The Gallowa was hungry,
the banner tasted good
It 'et half of Keir Hardie
And chewed up Martin Jude'.

The Bevin Boys Lament about wartime conscripts was put together in The Plough next to Pelaw Pit in the 1940s where on Saturday nights they spent time round the piano. This started Purdon off on his song writing.

The Binding Strike of 1810. A 'binding' or contract was 'a binding during the will of the master to prevent owners taking other owners' men'.  It began in October, but the pit owners wanted to change the month for two reasons. When they 'bound' miners they had to pay them two to three guineas as a contract and as it was a busy time of the year it was probable that there would be more signing on than three months later. The miners had no say in this decision and at first agreed but later regretted the decision and called a strike to resist the alteration - but were tracked down and about three hundred men were imprisoned. The following year similar trouble threatened again but due to conciliatory proposals the owners eventually agreed to meet deputations of two men per colliery and a board. 'If 1810 had brought defeat, 1811 was in the moral sense, a memorable victory. The yearly bond was for many years not a contract between two contracting partners but merely an acknowledgement by the men of a fictitious indebtedness.' The song also tells of families' suffering, evicted from their cottages into the snow and starved into submission. Pitmen had a language all of their own which became the words of the village too but which has now died with the pits themselves. It is a language that is revived by television programmes but Purdon says 'it is sad to see the speech of the Durham pitmen robbed of the respect due to a dead language, and exiled forever to the pages of the Geordie Joke Book'.

Farewell Jobling from Songs of the Durham CoalfieldFarewell Jobling is about the execution of miner Jobling on 3 August 1832 who was the first person gibbeted under the New Act of Parliament, which ordered the bodies of murderers to be hung in chains. He was executed for the murder of a magistrate, Mr Nicholas Fairness of South Shields but maintained his innocence. His fellow miner was never caught but shouted out 'Farewell Jobling' at the scaffold before disappearing. A great injustice was done as Weddle, a policeman, convicted of the murder of Skipsey (Skipley in the song), a miner, was only sentenced to six months' imprisonment. As Purdon says in his song 'A scapegoat reflecting the sign of the time'.

It's miners this, it's miners says it all for Purdon:
Then there were the good old days
Depression, Doom, Despair,
Hardship was a way of life
The miner got his share'.

In The Cotia Banner, Purdon wrote about the painted silk union parade banner of the Harraton Colliery, Durham Miner Association.

Cover of Coaldust BalladsThe combination of Alan Bush and Matyas Seiber are found many times when researching working class movements' songs and AL [Bert] Lloyd's Workers' Music Association songbook Coaldust Ballads (shelfmark Workers' Music Association Box 1) are no exception. Many of these songs are written in a rich Northumberland dialect and many are 19th century collier songs. There are several about disasters including The Blantyre Explosion, a colliery near Glasgow where over 200 were killed in 1877, and The Donibristle Disaster where 14 died in Fife in 1901. The Gresford Disaster, where 265 were killed in 1934, had a very telling verse:

The fireman's reports they are missing
The records of forty two days
The colliery manager had them destroyed
To cover his criminal ways.

The Trimdon Grange Explosion, which in 1882 killed 74, was written by Thomas Armstrong, known as the bard of the Tanfield Collieries, Durham who also wrote Row between the Cages about the introduction of new technology.The Collier's Rant from Coaldust Ballads

Many of these songs that Lloyd compiled were not discovered until the mid 20th century and not all authors are known. The Collier's Rant was first printed in 1793 in John Ritson's 'Northumberland Garland' but was thought to already be quite old then. Comedian JN Geoghegan wrote Down in a Coalmine in 1872 and another 19th century collier-comedian George Ridley wrote Cushie Butterfield.

One of the dialect songs is Sandgate Dandling Song written by a 19th century fiddler, Robert Nunn, a favourite performer at miners' meetings and in the hostelries on pit pay nights. Not all the songs were from England though. Six Jolly Miners is probably from the 18th century, and was first found in print in a collection of Pennsylvania mine ballads. The origin of Miner's Life is either South Wales or America. It was first recorded in West Virginia in 1940 and it is thought it was either exported from Wales to America or may have evolved among Welsh migrant miners in America.

A 19th century collier William Hornsby is the presumed author of The Coal-owner and the Pitman's wife, which is the wife's tale of life in Hell. She tells the coal-owner:

'They're turning the poor folk all out of hell,
This to make room for the rich wicked race'.

She advises him to 'agree with your men and give them full price' otherwise he would be going to hell also.

The majority of these songs portray the feelings of the miners and the oppression. However there is much humour in them showing how they could still smile in the face of adversity.

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