Ahead of the launch of Hollowed Ground, film-maker Marie Gardiner tells the story of everyday Durham mining folk

“I STILL see us as a mining community – we’ll never be anything else,” says Heather Wood, a formidable campaigner and organiser during the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, and her words end our new film, Hollowed Ground – The People Of The Durham Coalfield, which is premiered in a fortnight.

Easington Colliery, where Heather grew up, was one of the last of the Durham pits to close in 1993, along with Westoe, Vane Tempest, and finally, Wearmouth. December 10 marks the 30th anniversary of the last shift downing tools and leaving Wearmouth for the final time, marking the end of 800 years of commercial coal mining in the county – a historic era that we aim to record through ordinary people’s voices in our film.

The Northern Echo: Heather Wood, of Easington Colliery, in the new film, Hollowed GroundHeather Wood, of Easington Colliery, in the new film, Hollowed Ground

Mining communities had watched with concern as, over about a century and a half, the pits in the west of Durham had gone, with the closures spreading like a sickness towards the sea until the industry had become consolidated on the east coast, with miners probing several miles out under the sea.

Scattered across the county were the villages and towns that had sprung up where the miners had dug.

The Northern Echo: Michael ChaplinMichael Chaplin in the film, Hollowed Ground

“The primary identity of these places was the place of work: the pit,” said Michael Chaplin, writer and former television producer. “On the other side, the social unifier was the chapel and this was primarily led by the Methodist church.”

In the early days, these bonds of community were forged out of necessity. Pit communities could be quite isolated and so people were in each other’s pockets: they worked with together, socialised together, went to church together and relied upon one another.

When things were hard, they fought alongside each other.

The Northern Echo: Thomas Hepburn's headstone in St Mary's churchyard in Gateshead telling of his pioneering union work with the Durham minersThomas Hepburn's headstone in St Mary's churchyard in Gateshead telling of his pioneering union work with the Durham miners

As industrialisation progressed, trade unions emerged to advocate for the rights of workers. One of the first was the Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland founded by Thomas Hepburn around 1825 which initiated the Great Strike of 1832. Afterwards, Hepburn was blacklisted and unable to work in the mines, getting a job only on the promise he’d never organise men again.

In 1869, the Durham Miners’ Association was formed and within three years they’d secured the abolition of the annual Bond, which was a contract that favoured the coal owner and tied a man to the pit with little compromise. This success caused membership to take off, with nearly every miner across the county joining up.

The Northern Echo: The old Durham Miners' Hall, in North Road, which was replaced in 1915 by RedhillsThe old Durham Miners' Hall, in North Road, which was replaced in 1915 by Redhills

The first miners’ hall in Durham became too small to hold the growing numbers of representatives, and so Redhills – the pitman’s parliament – was built, and opened in 1915.

The Northern Echo: A postcard commemorating the opening of Redhills, the pitman's parliament, in Durham City

During the First World War, there had been huge demand for coal to power industry, but that plummeted in peacetime, leading to great unrest – the Great Strike of 1926, for instance – and enormous poverty in the coalfield.

It was a similar story during the Second World War, after which the government brought in the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act of 1946 which established the National Coal Board and, from January 1, 1947, brought all pits into public ownership.

But the industry was now in decline. The smaller pits were worked out, and the introduction of oil and gas for heating and generating electricity further reduced demand for coal, and the closures spread.

The Northern Echo: Durham miners from the Sunderland archivesDurham miners from the Sunderland archives

Then came the defining strike of 1984-85. More than a clash of economic interests, it became a test of resilience, community, and survival, as miners tried to prevent more colliery closures. On one side was the National Coal Board, and on the other, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) led by Arthur Scargill, a man who divided opinion, and hoped to achieve victory by causing energy shortages like those of the blackouts and power-cuts in the 1970s.

Easington Colliery was at the heart of the industrial action as it was the first of the Durham pits to walk out in March 1984 with 1,800 people taking to the streets. Women set about organising, and soon there were picket rotas and foodbanks and a free cafe.

Myrtle MacPherson, mother of Heather Wood, was a driving force, quickly becoming the face of Easington’s strike, joining the picket line, campaigning, doing interviews for television, and cooking hundreds of meals for those who couldn’t afford to eat.

As time wore on and things got tougher, aid parcels were sent from all over the world.

John Wood, miner and Horden resident, remembers: “They’d taken a consignment of Russian boots. You had a choice of brown or black – the whole of Easington was walking round with the same shoes on!”

Moments of levity like this were so important to communities who were suffering so greatly.

The Northern Echo: Hollowed Ground, the new film is available on DVD from December 1Hollowed Ground, the new film is available on DVD from December 1

Heather Wood, also campaigning and organising for her community, says in the film she would feel such pressure that she would see a local Catholic priest every Friday night and tell him everything on her mind over a cup of tea, even she was a member of the Church of England – because her local Anglican vicar was married, Heather didn’t think it was fair to burden him with morale-sapping information that he couldn’t even discuss with his wife.

She says: “It broke my heart just watching what was going on, and the longer it went on, the harder it got. You’re trying to keep people going but you know in your heart of hearts it isn’t working.”

After Christmas 1984, there was an organised return to work, and by March 1985 the NUM had voted to end the strike.

Time proved the miners right. The pits closed, and associated businesses that relied upon them soon followed. Then, remarkably quickly, signs of the coal industry were removed from the landscape – the pit heads, baths, heaps, all cleared away or covered up “as if people wanted to remove something from people’s memories”, as Michael Chaplin muses in the film.

The Northern Echo: Another Durham pithead comes crashing downAnother Durham pithead comes crashing down

But the towns and villages have retained their own history and continue to celebrate it.

Just as art and culture came out of mining in the work of artist Norman Cornish or writer Sid Chaplin, Michael’s father, so it continues in its absence with community-led commissions from artists like former steel worker Ray Lonsdale, whose works can be seen around the former coalfield. I Ain't Gonna Work On Maggie's Farm No More, in Horden, shows a miner with his heart ripped out (below).

The Northern Echo: Ray Lonsdale's statue on the site of Wheatley Hill pit - a miner with his heart ripped out

In Wheatley Hill stands another miner, created from a photograph of a former pit worker, so one of their own.

Since 1871 mining banners and brass bands have paraded as part of the Durham Miners’ Gala, a celebration of community, solidarity, and working class culture, which in recent years has become larger than ever.

And this December marks 30 years since the last coal mine in County Durham closed. Hollowed Ground stands as a record of testimony from communities who watched capitalism create one-industry towns, and then pull the rug, but who through such adversity, remain optimistic, generous, and fiercely loyal.

The Northern Echo: Cheery Durham minersCheery Durham miners from the Sunderland archives

  • Hollowed Ground – The People of the Durham Coalfield, by Lonely Tower Film & Media, directed by Mark Thorburn and produced by Marie Gardiner, is available on DVD via Amazon from December 1 for £15. It will be premiered at Arts Centre Washington on the December 14 at 7pm (tickets £5 from sunderlandculture.org), and screen at Consett Empire at 7pm on January 11 and Ryhope Community Centre at 1pm on February 13. It can also be streamed on Amazon Prime.