We turn ourselves towards the great Northumberland coal district in search of “fresh fields and pastures new”. The sanitary reform about Bedlington draws out attention towards Choppington and we resolve upon the exploration of that now famous locality. We have heard and read so much of the state of Guide Post and Scotland Gate, that before starting we arm our feet with the stoutest of strong boots, encase our shins in a pair of the most mud proof leggings and with just a “leattle” feeling of apprehension, set out on our journey.
For Choppington is now a rather noted place, and inclines among its inhabitants a goodly number of those desperate fellows whom respectability terms agitators. If not the birth place of the present great political movement among miners, Choppington has at least been its cradle, and the muscular politicians there have dandled and rocked the reform baby to some tune, for he has now cast aside his baby linen and stalks about Northumberland and Durham in the full strength of vigorous manhood. Daring men too are these advanced Radicals of Choppington. They are men “look you” who do not hold orthodox opinions as to the union of Church and State. They positively scoff at the House of Lords and even make light of the monarchy. And they have the unpardonable audacity to take steps to rouse up the Local Board, in which they are shareholders upon the subject of sanitary reform.
They scandalise decent tradesmen and respectable farmers by raising an outcry for good drainage, for the laying down of water works, for proper repair to roadways; and they even go as far as to demand an appointment of a public scavenger to remove and prevent the accumulation of nuisances. Snobbery stands aghast at the sayings and doings of such men. Clay the manufacturer and Scraggs the merchant wonder what will come next. Scraggs has actually been denied a seat on the board, though he is worth thousands. Clay has been ordered to build his chimney higher, not as a protection against the numerous cats which abound in the locality, but to prevent the stithe and smoke from them suffocating the inhabitants of the contiguous houses who, while confessing to a slight liking for an occasional bloater to tea, have a very natural objection to being made bloaters of themselves.
An indignation meeting was held by the tradesmen the other day to protest against spending the public money on such measures as those we have just enumerated. In hopeless despair, some of the superior beings are afraid the miners will demand the erection of baths and wash houses out of the public purse. I am anticipating however, and must go back to approach the place in due form by the line of railway along which the Blyth and Tyne Company so kindly run four trains a day right through the centre of the pit district, for the convenience of the inhabitants thereof, who do so much to enable the company aforesaid to pay its dividend of 121/2 per cent.
We perceive as we approach the station, that although Choppington may be a very nicely situated place, and looks very snug and comfortable from the railway in the summer time. It does not present a very taking to the eye in mid winter, when showers of sleet are rather frequent, when the sky overhead is the colour of lead, and a chill nor’-easter is shaking the leafless branches of the trees, or making the telegraph wires sing out a dismal dirge to this wintry prospect.
As we leave the station, we are flanked on either side by two most respectable-looking hostelries and a number of tenemented brick houses which at first we imagine to be Choppington. The station-master, however informs us that Choppington is not a single village, one and indivisible but rather a colony of villages. You come first upon Choppington Station, then you reach Scotland Gate, then comes the Guide Post, while away to northward you have Choppington Colliery and New Choppington Colliery. Drawing a favourable augury from the name and reinforcing ourselves with a guide, we advance upon the Guide Post to reconnoitre, being rewarded for our trouble by some rather queer sights.
Choppington Guide Post, so called, we suppose, for once being the sight of a finger post, pointing out with its four wooden arms the way for the traveller, is situated on the north bank of the river Wansbeck, at a considerable elevation above the bed of the river. And this elevation is a point of no mean importance to the village, for the rapid decent gives every facility for the effective discharge of sewage from the drains. The Guide Post is what auctioneers would call a very compactly built place, and considering it has a population of over a 1000 it must be confessed it stands on very little ground.
As to its architecture the Guide Post is decidedly mongrel – there is a mixture of every conceivable style of village architecture. There is very primitive style of miners cottage, built of stone, with its downstairs brick-floored room, its miserable garret above with its badly pointed roof, its dangerous break-neck ladder, and its little eighteen inch square glass widow, which glares down on the passer by like an evil eye. There is a class of brick cottage, much the same in shape as the one we have described, but somewhat larger and more liberally provided with window accommodation. There is also another class of house somewhat resembling the houses occupied by working man at the west end of Newcastle, though not so large, or complete a scale, nor provide with the luxuries of a water-tap, back yard, or anything in the shape of paving or lighting. This class at the Guide Post is the most tenemented, and some of them have a family living in every room.
A few stone houses on the Morpeth Road look quite stylish with there pointed gables and mullioned windows and by pure force of contrast they almost achieve the dignity of being. It will be seen from this that the Guide Post is the result of labours of many ingenious minds, and is different from the majority of pit villages, most of which are simple repetition of rows of one form of house. The Guide Post; however does not belong to any colliery; nearly the whole of the houses belong to a private individual, although the great majority are leased by the owners of the Choppington Collieries and the Bedlington Coal Company.
A visit to the back brings us face to face with a sanitary state of affair, which is simply horrible, and we see at once see some of the reasons which have influenced the miners of the district in their agitation of the last few months. The great want of our pit villages is more privy accommodation; and although Choppington is not all together destitute of such conveniences we must say some of them are worse than non at all. Most of those at the Guide Post are in a very dilapidated condition. With roofs off, and walls half down, they stand close up to the doors of the houses, without the shelter of ashpit walls, for the ashes of the houses are simply thrown down between and around them, and the wind may blow the dust where it listeth.
The back square is a wonderful place to look at, with a mixture of human habitation, heaps of ashes, broken down privies, pools of muddy water, patches of stunted looking kitchen gardens, and snug pigsties filled with porkers in a more or less advanced state of preparation for the butchers. This place offers a fair field for the labours of sanitary reformers; and it really seems strange that such a disgraceful state of affairs should be allowed to exist, seeing that the Local Board possess full power to cause the removal of the nuisances, and to force the owners of the property to put it into proper condition.
The secret is, we suppose, that property has hitherto been represented too much in the Local Board, the dwellers in the property not been represented at all. In one place the ashes had only been removed from the back side of the privy, but the night soil and other filth had been left behind, and eyes and nose were like offended by the disgraceful scene. These are some of the sights to be witnessed at the Guide Post during winter, and if no reform comes to the place ere the summer we may expect to hear of fevers and sickness.
A few months back the inhabitants of the Guide Post were dependent for water upon a well near the Wansbeck, the supply being good all the year round, and the water of excellent quality. The distance over which the water had to be carried was however an objection and accordingly pipes were laid down, by order of the Board, and water is now supplied to the place by fountains in different parts of the village. This is a great step in the right direction – its only drawback being very often there is no water to be had at the fountains. The water supplied is of a very fair quality, being pumped from the workings of the new pit into a large tank, from whence it filters into another tank below. It’s a pity, however that the supply is not more regular, for the day of my visit to the place the general among the women was that there had been “ne wetter for a whole week and we’ve had it all to carry fre the well”.
There are only two schools at the Guide Post, both being private ventures; but as most children go across to Scotland Gate for their schooling, the two private schools, one being a dame school, are not largely attended. As in most colliery villages, the Methodists are to the fore, and there is a Primitive Methodist chapel built in a very plain style, as well as a Wesleyan chapel built in a more pretentious style, and making a faint attempt at windows of stained glass. These two chapels are calculated to seat about two hundred each, and are the property of there respective connexions. They have no regularly stationed ministers, but are dependent for their sermons upon the voluntary zeal of the local preachers of their denominations
Public houses are more numerous than chapels at the Guide Post, for while there are only two chapels we have mentioned, there are no less than five public houses. As might be expected in a village where politics are so much discussed as at the Guide Post, there is much newspaper reading, and the reading-room in an institution of some standing in the place, numbering among its members the enthusiastic Mr, Glassey and other leading spirits of the franchise movement.
The newsroom has from 70 to 80 members on its list, and is supplied altogether with 14 newspapers and serials. Radical newspapers, of course being in a very large majority. Orangemen muster rather strongly at the Guide Post, and a Belfast weekly paper is taken in for their special information.
Leaving the Guide Post, a walk of half a mile along a very muddy road brings us to Scotland Gate, which is, as it were, the capital or county town of Choppington, more on account of its central position than for its size or for any other virtue it may possess. Scotland Gate may be described as consisting as consisting of one broad street about three hundred or four hundred yards in length, the houses at each side being respectable looking brick houses two storeys high, the property of various individuals. Many of these houses are tenemented, with a family residing in every room, and while this state of things exists there is a lamentable want for exterior accommodation.
The west side of the street is much the worst in this respect, and it may be well to observe that the east side is much the most respectable looking side of the street, the houses being newer and fitted up with more regard to the requirements of decency and comfort. In one case on the west side only four privies are provided for the use of twenty families, and these privies, with there attendant ashpits, are situated at such a short distance from the doors of the houses that in the summer the stench from them must be well nigh insufferable.
Nor is this all, for these ashpits and privies are placed in such a position that they may be said to shoot two birds with one stone, for they have overcrowded houses at each side of them and in hot weather they will simply form centres for the dissemination of fevers, small pox, and other communicant evils. It was this condition of the back side of Scotland Gate, which caused the demand by a member of the Local Board, who resides there, for a public scavenger. This was truly a slight request to make, for the inhabitants of Scotland Gate offered to pay the rate necessary for the keeping of a scavenger themselves. But it was only after repeated motions on this subject and much agitation that the majority of the Board would consent to such an arrangement. A fear of spending money seems to be one of the great reasons why the Board has been afraid to grapple with the question of sanitary reform, but as has been often remarked by reference at the Board meetings, the public money should only be a secondary consideration when the public health and comfort is at stake.
Property has undoubtedly its privileges but the reason for its importance should not be allowed to blind it to its duties, and were its duties are neglected, as at Scotland Gate and the Guide Post, it ought to be the duty of the Local Board, by virtue of the power which they posses, to compel owners of property to put it into such a condition as will prevent its becoming a source of danger to the community.
The cart roads of the district are kept in tolerable repair, but Choppington as yet has nothing of pavement or flagging. Cinders are the only granite here, and ashes form the only footways. In wet weather there ashes form a rich succulent mud, which, from the low ashes from the fenders of the houses, almost trickle into them. Your tidy housewife delights in a clean well-scoured floor, but here in sloppy weather the most exquisite tidiness is soon the slippery clarts.
Nor are these the only nuisances that Scotland Gate must submit, for almost at their every doors they are stermed at by fire and smoke from two different sources. One of these is the fiery pit heap which burns continuously, and when the wind blows in a certain direction dark clouds of gaseous smoke are drifted into the houses and up the nostrils of the inhabitants. The other source of smoke is the brick factory close to the rear of the houses, and its chimneys are built of a shape and to a height most excellent for partial suffocation of the dwellers of the adjacent houses. The matter has been brought before the members of the Local Board and we believe an order to the owner to build his chimneys higher was issued by the Board some time ago, but at the time of our visit nothing seemed to have been done in the matter.
Now, in Newcastle or Gateshead manufactures that make to much black smoke, no matter what the height of their chimneys may be are sometimes fined by the magistrates and it is difficult to imagine why this country brickmaker should be allowed at his good pleasure to injure and annoy the people of Scotland Gate.
The educational wants of Scotland Gate, or rather Choppington as a whole, are very well provided for, as there is no less than four schools placed at the disposal of those that care to send their children to them. The colliery schools are three in number, a boys school, a girls school and an infants school, supported as usual by fortnightly contributions from the men. In addition to the colliery schools, there is a very handsome new school, built by and belonging to the Church of England, these schools and the church adjoining being the most conspicuous erections in the place. Despite the elegance of the church buildings however, Dissent rears a bold front in Choppington and Primitives and Wesleyans are allowed to use the different divisions of the colliery schools as chapels on Sunday.
This plan however is no longer in favour with the Primitives, a new chapel is projected by them, and the ladies of the denomination levy black or rather white mail upon ever stranger who comes within range, presenting a subscription card in quite a stand and deliver fashion. Not so many colliery villages are so well provided as Choppington with chapels, for in addition to the ones we have enumerated, there is a very out at elbow Free Methodist Chapel planted in the back regions of Scotland Gate, the assent to which is made by a very rickety outside wooden staircase.
The Unitarians also are rather strongly represented here and the neat little brick chapel near the station belongs to that denomination though since the Rev. Mr. Layland left the place for Shields, they have had no regular minister.
Scotland Gate is like the Guide Post provided with a newsroom, which is patronised by about 100 members, who read four daily newspapers and fourteen periodicals. The drama, in its wanderings about the country, has found a home at Choppington; and incorporated with the tavern known as the Travellers Rest is a theatre and pit and gallery of which are calculated to hold 700 or 800 people.
Co-operation flourishes well at Choppington. There are 560 members on their books. They have an accumulated capital of £4,000 some of which is invested in other co-operative undertakings.
We have left ourselves but little space for a description of the two collieries, and they may be briefly disposed of. The old pit has been worked for fourteen years, and produces a fair quality of coal, employing 160 or 170 hewers. Near the the pit stand about a hundred cottages of very good class, containing one room downstairs and one up, the upstairs one being ceiled, and that during a winter such as this has been is a great comfort.
These houses are provided with a pantry and other conveniences, so that the people living in them must be much more comfortable than those unfortunates that are put out to lodge at Scotland Gate or the Guide Post. The new pit has only been in operation about eighteen months, and yet the owners have only got twenty-three houses built near. But it employs nearly as many hewers as the old pit, so that the building of a hundred or so of nice snug cottages near it will not only be of great convenience to the men, but relieve some of the overcrowded houses at Scotland Gate and the Guide Post.
Choppington seems quite an exception to the general run of pit villages, so far as the ownership of the houses is concerned, insomuch that as most of them are the property of private owners. And we may state, for those who believe that the pitman of today does nothing with his money but drink or gamble it away, that many of the men employed at Choppington are members of building societies and own property in the place.
Indeed new rows of neat, new brick cottages are springing up by the roadside between Scotland Gate and the Guide Post, all of which are the property of men who work at the pit. Cheered by the reflection that the miner is not quite so black as his detractors would have us believe and that he in every case does not throw his money away at the bowling match or dog race, we turn our face homeward, thanking heaven we have Town Councils in our large towns, which, though sometimes neglecting their duty, never permit the public health to be endangered by such sanitary abuses as disgrace Choppington.
12th April 1873