THE Deerness Valley Railway opened in 1858 and ran eight miles off the mainline into the Durham coalfield.

In fact, it was an artery of the coalfield, moving coal away from its heart.

The line was promoted by Darlington’s Pease family, running off the mainline at Relly, south-west of Durham, and going to their collieries at “Peases West”. With wagonways, tramways, inclines and railways running off it, it served collieries at Broompark, New Brancepeth, Ushaw Moor, Esh, Stanley Crook, Hedleyhope, Cornsay and Waterhouses.

The Northern Echo: A Durham Miners' Gala Special arrives at Waterhouses station on the Deerness Valley Branchline. Picture courtesy of the JW Armstrong Trust

A Miners' Gala special at Waterhouses in about 1950. Picture courtesy of the JW Armstrong Trust

For the first 19 years of its life, all it did was transport minerals, but November 1, 1877, a passenger service began to the platform that had been built beside the new settlement of Esh Winning. This station was called Waterhouses, even though the colliery and community of that name were half-a-mile further along the line.

A second station, at Ushaw Moor, was opened in 1884, and the Deerness Valley Railway became a lifeline for the coalfield folk.

But Waterhouses station wasn’t just remarkable for its trains. It was also the scene of an extraordinary piece of suffragette action, perpetrated by local schoolteacher, Connie Lewcock.

The Northern Echo: Connie Lewcock, during her militant days in the Durham coalfield

Connie Lewcock in her suffragette days

Connie had come to the coalfield aged 17 in 1911 from her native Lincolnshire village where she had a reputation as a tearaway – aged 14, she had taken up smoking in public just to scandalise villagers who had never seen a female so brazenly doing such a masculine thing.

She came to Esh Winning as a £50-a-year teacher, and had 78 pupils in her class.

She quickly became immersed in the radical politics of the coalfield, cycling around the colliery communities whipping up support for the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and campaigning for women to get the vote. Indeed, she was on the radical wing of the suffrage movement – she was a suffragette.

In 1913, she obtained mining explosives from Will Lawther, who was then a Communist from Chopwell although he later became Barnard Castle’s Labour MP. She planned to detonate the explosives in Durham Cathedral, but aborted her mission when she couldn’t work out how to get herself out of the cathedral alive.

Instead, she meticulously planned an outrage at Waterhouses station, an outrage she later called “the perfect crime”.

On March 30, 1914, with the help of miner Joss Craddock whom she had met at an ILP meeting at Cornsay Colliery, she placed a tall candle in a jar which was half-filled with flammable bicycle liquid. They pushed the makeshift device against the wooden station building, and scattered incriminating evidence about – feminine hairpins and a handkerchief with a “C” embroidered in it.

Then they lit the candle, and fled.

The Northern Echo: Waterhouses station at Esh Winning

Waterhouses station which Connie firebombed in 1914

As the candle was slowly burning down, Connie arrived a meeting about five miles away which was attended by 30 people.

She was there when the flame reached the fluid and went bang, setting the station on fire.

Police dashed to the scene and found the clues – the hairpins and the handkerchief – and suspected Connie was responsible, but they couldn’t work out how she had done it when there were 30 people testifying she was with them five miles away at the time of the explosion.

She, therefore, escaped criminal prosecution.

But Connie was called in by the Durham education secretary who told her that her political activities were incompatible with her role as a teacher. Unless she gave them up, she would be sacked. She refused, and so lost her job.

Instead, she worked in Cleveland for the ILP as an anti-war organiser, and in 1918 she was found guilty of making seditious speeches at Guisborough. She married William Lewcock, a conscientious objector from Chopwell, who became the regional organiser of the Labour Party.

The Northern Echo: Connie Lewcock in her later days with suffragette posters behind her.

Connie Lewcock shortly before her death in 1980

In later life, Connie, who died in 1980 aged 86, mellowed and became a councillor in Newcastle. In 1966, she was awarded an OBE in recognition of her public service just as Mr Lawther, who had probably stolen pit explosives for her to use against the cathedral, was knighted in 1949 for his work as Barney’s MP and as the first president of the National Union of Mineworkers.

The station that Connie firebombed was rebuilt and resumed its function as a lifeline for the people of the coalfield. In the 1920s, there were nine trains in each direction a day upon it, with extra trains on the market days of Wednesday and Saturday, although there were no trains at all on Sundays.

In the 1930s, there were Saturday night excursions into Newcastle, and summer Saturday excursions to Whitley Bay and South Shields – the railway helped the mining folk have a holiday.

After the Second World War, as the smaller collieries closed, the passenger services were reduced and then, in 1951, removed, although special excursions to the miners’ gala continued to run once a year.

The larger pits lasted into the 1960s: Ushaw Moor closed in 1960, Waterhouses in 1966 and Esh in 1968. As they went, so the Deerness Valley Railway lost its purpose and it closed on December 28, 1964.

Now there are no signs of the station that Connie firebombed, and the trackbed of the line has become a cycleway and footpath which still runs from the junction at Relly into the heart of the coalfield.

The Northern Echo: Dearness brick

Most collieries had brickworks alongside them, and the pits of the Deerness Valley Railway were no exception, as this brick photo sent in by Billy Mollon shows. It also shows how for the first 30 or 50 years of the railway's life, it was known by the railway company as the "Dearness" railway. The river's name is said to be the oldest name in the county of Durham as it could pre-date the Romans. Those that know about these things see Celtic origins, with the first part being "dwfr", which meant "river", and the second part meaning "roaring", so the Deerness was a rushing or roaring river. This is the same as Loch Ness, where the roaring is said to come from a prehistoric monster