HEAVY industry has departed the Dene Valley. Gone are the pits, which dominated the skyline and filled the sky with their smoky workings, and gone are the pitmen, who lived in their thousands in the terraces.

But Mark McMullan – aka The History Hunter – can connect us with both pits and pitmen because, armed with his metal detector and permission to use it, he has been scouring the countryside to the east of Bishop Auckland where the pits once stood and he has turned up an amazing cache of lost tokens, checks and motties that miners once used every day of their working lives.

The Northern Echo: Saxon strap end found near South Church on the edge of the Dene Valley

In fact, he can connect us with people from before the industrial age. Mark’s earliest find has been on the South Church side of the valley, where he unearthed a Trewhiddle-style strap end (above) from Saxon times, say 750AD.

It is made of copper inlaid with silver, and is in the ornate style of a hoard of ornate treasure found in Trewhiddle in Cornwall.

A strap end would stop the end of a belt from fraying, and it would add a little fashionable ornamentation to someone’s dress.

South Church came to dominate the Dene Valley, particularly after 1292 when Bishop Antony Bek built a deanery there – that’s how the valley got its name.

The Northern Echo: The Elizabeth I coin found in the Dene Valley

The earliest coin (above) Mark has found is from Elizabeth I’s reign, in 1581, 40 years after her father, Henry VIII, had closed religious institutions like the deanery. The valley then concentrated on agriculture, although it was renowned for being boggy.

The Gibson family of Close House – originally a farmhouse with a fenced paddock around it – farmed the valley, although the names of their fields, East Bog and West Bog, give an indication of how wet the land was.

Perhaps it was they who were careless with their coinage, as Mark has found an interesting run of coins from William III in 1696 through to George IV in 1826.

The Northern Echo: Mark has found more than 500 coins in the Dene Valley in recent weeks. These are some of the nicer ones starting with the Elizabeth I coin of 1581 top left: - Elizabeth 1st 1581- William 111 1696- George 1 1718- George 11 1754- George 111 1817- George IV

Mark has found more than 500 coins in the Dene Valley in recent weeks. These are some of the nicer ones starting with the Elizabeth I coin of 1581 top left, William 111 1696, George 1 1718, George 11 1754, George 111 1817, George IV 1826 (centre), Victoria 1883, George V 1921, and George VI 1939

That coin was in circulation as life in the valley began to change. It had been known for centuries that there were thin seams of coal at the surface – small boys scrabbled into them to dig and came out filthy and so the area became known as “Black Boy” – but when the

Black Boy branchline of the Stockton & Darlington Railway arrived on July 10, 1827, coming down the hill from Shildon, the industrial age really began.

It was only a horsedrawn line, but it enabled the coal to be taken to market.

Darlington's Pease family sank the first pit, Eldon Colliery, in 1829, quickly followed by Nicholas Wood, a close associate of George "the father of the railways" Stephenson, who sank Black Boy Colliery in 1830. His company, the Black Boy Colliery Company, was also responsible for sinking Auckland Park Colliery in 1864.

The older two collieries were on the east of the valley; Auckland Park was on the west. The Gibsons’ fields in between were soon covered in terraces of houses, the clay for their bricks coming from Clay Hole, and the finished bricks being stored in Brick Yard.

Groups of terraces former individual communities: Bridge Place, Coundon Grange, Eldon Lane, Eldon, Close House, Gurney Valley, Auckland Park…

The Gibsons, though, were great gamblers and, it is said, they lost everything – the entire valley covered with terraces – on the turn of a card. The winner was a member of the Cousins family, who pushed through the development of the valley in the second half of the 19th Century, although they very generously allowed Great Grandma Gibson to live out her days in her house before they took possession.

The Cousins brought in a developer, a Mr Moore. He completed construction of a new settlement in the valley in time for Edward VII's coronation in 1901. It was called Coronation Town, and Mr Moore named the six terraces after his children: James, David, Richard, Mary, Margaret and John.

The decade before the First World War was the heyday of the Dene Valley miner. The Eldon Colliery employed 1,654 men; Black Boy employed 636 and Auckland Park 1,377.

The Northern Echo: Pictures of Dene Valley mines are rare. This view of John Henry pit is 1907 postcard to a nurse in Warwickshire. The message on the back from 'Joe' begins: 'I'm afraid father's revival on Sunday was only a flash in the pan as he has

Pictures of Dene Valley mines are rare. This view of John Henry pit is 1907 postcard to a nurse in Warwickshire

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 line rumbled along the edge of Close House, and an old horse-powered waggonway wormed its way up Fan Bank towards Coundon.

Mark’s finds take us right back to those days because the fields where the collieries once stood have yielded up loads of “motties” (below).

The Northern Echo: Dene Valley motties

Before 1863 in the Durham coalfield, each miner was paid by the number of full tubs of coal he produced. However, if a tub were rocked, its contents would settle and so the tub would no longer be classed as full and the miner would be fined for failing to produce a full tub. This led to the “rocking strike” of 1863 at pits at Willington and Brancepeth which, in part, was about miners’ desire to be paid by weight of coal produced.

They won that particular battle. They filled a tub at the coalface and sent it away to be weighed, tying their individual token to the tub to identify it to the checkweighman as their own. These metal tokens – apparently known in Durham as “motties” (can anyone tell us why) – had a number stamped on them and often the pit name.

The Northern Echo: Dene Valley motties

It would seem that a miner had a pocketful of luggage-label-shaped motties to tie to the tubs he filled during the course of a working day.

The other mining treasures that Mark has found in the fields of the Dene Valley are “lamp checks”, which were round metal tokens that recorded who was underground.

Practically every pit had a different way of operating its lamp checks, but the general idea was that at the start of each shift, the miner would report to the lamp room where he would be given his lamp and two of tokens with the same number on them.

The Northern Echo: Bolckow Vaughan token, Dene Valley

A Bolckow Vaughan token from Eldon Colliery, which BV owned between 1880 and 1930

As he got in the cage – the lift – to the shaft bottom, he would hand one token to the banksman – the lift operator. Once he had sent the cage to the bottom, the banksman would return the token to the lamp room. This showed exactly who was underground, in the case of an emergency.

At the end of the shift, the miner would return his lamp and his second token to the room and so prove he was not underground.

The Northern Echo: Gurney pit, Dene Valley

Gurney pit was one of the shafts at the Black Boy Colliery - what would this Durham Miners' Association token have been used for?

But the Dene Valley’s mining heyday came to an end after the First World War as the country slid into economic depression. Eldon closed in 1932; Black Boy in 1939, and Auckland Park ceased production in 1946.

It now seems so long ago, but Mark’s detecting is able to bring it back to life.

The Northern Echo:  Auckland Park Colliery closed in 1946 but remained as a pumping station until1961, when this picture was taken

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

The Northern Echo: Mark McMullan: The History Hunter

  •  To see more of Mark’s prolific finds, go to his History Hunter Facebook site or keep an eye for posts on our North East Memories Facebook site.