THE Little House on the Prairie was a television series based in the late 19th Century American west, which starred Michael Landon – wasn’t he in Bonanza? – and ran to 204 episodes over nine years in the 1970s.

It was also the name given by The Northern Echo’s Backtrack column (1985-2019) to the unique, higgledy-piggledy, coal-fired and yet more warmly welcoming dressing room, canteen and storm shelter building at Stanley United’s gale-blasted football ground, above Crook in County Durham.

The Northern Echo: Prairie Stories, by Mike Amos

A match being played at Stanley Crook in front of "the little house on the prairie" changing rooms

Now Prairie Stories is the title of a vividly illustrated book, to be launched at Stanley Village Hall on Saturday, May 14, chronicling changing life and times – and some of the present – of that former mining community.

There’s a connection, of course. I wrote both Backtrack and book.

It should at once be made clear, therefore, that County Durham has two places called Stanley and that they should on no account be confused. They are, all the time, of course.

Much the bigger Stanley is in Derwentside, around 20 miles north, so ineluctable a shadow that a lengthy chapter’s devoted to it. It’s Big Brother, for example, which had – may still have – a Swingers’ Club, said on undefined criteria to be the north’s finest, to which locals objected not least because the queue for the swingers’ club got in the way of the queue for the chip shop.

Another chip shop was owned by a chap called Haresh Ramadan, who promoted the business as Harry Ramadan’s. A bit like that carry-on in Darlington a couple of weeks back, a rather better-known chip shop chain objected. Poor Haresh backed down.

Stanley Hill Top, as Prairie Stories prefers to call it, now has no chip shops. Come of think, it has no shops at all – some say there were once as many as 20 – no pubs and St Thomas’s, the last of three places of worship, is likely to give up the ghost very shortly.

Like so many other former mining communities it is very much changed – the book sees it as a North-East microcosm, and ponders if change is for the better.

The Northern Echo: Prairie Stories, by Mike Amos

A superb portrait of the miners from Stanley Crook's colliery, called Wooley. At its post-war peak, Wooley employed 700 men, 600 of them underground

Formally now called Stanley Crook, informally Windy Ridge, it’s a fascinating village known, like Stanley Holloway’s Blackpool, for fresh air and fun – the fresh air usually much in evidence and the fun coming not least on the annual club trip, when buses would be lined the length of the main street and when, almost always, they’d pitch up at South Shields.

Originally the intention had been to write solely about Stanley, forsaking all other as if in a Prayer Book marriage service. It proved impossible: Billy Row, abutting, butted in. There’s a Christmas visit to Sunniside, a good mile-and-a-half away, a pilgrimage to Tow Law – that must be nearly three miles – even a self-serving stomp up the Deerness Valley Way to Messrs Fields’ fabled fish shop at Esh Winning.

Numerous visits during 2021 – chiefly courtesy of the interminable No 1 bus – unearthed much history, wonderful characters and tragedy, too. If physically and figuratively the village has lost its heart, many blame Durham County Council’s wretched Category D policy which condemned much of the old housing and scattered its residents.

Many were ex-miners, perkily fuelled by concessionary coal. The council moved them to new bungalows in Billy Row. The bungalows had central heating.

The Northern Echo: Prairie Stories, by Mike Amos

The children of Stanley Crook school in 1922

Though slightly distant from the village, the centre of it may now be the highly rated Stanley Primary School – an educational day spent there forms the book’s second-longest chapter. The longest, however, is devoted to dear old Stanley United.

Stanley United were a quite remarkable little football club. Formed in 1890 by an amalgamation of Stanley Albion and Stanley Nops, they were three times Northern League champions and in 1954 reached the FA Cup first round proper, hoping to pull one of the relatively big fish from the Football League.

Instead they were drawn at Crook Town, barely two miles down the hill, and lost.

The ground was quirky-quaint, the Little House ever accommodating, the club run by a sometimes over-subscribed committee for which there’d be a waiting list. Long-serving officials like Les Westgarth, George Midgley and village shopkeeper Frank Hogan remain affectionately, almost reverentially, remembered.

The Northern Echo: The Stanley United outside netty, by Zak Waters

A magnificent picture of the Stanley Crook outside netty, by Zak Waters

Amateur status notwithstanding – not really believed, either – huge fund raising, and much cadging, went on. When goal scoring forward Geoff Strong left Stanley for Arsenal in 1957, the £12 maximum wage then allowed proved – after tax and deductions – to be less than the tenner in his boot at the Little House.

Mind, Geoff – good Tyneside lad – always supposed the Hill Top to be “the cardest place on earth”.

Players might further be warmed by Tommy Horn, owner of the once-celebrated Laurel Toffee factory in Crook, who provided a confectionery cornucopia each week – and the post-match food was legendary, too.

The Northern Echo: Prairie Stories, by Mike Amos

Some of the footballing characters from Stanley United

Mostly, however, folk still recall that it could get a bit wild up there. On a particularly tempestuous day in 1948, United at home to Yorkshire Amateurs in the FA Amateur Cup, four Stanley players refused to return for the second half because, perhaps almost literally, they were perished. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the visitors won 4-1.

“Stanley United is one of the oldest and coldest clubs in North East football,” said Northern Goalfields, the Northern League’s centenary history, back in 1989. On both counts it was inarguable, the Little House and its blazing fires – bleezin’ fires, they were called – providing sanctuary to the desperate like the door knocker on Durham Cathedral.

Out the back was a little referees’ room – or rather, a little room for referees – and a basic urinal from which it was still possible to watch the game, though at risk of getting the shoes wet.

Gradually, however, sustaining football in Stanley became an increasingly uphill struggle. Former club stalwart Vince Kirkup, now chairman of Crook Town, blames Category D for that, too.

In 1973 they left the Northern League and 30 years later folded. The Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation had sold the ground to United for £1. When Vince failed to find new tenants – “I don’t care if it’s Gurney Valley Salmon Tin Kickers so long as they call themselves Stanley United”, he said memorably – he sold it back again and was reunited with his quid.

In 2007, arsonists reduced the Little House to ashes. Hope burned with it.

Unused for any other purpose, save as grazing for a couple of bored looking horses, the ground still bears faint memories of wonderfully happy days. A set of goalposts still somehow stands, bits of the scratching shed have survived, too, though as a rather unstable stable.

Neither Stanley, nor football nor anywhere else in the world, will see the like again.

The Northern Echo: The cov er of Mike Amos' book, Prairie Stories

  • Sub-titled “A view from the Hill Top”, Prairie Stories by Mike Amos will be launched with a book signing at Stanley Village Hall from 11am-2pm on Saturday, May 14, alongside a Stanley United history exhibition mounted by the Durham Amateur Football Trust. The book costs £12, plus £4 postage where appropriate, and is otherwise available from Mike Amos, 8 Oakfields, Middleton Tyas, Richmond, North Yorkshire DL10 6SD – email

The Northern Echo: Prairie Stories, by Mike Amos

A 1920s postcard of Francis Street, Wooley Terrace, at Stanley Crook

The score on Stanley Hill Top – 20 highs and lows of life in a Co Durham pit village (and thereabouts) taken from Prairie Stories.

  • Ernest Armstrong, a future deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and vice-president of the Methodist Conference, was a Stanley United footballer with a fearsome reputation and, he claimed, poor eyesight. “That explains the shocking tackle on the referee” someone said.
  • Shaun Hope, caretaker at Stanley primary school, is the world’s No 1 Chuckle Brothers fan.
  • The village formally became Stanley Crook after a public meeting in April 1965 voted on seven options, including Peases Stanley and Mount Stanley. Windy Ridge wasn’t allowed onto the ballot paper.
  • Paul French and his wife Narinda, born in India, moved to Stanley from the south of France – and love it.
  • The Queen’s helicopter flew directly over Stanley on September 7 2021, en route to Balmoral. It’s not known if she waved.
  • The King and Queen drove through Stanley in February 1939, on the way from Durham to open a social services centre in Tow Law. It snowed.
  • A Stanley school pupil in the 1920s received two strokes on each hand for stealing goosegogs from the school garden.
  • Saran Ann Simpson, a Stanley girl, was murdered by her possessive husband in 1935. He then killed himself by drinking bleach.
  • Ethel Winship, a munitions worker, is the only woman among 43 men on Stanley’s war memorial. She died in a factory accident in Newcastle.
  • Tommy Cummings, a Stanley United player of the 1950s, had a long career with Burnley and won England B honours – but was two hours late for a United reunion in 1992 because he, too, had gone to the “wrong” Stanley.
  • 60s singer Marty Wilde once looked into Frank Hogan’s shop – not to buy anything, but to ask directions to Darlington.6
  • Stanley stalwart and trade union hero Dave Ayre, aged 90 when he died in 2021, never ever let his fire go out (or his passion fade, either).
  • The concert hall at Billy Row Workmen’s Club would become so thronged that folk had their names on the back of their seats. Further admission might only be allowed to those able adequately to sing Penny Arcade.
  • Oliver Cromwell’s army is said to have camped at Stanley in 1651, marching from Newcastle to the Battle of Worcester, the last of the Civil War.
  • Fr Peter Davis, parish priest of Stanley and Tow Law in the early 21st century was an Australian who swore that all that sustained him was Campbell’s lobster bisque and Fray Bentos steak and kidney pudding.
  • Monday afternoon bingo at the village hall pays £2 a house and £1 a line, but the snowball’s up to £57.
  • Stanley once had four pubs. The White City, near Wooley pit, was in a different licensing authority area with later closing times and a 10pm stampede.
  • At its post-war peak, Wooley colliery employed 700 men, 600 of them underground, and produced 135,000 tons of coal annually, most of going down to Bankfoot Coke Works at Crook.
  • Crook area kids with whooping cough were made to stand near the coke plant in the belief that its fumes were a cure. When last did you hear a Crook kid with whooping cough?
  • Santa at Sunnniside’s Christmas fair was accompanied by a fancy dress animal of uncertain pedigree. I asked who it was. “The red nose is a bit of a giveaway” sad Santa.