IN the Durham coalfield, the outlines of the lives of the mining men can be traced through the workings of their pits and through the stories of strikes, accidents and even disasters.

But so little is really recorded about the lives of the women. They stayed at home but beyond the bare dates on birth certificates showing when they had their children, we can only imagine how they cooked, cleaned, sewed, mourned and worried in their tied terraces.

But in her first book, Margaret Hedley (below) of Wheatley Hill used the basic dates of her great-great-grandmother’s life, plus family stories passed down through the generations and added it to the news of the times and then threw in a little imagination to tell Hannah’s Story in a south Durham accent.

The Northern Echo: Margaret Hedley of the Wheatley Hill History Club

The book, published in 2019, was a great success, bringing to life a woman from the Victorian coalfield.

Next Saturday, Margaret launches the follow-up: Women of the Durham Coalfield in the 20th Century: Hannah’s Daughter.

The Northern Echo: Susan Jobling outside the Aged Miners Homes in Thornley

In it, the baton passes to Sarah Jobling (above, outside her last home in Thornley) Hannah’s daughter, who brings up a family at the start of the last century in primitive conditions in Ludworth – there’s a ladder up to the upstairs, the water only comes to a tap in the pityard for collection when the pit is working, and the arrival of the outdoor privvies caused a sensation and probably a tidal wave of sewage as it was down to the pit to arrange collection.

Sarah had five children, although Annie only lived 15 minutes and Hannah just 19 hours before she succumbed to “inanition” – exhaustion due to starvation.

But three do make it to become mothers themselves, even if the eldest, Rachel, does die from the Spanish flu immediately after the First World War aged only 33.

The Northern Echo: Rachel Jopling and Robert Williamson on their wedding day in 1908

Rachel Jopling and Robert Williamson on their wedding day in 1908

A woman’s lot in the coalfield was to work quietly, and supportively, behind her pitman husband. Sarah has a fulfilling relationship with her Jacob, although he gradually lost his sight due to “miners’ nystagmus” – a disease brought on by poor light and dust. As he deteriorated so her worries grew because if he became too blind to work, they would lose everything: income and house.

She expected the same for her girls. When Rachel told her that she was thinking of marrying the young miner she had been walking out with for three years, Susan replied: “Why, you’re over 21, lass, we wouldn’t stand in your way, this is what you’ve been training for, after all.”

“Eeh, Ma, you make it sound like a job,” replied Rachel.

“Why, that’s exactly what it is lass, a full time job. The men think they have it hard, working at the pit, and nobody’s disputing that, but you believe me, us women have it just as hard at home, and remember you’ll never get a day off – our shifts never end.”

The Northern Echo: Bella Jopling and Nora Williamson in black for the mourning of Nora's sister, Marion, who died of whooping cough aged two in 1913

Bella Jopling and Nora Williamson in black for the mourning of Nora's sister, Marion, who died of whooping cough aged two in 1913

Sarah’s shift certainly didn’t end because when Rachel died of flu, Sarah took on the job of raising her three young children.

Yet times were changing: Sarah was 50 before she got further than Sunderland whereas her daughters are teenagers when they, briefly, try life in service in Tynemouth and Redcar.

Even the houses are improving, with ceilings and stairs, and, by the end, there are “scheme houses” built by Durham County Council with running water and electricity available to buy for £171 18s 4d.

The book brilliantly colours in the detail of the women’s lives: we learn the young ones go dancing at Thornley working men’s club to Mr Stainthorpe’s piano and Mr Cutty’s concertina. The Protestants are one on side of the hall and the Catholics on the other, but they do meet as they dance.

Margaret’s new book has been published by The History Press for £14.99, and on Saturday, October 2, she is launching it with a signing session from 10am to 2pm at Wheatley House, Woodlands Avenue, Wheatley Hill DH6 3JX. All are welcome – especially those who’ve already bought books but, now that the pandemic is lifting, would like them signed.