A HUGE postbag has built up over our holidays, and we shall tackle it head on. One of the biggest posting points has been the picture of an apparently triumphant Eldon water polo team taken before the Second World War that appeared in Memories 387.

Eldon, of course, is the main pit settlement in the Dene Valley, which is between Shildon and Bishop Auckland.

The first of three coalmines in the valley, Eldon Colliery, was sunk by Darlington’s Pease family in 1829 – part of the valley is still known as Gurney Valley because Joseph Pease, who stands on a statue in Darlington’s High Row, married Emma Gurney from the Norwich family of Quaker bankers.

The valley reached its peak in the years before the First World War, when Eldon Colliery employed nearly 2,000 men and boys, Black Boy more than 300 and Auckland Park more than 1,100.

Most of these men were housed in the terraces which sprawled across the valley floor and up its sides towards Shildon and South Church.

In her 2000 book The Changing Face of Bishop Auckland, Barbara Laurie tells how warm water from the colliery was discharged into the Dene Beck which flows through the valley. The beck was dammed by the miners, whose basic houses didn’t include bathrooms, and they swam in the beck.

The manager of the Pease & Partners colliery challenged the men to dig a pool and in return he’d filter and pump in the warm water, and so in 1911, the Eldon open air, heated swimming pool came into being.

Surrounded by high brick walls, it was surprisingly grand: two changing rooms – one for men; one for women – warmed by coal fires, a diving board, and two wooden grandstands for spectators to watch the races and the polo matches.

Swimming became the great pastime for this mining community, and the polo team attracted large crowds who sat in the grandstands even during rainstorms.

Because the warm water was a by-product of the colliery, when the colliery was closed, the temperature of the water dropped unappealingly. Nevertheless, the polo team played on during the 1926 strike, even though the water was so cold that some of their opponents had to be lifted out suffering from cramp.

Which brings us to the photograph in Memories 387, sent in by Pat Maycroft, asking for information as her uncle, Lancelot Raine, is on the team.

“A framed copy of that photograph has had pride of place over my desk for many years as the Eldon baths was in my ward for most of my 40 years as a local councillor,” says Chris Foote Wood, whose CV of political posts includes that he used to be leader of Wear Valley District Council.

“It shows the team of local miners who won the North Eastern Water Polo League in 1930. Their success was all the more remarkable as they had to compete with teams from Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the latter including GB international swimmer and water polo player Jack Hatfield, who was a multi-record holder and three times an Olympic medallist.”

As regular readers will know, Jack is one of our heroes – the greatest swimmer of his generation, winning awards in every competition from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics to the Darlington Swimming Club annual half-mile race in the Skerne. It really must have been a great achievement for the small pit lads to beat the big city boys at a time when polo was an extremely popular sport.

“They are a fine body of young men who look fit and strong, thanks to working down the pit and eating well with plenty of vegetables grown on their allotments,” says Chris, who was also the first chairman of Dene Valley Parish Council.

His copy of the photo has “Eldon Colliery Institute Amateur Swimming Club” printed above it. The institute grew up beside the baths. It had reading and games rooms, plus a concert hall, a boxing ring, a badminton court and a well-equipped gymnasium.

“The institute was funded by the miners themselves at a penny a week docked from their wages, and provided many sporting and community facilities including the baths, recreation grounds and a pre-NHS ambulance service,” says Chris.

But it all went into decline in the 1930s: Eldon Colliery closed in July 1932; Black Boy shut in 1939 and Auckland Park finished in 1946.

The closure of Eldon meant the ending of the hot water supply to the swimming baths, although a local businessman, a Mr Cousins, later installed a heating and chlorinating plant.

When the war came, the baths shut permanently. They were filled in 1946, and the site became a scrapyard. The derelict frontage of the baths was demolished in 1999 although the stone lintel from over the front door, which has “swimming bath” inscribed upon it”, was mounted as a roadside memorial to this remarkable piece of social history.

THE baths were inspirational to many people in the valley – the mother of Pat Maycroft, who lent us the picture, became the Middlesbrough schools’ swimming teacher having grown up in the Dene Valley.

Holding the trophy in the photo is club captain Arthur Mothersdale. He is said to have been one of the original lads spotted swimming in the warmed beck and who helped dig out the pool.

Not only did Arthur lead the polo team but he became president of the Northumberland and Durham Amateur Swimming Association in 1936 and president of the national association in 1954 – his nephew, Phil Mothersdale, has sent us a picture of him wearing his chain of office. Swimming gave him a pastime that catapulted him onto a national platform and his daughter, Irene, who is in Etherley, followed in his wake by becoming Northumberland and Durham ASA president in 1977.

THE team photo contains four members of the Newcombe family, and two Dent brothers – Harry and Charles.

There were in fact ten Dent brothers in total, and seven of them became top swimmers. There were so many of them, that they were able to form their own water polo team.

“They competed against another large family – the Clarks,” says Ida Tait, whose mother was the sister of the brothers. “Both families lived in Office Row in Eldon.”

Also on the photo is Jimmy Hindmarch, the team goalkeeper, who is said to have been offered an England trial only for the Second World War to break-out.

And Ian Mather, of Coulby Newham, whose brother, Tony, lives in Hurworth, has been in touch because his father, Alan, is also on the picture. Alan was born in the Dene Valley in 1905, worked as a engine driver at Eldon Drift until it shut in 1962, and he died in Redcar in 1969.

Many thanks to everyone who has been in touch. If you can add anything more, please email chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk