The Dene Valley to the east of Bishop Auckland exploded into life in the latter half of the 19th Century. It was just boggy farmland – the Gibson family lived at Close House, a house surrounded by an enclosure, or fenced paddock – until the first horsedrawn branchline of the Stockton and Darlington Railway reached it on July 10, 1827.

FOR centuries, people had been aware coal was near the valley’s surface – boys were sent into the visible seams to get it, and came out filthy, thus giving the area its Black Boy nickname.

Darlington’s Pease family sank the first pit, Eldon Colliery, in 1829 – Joseph Pease and his head banker, Jonathan Backhouse, had married Gurney sisters from the Norwich family of Quaker bankers.

Nicholas Wood, a friend of George “the father of the railways”

Stephenson sank Black Boy Colliery in 1830, and then in 1864 Auckland Park Colliery was sunk.

Terraces for the miners crawled across the farmland and up the valley sides. By the First World War, all three pits were at their peak: Eldon employed nearly 2,000 men and boys; Black Boy more than 300 and Auckland Park more than 1,100.

It must have been an extraordinary hive of industrial activity.

A large electric fan dominated the northern hillside, blowing air down a shaft. An aerial flight, like a ski-lift, carried tubs from Black Boy to Auckland Park. Eldon Colliery Railway clanked through the centre of Eldon; Black Boy Colliery rumbled along the edge of Close House, and an old horsepowered waggonway wormed its way up Fan Bank towards Coundon.

And then it all stopped.

Eldon closed in 1932; Black Boy in 1939, and Auckland Park in 1946.

In 1951, Durham County Council adopted a plan to cope with the decline of the coalfield and its isolated, unplanned communities. It placed all 350 of its villages into four categories: A: a growing village B: population static C: population declining, but likely to stabilise D: a village in terminal decline, in which there would be no future development and all existing properties would be bought by the council for demolition, with the inhabitants being rehoused in new towns like Newton Aycliffe.

The Northern Echo:
Opencast operations continue to this day at the top of Dene Valley. This extraordinary picture was taken when the Eldon Drift Mine closed on October 26, 1962

In 1951, 114 Durham villages were placed in Category D and left to die. When the policy was revised in 1964, a further seven villages were added.

Many communities fought bitterly against their extermination – feelings intensified because it was their own council that was exterminating them.

The policy ended in 1977 and it is said that only three villages had been obliterated.

Memories guesses that these included East Howle, Page Bank and one other – can you name the three lost villages?

But even villages which had survived had been abandoned for nearly three decades and so, as the pictures of Gurney Valley and Eldon Lane in Memories 145 showed, were in a dreadful state.

Gurney Valley was two lines of terraced houses halfway up the northern side of the Dene Valley. The first 80 or so of these houses were conventional brick buildings; the top 80 were half-and-halfs.

The bottom half of these houses was brick, and the top half was either corrugated iron or wood, painted red, or going rusty. This must have been a cheap method of construction.

Alan Smith of Bishop Auckland remembers that his uncle, Billy Sunter, lived at 132 Gurney Valley – one of the half-and-halfs. It was a two-up, two-down, with an earth closet outside in the cobbled yard.

“The living room had a large coal fire, black leaded with partial brasswork,” remembers Alan, who was born in Close House. “The fire had a shelf where extra coal was kept so it could be pulled down onto the flames as required.

The Northern Echo:
James Sunter, the canary man, at his back gate in Thomas Street, Auckland Park

“There was an oven at one side of the fire and a hot water boiler which had a tap on it.

The boiler was refilled with a pail of cold water.”

Billy grew up in Auckland Park, where his father, Jim, bred canaries for use in the colliery – the canaries were early warning devices for the miners, as poisonous gas made them distressed long before it affected the men.

Billy married a Durham lass with the brilliant name of Zipporah (in the Bible, Zipporah is the wife of Moses), and he worked down Auckland Park Colliery. His house in Gurney Valley had a long garden for vegetable growing and rabbit breeding.

“Just outside the gate was an air raid shelter for residents of about four houses,”

remembers Alan. “Shelters were built up and down the street for the other houses.”

Perhaps at the start of the Second World War, the Dene Valley demanded the shelters because it was still psychologically scarred from the First World War: on Sunday, April 2, 1916, it was bombed by a Zeppelin airship. One child was killed and several properties were destroyed – but this is a story for our forthcoming First World War season.

DAVID DIXON in Darlington lived in one of the Gurney Valley halfand- halfs from 1954 until 1976.

He remembers the weekly rent was 28 shillings.

“Even that was excessive,”

he says. “There was one other street of the same build – William Street, at Auckland Park.

“They were poor properties, part of the notorious Category D policy of Durham Council, but in my childhood I remember a strong sense of shared friendship.

“In fact, I would describe my childhood as wonderful.

As regards the absence of baths and inside toilets, it was a case of what you never had you never missed. The gas would even fail on freezing days because the supply pipe was partly outside. My mam would solve this by pouring boiling water on it.

“Things were, in a way, even worse than the pictures show.

At the back of the houses were the old spoil heaps of Black Boy pit and, beyond them, the large council tip.

The Northern Echo:
Eldon, a colliery village built by the Pease family in the mid-19th Century, in 1966 when residents were complaining about the ‘death trap’ left after the partial demolition of Depot Road and Office Road

“The upside, though, included huge gardens, two wonderful little schools, Close House (although at Gurney Valley) and Auckland Park Boys, and a long front view over open fields up to Grange Hill Farm.

“It was after some of the long-standing tenants moved on or died in the late 1960s, that things deteriorated. The sense of community went with them and the decay was all too quick.

“My dad went for a look back in about 1979 and he couldn’t believe the state of our old house. Someone told him there was a horse being stabled in one of the rooms.”

JIM CARNEY is another with fond memories of his time in the half-andhalfs.

“I lived in 100, Gurney Valley, until I was 14 in 1956 when we moved to Chilton as my father was awarded a travelling miner’s council house,” he says, adding that the weekly rent was ten shillings when they left the property. “My earliest memories are of walking or being pushed or carried up the bank from Close House to Gurney Valley during the blackouts in the war.

“I was greatly surprised to see the photos of the degradation in the 1970s. I only have the happiest of memories of Gurney Valley. I was able to wander the countryside and pit heaps during the long school holidays and I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.

I think I was very lucky to have been brought up in Gurney Valley.

“The people were typical of the mining communities in Durham. No one was well off, but they just got on with their lives and put up with things the present day population would not entertain, like outside midden toilets and no modern amenities – gas lighting was just being replaced with electricity and it became a regular chore charging the accumulator so we could listen to the wireless.

“I attended Close House infants school before progressing to Auckland Park where the headmaster was Bert Hampson. I was one of a few boys who passed the 11-plus, which enabled me to go to King James Grammar School in Bishop Auckland. I always remember the maths teacher there, whenever I had not lived up to his mathematical expectations, sarcastically referring to me as ‘the Pride of Gurney Valley’.”

OF COURSE, it wasn’t just the Dene Valley that experienced such deprivation. Mr RW Lethbridge writes from Saltburn of his childhood during the 1930s in Skinningrove, where his father drove the winding engine at the ironstone mine. He has vivid memories of being in a tin tub with his younger sister.

“We were in front of the fire which had a fender in front of it,” he recalls. “It was after dark and there was a thunderstorm in progress. From the tub we could see the lightning flashing, lighting up the back street and the fields up a hill to a farm.”

The Northern Echo:
Auckland Park Colliery closed in 1946 but remained as a pumping station until 1961, when this picture was taken

MARGERY BURTON, another child of the 1930s, was three when her father had a heart attack.

He had been a deputy overman at Leasingthorne Colliery, over the hilltop from Dene Valley, which had meant he was entitled to an official’s house in Windsor Terrace, Leeholme. It had a bathroom and a good-sized front garden.

As an invalid, he had no such entitlement. The family was forced to downsize to Leeholme Road, rented from Nellie Wheatley, who owned a lot of properties in the area.

“Following the move, we just had a small garden and no bathroom,” says Margery, in Shildon. “Consequently, the whole family – my mother, my handicapped sister and my brother who worked at Leasingthorne Colliery – had to bath in front of the fire. There was no electricity and we had to buy gas mantles for lighting.

“When I was 13, we had a bathroom fitted. It was secondhand – from another of Nellie’s houses.”